Friday, July 29, 2022

Quote of the Week: Family Traditions

I am dreaming, and in my dream I am in church, naked from the waist down. But that's okay, because so is the rest of the congregation.

The weird bit is not the unscheduled underpants deficiency but the being in church. I don't do churches. I grew up in a nonobservant household, raised atheist by default until I lost my disbelief. Now that I know the gods are real, I would never willingly engage in any act of worship - it only encourages the bastards.

 - Charles Stross, Escape from Yokai Land, p.40

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Escape from Yokai Land by Charles Stross

This one is a "Laundry Files" book. Not all of the books with that logo on the cover are, in the purest case, but Charles Stross's publishers have decided to keep using the logo for anything set in the same world for simplicity's sake. (See my post on the novel Dead Lies Dreaming for more details, and to begin a link-trail back earlier in the series.)

Escape from Yokai Land is a flashback, or a previously-untold story; it covers what happened to "Bob Howard" on his trip to Japan just before the events of The Delirium Brief. It's also a novella, which is not always clear to a purchaser, so understand that: this is a shorter story, only eighty pages long. But, if you want more of Bob, this might be the only dose for a while.

As readers of the series know, this is a Lovecraftian universe: horrible many-angled ones lurk just outside our world and are trying to get in to eat the brains of humans and do even worse things. More seriously, such incursions are easier the more people and computing devices are in the world, as well as the traditional "when the stars are right" - and all three metrics are trending hugely up as this series hurtles towards what will be at least a minor apocalypse.

Bob is the current host of an entity called The Eater of Souls for good and sufficient reasons. Luckily, he's in as full control of that entity as is possible. Slightly less luckily, he's a fairly new host; his predecessor was killed in the line of duty the year before. (The undertone being: even a powerful, skilled, old sorcerer with a scary thing called the Eater of Souls in him can get snuffed out in this world.)

Bob has been requested by the Miyamoto Group, which seems to be the Japanese equivalent of the Laundry - the fully or quasi governmental body that manages supernatural stuff secretly for their country and snuffs out all of those budding apocalypses - to do a every-four decades check on their local warded sites, and eliminate some current yokai (local folkloric creatures) manifestations. The previous host of the Eater did not leave a good impression during his visit in the 1970s, though.

More seriously, a big manifestation is bubbling up, and Bob will need to contain it, with the aid of his local liaison officer.

That manifestation is centered on a theme park in Tama New Town, and will manifest as something that the book almost consistently calls Princess Kitty. (There are a couple of "Hello"s lurking, which I gather the publisher's attorneys missed in what may have been a late and rushed review.) As Stross says in his short afterword, this is the story that asks: "What if The Color Out of Space were...Pink?"

The Laundry books are often amusing, on the borderland of funny, in a buried, whistling-past-the-graveyard way; this one slots into that stream and is full of quirky little touches having to do with "Princess Kitty" and Japan in general. It is short, and entirely focused on this one short trip of Bob's, but it does just fine in its length.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Celestia by Manuele Fior

Some books tell you their background in exquisite detail, laying out all of the world-building carefully and clearly, so the reader knows exactly what has happened.

I generally prefer the other kind. I'm a grown-up; I don't need someone to hold my hand.

Manuele Fior, I think, does entirely stories of the other kind - 5,000 km per second was a great story about people, told sideways and indirectly, and the shorter pieces in Blackbird Days were also non-obvious. His new graphic novel Celestia is also one of the other kind: a modern story with no thought bubbles or long explanatory speeches, set in a nearish future world that was utterly transformed by something that I doubt anyone left in the world understands.

Here's all the background we get, before the first page of comics:

The great invasion came by sea. It spread north, up the mainland. Many fled. Others took refuge on a small island. An island of stone, built in the water over a thousand years ago. Its name is Celestia.

We never know who or what invaded. I tend to doubt it was anything human, but it never gets any clearer than that. What happened to those who "fled" is also unclear. Unless they fled the planet somehow, though, they don't seem to be there anymore. Take that as as you wish.

I suppose it's possible that this was relatively local: maybe just this continent, this land. But that's not the sense I get.

Celestia, a generation later, must be self-sufficient by definition. It has no contact with the rest of the world, if there is a rest of the world. A new, post-invasion generation has grown up: this story follows two of them, Dora and Pierrot, the two characters on the cover. They both have telepathic powers, not entirely under control - and I would say that is not uncommon for this new generation. Maybe even more so as time goes on.

This is a story about humanity transformed, but that story is mostly in the background. The Great Invasion perhaps had something to do with the transformation: in the best possible scenario, it was some kind of Childhood's End thing. The worst possible scenario? Whatever your biggest fear is. Whatever is the most horrible thing you can think of.

Pierrot's father, Dr. Vivaldi, is one of the leaders of Celestia. At least, he has followers, so he's leading them - it's not clear if there's any real government on Celestia, and the back cover describes it as "an outpost for criminals and other outcasts." (As I've said before: if you're the only people left, there's no other government and you are not criminals, by definition.) Vivaldi has some kind of plans; I'm pretty sure they have to do with self-aggrandizement and power and likely some underlying theory of the outside world.

Pierrot is privileged, respected. He can reject his father and still come and go in his father's circles as he pleases. And his telepathy is mostly a positive thing in his life.

Dora, on the other hand, is being chased. She's in hiding, her telepathy lighting up unexpectedly, her mind only half her own. Vivaldi's group wants her, for something that the reader may suspect will not be good for her.

Before long, Pierrot and Dora flee Celestia, with the threat of violence behind them. They are the first to do so, we think, though Vivaldi talks about exploring the larger world, all the time.

Pierrot and Dora find people outside Celestia. But very few. And most of them are from the new generation: even younger, and even more different than their elders than Dora and Pierrot. (More Childhood's End, with maybe a touch of Midwich Cuckoos or creepier stories about transformed children.)

As they must, Dora and Pierrot visit a few places on the mainland, and will eventually return to Celestia for a confrontation with the people chasing them. We still don't quite know why they are in conflict, what the factions in Vivalid's group are, and why some of them would dare to threaten their leader's only son. But we come to the end, even without that knowledge.

