Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Nayra and the Djinn by Iasmin Omar Ata

My problem is that I'm always comparing books with other books, or just wanting things out of them that they never promised. This is, of course, a Me Problem, and I try to tamp it down when it hits.

I have a major case today, but I'm going to try to be fair to Nayra and the Djinn, a fine new graphic novel by Iasmin Omar Ata with lovely colors, a positive story, and a message that will resonate with a whole lot of readers younger than I am. Nayra is officially published today; you should be able to find it in all the usual ways and places you find books.

You see, I recently read another book about wishes, Djinni-adjacent, connected to Egyptian culture and Islam - Deena Mohamed's Shubeik Lubeik - and anything I say about Ata's YA book could well be me wanting it to be more like Mohamed's book for adults. That's a bad impulse! I want to make that clear. Each book, each story should be precise and particular - even things I might think of as flaws [1] can be important and specific to that book.

I'm saying all this to stop myself from doing it. Let's see if I succeed.

Nayra Mansour is a younger child in a high-pressure Arab-American immigrant family. She also has only one close friend at school, Rami, and is being bullied - in the mostly psychological, nasty-names way that young women are most likely to attack each other. She's feeling overwhelmed and increasingly unhappy, especially since it's Ramadan.

She's fasting all day, since that's important to her, but that makes her hungry and cranky and tired - and also gives her bullies more things to use to attack her. It's a vicious circle that only gets tighter, especially when her parents refuse to listen to her complaints - admittedly, she mostly does the nonspecific teenager-y "you don't understand me!" yell rather than trying to explain in depth, and they are equally loud and stereotypically tigerish immigrant shouty parents - and just point to her high-achieving, seemingly perfect older siblings.

In case I buried the lede above: this is very much a YA book. Nayra continually fumes and runs away and has titanic, massive emotional swings. I don't know exactly how old she is, but she is about as sixteen as it is possible to be. Readers who are many decades past their own equivalent life-stage may find they have less patience for that kind of drama, and may wish that Nayra was somewhat more constructive in her problem-solving.

But, instead, she meets a djinn, which the cover and title gives away. Marjan has their own issues and has fled the djinn world for reasons that won't be explained for a while, but that stays secondary to Nayra's problems. (Again: YA story. Big, overwhelming, all-encompassing drama.)

Nayra's new friendship with the djinn supplants her previous friendship with Rami - parenthetically, I kept getting the vibe that the relationship was hugely more important to Rami than it was to Nayra, and wasn't sure if that was supposed to be a romantic thing, but the relentless focus on Nayra and her emotions leaves that unclear - but having Marjan in her corner generally does make things better for Nayra, as the month of Ramadan rolls on.

On the other hand, Nayra has also secretly applied to transfer to another school, to get away from the bullying. Her parents don't know this, and would probably not be in favor: they don't seem to be in favor of anything other than "shut up and be a perfect student." And the bullying troubles are getting worse. And her schoolwork is taking a hit - from spending time with Marjan, from the bullying, from stress and anxiousness, from spending too much time reading about Arab folklore online, and from the physical stress of Ramadan.

So everything blows up, as it must in a YA story. It does end mostly happily, though Nayra still doesn't explain things to other people in the ways I hoped she would. Still, she's young: she has a long time to learn that skill, which will be hugely valuable. I hope she does.

As I said up top, Ata has a colorful art style that pops particularly well when showing the djinn world. The publisher compares their style to Stephen Universe, which I've never seen - it looks like plain 'ol manga-inspired western comics to me, all big eyes and huge gestures, but I am One of the Olds. Nayra is a positive, energetic, very teen-aimed book where problems are resolved non-violently and people do eventually learn to understand each other's differences, which are all good things. I found it a little too teenager for my personal taste, but I did stop being a teenager in 1989, so that's only to be expected.

[1] I'm not the authority on flaws. Other people have different opinions.

Monday, February 27, 2023

This Year: 1978

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

Here's another one I know I loved at the time - maybe even the very same year, if not really soon afterward.

This also may be the song that reinforces just how quirky I am. This is my favorite song by this band: it's not even close. Nothing else is even in the running, all of those arena-filling anthems and rock-opera masterpieces - which I like, don't get me wrong, and even feel what I think other people feel when they hear them. But this song is something else, something more, and I feel it in my bones when that intro starts up with all its beeps and boops.

For 1978, the one song above all for me is from The Who. And it's 905.

(If ever anything prefigured that I was meant to edit SF, it would be this.)

It's a chilly song, one that tells a SFnal story that is also deeply metaphorical, if not allegorical. It's a song for anyone who ever felt like a cog in the machine, who ever thought "everything I do's been done before." I don't know why nine-year-old me imprinted so strongly on that - I think the sound of the song, that oddly syncopated electronic drone that starts it and continues throughout, was what grabbed me first, and the lyrics made a slightly later impression.

I don't know how to take that last line of the refrain: "each end of my life is an open door." It seems more positive than everything else in the song, on its face, which probably means I'm reading it wrong. Open doors usually mean possibilities and choices. But here, maybe, it just means that nothing will ever end - that there's no way out. It's not the kind of open door you walk through; it's the kind of open door that means you can see everything, and know it's all the same, forever.

And yet: it's not a depressing song. It's not happy; I won't claim that. There's a quiet power to it, a sense of acceptance, a deep understanding, maybe. 905's life is what it is; the world is the way it is. There's no room for anger or sadness when everything is completely known - it's almost Buddhist in that kind of radical acceptance.

Well, almost. 905 does have one wish, one missing piece - "that feeling deep inside that somethin' is missing." And, maybe, he will be the one "to tell the whole world the reason why." We all wish that, don't we? And if we all wish something, it has to come true, somehow, someway...right?

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Reviewing the Mail: Week of February 25, 2023

One book this week - a debut novel from Tachyon, hitting in paperback on March 14. I haven't said this explicitly in a while, so maybe I should: a "Reviewing the Mail" post is about books I haven't read yet, and, particularly when they do come in the mail, about books I know very little about.

Mia Tsai's Bitter Medicine is a contemporary fantasy with at least a strong romance strand, set in what seems to be a somewhat more magical version of our world - I'm not sure if this is openly more magical, or more of a secret history. (The latter is more traditional and common, but every writer gets to pick whether and how to follow tradition.)

Our two main characters are Elle, descended from the Chinese god of medicine but working as a magical calligrapher for a temp agency, and Luc, a half-elf security expert. From the description on the back, their interactions with each other and their complicated families are the story - not to say that Tsai doesn't weave in anything else, but there's no sign of saving the world or anything like that. And I am 100% on board with more fantasy books that don't require the world to be saved, so that makes this immediately more intriguing.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Quote of the Week: It is Too Much; Let Me Sum Up

"So you sat up all night with one of your all-time favorite writers and you can't remember a single thing he said?"

