Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Portugal by Pedrosa

I don't know if Cyril Pedrosa - who mostly goes by just his last name on his comics, in the European manner - really just does one big book every few years. That's been my experience of his career: Three Shadows over a decade ago, Equinoxes a few years back, and now Portugal (from 2017).

And it seems to be the life of his main character here, a Portuguese-French cartoonist named Simon Muchat: Simon had a reasonably successful career making "books," as his agent and girlfriend call them, but is in a slump as Portugal opens. He's teaching art in schools, doing some advertising freelance work, but feels completely unmotivated. About anything at all.

And that leads to the obligatory question of how much of Pedrosa is in Simon. The question is obligatory; the answer, though, is unknowable to any of us on this side of the paper. Pedrosa's grandfather immigrated from Portugal to France in the 1930s and stayed; so did Simon's. Portugal is largely the story of that family history - or, rather, how a chance trip to Portugal started Simon to re-engage with life, and led him to start trying to track back that family history. The focus is on Simon, and Pedrosa never drops into flashback to tell the stories of earlier generations: we see everyone and everything through Simon's eyes in the present day.

Portugal is loosely organized into three large sections, after a short prologue with Simon in the mid-70s, a young boy on his only previous trip to Portugal. Each of the three is named after a man in the family: first  "According to Simon" himself, then his father, then his grandfather. But that's not "according to" as in that's who is telling us the story, it's more of a sense of how far back in time Simon has gotten at that point.

That all makes it sound very deliberate: it's not. Simon is aimless when Portugal begins, and only slowly gathers any aim as the book goes on. He's still drifting until very deep into the book, still just going along with whatever happens, and only shows some interest in family stories and the details of life in Portugal. So this is the story of a reawakening, in a way: one connected to history and heritage in a very personal way.

Pedrosa tells this story at a distance, though small talk and background voices, with gorgeous watercolor panels that lend a slow, deliberate rhythm to this fairly long book. It took Simon a long time to climb out of his ennui; we'll see it happen slowly, and learn with him. This is a lovely book, with a quiet personal story told quietly and well - it may not be for all readers but those who can engage with it will find a lot to love.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of 10/18/06

This time out, I'm looking at the books I read this week in 2006, as determined by the RNG built into Google. (And if we can't trust a piece of immediately-accessible software built by a shadowy global megacorporation, what can we trust?) Let's see if I know anything interesting about any of them.

Note: after starting this list, and typing out the titles, I realized I was doing a Book-a-Day stretch during that time, so I probably have old posts for all of these books. I'm going to still see what I remember about them, and link to the old posts, too. (Partially in horror, since I was pretty sketchy and dismissive as a writer-about-books back then.)

Cash Peters, Gullible's Travels (10/12)

My memory is that it was some variety of travel book, by a tiny press - I'm pretty sure I picked it up at work, from the fabled discard shelf - and that I enjoyed it and have never seen anything else by the author.

My old post confirms the travel book aspect: it was the culmination of Peters' career as "The Bad Taste Tourist" on public radio, in which he went to strange tourist attractions and reported on how strange they were. And the book itself was from 2003 (so maybe not immediately from the discard shelf in 2006, but maybe so) and Amazon throws up its hands and calls the publisher UNKNO. If you see this book - you probably won't; it's pretty obscure, he said in his best hipster voice - grab it, because it is a fun slice of American, heavy on the cheese, served with a great sarcastic voice.

Matt Haig, The Dead Fathers Club (bound galleys, 10/13)

For this one, I remember the cover - dark and evocative - and have a vague sense that it was a riff on Hamlet. I thought it was really good at the time, though I don't think I've read anything else by Haig since then. Note also that the title does not have an apostrophe: this is a club made up of multiple fathers, who are all dead.

According to my old post, I read it for work, and I can't recall if the SFBC ended up doing it. (ISFDB does list an edition as "Viking/SFBC," which is not how any of this works, though I think I know what they mean.) I see I was really impressed with it at the time, though the book-club crew did not agree with the original publisher about whether the book was funny or not - my guess is that it's all pretty dark, which can be funny. I'd probably find it funnier now.

Anyway, it is a riff on Hamlet, with an eleven-year-old hero whose father has just died under mysterious circumstances and whose family business (a pub; this is England) is falling under the shadow of a suspicious uncle. And I also see that Haig has written a bunch of books since, many of which sound just like my kind of thing.

Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, Lost Girls, Book 1 (10/14)

This is obviously the first third of the big pornographic comic series about Alice (of Wonderland), Dorothy (of Oz), and Wendy (of Neverland) and the things their genitals and those of some others get up to in some big hotel in...Switzerland, I want to say? probably in the teens? I had a copy of the original three-volume edition, which I had to hide - it was very pornographic, and I had young boys in the house - but it was destroyed in the flood. I think I now have the one-volume edition, quietly hiding in the graphic novel shelves upstairs. (I learned the better way to hide things from boys is to stick them on shelves in their rooms; they'll never look there!)

My old post is short, since I was saving up the larger thoughts for the third book. But we all know what Lost Girls is, don't we?

C.J. Cherryh, Deliverer (10/15)

This was a book in the series about the atevi and the humans living on their planet. I think I read ten or so of these, and that they were all organized in trilogies. Oh, and the main human character - Bren Cameron? - was always in over his head, and often injured, so he ran around frantically while aliens did things alienly and there was eventually a mostly happy ending. I remember liking these, but, in retrospect, they seem oddly formulaic.

My old post is no help: it notes that it's the finale of the third trilogy (so book 9) but says no more than that. I do see there are now twenty-one (!) of these books now.

Richard Scarry, Cars and Trucks and Things That Go (read twice to my younger son, 10/16)

I'm not sure why I listed this in the reading notebook: I was reading a lot of picture books to my younger son at the time, usually 3-6 a night, from the couple of hundred we had in the house and another dozen or so out from the library at any given time. Picture books are fun! I miss that part of my life; being connected to the picture-book world is wonderful.

Anyway, Richard Scarry is one of the greats of the 20th century - his stuff may be dating now, but I hope not, since he side-stepped potential racial issues by making all of his characters random animals, so it would mostly be the Sexism Fairy that could potentially wallop his stuff - and this is one of the big books from his life. (Scarry became a brand, so readers need to look out for the books that he actually did, and avoid the ones based on TV shows based on his ideas based on books.)

My old post is actually pretty long and detailed, saying some of what I just typed above in a different way. If you have young children interested in the world, Scarry's What Do People Do All Day? is still awesome. And the kind of kids who like noisy machinery - typically boys, but not always - will love this book as well.

Ralph Keyes, "Nice Guys Finish Seventh" (10/17)

I think this was a book of quotes: probably specifically about debunking misquotes. The title is from Casey Stengel, I think, and he didn't say "last" because there were seven teams in the division at that point, and he was more specific than "last." Let's see if I remember right....

(Well, before I get to my old post, I put in the Amazon link, and the subtitle is "False phrases, spurious sayings, and familiar misquotations," so one point for me.)

My old post shows that I did remember it right: this book is the kind of thing that Quote Investigator does regularly these days, and that most people take no notice of.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores (10/18)

Well, this is mildly famous, by a guy who I think won the Nobel (if not, it was mostly because he died first; he had that level of fame and acclaim). As I recall, it was a short first-person book by an old ugly man, and it focused mostly on one particular woman, who was, of course, much younger than the narrator. I have a vague sense it was squicky, and even if it wasn't to me then, it probably would be to a large number of people now.

