Friday, September 30, 2016

City of Truth by James Morrow

There is a city where everyone tells the truth, all of the time. They drive Ford Adequates, stop off at Booze Before Breakfast, and watch the Enduring Another Day program on TV. They have been conditioned to say only what is factually true at all times, on pain of their own sanity.

And one man needs to learn to lie if he wants to try to save his young son.

James Morrow never writes about small things, and his slim 1990 novella-as-book City of Truth is no exception -- it's the story of Jack Sperry, who works as a deconstructionist in the city of Veritas until his son Toby is bitten by a rabbit at Camp Ditch-the-Kids and comes down with an incurable illness.

(A deconstructionist, by the way, is someone who destroys lies -- sledgehammers sculptures to rubble and burns books page by page. Morrow, as always, follows his premises all the way to the end, and doesn't flinch from showing what they imply.)

Back in the Age of Lies, though, Jack knows there were miraculous cures through belief -- but Toby will not believe he can survive if people tell him the truth about his condition. So Jack has to spirit Toby away to the secret underground world of "dissemblers," the few Veritasians who have broken out of their conditioning to believe that pigs can fly, that money grows on trees, that dogs can talk. They can lie. And they can teach Jack to lie -- to lie to his son in the hopes that can keep Toby alive and make him one of few to beat Xavier's Plague.

Jack does find the dissemblers, and does join them, in his own way. But this is a James Morrow book, so I can't claim that it all ends happily. That would be a lie.

City of Truth is a quick read, and a bracing one, from Morrow's early angry period. It's a great introduction to his work, particularly for those who don't want to dive right into the anti-God books.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Cool, Calm, and Contentious by Merrill Markoe

Sometimes, one thing you do for a while professionally defines you for the rest of your life, whether you want it to or not. Speaking as a former book-club editor, I've got a small idea of what that can be like...though nobody actually cares about that chapter of my life at this point. (Even me, most days.)

Merrill Markoe, on the other hand, can never get away: she was the head writer for a number of years for Late Night with David Letterman (the NBC show, in the great, early days) and was also Letterman's girlfriend for most of that time. She did great work, but it was behind-the-scenes work for someone who was famous then and only got more and more famous in the years afterward. She's done good work since then -- screenplays and essays and other stuff -- but she's a writer, and writers are never as flashy or visible as performers. So that one label -- Letterman's girlfriend -- has hung on her ever since.

At the center of her 2012 essay collection Cool, Calm and Contentious is a great, thought-provoking essay called "Bobby," written in the second person, questioning "your" affair long ago with a celebrity who has since been caught up in a tawdry, unpleasant sex scandal. It's brilliantly illuminating while at the same time not shining light directly on Merrill Markoe the person and her real life. And it's only one of a number of deep, thoughtful, and often very funny essays in that book.

I'll admit; I primarily know Markoe from those days. I had a copy of Late Night with David Letterman: The Book (which I bought, and can still recall clearly, on a campus visit to Columbia my senior year of high school, almost like it would be a ticket to a big-city media world that I never was able to travel on) and haven't kept as close track of her work since then. Media thrives on target audiences, and Markoe's targets were usually not me: her books have been varied, but most of them have been "hey! I've got a lot of rambunctious dogs!" essays and novels.

But a strong writer is always better than anyone's mental image of her genre, and even Markoe's essays here about dogs are worth reading. (I guess.) There's a lot of family stuff -- like many funny people, Markoe grew up with a toxic mother -- and the usual stuff about relationships that people with a lot of failed relationships write. (The only ones with a lot of relationship experience are the ones with lots of them, so they're either looking back at a history of failure or multiple spousal murder -- and I tend to think neither of those perspectives leads to good advice, though the former does lead to good comedy a lot of the time.)

So, if you're like me, this is a note to say that Markoe is worth reading, even if (also like me) you're not so into the whole dog thing. Also, if you had a vaguely wrong impression (and I'm not admitting that I did) she's not Nora Ephron -- Ephron is the one who writes books about her neck and obsesses about being a woman getting older. Markoe is much cooler with aging, and tends not to dwell on it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Death by Video Game by Simon Parkin

Every new art form has to go through a vetting process before being accepted. First it's universally scorned -- all of those frivolous novels leading wives to waste their time and neglect the housework, that sort of thing -- then there are a few glimmers of pop-culture interest (Bam! Pow! Did Your Mother Throw Yours Out?), and, eventually, the more serious thinkers arrive, to stroke their chins and start talking about What It All Means.

Video Games have been around for forty years or so -- depending on whether you count from Spacewar! or Pong or earlier, even quirkier things -- and they're solidly into Category Three. (Oh, sure, they still get the odd bible-thumper attack or concerned-mother tsk-tsk, but so do rock music and movies and D&D and horror novels. Anything younger than opera gets that.) So there has been a thread of smart books about video games going back twenty years or so -- the last one I remember seeing personally was Tom Bissell's Extra Lives, a few years back, but there have been plenty of others. (If I ever write one, I'm claiming Anything Not Saved Will Be Lost as my title. So everyone else keep off.)

Simon Parkin's Death by Video Game is solidly a Category Three book; Parkin is a serious reporter who has been covering video games for most of the past decade, and he's interested about their stories -- the stories in the games themselves, and the stories of the people who play them (why, and how, with who, and when -- all of the usual reporter questions). Death doesn't acknowledge any prior publication, but it's a book of parts, so I have my suspicions that parts of it are based on his prior stories, or at least grew out of those stories.

The hook is Chen Rong-Yu, who died in an internet cafe in New Taipei City in early 2012 after a twenty-three hour League of Legends session. That's where Pakin begins, and the first chapter looks at other cases of "death by video game" -- mostly, these days, young people in Asian internet cafes after multiple days online, but not entirely. But Parkin irises out quickly from there: he's not looking to find out why these people died (heart failure and similar things -- congenital conditions aggravated by stress and bad air and all that stuff) but to look at what they were doing and why. What was so enticing that they could die doing it?

Each chapter looks at a different way of gaming, or of thinking about games -- not according to the usual taxonomy, but based on how the gamers interact with the game (and, probably as much, on what Parkin has already seen and done and played and reported on). So he looks at Minecraft and Desert Bus, Animal Crossing and Papers, Please, Skyrim and That Dragon, Cancer -- but his stories are all about the people playing those game, from the guy obsessively running through Skyrim to heal after his wife's miscarriage to the vlogger trying to get to the end of the world in Minecraft, from the Iraqi teenager playing Battlefield 3 levels set in his hometown to the Alaskan native community saving their oral tradition in the game Never Alone.

