Friday, June 30, 2017

Quote of the Week

In most lives, in most places, people go missing. This isn't as true as it was in a less connected age; people see more of their high school classmates on Facebook every day than they previously would have in their entire lives after graduation. Lonely husbands or wives form secondary accounts to keep track of lost loves and secret prospects; short of catastrophe, these points of contact never wholly erode. They may go ignored for months or years, but they crackle away in the cables, never wholly out of reach.
  - John Darnielle, Universal Harvester, p.205

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Aama, Vo. 2: The Invisible Throng by Frederik Peeters

We're continuing a space-opera series in comics form here: my understanding is that there are four books in this series, and that it has all been published, originally in French and also in English translation. (I could be wrong.) So, if true, this book sees us halfway through, and the ending would tend to reinforce that: things have gotten really serious by the last page, and so I'd expect them to get more serious (and worse) in the third book before somehow concluding in the end.

Maybe I should mention what this thing is, though? That could be useful.

The series is Aama, this second book is The Invisible Throng, and the author is French cartoonist Frederik Peeters. The first book was The Smell of Warm Dust, which I reviewed, quickly, in a monthly round-up last year.

There's still some flashing back this time out -- to flesh out our main character's past, and his retrograde relationship with technology -- but, for the bulk of the story we're solidly on the desert planet Ona(ji) with amnesiac Verloc Nim, his possibly mad-scientist brother Conrad, Conrad's servitor robot (in ape form), and the local group of scientists who came here to do their researches far away from anyone who might interfere. Yes, very Forbidden Planet, or like a thousand other similar stories -- there are clearly people here who have been meddling in realms where God told them not to, and it will not turn out well in the end for everyone.

For now, though, we're still not entirely sure what the Aama project was doing -- something about AI, something about organic growth -- and what exactly it did, though signs are what it did is "a lot" and "entirely out of anyone's control."

That project will be more and more important as the series heads towards a conclusion, I'm sure. But it's also about Verloc, who I hope will get more of his memory back, and about his brother, who has a connection to Aama that I'm still not sure about.

So far, Aama is a smart, adult SF story in comics form -- it does have some pulpy tropes, admittedly, but the characters are good and their relationships are realistically complex and true. I'm hoping to find the rest of it, and find out just what this Aama thing is, and if any of these characters will make it out the other side of their encounters with it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Kaijumax, Season One: Terror and Respect by Zander Cannon

I tend not to give up on things, so in my head Zander Cannon is still in the middle of a really long hiatus from his early and excellent fantasy series The Replacement God. (Yes, that hiatus is now twenty years long. But Mage: The Hero Denied was finally announced recently, so decades-old thought-dead things I really like do come back.)

For everyone else, he's more likely best known as the artist of Top 10 and Smax in Alan Moore's most recent stab at a superhero universe, back in the early Aughts. And his most recent solo book was the dark adventure Heck, which I liked a lot: Cannon is a real talent, both as a writer and a draftsman, so I wanted to see more from him.

So why did it take this long for me to get to his not-all-that-new-anymore ongoing series? This collection -- Kaijumax, Season One: Terror and Respect -- is nearly a year and a half old at this point, and a second series has had time to come out and get collected since then.

Well, I was looking for it. I wanted to poke through it in person before buying it, and I'd never seen a copy in front of me. Finally, I just broke down and ordered it through the library -- have I mentioned that I have a NYC library card these days, and that system has a ridiculously large number of books that they're happy to deliver to a location less than a block from my office? And so, now, I've finally read it, and am almost caught up with Cannon.

The title explains the premise: this is a world full of giant monsters (kaiju, in Japanese), of many different types, and they seem as hard to kill as in most monster movies. So there needs to be a place to put them after the army, or Ultraman, or whoever, has stopped them from destroying the other half of Tokyo and more-or-less captured them. That place is an unnamed Pacific island, now just called "Kaijumax" -- a maximum-security prisoner for monsters, guarded by guys and gals in Ultraman-style super-suits that let them instantly grow to monster size for smackdowns when needed.

So, yes: it's a prison story about giant monsters. In comic-book form. Cannon's afterword notes that many people would find all three of those things silly, but he loves all of them, so sucks to their assmar. (He's somewhat more polite and felicitous in his phrasing.) But a reader does need to be ready for that -- Cannon isn't joking or goofing around; there are silly things here but they're taken basically seriously, in a world where they're not as silly as they would be in ours.

As usual in a prison story, our focus is on the new guy -- the innocent guy. This time, it's Electrogor, a sea-dwelling giant monster who was trying to find food for his two kids when he ran into a human ship and things went bad. He never attacked a city, he never tried to destroy much of anything. But he was found, and caught, and now he's in monster prison. And those two kids are outside, and the best case is that they're still at home and getting really hungry. Electrogor wants to be helpful and nice and get out quickly...which never works in a prison story.

He learns better, more or less, and plenty of other things go on around him in the six issues it takes him to learn what he does. Terror and Respect has an ending that fits that "Season One" note -- not a real end, but a good place to break for the summer, to come back for more stories with a somewhat different emphasis.

Kaijumax is another fine comic from Zander Cannon, and I hope it's a huge success: the season structure means it can't run forever, right? And that means, once it's a massive crossover bestseller and millions are lining up for the next Zander Cannon joint, the time will be right for that Replacement God revival!

Well, a man can dream, can't he?

This is a fun series: serious but not self-serious, with vivid characters, interesting dilemmas, and a quirky and unique world. I'm going to enjoy it for as many seasons as I can get.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/24

Back again!