My old post shows me that I found it squicky then, and that it was vastly more squickly than I remembered: the old guy is 90, the girl is a specially-procured virgin of 14, and he arrives to watch her sleep repeatedly. I suppose it's meant to be uplifting that he never actually wakes her up to fuck her, or fucks her in her sleep, or...I'm sorry, my eyes will bug out of my head if I try to complete this sentence.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Quote of the Week: Eurydice Says Hi

The present is a rope stretched over the past. The secret to walking it is, you never look down. Not for anyone, not even family. The secret is to pretend you can't hear the voices of the people who have fallen down there in the dark.

 - Sean Stewart, Perfect Circle, p.18

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart

I have a cynical opinion: for most of us, no matter how good we are, careers last about ten years. It applies to the artists we love and the lives we live equally. That band will probably break up after a decade; that writer will put out novels dependably until the second digit of the year changes. And your job will be happy with you right up to the point where they aren't, and at that point the industry will have changed enough that you have to leap into something else.

Maybe fifteen. I'll give you fifteen.

Of course, the superstars are the exceptions, as they are in everything else. They're the ones who make it seem like doing the same thing well for a lifetime is not just possible, but normal. But it's only normal for them, and we're not them. (Or maybe you are. Are you a superstar?) They're big and well-known and seem central, so it can be hard to realize how few of them there are, and how their path isn't open to the rest of us.

I think about that a lot when I realize a great writer hasn't had a solo novel since 2004, and that his first novel was in 1992. And maybe I think that he basically invented the "artificial-reality game" genre around 2001, and I haven't heard much about that for years, either. So I wonder what his current career is, how it's treating him, and I hope he's enjoying it.

In this specific case, the writer is Sean Stewart, and the book is Perfect Circle. (He did write other things afterward: lots of things for games and other interactive experiences, and he co-wrote a YA trilogy that was published in book form but apparently also had ludic elements.)

Frankly, it's heartbreaking that this was his final novel of fantastika. It is a short but essentially perfect book: emotionally resonant, intensely told, thoroughly felt, and deeply human. In a better world, it would have broken Stewart out to a wider audience and launched him onto bestseller lists. But the whole point of Perfect Circle is that this is not a better world - it's only as good as we make it, and we have to share it with people making it worse.

Some of them don't even stop after they die.

This is a novel about ghosts: both the literal and the metaphorical kind. Will "Dead" Kennedy is a slacker who made it to his early thirties without accomplishing much: he has a broken marriage with Josie and a tween daughter Megan, he has a lousy apartment and a succession of basic jobs, he has a love for punky, alternative music and not much energy for anything else. He can also see ghosts, and maybe that's the reason for some of his other issues, or vice versa.

He resents his ex-wife's second husband Don, an ex-Marine who has a good job with a future and provides Will's daughter with the life Will can't. He's resigned to the complicated lives of his big Houston-based family, but mostly skims around the edges of things. He's lost the one great love of his life and can't move on, a decade later - though he might be confused as to who that was. He's settled into a groove in his life and, just maybe, is starting to look around and realize he's not in his twenties anymore and that groove is turning into a trench.

Or maybe not. Maybe he doesn't realize anything, or want to change.

Will is our first person narrator: he has an engaging, open voice, one instantly familiar to any Gen X man (and probably most men and women from other generations). He's our main character: he's going to tell us what happens. He's going to explain what he sees, and tell us about the ghosts in his world: his own, most of all, but the others as well.

I won't say he's our hero. Will is haunted, in ways that he doesn't understand and can't directly tell us. This is a novel about how he's haunted, and what haunts him, and how, as always in fiction, things get worse before the end. Perfect Circle is a novel of events, but it does not have a deep plot: it's all driven by Will, and the things he does and choices he makes and ghosts that influence him. And he will get much deeper before the end.

Stewart's conception of ghosts here has some elements in common with Tim Powers, though Stewart's ghosts have more agency. They're dead, and possibly trapped, but they seem to still be themselves. Some of them can talk to the living, some of them have good or bad intentions, some of them can communicate in other ways, but many of them seem to be caught up in whatever killed them - there aren't obvious rules, but they feel realistic and real.

Again, this is a great, resonant, thoughtful, deep book. In a just world, it would have been nominated for and won awards, as several of Stewart's earlier books were. But ours, like Will's, is a world of ghosts, a world where bad things happen because people do bad things, where careers and people die.

And maybe Stewart's novel career is definitively over, or maybe this is just a hiatus. But the thing about novels, and about art in general, is that they exist once they're made. They don't stop. You can read a novel today, or tomorrow, or ten years from now. It will still be there.

Just like a ghost.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

I Moved to Los Angeles to Work in Animation by Natalie Nourigat

The ecosystem of graphic novels is still proliferating - it might not have quite as many niches as pure-prose books do, but it's getting there. We may see a day where any kind of book that exists in prose also exists in graphic form.

I Moved to Los Angeles to Work in Animation is a great example: I don't think a book like this would have existed twenty years ago, and definitely not thirty. The title explains it perfectly: Natalie Nourigat [1] was a freelance artist and cartoonist in Portland (Oregon), and wanted a more stable career that used her art skills. So she researched the animation world, set her sights on a story artist job, eventually got one in LA, and created this book a few years later to describe the whole deal - job, move, career, LA, industry.

Books like that have been around in prose for a hundred years or more - some are personal, like Nourigat's, and some are more general (How You Can Get a Job in Insurance in Hartford!). Nourigat is writing about an art career and speaking to other artists, though, so the graphic form works very well: she can convey not just the facts, but how she feels about LA and the animation industry through the body language and expressions of her avatar in the book, and her audience can see her examples of what storyboards look like and how they differ from comics.

This is a fairly dense book: it's just under a hundred pages, but Nourigat uses a heavily captioned style to get in a lot of details and explanations. She has an upbeat, positive tone throughout, though she does also talk honestly about the downsides of LA life (heat, car culture, expense, a spread-out landscape that makes it more difficult to connect with people). The book mixes her personal story with more general information, though it's almost all based in her personal experience - she did interview a group of other artists, though, and includes their thoughts, each as a separate three-page section, at the end.

Moved to LA is broken up into many shorter chapters on different aspects of her story and life in LA: perks, the moving itself, the job hunt, pros and cons of LA life, tips on getting a job, general questions - and she has running titles on her pages (I don't think I've ever seen in this in a graphic novel before) to show which section you're in, so it's useful to leaf through and find specific advice.

I, personally, can't draw. I'm also one of the Olds, deeply into a second non-art career, and firmly stuck on the other side of the country. So I can take no advice from this book myself - but I did enjoy Nourigat's look at what her journey was like, and what it could be like for others who want to do something similar. It's exciting to see that kind of energy and enthusiasm, especially when it's aimed at making good stories and art.

So I recommend this primarily to people who might want to work in animation and/or move to LA. And maybe secondarily to people in other art-related fields, as a reality check about how their industries and locations work and compare.