It does read a bit like a collection of articles on a loose theme -- that theme being that video games are interesting and can illuminate complicated or difficult elements of life -- but each chapter is a strong essay on a carefully constructed view of a particular slice of the video game world. Parkin does interview some designers and creators, but this is not a book about making games. It's about playing games, and what the games we play say about us -- or about how we can use games to do things we need to do, to connect to others, to get through our days.

It's about how games are art, in the end. Because those are the ways that people use other art forms -- paintings or novels or movies or musicals -- to process their own lives. Games, though, are interactive in ways other forms aren't. (Every artform has its specific powers and strengths; this is where gaming stands out.) And Parkin is particularly interested -- and interesting -- in looking at that aspect, at seeing the things that games can do that other artforms can't do in the same ways, and the things that games bring to the front because of that core element of player choice.

Death by Video Game is almost certainly the best book on video games to come out this year. (Maybe this half-decade.) If it's an artform you care about at all -- or if you're interested in the questions of how artforms grow and expand into their full powers -- it's a vital, exciting book to read.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham by Mignola Pace Nixey Janke Stewart

Everything can be turned into a Batman story. Everything can be turned into a Lovecraftian story. [1]

And that circle can be squared, as witness Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham. It is almost exactly what you would expect: a Bruce Wayne who was orphaned in an attack by a screaming madman in the earliest days of the 20th century grew up around the world, exploring and doing scientific things, and has gathered a small group of younger men to aid him (Dick, Tim, Jason, of course) is in Antarctica to investigate the lost "Cobblepot Expedition," and what they find sends him back to Gotham City for the first time in two decades and a shattering confrontation with both his family's past and extra-dimensional monsters.

It's not as crammed with Batman Family cameos as it could be, though there are plenty -- Gordon is here briefly, of course, and "Cobblepot" is seen at the beginning, a young-looking woman named Talia is a major antagonist, and a certain former DA has a minor role, but that's most of it. Unlike some Elseworlds-style stories, Doom That Came to Gotham is not an excuse to ring changes on every bit of Batman mythology the writers can think of. (Jack Kirby's rhymer makes a major appearance, but he serves as the Hellboy figure: the one who can stand up and punch absolutely anything in this universe until he wins.)

This was co-written by Mike Mignola (comics' leading Lovecraftian for the past couple of decades) with Richard Pace, who originally planned to draw the thing. It turned out just fine drawn by Troy Nixey with ink by Dennis Janke, and, as usual, Dave Stewart does a great job of coloring a Mignola project.

It does pretty much the same thing as every other Elseworlds story: takes standard Batman furniture, re-arranges it slightly, and then stands back to exclaim about how clever it is. It is reasonably clever, but in the context of several dozen other Elseworlds stories, that's not as impressive. I'm glad that this exists, but I'm also glad that the moment for Batman-as-Randolph-Carter (or Batman-as-pirate, or Batman-as-Crusader, or Batman-as-Shogun, or whatever other odd permutations you can think up) has ended.

[1] "Can be" is perhaps not strong enough. "Will be" is more like it.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/24

You probably know that I do this every week -- make a post listing the books that came in the week before, with links to more details (and/or a sneaky attempt to make you buy them and give me a cut -- take your choice). There are some books that I'd like to pull out and give their own week, for whatever reason, but the world rarely cooperates with those desires.

Until this week!

I only got one book this time, but that's perfect: I'd want to stand this one up separately, anyway. Peter S. Beagle is not just one of our finest fantasy writers, but a new novel from him is a rare treat -- he's only written about ten (depending on how you could Lila the Werewolf and Strange Roads) in a forty-plus year career.

But he has a new novel this year: Summerlong, available right now in trade paperback from Tachyon. And, very appropriately, it's the only book I have to talk about this week.

Summerlong is the story of a mysterious young woman named Lioness, who comes to a small Puget Sound community in winter and seems to bring the summer with her. She is quickly befriended by a quirky couple, Abe and Joanna, and moves into their garage. And then Lioness's past comes to Puget Sound as well, to change everything.

I'm looking forward to reading this one myself, and I hope you'll seek it out, too. It's been too long since the last Beagle novel.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Amulet, Book Seven: Firelight by Kazu Kibuishi

I've given up trying to guess how long Kibuishi's Amulet series will run: it was originally a two-book deal with Scholastic, and several of my other posts about this series -- see one, two, three, four, five, and six, respectively -- had some vague supposition about where we are in the overall plot. It just barely could be eight books, I suppose -- a series can always end in one more book, if it has to -- but it could be ten or twelve or twenty just as easily. There is an overall story here, but elements also feel like Kibuishi is adding new complications as he goes, so he could keep this going as long as the audience and he are still excited about it.

Which brings us to Firelight, at the end of which a Chekhov Gun from the very first volume is finally pulled down and fired at the reader. (No, I won't tell you which one. What kind of a reviewer do you think I am?) Firelight continues Kibuishi's transmutation of epic fantasy tropes into a middle-grade graphic novel: the party has been split for several books now, and we also have revealing flashbacks, startling revelations about the nature of magic in this world, difficult moral choices, and enemies-turned-allies. Plus, of course, journeys by the separate pieces of the split party across interesting new landscapes to find surprising and magnificent unexpected places. (Kibuishi's map hasn't changed since the beginning, I think, but there have been a number of places visited that aren't on the map -- and, in this book, one that couldn't be on that map.)

A review of an epic fantasy like this can either be for the fans, and revel in the names of the characters and minutiae of their adventures and new powers and hair-flipping moments, or stay general, on the assumption that most of the world has not read any particular book. By this point, you might have guessed that I usually come down in the second camp, and I'm doing it again here. I'm not going to tell you who all of the people are and what they're doing: it would be a sea of fantasy-book names, and look silly as all such things do.

I will say that this is a solid series; Kibuishi is a fine comics-maker, on all levels -- his pages are well-constructed, each book is a real volume rather than a collection of pages, and the overall series (despite my quibbles about its ever-extending length) moves cleanly and confidently across its landscape and delights in showing us each new thing. Your tween could find much worse things to be obsessed with -- and there's a lot to enjoy for those of us who aren't tweens anymore, too. (Those of us who have read epic fantasy for fortyish years will find a lot of it familiar, but what is a genre but familiarity?)

July Hazes

I've just posted the listing of what I read in July, which precisely no one in the world cares about. (I need my blog to be tidy and orderly, but I'm well aware that I do that for no one but me.)

All of those books have been written about, and links will appear as the posts appear through the magic of scheduling over the next couple of weeks.

I am resolutely not talking about that process, so as not to jinx it.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Commuter

Someday, I’m going to look back and think “was my commute in 2016 really that bad?” And, since it is that bad, I’m writing this to remind future me. 

(If you’re not future me, you have no reason to read this -- which is why I’m burying it in the middle of a Saturday night.)