As usual, this is the place where I list books that have arrived in my mail the past week, sent by the hard-working publicists of the book industry. I haven't read them, and I can't promise I will read them -- there are a lot of books in the world, and too many of them are on my shelves -- but here's what I can tell you about them.

Twelve Days is the new novel by Steve Barnes, who's had a long and varied career, mostly in speculative fiction of one kind of another. He's written bestsellers with Larry Niven and a mystery series with his wife, Tananarive Due, plus screenplays and other stuff. This time out, he's got a book that sounds like it starts as a thriller, with an ex-Special Forces soldier coming home to commit a big crime with his former squaddies -- at the same time a local martial-arts teacher might have uncanny abilities and a global terrorist organization is claiming responsibility for a sudden series of unexplained deaths of well-known leaders and criminals. I don't know what the Maguffin is here, but it's clearly not mundane -- something big and weird is happening, and, I expect, the thriller plot means our ex-soldiers-turned-crooks are going to have to be the ones to save the world. This is a Tor hardcover, available June 27.

Also from Tor in hardcover on the same day is R.S. Belcher's The Queen of Swords, latest in the steampunk/Wild West series that includes The Six-Gun Tarot and The Shotgun Arcana. This time, the focus is on Maude Stapleton, a woman with a hidden past -- membership in a secret global society of assassins, to start out -- who has to get back into her old world when her daughter is kidnapped.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Hawkeye, Vol. 1 by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and others

I don't keep up with superhero comics anymore -- I have to admit that. Astro City was probably the last thing in that vein I read regularly, and even that was only as "regularly" as Astro City itself was...and that's not very. Eventually, I even soured on that comic.

At some point in your life, you either realize that punching people is not the solution to problems, or you become a full-blown psychopath. For all my flaws, I'm on the first path.

All that is to explain why I never bothered to read the Hawkeye run written by Matt Fraction and mostly drawn by David Aja, despite it being pretty much assumed to be the best superhero comic while it was coming out (2012-15). Even if something is the obvious best sushi in the world, it doesn't matter if your taste for seafood has gone.

But time marches on, and curiosity keeps building. And there's always time for one more book, especially one that's a few years old and no longer the hot new thing. So I finally did get to the hardcover collecting the first half of that Fraction-Aja Hawkeye run -- eleven issues of that series, plus a loosely related issue of Young Avengers Presents as a kind of flashback.

(That Young Avengers Presents issue comes off very badly by comparison, even with strong art from long-time expert ink-slinger Alan Davis. It's very much Yet Another Superhero Story, in the middle of a big stupid story that people didn't even care that much about at the time, with the bog-standard angst and drama and Whining About the Relationship. It's everything "good superhero comics" usually are, and a major exemplar of why I stopped reading that crap. In a nutshell, it's a story about costumes being moved around a chessboard, not about people or real relationships.)

The main Hawkeye story, though, is about people. Mostly Clint Barton, the least of the Avengers, whose origin is a bizarre amalgam of Robin I and Green Arrow and whose "power" is just being good at shooting arrows. And who isn't actually all that good at the living-normal-life thing, for reasons Fraction wisely doesn't explore -- he just takes Barton as the overgrown boy he is, stumbling through his own life like a bull in a china shop, getting into trouble just because that's what he does when left to his own devices. The trouble here is mostly about a Brooklyn tenement that he semi-accidentally bought (with stolen money from the Marvel Universe's biggest gangsters), to drive away a low-rent Russian gang he calls the Tracksuit Draculas. Again, his plans mostly don't work, or don't work right, and he needs to be saved repeatedly by the women in his life. Which brings us to....

There's also a newer, younger, female Hawkeye -- always have to have a non-cishet-SWM person in the costume these days, and pretend that person will "always" be the "real" holder of the shiny superhero title, as if we haven't seen a million "always" melt away in a million comics. (I think that's mostly cynical audience-pandering, but it's hard to tell in individual cases -- and every superhero-universe character gets handled by so many people that they turn into river-stones, rubbed down to an essence that no one person intended.) She's Kate Bishop, and I have no idea why she's so good at shooting arrows, or why she went into the superhero game -- she seems to have as few powers as Barton, and many more options. (She's some variety of rich girl, as far as I can tell.)

But this is a superhero universe, so dressing up in tight spandex to jump around rooftops and beat up thugs is just what you do. Apparently no other entertainment media exist in this world, so this is the only thing to do to keep oneself occupied.

These are, as I said, mostly low-level superheroics. Neither Hawkeye saves the world, and the globe-trotting is more spycraft than Galactus-defeating. Aja's art is perfectly suited for that level, and tells the story brilliantly, well aided by Matt Hollingsworth's colors. (There's also a two-issue story by Javier Pulido and a single issue by Francesco Francavilla here -- both are good, but flashier than Aja and so they stand out too much for my taste.) Aja reminds me of nothing so much as David Mazzucchelli's classic superhero period, particularly Daredevil and Batman: Year One. There's a similar grounded-ness, with thin lines that frame often violent action without rationalizing it -- keeping it shocking and unexpected even in the middle of a story designed to showcase violent action. It's strongly compliments Fraction's similarly grounded writing: both of them are committed to telling a story about people in a real world, moving through real space, whose actions have consequences and who bleed and feel and curse and laugh and wryly shake their heads.

Aja also delights in complex page layouts -- or his ability energizes Fraction to create them, either way it's a strong collaboration -- which make the world part of the story, and not just flat backdrops for more punching. An issue told from the POV of a dog is particularly impressive, and probably hugely well-known by this point.