Fior tells this story mostly quietly, in soft colors on large pages. Even the scenes of violence seem frozen; his panels are each a moment in time, inherently still. He will not tell you how to think about this; will not tell you everything that you want to know. If you only like the kind of story in which everything is explained five times, with captions including everyone's code names, this is not a book for you. But I hope more of you are grown-ups than that.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Cruel Shoes by Steve Martin

This is a book by a young man. We sometimes forget things like that: we think that Albert Einstein was born the old guy with the bushy hair, or that Lawrence Welk's '60s style was what big-band music sounded like when the WW II generation was young and on the make. Everyone was young once; everyone thought the world was ahead of them and they could do anything they wanted. Some of them were right.

Forty-five years ago, Steve Martin was an up-and-coming young comedian: weird and distinctive and quirky, beloved by youngish Boomers and mostly confusing to their parents. He'd hosted Saturday Night Live a few times - and was probably known by that point as much as "the wild and crazy guy" as for the blindingly-white-suit standup routine - toured the country to sold-out shows in ever-larger venues, but hadn't been in any full-length movies yet.

His standup was random and anarchic, with obvious sight gags (the arrow through the head, juggling "kittens") interspersed with non sequitur outbursts, frantic banjo playing, some actual songs (those of my age will remember "King Tut"), and absolutely nothing with a standard joke structure. It was funny and bizarre and different, and it had been building for most of the '70s; Martin was 32 in 1977.

And then he put out a short book of essays and poems, Cruel Shoes. It's copyright 1977, but everything I can find says 1979 is when it was really widely available: the year The Jerk hit theatres, the year Martin got even bigger and, I suspect, started to think about movie work as the off-ramp for the crazy standup act that may already have been palling for him.

This is not that standup act: go to his first couple of albums if you want that. But it's like the standup act: off-kilter, refusing to abide by standard joke structures or ideas of what's "funny," full of weird transitions and juxtapositions. It also points towards Martin's later, more literary ambitions - the novels he wrote early this century, the screenplays based on famous older works, and so on. His ideas were wild and crazy, but his prose, even this far back, was tight and precise - as we should expect, since a standup comedian is the next thing to a poet as someone who needs to make very specific words say precisely what he wants.

Cruel Shoes has fifty-one pieces in its 128 pages; they're mostly the length of comedy routines, just a page or two, and a few of them did make it into his act or onto his albums later. (Or simultaneously; I don't know the sequence, this many years later.) They are very nearly indescribable, but the book can be read in little more than an hour, so why bother to describe it when someone can just read it?

This seems to be solidly out of print, but Martin was a superstar in the making when it came out, in a world where books had massive print-runs, so copies are available in probably every last used-book store and church sale and flea market in the entire nation. If you want Cruel Shoes, I doubt it would be hard to find.

Oh, and something I didn't know when I started. There is a title story. It is about cruel shoes. They are shoes, and they are very cruel. Really. I always thought it was some kind of metaphor; I didn't realize how deeply Martin had committed to the bit back then. If there's one thing I'd want to tell you, you being a person who might read this, it's that: Martin was committed to the bit.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of July 23, 2022

Two books this week, both of them from the fine folks at Tachyon and both of them brand-new books being published for the first time in the summer of 2022. Here's hoping at least one of them looks interesting to you.

The Extractionist is, I think, Kimberly Unger's second novel, after Nucleation. The publisher calls it a technothriller, which I guess is what cyberpunk becomes when the world catches up to it: it's about a VR expert whose job, as the title implies, is to pull people out of virtual spaces when they're unable to do that themselves. As you might guess, this is about a job that Goes Wrong, and it sounds like there's action in both virtual and meat spaces, possibly simultaneously. Looks like zippy fun, and it's available as of July 12th in trade paperback and digital formats.

Coming next month (out August 9) is The Bruising of Qilwa, a debut fantasy novel from Naseem Jamnia. (And the back-cover copy is looking very familiar to me...because, as I just realized, James Nicoll reviewed this a couple of months back.) It's about blood magic (the good kind, apparently), non-binary people, found families, political oppression, and the refugee experience - so this one looks quite a bit heavier and more issue-oriented, if you want that in your reading.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Quote of the Week: Forgive Me Not

It had never occurred to Sophie that she would be forgiven so readily for her trespasses and she wasn't sure that she liked it. She had refused to visit her dangerously ill father in hospital because her career was more important to her, and the least he could do was judge her. You could get away with anything, it seemed, if you were on the telly.

 - Nick Hornby, Funny Girl, p.111

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Tunnels by Rutu Modan

OK, is this just me suffering the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, or are a lot of cartoonists really deeply influenced by Tintin? I wouldn't have expected that to be so central to so many different creators, but I keep seeing it: the manic plots, the dot eyes, the same kinds of "comic relief" thrown in even when it feels forced.

Rutu Modan is only the most recent example, but just look at the eyes of her characters on the cover of Tunnels. Am I crazy, or is there something there?

(There's also some plot elements that are very Tintin-esque, including the big kerfuffle at the ending, but I don't want to spoil the plot. But I do want to assure you this is not just me obsessing about how some cartoonists draw eyes. Well, only partially.)

Tunnels is an adventure story about archaeology, and, like all of Modan's books I've seen so far (Exit Wounds and The Property), they're deeply Israeli: they could only be told about people in that part of the world, with that heritage, at this point in time. That's entirely a good thing - everything should be as specific and particular as possible - but it does mean I'm looking at it from the outside, and may miss important bits of context and nuance.

Nili is a middle-aged woman. It would be unfair to say her life was ruined by her now-dementia-ravaged archaeologist father, but...she spent most of her childhood in the '80s on an obsessive dig with him, has never gotten past that, and never got any serious formal education. She now has a young son, her obsession with that old dig, and a dwindling bank account: basically nothing else in the world.

Oh, wait: she also has a deep and abiding hate for her father's old partner/rival, Rafi Sarid, now the chair of the department at the university where they were both associated.