[1] She does not present any credentials for her expertise other than the obvious "I got a job doing this, and I have kept that job and love it" one. She does talk about the differences between movie and TV animation (and that she's on the movie side), but never says what studios she does or has worked for. But I see from her website that she's not just an individual-contributor storyboard artist, but currently Head of Story on an upcoming movie and her whole career to date has been at Walt Disney Features Animation - which is kind of a big deal, and a major "take this person seriously" credential.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 7 by Herge

This is the end. Well, sort of: there's an unfinished last book called Tintin and Alph-Art, which is available in what I think is the form Herge left it (rather than completed by other hands). But this is definitely the last Tintin stories actually completed and published.

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 7 collects books that cover almost two decades: The Castafiore Emerald (serialized 1961-62), Flight 714 to Sydney (66-67) and Tintin and the Picaros (75-76). Herge was clearly not devoting as much time to writing and drawing new albums in his fifties and sixties as he was as a younger man, but I suspect he was doing just as much "Tintin stuff," only related to running a business empire: approving toy designs, meeting with movie people, arranging sublicenses, and all of the other things that are definitely work but don't deliver any new material from a creative person.

Anyway, the three books are quite separate here, as you might guess from that sixteen-year span. So I guess I should treat them separately.

The Castafiore Emerald stands out as different from the rest of the series: it's entirely set at Marlinspike, Captain Haddock's ancestral pile, and it's a mystery/farce rather than the series' more usual adventure plot. I found the humor was not quite as juvenile as Herge sometimes gets - it's still most based on how horrible Bianca Castafiore is and how much Haddock can't stand her (and, secondarily, on how much of a blustery klutz he is), but that's the story here, rather than random interjections. The story sees Haddock injure his foot, so he's stuck in a wheelchair, right as Castafiore invites herself (and the inevitable accompanying media frenzy) to Marlinspike, leading first to worries about theft and then what seems to be an actual theft. It's also got some good don't-judge-people material, suitable for its young audience, though that thread is mostly background.

Flight 714 to Sydney is a more typical adventure story: Tintin and Haddock and Calculus are off to some international aviation symposium in Australia, get sidetracked by an eccentric rich guy, and then a villain strikes. There's a lot of running around with guns after that, mostly serious, and a weird fantastic element that struck me as outside the usual style of the series and that largely serves to set up a deus ex machina ending in a book that didn't need one. That one element aside, though, the adventure stuff is strong, and the comic relief mostly well-integrated into the actual story.

And then the last finished Tintin book, the one I could have read as a child of the appropriate age if Tintin was a thing in the USA in the mid-70s (it wasn't), is Tintin and the Picaros, something of a greatest-hits compilation of the series. The fictional Latin American country of San Theodoros from The Broken Ear provides a venue and a big chunk of cast, one secondary villain returns from The Calculus Affair, and of course there's the usual suspects of Tintin, Haddock, Castafiore, and the Thom(p)son twins. It has an odd anti-violence message from Tintin as part of his revolutionary plot, and that plot is fairly thin and mostly on rails.

I still think these omnibuses are a rotten way to present the Tintin books: they're too physically small to read easily and the books are long and dense enough that they'd work better as individual albums. I expect the next big repackaging of Tintin will be back to the album format; every series gets packaged into omnibuses for a while and then broken back out again. If you have the inclination to read this series, I'd either wait for that switch or look for actual albums. (If you're reading in a language other than English, the latter should be easier.)

As for me, I'm happy I read the series: it was a big hole in my comics cultural literacy. I didn't love the Tintin books, but I didn't expect to: they were made for European boys starting several decades before I was born, and I didn't read them until I was middle-aged. But I can appreciate what they do well - I don't think I've even mentioned Herge's lovely line in any of these posts (maybe because of the horrible small size of these omnibuses, which does not display his art well at all) - and indulge the things they do to keep that young audience happy and engaged. I still don't think I'd agree with the Tintin maximalists, but this is pretty good stuff. (See my posts on the earlier books for more.)

Monday, October 11, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/9/21

Five books this week, all from the library - I was trying to get things in to read for this weekend and next, and it worked out perfectly.

That means, of course, that something else is about to go horribly wrong....

Making Friends: Third Time's the Charm is the (unsurprisingly) third book in Kristen Gudsnuk's "Making Friends" series, about a middle-schooler who inherited a magical sketchbook from her great-aunt and has used it to create ever-more complications in her life. (See my posts on books one and two for more details.) This one seems to follow immediately from the ending of the second book and sees  our heroine Dany's life transformed, along with elements of the whole world, in ways I suspect have something to do with other bequests from that deceased great-aunt. (I had a note about that in my post about the second book; Gudsnuk's books look wacky and like they're just hurtling at high speed, but she's a deeply sneaky writer, which I hugely appreciate.) I don't know if this series will keep going on, since it seems to be getting bigger, wackier, and more transformative with each book, but I'm up for it if it does.

Switching gears entirely (though still sticking to the big middle-grade graphic-novel world), I also have When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, a National Book Award Finalist and a Big Serious Book about a Big Serious Thing. (Kids get a lot of them foisted on them, always out of good intentions, but sometimes it means millions of fourteen-year-olds have to waste dozens of hours on Ethan Frome.) Mohammed was a child refugee in Kenya, and this is the story of a child refugee in Kenya named Omar and his younger brother Hassan - the LCC code on the copyright page puts it in a non-fiction bucket, so I believe this is essentially a memoir in comics form. (Jamieson is the artist, and probably also helped scripting this - she's done two graphic novels for younger readers before this one.)

Wendy, Master of Art is a graphic novel for adults by Walter Scott (no, not that one; this guy hasn't been knighted...yet?). The main character is an artist: my sense is that the book collects a bunch of stories (or maybe just one long story; I'm not sure if it appeared anywhere else first) that cover a big chunk of her career and/or life. And she's Wendy, obviously. I've seen good notices of it...waves randomly...somewhere, and I'm always up for reading graphic stuff by creators new to me.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 12: To All the Squirrels I've Loved Before is the end of the series, by the usual creators: Ryan North, Derek Charm, and Rico Renzi. And, I guess, that means that Marvel's scheduling system was what finally beat Doreen Green: no comic can run forever these days.

Last is Black Hammer: Age of Doom, Part II by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, and Rich Tomaso. But, Andy! you might say, I thought you hate those books! Well, "hate" is a strong word. I'm definitely finding a lot of things to criticize and complain about in these books, absolutely - but I was an editor; pulling apart books is what I do. It's one of my core skills. So getting such great material to work from is wonderful, and I'm not unentertained by the series to date, even as I do see it as hugely flawed in ways that reflect badly on superheroes in general and the modern comics scene in particular.

(Note: you might not say that, since I realize my post on Age of Doom, Part I has not posted yet. But you will say that once it does. Or you might, I dunno, I don't want to put words in your mouth.)

Friday, October 08, 2021

Quote of the Week: Hot and in a Pocket

A restless nation will always want to eat on the run, and this creates opportunities for utilitarian cuisine. The kind of meal you can throw down your neck in between finishing doing a thing and starting something else without having to pause to wash up any plastic tubs or spend the day with a fork in your pocket.

To this end, all manner of meals have been encased in pastry, nature's own Tupperware, and sold for the express delight of busy Brits on the move.

