Thursday, February 29, 2024

The Story of Sex by Philippe Brenot and Laetitia Coryn

You might say, "that's a mighty big topic to cover in one l'il 200-page book, now, isn't it, pardner?" (If you weren't pretending to be a cowboy, you might use different phrasing, admittedly.) And it's a fair question.

The Story of Sex aims to cover, well, the history of sexuality of the human race, starting about two million years ago with Homo habilis, then running through all of human history to conclude with a four-page look at a possible sexual future for the rest of the 21st century. All that fits into a hundred and eighty-three pages of comics - including full-page title cards for the dozen chapters - though there is a text foreword and several pieces of textual backmatter on specific topics as well.

Now, those pages have long captions in the panels, and generally seven or eight panels to a page, so if we apply the usual "picture = 1k words" rubric generously - and it does us no harm to be generous - we end up with the equivalent of a fairly hefty book. But, I have to admit, it does seem to be a semi-random walk through various topics related to sexuality than a single integrated story.

Philippe Brenot has the credentials to write this book: he's an anthropologist, director of the Sexology Department of Paris Descartes University, and author of a number of other books on sex and sex history, which seem (before this one) to have mostly stayed in French and not been translated over to my side of the Atlantic. He's also a psychiatrist, and there is a define strain of psychiatric thinking in Story of Sex - not overly Freudian; he's more modern than that - which the discerning reader will notice and take into account.

It opens well, though the section on Homo habilis and other early hominids is the place I most felt the lack of a list of references. I probably would never seriously check them out, but I like having them there to skim, and the lack makes me wonder if it's due to assumptions about the audience or if the book were drafted without references to begin with.

The following chapters are fun but scattershot: I expect that we have little or no documentary evidence about the everyday sex lives of regular people in antiquity, so instead we get a series of mythology and some gossip about Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, including an extensive bit on Cleopatra.

Next comes a Middle Ages chapter that covers a thousand years in less than twenty pages. And I suppose I should be clear about the cultural focus on Story of Sex: this is a European book, about European civilization. The ancients are included the same way they were for 19th century schoolboys: they obviously led to our civilization, the best and most special and most important one ever. Brenot gives examples from various parts of Europe once we hit the Middle Ages, but it's clear this is a France-centric narrative. On the other hand, if you were going to pick one European country to be the exemplar for sex, it would have to be France, wouldn't it?

To be blunter, the sex lives of people in Japan and China and Kenya and Uruguay and Easter Island and India are quietly left out, to focus on the origins of the Christian world of mostly Northern Europe. Italy doesn't get much mention after the Romans depart, except for some moments in Casanova's story and various Popes denouncing things, and Spain is entirely absent. There's a secondary focus on England and the broader English-speaking world, so it won't feel foreign to US or British readers, but it's very much organized around the specific bits of the history of sex that led to modern French people.

The last few chapters are based on, as far as I can tell, more solid, knowable research, and are consequently full of facts and details. Brenot, since he's writing about sex and is actually in favor of it, uses a framework of talking about individual rights and expression versus societal repression, and obviously comes down on the side of the individual. It's a reasonable story, given the whole sweep of history, though he may make it more central than some readers are willing to credit.

There are also a few points in Story of Sex when I wished for more social history - Brenot is good at what the kings and nobles were doing (or who they were doing), since those things were recorded at the time. There's less about what the everyday sex life and rhythms of marriage and child-bearing were for middle or working-class people once we hit the medieval world - he doesn't even mention the two-sleep system of medieval times, which was clearly really important to a lot of people's sex-lives for hundreds of years.

Still, this is a two-hundred page book for a mass audience in comics form. I might quibble, but Brenot got quite a lot into this package, and in the main I think he chose the right material.

The art is fun and energetic, from Laetitia Coryn, whose work I haven't seen before - and a quick Google didn't show anything else of hers that has been translated. (Though she does seem to script her own books most of the time, in the French manner - I wonder what she writes about, when she writes her own material?) Coryn has to draw a lot of people nude or semi-nude or physically engaged, and she does it well - she has great body language and her people are engagingly emotional and open.