You don't need to read Hawkeye. You never need to read any superhero comic, no matter what they tell you. But, if you do want to read about superheroes., this is miles closer to the real world than most.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

I really do not want to be that guy. One Hundred Nights of Hero is a lovely book, with gorgeous art and compelling words, and it's another great success from the author of The Encyclopedia of Early Earth. It retells the story of Scheherazade in Isabel Greenberg's invented cosmology, putting a feminist spin on the frame story and the tales Hero tells to make it something new and unique.

It's a good book and a strong book and a smart book and a powerful book. And it's not a book about me, which I fully realize.

But nearly every man in it is absolutely horrible and evil. Greenberg doesn't quite say it's because they're men -- and there is one male-female love story in the middle, where the woman is vastly more powerful than the man and (therefore?) their relationship is lovely while it lasts (but still essentially doomed?). There's one other decent man, who we know to be decent because he doesn't rape a princess he could have taken for his own, and instead goes off to never have a wife or true love of any kind for the rest of his life.

So that's two men, neither of whom can find any happiness or lasting love, who are basically good. All other men in One Hundred Nights are horribly, nastily evil: vile scheming husbands, assholish bird-headed gods, controlling fathers, two-faced seducers, autocratic religious slimeballs, and a retinue of toadies with swords who support the status quo with violence.

Again, this is the story Greenberg is telling, and that's entirely her choice. This is a book about women finding love with each other, finding momentary safe places with each other, and telling each other stories -- those stories being primarily about how horrible men are. It's about the power of story -- not to change the world, because Greenberg doesn't seem to believe this world can be changed, but to witness the horrible things in the world and make them clear and apparent to all.

So it's a sad and depressing book. I don't know if it's particularly sad and depressing to read it as a man, and be left out of the only hope and love Greenberg has on offer here, or if would be worse for women, since this is such a horrible world for them top to bottom. It does have gods and supernatural beings, which provide both the original source of the horribleness and the slender possibility of happiness and escape from it.

I should emphasize that there is hope and love on offer. Hero, our storyteller, and the woman she loves, Cherry, have a pure and perfect love that sees them through all obstacles, up to and including their impending doom. Doomed love is traditional, right?

Maybe One Hundred Nights was the necessary corrective to Early Earth, which was very male-dominated -- it had a boy hero who did great deeds and won the girl, but she didn't get her own great deeds or even much of a story. One Hundred Nights is the story of women in that same world, and has as much of a love of storytelling and the power of story to move people as Early Earth did, adding in a stronger central plot that incorporates the thousand-stories structure Greenberg clearly loves while keeping a central unity. As a story, One Hundred Nights is stronger and more mature than Early Earth, but it's less pleasant to read, less fun to explore.

It feels a bit like Tehanu: a female creator looking back at work she did before and finding things she doesn't like lurking in the cracks, so she drags those horrible things out into the light to expose them and condemn them. That may be necessary, and may be what that creator absolutely wanted to do at that time, but it doesn't make for a pleasant time reading.

Greenberg's woodcut-looking art is just as good as in Early Earth -- it looks rough-hewn, as if these stories had to fight their way into existence, and her faces have remarkable mobility and power given their simple design. Her pages are artfully constructed, drawing the eye through bold drawings and extensive text without flagging, and making this long, complex story always clear and compelling.

Early Earth is a horrible place for women. But I wouldn't want to be a man there, either. Maybe a god. It seems to only be tolerable if you get to be a god.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Melody: Story of a Nude Dancer by Sylvie Rancourt

If Stephen Hero were female, Francophone, and made a living by dancing naked, he'd be Melody. She is her creator, transformed onto the printed page but otherwise true to far as we know.

And how far do we ever know what's true about anyone else's life?

Sylvie Rancourt came to Montreal in about 1980, barely out of her teens, with her mildly dirtbag boyfriend Nick. Since Nick couldn't get a job -- or wasn't willing to actually work, which seems more likely -- he encouraged her to try out at a strip club. Sylvie did, and found she was good at dancing naked and enjoyed the life. A few years later, she started to draw comics about her early days, which she printed herself and sold to patrons at the clubs where she still danced.

Melody collects those initial seven comics, each about fifty pages long, which Rancourt wrote, drew, and published entirely on her own. She did get some newsstand distribution as she went on, and then quit when the weight of the accumulated paper caused her floors to make unpleasant groaning noises. The versions here have been translated by Helge Dascher, and this, I think, is the first time the majority of them have been available at all in English.

Slightly later, in the early '90s, Rancourt worked with fellow cartoonist Jacques Boivin on another version of Melody, in the English language, for publication by Kitchen Sink Press. She wrote those comics and Boivin drew them, and I understand the second series of Melody is a prequel to the first one -- if I read them, it was long ago, so I don't know exactly.

Why did it take so long for Melody to be collected? Why are these stories from 1985 through 1989 only now coming to an English-speaking audience? Well, the collapse of Kitchen Sink -- and the accompanying near-collapse of the entire pamphlet-comics industry -- probably put a damper on the project for a while, particularly since the second series of Melody looked to be on a pace to eventually cover the same events as the original comics and maybe even move forward in Rancourt's life from there. So these stories were the "early version," maybe. Or maybe Rancourt's style, which is clear but untutored and naive, was too far out of fashion -- too much "folk art" and not enough High Art, or standard comics art -- was a stumbling block.

Or maybe there are just lots of good comics out there, and so a lot of them get forgotten -- particularly if they broke off in the middle and didn't do all they wanted to do. (Cf. Billy Nguyen or The Eye of Mongombo or Hepcats or Stig's Inferno or Redfox, from roughly the same era.) Melody got rediscovered, and brought back, which is what counts.