"There was one thing."


"he stopped in mid-sentence, " I remembered, "and took hold of my shoulder. He was this meek-looking little guy, but his eyes were very intense, and they bored into mine, And he said, 'There's just one thing I have to tell you, and if you forget everything else, make damn sure you remember this."


"And then he just sighed, and shook his head, and moved his hand as if to wave the world away. 'Never mind,' he told me. 'It's not important.'"

 - Lawrence Block, The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown, p.261

Friday, February 24, 2023

The Old Geezers, Vol. 1 by Wilfrid Lupano and Paul Cauuet

First off, I have to tell you that this is a whole thing: the book I'm writing about today contains the first two (of five to date) albums in the series, the series has been a big bestseller in France, and there even has been a movie (which looks to stick really closely to the first album, in both casting and plot), Les vieux fourneaux, a few years ago. (Oh, wait! There was a second movie in early 2022, too.)

If The Old Geezers doesn't look like the kind of thing that would be a big deal in your nation, you may be American like me, or you may just be Not French. (No shame there, most of the world is Not French, and what it would be like if the world were entirely made of French people?) But know that it is, and that creators Wilfrid Lupano and Paul Cauuet appear to be riding that train gleefully as far as it will take them.

The cover shows the three title characters: Pierrot (right), Emile (center), and Antoine (left), three retired men, probably in their mid-70s, who have known each other since they were boys. It is roughly the mid-teens; their peak young-and-crazy years coincide almost exactly with the 1960s. And all three of them were young and crazy in their own ways - in fact, Pierrot is clearly still crazy, and the other two not that far behind him. Antoine was a union organizer and leader, Pierrot a less-definable rebel and anarchist (this does not seem to be a career path, but we don't see much else about his younger life), and Emile traveled the world by sea doing what seems to have been various things for decades.

Oddly, both of these albums have roughly the same plot: one of the men learns a Shocking Fact from the past (or thinks he has) and sets off to kill someone. I'll just focus on the first album, where the man is Antoine, and what he learns is that his wife Lucette (whose funeral forms the beginning of the book) had a torrid affair, very long ago, with the hated Garan-Servier, owner of the local factory and Antoine's nemesis. Garan-Sevier is now living in a rest home in Tuscany, deep in the throes of Alzheimer's, but Antoine immediately sets out alone to get his revenge.

Pierrot enlists Emile to help him chase and stop Antoine, and also Antoine's very pregnant granddaughter Sophie (who looks almost exactly like Lucette did in her youth, for plot-necessary reasons), to have someone who can actually drive somewhat safely. These three chase Antoine, and all arrive for a confrontation with Garan-Servier.

This is all told in a semi-slapstick style; Lupano maintains an interesting tone throughout - not entirely serious, but committed. There's a lot of humor, and at the expense of the characters, but they are not caricatures. They are real, loud, grumpy people, deeply committed to their causes and crotchets and having worn deep grooves in the fabric of their lives over the decades. We worry about them in a way that might seem odd for a book this humor-filled and slapstick-y; the slapstick is real, in a way - we know they could easily get hurt or die, and not just because they're old and getting fragile.

The second book is more of the same, but more focused on Pierrot. It also gets more deeply into their politics: Antoine and Pierrot were very activist in their youth (and since then), though Emile's politics are less clear. Pierrot still works closely with an anarchist collective in Paris, where he lives, and their various activities - all mostly focused on the troubles old people can create - are central to the second album and a lot of gleeful anarchic fun.

What strikes me as particularly French here is the politics - not just its existence, but how it plays out, how it has been important to their lives - and the way they express themselves as old men. An American version of this story would be sillier, and not take the men seriously; a British version would be more serious, I think.

Cauuet embeds that story and that committedness, in a real world - his backgrounds are detailed, his camera always in motion, and his people heavily caricatured, just this side of cartoony. Especially the older ones, and especially men - young women are specific, but more obviously "attractive woman," while all elders and most of the men are "this weird, specific person." This is yet another book I read digitally that I wish I had seen at full album size; Cauuet's art, I imagine, is even more fun seen as large as possible.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

In Shadows, Book One by Mallie and Hubert

I may be spoiled. It's been a while since I hit the end of a graphic novel (or bande dessinee, in this case), realized it was the kind of "Part One" that doesn't have a real ending, and couldn't get the next book immediately.

But In Shadows, Book One, by Mallié and Hubert - in best French-comics fashion, each only uses one name - is a 2022 publication - even in its original French, it was a 2021 publication - and the second volume was only published in English nine days ago as I write this. That second volume is not yet available in the app where I read the first book (Hoopla; ask if your library uses it because it is The Bomb), but I'm hoping it will turn up eventually.

For now, though, what I have is the beginning of a story that is not complete yet. It's an epic fantasy, so that's appropriate: no matter what the medium, stories of knights and magic always seem to break into multiple volumes that end on cliffhangers.

This is a generic medieval world: we see one kingdom, which seems small, and a lot of mostly empty countryside. (Tolkien knew that medieval life required a lot of peasants doing agriculture all over the place, but rarely mentioned it; his followers have mostly ignored those peasants for atmosphere.) The disgraced knight Arzhur, now working as a mercenary, is given a chance at redemption by three creepy old women: if he rescues the princess Islen from the monsters holding her captive at the remote Black Castle and returns her to her father, King Goulven, he will be returned to the status of knight and his disgrace wiped out.

Arzhur does not stop to think that "the crones" are unlikely to be able to bind a King, and even less likely to be his official envoys. He accepts a locket with a picture of the princess, and a sword "for slaying monsters," and does what they ask.

They of course have ulterior motives. The princess is not actually a captive, and the "monsters" may be dark and creepy, but they are friendly to her. The three crones actually want to take Islen to her mother - they declare themselves to be Mae, Nae, and Tae, her "dear old nannies." Islen seems to be even more opposed to that than she was to the killing of her monstrous companions, so Arzhur drives off the old women. He decides he might as well stick to the original plan and deliver her to her father, since he doesn't really have any other options.

Arzhur perhaps does not have much experience with magic: it's unclear how common it is in this world. We learn that Islen's mother, Meliren, is some sort of magical being (a naga, maybe), that she married King Goulven somehow (I would be very interested in knowing how; it seems unlikely), and that they were deliriously happy up until the point Meliren turned super-evil for no obvious reason.

Islen, also, is expected to turn super-evil at some point, which is why she self-exiled to the Black Castle.

After his first wife turned super-evil and was also banished far away, Goulven remarried - I guess you can remarry without a divorce in this world, if your first wife is a super-evil monster; that's handy - to a normal woman whose name I can't find poking through the book. She now has an infant son, and in the ways of all medieval courts is at least mildly intriguing to make sure her son will be the heir, not Islen.