 - Fraser McAlpine, Stuff Brits Like, p.50

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg

We all live in the worlds we build for ourselves. For most of us, that's deeply metaphorical. For people who tell stories for a living, well, it can be more complicated.

Take the Bronte family: the three sisters who lived into adulthood (Charlotte, Emily, Anne) all wrote novels, important books that are still read and studied today. Their brother, Branwell, was supposed to be the great genius of the family but never produced anything substantial - I've never studied the matter but I always got the sense that the expectations for Branwell were entirely because of his gender, and not due to any specific ability. But all four of them wrote, and they wrote together, or maybe just in and around each other's stories, when they were children. They invented worlds, and peopled them, and squabbled over the people in those worlds, causing schisms and an inevitable split, with two of the four packing up their stories and heading off to a separate continent.

All this while they actually lived in that famous remote parsonage in Haworth: the four children, their parson father, a housekeeper. Probably seeing people from the village all the time, but the story of isolation avoids mentioning that. Definitely remote, definitely separated, definitely just with each other almost all the time.

So they lived in their invented world as much as the real one: it was as important - more important.

Isabel Greenberg's third graphic novel Glass Town - her first to be set in the real world, not her invented Early Earth - tells that story, in a fictionalized form. Charlotte is at the center, and she usually is in tellings like this: she was the one who survived the longest, after all. (She died at the age of 38: in most contexts, that wouldn't count as very long at all.)

It opens with Charlotte in a field in 1849: she's the last of the four left alive. And she's met by one of her own characters, to tell her what has become of Glass Town, the city the four of them made, and of Angria, the country Glass Town sits in. (And to say nothing is known of Gondal, the land Emily and Anne created without the other two.) This is our frame story: he asks her to tell him the story they both know. And of course she does.

Greenberg says up front that this is a fictionalization - well, we know that as soon as a fictional character appears on the moors to talk to Charlotte - but that also means that any specific detail may be invented, or altered, or just never recorded in real history. So much of this could be true, or false, or somewhere in between. That's not important, though: the story is important.

The story is mostly about the Glass Town characters, and their complicated grand-opera affairs: the dashing rogue Zamorna, his colorless wife and her scheming evil father, Zamorna's real brother the gossip-merchant and foster brother the Black true king of this colonized land, and a few others. They're all tied up in a knot, and their story is bound to end with violent conflict and death.

I don't know if any of the Brontes ever wrote that ending. I don't know if they wrote competing endings, but I suspect they at least talked about it. I don't know if any of those potential endings exist. All I know is what Greenberg tells me here, in this version of their lives - how they battled over how the stories should go, with Charlotte and Branwell more warlike and Emily and Anne more domestic. That led to the split, as Greenberg tells it. But we now know basically nothing of Gondal, because none of those writings, except a few scraps of poetry, survived. So all we have is Glass Town, and the men maneuvering to kill each other over it.

It's difficult to tell a completely happy story about someone who died young a hundred and fifty years ago - not when you're covering a lot of her life, anyway. Glass Town is a book about creation and destruction, about living in the real world vs. living in invented ones...but it tends to come down on the side of destruction and invented worlds, as one should probably expect from a creator of fiction.

As in her previous books, Greenberg has an almost faux-naif art style, full of stiff figures with simple features, just expressive enough for her purpose. (If they look a bit like cutout dolls, or perhaps more specifically lead soldiers, that's not an accident.) It's a style that may be off-putting to people who read a lot of traditional comics - superhero, manga or YA - since it comes from a more deliberate artistic tradition, one that is not aiming to render things the way they look to the viewer.

Glass Town, because of that hundred and fifty years, because of Greenberg's art style and other choices, and because of the nature of Glass Town itself, is a bit chilly and detached - it's not a warm, welcoming story, and never would have been. Any reader will need to be aware of that, before they make the trip: the people of Glass Town have their own concerns, and will have little time for you.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Save It For Later by Nate Powell

The personal is political. It always was, and always will be. When someone's identity is a reason to suppress or attack them, from "will not replace us" to bathroom bills, it's never just personal. 

There's a meme I've seen a number of times, about what is political - that arguments about taxes and land development and budgets are, but arguments about whether someone should be allowed to live are not. I want to agree with that, but, in the real world, arguments about people's lives and existence are aligned with partisan politics. The people trying to de-humanize huge swaths of humanity know what they're doing, and aren't going to stop because the other side makes clever memes.

Nate Powell understands all of that. (Better than I do, I expect.) His 2021 book Save It For Later is explicitly about confronting the rising tide of fascism, authoritarianism, leader-principle, and white nationalism in the USA, placing those concerns in a parenting context: how do you talk to your children about fascists? How do you think about fascists to focus on what you can do, especially as one family in a deep-red state? And how do you survive when you're surrounded by horrible, mean, vindictive people? (Who may not actually be fascists themselves, but are perfectly happy in their smug self-satisfaction to sign up for every last fascist ideal.)

My children were much older at the 2016 election: eighteen and fifteen. I was lucky: I didn't need to explain that this was bad, that, as Powell put it, "the bad guy won." Powell seems to have two kids like I do, but they were much younger - I think the older one was five on that horrible night. So the parenting piece was much larger for him.

He'd also just come off a big non-fiction graphic novel series with Congressman John Lewis, explicitly about protest and fighting against white supremacy. It's called March: you may have heard of it. So this was important to Powell, and central to how he saw his life and work, in a way that it isn't for most Americans.

Save It For Later collects seven essays in comics form, all on that same cluster of topics, created during 2019 and 2020. I've seen at least one of them before - I think on The Nib - so it's possible they all appeared elsewhere first. But they clearly were designed to work together; they circle the same concerns and thoughts in a consistent way.

I've always loved Powell's work, since I first saw his magisterial fiction graphic novel Swallow Me Whole. He particularly has a knack for black-background pages, with hand-lettered white type and splashes of light color for vignettes of activity. His comics pages often seem to be on the verge of apocalypse, personal or societal - that darkness sweeping in and inundating the pages, his energetic lettering, especially on sound effects, the tone of concern and fear and distress.

This is a book for an immediate moment. I hope it will seem strident or ridiculous in five years. (I bet Powell would, too.) It probably won't, though: fascism doesn't go away that quickly or that easily, and the "will not replace us" crowd is loud and central and has captured most of one of America's major parties. What any one person can do during that moment is small and feels inadequate: vote, speak up, model good behavior, deflect as much anger from more vulnerable people as you can. And, most of all, think about those vulnerable people first: who are the fascists trying to hurt? How can you help to foil or counter or even just slow down those efforts?

Because the fascists are always out there. And they're always focused on hurting people.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Thirsty Mermaids by Kat Leyh

Sometimes you get into something it's hard to get out of - now that sounds ominous, doesn't it?

But all of life is a sequence of things you get into and can't easily get out of: relationships, jobs, places to live, family. And fiction, especially fantasy fiction, can be metaphorical about those things, and not need to be tied down to dull reality.

So when I say that Kat Leyh's graphic novel Thirsty Mermaids is about three young people who do something fairly dumb on short notice and without thinking it through, and end up deeply stuck in a place they don't understand at all, you can see how that could go in a million different ways. In this case, it is fantasy. The title is not a metaphor: they are mermaids.