Nili thinks she can pick up that dig, thirty years later, and complete it. She thinks there's a fabulous treasure deep in that ground: the Ark of the Covenant. (Yes, the one from Raiders of the Lost Ark.) She thinks she can manipulate all of the people around her: her younger brother, an archeological protégé of Sarid's; a dealer in Biblical antiquities and his bankrolling, controlling wife; local Palestinians when it turns out a big West Bank wall is right in the middle of her dig site; a group of very devout (and possibly meant to be nutty; it's hard for me to say) Jewish diggers; Sarid himself; and even the military. She thinks she can tell most of them the real purpose of the dig, promise the Ark to most of them, and still come out the other end on top, with everything she wants and no consequences.

She's almost smart and sneaky and driven enough to do that; the world almost has elements that will let her do so. How it all gets more and more complicated, and falls apart in increasingly baroque ways, which then need to be repatched in even more baroque ways, is the story of Tunnels.

The Tintin-eqsue elements are that air of manic energy, the ever-complicating plots, and a lot of the humorous elements along the way. Modan has no villains: her worldview, I think, is entirely anti-villain; both the JDF and actual Palestinian terrorists come across as quirky but understandable people, maybe blindered, maybe wrong-headed, maybe destructive. But there's no force of evil here; even Sarid is right, sort of, by his own lights.

There's a lot of material here, and Modan treats it all honestly and with a sense of even-handedness. She's writing about a cramped land, full of people who have been there for thousands of years, leaving crap in the ground and squabbling with each other above it. She's sympathetic to all of her characters, even as she shows most of them as deluded in large ways, and all of them as deluded in at least small ways. People are fallible in Modan's comics - and not just fallible, but always deeply human, always themselves and always doing the odd things they need to do even when they should be following their plans and pursuing their real aims.

Tunnels is a big book filled with activity and action and slapstick and just stuff. It feels like a book by a creator trying to Go Big in everything: to cram in all of her thoughts and ideas and feelings even loosely related to the central matter. It can be a little exhausting, but it's a great ride if you can hang on.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Raptor: A Sokol Graphic Novel by Dave McKean

Now I work in marketing, so I know not to trust marketing copy. (Don't ask me how many times I've gotten something subtle wrong - or something obvious wrong.) But I have to look askance at the insistence of Raptor's descriptive copy of being "Dave McKean's first creator-owned character."

I mean, this is still a world in which Cages exists, right? Surely he didn't do that as work-for-hire? (If he did, the world of comics is vastly more predatory and horrible than even I thought.) And there are original characters in things like Pictures That Tick and his smutty book Celluloid, as well. So I wonder if that phrase is just puffery to say "hey, this is important" or if it's using "creator-owned character" in the specifically comics sense of "a thing we expect to exploit in a lot of media for decades, starting now!"

In any case: Sokol! The sensational character find of 2021! A moody guy in a fantasy landscape who kills monsters, I think (mostly off-page) and then sometimes screws up handling the aftermath, letting the local villagers make things worse than the with-monster status quo!

Oh, and he's not really the main character of this book, because it's by Dave McKean, and nothing can be straightforward or not about the creation of art in a Dave McKean book. Arthur, who is some manner of late 19th century gentleman (he doesn't seem to have to work, or at least doesn't do anything in the course of this book) and who recently lost his lovely wife Amy, is writing the story of Sokol as a way to break his grief. His brother, Ed, would prefer that Arthur join his occult group instead, for the usual vague focus-your-mind and maybe transform-the-world aims.

The stories of Arthur and Sokol trade space on the page, with McKean's elegant - sometimes too elegant, since he's never seen a ten-dollar-word he couldn't replace with a fifteen-dollar one - prose as captions to give atmosphere and some context to their experiences. It's still McKean, though, so it's moody and evocative, with wordless sequences in which dark birds transform into blue women who fuck (?!) one of the main characters in what I hope is meant to be creepy rather than happy.

Raptor is not as clearly about grief as I thought it would be, with Arthur's mourning so central to it. Sokol does not seem to have lost anything, and his story has nothing to do with loss. The mystic rigmarole also does not seem to have anything to do with contacting the dead: it's more the 19th century equivalent of aligning one's chakras and becoming one with the numinous aether.

What we do get is a lot of scenes. Sokol tromps around, and may have been rewritten by Arthur (after meeting Arthur, because it's that kind of book) to create a better ending to his first major story. (Or maybe this ending will be even worse; such is life.) Ed and Arthur sit around like clubmen discussing Very Serious Things, and stand and declaim at Tarot cards with the rest of the mystic group. There are scenes that are clearly Meaningful and Symbolic and possibly even Mystic themselves. None of this forms a conventional narrative, because Dave McKean.

Frankly, like a lot of McKean's work, I don't bother to do all the work to figure out just exactly what it is about. It's moody and gorgeous and full of fancy words and fine feeling, and that's fine: it doesn't need to add up to anything. So I can tell you that I think McKean does intend it all to add up to something, but I could not tell you what that "something" is.

Perhaps the further adventures of this "creator-owned character" will give us all more context.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby writes psychologically smart but often facile novels, ones where things go the way we suspect the author wants them to, or thinks they should go, rather than where the characters and events are actually driving towards. His people are real and true, and, that, I think, is why we may not believe what he makes them do.

All of the books I've read of his were set in the modern world - Juliet, Naked most recently, for all that I was a decade late getting to it.

But he's dropped into the past at least once: Funny Girl, his 2014 novel, is set mostly in the mid-60s. It's a quirky book in the Hornby oeuvre, and I don't think entirely successful.

Funny Girl is the story of Barbara Parker from Blackpool, who wants to be on TV, to be funny in public - she basically wants to be Lucille Ball, or to be herself as a British version of Lucy. But it's also the story of Barbara (and Jim), the sitcom she gets hired for, and helps to mold, soon after she reaches London.

And that's the problem: Funny Girl is a breezy, fairly short novel that covers four to five years in depth and then jumps to the then-current day, fifty years later, while trying to be about two interlinked but distinct things, which each could have used a lot more depth than Hornby is willing to give them.

