Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Context-Free Quotes for Modern Intellectuals

Quote I use almost daily:
Everything takes four hours. You have to go there, do the thing, eat, argue about where you should have eaten, and go home. Four hours.
If you know the source, you get a cookie.

Not from me...just in general.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/23

Every week, I write up whatever books came in the mail the week before. Lately, that's fewer and fewer, maybe because blogging is so 2005, maybe because my audience is not particularly large compared to other people on the Internet, or maybe because of a little thing called the "e-book."

(Or maybe because I only post about once a week these days, and do a half-assed job of that. Hey, everybody, look over there!)

This week I have only one book for you -- George Noory's Night Talk. But, to make up for that, I'm going to write about it across multiple paragraphs!

Like this, for example.

Noory is a well-known talk-radio host -- the book bills him as "host of America's #1 All-Night Radio Show, Coast to Coast AM." (Though that begs the question: are there any other all-night radio shows? I suppose it's possible. And Coast to Coast is definitely a big deal, even if it's sui generis.) Noory has written a number of non-fiction books in the past, mostly with co-writer William J. Birnes, and mostly about various paranormal topics, which his talk show also gets very deep into. (As a former subscriber to Skeptical Inquirer and yet a thankful recipient of publicity copies, I'm trying to be honest and neutral here -- his titles include Talking to the Dead and Journey to the Light.)

Night Talk, though, is a novel, and it's credited to Noory alone. It's a thriller about a famous all-night talk-show host, who digs deep into paranormal and bizarre topics, named Greg Nowell. (See? Completely different from George Noory. Only a very few letters are even the same!) Our hero Nowell stumbles onto the secrets of the inevitable shadowy evil government conspiracy that controls the world, and has to go on the run, chased by an implacable assassin and aided primarily by his loyal listeners. There's even a woman who's on the run with him, in best thriller fashion.

Night Talk is coming in hardcover from Forge on July 26th -- read it before they suppress the truth!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/16

Big list this week, so each one will only get a little time. First up: these are books. They came in my mail. I haven't read them. Here's what I can tell you about them.

Almost everything here is a new manga volume (or light novel) from the fine folks at Yen I'll lead off with the few that aren't.

The Stars Askew is a fantasy novel by Australia's Rjurik Davidson, the sequel to his first novel Unwrapped Sky. (And I guess that's what happens when you're sloppy while unwrapping your sky -- the stars end up all askew.) The flap copy is full of names I don't know -- I didn't read the first book -- and the factions and groups they belong to, which seem to be trying to rule a city in turmoil after whatever happened in the first book. (My bet is on overthrowing the ancient rule of the corrupt Masters, since this is a fantasy novel.) This is a Tor hardcover, and it officially hit stores last week.

And I have two second manga volumes from the scrappy, interesting company Vertical -- first alphabetically is Devil's Line, Vol. 2, by Ryo Hanada. This series seems to be about "devils" -- who drink human blood, and I don't know what other devilish things -- in modern Japan, and may be secret or semi-secret. Our hero is a devil, and of course struggling against the compulsion to drink the blood of the requisite cute girl. And he's injured as this book begins.

Also from Vertical: Maybe's To the Abandoned Sacred Beasts, Vol. 2, about bioengineered super-soldier monsters being hunted after they successfully won what seems to be not quite the US Civil War. And they're not quite as monstrous as certain people want to pretend they are, of course.

Everything else is a new book from Yen Press -- all available right now or within a week or so, since I have real books in my hands here. They're across a bewildering list of series and subgenres, and mostly later volumes, so I'll deal with them alphabetically by size, so that the pile doesn't fall over as I'm working through it.

That means first up is Akame ga Kill!, Vol. 7 by Takahiro and Tetsuya Tashiro. The back cover promises a big fight, and assumes we know who is fighting (Night Raid and the Jaegers, both of whom are "teigu," whatever that means) and why. If you do, go to it!

Somewhat easier for new readers is The Asterisk War, Vol. 1, a manga by Ningen from a light novel of the same name by Yuu Miyazaki (and character designs by okiura). It's the future, and magic has reappeared, which means there's now a floating city on an ocean somewhere with a big magic academy to train the new generation of wizards. But those wizards seem to spend most of their time dueling rather than studying, perhaps to preparing for the inevitable gigantic tournament. Our hero is an ordinary guy student who just wants a quiet life...and I bet it works out for him just as well as for every other identical manga hero.

And the Battle-Royale-with-bombs story continues in Junya Inoue's BTOOOM!, Vol. 14, this month's entry in the Inappropriate Panty Shot Sweepstakes. This volume ends the "Sanctuary arc," and the back cover promises lots of death and violence by high explosives for those readers who are looking for such things.