Rancourt's style is naive and simple -- some might call it childish, but Chris Ware notes in his introduction that she does some sophisticated visual things, so I think that's incorrect. And that style takes some getting used to, all open faces with simple expressions on top of naked bodies gyrating (and occasionally screwing). But she's telling a true story honestly here, looking at her younger self basically from the outside -- telling it as "Melody" rather than herself for some distance.

We're still on her side: Melody is friendly and positive and open and giving -- maybe too much so, at least for some people. Certainly, she indulges Nick far longer than most readers will have sympathy for, since Rancourt shows him as a leech and an low-level opportunistic criminal.

The important thing to know about Melody is that it's not what it seems. It looks childlike, but the art is deceptively supple -- and about sex and crime and nudity much of the time. It looks like someone else's story -- but it's really Rancourt's. It looks like a light-hearted view of the exploits of a sexy young stripper -- but it's more nuanced and thoughtful than that. Any work of art that sneaky and seductive deserves a closer look.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/17

This week, I'm going to be telling you about three books that I first saw inside mailing envelopes. But not all of them were surprises, and not all of them were sent by publishers in hopes of publicity. They all came in the mail, though, so that's good enough for me.

First up is a book that did come from its publisher, that was sent by the usual publicity apparatus, and which will be published by Tor in trade paperback on June 20: Perilous Prophecy by Leanna Renee Hieber. It's set in 1860s Cairo -- possibly an alternate world, since there's a "Goddess' who seems to be the dominant religious figure there, and that does not jibe with my knowledge of the Islamic world in the 19th century -- and is something of a prequel to Heiber's first novel Strangely Beautiful. The blurbs talk about romance and "a love story," so this may come out of a mix of genres rather than purely historical fantasy. (Also, I note that the group of main characters appears to have precisely three men and three women, which may indicate serious pairing-up.) If you're not as into romance, there are also marauding ghosts, crippling self-doubt, an ancient prophecy, a terrible darkness, and, inevitably, a "final, deadly conclusion."

Next is a book that came in the mail because I paid for it: The Story of the Lincoln County War, the latest self-published effort by Rick Geary, one of my favorite cartoonists. The Lincoln County in question is in New Mexico -- where Geary has been living for a couple of decades -- and the War took place in the 1870s. (So we've got a sort-of theme going on today -- mayhem in the late 19th century.)

And last is a book that was on my plate yesterday (Saturday) at dinner at my mother's house: it was originally planned as a birthday present (I've been told) but was re-purposed for Father's Day when shipping delays intervened. Hey, I'll take books as gifts any day -- you don't need an occasion. This one is The Complete Discworld Atlas, ostensibly by Terry Pratchett but mostly by his factotums and cartomancers. "Additional illustrations" are credited to Peter Dennis, but any primary illustrations are not -- so my guess is that Dennis did the bulk of the imagistic work here. This one was published in the UK by Transworld in 2015, an updated and upgraded version of the old Discworld Mappe.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Patience by Dan Clowes

Dan Clowes has made occasional forays into SFnal territory over his career -- The Death-Ray being the most obvious example, but there have also been a lot of shorter works with SF elements. But Patience is a full-bore SF work, entirely structured by its fantastic conceit, which is something new for Clowes.

It's not a pulpy SF story, of course -- Clowes has always been more interested in losers and outcasts and grumpy outsiders, never the winners and mightily-thewed he-men of old-fashioned SF. His world is more Phildickian, if you want to reach for a prose SF equivalent: full of people just scraping by, slaves to their obsessions and circumstances, capable of love but often hobbled by it, human in the most basic and humbling ways. Clowes loves people like that, the way Phil Dick did. They're the kind who make the world.

Patience is the title character, and the central character, but not the protagonist -- that falls to her boyfriend Jack, initially in a slightly alternate 2012. They're scraping by on menial jobs, but happy, more or less -- and get much happier when they learn Patience is pregnant. Jack obsesses about the small lies he's told her -- he pretends his job is more serious, and more like a career, than it is -- and vows to do better for the new family. But then Patience is killed, senselessly, during a break-in of their apartment. We know it's not Jack, but the cops focus on him immediately and totally. By the time evidence finally springs him from jail, it's nearly a year later and he's the only one who wants to find out who killed her.

He's obsessed by it, frankly. And that's entirely normal: Clowes characters tend to be obsessive anyway, and this is a huge shock. But the next section of the book jumps to a semi-utopian 2029, where an aging Jack is just as obsessed, just as angry. And then there's a chance to change the past -- a working form of time travel. Jack jumps at it, and finds himself in 2006, trying to untangle the sordid past Patience wouldn't tell him about, to figure out who killed her and stop it from happening.

Time-travel stories never flow smoothly -- if they did, they wouldn't be very good as stories, would they? So 2006 doesn't work out as well for Jack as he hoped, and he's forced to blindly jump out of that time and end up somewhere much worse for his project. But time-travel stories also tend to be circular, so I'm probably not giving much away to say that Jack does get back to 2012, before the murder, eventually.

Clowes ends it all phatasmagorically -- perhaps to simplify his narrative loose ends, perhaps as a nod towards a time-travel theory in which everything has to get cleaned up neatly in the end, perhaps just because it's the way he wanted to end this story. It's a hopeful, positive ending, in a very Clowesian way -- more positive than we usually get from Clowes, certainly.

