Monday, June 29, 2015

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/27

Yep, it's the same ol' thing once again: books in the mail, I write about 'em here, yadda yadda yadda. And so I'll dive directly into the probably vaguely accurate description of things I will take my first serious look at in about five seconds:

The Philosopher Kings get to go first because it's the new Jo Walton novel, and she's an interesting and quirky writer who does different things each time out and has written a number of excellent novels (e.g.: Among Others, Half a Crown and the rest of that loose trilogy) in recent years. This one is the sequel to last year's The Just City, in which the goddess Athena set up a city in the distant past as a utopia to educate intelligent youngsters from all of history, with a faculty of robots and philosophers. Things apparently did not go entirely to plan in that first book -- if things did got to plan all of the time, our novels would be very boring -- and so now the situation is much more complex and dangerous back in that supposedly perfect city. And there's at least one book to go -- I read Walton's blog, where she's been talking about writing the third book -- so this will not be the end of the story. I've still got The Just City on my shelf to read, but I would recommend not waiting as long as me. Philosopher Kings is a Tor hardcover coming June 30th, and I hope I don't have to try to spell "philosopher" again for ten years.

Changing gears entirely, how about a graphic novel for kids? Judd Winick, who would probably prefer if people like me didn't point out that he began his media-figure career as a contestant on the show that spawned the entire hideous "reality" genre, and so is partially responsible for the horrible state of the world today, is back with Hilo Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth. The title character is a Zot-ish blond-haired innocent with some manner of superpowers, but a few years younger and vastly more innocent than Scott McCloud's '80s hero. He arrives on Earth, meets the obligatory completely normal kid, and wacky hijinks ensue. There will clearly be more of these -- the numeral "1" in the title is the big clue there -- but this first one is coming from Random House's Young Readers operation in hardcover on the first of September.

Chris Willich is back with the third novel about the poet Persimmon Gaunt and the thief Imago Bone -- and, from the cover, the Viking-looking guys with big axes that want to kill them -- in The Chart of Tomorrows. The previous books in the series were The Scroll of Years and The Silk Map, our married heroes are still trying to keep their baby son from being the locus of all evil on their particular secondary world -- as you do -- and this book promises to have war-balloons in it. How can you turn aside a book with war-balloons, I ask you? This one is a Pyr trade paperback, available July 7th.

Who says steampunk is just for adults? Certainly not Alan Gratz, who is back with the second novel in his "League of Seven" series (after the eponymous first book), The Dragon Lantern, which comes complete with extensive illustrations by Brett Helquist (whom some of us remember fondly from Lemony Snicket's "Series of Unfortunate Events" and others probably remember fondly from other stuff). This series is set in an alternate 1875 powered by steam and where Native Americans seem to be at least nominally in charge of the United Nations of America, and whose world is periodically threatened by the evil Mangleborn and then in turn saved by the resurgent of a League of Seven, who always follow exactly the same template, because this is a book for middle-school kids, and they love specific rules and details. This is from the Tor Starscape imprint, and should be already available from your favorite retailer. (If not, why are they your favorite, exactly? It came out on June 9th.)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

What the Hell?

From this post by Zara Sternberg at the Melville House Blog, interviewing Prof Daniel Donoghue of Harvard:
Donoghue: If you are ever reading out loud, there is a time lag – your reading is about 2 words behind the uttering of the word, and as long as there is a time lag, you have a moment of silent reading. Do you hear a little voice in your head when you read silently?
Sternberg: Yes.
Donoghue: Most people do. They also often move their lips as well, especially when trying to absorb difficult material.

Let me pull out the essential part of that: "Do you hear a little voice in your head when you read silently?" "Yes." "Most people do."

What the everlasting fuck? I've never heard a voice in my head while reading, and never even considered that anyone might. Is this actually a real thing? Am I some sort of weird outlier because I actually read instead of listen to things?