Or, actually, they were. That was the fairly dumb thing: transforming to human so they could get more booze in some unnamed tourist-y seaside town. (It's hard to find alcoholic beverages underwater!) They know nothing about human society, as is traditional, so they're in for some shocks both immediate (humans need to wear clothes!) and longer-term (capitalism! money! rent! jobs!).

So, anyway, Tooth, Pearl, and Eez had that awesome idea -- they could get a lot more booze if they went on land, where the humans are, and then they could come back afterward to their regular awesome lives under the sea. And the night of drinking went well: they did find some clothing, which came with a card they used to buy drinks the whole night at a bar amusingly named the Thirsty Mermaid.

Sure, they ended up passed out in an alleyway, but that's a thing that could easily happen to humans, too.

But then Eez, their witch, realized she had no magic as a human - which means she can't turn them back.


Luckily, the bartender they drank with the previous night, Vivi de la Vega, is a soft touch. They end up crashing with her - the narrative wisely stays silent on whether she actually believes their drunken story about being mermaids - as Pearl and Tooth learn about human life and jobs, and Eez spends her days investigating human magic and figuring out how to get things back to normal.

Leyh isn't emphasizing the drama here: their situation is serious, but only desperate for Eez, for reasons that the characters, and Leyh, will explicate as we get deeper into the book. Tooth and Pearl could fit in reasonably well on land: they're loud and goofy and still deeply ignorant of human ways, but they have skills and their human bodies, if weird, work and are comfortable. Eez, on the other hand, finds human skin and the open air strange and disconcerting all the time, and it's not going to get better.

So Leyh's plot first throws them into possibly the most fish-out-of-water moment ever, then ambles around having them do fun clueless-about-human-life activities in this town that I keep wanting to say is Santa Barbara cosplaying as Key West, and then makes it clear that return is important.

Do they make it back? I wouldn't dream of spoiling the ending.

Thirsty Mermaids was published by S&S's Gallery 13 imprint, meaning that it was basically aimed at adults, unlike Leyh's previous book Snapdragon. What that means is that there's some incidental nudity - mermaids don't wear clothes, remember! - that focus on alcohol as the source of and solution to all of life's problems, and perhaps a quieter, more naturalistic story structure and a cast that have complicated depths like real adults. But it's clearly another book by the same creator, with a lot of the same concerns and the same energy. So if you are a young reader who loved Snapdragon, or if you are in the business of getting reading materials to a young person who loved Snapdragon, I hope you are not shocked by a few cartoon boobs and, well, three very thirsty mermaids. This is a lovely, bright book full of fun moments, wonderful characters, and a deep concern for friendship and belonging.

Monday, October 04, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/2/21

Two books this week, both of which came from the library.

Eight-Lane Runaways is a graphic novel by Henry McCausland, and I must have heard about it somewhere. I mean, I put it on hold at the library, right? I guess it's possible that I was browsing the library's graphic novels and just grabbed it because it was published last year by Fantagraphics: that's a decent indication that I'd find it interesting and/or that it's worth reading. But I have no memory of reading about it anywhere.

The book itself is some kind of surreal, with eight runners with odd names (Blaise Ayonnaise, Koklakola, Bobby Blackberries) in the middle of some kind of race, which does not seem to be explained. I'm fine with weird, as long as it works. So I'll see if this one works.

And then there's Bowie: Stardust, Rayguns & Moonage Daydreams, something of a biography of the singer/songwriter. The credits are a bit arch, but I think they mean the script was by Michael Allred and Steve Horton, the art was by Allred, and colors by Laura Allred. This is not entirely straightforward - there seems to be some kind of psychedelic freakout near the end - but it seems to mostly be a story of real people with their real faces doing the things they did in real life.

I'm not sure the world needs the comics biography of any musician, especially a super-popular, well-documented one - the form seems badly matched to the matter - but no one asks me whether a book should exist or not before making it. (And that would be a bad idea, actually: asking me or any one person.)

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Books Read: September 2021

Another month is over, and these are the books I read. I've already written about all but the last one (I'm planning to do that tomorrow), but those posts are arrayed, off into the future, to provide a regular flow of content here.

(I do content marketing these days, so it's all about consistent, continuous flows of relatable content. Very industrial, very predictable.)

Herge, The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 7 (9/1)

Natalie Nourigat, I Moved to Los Angeles to Work in Animation (digital, 9/2)

Sean Stewart, Perfect Circle (9/3)

Cyril Pedrosa, Portugal (digital, 9/3)

Georgia Webber, Dumb (digital, 9/4)

Katie Skelly, My Pretty Vampire (digital, 9/5)

Sarah Andersen, Adulthood Is a Myth (digital, 9/6)

Annie Goetzinger, Girl in Dior (digital, 9/11)

Sarah Andersen, Fangs (9/12)

Ryan North, Derek Charm, and Rico Renzi, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 11: Call Your Squirrelfriend (9/18)

Lawrence Block, Afterthoughts, Version 2.0 (9/18)

Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston, Black Hammer: Age of Doom, Part 1 (9/19)

Christopher MacGuire, editor, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume II: 1939-1962 (9/21)

Matt Fraction, Steve Lieber, and Nathan Fairbairn, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen: Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? (9/26)

Links will follow: if history is any guide, most of them will get updated one month from now, when I do the similar post for October. Until then: happy reading.

Friday, October 01, 2021

Quote of the Week: Laconic New Englanders

Rhode Island natives, including those born overseas, are under ordinary circumstances so shy and mistrustful around people they don't know as to seem almost deranged. They never look a stranger in the eye, or if they do, they unfocus their own eyes. I don't mean a stranger you pass in the street, I mean a stranger who's lived next door to you for twenty-five years, or a stranger you ask directions from or hand his dropped wallet to or knock down with your car.

This probably has something to do with the traditions of overcrowding, of living cheek by jowl for two hundred years. Whatever the cause, we have no stage presence at all, no Southern theatrics, Midwestern irony, Western hyperbole, New York cynicism. We don't even have the famous and overrated Maine understatement. We have instead an Unfortunate Manner.

 - Jincy Willett, Winner of the National Book Award, p.5

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 6 by Herge

I forget, between volumes, just how much work it is to read the small-format Tintin omnibuses. Herge worked for a much larger page-size, and took advantage of that: his pages typically have at least a dozen panels, and are packed with dialogue that these editions set in a slightly fussy italic pseudo-handwritten font. So I find myself peering much more closely than I expect, and sometimes needing to take off my glasses to focus on on panel in isolation.

They're also fairly involved, intricate stories: each one is 64 pages long, and, again, those are big pages full of talking and action. Sure, the talking is often vaudeville-level humor and the action is early-blockbuster spy thriller, but there's still a lot of it. And a little bit of the supposedly humorous secondary characters - Jolyon Wagg, who first appears in these stories, I am looking straight at you - goes very far, but we never get just a little bit of them.

So perhaps I'm happy to be getting close to the end with The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 6. There's something melancholic about reading old adventures stories from other people's childhoods to begin with, and I've read fifteen previous adventures even before I got to this point. (Obligatory links to volumes one, two, three, four, and five, each of which reprinted three books. The first two in the series, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo, are mildly suppressed these days for reasons of tendentiousness and/or racism.)