My current commute has the amazing property of being worse in every aspect that what came before, viz.:

Departure Time
  • Hoboken: 6:20 or 6:25 most days. 6:30 if I was pushing it.

  • Third Avenue: No later than 6:15, and usually earlier.

  • Hoboken: 5.5 miles on quiet back roads, with one traffic light. Total time consistently 11 minutes.

  • Third Avenue: 12.5 miles out (13.5 miles back, with the U-turn) on highways. Eight traffic lights. Unforgiving traffic. Lots of speeding up and slowing down; lots of wasted gas. Time usually 16-19 minutes, unless there’s a backup. (Shorter in summer; longer in winter.)

Train Station Parking
  • Hoboken: Flat, free lot. Parked in the same very close spot almost always. Out of my car and right to grade-level tracks fifteen feet away.
  • Third Avenue: Large multi-level parking garage, which costs $3 a day. Garage mostly full of college-students’ cars, so it’s packed even at 6:30. Takes several minutes to find a spot up on the 5th or 6th levels, and longer to walk downstairs, across the pedestrian bridge, and down to track level. Getting out at night is slow and the ticket machines have broken several times already.

Train Ride
  • Hoboken: Rarely too crowded. One-seat ride. Delays were exceptionally rare. About 50 minutes.

  • Third Avenue: Generally crowded, and regularly packed by the time we head into NYC. One-seat ride. Delays were not uncommon, though reasonable given how old the tunnels and signals were. Scheduled to take just less than an hour, usually was about 1:05.


Final Approach to Office
  • Hoboken: Five-minute walk on waterfront. Occasional inclement weather.

  • Third Avenue: Either a 30-minute walk or a 15-20 minute ride on two subways. (Latter costs $2.75, each way.) In bad weather, the walking portion from subway to office building is still 4-5 times as long as the whole walk in Hoboken.

Arrival Time
  • Hoboken: Consistently at 7:45. Total elapsed time about 1:20.
  • Third Avenue: Occasionally as early at 8:00 (with a quick subway connection) but often as late as 8:20. Total average elapsed time 1:55.

The return journey is pretty much the same -- only, obviously, in reverse. Each leg of the commute is a bit more than a half-hour longer, and the working day itself is a full hour longer, which means an increase of 2+ hours every single day. (Just looking at working hours, I’ve estimated that the lower number of PTO days and the longer days mean I’m now working about 311 more hours in a year.)

So, yes, I’m tired all the time. And I do know why. Here’s hoping you (meaning future me, the only person who cares about these minutiae) have it better.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell

This is a retelling of a fairy tale -- a story of that genre, not a story specifically with fairies in it -- and it has very pretty pictures in it. It's in a large format, and could easily be mistaken for a book for children.

The Sleeper and the Spindle will probably not confuse or horrify those supposed children the way Gaiman's earlier The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains (illustrated by Eddie Campbell) might, but it's not really written for a young audience. Gaiman's prose here is precise and clear, as always, but he doesn't explain as he might for a less-experienced audience, and he leaves a lot implied and assumed. (On the other hand, as Gaiman rewrites of fairy tales go, this is altogether gentler and less bracing than his masterful short story "Snow, Glass, Apples," which I do not expect will ever be turned into a pretty illustrated book.)

It's the story of Sleeping Beauty -- or of a beauty who is sleeping, amid thorns and a plague of sleeping that grows a bit every day (and has been growing for more than sixty years), and of the person who goes into those thorns and that sleeping land to find and wake the sleeper. That person is not a prince.

(Would you expect anything that obvious from Gaiman?)

That person is a Queen, a black-haired young woman from the nation on the other ride of a mountain range, and she's aided by several dwarf friends on her journey. (You may perhaps have some sense who she may be, now.) It's the day before she is to be married, but she instead puts on her armor, and sets off under the mountains, through dwarven ways, to the sleeping kingdom on the other side. She travels through the thorns and the sleepers, and finds her way to the bed of a beautiful young woman, deep in sleep.

That's not all she finds there, of course. And I wouldn't dream of saying what she does there, or what else she does find. This is a short book, with gorgeous illustrations, told in exquisite prose by a master. You need to read it for yourself.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions

As I mentioned here once before, [1] I've been typing things on the website Quora for about the past year, answering questions in my own grumpy unhelpful unique puckish way.

And, since Antick Musings is meant to be the central hub of all things Hornswoggler, I wanted to link to some of the better/longer/more interesting questions I've answered there recently:

[1] Last July? I haven't mentioned Quora in over a year? I am neglecting this blog.

A Brief History of Video Games by Richard Stanton

This apparently is part of a series -- from Robinson in the UK, home of the Mammoth Guides and other things, and Americanized by the fine Philadelphians of Running Press -- of brief histories and/or guides to various things, from James Bond to Walt Disney, from the Magna Carta to France. So there's a bit of a whiff of product here -- it was made to fill a slot in a publishing schedule, and chosen presumably because there would be an audience -- but that could describe many more books than most people like to think.

A Brief History of Video Games is a well-illustrated look at the development of electronic boxes that play games, from arcade to home and back again, starting with the cathode ray tube and going just about to the present day (it was published in 2015). It's inevitably a bit British-focused, but I found that entertaining -- the UK market was quirkily different from the US market for a long time (and may still be), so it told me a lot of things I didn't know or suspect. And Stanton covers Japan as much as the US, obviously -- those two countries have been the primary global drivers of that industry so far. (Who knows if that will continue -- there's a pretty important Polish studio now, with one of the best games of 2015, and both India and China have enough smart, connected people to strongly enter any market.)

Like many histories, it's most interesting in the early chapters, when Stanton can focus on personalities and big changes. Stanton also struggles to tell a massive world-wide story in a coherent way, so the last third of the book turns into thematic or studio-based chapters from the more chronological organization of the early chapters -- and the book turns into thumbnail vaguely critical sketches of important games for pages at a time near the end, as well. Again, that's inevitable when writing about a huge industry with so many consumer products -- and, as far as I can see, Stanton does cover everything important, and his opinions are all reasonable and backed by facts.

The design is a little quirky: the type takes up only about the top two-thirds of the page, with the bottom mostly being given over to illustrations. But those illos sometimes move up the page, and there's also a lot of white space -- I suspect to make this book seem a bit heftier than its actual word-count requires.