You know what -- this calls for a poll. Folks, let me know if I'm crazy or not:

Do you hear a little voice in your head when you read?

Yes -- all the time, my own voice
Yes -- all the time, another voice
Yes, sometimes, but not always
No, and I agree with you that this is utterly insane.
Poll Maker

If you have any trouble using the poll as an embed, this link should take you to cast your vote, and this one should link to the results.

Edit: I thought this poll would show results within the widget, but the "Results" button opens a new window on the host's site. I guess that's what happens when you use free web content without investigating too closely. Anyway, if you're having trouble seeing results, check your pop-up blocker.

Posing for Vengeance

So this here new Avengers cover hit the intertubes this week, revealing the new team that apparently is exactly the same one everyone assumed it would be. (I don't pay close attention to long-underwear comics these days.)

I'm not here to berate or praise the racial/gender mix of the team -- there are plenty of other places filled with people who have scarily strong opinions on the subject -- but I do have a question.

Where are they?

They seem to be standing in a cloudbank, and I'm pretty sure several of those characters don't fly -- Spidey and Ms. Marvel, in particular. I don't know if the current Thor can hover, either, though I wouldn't be surprised if Vision, Nova, and ol' Shellhead can do so. They're also strangely crowded around the camera, though at very different levels -- are they on cloud risers?

Also, while I'm at it, what the heck is Captain America doing? Is he supposed to be coming in for a landing on his cloud riser, or just showing off his muscles?

Yes, I know it looks cool: they're all glowering menacingly at the assumed reader, and Cap gives it some movement. But what does it have to do with anything, and why should we care that they're giving us the stink-eye?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Memories and Memes

So I noticed that a book cover I was responsible for was memed recently -- that's it at the top of this post.

I say "I," but Jim Butcher wrote the actual books, and Dan Dos Santos did that great cover -- and I think it was Toby Schwartz who was the art director at the time, so she contacted Dan, negotiated the deal, and worked with him to develop the cover. I did make the deal for the omnibus -- Wizard at Large, the third Butcher omni I did, back in 2006, collecting books seven and eight -- and had the idea for the cover, though.

(I can't claim much credit for that, though. I think my brief to Toby was pretty much "Dan's done two of these already, and he knows what he's doing. But there's a scene where Harry rides a zombie T-Rex, and I think Dan would do a killer job on that. But you and he might have other ideas.")

Still, it was a hoot to see my old life pop up unexpectedly: that is a great cover, and I hope Dan is selling a lot of prints of it. Who knows? Maybe some day I'll be lucky enough to walk by it on the side of a van.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/20

Do I need to explain this all every week? I doubt the audience changes much.

But the Internet is wide and lasts forever, so context is always useful. At this point, I've been doing these weekly posts for around eight years -- each time listing the books that came in the mail and attempting to make sense of them. As always, I haven't read any of them, and anything I write below about them is subject to being entirely wrong.

But, with that danger in mind, let's see what I have for you this morning....

Falling in Love with Hominids is the third short-story collection from Nalo Hopkinson, collecting eighteen stories from the last dozen years. It's a trade paperback from Tachyon, coming on August 15th.

Also from Tachyon -- but publishing sooner, on July 14th -- is Peter V. Brett's The Great Bazaar & Brayan's Gold, collecting two sidebar novelettes to Brett's Demon Cycle novels that were each originally published as pricey limited-edition hardcovers in the UK.

(Tachyon seems to be concentrating on writers that I've met and feel guilty about not reading more of -- probably not on purpose!)

And I also have what I think is a first novel this week: Robert Brockway's The Unnoticeables, a contemporary fantasy that comes more out of the mainstream than the genre. There is a supernatural world, but they operate like a really nasty consulting firm: their own job is to find and eliminate "problems," and make the universe operate more efficiently. And every human being has a problem of one kind of another -- everyone is inefficient. Unnoticeables is the story of a punk in 1977 and a would-be stuntwoman in 2013 who each discover the truth of the universe, and what they do about it. This one is a Tor hardcover, available July 7th.