Along the way, though, it's a very talky Clowes story -- his people, here as in his other stories, have a mania for explaining themselves, for talking through their place in the world, for using dialogue to control and box in others, to force the world to respond or react through sheer force of will and word. Patience also has intermittent narration from Jack, in a laconic semi-private eye style (like Lloyd Llewellyn, perhaps, or as a distant descendant of him). So this is a wordy graphic novel, full of as many words as pictures, a book to be read as much as to be looked at.

I think SF readers will generally enjoy the time-travel plot, if they have the tolerance for Clowesian characters and situations. I think they'll find a lot to enjoy and think about here...if they have the patience for it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Compass South by Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock

Everybody's got to eat. And if you want to make a career out of creative work, you're probably going to find yourself, more and more, telling stories that people want to hear. That's not a bad thing -- people are your customers and audience, and most creative folks want both of them -- but it does mean that early idiosyncratic work tends to smooth into more genre-identified work as a creator matures and lives and wants to stop eating ramen noodles every single day.

Maybe that's why Hope Larson moved from the near-allegory Salamander Dream and dreamlike Gray Horses to the more conventionally genre Mercury and Chiggers, and followed those up with writing a script for the adventure-story Compass South, first of a series. (In comics in particular, there's a tendency for cartoonists to turn into writers over time, since a person can generally get done more units of writing-work (than art-work) in the same amount of time.)

Compass South is an adventure story for younger readers, in which red-headed twins (and orphans, more or less) Alexander and Cleopatra start off as petty criminals in 1860 New York and go on to get involved with pirates, secret treasure, and another set of red-headed twins of a similar age on their way to San Francisco, where they hope to pose as the long-lost redheaded twin sons of a rich man.

It's a genre exercise, but a good one -- Cleo dresses as a boy, of course, and there are swordfights and chases through jungles, long-lost mysteries and potential new love. Alex and Cleo get separated, as they must, and mix with the other team of would-be fake San Francisco heirs, each becoming friendly with the ones they're thrown in with, and somewhat making common cause as young poor redheads all alone in the world.

And I expect those young readers will like this better -- most of them, anyway, that vast conventional audience -- than Salamander Dream or Gray Horses. It's a fine book, exciting and fast-moving and colorful and gung-ho. If I didn't like it quite as much, well, you have to remember that I'm not a redheaded young person.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

I had something like five hundred words typed about this book -- pretty much the whole post -- but I deleted it instead of cut-and-pasting, and then saved over the place I was typing it.

So I'm not going to try to recreate that thought process: it's too frustrating to contemplate. Instead, I'll run through the high points of Raina Telgemeier's 2016 graphic novel Ghosts in a more telegraphic way: it won't be as pretty, and probably not as coherent, but maybe I can hit the same points, more or less.

First: Telgemeier is huge. Probably the best-selling creator of comics stories in the US right now, the center of gravity for a whole area of the industry. I think most people know that by now, but the insularity of the Wednesday Crowd is legendary.

Second: whether on purpose or not, Telgemeier has been on a memoir-fiction alternation for her recent career. This is the second work of fiction, after memoirs Smile and Sisters and previous fiction Drama.

Third: it's the story of Catrina, a tween who moves with her family up the California coast, to the cold and windy town of Bahia de la Luna from somewhere near LA. Yes, that means leaving all her friends and surroundings; that happens just before page one.

Fourth: the family did this for the health of Cat's kid sister Maya, who has cystic fibrosis. Maya's condition is progressive, degenerative, and incurable: she will get worse and worse over time. Running, exerting herself -- normal kid stuff -- will progress it more quickly. Bahia's cold chilly climate is better for her than the southern heat, but that's at best a delaying tactic.

Fifth: Bahia is a town full of ghosts, says local boy Carlos. The girls meet him on their first day in town. These are the nice, friendly, dead-relatives kind of ghosts, happy to share time with you, not the haunting or angry kind.

Sixth: Cat is a rationalist, like me. She insists that ghosts aren't real. This is true in the real world, but, unfortunately for her, is not true in this story. I'm personally not entirely happy with stories -- especially those for young people -- that show smart rationalists being proven wrong by inexplicable supernatural stuff, but I guess this is OK, because....

Seventh: Ghosts is, in a quiet, unobtrusive way, about the inevitability of death and the need to make one's peace with that. Maya understands this better than Cat, and so embraces the ghosts more willingly than Cat -- even though doing so runs her a huge risk of advancing her condition seriously.

Eighth: the ghosts in Ghosts are intrinsic to that theme, obviously. How better to accept death than to make friends with people who have already experienced it? I still wish Cat wasn't so obviously proved wrong, but this story had to go this direction.

Ninth and final: Telgemeier is a thoughtful and interesting comics-maker who shouldn't be left  entirely to be enjoyed by pre-adults. I do think her memoirs are her strongest books, still, but Ghosts has its own energy, point of view, and story to tell -- it's well worth reading.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/10

It's another one of those one-book weeks, and, frankly, I love those. It's not a lot of "work" to put the post together, and it always makes me feel like I'm getting away with something to get free stuff.

A big bonus is when it's a new book by a writer I've been reading and loving for decades, of course. Like today -- with a new James Morrow short novel from Tachyon.

The book is The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, and it'll be out in trade paperback on June 20th. It follows the earlier short Morrow books from Tachyon Shambling Toward Hiroshima and The Madonna and the Starship. (Morrow also wrote one of the great SF novellas of all time in City of Truth, not to mention great longer books like This Is the Way the World Ends, Only Begotten Daughter, and Towing Jehovah.)