It could have been more focused on Barbara, who becomes Sophie Straw for TV-credits purpose and then finds herself playing a career-defining role using her semi-abandoned real name. There's a lot of potential drama or insight there; Hornby states it and never does anything with it. We also don't see much of Barbara/Sophie's life during the '60s - what else she did, who she saw, what it was like to be young in a place where things were changing quickly. We know she does one movie after the first series of her show, but don't get any other details of her career until the coda, fifty years later - are we to assume she spent the hiatuses between the other series doing nothing? In London? In her early twenties? In the mid-1960s?

That's another theme of the book, another piece not given enough space and life to blossom. It comes up repeatedly, but mostly in passing: are these mostly hard-working people staying in touch with "the young audience"? What is happening in Britain in these years? (I don't think the term "Swinging London" is ever used, but that's the background.)

The show Barbara (and Jim) runs for four series, which seem to be roughly yearly starting in 1964. But the main bulk of the book absolutely does not seem to cover four or five years - not enough is happening, not enough is changing. It feels like all of the characters are utterly static while they're off the page, that only the moments Hornby depicts here are "real" and transformative, and there just aren't enough moments here, over several years and at least half-a-dozen major characters, for that to work.

Taking a term from something entirely different, I'd call Funny Girl an example of scope creep. It could have been a strong novel about Barbara, focused tightly on her as she went to London, launched a career, and worked through that show. Or it could have started with her but told the story of the first series of Barbara (and Jim), looping around to give the points of view of all of the major characters. As it is, it tries to do both of those things, and more, and then wrap it all up in a bow fifty years later for an entirely different purpose, and none of that has enough space to work.

Hornby is always readable; this book went by very quickly. (Too quickly, as I've been saying.) It is a pleasure to read, and its people feel real in their moments on the page. All its flaws are larger and structural; all of its problems are baked in deeply. So it goes.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of July 16, 2022

One book this week, a new one from the fine folks at Tachyon:

Boys, Beasts & Men is the first collection of stories by Sam J. Miller, author of several novels, including The Art of Starving and Blackfish City. It has an introduction by Amal El-Mohtar, and fourteen stories that originally appeared various places between 2013 and 2019, except for one original to this collection. It also has story notes at the end, to avoid spoilers, and a long acknowledgements that taught me that Miller's mother Deborah Miller is also a genre writer. (Though, I think, not the British novelist Deborah J. Miller, who died about a decade ago.)

This was just published recently: the book itself doesn't have a date, but That Big Internet Bookstore says it was released on June 14th.

As far as I can tell, I haven't read anything by Miller, so I have no personal experience to draw on here. But he's hip and young and energetic, so maybe give it a try!

Friday, July 15, 2022

Quote of the Week: Yes But No But Yes

'Mr Poskitt, I love your daughter.'

'So do I,' said Poskitt. "Very nice girl.'

'I want to marry her.'

'Well, why don't you?'

'You will give your consent?'

A kindly smile flickered over my old friend's face. He looked at his watch again, then patted Wilmot affectionately on the shoulder.

'I will do better than that, my boy,' he said. 'I will formally refuse my consent., I will forbid the match in toto and oppose it root and branch. That will fix everything nicely. When you have been married as long as I have, you will know that what these things require is tact and the proper handling.'

 - P.G. Wodehouse, "The Letter of the Law," in Lord Emsworth and Others, p.119

Thursday, July 14, 2022

The Frank Book by Jim Woodring

Does the beginning explicate the later work? It can, sometimes. Especially if a creator starts out relatively simple and gets more complicated as she goes, the beginning is the best way in.

But if the beginning is as hermetic and self-referential as the end, then it may only look like a slightly simpler version, which could be useful, but will not provide any Aha! moment.

Jim Woodring is the latter. I don't know if I need to say that; it's probably clear to anyone who knows Woodring's work. Woodring, for thirty-plus years, has been making comics set in a world we eventually learned he calls The Unifactor, about a little guy named Frank and the enemies, friends, pets, and monsters that inhabit that world with him. The Frank Book was the first big collection of Frank stories; it came out in 2003 and collected stories that had appeared, mostly in anthologies, in the decade before that.

Since then, Woodring has mostly made new Frank stories at graphic-novel length: Weathercraft, Fran, and Poochytown are a few of them, the ones that I've written about here at the greatest length.

Some other things I should tell you about Woodring's work: it's generally wordless. We know the names of these characters from sources mostly outside the books themselves, though this book does collect a series of trading cards (it was the '90s; I can't explain the why of that any more clearly) with names for all the characters to that point and some psychological/behavioral details for them. His work is about feelings and psychological states and transformation and, probably, in some complex way, teleology - his world is a directed, purposeful one, that forces specific actions and changes to...teach moral lessons? illustrate various parables? demonstrate the futility of all action?

That's the thing. I'm pretty sure Woodring has very specific lessons to teach, that his stories are precise and pointed. But I have never found them clear, at all. I don't think most people do, luckily - there do seem to be a few readers in synch enough with Woodring's worldview to explain some pieces of his work, but most of us experience it rather than understand it.

This is the best introduction to Woodring's work, the clearest and simplest and most obvious of the Frank stories. They are not clear or simple or obvious, by any standard definition. There are over three hundred pages of stories here, and they begin as they continue: with Frank in a detailed, complex world that Woodring will not explain to us, besieged by and gleefully exploiting and tricking (and several more even-less likely verbs) the organic, transforming creatures and/or landscape of this place.

It does include those trading cards, so we know he is Frank, the appetite-driven four-legged thing is Manhog, his pet is Pupshaw and her mate/friend is Pushpaw. The devil-figure is Whim. The spindle-looking flying whatzises are Jivas. And that there is both the Faux Pa and the Real Pa, who are completely identical except for the way they interact with Frank.

Things happen. It would be body horror if we took it seriously, if we didn't know all of these characters would be back to their default state at the beginning of the next story, like a repertory company who all die at the end of Hamlet and then jump up to take a bow and ask the audience to come back tomorrow for Love's Labour Lost.

Woodring's work in this era was only intermittently in color, so this book shows his black-and-white line art better than the later, more colorful books. There are some images, mostly single pages, that look to be done with airbrush, but this is mostly pen-and-ink work, full of precise lines to delineate all of these phantasmagorical things.

Woodring is a careful, precise creator - in both his drawing and his stories. We may not know why something looks as it does, or why Frank does any particular thing, but we always know Woodring knows, and did it that way for a very particular reason.