Sunday, June 21, 2015


Picture this: a world were most of the people are obsessed with a particular game, with quirky rules that forbid the use of hands except in special situations. Teams wear distinctive colors adorned with the logos of commercial enterprises that want to harness their popularity, and are beloved in their communities -- and, in some cases, worldwide. Individual players are often larger than life, drawing massive media attention and adulation for their elan and skill.

And the whole enterprise is organized into a complex structure of leagues within leagues, all carefully orchestrated and managed to benefit a small elite of managers, who, it is rumored, are deeply corrupt and have gained massive fortunes from their positions.

The head of this world-spanning game, the man with his hands in all of the pies and his whims translated into instant action, is smooth and deeply personable in public, but ruthless behind the scenes. No reforms can take place as long as this charismatic figure is in place, and he's cruising to an easy re-election even in the face of proof of massive scandals. His name is Sepp Blatter.


We're living in a Jack Vance novel, aren't we? Some tough agent of an interstellar polity is going to smash this system, on his way to killing the fiend that torched his planet thirty years ago, right?

It's the only explanation I can see: it all looks too Vancean to be the real world.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Charlotte Grote Is My Spirit Animal

And this is why:

That's only one-third of today's Space Is the Place comic from John Allison.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/13

I'm back again with a few books that showed up on my doorstep this week, like foundlings of the publishing world. I didn't expect any of these, which makes them more interesting, and it's entirely possible that one of them will turn out to be your favorites book of the year.

As usual, I haven't read any of these yet, but here's what looks interesting and/or amusing about them to me:

The Stellow Project is, I believe, the first novel from Shari Becker, who has written picture books and done other things related to the entertainment world. It's from Amazon's newish YA imprint, Skyscape, and is available June 23rd in trade paperback and electronic formats. Unexpectedly, it seems to be set in the modern world and not a dystopian hellhole, which is refreshing. Our heroine is sent away from the family's Manhattan home in an unexpected "killer storm" (which reminds me of the song "Wildfire" and its tragically killing frost, because I am old) with her younger sister, and left without the experimental drug that keeps her alive. This is a YA book, so I'm sure she both survives and learns that Everything She Knows Is Wrong -- primarily concerning the evil and duplicity of adults.

My next book here is for slightly younger folks: Life of Zarf: The Troll Who Cried Wolf continues Rob Harrell's middle-grade series (after The Trouble With Weasels) about a troll kid trying to survive in a fairy-tale school. Harrell is the creator of the syndicated Adam@home newspaper strip, as well as the graphic novel Monster on the Hill, and he makes this book into something in between a novel and a graphic novel: each page has at least one spot illustration, which are part of the flow of the story, usually showing a line of dialogue or a moment of action. Troll Who Cried Wolf is coming in September -- just in time for a new crop of anxious middle-schoolers -- from Dial Books for Young Readers.

Nick Harkaway is a British writer who works with SFnal and spy-story ideas but gets published mostly on the "general fiction" lists -- possibly because his father is the writer John le Carre, so he knows how the business works from the inside -- and his third novel, Tigerman, is hitting paperback here in the US on June 23 from the good people at Vintage. Tigerman, unlike his first two books, doesn't seem to have any fantastic elements: it's about a British soldier given a quiet last job before retirement, watching over things on the backwater ex-colony of Mancreau. But, of course, books about quiet tropical paradises always turn out to be really about the things lurking beneath the surfaces of those seeming paradises, don't they?