A Certain Magical Index, Vol. 6 is also part of a manga series adapting light novels -- this time by Chiuya Kogino out of Kazuma Kamachi with Kiyotaka Haimura as the dam, if I haven't completely screwed up that metaphor -- which has clones and espers and a murderous somebody named Accelerator on the back cover, but no mention of, y'know, magic. I have no idea why.

Yet another light-novel-derived series: The Devil Is a Part-Timer!, Vol. 6, by Akio Hiiragi from Satoshi Wagahara's novel, with character designs by 029 (Oniku). Now the exiled lord of darkness -- now powerless and working in fast-food in Tokyo -- is the father of a baby, through what do not seem to be the traditional means. (The female Hero who defeated him is the mother.) I think I can safely say that wacky hijinks ensue.

If I were trying to make up a parody manga title, I probably wouldn't get something as long and convoluted as Final Fantasy Type-0 Side Story: The Ice Reaper, Vol. 5. But it exists, done by Takatoshi Shiozawa under the supervision of Tetsuya Nomura -- I love books with a "supervision" title on the cover, and would like to see more of them. This is some kind of fantasy story loosely related to the long-running series of games, in case you need me to point that out to you.

Horimiya, Vol. 4 continues what looks to be a love story by Hero and Daisuke Hagiwara, and it's deep into the "did he say 'I love you' to her or not" portion of the plotline.

I'm hoping the title How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend, Vol. 3 sounds less squicky in the original Japanese, because it's really creepy to my ear. I think the actual story is more about making comics and less about grooming young girls, if that helps. It's by Takeshi Moriki from the light novel by Fumiaka Maruto, with character designs by Kurehito Misaki.

Then there's Kagerou Daze, Vol. 6, also from a light  novel series (by Jin (Shizen no Teki-P)), adapted by Mahiro Satou. According to the back cover, "this is the story of the loneliness and love of a certain boy and girl." That's enough to decide whether to buy it, right?

I'm not entirely sure where the subtitle goes here, but I'll call it Log Horizon, Vol. 3: The West Wing Brigade. This trapped-in-a-MMORPG story (seriously, it's like a serious subgenre in Japan) was a light novel series by Mamare Touno before being turned into this manga series by Koyuki. This time out, our hero is going to save the day, apparently just to impress some hot babes.

Long titles return with the middle-of-complicated series volume Puella Magi: Tart Magica: The Legend of "Jeanne d'Arc," Vol. 3, with art by Masugitsune and Kawazu-Ku from the original story (animated series? script? I'm not entirely sure) by the Magica Quartet [1]. This is a big magical-girl story, and I can't tell you much more than that.

Next up: another jawbreaker of a title. Re:Zero: - Starting Life in Another World - : Chapter 1: A Day in the Capital. (There's also a "Volume 1" in there somewhere, but damned if I know where. And I'm really not sure why there are hypens on either side of the subtitle, but they're there, so I'll put them in. This is by Daichi Matuse (art), Tappei Nagatsuki (original story, aka the light novel this was based on), and Shinichirou Otsuka (character design). A boy named Subaru Natsuki -- and I don't know if that's meant to be as everyday as John Ford or subtly odd like Ford Prefect -- finds himself dropped into an alternate magical world,where he has an unspecified "most inconvenient special ability of all time." Guess you gotta read the book to find out what it is.

It's rare that a cover gives you simultaneously underboob, exposed thong, and unbuttoned pants -- in an action shot, no less! -- by clearly Shinjiro is up to the task with Taboo Tattoo, Vol. 3. (Oddly, there's no sign of a tattoo anywhere on the lots of exposed flesh of the young woman on the cover, which would seem to this layman to be more germane.) Or maybe that thing not actually on her hand is a magic tattoo of some kind? In nay case, this book sees Seigi trying to face Shrodinger's Cat and dealing with the truth of the Void Maker told to him by the Princess of Selinstan. So there.

Those are all of the small-format Yen books; from here forward, they'll be big 'uns, with some light novels mixed in.

Kaori Yuki's Alice in Murderland, Vol. 4 continues the story of a happy rich family where the children have to murder each other to inherit their parents' wealth. (And the parents had nine of them, presumably because they liked the idea of eight of them getting killed messily.)

Fourth in the series of light novels by Ryohgo Narita is the simply named DRRR!!, Vol. 4. (On the inside, it's called DURARARA!!, but that's not what the cover says. They are consistent in the number of bangs, though, so that's something.) As I understand it, this series has a bunch of loosely intersecting plots in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district.