That's enough for me; I hope it can be enough for you. Woodring is a singular figure in comics: utterly unlike anyone else, with influences that seem to be entirely outside of comics and no followers at all. His world is wide and strange and beautiful and horrible, and every page, every panel is a new wonder or horror.

This is where it started. This is where to start. But don't expect to get it. You may have to be Jim Woodring for that.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

The Worrier's Guide to Life by Gemma Correll

Since I've been out of the satanic mills of Big Publishing for more than a decade now - and that decade has seen, he said understatedly, a couple of changes - I find myself wondering how things work these days. Well, to be more specific, I find myself wondering if very specific kinds of things actually do still work, and, if so, what makes them work now when the world they relied on is gone?

Take the small book of humorous cartoons. From Arno to Garfield, it was a staple of mass-market book merchandising for most of the twentieth century, but my understanding is that books like that were mostly impulse purchases - you bought one because it was near the check-out counter, or in a display in the power aisle, or you were browsing in humor and it was face-out. And, OK, yes, bookstores still do actually exist, true - but the center of gravity for book sales these days is mostly online, where algorithms and (ever more as each year passes) paid advertising slots are the only things that can or do attract eyeballs.

(Though, as I type that, I wonder if "paid advertising slots" is the answer - that's where all those old POS placements and table placements and face-out placements came from; they were all paid for. Maybe the online world has finally caught up with the way physical selling was twenty years ago.)

I wonder this because I like small books of humorous cartoons, and I end up reading a lot of them. So I want them to continue to exist for entirely selfish reasons. And lately, I worry that Andrews McMeel is the only house seriously publishing the stuff I'm looking for, and I wonder if that's mostly because AMcM is a sister company to a vast syndication engine, and so it's more "additional revenue" than a solidly successful thing in its own right.

In any case, those are the extraneous, invasive thoughts that came to mind looking at The Worrier's Guide to Life, Gemma Correll's book of cartoons from 2015. Correll is British, and I believe when this book came out she was still based there; she has since decamped to California, as all creative people are required to for at least one phase of their careers. I see her stuff most often at The Nib (which you should be following, if you like cartoons), but she's got a varied cartooning and illustration career, with work all over the place. This is still her only solo book; she's illustrated what look like a few YA books before and since, plus, y'know, cartoons and illustrations hither and yon.

Worrier's Guide is a general collection of cartoons, on many different topics - somewhat unconventionally (though I've seen it a few times), it's organized into thematic chapters. There are eight of them, and they are large and vague - things like "Modern Malaises" and "Travels & Tribulations" and "Fashion Frenzies." Basically, categories general enough to include some vaguely related topics, tight enough so the cartoons make sense with each other and loose enough that they're not making any of the same jokes. 

Obviously, I like Correll's work, or I wouldn't read a whole book of it. And I think you will, too, because I'm an optimist like that. In particular, she's really good at the cartoon that's a page of 6-10 related things, which are sometimes separate jokes on the same general topic and sometimes a funny sequence. A couple of examples from her website: Pasta Shapes for the Depressed (also in this book) and the more recent The Ladies' Mothering Blog. Things I can't link to, and you should read the book to find, include Dangerous Seafood (tuna with a knife!) and Cakes That Are Really, Really Bad for You (it starts with "Death by Chocolate" and also features "It's Probably Nothing, But You Should Get It Checked Out Anyway by Almond").

(Oh, and here's another one that I think I posted somewhere else one, and is still up on her Twitter.)

Anyway: Correll is funny. She writes funny, she draws funny, she has a good line in self-deprecation and makes good jokes about specific new things in the world, and she has a specific point of view. More people should read this book, so more books like this - by Correll and others - continue to appear.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Bad Machinery, Vol. 10: The Case of the Severed Alliance by John Allison

When last we left the Mystery Teens of Tackleford, at the end of The Case of the Missing Piece, they had mostly stopped solving mysteries, and two of the core girls, Lottie and Shauna, had just fallen out. That's what the title refers to for this final collection: not the supernatural menace that threatens Tackleford (which is quite real and sinister), but the break between two of the main characters.

This is the tenth and last Bad Machinery collection, The Case of the Severed Alliance. Creator John Allison has a short afterword where he says his original intention was to have one case for each term of the Mystery Tweens/Teens' seven years at school, which would have been twenty-one books. He gives a few reasons why he only made half that many stories, but I think he quietly missed the most obvious one: time. Allison is a creator whose stories take place in time. He sometimes drops back into the past - the Bobbins flashback series, for example, or, in an odd way, all of Giant Days - but time always passes in his stories, things change, and his characters grow older. The Bad Machinery stories came out about two a year, not three a year, and I think his characters just grew up, in his head, faster than he expected.

The Bad Machinery books are a creative peak for Allison - he's had several; most people are more familiar with Giant Days - with a big cast well deployed, a complex and quirky world for them to live in and explore, wonderful dialogue on every page, oddball supernatural menaces that lurk deep in the story and only emerge fully near the end, and long rambly plots full of interesting incidents and unexpected moments that all come together for bang-up finishes. These can't have been easy stories to plot, write and draw; my sense is that Allison is more of a plotter these days than a pantser, but any multiple-times-a-week comic is going to morph and change as the individual installments come out, so I don't think anything quite ended up exactly the way he expected.

In any case: this is the "teens get jobs" storyline. All six of the main cast are about 15-16 here. Lotty works at the local newspaper, partially to have a work-study arrangement (called "P&Q" here, which is some British term that I don't think is ever spelled out) [1] and partially because she is frustrated with her lack of movement in her preferred solving-mysteries-as-a-teenage career. (Yes, that is a thing in the Allisonverse, with glossy magazines and gala awards and all. See Wicked Things.) And Shauna is working for Amy Beckwith-Chilton, one of the old-time Tackleford characters, in her antiques shop, along with a young man named Romesh who Shauna found and who has a mystical ability to detect valuable antiquities among junk.