And last for this week is an unabashed fantasy novel, The Hollow Queen, coming from Tor in hardcover on June 30. It's the eighth in the "Symphony of Ages" series by Elizabeth Haydon, and finishes up the current trilogy. (There was a long gap between books two and three, which I looked up after seeing Haydon thank her original editor, my old SFWA-party buddy Jim Minz, in her acknowledgements -- that surprised me, since Minz left Tor a good decade ago.) I haven't read Haydon in a while, but I have good memories of the first trilogy in this series -- starting with Rhapsody back in 1999 -- since I read and bought them for the SFBC back in those days of the earth's youth. This is big fantasy in a world where magic relies, at least some of the time, on music, and Haydon, as I recall, was good at characters and relationships and actually had a number of important women in her books.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Lobster Johnson, Vols. 3 & 4 by Mignola, Arcudi, Zonjic & guests

I still suspect the whole point of the Lobster Johnson series is so that Mike Mignola can have his own version of Doc Savage to play around with whenever he wants to. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but, four volumes in, the Lobster -- if there was an in-comics explanation of "Johnson," I've missed it -- is still deeply enigmatic, a guy who we only ever see in costume and who has no interior life. He does his job of fighting evil, he has a crew of oddball agents, and that's about it.

The Mignola/Hellboy universe is punching-centric, yes; it features a whole host of problems, nearly all of which can be solved by a big red fist to a face or a judiciously applied dose of purifying flame and/or high-caliber bullets. But the other pieces of it, from the original core Hellboy series (though that's amusingly a sidebar to the larger universe, now) to the continuity-drunk B.P.R.D. manifold to Abe Sapien's solo stories, are about the strange people as much as the strange situations. The Lobster's stories, though, are about what's mostly a '30s stock company -- spunky girl reporter, smart black mechanic, not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is gang boss and his creepy omnicompetent henchman, plus the inevitable army of cannon fodder in hats -- performing the stories we expect, as the still unknown Lobster smashes crime and leaves behind his inevitable calling card.

Satan Smells a Rat collects five stories clustering around the single-issue size (one longer, one shorter), all written by Mignola and his longtime collaborator John Arcudi, with art from series artist Tonci Zonjic in one case and others (Sebastian Fiumara, Kevin Nowlan, Joe Querio,  and Wilfredo Torres) on the remaining stories. They're all very punch-happy, and good pulpy fun -- though, personally, I don't think Nowlan's art style is a good match for the Hellboy universe. [1] Since this universe is made up of tiny details that turn out to be important later, I won't say that these are all minor sidebar stories -- something here may set up a major villain in 2020 -- but, for right now, they're little, individual stories.

Get the Lobster!, on the other hand, is more of a "mythology" storyline, as much as those exist for the Lobster. The gangster and his henchman from Burning Hand are back, and there's a fiendish scheme involving mind-control and a giant killer gorilla. (The Hellboy universe has always been very strongly driven by whatever Mignola and his collaborators think would be really cool to draw.)

This is all, as I said, good pulpy fun, and Zonjic in particular has a real flair for drawing '30s-style action. It is a bit thinner than the main Hellboy or B.P.R.D. stories, and definitely only slightly connected to their world. But there are very few comics these days about a pulp hero punching out a remote-controlled dwarf in a devil mask, and you have to respect it for being there for us.

[1] You can take that with a grain of salt, if you want, since my brother and I have been jokingly calling him Kevin "rat-faced git" Nowlan since the late '80s because of the distinctive faces he draws. He's good at what he does, but I've never really warmed up to it. So I have a tendency to say he doesn't match well with anything I see him do.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Incoming Books: Week of June 9

I got two clumps of books over the past week, and since I love posting lists of books here, I'm going to inflict them on you.

First, I got another clump of Vintage Contemporaries for my monthly reading series. I'm now at the point where there's only four books left in the crucial 1984-1988 timeframe, so I'm nearly completely organized for at least one book to read a month for the next three years. (Some of you may understand why I find that comforting; I pity the rest of you.)