Most history books are for people who don't know a lot and want to learn more, but video games are not like most things. The audience for this book will in large part be as knowledgeable as Stanton -- well, will consider itself vastly more knowledgeable than Stanton -- and I'm sure some subset of them will grumble, because such people always grumble. But they will have to go out of their way to find things to grumble about, because this is an honest and even-handed book that covers pretty well a big and complicated industry in a short space.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Explorer: The Hidden Doors edited by Kazu Kibuishi

To talk about The Hidden Doors, we first need to know what has come before. (But, Andy! you say. Isn't this a collection of unrelated short comics stories? And I say, Yes, that's true. But it's also the twelfth in a series of anthologies of varied size and scope and audience. So stop interrupting me.) So I might as well just copy in what I wrote about The Lost Islands, the previous Explorer anthology, back in 2014:
First there was Flight, of which I reviewed volumes three, five and seven. Then there was one volume of Flight Explorer, a version of Flight for younger readers that I also reviewed. And then came Explorer: The Mystery Boxes, a themed anthology edited by Kibuishi that looked awfully like Flight Explorer with less flight. Now, there's another volume of Explorer, which is more aggressively good for you than the first one (unfortunately).
Flight was not officially aimed at younger readers, but it was a nice, soft-focus "all-ages" book, mostly by people working in and around the US animation industry and apparently having internalized that industry's obsessive focus on sweetness, light, prettiness, and eternal childhood. Those books, though, were also very big and expansive, so there was a variety of stories in that general gee-whiz neato-keano vein, and the art was always a delight. The Explorer books have all been shorter, and are now running to odd themes -- islands last time, doors this time -- and the kid-book scent of spinach is apparent more often than before.

Luckily, The Hidden Doors is less spinach-y than Lost Islands was; all of the stories here seem to agree that going through mysterious doors to explore new places is actually a good thing, unlike the last book. But every story here feels like it was adapted from the storyboards from a cartoon. I was going to say "a cartoon short," but that's not true -- they don't feel like the more elliptical, fun shorts that show up just before the big animated movies these days, but like initial sketches or pitches for those big movies themselves. The tone is not as emotionally deep as Pixar or as wisecracking as Dreamworks, but somewhere blandly in the middle, a pitch that could be molded either way depending on who picked up the option.

Now, they're all perfectly OK stories. And young readers will likely enjoy this. But I doubt more than a tiny handful will love any of these stories, or do for for any reason other than the art. It's all too safe and middle-of-the-road for that.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 3: Crushed by Wilson, Miyazawa, and Bondoc

I'm reading this series a year or so behind everyone else, because I really don't care about the Marvel Universe Reboot of the Moment and all the rest of that continuity crap. But Ms. Marvel does get mentioned as one of the "good mainstream superhero comics right now" -- it was the standard reference for that between Hawkeye and Squirrel Girl (which seems to have lapped it) -- so I thought I might as well keep up at least that much.

(You can see what I said, at greater length, about Vol. 1, and in brief about Vol. 2, if time hangs heavy on you.)

Kamala Khan is realio-trulio an Inhuman in this collection of stories, working out at the gym in New Attilan (conveniently located in the middle of the Hudson, so she can get there from Jersey City) and having other Inhumans talk about how really special and important she is in random panels so we don't forget. Again, she's a junior-league Elongated Man in a universe stuffed full of vastly more powerful people -- even leaving aside the efficacy of dressing up in spandex and punching people as a career choice or vehicle to affect the world -- so this is special pleading at the very best. And didn't the Inhumans used to be a family that lived on the moon? I miss those Inhumans; these road-show mutants are dull and derivative by comparison.

Vol. 3: Crushed collects five more issues of Kamala's series, plus an issue of SHIELD in which she guest-starred, and the overall plotline here circles around her (mostly potential, at this point) love life. Her mopey white wanna-be boyfriend, Bruno, is still pining in his self-imposed friendzone -- admittedly, Kamala has a standard pop-culture Ethic Restrictive Family, complete with thundering father and religious-nut brother, and no human being would willingly subject himself to that, even if he were a teenager in love with a stretchy girl. But then Kamala's family's dream boy actually shows up: the son of a family they know, from the right part of Pakistan, attractive and slightly older and upwardly mobile and all that jazz. (And then they get all confusedly disapproving when Kamala is actually smitten with this guy -- Ethic Restrictive Families don't know what they want!)

Is Dream Guy as dreamy as he seems? Will he turn out to have a surprising connection to the superhero plot? Will Mopey Sidekick Boy rush to her rescue, ineffectively? Is this a Marvel comic?

Kamala is becoming more and more a generic superhero with a few interesting markers -- she mentions writing fan-fiction once here, I think. Instead, we get multiple Peter Parker-esque speeches about Great Responsibility, straight out of the machine Stan Lee had installed in the corner of the office in 1965. That's all repetitive bullshit, and every superhero reader has seen it a million times. But that's what the audience seems to want, so perhaps they will be happy to hear that they get it here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

X-Ray by Ray Davies

Writing an autobiography the normal way is just so boring -- a tedious forced march through the details of a bland childhood, early struggles, and then the inevitable grand success. (Because why else would anyone care about your autobiography?) How much more interesting to start with a near-future dystopian world run by an all-powerful Corporation, and then send a vaguely hostile young writer to interview "yourself" about the secrets of that life?

Well, that's what Raymond Douglas Davies did, anyway. The Kinks lead singer and main songwriter wrote X-Ray -- subtitled "The Unauthorized Autobiography," with more truth that the other folks who have used that puckish line -- from the point of view of that young writer in what was then the medium-flung future of circa 2010, interviewing an aged Ray Davies to make another salable widget for that Corporation to exploit. (Davies wrote the book in the early 1990s, and it was published in 1994 -- as it happened, just as the Kinks were about to finally call it quits.)

The young interviewer starts out hostile, but is soon won over by old man Davies's obvious intelligence and knowledge -- well, of course he does, since "old man Davies" is the one actually writing the book. But Davies-the-author does keep Davies-the-character remote and not entirely knowable, which is an interesting choice for an autobiography. (Davies -- both of them -- also are clearly still smarting over his class and educational status; he was born working class in an England where that deeply mattered and his formal schooling was mediocre and over pretty early. Harkening back to songs like "Arthur," Davies argues those things have twisted his life from what it could have been.)

X-Ray covers the Davies childhood -- Ray's own, and some glancing looks at his wild-child brother, Kinks guitarist Dave -- and their musical education, as they play in groups that eventually turn into the Kinks. The frame story mostly drops away during long chapters of old man Ray telling his story -- ostensibly in dialogue to the young narrator, who is dutifully recording it for the ages -- but the idea of a Corporation, or business types in general, that exploit and control and destroy artists, is always central in X-Ray (as it often was in Davies's songs, cf. Lola Vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround).

This memoir only covers roughly the first decade of the Kinks: the struggle, the first big successes, the transition to a more lyrically interesting and critically lauded style, the long exile from America, and a succession of great records. It cuts off in 1973, just before Preservation showed the limits of the contemporary version of Davies, but the narrative had already gotten unfocused from the succession of albums once the string of big hits stopped.