But the story is mostly about the gentrification of Tackleford: the main street is filling up with posh, expensive shops, rents are skyrocketing, houses prices are ditto, and an "Inland Marina" is being built where the kids used to swim in the local river. We also meet Sewerman General Johnson, the tough man who keeps the drains of Tackleford running, and the massive, possibly sentient, Tackleford Fatberg that he's been trying to break up. Amy and her competitors in the very Lovejoy-esque antiques trade are chasing after the fabled cursed Pearl of the Quarter, a gem of immense power that disappeared at the death of its previous owner Tommy Binks, the man who made Tackleford the modern success it is.

Oh, and there's something going on with Tackleford's sister town, Wendlefield, which is as run-down and hopeless as Tackleford is shiny and expensive.

Shauna and Lottie work opposite ends of this mystery - do they eventually come to find it is the same mystery? Are they forced to work together? Is there a shocking confrontation in a half-constructed industrial scene? Has the mystic Pearl been incorporated into some weapon that threatens the whole town? Is there a fiendish villain who must be stopped? Do all of the Mystery Teens, and their new powers and abilities - I've neglected to mention that Mildred has been learning to drive a car! - come into play at the end? Is Tackleford saved?

Reader: yes and yes and yes and yes and yes and yes and sort of.

I would not start here, if you haven't read Bad Machinery. Severed Alliance is wonderful and funny and exciting and marvelous, but it works much better if you know the characters. So find the first book, The Case of the Team Spirit, and start there. But Bad Machinery is awesome; you should read it if you haven't already. And if you read it online (it was originally on Allison's site but now lives on GoComics), it might be time to get the books and read it again.

[1] Utterly nonamusing anecdote: on a call with some Brits this past week, I realized that what Americans call an "intern" (college-age person working in a business for a limited period of time, usually tied to and providing credit for their school) is called an "apprentice" in the UK. This, I think, is a similar issue.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of July 9, 2022

The epic trilogy of remainders ends with...some miscellaneous books that didn't fit cleanly into any category, actually. A couple of things from the mystery/thriller world, a couple from the moderately-popular-nonfiction world, and I'll call it a day.

Again, this is stuff I bought, but largely because it was available at remainder prices and I was putting together a big order. But that's one of the most fun ways to book-shop: grabbing things that look vaguely interesting, because why not?

The Honorable Schoolboy is a John Le Carre novel from 1977, one of the many about his series character George Smiley and, I think, part of the "Karla Trilogy" of the mid-70s. I've read a couple of Le Carre books (early novels A Murder of Quality and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, plus his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel) , and have been accumulating more of them - in large part because I like the trade-dress of this Penguin series. (Though, since this one is remaindered, my guess is that they'll be redesigned very soon, and so my plan to get all of them in matching covers will be dashed on the rocks.) So I don't expect to get to this any time soon, but I might need to buy more like this quickly while I can - the life of a book accumulator!

Trouble Is What I Do is a short novel by Walter Mosley in his Leonid McGill series, from 2020. Back when I was reading mysteries quickly - which is back in the days when I was reading a lot more books to begin with, and reading at speed, because my job was to read books and have opinions about them - I really liked his Easy Rawlins series, and I've intermittently trotted out my theory that Mosley would be considered one of the great writers of our time if he weren't both Black and writing genre fiction. The only thing of his I seem to have covered in the Years of This Blog is the oddball sex novel Killing Johnny Fry, probably because, hey, a sex novel! (Prurient interest is definitely A Thing.) This one is short, so I may just get to it soon, and, who knows?, that could get me back on a Mosley kick.

Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers is one of those books not credited to any human being, even though I'm pretty sure there's one poor person who did almost all of the work. It is a compendium of weird questions asked of the reference desk at what we are required to call the august New York Public Library, and of course the answers that those questions received. It also has a lot of illustrations, including a cover, by Barry Blitt. This is a book designed for the smallest room in the house, and it will live there, for at least a little while, in the near future.

And last from the whole big remainder order is William Poundstone's The Doomsday Calculation. I've been reading Poundstone since Big Secrets when I was a teenager, so I'm surprised that his photo on the back cover of this book looks comparatively youthful (he looks only about as old as I feel, and he must have a couple of decades on me). I seem to have only read his Priceless during the life of this blog; he's mostly turned into a financial journalist who writes big-idea, business-adjacent books every few years, and I was in business-book publishing for about a decade there, so I may have been too close to that particular sausage-making apparatus. In any case, this is one about Bayesian statistics, as applied to what seems to be a reverse Drake Equation, about life on earth.

To unpack slightly: Bayesian thinking is the continuous-updating model, in which the odds for something are modified by subsequent events to, in theory, provide ever-better predictions of whatever thing one is trying to predict, as long as one is trying to predict something that can be well modeled by math. The Drake Equation tries to codify the odds for life elsewhere in the universe, by taking all of the expected sifting events - stars that live long enough, planets in the right zone, life forming, multi-cellular life, etc. - giving them all wild guesses for probabilities, and then confidently saying, for example, the Milky Way must have 3.6 technological civilizations in it, including ourselves. And so the Doomsday Calculation is a Drakeseque way of looking at the ways that humanity may go extinct, with added Bayesianism to make it seem really, really likely in the very near future.

I will have to read the book to see if I can buy any of that.

Friday, July 08, 2022

Quote of the Week: We Bombed in New Haven?

If the Lithuanian chambermaid who at half-past nine that night came to turn Barmy's bed down had been at all psychic - which, of course, very few Lithuanian chambermaids are - she would have sensed, as she went about her work, a strange, almost eerie atmosphere in Room 726, as of a room in a haunted house that is waiting for its spectre to clock in and start haunting. It is an atmosphere which always clings about those hotel apartments in New Haven, Syracuse, and other try-out towns where before long haggard men will be meeting to conduct the post-mortem on a newly opened play. It was as though Room 726 was holding its breath, anticipating it knew not what.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, Barmy in Wonderland, p.132

Thursday, July 07, 2022

Barmy in Wonderland by P.G. Wonderland

First up: Barmy is a person. For those with a knowledge of P.G. Wodehouse, or the traditional naming conventions of the British public-school class, this may not be surprising.

Second: Wonderland is not a place. Or not literally. It refers to the theatrical world, in particular Broadway, perhaps closer to the '20s when Wodehouse worked extensively there than to the 1952 when this novel was published.

