Monday, March 31, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #89: No Matter How I Look At It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!, Vol. 3 by Nico Tanigawa

We're back with one of Japan's greatest otaku, the lonely and deluded teen Tomoko Kuroki, as she continues into the back half of her first year of high school in Nico Tanigawa's No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!, Vol. 3. (I reviewed the first two volumes of this series as Day 56; see that link for more details of her particular affliction -- though, for the purposes of today's review, all you need to know is that she's shy and obsessive and entirely ignored at school.)

Tomoko still assumes that her life will be like the stories she reads or games, and that would cause more problems if she weren't so hermetic and alone; her weird assumptions mostly stay in her own head and color how she sees the world. But, despite the title, Tomoko has mostly stopped trying to be popular in this volume -- she's even unhappy when her seat is moved away from "the back row next to the window...that's where the protagonist always sits in anime or light novels" and she's stuck into the middle of the classmates she was so desperate to make friends with a few months before.

The first three stories here all center around her schools Culture Fest -- the preparation and the event itself, when Tomoko has to dress up for her class's maid cafe. (Another one of those small signifiers of how different Japanese culture is to the American equivalent -- here, it would be too sexualizing to have teen girls dressed up as maids to serve adult customers, though those same schools wouldn't mind at all if their teen girls wore tight short outfits for a carwash.) The Culture Fest also sees one of Tomoko's few moments of real happiness, when her middle-school friend Yuu comes to visit and the two girls spend a few hours together. But, like most events in Tomoko's life, what it mostly is is a sequence of events where she's uncomfortable and out of place and either complete silent or acting inappropriately.

After the culture fest, Tanigawa -- who is actually two people, a writer and an artist, and my suspicion is that both are female -- returns to the episodic stories of the first two volumes, with Tomoko over and over again misreading situations and following her unique set of expectations into weirder territory. She gets through a day of lousy weather, and tries to catch her brother's cold to miss some days of school. She tries to start a very anime-like school club, which goes nowhere. She tries to make some cute pictures in a photo booth, with the expected un-cute results. And she gets grumpy when she hears her classmates complaining about being groped on the train, since that's never happened to her -- is she too ugly to get assaulted?

And that last story points to one of the most interesting and characteristic things about her: Tomoko is a hormone-raddled teenager in a way that teens often aren't allowed to be in media. She's obsessed with "s*x" and men, without actually liking to be near people, or having any idea what she'd do if she had a boyfriend (or was groped on the subway, or anything else). She's so young and such a ball of raw nerves: created by the media she loves and not yet clearly understanding the ways those media are not like her actual life. No Matter What is showing hints that she will grow and learn -- and she did have that moment of happiness with Yuu here -- so I hope that, by the end, this can be the story of how one geek became a woman...and, even more so, that she can become the kind of woman who still loves her geeky things and yet lives in the real world and maybe even has some real friends.

At this rate, Tomoko has at least another volume to get through her first year of highschool, and then say eight more for the following two years. That might just be enough, even at this rate: good luck to her, and to all of the socially awkward geeks, all over the world.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/29

These are books that arrived at my house over the last week, mostly without my specifically asking for them. They all were good enough to be published, and each one of them will be somebody's favorite book of the year -- maybe yours. I haven't read them yet, but I'll tell what I can about them, and try not to get too snarky. (That's my default Internet mode, but it's not terribly helpful for an exercise like this.)

Nathan W. Pyle moved to New York City a few years ago to pursue various careers (illustration, TV production), and he quickly learned that big cities have their own rules for behavior. And so he started codifying those rules on a website, which quickly caught on -- "went viral," as the kids say today -- and was linked to and reported on by all of the usual Internet chatterers. And now that site and his rules have become a book: NYC Basic Tips and Etiquette, containing 135 explanations of what to do and not do in New York. (And, honestly, the vast majority of these will be good in any big city, and lots of them are helpful anywhere there are crowds. New York is not some bizarre unique place.) It's a trade paperback from William Morrow, available April 15th, and somehow I doubt there will be a lot of copies sold in Pyle's native Ohio.

We're all going to die. And Annalee Newitz thinks that many or most of us may die at once, which is disconcerting. So she took the time to study the various possibilities for megadeath -- plus mitigation techniques, escape routes, and other options -- and codified them all into her new cheery book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Popular science has rarely been this depressing. This one is an Anchor trade paperback coming April 8th -- but I wouldn't wait if I were you, since the New Madrid fault has been looking iffy this week, and you never know when the planet-killing meteor will show up.

I saw the new reprint anthology Robot Uprisings -- edited by Robopocalypse author Daniel H. Wilson and his generation's master anthologist John Joseph Adams -- a couple of months ago as a bound galley, but now I have a shiny trade paperback, so I can mention it again. It's a Vintage trade paperback, arriving April 8th, and it's got stories about killer robots from Charles Yu, Genevieve Valentine, Hugh Howey, Cory Doctorow, Alastair Reynolds, Seanan McGuire, and Nnedi Okorafor, among many others.