Fruits Basket Collector's Edition, Vol. 3 continues the omnibus reprinting of Natsuki Takaya's popular shojo series. I think this is one of those stories where people change sex for odd reasons -- they have soup thrown on them, or get a cold, or maybe turn into pandas when the humidity is high and fly south to Capistrano if thwarted in love -- but I don't know the details.

Not actually manga, but still comics, and arguably adapted from a "light novel" -- Hollow City, a comics adaptation of the Ransom Riggs YA novel of the same name with art by Cassandra Jean. Hollow City is the sequel to Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, both ways -- the novel was a sequel to the novel, and this graphic novel is a sequel to a similarly adapted graphic novel last year. Coincidentally, I reviewed the first Riggs novel, which you can read here.

If you like Fruits Basket, but already have those books, you might be interested to see Liselotte & Witch's Forest, Vol. 1, the first book in a new series by Natsuki Takaya. This is about a young noblewoman who moves to a rural area on the edge of a witch-infested forest, from whose depredations she is quickly saved by a guy who looks strangely familiar. I suspect romantic hijinks will follow.

Touya Mikanagi is back with Karneval, Vol. 5, the book that dares to have no explanations or descriptions on the outside at all. (There is a dense who-the-heck-are-these-people page in the front matter, for those who dig in.) As far as I can tell, this series is about a recovering burglar in a combination circus/police school, because comics.

Hey! here's a Log Horizon novel! Log Horizon, Vol. 5: A Sunday in Akiba is the latest in the series by Mamare Touno, with illustrations by Kazuhiro Hara. I don't know if it literally takes place all on one day, or if the title is figurative. But the front matter does have a fold-out full-color cutaway map of the Log Horizon HQ, in the style of a Fantastic Four comic from 1967, so I'm inclined to like this book. As far as I can tell, our heroes are still stuck in their fantasy-gaming world, but seem pretty happy there. (This series may use a transported-bodily idea, rather than the usual still-stuck-in-their-gaming-chairs-and-unconscious standard.)

White-haired dude wants you to go to Prison School, Vol. 4! (Akira Hiromoto, the manga-ka, concurs.) Five boys are going to a very tough, previously all-girls school! Wacky hijinks -- and dangerous ones -- have been ensuing for around a thousand pages by this point! The book is shrinkwrapped, so there's some level of naughty stuff!

Remember way up in this post, when I told you about the manga with a long name that started with Re:Zero? Well, the light novel that manga was based on is also coming out this month: Re:Zero, Vol. 1: - Starting Life in Another World. It's by Tappei Nagatsuki, with illustrations by Shinichirou Otsuka. But this book tells us what the hero's magical ability is! When he dies, he time travels -- I suppose back to a previous point in his life when he wasn't dead, from context. That sounds odd, but not horrible, particularly for a character in a story with a lot of death flying about.

Last for this week is Void's Enigmatic Mansion, Vol. 4, credited as "art & adaptation by HeeEun Kim, Original by JiEun Ha." The exact nature of that "original" is not specified, but I think it was some kind of animation. And I'm pretty sure the enigmatic nature of the mansion is vaguely horrific, though not of the slasher type.

[1] I saw them put on a all-Mozart concert a few years back -- the cellist is particularly impressive.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Darling Buds of May

Have finally been harvested.

Which is to say: I finally wrote about the books I read in May, and posted my list of those books.

Please, hold your applause.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/9

Another week is over, which means I have a few books to write about here. (We're also all seven days older and closer to death, but try not to think about that.) I haven't read these yet -- and I can't guarantee I ever will, he said, glancing at his already full to-be-read shelves -- but I can tell you some things about them anyway. And those things are also probably true, or at least seem to be accurate to me right this moment. If I'm wrong, there's an open comment box for you to correct me.

First up is a new collection of stories from Patricia A. McKillip, Dreams of Distant Shores. It contains seven stories -- three of them original here -- as well as the essay "Writing High Fantasy" and an afterword by Peter S. Beagle. It's brand-new from Tachyon Press, with a fine Tom Canty cover -- I almost said that he's her regular cover artist, but I think it's just that his style works so well for McKillip that it seems he could be. Her actual regular cover artist is Kinuko Y. Craft, and has been for around twenty years now.

Also new from Tachyon is another book of short fiction, this one an anthology edited by Jacob Weisman: Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature. It collects stories -- twenty-two of them, as the subtitle notes -- from writers not generally considered "SF writers." To be blunt, these are serious literary types, but they're not slumming -- these are serious stories with SFnal ideas, because serious writers are allowed to do that these days. ("These days" going back twenty to thirty years -- though some of us have long enough memories to remember the times before these days!)