That out of the way, let me tell you about Barmy in Wonderland, in which a young man from Blighty trades up from being a hotel desk clerk in rural Maine to being a big-time Broadway producer, owner of most of a play that could be the hottest thing of the season but equally could be a horrible mess that will inevitably flop. The man is Cyril Fotheringay-Phipps; "Fotheringay" is pronounced "Fungy" and the whole mess is usually replaced with "Barmy," his old school nickname.

As the novel opens, Barmy has just come into an inheritance, due to the timely death of one of those random uncles who so often die in a timely way in novels like this.

And speaking of "as the novel opens," here's how it actually does:

J.G. Anderson took up the telephone.

'Give me the desk,' he said.

They gave him the desk.

'Hello?' said the desk.

'Phipps? This is Mr Anderson."

'Well, well, well,' cried the desk, baying like a pleased bloodhound on the train of aniseed. 'Good old Anderson! Splendid old Anderson! The top of the morning to you, bright and bounding J.G. But this isn't Phipps. Phipps has stepped out to put ice on his head. He is sick of a fever. This is Potter, old pal. P. with an O., O. with a T., T. with an E., E. with an R. Potter.'

'Potter!' muttered Mr. Anderson gratingly, as if the name had hurt him in a sensitive spot. He replaced the receiver and sat back in his chair. His eyes had closed. He seemed to be praying.

So this is Wodehouse in top form. It's a short book, but crammed full of incident and amusing, often larger-than-life, characters. Barmy himself, and even his beloved-at-first-sight, Eileen "Dinty" Moore, come across a little more pedestrian than the parade of Byronian actors, rapacious producers, cold-eyed lawyers, sophisticated directors, and odd random hangers-on, but that does help them to center the story, so I can't count it a flaw.

The plot is the usual Wodehouse soufflé, in which Barmy gets the chance to invest in a play because of a borderline scam and then things escalate from there, with the play (Sacrifice - Wodehouse describes the plot and it sounds absolutely horrible in a very funny way) alternating from the worst thing possible to an absolutely guaranteed hit with every new complication. I wouldn't dream of spoiling the details: this novel is only 226 pages long and reads quickly.

Barmy in Wonderland isn't, I think, on anyone's list of the greatest Wodehouse novels. But it's really funny, about something Wodehouse knew deeply and could ring great changes on, and zips along at pace from beginning to end. It's somewhere in the upper quarter or tenth of Wodehouse books, which is really damn good.

And, for a much tinier audience, it's also an interesting parallax to his memoir Bring On the Girls, written with his theatrical collaborator Guy Bolton, about their own Broadway years, written at almost exactly the same time.

Wednesday, July 06, 2022

Herding Cats by Sarah Andersen

After a morning when I had a conference call on a supposed vacation day and also managed to think (erroneously) I'd messed up the steering lock on my car for half an hour in a parking lot, I was ready to read something light, fluffy, and entertaining.

So I went back to Sarah Andersen and found Herding Cats, the third collection of her "Sarah's Scribbles" strip. (See my posts on the first two books, Adulthood Is a Myth and Big Mushy Happy Lump.) It was indeed as light, fluffy, and entertaining as I hoped, and put me in a better mood for the rest of the day.

This is the third collection of Andersen's strip, so it's very much the same kind of thing as the first two books. For some readers, that might be too much, or it might not be what they want in the first place. Again, see my previous posts for details - but it's all cartoons focused on a goofy, borderline-incompetent version of Andersen as a millennial goofball, with cartoons circling the main topics of cats, art, the millennial version of "mental health," and the making of art.

This book also has a long, mixed-text-and-comics section at the end, specifically talking to other, presumably slightly younger millennials, who want to make art themselves. I tend to have cynical reactions to assumptions that the audience for a thing is largely people who want to be doing that thing themselves, but this is all solid advice from someone who just went through it. I do hope most of Andersen's audience is not frustrated art-makers; the world needs plumbers and account reps and OB/GYNs and patent attorneys and CPAs and CDL drivers and forklift operators and software engineers just as much or more as art-markers, and young people rarely yearn to do those things as they do with art.

But this is a nice book, about mostly nice things - with some lurking anxiety and imposter syndrome for spice - by a creator still in the early phases of her career, and it can be a great thing if you, too, need a dose of mostly positivity in your life.

Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Black Hammer: Streets of Spiral by Jeff Lemire and a cast of thousands

This post may be shorter than my previous diatribes about the wonderful world of Black Hammer, for multiple reasons. One, I've said most of the things I could say. Two, this is an odds and sods collection to begin with, so it's small and random and miscellaneous and will not stand the weight of serious criticism. There may be other reasons as well, but I think those two will do.

In any case, I have written a bunch about the previous Black Hammer books - the most recent was the flashback Black Hammer '45, and that one links further back in turn. And, frankly, how much background do you need? This is a pastiche superhero universe, with mixed DC and Marvel influences (Legion of Super-Heroes here, New Gods there), and anyone who knows superhero comics from the second half of the 20th century will find all of it deeply recognizable.

So this is Black Hammer: Streets of Spiral. It was the ninth collection of the series, and the one that gathered all of the loose bits of string to that point: one "Giant-Sized Annual," in case you thought it wasn't on-the-nose enough about its obsession with '70s comics; a one-shot called Cthu-Louise; The World of Black Hammer Encyclopedia, a very "Who's Who"-style compendium of superhero details; and a short story from the Dark Horse Free Comic Book Day issue for 2019. The Encyclopedia was written by Tate Brombal with series-creator Jeff Lemire; Lemire and Ray Fawkes wrote the short story; Lemire wrote the rest solo. Art is by a large number of people:

  • Nate Powell, Matt Kindt, Dustin Nguyen, Fawkes, Emi Lenox, and Michael Allred for the Annual
  • Lenox with Dave Stewart (who provided colors for nearly all of these pieces) for Cthu-Louise
  • Fourteen different people for the Encyclopedia, including many of the above
  • David Rubin did full-color art for the short story
And what are these individual stories?