One thing Davies seems to be trying to do in X-Ray is to emphasize how very popular the early Kinks were: that they weren't just critic's darlings, but major hitmakers for an extended period of time. So once that starts being less true, he seems to be less interested in talking about the songs and albums. He does write a bit about the songs as songs, but the validation of Number Ones and money comes across as more important -- or maybe that's because he's telling the story to a Company stooge?

There's also a fair bit of inter-band dirty laundry aired about the stormy relationships within the band -- and with Davies's first wife, whom he basically admits he would have drifted away from pretty quickly if she hadn't gotten pregnant. (And he did drift away from her, in a more painful way, somewhat later.) But this, like the story of the music, is told in a second-hand way, though Davies's distancing device of the ostensibly neutral future narrator.

It's been another twenty years since X-Ray, and Davies hasn't gone back to tell us the rest of the Kinks story -- maybe because comebacks and big tours aren't as interesting, maybe because "Ray Davies" is dead as of the end of this book. These are the years that most of us really care about anyway. And if Davies doesn't tell us their story in the straightforward way we could have hoped for -- the inspirations for this song, how that album came together, musical secrets and tidbits -- he does tell us his story in a way no one else could, and in a style entirely appropriate for this thorny, private man.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/17

I don't want to harp too loudly on this, but boy howdy is it fun getting random stuff for free in the mail. I constantly oscillate between not wanting to rub it in and feeling ungrateful for not saying it enough. Even if I don't read half of it.

So: here's what showed up in my mail last week. Maybe something here will look awesome to you!

The Dreaming Hunt is the middle book of an epic fantasy trilogy, after The Sleeping King [1] by the team of Cindy Dees (in big type) and Bill Flippin (in notably smaller type). Dees is a bestselling author of suspense [2] and Flippin is the creator of the LARP sensation Dragon Crest. (This book does not claim to be set in the world of Dragon Crest as far as I can see.) And the plot is the well-loved epic fantasy stuff -- immortal nasty Emperor, mysterious prophecies, spunky female mages on the run from arranged marriages, all set in a world-spanning Evil Empire. It's a Tor hardcover, available September 27th.

From here on, as so often, I have a group of books from the hardworking manga factory of Yen Press. I believe these all are September books, and they're evenly divided between light novels and manga volumes. So, as if it were a segue, I'll move from heavy novel to light novels to manga.

First light novel in the hopper is Accel World, Vol. 7: Armor of Catastrophe by Reki Kawahara with illustrations by Hima. The back cover copy is aggressively inscrutable, but I believe this is another stuck-in-a-MMORPG story, with our hero being the real-world fat-kid loser who is a powerful leader in the game. Anyway, this one is full of Silver Crow and Nega Nebulus, not to mention Ardor Maiden, Chrome Falcon and Saffron Blossom, all doing...something.

Kagerou Daze, Vol. 5: The Deceiving comes from Jin (Shizen No Teki-P) with art by Sidu. Again, the cover copy isn't particularly new-reader-friendly, but I can tell you there's some teens with "strange powers" who run away from an orphanage. I must have read that book at least a dozen times, so this version could be worth a look-see.

Winner of this week's long-name contest is My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong, As I Expected, Vol. 1, written by Wataru Watari with spot illos by Ponkan➇. It's about a cynical teen boy who is "sentenced" to join a club that helps people after he writes an essay about hating being young. And, in best light-novel fashion, that club only has one member currently, a gorgeous and optimistic young woman. (I have no idea if the clubs-never-have-more-than-five-members thing is a fictional trope, or how Japanese schools actually operate.) Wacky hijinks, as they say, ensue.

Last of the light novels is Gakuto Mikumo's Strike the Blood, Vol. 4: Labyrinth of the Blue Witch, which also has pretty pictures from Manyako. This series is about...a school for magical people on a remote island, maybe? With vampires in it? (Or maybe they're all vampires?) Something along those lines, anyway -- there's an island, and a bunch of young people, so they're probably in school together there.

Diving into manga, how about Kaoru Mori's A Bride's Story, Vol. 8? This is set in 19th century central Asia, with each volume more-or-less following a different young woman in a different culture getting married and settling into her new life -- as seen by a British guy traveling around the area for some reason I don't remember at the moment (merchant? anthropologist? nosy busybody?)

Then there's Fruits Basket Collector's Edition, Vol. 5 by Natsuki Takaya, collecting the popular '90s shojo series in bigger volumes. This is one of those all-those-people-turn-into-something-else-at-random-times stories, with added romance sauce. And it's deeply beloved, so I am definitely not making fun of it.

Ubel Blatt, Vol. 6 continues the very most metal of manga series, from Etorouji Shiono. See my review of Volume Zero -- yes, Volume Zero; I told you this was metal -- for more details of the elves and black swords and medieval world and deep-died woe.

And then last of all for this week is one last manga volume, in a big confusing series: Umineko When They Cry, Episode 6: Dawn of the Golden Witch, Vol. 2. The story is by Ryukishi07 and the art is by Hinase Momoyama, who should be commended for managing to get two panty shots (front and back!) on the cover. This is five hundred pages of comics adapting part of a computer game way down the line of similar games with slightly different premises, so I'll note that this is vaguely horror, somehow related to Higurashi When They Cry (and not just because of shared crying), and really confusing.

[1] I can only dream that book three will be The Snoring Princess.

[2] I believe she writes romantic suspense, out of the romance genre, rather than he-man suspense, out of the mystery genre, or kids-in-jeopardy suspense, out of the family saga. But there's a lot of things called "suspense" out there, because a lot of people like reading it.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Albert of Adelaide by Howard Anderson

One day in July, I was perusing my shelves, and decided to read the weirdest book I had there. The competition was fierce, but I ended up with something unique: a talking-animal fable about a platypus looking for the fabled human-free land of Old Australia, written by an American immigration lawyer.

The book is Albert of Adelaide. The author is Howard Anderson. And it was published by Twelve back in 2012 in what I have to assume was supposed to be a big splash -- they are famously an imprint that publishes only one book a month and makes a big deal about it -- but I'd never heard of it other than the galley I picked up that year at BEA and mostly forgot about afterward. And, even in the category of beast fables, it's quirky.

Albert is a mild-mannered platypus who has lived his adult life in a zoo in Adelaide after a psychologically harrowing experience with dogs as a young puggle, but broke free from captivity to find the land where the creatures of Australia live free and upright, far from man. And so he gets off the train he stowed away on, somewhere deep in the deserts of the Northern Territory, and ends up in a lawless region populated by suspicious kangaroos, drunken bandicoots, murderous dingoes, a vindictive con-man team of possum and wallaby, and Albert's new best friend, the pyromaniac wombat Jack. (Plus TJ, an American ex-sailor whose animal species is carefully left unspecified.)