Tintin, who was set up to be a boy reporter early in the series but never even feints in the direction of filing a story or having any kind of stable job by this point in the series, first appeared in 1929 at the age of twelve and, in the manner of adventure-story protagonists, was still twelve when The Calculus Affair first appeared in serialized form from 1954-56. (The other two books collected here are The Red Sea Sharks from 1956-58 and Tintin in Tibet from 1958-1959; this appears to be the point where Herge stopped working on Tintin stories basically continuously, at the age of about fifty-three, and did just three more discrete tales over the next decade-and-a-half.)

The three stories here are all entirely separate, though they have the standard Tintin furniture: Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, those supposedly funny detectives, and so on and so on. Calculus and Red Sea are more-or-less spy thrillers: the first details a Cold War-ish battle between the standard two Herge fictional countries (Syldavia and Borduria) over a potential superweapon developed by guess-who, and the second is another one of Herge's long-chain-of-coincidences plots that leads to Tintin foiling an operation to take African hajjis and sell them into slavery. (The book never uses the term "hajjis," but they're going to Mecca. Also, Herge's drawing is a bit caricatured for the African characters, but he's generally not racist in his depiction of them.)

Tibet is an odder book: Tintin has a prophetic dream about Chang, a boy of about the same age he met way back in the book The Blue Lotus, who has not been mentioned since, and who has supposedly just died in a plane crash in the Himalayas. Tintin is sure Chang is not dead, and has various omens that he is correct; the story is driven entirely by the boy's pigheadedness and insistence on finding Chang. Oh, and there's a Yeti in it, but mostly as a background character. It gets cited as a book about the power of friendship, but no real-world friendship I'm aware of includes ESP powers to infallibly rescue one another from far-away continents, so I'm a bit dubious.

Herge is still really good at adventure-story hugger-mugger; he throws additional complications in as well as anyone in the world. And his comic relief, though very hokey, is generally at least moderately amusing. (And that's good, because these books are roughly forty percent comic relief by volume.) As I've said before, this is not exactly my thing, because I am an adult and because I grew up a generation or two later, but this is still really solid work and would probably be nearly as appealing to young people these days.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Doctor Andromeda and the Kingdom of Lost Tomorrows by Jeff Lemire and Max Fiumara

You know, I'm starting to think the "how to read the Black Hammer-iverse" graphic on Dark Horse's site - which I am not linking here because I'm sarcastically throwing shade at it - is really just a list of everything in that universe in basically publication order, without any thought for what the actual main story is or focus on readers who may want to get to something like an ending before the heat death of the universe.

Again, I may be making an unwarranted assumption that the "actual main story" has ended or will ever end; writer Jeff Lemire is indulging all of his superhero-universe ideas in this meta-series and the whole point of superhero universes is that IP roams free as long as there is money to be made. It may be that this was the idea all along: set up a dramatic situation, and then tell other stories set in the related universe for as long as the marks will keep paying, without ever moving that initial story forward. (I hope not: I had more respect for Lemire than that.)

Anyway, the "fourth" book listed on that graphic is Doctor Andromeda and the Kingdom of Lost Tomorrows, written by Lemire and drawn by Max Fiumara. It has nothing at all to do with the previous three volumes, aside from being in a shared universe. There is no reason at all to read this next; it doesn't even act as a flashback the way the Sherlock Frankenstein book did. This is entirely a story of some other guy in the same world, who was a sometime co-worker of the characters in the first two books.

That guy is Dr. James Robinson, who is Starman Doctor Andromeda, a WWII-era superhero. The story opens many years later - how many is vague, but probably '80s-90s, around the time of the big "Event" from the main Black Hammer series. Dr. A's son Charlie is dying, and Dr. A is very estranged from that son and, we learn slightly later, the rest of his family as well (now-dead wife, daughter-in-law, unspecified grandchildren).

At this point, we start to uneasily wonder if "Kingdom of Lost Tomorrows" is a god-damned metaphor for regrets and growing older and neglecting the actual human beings in your life to fly around punching people wearing too-tight spandex. I would not dream of spoiling such a realization.

So we see Dr. A in his civilian guise going to visit his dying son Charlie in the hospital, being sad and middle-aged and serious. Interspersed with that, we see young Dr. A. discovering his super-science-y stuff, joining up to fight the Nazis, and generally finding any and every opportunity to avoid his wife and new baby. (Superheroes! They can be workaholics just like anyone else! The cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon!)

The description of Doctor Andromeda describes it as having two plots, which is slightly untrue. It takes place in two timeframes, but neither of them quite rises to the level of a full-fledged plot. In one of them, Dr. A. does superhero stuff, leading to a stupid mistake that has consequences for his long-neglected family - but this is a sequence of events over a long period of time rather than any single coherent plot. And in the "modern" story, Dr. A mostly mopes and thinks about how, OK, sure, all of the punching and long hours in the lab were totally awesome, but maybe he should have given the wife and son attention at least once a year or so, especially since not doing so made them hate him forever and it's not like a genius still-fairly-young superhero who probably has patents to seven dozen things that underpin the modern world could have any other life or love options in the world.

Anyway. Dr. A fucked up, and He Is Sad. The point-source fuckup wasn't entirely his problem, but it was based in his blissful neglect of everyday life (which itself was the longer-term, more core fuckup), so it's not like he can get off the hook on a technicality. But the point-source fuckup also has super-science-y implications, and maybe, just maybe, he can use that to cure Charlie's cancer and then the son he neglected for (checks figures) forty-some years will suddenly love him again!

Well, no. But sort-of yes, at least in a Jeff Lemire everybody-is-sad-and-has-family-problems kind of way.

I should say that this story really does end, and the four issues collected here are entirely self-contained. So, for all of my snark, this stands alone reasonably well, and I probably would have liked it much better, and been much nicer to it, if I didn't come to it expecting it would somehow advance the Black Hammer story (which, again: it totally doesn't). If I had read Doctor Andromeda completely alone, I think I would have been at least mildly positive about it, and said things about human concerns in a superhero story and how at least it doesn't really focus on the punching.

But, in the end, this is a "I spent too much time in the office, and my kid grew up to hate me" story. (Little boy blue and the man in the moon! When you comin' home dad, I don't know when!) And it doesn't really elevate the cliché, or do much more than tell that very familiar story in a superhero setting.

Hence my sarcasm.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Apologies to My Censor by Mitch Moxley

I bought this book randomly in 2018 and read it randomly this year; I have no larger story to tell or connections to make. It's a memoir of six years spent as a journalist in China, more or less, and was five years old when I found it.

Mitch Moxley is a Canadian, about a decade younger than me, and he was a mid-twenties journalist in 2007 when everything went to shit. Jobs were scarce, his life wasn't looking all that exciting, and so he took a strange opportunity when it came his way: to live in Beijing for a year as a reporter for the state-owned China Daily.

Six years later, he moved to New York and this book, Apologies to My Censor, was published. He does not make a connection between the two events; I would not be surprised if there was one.

He presents himself as a slacker in Apologies, living on remittances from his parents as much as his own freelance journalism and other odd jobs available to white North Americans in China (music video and movie actor! voice recorder for training audio! plausible-looking man in a suit!), and doing so for more than half a decade. His accounts of his life also keeps mentioning hangovers and partying and keeps avoiding talking in depth about any long-term friendship or love relationships. (He did have a semi-serious girlfriend for the first couple of years, and then silence descends.) He did manage to write this book, so he's not a total slacker, but, on balance, I think he makes a good case for himself as a terminally arrested adolescent; he turns thirty in the middle of this stretch of time, and keeps on living like a frat rat.