You can imagine things do not go well when Islen returns to her father's court. Arzhur is not immediately reinstated as a knight, to begin with. The crones are sneaking around the periphery - they've already driven off Arzhur's squire Youenn by this point - whispering to various people to shape events the way they want.

I won't detail all of the events of the back half of the book, but suffice it to say that things are not going at all in Arzhur's favor and Islen is not doing much better. And, in the end, there is a big climax and a fight, leading to the (lack of an) ending.

In Shadows is creepy and atmospheric. It moves quickly, and mostly answers its own questions. There is some generic-fantasy stuff cluttering up the background, and I suspect not all of it was entirely thought through, but it's all things you would expect in any medieval fantasy, in prose or comics. There are secrets still untold, but that's what a Book Two is for - we can start with what, exactly, caused Arzhur's disgrace, which is clearly A Story and we have not learned it yet. It also looks great: I believe Mallié is the artist, and Mallié does excellent work here.

For anyone looking for a relatively dark epic fantasy story in comics form, this is a good one: check it out. But know that it is not complete; I'm not sure if Book Two is the end, but I strongly suspect it will be.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown by Lawrence Block

I think Lawrence Block has a contrary streak, and I love that about him. His previous book about gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, The Burglar in Short Order, collected all of the Rhodenbarr short stories in early 2020, ending with a new metafictional piece in which Block talked with Rhodenbarr, basically saying that there would be no more Rhodenbarr novels. [1]

I assume Block meant it at the time. But, barely eighteen months later, he'd finished a new Rhodenbarr novel, The Burglar Who Met Frederic Brown, and published it himself not long after that. Is that protesting too much, or a writer's subconscious sending him unexpected Messages from Fred? Either way, I am definitely not complaining - and digging into anyone's creative wellsprings is tricky at the best of times. The point is: we all got a new book about Bernie, when we had no reason to expect one.

It's been nearly a decade since the last Rhodenbarr novel, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, but Bernie is the hero of a series of light mysteries, so time does not hang heavy on him. He might be slightly older than he was when we first met him in 1977's Burglars Can't Be Choosers, but not by all that much: he's still in the same phase of life, with all of the standard accouterments of the series that have grown up around him in the meantime: running the antiquarian store Barnegat Books; hanging out with his best friend, lesbian dog-groomer Carolyn Kaiser; feeding the store cat Raffles.

(See that post on Counted the Spoons for more: I covered the series set-up and the pleasures of the Burglar books there. This book is very much the same sort of thing, and I'll try not to repeat myself.)

Frederic Brown, though, is not quite in the same genre as the previous books in the series. There are two main clues in the book about this slight genre-shift: the title, since Brown was famed for a series of mystery novels and also for science fiction; and the dedication, to Robert Silverberg.

I probably shouldn't go into any more detail; the joy of a genre-shift is watching it happen, and seeing what comes next. But Bernie is reading Brown's What Mad Universe as this novel opens, and that is important.

Otherwise...this is a Bernie novel. It's got lots of sparkling dialogue between mostly Bernie and Carolyn, sneaky entrances to places where Bernie should not be and nearly as sneaky exits carrying valuable items that do not belong to him, appearances by the rumpled and not overly honest cop Ray Kirchmann, unexpected dead bodies, and a "you're probably wondering why I've called you all here" scene near the end. Some of those things happen in ways you would expect, some of them do not - Block, as always, is either fond of ringing changes on standard motifs or opposed to doing anything the same way twice.

There are other elements of this book that will surprise long-term readers; they surprise Bernie, too. I thought it all worked well, and was amusing and zippy, but I am a fan of both SF and light mysteries - people allergic to one or the other may not be as fond of this book.

Most importantly, this is a book that the author himself said, barely two years ago, probably would never exist. That it does is at least a minor triumph; that it's just as funny and entertaining as the previous books is even better. I probably wouldn't start the Burglar series here, but you've got eleven other novels to choose from - just pick one.

[1] As I recall, the reasons were one part "Block is now in his eighties and isn't promising anything" and one part "Rhodenbarr's skills are with mechanical locks and similar devices; CCTV cameras and electronics make those largely obsolete or insufficient."

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Barbalien: Red Planet by Lemire, Brombal, Walta & Bellaire

It's oddly characteristic for the Black Hammer universe that the character with the stupidest name is the one whose miniseries actually does something new and distinctive. I mean, "Barbalien?" What does that even mean? Is it supposed to imply "barbarian?" Because I get much more of an echo of "barber."

Series creator Jeff Lemire has already doubled down on the dumb Martian names by this point - the hero code-named Barbalien has the real name Mark Markz, there's been a Barbaliteen, and we've seen that everyone on Mars is named something like Guy Guyz, because that is totally a reasonable cultural thing - so I'm complaining pointlessly here. But I do want it noted: the Martian names are all deeply silly.

<clears throat> Boa Boaz, Barbounty Hunter

I am not joking. That is the actual on-panel name of the main antagonist in a book that wants to be a serious, sensitive look at homophobia, the early AIDS years, coming out, repressive policing, and, oh yeah, a whole lot of superhero punching, too. Even when it's mostly being smart and adult, the Black Hammer stories just can't avoid tripping over their own feet with the silly superhero-universe stuff.

So this is Barbalien: Red Planet. (It's also not about Mars more than glancingly - a title connecting red to blood or referencing rainbow flags or even, given the era, "silence = death," would have been much better.) It was scripted by Tate Brombal from a story by Lemire and Brombal, drawn by Gabriel Hernandez Walta, and colored by Jordie Bellaire.

We have a frame story that turns out to be just from a later part of the main story, so I'll avoid any spoilers. This is a Barbalien solo story; the other Black Hammer-ites do not appear, and are only mentioned once or twice. It's set in 1986, in Spiral City, which I suppose means we're getting more datapoints to tell us exactly when the not-Crisis was, if we care. (This is pre-not-Crisis, for anyone taking notes.)

As we know from earlier Black Hammer stories (here's a link to what I've written about the series), Mark/Barbalien is gay, and was exiled from Mars partially for that. (Also partially because his father was the previous King and his uncle took over in a violent coup when he was a child: superhero stories are overdetermined down to their fingernails.) Mars is super homophobic, even more so than the cop culture in Spiral City, which is already pretty homophobic. But the cops are mostly just doing their jobs when they raid gay clubs and break up protests - we don't see them actively bashing gay men, as some groups of cops actually did in the day - and Mark's partner seems to be OK with his being gay as long as Mark stops making passes at that straight partner and never talks about it ever again. (So, yes: solidly homophobic, definitely. But not as horrible as one might expect from a Message Story set in the '80s.)

I may not have mentioned that Mark is a cop: he's a cop. This is because he's a Martian Manhunter rip-off, and being gay is just about the only new thing the rip-off brought. (Or maybe J'onn is gay? I don't really know if his sexuality has ever been a thing in the comics.) Mark starts out, as in the cliché, as a Good Cop, but learns things about this cop culture, and about wider social homophobia, as the book goes on and he actually meets other gay men.