And last for this week is another anthology: Deserts of Fire, which collects stories about wars of the future and was edited by Douglas Lain. It contains twenty-one stories originally published between 1969 and 2015 -- neatly matching my entire life, though I'm not solipsistic to think Lain planned it that way -- from writers as diverse as Norman Spinrad and Ken Liu, A.M. Dellamonica and Kate Wilhelm, Jeffrey Ford and James Morrow. It's a trade paperback from Night Shade, and was officially published last week.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Wind/Pinball: Two Novels by Haruki Murakami

For a long time, I thought I'd never get a chance to read Murakami's first two novels. Sure, they were translated into English back in the '80s, and copies of those editions -- designed for teaching, as I understand it, and barely distributed to the larger book-buying world -- were available now and then for more money than I wanted to think about. But it looked like Murakami didn't want them available in English, and their price and obscurity made them essentially unavailable here.

Murakami changed his mind, perhaps -- or maybe that impression was false. Last year, his regular US publisher, Knopf, brought out those two short novels in one book as Wind/Pinball, in new translations by Ted Goossen. (The two books are Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 -- they're directly connected, being about the same characters at the same time of life.) So we Americans got to see how he started, all the way back in the late '70s. This edition of the two novels together is still quite short, since the books are each novella-length, barely a hundred pages each. (If I knew more about the history of Japanese publishing, I would pontificate here on their place in literary history and try to connect them to the modern "light novel." But I have no idea about any of those things.)

These two stories are very much those of a young man, of a young ambitious writer who desperately wants to say things and who really only has his own young life as material to work from. That's a very clear type of novel; a few of them get published every year and dozens more end up in drawers. Murakami had something a little more interesting, I suppose -- he won a literary award for Wind, so this is more than just hindsight speaking -- whether that was his unexpectedly simple style, his casual use of surrealism, or something else. (On the first point, Murakami provides a new introduction to this edition in which he talks about his life at the time and how he came to write these books -- and he notes that he wrote at least the beginning of Wind in English originally, and only then translated it into Japanese. He specifically says that helped him crystallize his style, working in a language he knew only partially, and not being able to construct complex sentences or explain complicated ideas.)

They're not plotty books; that's what I'm saying. Less so, even, than Murakami's later novels. These are two stories of voice and character and of their time -- that time being the late '60s and early '70s, and the characters students and graduates and young people. You could call them countercultural books; they would have been more so if Murakami wrote them at the time rather than nearly a decade later. They do apparently lead right into Murakami's thrid novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, but I haven't read that in at least twenty years, so I can't give you more details than that. (I may need to go back to it.)

Wind and Pinball are clearly Murakami novels; you can see the later writer in embryo in these stories. But they're equally clearly early works by that writer, in an idiom much more "mainstream" and convention than he later became. If there's anyone out there who needs an on-ramp to Murakami, you are finally in luck. Otherwise, they're interesting minor early works from a writer who got better -- which is what we all always hope for, for ourselves and the writers we like and the world at large.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew

There is a contradiction at the heart of this excellent graphic novel, but I don't know if I should point it out to you. Perhaps I can hint at it. Liew here tells the story of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, his fictional "greatest Singaporean cartoonist," in a dazzling book that combines Chan's "real" work with the story of his life. And Chan's work is almost entirely about the history of Singapore -- the political struggles around the founding, the heavy hand of the ruling party for decades, the suppression of dissent and "crime," and the muzzling of free expression for so long.

Chan becomes an inevitably political creator: no matter what else he might want to make stories about, the politics is so pervasive and oppressive that it pushes everything else out of his work. Whether as metaphor or direct story, Chan's work is the story of Singapore and of the lack of free speech. And his comics are, of course, themselves suppressed and marginalized, seen by few and printed obscurely. He works for years all but alone, barely connected to any audience.

Is his story depressing or discouraging? If so, it's the story of Singapore that is those things: Liew has made Chan a mirror for his times, the perfect witness and agitator, the one who always points out the flaws and failures and corrupt bargains. But Chan struggles on, making his comics however he can, year after year. He is a hero. He is Singapore's greatest cartoonist.

Liew brings a local's eye to this story; he's Malaysian by birth -- the country that Singapore was part of, and broke away from -- and has lived in Singapore for years. And his art is supple and amazing here, transforming from page to page to show Chan's artistic development or narrate his life at the time. (The book design is equally strong, with tinted pages and borders to indicate each varying style -- the whole thing is a marvelous package.) The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is not the story of my country, but it's a story with lessons for every country, every place that might think about giving up a little liberty for stability. And it's clearly one of the best graphic novels of the year already.