Tom Rachman, author of the amazing first novel The Imperfectionists (see my review) is back with a second novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. It's a Dial Press hardcover arriving May 27th, and I'm sure Rachman and his publishers are feeling absolutely no pressure right now. This one is the story of a woman who spent her childhood globe-hoppping with a weird group -- the back cover calls them "seductive outsiders" and their activities "capers," so I deduce a not-entirely-legal element to their activities -- but has settled into a quieter life when, of course, her past suddenly comes back.

And last for this week is a new novel by two grand old men of science fiction: Shipstar by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven. It continues the story of the giant enigmatic alien artifact discovered in Bowl of Heaven -- something like a half-Dyson sphere, a celestial bowl containing a star and puttering through space on an apparently meaningful course. By this point, our human heroes have landed on the colossal artifact, been separated into groups, and are having various adventures among the strange inhabitants there. Shipstar is a Tor hardcover, available April 8th -- if you like your Big Dumb Objects, this looks like one of your best fixes this year.

A Song for a Monday Morning

I've been listening to this one a lot lately; it's the first single from the brand-new band I Am the Albatross, out of Austin, Texas. (But don't hold that against them.) It's from their self-titled debut EP, and it's somewhere between a slow blues shuffle and psycho rockabilly -- or maybe both, in turn.

The song is "Strugglin'" and I imagine that's what a lot of us are doing this morning -- particularly around my parts, where we've just had about 48 hours of straight rain.

If I did this right, immediately below here should be a widget that plays the song:

And, if not, here's a link to the song on SoundCloud and another to a video of a performance not quite a month ago. And just keep on searching for the crack where the light shines through.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #88: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Reviewing late books in a long-running, popular series is a mug's game -- what can you say about book #40 that will change the minds of those who haven't read it before, or make the fans think any differently? But, since readers and publishers both demand the same thing over and over again, there are Book Forties out there, and they need to be faced.

Raising Steam is the fortieth novel in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, though there's an immediate asterisk there: that total includes two shorter, heavily-illustrated books (Eric and The Last Hero) which haven't always consistently been included in the "main" series listings, and also includes five books published as Young Adult novels (The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents and the Tiffany Aching books), which have chapters and also sometimes aren't included in the main sequence by particularly nitpicky Discworld fans. Outside of that list, there are also around two dozen "non-fictional" books about Discworld written or co-written by Pratchett, from a series of yearly desk diaries to three editions of an encyclopedic guide to Discworld to four books mixing real-world science with a Discworld story to Nanny Ogg's Cookbook to a series of books of maps of its regions. So, depending on how you want to argue, you could call Raising Steam pretty much anything from the thirty-third to the sixty-fifth Discworld book, and have at least some justification for doing so.

That's a lot of words and a lot of story and a lot of world-building that comes before the first page of this novel; a lot of expectations and characters and situations and long-running jokes that most of the readership for Raising Steam starts out having at the front of their minds. Even if Pratchett wanted to do something radically different, would even he be able to steer the colossal Discworld vessel more than a few points either way? (In my metaphor, it's a uniquely large post-Panamax container ship; just go with it.) In any case, he evidently didn't: Raising Steam runs cleanly along the rails laid down in the last dozen or so books of the series, in characters, plots, and themes.

The recent Discworld books have mostly run to a type: a New Thing comes to Discworld, and It Is Disruptive, and Bad People Are Against It, but it Increases Diversity and Opportunity, and so It Is Good and It Wins In The End. Sometimes the New Thing is a race of previously-overlooked sapient beings -- zombies, vampires, Nac Mac Feegle, goblins, trolls, golems -- and sometimes it's a piece of our own modern society, like a central bank, telegraph, or postal service. But it always makes society better, both by increasing economic activity and by giving new jobs to people who are -- in that way only fantasy novels can quite achieve -- absolutely perfectly suited for that job.

(New Things used to have a more mixed reception in Discworld; remember Moving Pictures? But these days, the march of Progress is both unstoppable and, by authorial fiat, entirely Good.)

So Pratchett's Discworld has been going through a pseudo-Victorian phase, though one seen entirely through the rosiest of colored spectacles: no farms are being mechanized, no agricultural workers thrown off their land, no children made to work in dark satanic mills until their fingers are maimed, no misery or loss or destruction. The New Things in Discworld are all entirely additive: they never replace anything that already exists, but only add new possibilities and jobs and opportunities, as far as Pratchett ever mentions. Capitalists are entirely upright, honest citizens who are happy to pay their employees fair wages, and government is incorruptible, with a hand precisely as light as necessary in all things. Pratchett is positively Panglossian in his optimism and positive thinking.