Anyway, this is the story about how Mark comes out, discovers gay culture, learns that the AIDS crisis is happening, and does something about it. Also how the aforementioned "Barbounty Hunter" flies over from Mars to beat him up and take him back to be punished for being gay, in case the subtext got too subtle for any of you in the back.

Mark finds a gay club, then (sort-of) a boyfriend, meets the superpowered doctor who treats AIDS patients, and is involved in several major protests, sometimes in police uniform, sometimes in flannel as "Luke" (his new identity as a gay man), and sometimes as the red flying shirtless Barbalien. (Luckily, he can shapeshift - because Martian Manhunter can! - so all of those clothes are actually part of his body and he can swap from one to another pretty much instantly.)

He also fights Boa Boaz a few times, has a dramatic turning-in-his-badge moment, and an even more dramatic sad ending. All of the events are believable, within this fictional context, and they make a solid story.

Red Planet means well. It's mostly thoughtful and reasonable, honest about what the world was like and what gay men faced in 1986. There's no super-science cure for AIDS or anything like that; we see sick and dying patients, and know, if we didn't before, that it was a death sentence in those days.

But it's also a superhero book, which means the solution to most of the immediate problems is "Barbalien punches it until it stops." That sits uneasily with the AIDS material, since that cannot be punched. There's a bit of implied politics - Mark learns some things from his new boyfriend and other gay men - but it's mostly abstracted. And the cops are simultaneously not as horrible as they could be, to justify Mark walking away, and not as reformable as they could be, to give him any other choice.

I guess I'm saying that Red Planet is a book about problems that require collective action by the masses, and solves them by having one guy punch things. It's a palmed card - Brombal tries to square the circle of activism and superheroing -  but I noticed it. It means well, and it does pretty well, but some flaws are baked in too deeply to be worked around.

Monday, February 20, 2023

This Year: 1977

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

1977's song made the list for a moment. There's only a few times in my life I can remember listening to a specific song at a specific time, and this might be the only one that felt important.

It's deeply silly, though: I warn you ahead of time.

I'm heading to college, before my freshman year. All my stuff - too much stuff, frankly; that's been the story of my life - crammed into my mother's several-years old Dodge Omni, as we made our way up the New York Thruway. It's some day in late August, 1986. Probably a Tuesday or Thursday, some nondescript day. I know I'm going to unpack in some strange dorm room, meet some strange new roommate, and then spend the next three or five days engaged in mandatory fun for Freshman Orientation.

Even then, I wasn't much for mandatory fun.

I was apprehensive and excited and worried and thrilled and a thousand other things. I couldn't describe then how I felt, and I'm not going to do a much better job now.

My mother had to stop at a rest stop, about halfway up. (That's the story of her life.) For whatever reason, I stayed in the car, with the engine still running, the radio on.

I can't tell you what station we were listening to.

But, after she left, while I was sitting there trying to decide if I was more worried or excited, a song came on. And it felt like a message from the universe: don't overthink this. Just go and do it. It'll be fun. No matter what, it will be fun.

The song was Rockaway Beach by Ramones. And it still makes me smile, and remember that moment, every time I hear it, even to this day.

"It's not hard, not far to reach." No. No: it really isn't. Thanks so much for making sure I knew that, random 1986-era DJ. I needed it, at that moment.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Reviewing the Mail: Week of February 18, 2023

I have six books from the library, which I was vaguely thinking about parceling out into multiple weeks to inflate my post count - since the review posts won't go live for around eight weeks, it would be totally invisible to you readers - but I have decided that would be too much bother.

And now I've announced what I'm not doing for no good reason. Oh well. That happens when you type: thoughts fall out, even if they're not well-formed or even coherent.

These are some books my local library got for me:

Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle, the first collection of his "aliens talk about normal Earth things in convoluted language, which is weirdly funny" comics. I read the second one a few months ago, and was ready for another dose.

Maybe an Artist is a comics memoir by Liz Montague, who is pretty young and has been published in The New Yorker. (I want to say she was the first Black woman cartoonist to be published there, but surely I have that wrong? In the 2020s?) Anyway, she's youngish and accomplished and this is her story - I think pitched more at kids as a "follow your dreams" thing than at adults as a "here's the real skinny" thing.

From Lone Mountain is a collection of John Porcellino's King-Cat comics - they appeared in floppy-comics form back from 2003-2007 but were collected into this book in 2018. I've read a little Porcellino at vast intervals - Map of My Heart in 2010 and The Hospital Suite in 2018 - and have a vague sense I want to read more. So this is more, and, interestingly, it seems to be right in between the two books I've already read.

Chivalry is yet another one of those "take a good Neil Gaiman short story and turn it into a standalone graphic novel, since his fans will buy everything" projects. No, seriously, there are already four omnibus editions of that material, each one collecting four GNs, before we even get to this 2022 book. It's a big business. I've read a few of those GNs, and all of the original stories at one point or another. This is the one about an older British lady who buys the Holy Grail in a charity shop, and it was illustrated (and, though the book doesn't say, I'm going to guess also scripted) by Collen Doran.

Animal Stories is a book of comics by Peter and Maria Hoey. I think they're brother and sister, I know I've read good things about this but can't remember details of where and what, so I'm going to read it semi-blind. And that's usually a good thing, I find. 

Last is The Adoption by Zidrou (words) and Arno Monin (pictures), translated from the French by Jeremy Melloul. I've been reading a lot of European comics lately, especially from the big Belgo-French publishing world, and hit two Zidrou-written books in the last year that I liked: The Muse and Lydie. So I grabbed this omnibus edition of two bande dessinees about an old man and his relationship with a new adopted granddaughter.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Quote of the Week: Standards

One of the earliest things a medical student learns is that the details of any given human being's internal arrangements will be roughly similar to but teasingly different from the tidy diagrams in the textbooks. This happens without impairing the individual's general function as a clearly, understandably human and essentially healthy organism.  Anatomy classes dispel any notion that God works with a cookie cutter. The idea they do create is that the mechanisms of life are both subtler and more determined to proceed than most people can imagine. In many case, these anomalies are successful enough so that they're never noted during the individual's lifetime. Since most deaths are not followed by autopsies, there are no reliable statistics on how prevalent all this might be.

 - Algis Budrys, Hard Landing, p.281 (in SF Gateway Omnibus)

Friday, February 17, 2023

Dungeon: Early Years, Vol. 3: Without a Sound by Sfar, Trondheim, Gaultier & Oiry

Hyacinthe was an innocent, to begin with: a young man who went to the city of Antipolis to make his fortune and do good. Now, after four albums, he's not much older but much more cynical and weathered. He did make a fortune. He did do good, at first, and then found that evil is not only easier, but vastly better rewarded in the world of Terra Amata. Now, Antipolis is in ruins, and its nobles plan to rebuild it and their fortunes.