This one is set in 1914, and, yes, it is a retelling of that classic German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in prose form. But, in Morrow's version, the diabolical doctor has created a painting that can brainwash anyone who sees it -- and plans to charge governments to use it to turn their solders into perfect soldiers, with no sense of self-preservation. Our hero is a young American painter, and he sounds like a typical Morrow protagonist: noble enough to see something horrible wrong but possibly not strong enough to stop it.

Morrow has always been the great moral writer of the SF field, deeply concerned with the big questions of evil and hatred and death. Dr. Caligari looks like no exception, and I hope you'll be as happy to see it as I am.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

My Current Annoying Computer Issue

My work laptop keeps defaulting to the old (Win XP) style of alt-tab switcher, with the compact box with program icons, instead of the Win 7 style with little images of the windows.

This is annoying because I tend to alt-tab to bring the switcher up and then click into the window I want -- which doesn't work on the old style.

And googling the problem just brings up tons of people from the last 7-9 years who want to change from the Win 7 switcher to the Win XP switcher (or, worse, are complaining about whatever Win 10 does to the switcher). So all of the "fixes" go in the direction I don't want -- they explain how to get to the place I already am. (Here's one example, showing the two styles of switcher.)

(And, yes, I do know about the Win-tab version, but that's not what my fingers are used to doing. And it's just different enough to be odd.)

This is very, very minor in the scheme of things. But I hate rebooting when it frustrates me enough to give up. So this is what is currently annoying me in computer-land.

(I've learned to live with the really bizarre, you-can't-have-a-mac-formatted-external-drive-hooked-up-to-a-mac-running-windows-under-bootcamp-without-getting-a-bluescreen-crash problem on my home computer; I just attached all those to one hub and unplug that hub when I change OSes. But that one's a weird problem.)

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Lumberjanes, Vol. 2: Friendship to the Max by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Brooke Allen

I am an old and cynical person, so I tend to think that objects that yammer loudly about "friendship" are trying to sell me something under guise of sweetness and light. But, despite that, I think the Lumberjanes comics really are about how it's really nice to have a group of people who like and support and care about you, and that such a thing should be part of everyone's life.

To repeat: I am way too cynical and old to be a good reader for Lumberjanes, but I enjoyed the first volume, and the covers scratch my wanting-to-see-more-Noelle-Stevenson-drawings itch. So I'm back for Lumberjanes, Vol. 2: Friendship to the Max, which is still written by Stevenson and Grace Ellis and drawn by Brooke Watters. (Regular issue covers are by Stevenson, special variant covers are by a huge number of other female artists, and colors are by Maarta Laiho. It should not be notable that Lumberjanes is made by a large all-female crew, since tons of comics have been made by all-male teams every single year since 1933, but it speaks to the authenticity of the project.)

This book collects four more issues of the series, which cohere more strongly than the first batch did and turn some of the odd mysteries of those first issues into a larger plot. (It's a little save-the-world for my tastes -- I like stories about kids at camp to remain more grounded -- but the whole point of this series is that it's not going to concern itself with what readers like me want it to be.)

I found that save-the-world plot came at the expense of the character stuff I liked better in the first few issues, and I lost track, a bit, of who the main characters were and their individual foibles. Your mileage may vary, obviously -- it's fun and sunny and positive throughout, but I liked it when it was a bit closer to normal life.

There's been a whole lot more of this series since this point, and I may continue reading more of it. (I still like these young women, and I'm not getting my Noelle Stevenson fix anywhere else these days.) And, again, for people younger and of a different gender profile than me, this is probably even more appealing. If you like camping and friendship and quirkiness and weird supernatural mysteries, Lumberjanes is for you.

(Note: this particular book also contains a long preview of Giant Days, which you might have noticed me yammering about before. No, you cannot avoid Giant Days. It's that good.)

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Howard the Duck, Vol. 0: What the Duck by Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones

I tend to be a purist about things I don't own -- it saves time and effort, for one thing, and who wants to waste a lot of mental energy on things you can't control? So when I say that you probably shouldn't write a Howard the Duck story if your name isn't Steve Gerber, it should be taken in that spirit: an expression of curmudgeonliness and a statement of initial position, to be modified if justified by subsequent events.

It doesn't mean Chip Zdarsky doesn't do a good job here. It's just a way to say that there's no way Marvel should own Howard in the first place and be in a position to hire anyone to make more money by exploiting him. (I'm not as doctrinaire about the art end -- you can be Frank Brunner, or Val Mayerik, or Gene Colan...or, frankly, anyone else as long as Howard is clearly a cartoony duck in a world with a different art style. Joe Quinones unfortunately is saddled with the Howard redesign, so he can't do that.)

With that said, what do we have here, exactly?

It's a collection of comics with the slightly silly title Howard the Duck, Vol. 0: What the Duck. The zero comes because this was one of those years where Marvel relaunched everything with a new #1 a couple of times -- isn't that every year these days, though? -- but that, even if true, is more "what" than "why." Again, I don't own Howard, so I always assume "why" is "some joyless suits calculated they could make more money and buy another yacht that way."

This was a mini-series -- it only ran four issues, and, given publishing schedules, Marvel had to know it would only run four issues when they initially planned it, ergo it was a mini-series even if they didn't tell anyone at first -- from early 2015, which was interrupted for the All-New! All-Different! Secret Wars that summer, and came back in some form that fall. (The library systems I have access to, sadly, only have this volume, so I'm not likely to see what came next.)

Since the last time I've read Howard the Duck comics, he now wears pants, he looks more like a real duck, and he's working as a private detective in Marvel New York, to become something like the comedy version of Jessica Jones. (No, he doesn't have sex with Luke Cage. That would be too far even for Marvel.)