Incoming Books: July 7

Since I was on vacation this last week, I had time to pack up some unwanted books and trade them at my local indy bookstore -- something I don't do nearly as much now as I used to. (I get fewer physical review copies, have less time to read and review, and end up posting fewer reviews. Also, there's the whole "blogs are so 2006" thing.)

Still, an excuse to visit a book store and a bunch of new books for me is pretty awesome. Here's what I got:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, the third novel from Joshua Ferris. His first was the sublime mass-third-person workplace seriocomedy Then We Came to the End, and his second was the (to my mind, not quite as successful) The Unnamed. This one was shortlisted for a few major awards (the Man Booker, for example), and seems to be more of a standard literary novel -- middle-aged man has a crisis when someone else starts to take over his live. Ferris is clearly one of the new stars of the serious novel, and he's writing slowly enough that I can keep up with him.

Trigger Warning was Neil Gaiman's new short-story collection last year. There was a time when I'd read things like this in bound galley -- my preference, since it means I can do it early, do it in a nice portable edition, and not worry about damage -- and then get a hardcover as soon as that came out. That was when I was working in the biz, though, so I've found a system that works for me now -- mostly waiting for trade paperbacks, since I prefer to read them over hardcovers.

But I did buy the even newer Gaiman book, the nonfiction collection The View from the Cheap Seats, in hardcover. Why? Maybe because I have a often-remarked fondness for the occasional nonfiction of novelists. Maybe because I really like Gaiman. Or maybe because I'm no more consistent than anyone else in the world.

Rick Geary has been making graphic novels out of historical murder cases for about twenty years now, roughly one a year. I had all of them to date before my flood in 2011, and I've been re-buying them since. So this time I found The Saga of the Bloody Benders, about a "family" of nasty sorts on the Kansas frontier in 1870.

Ruins is a new graphic novel from Peter Kuper, an interesting maker-of-comics who I haven't always kept up with. (He had a long-running alt-weekly strip, I think, and various other works here and there.) This one is a big book, about marriage and migratory butterflies and Mexico.

City of Truth is a great novella by James Morrow, part of one of the periodic efflorescence of novellas-as-books. (This particular efflorescence was in the early '90s, and was about as successful as any of the ones before or since.) I haven't read it in twenty years, but I remember it as a wickedly smart and funny book, so I'm happy to have an excuse to read it again.

The Shelf is the story of a quixotic reading project, by writer and academic Phyllis Rose. She decided to read all of the books on one particular shelf of the New York Society Library, just to see what she would find. I love that idea -- it's the kind of thing I'd do. And Rose is also the author of Parallel Lives, a good book about five Victorian marriages that I read way back in my Vassar days and thought was very insightful then. (One of the stupider aspects of my personality is that I keep getting surprised that sometimes the authors of books I read many years ago are still around -- not so much genre writers, since I've been in that world, but academics and literary types and other folks like that under the radar.)

And last is the most recent -- that being twenty years old, but he's been dead longer than that -- edition of Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage, a book about the right and wrong words to use. It's in a dictionary format, which means it will be easy to read bits and pieces of as I have time; I like having books like that to place various points around the house, where I might be wasting time.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Drug War Hysteria, Part MMXV!

This here poster is on at least some of the trains that I commute to work on, so it's been annoying me for a while. I took this lousy picture of it a while ago, and just rediscovered it.

I'm sure there's some actual argument to be made about over-prescribing opiates for pain management, and how physicians need to be careful and keep an eye out for signs someone might be addicted.

But what I see here is a group trying to shame parents into refusing pain medication for their children who are in pain. (There's a worse one, which basically says that if you let the dentist give your child Novocain for an extraction, you're dooming her to a life of addiction.)

Do not waltz in and ask a random doctor how prescription drugs inevitably lead to heroin abuse, since that only actually happens in the fever dreams of the current generation of Nancy Reagan wanna-bees. But do give your child medication for pain when she is in pain.

Send My Boy to Europe!

My younger son, Nick, has been taking German in school; he just finished his second year a couple of weeks ago. (That's him off to the left, in case that wasn't clear. Imagine that he's telling you the below, if it helps the verisimilitude.)

A group loosely affiliated with that German program and it's teacher -- though not in any way officially associated with the school, as they told us five times at the big meeting -- is planning a trip to Germany and Italy next summer. (Italy being thrown in to keep it from being too dour, I suppose, or getting some more crowd-pleasers.)

Nick wants to go on this trip -- he intends to conquer the world eventually [1], and so he needs to get to see it.

And the amazing thing is that you can help pay for this!

Oh, sure, you don't have to -- but you know it will be fun, and give you the warm fuzzies in the depths of your heart when you do. And have any other vague Internet acquaintances begged you for money this week?