Hyacinthe has retreated back to his family castle, out in the hinterlands. Someday that castle will become the Dungeon of the Zenith and Twilight books; someday Hyacinthe will be known only as the Keeper. We're not quite there yet, but we're getting close. If there are no more Early Years books after these two, we would be satisfied, I think.

Without a Sound collects the two most recent of the Dungeon: Early Years books, the sub-series that focuses on Hyacinthe and the creation of the Dungeon. This translation is by Joe Johnson, from 2022, and includes the original French bande dessinees Sans un bruit (from 2008, before the big Dungeon hiatus) and Survivre aujourd'hui (March of 2022).

(See my posts on the first two Early Years books, The Night Shirt and Innocence Lost, and, generally, my entire "Dungeon Fortnight" series of posts about the larger group of series.)

The first book, Without a Sound itself, tells two simultaneous stories. Hyacinthe's father Arakoo, the aged lord of this castle, who filled his son's head with stories of chivalry and other useless things, is riding out to find and catch up with his old comrades. It's not a completely Quixotic quest, since he's still strong and smart and skilled, but it's badly timed and Arakoo is yet another one of those people in Dungeon who always see the world as they want it to be rather than how it is. Alexandra, the ex-assassin, rides with him, and will protect him as much as she can, from others and from himself.

The other thread follows Professor Cormor and a troll whose bridge (into Antipolis) has been destroyed. Cormor has a plan to rebuild Antipolis, and is visiting the remaining nobles - presumably in their respective rural estates - to drum up their support. He takes the despondent troll with him spontaneously, the reader guesses partially as a bodyguard and partially to cheer him up. 

The two plots intersect, as they must. In Terra Amata, all plots intersect, and conflict. So one of the old comrades Arakoo wants to meet is no longer trustworthy, and the nobles Cormor assembles lead an army to "find" the money to rebuild Antipolis - and it all crashes together, as it must, in blood and death and destruction.

Without a Sound, the bande dessinee, is not mostly about Hyacinthe; he doesn't do much until the end. But it has an effect on him, and transforms his world.

The second bande dessinee is translated with the title Surviving Today. The Dungeon has already begun to attract attackers, mostly small groups. Many of them want to kill Hyacinthe specifically; a worryingly large number of them are reaching him. The staff is still small and mostly not warlike, the monsters all caged and chained, the traps numerous but not perfect. And armies are roaming the countryside - perhaps started by the nobles in the previous book, we think, perhaps, a general period of war has begun - which may very soon come to threaten the Dungeon.

And Hyacinthe doesn't want to spend his life managing a Dungeon. He's still thinking he can get it all organized, put the place on a good footing, and get away - to be the Night Shirt again, or something else, to live his own life.

But the lesson of Dungeon is always: you don't get what you want. You might get a quick, unexpected death. You might get horrors. You might get opportunities for crime and riches beyond your wildest imagination. You might get treachery and pain. Whatever you get, you probably won't want it. But you get it anyway.

Hyacinthe gets to be the Keeper of the Dungeon. By the end of this book, he knows that. I won't say he likes it, but he's resigned to it. And that may be as good as it gets, in the Dungeon.

Along the way, Marvin joins him, and Grogro. And the Dungeon both repels an invading army and organizes a union - it's turning, step by step, into the place we see in Zenith.

As always, all the Dungeon stories are written by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim, probably bashed out together in a corner, in snatched moments during a family vacation somewhere. Unlike the earlier Early Years books, which were all drawn by Christophe Blain, these two stories are from different hands: Christophe Gaultier for Sound and Stephane Oiry for Today. Gaultier has a rougher style, all little lines and darkness, while Oiry is cleaner and more open - both work well for their stories, both integrate well into the larger Dungeon world, which has had a lot of hands on the art.

And, once again, I see I've written about Dungeon without talking about the humor. It's dark humor, especially in the Early Years books, but it's there, on nearly every page - the jokes of people in danger, the funny situations of the deluded and confused. But it is funny, and that cuts the darkness. The world of Terra Amata may be cruel and dangerous and full of horrible people, but at least you can laugh at it.

It's not unlike other worlds we know, that way.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Revenge of the Librarians by Tom Gauld

If I have this right, Tom Gauld cartoons regularly about books for The Guardian and about science for New Scientist. He also does original books - picture books like The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess and graphic novels like Mooncop - and miscellaneous cartoons that appear miscellaneous places, but those are his two big main outlets.

Revenge of the Librarians, as its title implies, collects book cartoons from The Guardian - it's the follow-up to Baking With Kafka and, before that, You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack. It was published in the fall of 2022, containing about a hundred and fifty Guardian cartoons from the previous three or four years. (None of them are dated, but they appear weekly, so...it's at least three years, if they all appear in order, and collections are rarely that precise and organized.)

Gauld's earlier work in this vein was mostly timeless - he ranges across literary genres and styles at whim, to make erudite and informed jokes from writers as disparate as Tolkien, Austen, and Chandler - but this one has a whole bunch of "oh, gosh, we're all locked down now, aren't we? Plenty of enforced book-reading time!" cartoons, of various flavors, which peg its 2020-ness very closely. Those are still fairly timely now, but they may seem quaint - oh, how I hope they will seem quaint! - in twenty or thirty years.

Otherwise, this is a deceptively large - the book is small-format, but Gauld is a wordy cartoonist, especially when cartooning about books - collection of witty and informed strips, all more or less in that old classic multi-panel "daily strip" format, about all the things related to books: authors, editors, genres, libraries, bookshops, readers, classics, clichés, and so on. If you like any substantial subset of "books," you will find a lot in here to laugh at. And Gauld's precise, usually minimalist art is a joy as well. So go read it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Hard Landing by Algis Budrys

Some books you want to read again to see if they're as good as you remembered them.

The TL; DR here: yes. And even sneakier and smarter than 1993-era Andy may have realized, or remembered.

Hard Landing was the last of Algis Budry's nine novels, appearing when he was in his early sixties. He was never prolific: most of those novels came in the '50s, and his previous book, Michaelmas, was sixteen years before Landing. Landing is also quite short: the original edition - I bought it for the SFBC - was less than two hundred pages, and in the current SF Gateway Omnibus edition, it's barely a hundred. I didn't count words, but my guess is that it just clears the novel bar at forty or forty-five thousand words.

To be clear: we don't judge books by weight, but by what they achieve.

Hard Landing is a secret history disguised as a SF novel disguised as a document dump, a series of individual statements and conversations and reports covering about twenty-five years, ending in the mid-1970s. There is a major SF element, which I will spoil in another paragraph or two - and which was somewhat spoiled by the original cover, though kept quiet in the descriptive copy, then and now - so anyone who wants to remain unspoiled should stop reading here, go back to the TL; DR, and get a copy of Hard Landing for themselves.