Really, you're not going to find any other comics history of sex out there, are you? Good thing this one is pretty definitive and a fun read, too.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

I have to start with the hard facts: Douglas Adams died, of a sudden heart attack, more than twenty years ago, when he was five years younger than I am now. I've read all of his books, but long ago - mostly when they came out, or soon afterward.

For example, my copy of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is a first printing US hardcover from 1987, which means I spent the whole $14.95 on it when I was a poor college student. I haven't read it since then, but I did recently read a 2016 comics series about Dirk, which I suppose is what sent me back to the original.

I've always thought that the Dirk books are the ones that mostly clearly show the Dr. Who influence on Adams - they're circling books, full of seemingly-random ideas that join up later in the story, and are amusing in a light-adventure way rather than being filled with clear jokes like the Hitchhiker stories. There's no "Doctor" character to put it all right, of course, and - especially in this first book - Dirk himself in no way fills that role, despite what some might expect.

The comics series makes Dirk much more central and active. In this book, he's mentioned fairly early, but doesn't appear until the book is more than half over, and is basically a secondary character in his own novel.

Our main character is Richard MacDuff, a computer whiz for the British computer start-up WayForward Technologies, who we meet at a long, boring dinner at the fictional St. Cedd's College at Cambridge, listening to a very long recitation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kublai Khan."

This is a clue: in our world, "Kublai Khan" is short, with Coleridge famously interrupted when writing it by the mysterious "person from Porlock."

But the narrative runs through other things even before getting to Richard: starting with a mysterious tower in a mysterious landscape mysteriously exploding, and then moving on to an Electric Monk wandering about somewhere else, doing its job of believing in things so that people don't have to.

Later, there's a thread following Richard's boss, Gordon Way, the usual self-obsessed tech mogul, who comes to an unpleasant end.

And, of course, there are eventually both ghosts and time travel, and a certain amount of saving the world that has to be done. Not to mention Richard, absent-minded as only a boffin in a story by a British writer can be, needs to repair his relationship with his girlfriend Susan, who he completely ignored to go the boring St. Cedd's dinner.

As I understand it, the Dr. Who influence comes about because it was two different Dr. Who stories - Adams wrote for the show in the late '70s, and re-used ideas from one broadcast serial, City of Death, and the famously strike-cancelled serial Shada in this novel. Adams, it has to be said, was frightfully efficient with ideas: if he had one he liked, he used it as many times as he could, like an old lady bringing an ancient tea-bag out of her purse to dunk in yet another cup of hot water.

Dirk Gently is a good SFF adventure story, with Adams' characteristic light touch and a lot of quirky details. It led to one more novel and an aborted third; at this point all hopes for more - either for a longer Dirk series, or for more random light SFF adventure stories somewhat like this one - were dashed long ago. Adams never liked writing, so it's something of a miracle we got as much as we did out of him, but, despite being somewhat built from pre-existing parts, this is one of the best, and most novel-shaped, things he ever did.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Michael T. Gilbert's The Complete Wraith!

Sometimes there's a creator whose work you like, and you keep checking to see if they have anything new, and they just don't. For a decade or two. You're pretty sure they're still out there, and you hope they're doing something fun and interesting. You may have the secret hope, most famously centered around J.D. Salinger, that the creator is just piling up lots of Good Stuff, kept unpublished for idiosyncratic reasons, and you will eventually get to see all of that on some glorious future day.

Michael T. Gilbert is one of those, for me. I liked his Mr. Monster stories both in the '80s, with goofy, near-parody humor/horror style, and in the '90s, when he retooled in a more serious mode for an "Origins" series. And I gather he's had some random Mr. Monster stories since then, but nothing regular. I keep hoping there will be a book, since I mostly read books these days, but that seems unlikely. (I gather most of Gilbert's comics work for the last two decades has been scripting Disney comics for European publishers - nice work if you can get it, but apparently completely unseen in his own homeland.)