In Raising Steam, that new thing is the railroad. Presumably, the almost-immediate spread of the Ankh-Morpork and Sto Plains Hygenic Railway must be throwing dozens of coachmen out of work, sending possibly hundreds of horses to the knacker's yard, and destroying the livelihood of a thousand small coach-houses and inns now left on disused roads. But Pratchett only cares about Progress and Opportunity, so you won't even think about any of them until the novel is over. (And probably not then, if I know how most of you think.)

Raising Steam is a novel of episodes, since even at Pratchett speed, it takes months for the railroad to be created, rails to be built, and the world to be won. We don't know how much time, since he never dates anything more specifically than centuries, but this novel may take place over a year or longer. In that time, the brilliant but unworldly inventor Dick Simnel brings his amazing prototype Iron Girder to Ankh-Morpork from his workshop in the bucolic town of Sheepridge; he is bankrolled by the nicest capitalist in the world, Sir Harry King, who made his first fortune in waste management; he wins the approval of the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, because "it is steam-engine time;" he has the remarkably bland Moist von Lipwig, Discworld's man without qualities, added to his organization to fix all problems and overcome all obstacles; and he builds railways first to the not-France city of Quirm and then along the vastly longer and more dangerous stretch to Uberwald's twinned capitals, Bonk and Schmalzberg. For most of that stretch, Pratchett just has episodes for us -- Dick tinkering, Vetinari plotting, Moist negotiating at high speed, and occasionally someone else doing something else, for local color.

The core plot, such as it is, concerns another group of reactionaries -- they fill the role of necessary villain in late Discworld as the vague supernatural force of destruction did in middle Discworld and the now-forgotten creatures of the Dungeon Dimensions did back in the early days. These particularly reactionaries are dwarfs -- the grags of the deepest caverns, who think pretty much everything newer than two centuries ago is evil and are willing to murder and destroy and overthrow their Low King to combat that evil. For most of the novel, they're a background annoyance, showing up only in the scenes that don't have any of the main characters in them. But, eventually, they gather up their forces and make their big move, one which can only be countered by the awesome power of the railroad.

Pratchett clearly loves trains, and loves Progress, and has a lovely vision of tolerance and peace and justice and prosperity for all. And he's always been a wonderfully entertaining writer and storyteller, crafting lovely scenes and amusing character interactions for more than three decades. So Raising Steam is pleasant and enjoyable on every single page, and only a very rare reader would actually argue with any of Pratchett's theses. But, nevertheless, Raising Steam is a thin book for all its length: it's central characters, particularly Moist and Dick, are dull and have no real internal life, the plot is standard and predictable where it even rises to visibility, and it spends all of its energy propping up platitudes and knocking down straw men.

If you want a novel that's smart about trains and labor and complication and real moral choices, the book you want is China Mieville's Iron Council. Raising Steam is, by comparison to that and to a thousand other books (a number of them by Pratchett) lightweight and undemanding. But there's nothing wrong with undemanding in its place, and Raising Steam is a well-crafted entertainment engine, and I expect every one of its readers will be very happy to turn every single page. I certainly was.

(I've wrestled with Discworld and Pratchett a few times before here: in reverse chronological order,  the non-Discworld Dodger, Snuff, I Shall Wear Midnight, Unseen Academicals, the non-Discworld Nation, and Making Money. Before that, I read and acquired his books for many years for the Science Fiction Book Club.)

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #87: DC Comics: The Sequential Art of Amanda Conner

Books are generally honest: they do pretty much what they say they're going to do. Confusion and dismay can set in if the reader isn't paying attention, of course, but that's not the book's fault. It is what it is; if the reader wanted or expected something different, that's his lookout.

So today's book is DC Comics: The Sequential Art of Amanda Conner. It doesn't credit a writer, or an editor -- or, rather, it credits over a dozen of each, one every couple of pages. What it promises is clear: art, in sequence, by Amanda Conner, published by DC Comics. And that's exactly what it delivers.

Note that it does not promise any stories. And it delivers on that: there are shards of narrative, sequences of moments, some rising action, a denouement or two. But no stories: nothing complete or well-formed or standing anything like on its own. The only reason to read this book is to look at the pretty pictures Amanda Conner draws.

Luckily, they are pretty pictures. And I expect most reviews of this book focus on that art, and ignore the fact that it doesn't add up to anything. Superhero comics are all about moments anyway, right? As long it's really cool and full of eyeball kicks, what more do you need?

Conner is the premier female exponent of the pin-up style in modern comics today: her women are knowing, smirking and entirely self-aware, with bodies slightly more realistic than Frank Cho's and always featuring the glossy, rounded look required by the form. She puts them through athletic paces -- it's required for superhero comics -- but they never become muscular, or sweat or strain. Her men are less interesting and individual: she doesn't lavish attention on the male form the way someone like P. Craig Russell does, but makes them a bit blocky and stylized, the squares to her round females. Those women are, of course, immensely attractive to American men of the generations obsessed with superhero comics, which is not by accident.