Those books are:
  • James Crumley's One to Count Cadence, his first novel, a realistic fictionalized account of his time as a soldier in Vietnam. I had a copy of this pre-flood (this very edition), but never managed to read it.
  • Jill Eisenstadt's From Rockaway, which looks like a very '80s novel about sensitive young people growing up in a world tougher than they are. I could be wrong; that's why I'll read it.
  • Kaye Gibbons's Ellen Foster, about which I know basically nothing.
  • Barry Hannah's Airships, a hugely influential collection of stories originally published in the mid-70s. This was talked about a lot when I was in college, but I managed to avoid it then. I've probably spent too much of my life trying to avoid things, honestly.
  • Denis Johnson's Fiskadoro, which I think is a modern white-man-among-the-heathens novel. (Though I'm not sure how far Johnson deformed the definition of "heathens," which could make all the difference.) It's the kind of book that has lots of quotes to say how wonderful it is and not a whisper about the plot and characters.
  • Susanna Kaysen, Asa, as I Knew Him, a slim novel with the bold line "the voice of a new generation" on the cover. Kaysen is probably best-known for the memoir Girl, Interrupted, which came out a decade later (though it was about her time in a psychiatric ward in the late '60s).
  • Jerzy Kosinski's Steps, a late '60s novel from the author of Being There -- and who I think was a fairly major literary figure while he was alive, though he seems to have dropped off precipitously since.
  • Joy Williams's Taking Care, a book of short stories
  • Joy Williams's Breaking and Entering, which was an original in this series and seems to be her second novel. Williams's is not a name I've heard in literary circles for these past twenty years; I wonder what happened to her? (I'll have to look into it when I read her books.)
And I also broke down and bought the four physical books available from John Allison's defunct Scary Go Round comic -- Great Aches, Ahoy Hoy!, Peloton, and Recklessly Yours. If I hadn't dithered so long, I could have bought the first four in digital form before that stupid new UK tax law came into place and knocked out a lot of small ebooksellers from the international marketplace.

Yes, I know the whole thing is still available online, and I might read the first half online. But I like to pay for things I enjoy, so as to keep them coming. And I like having books on my shelves. Someday there will be a vast John Allison Library, including all of his oddly interlinked series, with a loving large-format concordance and all of those little fiddly bits, but I don't want to wait that long.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth Vols. 4-10 by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & various artists

The world is falling apart: even though the battle against the invasion of the frog-monsters was technically successful, intrusions of massively destructive extradimensional supernatural entities are now common, and clearly at least tens of millions of people have died in the US alone. in fact, I would argue that its unrealistic to have so many products of industrial civilization still available at this point in the B.P.R.D. story, given how much devastation has already happened. (Let's see: New York is gone, as is all of Great Britain. I think Seattle as well, and probably Chicago. Similar things are happening around the world, so it's difficult to see how global supply chains -- or even smaller local ones -- can function at all in a world with gigantic crab-monsters and supervolcanoes erupting randomly.)

Putting aside the fact that the B.P.R.D. should no longer have access to helicopters and telecommunications and manufactured bullets, for the moment, the world of Hell on Earth is about as dark as a superhero-derived comic can get. In the first three volumes of this series, we saw the B.P.R.D.'s top agent, Abe Sapien, shot and driven into a coma from which he hasn't emerged in the main series. We saw the architects of the B.P.R.D.'s greatest successes -- reformed demon-child Hellboy and firestarter Liz Sherman -- gone from the agency for different reasons. We saw the people left squabbling with each other -- ex-academic Andrew Devon accusing Sapien of being the prophesied messiah of the frog-monsters, disembodied mystic Johann Krauss and the incredibly old mummified Panya engaging in something more subtle but still clearly at odds -- while new director Kate Corrigan struggles to make any successes in a world collapsing around her. Even the B.P.R.D.'s rivals/allies, the Russian Special Sciences Service, are hard-pressed to contain the new supernatural menaces, as their current Director (Iosif Nichayko, a zombified Cold War sailor in a containment suit) struggles to contain the former director (the demon-in-the-form-of-a-young-girl Varvara) as the technology that underpins his containment spells collapses.