But I did just see Michael T. Gilbert's The Complete Wraith!, which collects the major work he did before Mr. Monster, in the late '70s. And I'll take what I can get.

Wraith is an anthropomorphic version of Will Eisner's The Spirit, created as such to be a feature in the all-anthropomorphic anthology series Quack! in 1976. Quack! had six issues, with eight Wraith stories, over the next two years, and there was one more Wraith story in a 1982 solo Gilbert comic - add in a new comics introduction featuring Mr. Monster, some explanatory text-and-photo pieces between the stories, and extensive story notes from Gilbert, and you have this book. It's designed well, and showcases what does seem to be the entirely complete Wraith: it's a model of what a book like this should be.

On the story side, Gilbert is very clearly aping Eisner, in story structure, twists, ironic reversals, and even cast. That's not a bad model, since Eisner's Spirit was a lot more ambitious than it might look, and Gilbert is always entertaining here, even if not all of the stories make full use of the Eisnerian materials.

Gilbert was already experimenting with washes and Craftint and other texture and background effects that I can't really describe adequately - I'm no artist, or a serious scholar of comics art. But his pages, even at the very beginning of this book, were carefully constructed, from panel layout to art tools to textures, and towards the middle of the book, it begins to look pretty much the same as Gilbert's mature Mr. Monster style. (And, aside from the first story, which is pretty thin, the storytelling holds up as well, too - they're short kicker stories about a dog adventurer in an Eisnerian world, admittedly, but they do good work within that tight structure.)

This is a fun '70s exercise, collecting energetic work from a then-young creator working out some of his influences and seeing how different kinds of stories can work on paper for him. It's not a lost classic, and the tone is pretty different from both Mr. Monster eras, for anyone looking for more of that. Oh, and he gets testy if you call him "Wrath," which I expect a lot of readers did. With that in mind, this is a lot of fun, presented in a well-made package.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Charly Bliss

"Portions for Foxes" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song by a woman or a band led by a woman. See the introduction for more.

This week I have a poppy, happy-sounding song that lists all sorts of normal everyday things:

Staring at cars, selling your art
Feeling so sure you're waking up tomorrow
A better son or a daughter
Drunk walking home
Making the choice to be completely alone

And then matter-of-factly stating that they're obviously going to go away:

It's gonna break my heart to see it blown to bits

This is Blown to Bits by Charly Bliss. It never says why things will be blown to bits, or even how - the premise of the song is that they will, all of them, real soon now.

Does it make it eerier when I point out this is a 2019 song?

It's probably a quarter-life crisis song, about "what happens next in my life?" But it doesn't have to be. It's stronger if you don't think of it that way. Because every song is what it can mean to you, right now, when you hear it.

And this is a big one, a song called Blown to Bits. It can take all that weight, if you want it to.

And it broke all of our hearts to see it blown to bits.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Quote of the Week: God's Daisy-Chain

The head of the house, Mrs Lavender Botts, has a distressing habit of writing books and talking a good deal about them. Her works were not novels. I am a broadminded man and can tolerate female novelists, but Mrs Botts gave English literature a bad name by turning out those unpleasant whimsical things to which women of her type are so addicted. My Chums the Pixies was one of her titles, How to Talk to the Flowers another, and Many of My Best Friends Are Field Mice a third. The rumor had got about that she was contemplating a fourth volume on the subject of elves.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, "Joy Bells for Walter," p.153 in A Few Quick Ones

Friday, February 23, 2024

McCay by Thierry Smolderen and Jean-Philippe Bramanti

I don't know why creators - people who make up their own ideas out of their own heads and often are indignant at the idea that those ideas came from somewhere else (Schenectady, for example) - are also the ones who often tell stories that are entirely "here's the real, secret reason behind this other creator's biggest work!" 