DC Comics contains pages originally published in seventeen different comics from 1998 through 2010, and of course they're arranged chronologically with the original publication dates. (We have to know how they all fit into continuity!) There's also an short section at the end with a few pencil sketches and a passel of covers, as if the publishers realized they'd almost filled up an "art of" book with comics issues and ignored art qua art. But don't be fooled: this is not a book of Conner explaining how she works, or examining her progress, or containing any reflections by her on her work: it's a collection of comics issues featuring women with impressive breasts fighting crime.

So there's a Lois Lane one-shot with LL pretending to be Emma Peel, the origin of a now-superseded character called Spoiler, a jokey Joker two-pager, three issues of Birds of Prey, another jokey story about supervillain prison rape, four issues of JSA: Classified featuring everyone's favorite breast window Power Girl, two Legion of Super-Heroes letter pages in comics form, an issue of Supergirl, two random Wonder Woman stories, and the marriage special for Black Canary and Green Arrow. Conner's style is good for humor, but it's not always well-served by the melodramatic stories that DC prefers to tell -- there are two different busty heroines trying to find their true selves and their purpose in life here. But she's always a good sport, and every page here is much better than it needs to be.

That's why Amanda Conner gets an art book -- well, that and the boobs. It's a pity it had to be this art book, but perhaps someday she'll get a book about her art, with some examples that live up to her best work. Until then, there's this book: nearly three hundred pages of DC superheroines in skin-tight costumes, bending and leaping and stretching and doing splits in midair.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, March 28, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #86: Recess Pieces by Bob Fingerman

It's annoying to be trucking along, writing a review every day and knocking the books down with ease, and then suddenly realizing you have only one dull thing to say about today's choice. It's enough to make a man doubt his own powers, I tell you.

Anyway, Bob Fingerman uses an art style in his 2006 graphic novel Recess Pieces -- a slightly chibi-fied version of his regular style, which is already very fleshy and full of big eyes and faces -- that resembles nothing so much as the progeny of Mad artist Jack Davis and Margaret Keane. It's definitely creepy, which is a plus for a zombie story, but I'm not convinced it's the right kind of creepy.

Yes, that was it. Not impressive, is it? But I'll soldier on in the absence of inspiration. (Which is a pretty good description of life, most of the time.)

Recess Pieces was one of the earlier splatterings of the current zombie wave; it's the story of a plucky band of kids at Ben Turpin School and what happens to them when an early-morning biology experiment goes horribly awry. (Accounts of zombie attacks have to include the phrase "horribly awry;" it's a rule.) Luckily, it turns out that the zombification process only affects those who have gone through puberty, so our cherubic-faced fifth-graders are safe...from that one, minor problem.

Fingerman takes a while to get into the actual zombie apocalypse; he has a large cast to introduce first and a lot of complication to set up, so Recess Pieces gets through most of this one very eventful school day before the blood and brains start flowing. But there's plenty of action once the zombies arrive, and Fingerman has a dark humor throughout, even before the flesh-chewing begins.

Recess Pieces takes a silly idea and does it semi-straight -- full of jokes, but with real zombie gross-outs, too -- which I think will appeal to zombie fans. His art style is also well-suited to decaying, bulbous, bloody, or otherwise unpleasant kinds of flesh.

I came to this book because I'm still hoping Fingerman does something as impressive as the original run of Minimum Wage -- the stories collected originally in Beg the Question -- and this isn't that, certainly. But it's a zombie story that pushes all of the right buttons: gore, yucks, plucky heroes, unusual fighting implements, escaping danger, and the comeuppance of schoolyard bullies.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #85: Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby

It can be difficult going back to being just an amateur reader after doing it professionally. I know that from my own life: I spent a decade and a half reading as part of my job, and the seven years since slowly turning this blog into a free facsimile of what I used to do for pay.

You see, there are several tiers of readers. At the bottom, outside the tiers entirely, are those who never read books -- not because they can't (the illiterate aren't part of the equation at all), but because they don't. They might be perfectly good people otherwise -- giving to charity, loving with their families and communities, holding sensible political positions -- but they're just Not Our Sort, are they?

The first circle of readers is the Amused: they read for their own enjoyment, and nothing more. They are the largest circle, and the only ones entirely happy. For that, the rest of us look down on them, because we envy them.

Above them, the next smaller circle is the Improvers, who read to make themselves better, either by self-help books or Great Modern Novels or computer programming manuals or glittery books that promise to improve their business acumen. And then, the smallest and most tormented group is the Explainers, who read so that other people can understand.

I was an Explainer as a living for a long time, and I've got strong Explainer tendencies. Luckily, these days, we can all be Explainers if we want to be: the Internet is wide and open, and anyone can open a storefront and vend opinions. But being an amateur Explainer isn't the same at all: there's massive validation in being paid for those opinions, getting freelance payments and salaries and performance bonuses based on how well you read and explained.