The Annual is one of those standard multiple-artists, multiple-heroes "special" stories, which could be assembled piecemeal, showing the whole team dealing with Problem X individually. As was the case with its models, it doesn't add up to a whole lot in the end. There is a sub-Starro the Conqueror eyeball/squid thing, which appears repeatedly out of the Random Mystical Zone and which has to be punched back out of the normal world. It is, repeatedly - this is a superhero story, after all.

What what does it all mean, ask our heroes in the end?

Well, probably nothing. In a regular superhero universe, it's either space-filler or a set-up for a crossover. In Black Hammer, it's just yet another kind of indulgence.

Cthu-Louise is very familiar; the character (and her father, the former supervillain Cthu-Lou) have appeared at least once before, and the plot beats here are very similar. Louise is a teenager with a alien-god squid head, which makes her unpopular, and she wants to fit in. Eventually, she does.

The Encyclopedia is a collection of pages on all of the major characters that have appeared in the various Black Hammer comics to this point, with first appearances and power levels and known family and all that bumf. It is much odder when it's about a world created by one guy, in one series of stories, over only three or four years.

And the short story is the most forgettable, functioning mostly as a teaser - well, it was in a FCBD comic, and that's the whole point of the thing - for both past and (I assume) future Black Hammer stories.

If you like Black Hammer, this is a bunch of minor Black Hammer. If you like vaguely '70s-esque, vaguely Big Two-ish comics, you will like Black Hammer. And god knows there are more of you out there than I want to believe.

Monday, July 04, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of July 2, 2022

This is the middle part of the trilogy that started last week; the old skiffy hand in me would never pass up an opportunity to commit trilogy. 

This week, I have four more books from the remainder mills of HamiltonBook - I'm lumping these as Literary. Last week, I had the first four books from that big box; next week will see the last four.

Henry, Himself was Stewart O'Nan's new novel in 2019; it might still be his most recent book. It's loosely related to his previous novels Wish You Were Here and Emily, Alone. (I have copies of both of them but haven't read either; I've been a fan of all of the O'Nan books I've read without ever reading him fast enough to actually catch up.) This is a character-focused novel, and I think set in between the times of the previous two books - in 1998, when the title character (husband of the Emily who is Alone in her book) is seventy-five and apparently not long for this world. (How long are any of us for this world at seventy-five? Well, my wife has spent the last couple of years telling me about Gordon, a man of I think a hundred-and-three who she saw at the free-tax-prep-for-seniors office where she works in the spring, so that's where I've set my goals.)

Realistically, I'll want to read two fairly substantial novels before starting this one. I won't get to it any time soon, unless my reading life changes radically again. But who knows?

I probably had a copy of Francois Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel before. I would not be surprised if it was this exact Everyman's Library edition - I like these books (though I tend to remove their dust jackets, so they can sit, mostly in nice red cloth, on my shelves and judge me for not reading them) and this edition is from 1994, so there's been plenty of time for copies to percolate around. This is a classic, obviously: a four-hundred-year-old translation of a five-hundred-year-old book, or maybe series of books. I've never read it; I hope to read it someday. Now I have a slightly higher chance of doing so.

Another book from Everyman's, and I could say again most of what I just said: The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This one is only a one-hundred-year-old translation of a three-hundred-year-old book, but it's also French, which I didn't mention last paragraph.

I don't quite know the Everyman's color scheme. As I said, most of the books I've had a red (maroon, maybe): those are mostly British novels. Confessions is dark green, perhaps for non-fiction? Gargantua is a light blue, which I guess is for Continental literature. Looking at my shelves, what I thought of as "red" seems to actually be two things: a dark maroon for 19th century British (and earlier?) and a lighter red for English-language stuff from the 20th century (including some Americans).

Last for this batch: the most recent travel book from Paul Theroux, 2019's On the Plain of Snakes. This one is a trip through Mexico, clearly inspired by all of the fear-mongering about "the border" in the years just prior and apparently spending a lot of its time following that border. My assumption is that Theroux has no truck at all for any of that fear-mongering, but he's getting up in years now, and who knows how a curmudgeon will land in his old age?

I've never read a Theroux novel, but I'm basically caught up on his travel books: there are a few scattered ones from earlier in his career I haven't read, and the recent short-pieces collection Figures in a Landscape is on my shelves mocking me, but I have gotten through the big books from the prior two decades or so, up to Deep South.

These are probably not books I'll get to any time soon. But we all want stretch goals on our shelves, don't we?

Books Read: June 2022

When I have a long weekend immediately after the end of a month, I actually remember to do these posts on time. Go me!

Here's what I read last month:

Dave McKean, Raptor: A Sokol Graphic Novel (digital, 6/4)

Steve Martin, Cruel Shoes (6/4)

Manuele Fior, Celestia (6/5)

Charles Stross, Escape from Yokai Land (6/5)

Darrly Cunningham, Billionaires (6/11)

Rutu Modan, Tunnels (6/12)

K.J. Parker, Inside Man (6/12)

Tillie Walden, Alone in Space (6/17)

Joe Ciardiello, A Fistful of Drawings (digital, 6/18)

Brian Gordon, Fowl Language: Winging It (digital, 6/19)

Gregory Mardon, Body and Soul (digital, 6/20)

James Alan Gardner, They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded (6/20)

Brenna Thummler, Sheets (digital, 6/25)

Zander Cannon, Kaijumax, Season 4: Scaly Is the New Black (digital, 6/26)

Walter Mosley, Trouble Is What I Do (6/26)

Next month I'll read more books. And maybe even remember to list them here.

Friday, July 01, 2022

Quote of the Week: A Lesson Many People Should Learn

"Belay that remarking, buddy. I've got a feeling we may meet more people who are put together in ways you haven't seen before, so I'll give you a thirty-second course in etiquette. When you encounter someone physically radical, do not speak about that person as if they were not present, whisper to who you're with, or make faces or gestures. You can speak to the person, because it's a person, and if you don't mind the risk of seeming a little boorish you can go straight to making reference to how they look and how they got that way, they're used to it. Mostly it's good manners not to bring it up until they do."

 - Molly the Dwerg, in Daniel Pinkwater's Crazy in Poughkeepsie, pp.85-86