All that makes him fit cleanly into the Marvel Universe better, unfortunately. He's no longer the cartoony, grumpy pure out-of-context problem that was the whole point of Howard to begin with. He's not running for President or fighting Dr. Bong or doing the 21st century versions of those things -- he's chasing standard MU McGuffins with other characters that Marvel owns and wants to continue to own the IP for. He's yet another superhero type, not actively trying to save the world but up to saving it when he has to. Forty years in the MU has ground him down enough that he can appear in Secret Wars, or whatever bullshit crossover it is this year, and make a few more cents for his corporate masters. Zdarsky is smart enough that, if he has a Hellcow in him, he sure as shit isn't going to let Marvel own it. So he uses the toys already on the table, which is not at all what Howard is about.

Look, these are decent funny stories. They're about a duck named Howard in the Marvel Universe. But this isn't the real Howard, and it never can be. Let's stop pretending it is. Steve Gerber is dead, and Marvel repeatedly stabbed him the back before he went. So I can't pretend this is a good thing.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/2

Hey! It's another of those I-only-got-one-book weeks, which is good for me since I just wasted most of the last hour reading old Antick Musings posts. (Do real writers do that, too? Start poking through your old work and think what a smart, thoughtful person that guy was? It's not one of my more impressive personality traits, I can tell you.)

Anyway, this week I got one book in the mail, which means it must be totally awesome and you all will utterly love it.

That book is Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom, by Bradley W. Schenck, a pseudo-retro-futuro SF novel in the Gernsback vein, with lots of illustrations (looks like they're digitally painted, presented in black and white) by the author.

It's billed as "A Note of Retropolis," though not the Retropolis that's a historical blog from the Washington Post. Or the album by The Flower Kings from the mid-90s. Or the blog about vanished American pop-culture stuff. Or the collection of classic movie-influenced art by Laurent Durieux. Or the newer album by Absinth3. Or some kind of music store/producer/publisher/distributor/festival-maker/whatever. Or the vintage clothing store in Houston.

I note all that because the author's bio on the back flap says he can be found online at Webomator and Retropolis, and those above are many of the links on page one and two of Google for "Retropolis." (Luckily, the Amazon page for this book comes in eighth of the nine links on the first page.) If you're going to use a term commercially, you need to investigate how search-friendly your usage of it is.

The good news is that Schenck clearly knows this, and owns Webomator -- he's the #1 link for that term, which has this book prominently featured. Thus endeth the impromptu marketing lesson.

Slaves seems to have grown out of a fictional world Schenck has been writing about for a while, though this seems to be the first novel-length work. (There could be short stories, or odder things.) It's a pulpy SF world, with shiny humanoform robots, goggles, giant machines, glowy tubes, and the other usual accoutrements of that Buck Rogers stuff.

And, yes, the plot is about a fiendish scheme that begins by laying off all of the switchboard operators in the city of Retropolis --- though, of course, said fiendish scheme extends much, much farther than that. But there are mightily-thewed heroes in bubble helmets to battle it, along with their plucky robot companions and wise-cracking gum-chewing newly-unemployed switchboard gals to assist. So I'm sure it will all come out right in the end.

Slaves is a hardcover from Tor, available June 13th. Rocket off to your local Vend-O-Rama to get it!

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Birthday Loot

I had a birthday celebration yesterday, because that's what happens when you get another year older. (At least, when there are family around you who want to celebrate that getting-older, which not everyone has, and I realize and appreciate that.)

Since my family knows me, many of the presents were books. (I also got an umbrella and an electric-screwdriver set, because middle-aged men get useful gifts, damn it.) And, since I list books here, these are they:

Universal Harvester, the second novel by John Darnielle, lead singer and often only member of the excellent band The Mountain Goats. (In related news, I also got the new Mountain Goats record, Goths.) This looks to more of a horror novel than his excellent first novel, Wolf in White Van, but it's similarly set in the recent past (late '90s) and against a media landscape now radically altered (a VHS-rental store).

How The Hell Did This Happen?, P.J. O'Rourke's look at the 2016 election. I'm not sure exactly when he wrote it, so I'm not holding out much hope that he'll admit that he and people like him bear a lot of responsibility for Trump. But O'Rourke is at his best when things are both weird and horrible, which certainly describes now.

For Want of a Nail, Robert Sobel's unique alternate history masterpiece about the long-running conflict between the Commonwealth of North America and the United States of Mexico. (Some years back, I posted what would have been my blurb for the SFBC in the counterfactual world in which we were able to offer that book.)

And Roughneck, the new graphic novel from Jeff Lemire. I may have played up his depressing-ness a bit too much when talking about it with the family after opening the wrapping paper -- assuming it is possible to overplay Lemire's depressing-ness. (Or if "depressing-ness" is anything like a word to begin with.)

Friday, June 02, 2017

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld was McKillip's first fantasy novel, back in 1974. It was also the first winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, a year later -- and McKillip is one of only five authors to win that one twice, hitting again with Ombria in Shadow almost thirty years later.

I finally got around to reading Eld in 2017, spurred on by this spiffy new edition from Tachyon. (And, when I say "new," I actually mean "coming in September.")

Admittedly, I was five years old in 1974, and not really up to reading something as adult and smart as Eld -- though I see that it has been published for younger readers now and then, which surprises me. (It has no on-page sex, and the violence is similarly muted, but its concerns and world-view are entirely adult and it has not a spec of Bildungsroman about it -- it can be read by some smart teens, but it makes no concessions to their knowledge and has nothing to do with their worldview.)