As an Explainer, I claim immense powers to define and delineate, to put things carefully into the boxes I insist are exactly the right sizes for them: it's what Explainers do. And so I'm sure I know how Nick Hornby felt when The Believer magazine asked him -- a noted British novelist in his middle years, who used to review for the London papers fairly regularly, but had given it up -- to contribute a monthly column called "Stuff I've Been Reading." The Believer's insistence on only positive reviews must have seemed like the most comfortable straitjacket ever, stripping away the instinctive back-biting of the British literary press and assuaging a writer's ever-present fear of fatally insulting someone inadvertently.

And so Hornby came to write that column: not every month The Believer published, and with a year-and-a-half gap in the middle, but pretty regularly for the space of a decade. During that time, he wrote two novels, Slam (see my review) and Juliet, Naked (see, um, my to-be-read shelf, which I expect Hornby would sympathize with). The former novel impinges slightly on his columns, since it introduced him to the world of contemporary YA fiction, but the writing of both is entirely absent, as is even the title of the latter. "Stuff I've Been Reading" kept tightly to its matter: Hornby didn't use it as an excuse to rattle on about politics, or his family, but glancingly bounced off those things and other topics to settle firmly in the literary world for a couple of thousand words each month.

Those columns -- all of them from September 2003 through June 2013 -- were collected as Ten Years in the Tub, published just in time for Christmas last year, perhaps as a gift for that friend who has already read everything and needs more suggestions. There were smaller collections along the way, though: The Polysyllabic Spree, which was one of the initial inspirations for this blog, back in 2005; Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt, which was Day 109 of my very first Book-A-Day stint here, in 2006; Shakespeare Wrote for Money, which I've never seen in the wild; and More Baths Less Talking, which I tossed into a monthly round-up last year. Ten Years includes everything in those books, including Hornby's introduction to Housekeeping, and adds about another book of that length to the end out of the most recent eighteen months of his columns, plus an introduction by novelist Jess Walter.

You may have noticed I'm not saying much about the columns themselves: that's out of self-preservation, to keep the Lovecraftian spectre of eternal recursion away. Reviewing a book of book reviews -- that's where the many-angled ones lurk.

But I can say that each column begins with two lists: books bought and books read. And then Hornby explains what was good or interesting in those books he read, occasionally giving more details on how he came to buy some of the books in the first list as well. Ten Years contains nothing at all like a formal book review, and it's stronger and more appealing to read because of that.

Hornby is just as colloquial and flowing a writer in nonfiction as he is in his novels, making each column a joy to read for anyone who loves books. The cliche is true: his matter-of-face, confessional voice does make each column read like a story told by a friend, telling just you about some books that he's just read. All of Hornby's enthusiasms will not be yours, no matter who you are: the vast majority of us will never care about the Arsenal football club a hundredth as much as he does. But they're all authentic enthusiasms, and they all express themselves here through books and reading, in a style that will send any decent reader scrambling for a scrap of paper to write down a few titles.

In short, Hornby is one of the world's great Explainers. And Ten Years has over four hundred and fifty pages stuffed full of his engrossing, idiosyncratic, down-to-earth explanations: a treasure trove for anyone who ever thought "what should I read next?"

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #84: I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me by Trevor Paglen

Yes, the title doesn't quite go the way you expect -- but Paglen has an explanation: his title is a translation of the Latin motto "Si ego certiorem faciam... mihi tu delendus eris," from one of the pieces that he's examining in the book. He thinks that particular phrasing was chosen to echo Cato the Elder's Carthago delenda est, and to reference the Greek goddess of strife, Eris.

Given the sometimes wonky Latin phrasing of other mottoes in this book, though, you have to wonder if Paglen isn't ignoring a more obvious explanation: fighter pilots and similar hoo-ah military types were not necessarily the A-students in their Latin classes.

Perhaps I should back up and explain.

I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed By Me is a collection of mission and other patches associated with "black" (i.e., secret) aviation projects of the American military apparatus. Paglen admits that it's a haphazard and random collection, not arranged historically or operationally or according to any other specific scheme -- but, then, it has to be, since all of these projects were or still are secret, and the patches themselves (passed on to collectors, photographed in passing, or allowed to be semi-public because they're enigmatic enough not to violate mission secrecy) are often the only real public records that any of these things existed. The Pentagon certainly wasn't going to answer his questions about the Space Warfare Center's Special Projects Division or the Directorate of Special Projects. (There's a whole lot of "Special" on these patches: it's military-speak for "don't ask.")

So, after a reasonably thoughtful and about-as-comprehensive-as-it-could-be introduction, Paglen devotes each two-page spread to a picture of a patch on the left-hand side, and the right-hand side to as much as he's been able to dig up about that patch or the mission/unit/event that it stands for. Sometimes it's very short -- like Project Zipper, where Paglen really can only say that it's something the 413th Flight Test Squadron did, and that it's secret. And sometimes Paglen has more details, at least an indication of what kind of test flight it was, that the lightning bolts represent electronic warfare, and that a common "5+1" grouping of stars references the famous Area 51.