If you do feel inclined to throw a few shekels towards my son, please use this convenient button-like button to do so, and know that you have my undying thanks. (And that you will be among the elite when he does conquer the world -- so you've got that going for you.)

[1] Probably with a giant robot, though I haven't given up hope on a Palpatine-style plot to get everyone else to fight.

The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross

Charles Stross has been clearly getting more and more uncomfortable with the "Bob Howard" first-person straitjacket of his "Laundry Files" to date -- there's only so many secrets and shattering occult events that any one person can witness. Those books have been more and more incorporating third-person sections, to show us the things Bob doesn't know yet, or only suspects. But once you start switching viewpoints, the urge is to really switch them.

And so the sixth Laundry Files novel is told by someone entirely different: "Mo O'Brien," Bob's long-time partner, current holder of a Zahn violin (one of the deadliest, and nastiest, occult artifacts usable by humans), and one of the Laundry's top wet-work specialists. (Stross hasn't made a big deal about it so far -- in large part because Bob is an obtuse and self-centered fellow who barely notices it himself -- but Mo is much tougher, scarier, and dangerous than Bob at this point.) The Annihilation Score is what happens to her the the immediate aftermath of the end of the prior book, The Rhesus Chart, where Bob and Mo's respective supernatural tools/burdens/curses declared each other mortal enemies, more or less.

(Confused? You could see my reviews of the earlier books, in reverse chronological order: The Rhesus Chart, The Apocalypse Codex, The Fuller Memorandum. Before that were The Jennifer Morgue and The Atrocity Archives, which I didn't cover here. But the world is fairly easy to describe: Lovecraft was right. Creatures indifferent to man lurk between the angles of our world, and many of them like to eat us. Worse, the rituals to invoke them depend on both attention and math -- both of which, in our ever-more-computationally-blessed and population-booming world, are easier and easier with each passing day. Against those nightmare horrors stands mostly government bureaucracy: underfunded, neglected, full of misfits and time-servers and the odd competent person, organizations that are at least as dysfunctional and soul-destroying as the place you work.)

Unfortunately, Mo was already on the edge of a nervous breakdown -- her violin whispers to her horribly in the dark hours, as such things do, and she's spent the best years of her life traveling the world, meeting monsters both human and non-, and killing them. What she needs, after Bob moves out to keep them from killing each other inadvertently, is a long rest and to put down that violin.

What she gets is thrown into another growing crisis. The burgeoning magical apocalypse -- CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, in which the stars are right and a certain someone rises from deep under the sea to rule and destroy all, is only one potential option -- means that there's more and more loose energy, causing more and more random supernatural events. In particular, ordinary people are getting strange abilities -- powers beyond those of normal men, you might say. Sure, the things from beyond space will likely eat those folks' brains within a year or three, but, until then...well, they look an awful lot like superheroes, flying or controlling minds or running really fast.

So Mo is tasked with setting up the British national police force for and of super-powered individuals -- both the public face of that organization, to calm the public, and the secret side, to find and recruit or suppress the most powerful and dangerous supers. And, as always with the Laundry Files -- and in the real world as well -- there are secret agendas that she's not aware of, and people setting her up to fail for their own reasons. (For one minor example, her new second-in-command is Bob's crazy ex Mhari, now a vampire.)

Mo has to avoid professional, personal, and psychic breakdowns, build a new super-police from scratch within a few months, and stop plots she doesn't even know exist. Luckily, she has a superpower of her own...and it's not one you'd expect.

I'm deeply amused that the Laundry books continue to be Stross's most optimistic series, given that they're explicitly about skating the edge of a horrific magical apocalypse. But he keeps that tone going, and deepens his world with every new book -- dragging in more pop-culture ideas and twisting them to fit his mythology in a way that makes us all think "yes, that's what it really would be like." These are marvelous books, fun and frightening and amazing and just a huge treat to read. The Annihilation Score lives up to the earlier books, and shows that the USP of the Laundry Files isn't Bob or his narrative voice: it's the world Stross has created, and continues to create.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Medusa's Web by Tim Powers

I hate writing reviews of books by authors I hugely respect and love; I feel like I'll never do them justice, and any criticisms I make always sound too crude and strong. It's so much easier to write about mediocre books, or authors who are new and getting better, or about lousy stuff. All books are flawed, so any honest review has to cover the flaws. But doing that honestly and fearlessly is sometimes beyond me -- particularly when I let six or seven weeks elapse after reading the book.