Moxley became mildly famous, and probably got on the path to this book deal, from his short article "Rent a White Guy" in the Atlantic, in which he explained for the rest of the world something white guys in China like him knew: there was a big market for pretending to be the executives of random (presumably fictitious) companies for building openings, ground-breakings,  other ceremonies, and apparently also some day-to-day operations. Moxley insists this is not the Chinese thinking Westerners are superior, but there's clearly some level of cargo-cult or con-man thinking: if we pretend to have this thing, that will make everything better!

It's very clear that Moxley did very little in six years in China: a few freelance clips, a lot of drinking in bars and working out in gyms and watching pirated movies alone or with fellow drunken expats. He took an intensive program in the Chinese language at the end of his years there, so he came out of it with better language skills: that's possibly the most telling factoid from this book. It sounds like a horrible, soul-sucking existence, and I can't tell if Moxley's repeated declarations that it was wonderful to be in this foreign city with a bunch of random losers and drunks is meant to be true or just him psyching himself up.

Apologies to My Censor is a pleasure to read; Moxley did some silly things, and writes about them pleasantly. It's not a book to think deeply on, though: the more time you spend looking back at it, the sadder you get for Moxley and all of the other men like him wasting years they can never get back.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/25/21

This week, one book I put on hold popped up at the library, and this is it:

Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen: Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? by Matt Fraction, Steve Lieber, and Nathan Fairbairn: it collects the recent series of the same name. I don't see a "Vol. 1" on the copyright page - though there could be one on the spine, covered by the library stickers - which leads me to believe this was another goofy experiment, allowed to exist for a short time in the usually clenched-teeth world of Big Two comics. (I could be wrong; there may be more clenched teeth in this book than I expect.) Anyway, I tend to like weird throwback Silver Age ideas, or at least I like to read and mock them. (Hi, Cave Carson! How's tricks?)

As far as I can tell, this story is about Jimmy running around with different groups of characters each issue (all with some connection to Superman, I expect), trying to solve his own murder. (I have no idea if this is a time-paradox story, an I've-be-poisoned-unreasonably-slowly story, a dream, a hoax, or an imaginary story. But that's the premise.) It may also spin out of what I think was a crossover: a story from something called Superman: Leviathan Rising Special leads off the book, which may either be integral to the deal or a one-off proof of concept.

Anyway, it's a thing, and I expect to read it later the same day I'm typing this.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Quote of the Week: Every Failing Real or Imagined

Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception., The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one's marked cards - the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed. The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others - who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O'Hara, is something people with courage can do without.

To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that details one's failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There's the glass you broke in anger, there's the hurt on X's face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one.

 - Joan Didion, "On Self-Respect," in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, pp.109-110

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Minecraft: Wither Without You Vols. 1 & 2 by Kristen Gudsnuk

I don't have tags for either video games or sharecropping, since I don't read enough books in either category to make those useful, but this book would have both of those tags, if they existed. I'm also not 100% sure the "for kids" applies: the CIP data on the copyright page says these books are "Ages 8+," but so are a lot of other things. The Minecraft graphic novels are at least not not for kids, if that makes sense.

Most people will be reading this book, and the burst of other Minecraft graphic novels that Dark Horse has been publishing under an arrangement with Mojang over the past couple of years, because they like the video game Minecraft: maybe the building/crafting elements, maybe the grinding/fighting mobs elements, maybe something social about being on a server with friends. But I only played Minecraft a very little bit myself, way back near the beginning, so I'm one of the few people here because I'm following Kristen Gudsnuk's career.

(Sidebar 1: said career consisting, as far as I've seen, of the awesome Henchgirl graphic novel, mostly for adults, and two books in the Making Friends series for middle-grader readers. Those also contain awesomeness, but said awesomeness is more finely tailored to an audience of tween girls. A third Making Friends book has just been published; I haven't seen it yet. I recommend adults start with Henchgirl: as previously mentioned, it is awesome, and I will keep saying so until everyone admits it.)

(Sidebar 2: I think I liked what I played of Minecraft. It's just that I think I want to play building/crafting sims - I spent decades thinking I really really wanted to play Sim City or Sim Universe or whatever, but never got around to any of them, and did buy The Sims but left it moldering in my Steam folder after setting up two separate households in one evening - but, on the evidence, I actually want to do some crafting/building in my RPGs, as evidenced by nearly 3k hours in Fallout 4 to date. So nothing against Minecraft, and I may get back to it someday. But I bet it's totally different than my vague memory.)

I say that to orient you the reader: the Minecraft stuff here is vaguely familiar to me, and I have definitely played other video games. But I may misunderstand some pretty basic stuff, and I apologize ahead of time if I do.

Anyway, Kristen Gudsnuk, of previous awesome comics fame, is in the middle of a trilogy of short graphic novels set in the world of Minecraft, the popular video game. I recently read the first two: as far as I can see, the third is not yet scheduled to be published, but my guess is that it should hit in mid-2022. The series is called Minecraft: Wither Without You, and Volume One was published in April of 2020 and Volume Two followed this May.

So this is an incomplete story, obviously. It's set-up and middle, but the ending is not available yet. But each of the two books to date has an arc of its own - as all trilogies should - so I think I can say coherent things about the two of them.

We're in a fantasy world that will be very familiar to Minecraft players and deeply weird to anyone else: the world is made of blocky elements than can be mined for materials used to build other things, and monsters run around randomly. Some of the people are rounded, but most of the villagers (whisper NPCs whisper) are blocky just like their world and creatures. Adventurers fight monsters to save villages, but even more so to get experience orbs and rare materials and probably some valuables the monsters have themselves.

Cahira and Orion are twin teenage monster hunters, traveling with their mentor/teacher Senan the Thorough to learn the ways of monster hunting and get epic loot along the way. In the first book, a Wither - a big nasty flying monster - attacks them when they trigger a trap in some monster-filled castle they're exploring. It swallows Senan, and the twins chase it across the landscape, thinking they can save their mentor from its belly if they can do it quickly enough.

They are correct, though they need the help of Atria, a teen girl they meet along the way: she's been cursed to attract monsters, and ends up both luring the Wither to them and figuring out what the Wither really wants.

The second book begins with our four heroes seeing that same Wither fly over, which it should definitely not be doing given the end of book one. (Trying to be at leas slightly vague here.) They're on their way to Whitestone City to resupply after their epic battle, and they decide to also consult the great sorcerer Lucasta while they're in town.

Unfortunately, Lucasta is also Senan's great rival, so there's some tension there. She also farms monsters, and is most interested in setting Atria up in a room with some monster death-traps to harvest their stuff - which is not the most pleasant thing for Atria. And there's a self-proclaimed great monster hunter, Elvicks, in Whitestone, and his arrogance and attempted thievery leads to a zombie infestation, as it sometimes does.

So most of the back end of book two is devoted to getting rid of the zombies and working out the other problems. But they all end the book newly geared up and ready to go out and stop that Wither...which I presume they will do in the final book.