Of course, all of this stuff is supposedly secret, so it's not impossible that some or all of the facts Paglen presents here are actually misinformation. It's probably not all fake, but I'm sure there have been some laugh-filled lunches out at Groom Lake with buzz-cutted flyboys making fun of the things Paglen has worked out here.

Patches and insignia are catnip to military fans -- and quirky, secret ones are thrilling even to people like me who don't care much about the regular stuff -- and this is a neat book filled with a lot of really weird ones. It's a quick read, certainly, but it could be a thousand story triggers for the right SF or Fantasy writer -- why do so many patches have wizards on them? What did the pilots really fly in Project Zipper? As long as you don't think about how many of your tax dollars went to pay for this stuff, I Could Tell You is a hell of a lot of fun.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #83: Monster Christmas by Lewis Trondheim

Lewis Trondheim is a cartoonist with a very identifiable style -- particularly when he draws himself as a bird-headed man and the people around him as similarly anthropomorphic characters -- but he works in many idioms and for very different audiences.

There are his wordless books of sight gags, Mister O and Mister I, in a simplified version of his mature style for maximum humor efficiency. There's that main mature style itself, as seen in his autobiographical comics (like Little Nothings) and in the albums he drew of his Dungeon series. And there's the version of that style that he uses for his books for younger readers -- like A.L.I.E.E.N.

Or, like this book: Monster Christmas. It seems to be the sequel to something -- maybe another album, maybe a short story somewhere, maybe just the original idea that Trondheim didn't turn into a published work yet -- since this French family already has their pet monster, which has to be explained before the story proper can begin.

This ordinary family -- Dad, Mom, son Petey, daughter Jean -- look very similar to the way Trondheim draws himself and his family in his autobiographical works, but this is a simpler, sillier story, starting with that monster, which the kids drew and brought to life. In this album, the family is heading off to the mountains for a skiing holiday at Christmas -- and trying to leave the monster, Kriss, behind. (Of course, that never works.)

The whole story is entirely narrated, told in borderless comics panels with narrative captions -- somewhat in the Prince Valiant style, but from the point of view of the two children -- telling the whole story. There's no direct dialogue, which makes the whole thing distanced, as if the kids are telling it as a bedtime story or to their classmates after the holidays are over. The kid-like "and then this happened" plot adds to that feeling, though Trondheim's drawings give the whole book a strong dose of life to counteract it.

But this is Trondheim creating for kids, make no mistake. It's a silly story about a typical family, their funny and lovable pet monster, Santa Claus, and assorted dangers of the mountains. It's probably best read to small children, or handed to children slightly older and able to read it through themselves.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, March 24, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #82: The Complete Peanuts, 1987 to 1988 by Charles M. Schulz

Everyone writing about American comics has to deal with Schulz, one way or another. Either they relentlessly focus on the long-underwear crowd and ignore that anything else ever existed -- which is the style of far too many commentators -- or else, at some point, you need to wrestle with the man who more than anyone else imported psychology, modernity, and ambiguity onto the comics page.

So it's no surprise that I've written about him a lot, as this complete reprinting of his life's work has rolled forward, two books a year, from Fantagraphics over the past decade. (And we might have gotten used to it, but it's still a stunning achievement -- what will be twenty-five matching books, together exquisitely presenting a 20th century masterwork, every one of the 17,897 strips Schulz wrote and drew and lettered over a fifty-year period together in one unbroken string.) I may repeat myself, here, but here's what I said before, about the books covering 1957-1958, 1959-1960, 1961-1962, 1963-1964, 1965-1966, 1967-1968, 1969-1970, 1971-1972, 1973-1974, 1975-1976, 1977-1978, 1979-1980, 1981-1982, 1983-1984, and 1985-1986.

Schulz dropped down from four panels to three on his dailies in the middle of the stretch of strips collected in The Complete Peanuts 1987-1988 -- right at the end of February 1988 -- and it was almost a clean break, with only a few three-panel strips before that and a handful of four-panel strips afterward. Schulz did start indulging some one-panel strips during this stretch though, which is interesting: they're clearly his work, and feature Peanuts characters, but they don't have the same rhythm as his main strips; they're "off" in the same way the 3D '60s Viewmasters and the comic-book versions of the characters are "off."

Three panels have a different rhythm than four as well, of course. And Peanuts kept simplifying and honing itself as a daily gag strip in these years -- Schulz was always a great gag-man, though his humor, even at its sunniest, ran to the wry smile rather than the belly-laugh most of the time. But each strip was a little shorter and simpler, with less room for set-up and nuance, beginning early in 1988. My eye can only barely detect the beginnings of a quaver in Schulz's line at this point, but there are plenty of people better at seeing that than I am.