It opens with a body found on the tracks of a CTA train station in Chicagoland, electrocuted by the third rail. It is the early 1970s; Budrys does not go out of the way to tell us this, but we can deduce it. That body has certain unusual features, which attracts the interest of a specialized government organization.

We do not follow the investigations of that organization. The last section makes clear that we are reading documents assembled by "A.B.," someone who lived in the area and became interested after somewhat later events. A.B. is clear that there are some things in the documents he could not possibly have known.

Here's the spoiler: an interstellar spacecraft, a scoutship from a more advanced civilization, crashed in the swamps of New Jersey's Pine Barrens in about 1950, with a crew of five. The five aliens are superficially human - more than superficially, to a 99.9% degree, frankly, which the reader will take as this novel's premise and not question it - and so they are able to scuttle their ship in a bog, and set off, separately, to live the rest of their lives quietly as human men.

The narrative mostly follows one of them, the navigator, who goes as Jack Mullica as a human. We do learn what happened to the other four, and especially the captain. We do learn all of their fates.

Along the way, we figure out the captain's plans, and the connections he made in those twenty-five years. And we come to see a government functionary code-named Yankee, a man who nearly every American reader will be able to connect with a real name.

Budrys tells this, as I said, through a series of documents - some official, some personal, in the voices of bureaucrats and these alien men and others and, occasionally, in his own voice as the investigator piecing it all together. He plays fair with the reader at all times, but never holds the reader's hand - this is the kind of book that implies more than it says, and hints at things it doesn't want to even imply.

It is a secret history. Hard Landing provides new, fictional, explanations for things that really happened. It does so slyly, almost casually, laying out its cards in full view but not ostentatiously pointing out what they add up to. It is a smart, quick, pointed SF novel, precisely written and carefully told. It is a shame Budrys didn't write more, but it is a joy to rediscover how good he was.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Trese, Vol. 5: Midnight Tribunal by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo

The Trese series has settled into a comfortable pattern by this point [1]: we know Alexandra Trese is the supernatural protector of Manila (and, occasionally, points further away) and we trust in the skills of her and her two kambal assistants, but we still don't know a whole lot about her. We are - if we're not Filipino and knew it already - getting a better sense of the supernatural landscape of Manila, who the major players are, what kinds of creatures live there, how they interact.

So this is the point to shake things up, to introduce a new power - someone Trese can't cajole or influence, someone who pushes her and has depths we readers don't understand yet. That's The Madame; writer Budjette Tan will tell you more clearly who that is in his afterword but many readers will figure it out (or think, "is that really...?") before that.

But The Madame does not arrive at the beginning of Trese, Vol. 5: Midnight Tribunal; she's yet another complication on top of two previous problems Trese has been working on. First there's a new "superhero" in Manila, the Maverick Rider, speeding on a motorcycle and stopping supernatural menaces, often exactly as Trese and her kambal are trying to do the same. He quickly gets a media following, but Trese also immediately knows who he really is: Maliksi, prince of the Tikbalang (horse-like shapeshifting creatures who live in the city and have not-entirely-legal activities but are mostly peaceful and neighborly). She pressures his father, the leader of the Manila Tikbalang, to rein in his son and keep his people secret and safe.

Maliksi, like hot-headed sons everywhere, doesn't listen, and soon afterward is in a confrontation with another superhero-esque figure, a blindfolded giant wielding a huge hammer and ranting about "justice" as he kills a lot of people. Does Trese manage to save Maliksi? I probably shouldn't say.

It's only then, while The Judge - the most common of the many names applied to the blindfolded killer; he's not focused on brand-building the way Maverick Rider is - is wreaking havoc across Manila that The Madame returns, to a posh high-rise apartment, and summons Trese to her.

We don't know what The Madame is capable of; we don't know her connections to the supernatural world. What we see of her is surface: a rich, politically connected woman of middle years who is probably deeply corrupt and deeply enmeshed with other corrupt people. We know she was very important in the Philippines in the past, and has returned, to reclaim at least some of that power. We think she is human. We suspect that doesn't define her, any more than it does Trese.

We also don't know who The Judge is - and, more importantly, neither does Trese. But she has some ideas, and will chase him down. Whether her aims in stopping him are the same as The Madame's will be seen - The Madame is trying to protect or defend a powerful friend, who The Judge is getting closer and closer to.

This is still a strong urban fantasy in comics form, and has gotten to the point where it can tell stories in its established world without worrying overmuch about in-cluing foreigners like me about the standard supernatural background. Trese is still central without being personal: the stories are about what she does, while keeping who she is more hidden. Tan's plots are getting more complex, and artist KaJo Baldisimo's art still as gloriously dark and detailed.

Best of all, the afterword is dated 2012, so my assumption is that there are still a bunch of stories that haven't made their way to this side of the Pacific yet. That is all wonderful, and I hope for a continuing flow of excellent Trese stories for years to come.

[1] What is "this point," you ask? See my posts on the earlier books (one, two, three, four) if you're not familiar.

Monday, February 13, 2023

This Year: 1976

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

I'm not always being clear, here, about which are songs I loved at the time and which songs I loved later. I won't always be clear about that.

For now, we're still in early days: 1976 was when I turned seven years old, so my musical tastes were, shall we say, somewhat different than they would be later. But this is the first song on the list that I think I can say I loved early.

Probably not 1976. But maybe 1978, 1979. Not all that long after. Certainly before I discovered punk, which was around 1980.

And it is an Eagles song. I listened to a lot of the Eagles for a long time - I don't know if I'm done, exactly, but I don't go to them very often this century - and they are one of the quintessentially 1970s bands in my head. I don't know if this is their best song. I do know it's very far from their most famous song.

But it's the one that's electric in my mind, the one that I would keep if I had to jettison everything else The Eagles ever did.

My song for 1976 is The Last Resort, the last song on the Hotel California album.

The Last Resort, to me, is what people say Hotel California is: the big, expansive song that explains the appeal of California, of a whole lot of things that roll up into that place and name, that stakes out a massive territory and defends it successfully. It's another really long song. It's another song that tells a story. It's another sad song, about things broken and ending - all those things that are already clear, even this early, that I find most appealing in music.

It's about so many things: colonialism, sprawl, consumerism, missionary zeal both secular and religious. And, more than anything, that desire for something better, something perfect, that's always just over the horizon.

Most importantly, it's a long song that tells a story - a sad story, inevitably, because all stories are sad if you keep going long enough - and ends it perfectly: "Call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye."