Picaresque adventures follow, as Albert comes out of his metaphoric shell and learns more about this harsh land, along with more violence and death than most readers would expect from an animal story not called Watership Down. The whole thing is told in a muted manly-man tone, to make it the story of tough animals doing rough things in a dangerous world, with the romance of adventure lurking around every corner.

It is exceedingly odd. It's successful at what it sets out to do, as far as I can tell, though whether that thing is worthwhile is a more difficult question. One might have hoped for a story like this to be told by an Australian, for example, but inspiration strikes where it finds fertile ground, and this inspiration hit Mr. Anderson. And I can say without hesitation that there is no other book like Albert of Adelaide.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The 4-Fisted Misadventures of TUG & buster

After reading Hempel's excellent Gregory series earlier this year, I wanted to revisit some more of his stuff. And, luckily, I was able to find an only slightly battered trade paperback of his mid-90s series The 4-Fisted Misadventures of TUG & buster.

This is a weird book -- possibly even weirder than Gregory, if that's possible. Tug is an Elvis-looking greaser type who never talks or does anything constructive, but does smoke constantly. (He walks around, and stuff happens to him, but he never initiates anything at all.) Buster is a diminutive -- Gregory-esque in stature, actually, though much more communicative -- hero-worshipping man-boy (seriously, I don't know which) whose puppy-like enthusiasm for the version of Tug he's constructed in his head drives all of these stories. Those are the two main characters; the secondaries are even weirder -- sullen loser Stinkfinger and lovably creepy Genital Ben -- and the fact that Tug and Buster live with Buster's only-half seen mother is also odd.

And this was originally single comic-book issues -- because nearly everything was, in the mid-90s -- so this book collects six stories, each around 20-30 pages. (I'm not sure why they're not all rigidly the same page length, like most serialized comics; maybe Hempel had back-ups with other characters or other material in his comics. My copies got lost in the flood, so I can't check.) Each one is a satire, or maybe piss-take is a better word, about some element of masculinity, since Buster is obsessed with being manly, and in particular with how very, very manly Tug is. (In a purely heterosexual way, of course!)

Hempel's art is sensuously flowing, and his people look more designed than organic -- this is a cartoon world, and he draws it that way, with excellent details and smart page layouts. The writing is equally cartoony, on purpose, and one suspects the "men's movement" of the time, with all of its drum circles and other silliness, is somewhere behind the concept.

TUG & buster isn't a lost classic, but it's a very funny, adultly silly comic by a great cartoonist who is wish did more books like this. But maybe he still can, and will.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston

I like oddball novels, and this is definitely one of them: it's told in scrapbook form, the story of a young woman from Cornish, NH who goes to Vassar in the early '20s (the last time around, not in the future), continues on to New York City and then Paris in hopes of becoming a writer, and finds happiness in the end.

Of course it is called The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, which is something of a giveaway. (Author Caroline Preston has done three novels before, all of which I think were more conventional.)

Young Frankie is more of a wide-eyed innocent than she thinks, growing up in a small town, and falls in with a shell-shocked veteran whom the whole town soon assumes has debauched her. So her widowed mother then somehow comes up with the fee to send her to Vassar -- brainy Frankie, valedictorian of her high school class, had already gotten in, but had decided not to go due to financial hardship. And Vassar is even more of an education for country mouse Frankie -- I think I'll stop saying that, since it's the entire theme of the book; that Frankie keeps moving out into larger and larger circles and learning more about the world in surprising ways.

So: she studies, and makes friends, and eventually graduates from Vassar and heads down to NYC to become a famous writer. She meets another not-entirely-suitable man and gets a job sorting through submissions for True Story magazine..and, before long, is disillusioned and off again, to Paris. There, she lives in the small room above Shakespeare & Co., and gets a job on a very chic literary magazine, The Aero Review. (The scrapbook format, unfortunately, tends to turn Frankie's story into telgraphese, the more so as Preston is hitting lots of well-known things. It's frankly unlikely that one unknown young woman would be in the middle of so much so quickly -- and stay unknown.)

There's more love trouble in Paris, of course, and so Frankie flees back to Cornish, where she finds true love and happiness at last. (Which may work for this story, but it's a lousy message-- I'd rather see smart, spunky young women stay in Paris, or NYC, or go on to Berlin or San Francisco or anywhere else.)

Scrapbook is quick and pleasant; the pictures are more evocative than specific and the text is inevitably short and snippet-y. It's a weird kind of book, and I don't think it's as successful as it could have been -- the pictures could have been closer tied to the story, and the story could have been less conventional. But it's a valiant effort, and gets a lot of credit for trying something far out of the ordinary.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

There are a lot of books by late-Boomer or Gen X writers about middle-aged guys in distress -- centered on men who just lost long-term stable jobs,  often having lost wives to death or divorce or just barely holding on to a marriage, in deep financial trouble, with kids of whatever age that he either loves to death or no longer understands, living in the iconic big house in the suburbs -- and particularly over the past decade and a half, since the dot-com crash first showed that cohort that the endless economic rise of the '90s was not going to be the pattern of the rest of our lives.

I've read several of those, despite disliking the idea -- I've had my own career crises twice in the past decade ('07 and '15), and I've never been the kind to find Schadenfreude in reading about fictional men with my same problems but more so. But they keep coming out, and keep getting laudatory reviews by jobbing journalists who know their industry has shed 200,000 jobs since 1990, so I may be atypical in that.

That brings us to Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets, which I thought was about a guy who launched a website providing financial news and advice in verse form -- I even thought some of the book would itself be in verse. I was wrong; that website has crashed and died well before page one of this novel, and our first-person hero (Matthew Prior) is deep in the shit, deep in denial, and deep into his lies to his inevitably lovely and super-capable wife Lisa. [1]

Matt has no job, despite all of his nervous-bunny energy and searches, and he's been hiding the family's true financial picture from Lisa -- and, of course, everything is about to collapse. Even worse, he's essentially stopped sleeping out of stress, which does not help him make good decisions. So, when a late-night 7-11 run for milk for the kids tosses him in with some young local druggies, he finds himself going along with them just out of pure inertia. And that leads to a Brilliant Plan to recapitalize his family: he'll cash out their last tiny bit of savings for seed capital, use that to buy drugs, and sell to all of his affluent friends!