There's still plenty of sadness and regret in Peanuts, even at this late date, though it's more muted, and Schulz doesn't engage in the long continuities of the '70s (Mr. Sack, the Pattie/Marcie/Charles love triangle) anymore. Interestingly, Charlie Brown starts quoting his grandfather in the ways he idolized and talked about his barber father in the earlier years of the strip.

In these years, Peanuts was still a fine strip: funny and amusing and occasionally deeply insightful in the ways it was so regularly in the '50s and '60s. It was still Peanuts; it just wasn't as good as Peanuts ever got anymore.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/22

This is one of the stuffed-full weeks, so I won't spend much time up top here introducing things. As usual, these are all books that arrived during the past week, sent by the hard-working publicists of their respective publishing houses. I haven't read these books yet, but every one of these books will be someone's favorite book of the year (and that might be you), so here's what I can tell you about them now. It's very likely I'm making any particular book sound much less appealing than it really is, in cases of doubt.

I'll start this week with the new standalone novel from Karl Schroeder -- fresh from the four-book Virga saga -- which is Lockstep, coming March 25th as a Tor hardcover. It's a medium-to-far-future space adventure with a teenaged protagonist, an evil empire, and what looks like really serious hard physics behind it. (One of the big organizing principles of the Lockstep Empire is coldsleep, since all travel between its worlds is at sublight speeds.) I haven't read the last few of Schroeder's books,but what I have read by him has been zippy, smart, and full of wonders, so I have high hopes for this.

(Though I do have one odd book-design quibble: the letters on the cover are not quite white; they're at something like 90% opacity. So I keep thinking there are smudges on the letters, when it's the art behind, ghosted to within an inch of its life. That's an interesting artistic choice.)

Also from Tor this month -- but already out, since it was published last week -- is Will Elliott's The Pilgrims, the first in a portal-fantasy trilogy from the author of the multiple Aurealis-winning The Pilo Family Circus. It looks to be a much darker, creepier world on the other side of that portal than usual -- closer to The Iron Dragon's Daughter than Narnia -- and the two men who travel through it are a middle-aged drunk and a slacker would-be journalist.

The Mark of the Dragonfly is, I believe, the first novel by Jaleigh Johnson, and a middle-grade fantasy set in a secondary world. There, one girl scavenges for a living on the outskirts of a Scrap Town, until the day she finds an amnesiac girl with the tattoo of a dragonfly on her wrist -- proof the lost girl is someone important in the rich and powerful kingdom to the south. The only way to get there is to stow away on the 401 train -- this is a steampunk-flavored fantasy -- and evade the train's guards and the mysterious forces chasing them the whole way.

The massive, wonderful reprint anthology of the year might just be The Time Traveler's Almanac, edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer. It's got seventy-two stories -- up to novellas like Charles Stross's "Palimpsest," which ends the book -- including four original essay/stories from Charles Yu, Charles Love, Genevieve Valentine, and Jason Heller. I'm particularly impressed to see that the Vandermeers haven't allowed themselves to be constrained by the usual only-one-story-per-author straitjacket of the historical anthology: both of Turtledoves "Counting Up, Counting Down" stories are here, plus a couple of Gene Wolfes, two great Kage Baker stories, and a lot more. Oh, let me just list a few big titles: "Ripples in the Dirac Sea," "Pale Roses," "The Gernsback Continuum," "Himself in Anachron," and "Young Zaphod Plays It Safe." And those are all just from the first section of four in the book. This Almanac has nearly a thousand pages of great fantastic stories -- "Enoch Soames"! "Fire Watch"! "Vintage Season"! -- and I can't imagine any reader of SFF who wouldn't want to have it on the shelf, to read straight through or to dip into now and then. It's from Tor, it's in trade paperback, and it's available now.

Paul Park is back with a new novel -- All Those Vanished Engines -- and he also (like Karl Schroeder, up top) is coming off a big series with a smaller single novel. And that's what the comics-industry people call a "jumping-on point:" Park is a ferociously smart and exciting novelist, so this slimmer book -- an alternate-history triptych, focused on the Civil War Battle of the Crater and Park's own real and fictionalized family -- will be a great way for new readers to sample his strengths. This is also from Tor, and will be a hardcover in July.

Max Gladstone's pseudo-legal-thriller urban fantasy series/world, The Craft Sequence -- I believe all three novels so far are independent, with separate characters -- returns with Full Fathom Five, following Three Parts Dead (which I reviewed and really liked) and Two Serpents Rise (which I'm still hoping to get to). This time out, he's writing about Kai, who builds gods to order -- but discovers that her creations are dying for reasons that may be dangerous to her own career and life. This is from Tor, publishing in hardcover in July.

And my last book from Tor this week is Katherine Addison's debut novel, The Goblin Emperor, a secondary-world fantasy about a neglected younger son -- this one the exiled half-goblin son of the elvish emperor -- who is suddenly thrown into the snakepit of the royal court by an "accident" that kills the emperor and the closer heirs, and leaves him scrambling to fit into his new role, or just survive it. It's got a bunch of laudatory quotes -- from industry rags like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly as well as fellow writers like Jim C. Hines and Chaz Brenchley -- and it's a hardcover hitting April 1st.