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Reviewing the Mail: Week of February 11, 2023

This week I got wo more library books, including one that I've had on hold for months, since the moment I was first about to do so. And these are those books:

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands is a massive graphic novel from Kate Beaton; it came out last year and has been getting enthusiastic reviews ever since. It also looks to be the big story she's written bits of for a number of years now - or one of them; I'm also hoping someday to get a major "kid Kate talks to adult Kate" book - so I'm looking forward to it.

A Wealth of Pigeons is a collection of single-panel cartoons by Steve Martin and Harry Bliss. I just read Number One Is Walking, Martin's memoir of movie-making as turned into comics format by Bliss - which was about 60% single-panel cartoons by volume, incidentally - so I figured I should check out their first book together. This is that book.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Quote of the Week: Toy Boat

Those of you blessed and/or cursed with a family know that a family is a big, lurching boat,. You try to stay upright while doing your job. Only every so often do you lock eyes with one of the shipmates who make up your family. Mostly, you are busy. And alone. It's loud but lonely. Sometimes beautiful things, or moments, fly by you and you miss them. Or you notice them and promise yourself to be touched by them later.

 - Bruce McCulloch, Let's Start a Riot, p.6

Friday, February 10, 2023

Gaudeamus by John Barnes

I was a big John Barnes booster back in my SFBC days: he was an energizing and powerful writer in the '90s, or at least I thought his books were smart and interesting and all that stuff. I liked his "Thousand Cultures" books and had very strong opinions on the "Century Next Door" books - I can't remember all the details of what I used to fulminate about Kaleidoscope Century, but I hated that book's protagonist and at the same time was fascinated with how Barnes presented him - and even his lighter adventure stuff, like Jak Jinnaka and the Timeline Wars (which I covered, a bit, in a Reading Into the Past post from 2006), was really enjoyable.

I don't seem to have written about his work here; he hasn't written as much the last decade and a half. (There was a post-apocalyptic trilogy in the Teens that I avoided, because I hate post-apocalypses, and which seems to have had publishing issues as well.)

But I'm not sure why I never read his 2004 novel Gaudeamus until now: it came out when I was reading and loving Barnes books consistently, and would have counted as work. My guess is that there's some element of those above books not doing as well for the SFBC as I hoped - though nearly everything I loved didn't sell as well as I hoped; club readers were generally Philistines who consistently preferred bland genre pap - and maybe a reader's report that said "this is a really weird one; it would be a tough sell."

And Gaudeamus is a really weird one. It's basically a big shaggy-dog story, or maybe a "no shit, there I was" story, told in the first person by "John Barnes" - a guy with all of the markers of author Barnes's real life - as told to him by his probably-fictional old friend Travis Bismarck. So already you have layers of narrative - it drops into Bismarck's voice for chapters at a time, and then back out to Barnes with just section breaks to indicate that - and something like an unreliable narrator on top of the weird, loose-limbed, told-second-hand plot.

I also have the sense that this was written in 2000-01 - mostly or entirely before a Certain Event in September - which may have delayed publication. There's a view of humanity at the end of this book, more positive and hopeful than usual for Barnes, which doesn't hit the same way as I think he intended it.

Anyway, you might want to know about the plot. Bismarck is a freelance corporate investigator - "spy" is such an unpleasant word - who gets hired by the well-connected black-box military-contractor company Xegon to look into how so many of its really, really top secrets are getting leaked. He tells the story of his investigation to Barnes over the course of several random visits from October to January - year unspecified; from internal evidence I would guess 1999 to 2000 - getting deeper and deeper into the weird stuff as he goes, but with a lot of extraneous details and endless digressions, on both levels of narrative, along the way.

I've already said once this is a shaggy-dog story, but let me say it again: it's a long, discursive, often deliberately self-obfuscating narrative that gets odder and odder as it goes, bringing in lots of quirky little details, and repeatedly breaks away just when Bismarck is about to explain something interesting.

Oh, and there are aliens. I mean, look at the cover! You know going in there are aliens. But it takes a looong time to get to the aliens, and the standard alien stuff. Instead, we have a super-drug, a mysterious machine named Gaudeamus, about a dozen other things all also named Gaudeamus, including what seems to be a prediction of the webcomic Homestuck a good decade ahead of time.

It is all pleasant to read, and the discussions by "Barnes" and "Bismarck" of women's bodies is only cringeworthy maybe two or three times. But you do have to be in the mood for a discursive, self-indulgent late-90s semi-counterculture UFO book, told in layers of self-referential narrative. I don't think a lot of people have been in that mood, frankly.

This is not one of Barnes's more commercially successful books, though I think largely because of timing and vibe, which wasn't his fault. But it's certainly a thing, and there's very little at all like it, and I don't regret reading it. If you are in the mood for something odd and quirky, this is an excellent choice.

Thursday, February 09, 2023

Ralph Azham, Vol. 2: The Land of the Blue Demons by Lewis Trondheim

This book gets us to the mid-point of the secondary-world epic fantasy saga begun in the first book (Black Are the Stars) - though I do immediately have an asterisk on that "first." You see, Ralph Azham is originally a twelve-book series, each album-length, in creator Lewis Trondheim's native France. The US editions are three-book omnibuses, each collecting a quarter of the whole story, translated by Joe Johnson.

The French editions took a decade to be published, from 2011 to 2020, during a period when Trondheim's Dungeon (see my series of posts for more) co-writer, Joann Sfar, was unavailable to continue Dungeon both due to his work in televised media and because he had his own solo epic fantasy, L'Ancien Temps [1].

See my post on Black, linked above; I don't expect I will get into the plot of The Land of Blue Demons in any depth, since that would spoil the first two to six books in the series.

In case you don't want to hit the link, here's the quick recap: Ralph is a duck in a world of anthropomorphic people (like Herbert in Dungeon), a smart-ass (like Herbert and most Trondheim protagonists), and potentially the Chosen One of his world (though the idea of a Chosen One was probably invented by a powerful wizard for his own purposes). He lives in a medieval kingdom ruled by King Malek, whom he and a group of other "blueys" (people with magical power have their hair and some other body parts turn blue) are trying to overthrow, for good and sufficient reasons.

As Blue Demons starts, Ralph is leaving his aged father, who is working on one plan to overthrow Malek, and planning to travel to the other side of the world to find Vom Syrus, Malek's great enemy, in an attempt to join forces.

During the course of the three albums collected here, Ralph travels across his home kingdom and all the way out to the island land where Vom Syrus rules, making new allies and enemies, intermittently disguised to hide his bluey nature, and learns a lot of things about Vom Syrus, Malek, and the sixteen major magical items of this world.

Trondheim-style fantasy is somewhat mechanistic: as a creator, he seems to love rules that construct his characters' options and make them figure out convoluted plans to take the greatest advantage of their powers. So several of those sixteen items can only be used once a day, Ralph's own powers (and maybe those of all the other blueys? it's not clear) are suppressed by drinking, and the sixteen items can interact in complicated ways if the same person owns or uses more than one of them at a time.