This is the first of several Brilliant Plans that Matt has over the course of the novel, none of which are particularly brilliant, and none of which, sadly, come to fruition. (I'd have been up for either a black-comedy pothead Breaking Bad or a loopy jumping-from-one-scheme-to-the-next-just-fast-enough-to-keep-going caper book, but Walter wasn't.) Walter is writing an essentially literary novel, and literary novels are all about consequences and sadness and bad things happening to characters that we like.

So Matt's hubris is clobbered by nemesis, as it must be. Along the way, Financial Lives of the Poets is a pleasant read, but it didn't really sing to me. Several of the quotes on the cover call it a farce, but I wouldn't agree: Matt is farcical, as are his plans, but the events around him don't go along with his notions, but remain stubbornly real the whole time.

What this is, to my mind, is a serio-comic literary novel with the muffled downer ending that subgenre requires. And I suspect a lot of the rapturous praise was because it came out so quickly on the heels of the '08 crash, and held up a mirror to the way many people were thinking about their lives right then. Being of the moment can be a big advantage -- but only so long as that moment lasts.

[1] My theory is that many of these books are transmuted autobiography, so the author who wants to continue to stay married needs to make the fictional wife utterly blameless and as close to perfect as his writing ability allows.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

James Salter is famous as a "writers' writer" -- that horrible back-handed compliment that means that other writers love him but he's never sold worth a damn. And A Sport and a Pastime is usually cited as his best-known book, but whether that means "among other writers" or "among actual readers" is less clear.

But obscure writers are fun to discover, particularly when they're the kind (like Salter) that get rediscovered like clockwork once or twice a decade. (Note that writers that actually attain any kind of popularity -- for a specific novel or series, or for their body work in any area -- never need to be rediscovered, because they're always there. Only writers that keep getting forgotten keep getting rediscovered.) And so, after having a copy on my shelves for a large number of years, I finally read A Sport and a Pastime.

It's a short book: less than 200 pages. And its two main identifying factors should equally appeal to other writers and to that fickle general readership: it's both a heavily narrated book, told by a character loosely connected to the main action who is not entirely reliable, and it's all about sex.

Some time in the early 1960s -- I think I pegged it as 1962 from internal evidence -- the feckless college dropout Philip Dean is wandering through France, searching for a reason not to die in that very post-Holden Caulfield way. He's from a well-off family, but he's at the end of their patience and his money when he reaches the sleepy town of Autun. There, he meets Anne-Marie Costallat, who is almost too good to be true: almost instantly in love with him, endlessly willing to both indulge him both in in bed and financially through her shopgirl job, smart enough to be pleasant but not so smart as to be an intellectual equal. The two of them have a lot of sex and eat a lot of good meals, and spend nearly as much time driving a borrowed car too fast through narrow country lanes. They do very little else in this book.

Watching them -- too closely, which Salter makes clear again and again -- is a slightly older American man, in his early thirties, who tells us this story at the remove of several years. (The novel was published in 1967, so call it 1966 looking back at 1962; it's about that.) The narrator has no name, but he can't be Salter himself, since he's a photographer, not a writer. (Yes, it is that transparent. He's also Salter's age at the time.)

This is a lovely book about sex and mid-century ennui; I'm old enough to find Dean a cold fish and more than a little silly, but he's not whiny about his world-weariness. He's just living a day at a time until he doesn't have a reason for another day -- I think that's silly, but I can respect it. Anne-Marie gets somewhat less depth, though Salter does try -- she's not just in the book as the sexual jackpot for Dean that she might seem to be. And, of course, both of them as they appear in this novel are explicitly the versions of themselves their narrator wants them to be; he's telling us their story, and we should not trust he's telling us every detail correctly, or that he could even know the truth of many of those details.

Sport and a Pastime is not a lost classic -- well, maybe a minor one, and an interesting signpost in the intertwined histories of unreliable narrators and of the allowable scope of sexual behavior in the American novel. It's probably forgotten again at the moment, but I expect the next rediscovery will hit by 2020.

Note: I may be distantly related to Salter; my maternal grandmother was a Salter before her marriage in Albany, NY, and James was born in NYC in 1925. That and three bucks will get you a small decaf latte, no whip.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Little Star by Andi Watson

In the aughts, cartoonist Andi Watson had a string of really wonderful books, mostly from Oni Press --  Breakfast After Noon and Slow News Day and Dumped and Love Fights -- which culminated in this book: Little Star. I don't want to claim it's even better than the rest, but it's a grounded, real-world story about the lives people really live, told beautifully in words and pictures by a creator at the top of his game and (apparently) editorial freedom to tell a story far from the usual expectations of the comic-book world.

Simon is still pretty young, maybe just in his early thirties. He's happily married to Meg and has a lovely daughter Cassie. But just having a little girl deforms a life -- little kids need so much, so often, and are so demanding. Simon's working part-time at a job that isn't quite right for him -- but it's perfect for the family, right now. He wants to try out for a better job, one that will use more of his creative talents -- but that would mean full-time, and would smash their careful child-care structure. And even though Simon is the one caring for Cassie half of the time, she wants her mother more than him far too often -- and says so, in the blunt way only little kids can pull off.

I can't say every family goes through something like this -- some have it much worse, and some have enough money and privilege that hard choices never come into the picture. But it's the world of a lot of us do live in, and have lived in -- where what is best for you isn't what would be best for the family. Everyone has to make those decisions, and Simon makes them here.

Watson brings us into Simon's head, through visual metaphors and lovely stylized art, all angular faces and grey washes. We're there with him the whole time: a man who loves his family but feels stifled, feels unappreciated, feels like he can and should be doing more...if he can only figure which more is the right one.

Little Star is a gem of comics; it tells a story that could live in many media, but tells in a way that's intrinsically comics, and uses the strengths of this medium brilliantly. I keep hoping Watson can get back to doing this kind of book: he's so good at it, and surely the world needs comics for adults who aren't obsessed with characters in tights, right?

Monday, September 12, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/10

Yes, yes, it's Monday again. Let's try to forget that as much as we can. How about a few books?

These all came in my mail over the past week, unexpectedly, and all are just or about to be published by the fine folks at various US publishing houses. One of them might perhaps be your favorite books of the year! (Or, even, just a diversion for an hour or three.)

Here's what I can tell you about them, even though I haven't actually read any of them:

I'll lead off with the new novel by Hugo-winner Cixin Liu: Death's End. In fact, this is the conclusion of the trilogy that began with his Hugo-winning novel, The Three-Body Problem, so hard-SF fans and probably required to read this. (As usual for Liu's novels, it's translated by Ken Liu, who is, as far as I know, no relation.) The battles of the earlier books have lead to a long detente, with Earth and the Trisolarans still officially opposed, but living side-by-side fairly peacefully -- and I note that this period has lasted five hundred years, which will make some SF commentators pull out their historical references and look dimly at that really huge span of time. (But everything in SF must be bigger than real life!) And, of course, that fragile peace isn't going to last as is throughout this book, as anyone who knows how fiction works will have already realized. This is a Tor hardcover, arriving September 20.