These are both fun and zippy in Gudsnuk's usual style: her people have big emotions and reactions, which is excellent for slightly goofy melodrama where the reader knows it will all end well eventually. You probably do need to be a fan of Minecraft or Gudsnuk to want to read them, unless you've got a thing for books-based-on-video games. (And maybe you do: I don't judge.) But both of these books are very good at what they set out to do, and what they set out to do is be vaguely positive but silly entertainment.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Ascender, Vol. 3: The Digital Mage by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen

The formula is still strong with this one, but I guess that's OK: it's an old formula, but one that a lot of people like and that still has some juice to it. Just because I can see every plot development coming a parsec away isn't necessarily a reason to say it's bad, I guess.

But seeing plot developments coming that far away does give a reader a lot of time to scrutinize them as they approach, and Ascender does not have enough story detail to give a lot of depth to reward such scrutiny. So, as before, my advice is to read the Ascender books as quickly as possible and try not to let any extraneous thinking enter your brain during the process. The more you can concentrate on Dustin Nguyen's lovely painted art, the better.

Here in Ascender, Vol. 3: The Digital Mage, writer Jeff Lemire has exactly the big reveal that I expected when I wrote about the first volume, at exactly the moment I thought. I'm not claiming any particular prescience; a monkey with bifocals could have seen it coming, and it's on the frigging cover of this book, too. The the surviving cast of Descender continues to gather for the eventual big showdown with Mother and the Vampires Who Were Always There But No One Knew They Were Because It Used to Be a Science Universe And Now It's a Magic Universe, Look Just Trust Us On This, Okay?

Speaking of the vampires, a character in the first issue collected here bluntly states the vampires were "underground" for "eons" in this volume - yeah, sure, just keep saying that and maybe it will make sense. Frankly, "the rules of the world changed and now there have always been vampires" would have been more elegant and a better fit for a magical universe to begin with: magic is about transformation and paradox. But no one asked me.

The party is still split for this volume, with Mila and Telsa zipping across space, Andy and {SPOILER} trying to survive on Sampson, and our two vampire Mothers (old fat previous model and her sister the slim gorgeous redhead current titleholder) wandering around plotting and scheming, mostly against each other. They will all come together for the big fight, obviously.

By the way, time for another obvious prediction: the ending of Ascender will feature a sudden but inevitable betrayal by old Mother of new Mother, which will save the day for Our Heroes. I'm mostly sure it will be purely out of spite and hatred, but old Mother might also have a moment of "Oh, gosh, The Source of All Magic is so Wicked Kewl I cannot let my evil sister get it."

Anyway, it's all zippy and exciting. There's very little time for real character work, so it's a good thing we're nine volumes in and everyone is pretty well established. (Sucks for Mila, who gets to be "spunky kid with Secret Powers," and no space for anything else, but them's are the breaks.)

I still cannot take this seriously in any way, in any universe with laws based on magic or science. I see a fourth volume will be published in October: if my library system gets it, or if a copy mysteriously has been "underground" for "eons" near me and spontaneously erupts, I expect I will read it. But probably not otherwise.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

PTSD by Guillaume Singelin

It's the near future, or a near future. Some city, somewhere: relatively cosmopolitan, pretty big, diverse, full of activity. There's probably a government somewhere - we know they fought a war in the recent past - but they don't impinge on daily lives. Maybe it's a poor government, or a minimal one, or one that badly lost that war, or maybe just the people we see want nothing to do with the army of social workers who never show up on the page.

People live on the streets in this city, as they do in many cities. Some of them are just trying to get by, some of them are engaged in exploiting others - this may be illegal, or may not be, but there's no sign anyone important cares, either way. Many of these people on the streets are veterans of the recent war. Some are veterans of older wars.

There were always wars. There are always veterans. And many of them are deeply damaged, physically and mentally, from what they saw and did.

PTSD is the story of one veteran: Jun. She was a sniper: a very good one. But when we see her, she has only one eye and she's addicted to pain-killers (maybe for physical pain, more likely for sleeping and forgetting) and she's barely keeping it together on the streets of this city. Worse, she's actively hostile to help. This is more-or-les the story of how she turns herself around: how she finds a purpose, finds a way to accept help from other people and give help to other people, how she pulls out of a downward spiral and sets herself on a better path.

There's violence along the way. Jun is very good at violence. Wars are good at teaching that, or maybe at winnowing out the people who aren't good at violence. She's violent against the people who exploit others, mostly, so we're mostly on her side. Not everyone is: when you fight against someone, they fight back, and that's not necessarily just against you.

So Jun starts off alone and addicted, tormented and trapped by her own memories. She meets people, rejects them, but gets dragged into their lives almost against her will. She starts trying to do good - maybe at first partly because it's a way to be violent, and partly because some part of her wants to die violently, and partly because it's just something to do. She does find other ways to help, other things she knows how to do that are more productive than violence. Eventually.

The book is called PTSD. And a lot of the characters have PTSD, one way or another. But that's just who they are now: what this war did to them. PTSD for them is like gravity, or air - it's what water is to fish.

Guillaume Singelin shows rather than tells Jun's story, with a soft color palette and an art style that leans more to manga influences than Euro, but does incorporate both. This is not a lesson; it's a story. The title is a sneaky one, to make the reader think about how and why Jun is damaged rather than just enjoy this as another story about a veteran using her skills for violence in ways we're supposed to deplore but secretly love.

The book itself isn't overly sneaky, I suppose - I like sneaky books, so I'd be happy with even more of that here - but it's sneaky enough, and sneaky in smart ways. But it is smart, and told crisply: the story of one woman in a particular place and time, an interesting and diverse city, and how she survives and more than survives after a devastating shock. Those are all good material, and Singelin does good things with them here.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/18/21

This week, I have two upcoming books from the fine folks at Tachyon, which I will dive into without further ado:

The Peculiarities is a new novel by David Liss, author of A Conspiracy of Paper and a bunch of other novels. His name is oddly familiar; I think because I've had his The Ethical Assassin on my to-read shelves for years, and I keep pulling it down and looking at it but haven't actually read the whole thing. It looks like he's had one of those interestingly meandering literary careers: he's written some comics and a Spider-Man novel recently, did a middle-grade SF trilogy before that, but most of his books are historical mystery/thrillers in deeply researched time periods.

Peculiarities is not a historical novel, exactly, I've poked into the afterword and other bits enough to see that this is an alternate rather than a secret history; some things will be different from the way the real world was. This one also has supernatural elements, and I'm not sure if his straight-historical books did - so it's a conspiracy-thriller set in Victorian London, with a clueless young man thrown in over his head. (That all sounds very Tim-Powers-ian, which I am entirely in favor of; I'd love more books like that.) This was just published in trade paperback at the beginning of September.

I try not to be too obvious in my editorial comments when listing new books - everyone likes different things - but I have to admit that the title of this next one gives me at least a minor case of the squicks: Body Shocks: Extreme Tales of Body Horror. I'm not crazy about horror at the best of times, and adding "extreme" and "body" in the mix makes me think I may not be the right reader for this one.

But you may well be! It's edited by Ellen Datlow, who knows horror short fiction better than anyone, and it collects 29 stories from the '80s through the modern day, by all of the classic and modern names that you would expect. So, if you are in the mood for a body-horror anthology, you are never going to find a better one than this. It will be published on October 19th, in the traditional season for horror.