So here I am with the new Tim Powers novel, Medusa's Web. I don't think it's one of his very best -- no Declare or Last Call or The Stress of Her Regard. But it's close. If I read it again in a few years, I might change my mind: it feels stronger than a lighter book like Three Days to Never or the half-baked (or, more accurately, double-baked) Earthquake Weather. It's medium-to-strong Powers, I suppose -- maybe not the book I'd hand to someone who's never read him, but a huge treat for everyone who's been reading Powers for the past few decades. And digging into precisely what works and what didn't quite (for me) is really beyond me right now. So I'll have to leave the value judgment like that.

It's a Powers novel, so it's about love and regret, families of blood and circumstance, old secrets and obligations, and, inevitably, about doing the right thing even when that is the hardest thing to do. The fantasy element here is as quirky and yet utterly believable as ever for him: there are certain images, circulating secretly as long has man has existed, that link minds, dragging the first person to view it into the mind of the second person and vice versa. It's mental time-travel, of a sort. Or time-sharing of the brain, perhaps. And it's addictive, as so much magic is in so many Powers books -- something that tends to shrink the soul and break the will and make users worse people than they were, step by step, with each use.The images are spiky crossed lines, called "spiders." And there's a spider that's the ur-version of all of them, the Amber of which they are all shadows.

The death of the matriarch of an odd extended family brings estranged cousins to a huge, rambling and once-glorious house in the Hollywood Hills, now hollowed out by time and neglect. And the novel moves from there, forward and backward in time, through the next week and to the 1920s, as those estranged cousins learn about the spiders -- including one very powerful one they accidentally saw when children in that house -- and about a method to destroy their power forever. As always for Powers, there's a moral choice about doing the hard thing and staying morally and mentally intact, or to choose power over others and decadence.

Medusa's Web ends amazingly well, in a flurry of chapters that use that supernatural element brilliantly and sneakily to build suspense and reshuffle time like a deck of cards. Hmm. Maybe I was wrong: maybe this is one of Powers's best. Maybe you new readers should try it. If you like Hollywood stories and dysfunctional families, give it a look.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

I was a Child by Bruce Eric Kaplan

You might know Kaplan as a New Yorker cartoonist (collected in I Love You, I Hate You, I'm Hungry and elsewhere); or as a writer/producer  for classy TV shows (Seinfeld, Six Feet Under, Girls); as the author of quirky drawn books like Edmund and Rosemary Go to Hell; or even as an occasional creator of odd books for children including Monsters Eat Whiny Children. But what's important this time is covered by the title: Kaplan was once a child, and wants to tell you about it.

He wasn't abused, or otherwise had a horrific time; this isn't that kind of memoir. He also didn't enjoy being a child all that much; on the first page he writes:
I was a child, but I wasn't very good at it, I'm not sure why, I think a lot of us are born waiting to be adults. I know I was. I just sat there, waiting. This is that story.
Kaplan tells that story in snippets and anecdotes, punctuated by his drawings. It's a short book, and a scattershot one, the kind of memoir that seems to be made up of whatever the memoirist thought up on the days he designated for writing, only lightly edited, and then stuck between covers. Kaplan has an interestingly askew view of things, but that is the main appeal here: it's a pretty shallow book about a pretty typical early-Gen X childhood and that boy's media interests. Kaplan does have an appealing style and a skewed viewpoint, but that can only go so far: I was a Child is short and mostly obvious to anyone else of the same generation. If you were hoping to find out how Kaplan became who he is, you will end up disappointed: he seems to have been BEK from an early age.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

Tregillis is the author of the Milkweed Triptych,  a disarmingly bucolic name for a very dark and harrowing alternate-WWII fantasy trilogy in which the Allies try to match literal Nazi supermen with an ever darker and more dangerous power. (See my reviews of the three: Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, Necessary Evil.) The Mechanical begins a new series -- I believe this one is also a trilogy, but you can never be entirely sure how long a series will be until it completes -- which, so far, is not quite as dark and dangerous as the Milkweed books.

But not as dark as pitch still leaves a lot of room, and The Mechanical is quite dark on its own merits. It's set in a world where Christian Huygens was a skilled alchemist, and discovered, aside from the many things he actually did discover in the real world, a method to imbue life and will and volition into mechanical clockwork. With that breakthrough, the Dutch conquered the world on the back of an unstoppable river of Clakkers, clockpowered intelligent robots bound unbreakably with a golem-style seal on their foreheads. The only other European power left is France, whose king and court have a precarious existence in exile in a rustic fortress on the site of Quebec City in our world. All of Europe and the North American seaboard are ruled by the Dutch. (We don't see the rest of the world; there may be Chinese, Japanese, or Indian powers driven by other magical power, but I doubt it. It looks like the Dutch rule everything they want to rule.) The time is now in the early 20th century, and the most recent war between the Dutch empire and New France ground to a stalemate -- purely because of French advances in adhesives, the only thing to slow or stop Clakkers -- just recently.