Everything else I have this week is from the mighty Yen empire of manga, and all, I believe, published this month. I'll organize them as I usually do -- more or less by volume number, so we can go from most accessible to least. (Though even a couple of the "Volume Ones" this month are side-stories to other things, so it's not necessarily the most accurate metric.)

The thing that seems the closest to standing alone has the unwieldy title Sword Art Online 1:  Aincrad, and is credited to Tamako Nakamura for art, Reki Kawahara for the original story, and abec for character design. Sword Art Online began as a series of light novels -- not yet available in English, though the first couple seem to be on their way -- about MMORPGs in the near future, enhanced by virtual reality, and featuring the usual VR dying-is-real trope. Aincrad is a manga spin-off, and there appear to be two volumes. If this is successful, look out for a flood of Sword Art Online novels, manag, anime, beachtowels, decorative wallhangings, snack packs, and carburetors.

Bloody Brat, Vol. 1 collects humorous side stories and 4-koma (4-panel gag strips, like American newspaper comics) spinning off Yuuki Kodama's Blood Lad series (see my review of the first one). These stories, though, are by Kanata Yoshino, who contributes the usual I'm-not-worthy afterword here and whose first published work this seems to be.

Similarly, I think Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Different Story, Vol. 1 is some kind of retelling or alternate-world version of the main Madoka Magica story (which is already confusing enough to me, with spin-offs for Kazumi Magica and Oriko Magica). This time, it's credited as art by Hanokage and original story by the Magica Quartet. The whole thing came from an anime TV series, so I expect there are lots of people who aren't the slightest bit confused by any of it.

Shiwo Komeyama's back with Bloody Cross, Vol. 2 -- see my review of the first one -- which is a demon-fighting story with a strong love/hate romantic subplot and a lot of energy.

And here's No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!, Vol. 3, continuing Nico Tanigawa's story of a profoundly unpopular and geeky Japanese teenage girl. (See my review of the first two volumes.) I'm fascinated both by the very different kind of geekery in these books -- what fascinates a Japanese girl is nothing like what fascinates an American boy -- and at the heroine's amazing lack of self-knowledge...oh, but I already said she was a teenager, so now I'm repeating myself.

Coco Fujiwara is also back, with Inu x Boku SS, Vol. 3 -- and, again, I can point you to my recent review of the first two books for more details of this rich-supernatural-kids-in-Tokyo story. From the back-cover copy, it looks like this series is still aimed towards romance than fighting among the supernatural beings, so set your assumptions accordingly.

And then there's Shiro Amano's Kingdom Hearts: Three Five Eight Days Over Two, Vol. 3. Yes, the cover and spine do spell out "Three Five Eight Days Over Two," and I'm still at a loss as to why. But it's here, it continues this version of the very popular story from the video games (and, more distantly, from Disney movies and characters), and a million kids will love it.

Are You Alice?, Vol. 4 is by Ikumi Kataghirl and Ai Ninomiya, and it's still, as far as I can tell, a guns- and violence- filled shonen retelling of Lewis Carroll that does not strive for accuracy so much as name-checking and a few ideas the creators particularly like.

Getting into the higher numbers, here's Soul Eater, Vol. 19 by Atsushi Ohkubo. I've reviewed the first volume and number 8, but I've gotten out of touch with this series -- though both of my teenage sons love it for it's very shonen and very energetic story of sentient shapeshifting weapons, their magical wielders, and the school they all attend.

I've spent more time than I'd like to count explaining the details of the Higurashi: When They Cry franchinse, and here's Higurashi When They Cry: Festival Accompanying Arc, Vol. 4, which has a story by Ryukishi07 and art by Karin Suzuragi. Look, there's a series of murder-mystery games with a common setting and opening, OK? And the manga adapt those games -- this is the fourth volume (of eight) adapting the eighth game (of thirteen). Got it?

There's a similar series of games called Umineko: When They Cry, and a similar series of manga adapting them, as well. And so here is Umineko When They Cry, Episode 3: Banquet of the Golden Witch, Vol. 2. The story of this series is also by the post-human entity Ryukishi07, and the art is by Kei Natsumi.

Returning to relatively easy-to-explain series by specific humans, Yumi Unita's generational family/love-story manga comes to a conclusion with Bunny Drop, Vol. 10.

And last from Yen this month is a rare hardcover manga, the gigantic Wolf Children: Ame & Yuki, credited as original story by Mamoru Hosoda, art by Yu, and character design by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. I believe that this is the official comics adaptation of the 2012 animated movie Wolf Children -- and not a side-story or otherwise different version -- about a young woman who falls in love with a werewolf, has two small children by him, and then has to raise them alone after his death.