This time out, there's a bracelet that sends its wearer, bodily, off in the direction he points, and a sword that extends to cut and kill more things than you would expect. There are also some other items that are a surprise; I won't mention them.

As always, Trondheim's stories delight in complication, especially his longer pieces. His stories have a joy in destruction and battles, with characters always ending up running across roofs (or falling down onto them), hurling magical stuff at each other while things blow up in the background. He also is fond of prophecies, which of course never quite mean what they seem to mean, and especially prophecies given in real time by characters in the story.

There are a lot of surprises, battles, magic, and danger here. Characters you probably like will die quickly, sometimes off-panel. Characters you want to see die will be frustratingly resilient. This is a great Trondheim fantasy romp, with a lot of similarities to Dungeon but different enough (not as much obvious humor, for one) to give a sense of what Sfar brought to that project.

I'd recommend it, because Trondheim is a master and because it's a lot of fun. And also, cynically, because I want to see the back half of the series published. This one came out in October, and, as I type these words on Christmas Eve, Vol. 3 is scheduled for May and Vol. 4 for March, which my publishing brain says means that schedules are in the process of being adjusted and have not finalized yet, which implies sales of this book could be material to that scheduling. So go buy Ralph Azham.

[1] Which, if I can trust Goodreads, is only two bande dessinees and one novel long. Trondheim, even when he says he's trying to slow down, is (as usual) ferociously productive, and knocks off a twelve-book series while waiting around to re-start his other series which already had a couple of dozen books.

Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction edited by Jeff Prucher

I could claim to have been reading this book since it was published in 2007: I had a bookmark in it the whole time, and read the first few letters upstairs in my sons' rooms, during bedtime routine [1] back when they were young, though it migrated back to a bookcase at some point and stayed there quietly for years.

That would be a silly claim, since I restarted this time, when I put it in the smallest room and made a new concerted effort to get to the back cover. And that effort worked.

The book is Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, which was published (yes, by Oxford, no points for figuring that out) back in 2007, and which I'm pretty sure I got for consideration as a SFBC editor about two nanoseconds before they kicked me out. (It wouldn't have gotten a lot of consideration in any case: it's a neat book, but not really a book-club book.)

It was edited by Jeff Prucher, who I was going to describe as a lexicographer with some ties to the SF world until I realized his ties to the SF world are probably substantially stronger than mine at this point. It won the Hugo for Best Related Book the next year, in that way that obviously magisterial reference works do, to break up the usual flow of "book by or about a beloved older author".

And this is a magisterial reference work - I could probably find a few things to quibble about (for example: the citations seem to cluster around a few authors, for example, which makes me suspect there were a few very active contributors and potentially a lot of earlier or similarly-dated usages from others), but it's substantial, it's well-researched, and it's correct in every way I'm competent to check.

It is a dictionary of terms related to Science Fiction - both the fictional worlds created by SF writers (ansible, seetee, needlebeam, ultraviolence) and the social milieu of SF fandom (relaxacon, sercon, tanstaffl, gafiate). It's an English-language dictionary, so Prucher's remit is the English-speaking world, but he does cover both genre and "mainstream" writers on the fictional side - as well as a substantial cluster from the Stars Trek and Wars, and a few others mostly known from filmed rather than written SF.

This is not a long dictionary; it's about two hundred and eighty pages before the front- and backmatter. But it is condensed - the usual telegraphese for meaning and citations - and I didn't think of anything glaringly left out. I am sure there are some trufen out there still grumpy that a word or three that they think absolutely crucial is not included; there are always people like that. But it is reasonably comprehensive, and the only major criticism I could have is that it's from 2007, and SF is a field that coins new words every single day - I know the field has moved on a bit from then.

Most people don't read dictionaries for pleasure. I think this one will be read for pleasure by more people than the average dictionary, but it's still a small segment. If that's you, though, you might be happy to know this book exists.

[1] Job One: get them upstairs and start winding them down for bed half an hour or an hour early. So that means being up there with them: sometimes playing with them, sometimes sitting on the couch and reading, sometimes watching them do something, sometimes cleaning up toys all over the floor. I never got as much reading done in that time as I thought I might, but I never regretted either having a book or not reading much of it.

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Night Air by Ben Sears

In a series, it's customary to explain one's main characters - at the bare minimum, to give them names. Now, later on in the "Double+" series, those two guys - tween boy Plus Man and his flying robot sidekick Hank - do get names, since I saw those names in the fourth book, House of the Black Spot.

But neither the story itself or the book packaging gives those names in the first book, Night Air. The title page does say "A Double+ Adventure," so we at least have a series name, but, if we come to this book cold, as all readers did in 2016 and many will even now, we're left wondering.

It's not a big deal: this is an adventure story, and Sears throws us right into it. We follow Plus Man and Hank in a one-damn-thing-after-another plot, and barely have time to notice they never call each other by those names. I didn't realize it myself until I hit the end of the book, and then went back to see if the names were mentioned anywhere, eventually digging out my post on Black Spot to remind myself who they were.

We start with our two heroes cheating in a card game, in a run-down bar (with those Western-movie swinging doors, even) in some town somewhere, facing a suspicious one-eyed guy and what looks like his huge gang behind him. Getting away, in a big chase sequence through that town, is our introduction to these two guys and their (mildly SFnal) world - the equivalent of the pre-credits sequence in a caper movie.

The real plot starts when they get off the train in the next town, Apple City. They get a tip on some "valuable alloys" in a castle outside of town - which is obviously some kind of trap, and entirely a bad idea. But, as we've probably realized by now, Plus Man is the kind of energetic optimist who will dive into any stupid idea, confident that his skills and luck (and a few techy gadgets) will get him out the other side. Hank is more phlegmatic, but he's the sidekick, so his voice is only a warning.

So they do get to the castle. They do search it for alloys. They do find out it's a honeypot for people like them. They do run into people who wish bad things on them, and have power. There have been three Double+ books after this one; it's not a spoiler to say they get away.

Night Air is rougher than Black Spot, in both art and story - Sears's line is a little scratchier here, his dialogue a little more obvious - but it's still the same sort of thing, and Sears had energy and enthusiasm to burn back here at the start of his career. I don't think he planned this series for younger readers, but it's appropriate for them, in that classic Tintin boy-adventurer way, and just as appropriate for readers who are somewhat longer in the tooth as well.

I still haven't read the two Double+ books in between, but I expect I will: Sears is a fun creator, and the Double+ guys are engaging, with personalities that bounce well off each other. So far, my guess is that you could pick up any of these books you find first: they seem to be entirely independent, and not in any strong sequence. And, if you have any fond memories of Tintin or Scooby-Doo or any other meddling kids, you'll enjoy the Double+ adventures.