Tregillis follows the story of three very different characters: a Clakker named Jax, bound by the same geas as all of his compatriots until an accident gives him free will; Luuk, a pastor and French spy in the Hague who is discovered and transformed by the nasty and inventive Dutch spy- and Clakker-masters; and the female French spymaster codenamed Talleyrand, who hatches a bold plan to interrogate an encapsulated but still functional Dutch war machine on the walls of New France and comes to bitterly regret that plan. And his story is about no less than free will and control, freedom and necessity, and of course the struggle against a cruel imperial power.

Each of the three gets the point of view for about a third of the book, interwoven as they have their separate harrowing adventures and meet and re-meet -- they start off on different continents, but the center of this book, and possibly for the trilogy, is the burgeoning colonial metropolis of New Amsterdam, where all three end up before the book is over.

It's as thrilling and wonderful and darkly inventive as the Milkweed books, and it's arguably steampunk, which may bring it a wider audience. (It's more clock-punk, for the sticklers out there.) Tregillis's work reminds me a bit of Tim Powers: there's a similar interest in working through ideas of history and secrets, though Tregillis's fictional worlds don't have the bone-deep Catholic underpinnings (and consequent chances of salvation) that Powers's do. Tregillis proves with The Mechnical that he's one of the great modern writers of fantasy -- he's followed up a great trilogy with another equally strong work.

(The sequel, The Rising, is already out, but I haven't gotten to it yet. And a third book, The Liberation, is scheduled for the end of this year.)

Monday, July 04, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/2

For my American readers, remember to be particularly patriotic today, so as to live up to our international reputation. Being patriotic may include ignoring the rest of the world, having unsupportable and incorrect opinions about the supposedly unique qualities of the USA, and general assholishness. (It doesn't have to include any of those things, but they are traditional for US patriotism.)

For the rest of you, all I can say is that this will pass, like everything else. And, if you're looking for something to distract you, perhaps I can interest you in these books that arrived on my doorstep over the last week?

I haven't read them, and can't promise what I say about them below is entirely true, but it all looks right. And, so, without further ado, here are some books....

The Dinosaur Knights is the new novel from Victor Milan, continuing the series begun in The Dinosaur Lords, and it's a far-future SF novel disguised as a fantasy. In case you're wondering, the title is meant to be taken literally: it's set on a medievaloid alien world in which knights ride dinosaurs. There's also some remnants of Galactic tech in the form of the Grey Angels -- some kind of androids, I think -- who have just returned after a millennium of so of isolation from local society with intent to reap all elements of the current society that doesn't fit into their plans. (And that seems to include "most of it.") Aside from the dinosaurs, it reminds me vaguely of David Weber's remnants-of-humanity-hiding-on-an-alien-world series. But of course, the dinosaurs are the really kewl bit. This is a Tor hardcover, available July 5th.

Coming a week later from Tor -- also in hardcover -- is Wesley Chu's Time Siege, the sequel to Time Salvager. It contains more time-travel adventures, in which all of the characters from the first book (which I didn't read) continue to do stuff, some of which the flap copy explains. Chu is well-respected and looks to be one of the current generation of rising SF writers, so readers less jaded and distracted than me would do well to take a look at this.

And then I have a couple of manga from Vertical: I'll start up with the series launch, Immortal Hounds, Vol. 1 by  Ryo Yasohachi. It's a hyper-violent story of an alternate universe when humans never really die -- if they get sick or injured, they just commit suicide and immediately come back to live in good health. But now there's a new disease called Resurrection Deficiency Syndrome -- an awesome name for a disease, by the way -- spread by Vectors, which leads to big battles between the mysterious Escape Artists who protect the Vectors and the Anti-Vector Police Task Force who seem to be our heroes. Expect lots of stylish violence and some shouted philosophy.

Also from Vertical is Mitsubisa Kuji's Wolfsmund, Vol. 7, continuing the very violent and adult retelling of the story of William Tell. (See my review of the third volume for some more background.)

And last for this week is a relic from the past: Ghostbusters, a novel by Nancy Holder based on the screenplay (by Katie Dippold and Paul Feig) for the new movie of the same name. I know! A novelization published in 2016? I feel like I've fallen into a time vortex, because these things weren't selling well ten or fifteen years ago, and I'm hard-pressed to figure out who actually wants the novel of a movie that will be out on video in three or four months. But, if that's you, Nancy Holder is a fine writer, so I expect she did a good job turning this  movie into a book. And I am looking forward to this movie...but, still I'd rather wait and see it than read about the things I'll see.