And, of course, there are gigantic crab-monsters, pieces of a vaguely Lovecraftian apocalypse, scattered around the world. Some are moving and destroying everything in their path, some are standing still and laying what may be eggs, some are even more enigmatic. It's possible to destroy them, but not through any kind of conventional weaponry. (I don't recall any discussion of nuking the things, which is surprising -- but the focus of B.P.R.D. is always on that agency, so any other kind of military options happens behind the scenes or not at all.) This is a world where multiple characters regularly talk about the end of human civilization, and it feels a bit pat when other characters try to talk them out of it.

These seven books collect thirty-six basically monthly issues: a few scattered one-shots and mini-series at the beginning, and then the unified B.P.R.D. monthly comic from issue 103. (Those two things, though, are identical except for name: for a while, the comics market valued novelty, so each new B.P.R.D. sub-story had its own title. But then, that market started valuing continuity, and the exact same publishing program subsumed the same monthly output into a single title.) The stories move around the large cast -- those already mentioned, plus the young precognitive woman Fenix, who shot Sapien but finds her way into the B.P.R.D. by the end of this stretch of stories, and a number of other "conventional" B.P.R.D. agents, a few of which even make it to the end of these stories alive and intact. One of those agents, Howard, has an experience that may have turned him substantially less conventional, but that's not entirely clear to his teammates in these stories.

So: each story is basically about a B.P.R.D. team going to investigate some horrible thing, and more-or-less stopping it, sometimes even without all dying themselves. Each story can be seen as a success, with enough squinting. But the overall flow is utterly bleak: the B.P.R.D. is losing cities, and countries, and valuable agents and materiel. And the best they're getting for those losses is that things are no worse, or only slightly worse, today than they were yesterday. Towards the end of these stories, there may be some brighter spots: Fenix may turn into someone deeply useful to the team, and Liz does find her own way back to the B.P.R.D. and her powers for a fiery battle over New York with a particularly nasty character called the Black Flame.

The "Hell on Earth" storyline is already about as long as "War on Frogs" was -- and that's counting the one-offs and side stories from the first storyline that really weren't about the frog war -- with no sign that it's going to end particularly soon. It may just be that "Hell on Earth" is the world the B.P.R.D. live in now, and all they can hope to do is keep that apocalypse off, one day at a time. Or, maybe, the giant monsters can be driven back, and humanity can have a little space to regroup and rebuild. I hope we see at least a little of the latter, because, otherwise -- as I said above -- I have a hard time seeing how any factories anywhere are still operating, or even how most of the people still alive are getting the food they eat every day. It's difficult to picture a functional economy in this ravaged world.

The B.P.R.D. stories are dense and complex in a post-superhero mold: readers do need to know who the characters and monsters are, and the history of their conflicts. But writers Mignola and Arcudi keep this from being soap opera on the tights-and-capes level; their people are all psychologically real, even when they're dead spirits in a balloon suit. This definitely is a comics series for people who like dark contemporary fantasy -- it's the distant spiritual heir of Black Easter, filtered through a thousand comics and heavy-metal album covers -- but it rewards those readers with a world of texture and nuance. The art is more varied in this run than in most of the frog-war storyline -- which was primarily by Guy Davis -- but the main artists, Tyler Crook and James Harren, are very much in the same dark, scratchy style as Davis, though each brings his own idiosyncrasies to the drawing board. Some of the artists are a little cartoonier than I think really works for this series, particularly Peter Snejbjerg, but in general all of the varied looks blend well together and create one single overall story.

This is not at all the place to begin: I'd suggest dropping back to Hellboy, for the purist, or the beginning of B.P.R.D., for the best effect, or at the very least the beginning of "Hell on Earth" to know what's going on. But this is a series with a clear vision, followed over the course of many years, and it's encouraging to see that working so strongly in today's flavor-of-the-moment comics market.