My other book of prose for the week is Deadlands: Thunder Moon Rising, a tie-in to the weird western RPG of the title. It's by Jeffrey J. Mariotte, and I think of myself as a guy who doesn't read enough weird westerns. (Most of us probably don't.) The particular weirdness in this west seems to be equal measure steampunky super-science and creepy Lovecraftian apocalyptic supernaturalism, which gives a lot of narrative hooks for dungeon masters or novelists. This particular book concerns a washed-up drunk dragooned into a posse chasing the origins of various murders and cattle mutilations, and has a double-helping of creepy things named Thunder: the Thunder Mountains, and the looming Thunder Moon. Read the book to see if the two are related! This one is also from Tor, also coming September 20, but will be slightly less of a hit on your wallet, since it's a trade paperback.

Everything else from here out is a manga volume published by the fine folks at Yen Press, which recently broke free from the good ship Hachette, took on new co-owners from the brigantine Kadokawa, and set sail on the literary seas as their own enterprise. (Apologies for the horribly mangled metaphor there.) Anyway, these are manga, and they're all out now:

Akame ga KILL! ZERO, Vol. 3 -- this is by Takahiro and Kei Toru, and I don't know why they are YELLING AT US, but I assume it must be IMPORTANT. This is a prequel to the regular Akame ga KILL! series, I believe focusing on a fan-favorite character back in the days when she was killing people indiscriminately and not on the side of the good guys.

Aldnoah Zero, Vol. 4 comes from Olympus Knights and Pinakes, who tell the exciting story of an Earth fighting off a Martian invasion through airships. (Ah, it must be an alternate history! Every story with airships is an alternate history...and vice versa.) I think these are little-green-men Martians rather than human-colonist Martians, but I can't find anything in the book to confirm that.

Are You Alice? Vol. 12 is the last in the series from Ikumi Katagiri and Ai Ninomiya, which is some kind of violent retelling of Alice in Wonderland with added metafiction. (There's a character who is Lewis Carroll -- or, perhaps, is taking the role of Lewis Carroll for this performance.)

The Boy and the Beast, Vol. 2 comes from Mamoru Hosoda and Rneji Asai, and is about a boy -- I'm going to guess an ordinary boy, since this is manga -- who wandered into a world populated by anthropomorphic animals, and so apprenticed himself to a master to learn swordfighting. (As you do.)

Chaika: The Coffin Princess, Vol. 5 concludes the series by Ichirou Sakaki and Shinta Sakayama -- I believe this is adapting a light novel of the same name. No idea why she's a "coffin" princess; she seems to be pretty lively.

Demonizer Zilch, Vol. 2 is another series that I missed the first volume of, so I may be more wrong about this one than usual. It's from Milan Matra, manga-ka of Omamori Himari...which I also didn't read, so that won't be much help. It seems to be another story about a boy who got caught up in a supernatural girl's machinations -- this one is a demon -- and now is working against his former friends at the secret society that hunts demons. Oh, and I think it's also a harem manga, set at the guy's high school, because of course it is.

First Love Monster, Vol. 5 continues the story (by Akira Hiyoshimaru) of a fifth-grader and his epic first love for an older (?) girl. I'm not sure if the guy here has been repeatedly left back or zapped with an age-changing ray, but there's definitely something weird (other than Japan, I hope) in the background of this seemingly simple love story.

He's My Only Vampire, Vol. 8 continues the story of a girl who has been collecting supernatural creatures -- she has four werewolves, six other assorted weres, three mummies from different countries, five men assembled from parts, two wendigo (US and Canadian), and more ghosts than she can shake a stick at, but sadly, she's only been able to get one vampire so far. I'm sorry, that's completely wrong -- it's what I wish this series was about. Actually, the heroine is a mousy girl (the disatff equivalent of the ordinary boy) compelled by a vampire to serve him and all of that rot. It's byAya Shouoto.

Then there's The Honor Student at Magic High School, Vol. 4 by Yu Mori and Tsutomu Sato. Hot studying action! The thrills of homework! Be astonished by the magical equivalent of Zonta Club! Gaze in wonder at hours of student-council deliberations and be astonished by what magic kids do with Model UN!

Another book adapted from a light novel: My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong, as I Expected, Vol. 2 comes from Wataru Watari's original novel, is drawn (and possibly adapted) by Naomichi Io, and has character designs by the entity designated Ponkan➇. [1] I think this is a parody of a harem manga, with a grumpy loner in place of the ordinary boy and a couple of girls with big breasts in place of the...well, the usual girls with big breasts. But they're totally different girls with big breasts! Probably....

Of the Red, the Light, and the Ayakashi, Vol. 04 synthesizes the ennui of an entire generation of Japanese youth into a powerful indictment of the Weltschmerz of their elders and...well, no, not really. Just that title is so pretentious that it drives me to ever-greater-heights of pretension every time I see it. This is actually a manga by nanao and HaccaWorks*, and this particular volume is about people having dinner -- there may be a larger plot, but I don't know what it is.

Overlord, Vol. 2 continues the adaptation of the light novel of the same name; Kugane Maruyama did the novel and Hugin Miyama does the art for this version. In this one, the ordinary boy logs into a MMORPG that's closing down for one last moment -- and finds himself trapped as an undead evil overlord and faction leader in the fantasy world. Oh, how horrible, right?

Space Dandy, Vol. 2 continues -- and ends; this is the last volume -- the story of an idiot in space by some of the folks behind Cowboy Bebop. (That story is also an anime series; these may be the same stories retold in another format, or not.) The credits imply this is the same as the anime -- "story" is by a creature called Bones, "art" is done by Sung-Woo Park + Redice, and "adaptation" was the work of Masafumi Harada.

Strike the Blood, Vol. 4 has art by TATE, an original story by Gakuto Mikumo (the original light novel; that's what that credit means), and character designs by Manyako. Gee, how hard can character designs be? This one is blonde, that one has dark hair, and the other has the weird color (let's make it chartreuse this time!). They all wear school uniforms with too-short skirts, though one (designated the slutty one) wears hers too tight and shows off more cleavage. And they all have the same face.

Last for now is Shouji Sato's Triage X, Vol. 12, which reminds me both that I haven't read the last few volumes and that I missed #11 entirely. (See my review of #7, which links back to the reviews of 1-5 and 6. But, briefly, this is pretty much exactly what you think it might be, looking at that cover and knowing that it comes shrink-wrapped.)

[1] And I have to figure out the HTML code for that stupid ➇ every time.