The great thing about life, though, is that it's never too late to read a good book as long as you can read: any book that is worse read later is not that good to begin with. And Forgotten Beasts of Eld, I think, will still be good and worth reading as long as there are men and women who love and hate, who want power or to be left alone, who live with each other and themselves after doing things they didn't know they could, or would.

Eld is a secondary-world fantasy, set in a lightly-sketched, fairy-tale-esque land. There is a country that is the center of these people's world, but not necessarily any more than that. There is a mountain on which lives a young woman, the third generation of magical power to live there, all but alone, along with the mythic and wonderful creatures that her originating ancestor collected there. (In best fairy-tale fashion, McKillip begins Eld by telling us of Myk, the by-blow son of the wizard Heald, and how he came to Eld, gathered his beasts, and was followed by his son Ogam and granddaughter Sybel. This all happens, matter-of-factly, in the first four pages, to set the scene.)

Sybel is our heroine and our central character, and she begins the novel perfectly happy, living alone with her beasts on Eld Mountain. But then a warrior, Coren of Sirle, comes to her after a great battle in the lands below, with a baby that he says was the cause of the just-ended war: the illegitimate son of his brother and the queen of King Drede of Edwold. Both the baby's parents are now dead; the king is triumphant, and Sybel, that baby's cousin, is the only possible safe place in the world for little Tamlorn.

She raises that baby, but having Tam -- and having met Coren -- means that's she's no longer isolated and separate from society. And that long-standing, slow-running conflict between the King and Coren's noble family will eventually drag her into it, no matter how much she wants to stay apart.

Because once you have people that you care about, you're part of the world, and connected to the things they're connected to -- by blood or obligation or history or just chance.

Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a remarkable novel to come from such a young person: wise and deep and lucid and crisp, telling a story that contains very large things in a short space, presenting difficult decisions and hard choices without telling the reader how to feel about them. It was the first major fantasy novel in a career full of them, and it reminds me, once again, that I need to read McKillip's books more often.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 2: Squirrel You Know It's True by Ryan North and Erica Henderson

The second collection of the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series is titled Squirrel You Know It's True, and, yes, that does mean it's just as silly and frivolous as the first one. Sustaining silly frivolity for longer than a mini-series is a major deal in Big Two comics -- where everything has to be as dour as possible, to show how serious wearing long underwear and punching people is -- so that's major kudos to writer Ryan North and artist Erica Henderson.

This book collects four more issues of the ongoing series (from 2015; I'm running a couple of years behind), along with three short back-ups from the era where Dan Slott was keeping Squirrel Girl alive with random appearances here and there. I like the current Henderson-designed version of the character better than her domino-eyed teen previous incarnation, but it's heartening to realize that SG has never had a "sexy" look, and (I seriously hope) never will.

In keeping with the theme of SG's career, she defeats yet another world-threatening villain this time out -- but it's more central, and takes more than a moment or two off-panel. (It's also her first original supervillain: Ratatoskr, the absolutely real (mythologically speaking) squirrel that scurries up and down Yggdrasil, and, in the Marvel Universe at least, also foments fear and distrust and anger by whispering in people's ears.) I'm not sure if this step towards her own Rogues Gallery indicates the first step to Marvel-izing SG, and that she'll inevitably lose her powers and her left leg next year, only to re-emerge at the next series re-launch wearing a costume with strategic cutouts and a giant gun that fires squirrels. I hope not, but I tend to assume that every stupid thing will happen eventually in a superhero universe. So, if it happens, remember that I predicted it.

But, anyway, for this stretch Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is still primarily counter-programming to the standard long-underwear narrative. It's funny and silly and takes itself just exactly seriously enough. (Which is very, very little.) It also introduces the joke character Bass Lass and the not-exactly joke characters Chipmunk Hunk and Koi Boy, so it can be forgiven its flirtations with the dark side of superhero angst. It's like a time capsule from the era when superheroes were silly light entertainment for a wide audience rather than the passion of middle-aged neckbeards -- of course, that point is slightly marred by the fact that every comic these days is for the passion of some specific small group, and nothing at all does (or maybe can) aim at that vanished wide audience.

It exists, though, and was created this decade. Let's count that as a win.

Read in May

In the annals of the most exciting activities -- right up there with competitive paint-drying -- there's long-distance list-making on the Internet. And I am committed to providing those lists to you the home viewer on a monthly basis, because that's just how much I care about you.

Here, then, are the books I read in the merry month of May:

Santiago Garcia, editor, Spanish Fever (5/1)

Mark Crilley, Brody's Ghost Collected Edition (5/2)

Julie Doucet, Carpet Sweeper Stories (5/3)

Steve Casino and Steve Fink, Gobler Toys: The Fun We Can't Remember (5/7)

R.O. Blechman, Amadeo & Maladeo (5/8)

Patricia A. McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (5/8)

R. Sikoryak, Terms and Conditions (5/10)

Faith Erin Hicks, The Stone Heart (5/15)

Jiro Taniguchi, A Distant Neighborhood, Vol. 2 (5/16)

Bryan Lee O'Malley and Leslie Hung, Snotgirl, Vol. 1: Green Hair Don't Care (5/17) 

Gene Wolfe, Home Fires (5/17)

Kaz, Underworld: From Hoboken to Hollywood (5/21)

Ryan North and Erica Henderson, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 2: Squirrel You Know It's True (5/22)

Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones, Howard the Duck, Vol. 0: What the Duck (5/23)

Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Brooke Allen, Lumberjanes, Vol. 2: Friendship to the Max (5/24)

Raina Telgemeier, Ghosts (5/31)

And that was May. I think you all know which month comes next -- but there will be a quiz later today.