It might just be that I'm talking about different people, which is always the risk: "creators" is a big bucket, and they don't think anywhere near alike. But you would think that a class of people who are often annoyed by the "where do you get your ideas?" question would be somewhat more reticent to spin complex tales of "here's how this guy got his ideas." You would think, but you would be wrong, because it happens a lot.

McCay is a secret history of Winsor McCay, the pioneering American cartoonist and animator, by the French team of Thierry Smolderen (script) and Jean-Philippe Bramanti (art). As far as I can tell, this two-hundred-page story was originally a four-volume series, starting in the late Nineties, then collected in a single French edition sometime in the Teens and finally translated by Edward Gauvin for this very handsome oversized single-volume English edition in 2017.

It starts in 1889, with McCay an art student in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and skips forward through his life, ending with a coda in 1914. The back cover copy gives the sketch - in 1889, McCay met "Silas the anarchist" and "Professor Hinton, the renowned British mathematician and fourth-dimensional specialist" and what they taught him, and events they sparked, will play out, mostly twenty years later.

This is a thriller, so it's mostly about chasing murderers through the fourth dimension and very little about being a working cartoonist in the dawn of the modern era. I found that faintly disappointing: the world has a lot of thrillers and many fewer good books about the life of creative people. But the point of criticism is to talk about what a thing is, and not what it could have been.

Smolderen weaves a lot of details of McCay's life into the narrative - I gather that the original publications had extensive notes about how McCay actually knew Houdini and Hearst and all the others, and how these fictional events could have fit into what's known of his life - and keeps it from being just a thriller. It's not quite as philosophical as I think he wanted it to be, but it is a relatively thoughtful and nuanced thriller.

And Bramanti delivers his art in a moody, usually dark style - I think all watercolors, all painted - which occasionally made it difficult for me to tell which character was which (but that may be a Me Issue). It's visually impressive, and also looks nothing like McCay's own detailed linework, which is doubly interesting.

I was hoping for something deeper than "stopping the fourth dimensional murderer!" but the world, and other people's fictions, do not follow our hopes. McCay is well-constructed and moodily beautiful and full of strong moments; it's a neat book for anyone who knows who Winsor McCay is and is willing to read a moderately outré story based on his life.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

A Fade of Light by Nate Fakes

I low-key love that this is a book about the author's former stepfather. We all have so many important people in our lives over the years, and only a few of them are the big, "official" ones. Doing a book all about one of the "others" helps reclaim that larger world, helps remind us all we live in a big conglomeration of people, and that others are always affecting us and we them.

But it has to be low-key because it's not a happy book at its core: the title gives that away. A Fade of Light is about who Ron Malish was, and how he lost being that person to a rare form of dementia.

That sounds more reassuring than it might be: there are a lot of forms of dementia, and a lot of them are depressingly common. I've seen stats that half of all seniors die "with a dementia diagnosis" - not necessarily the cause of death, but in the mix by the end.

Nate Fakes wanted to tell Ron's story - or, more specifically, the story of what Ron meant to him, since that's the story that was his to tell. Ron came into his life in middle school, the way any step-parent does: first dating Fakes's mother, then marrying her a couple of years later. And Fakes makes it clear that Ron was at least somewhat annoying, as any new step-parent would be: trying hard, a little too hard, with a big personality and a crowd-pleasing manner, one of those people who can talk to anyone and usually does. (My own father was a slicker, more lawyerly version of the same type.)

Fakes, as he presents it here, had a little resentment, but mostly appreciation - Ron was a big personality, he dragged Fakes out to do fun things, and he was quirky and specific in mostly interesting ways. Most of Fade is about their relationship - Fakes growing up, wanting to become an artist, while Ron circles jobs of his own, with his obsession for self-improvement and make-it-big thinking.

Fakes handles that long central section well, balancing memoir-ish looks at this own life with his interactions with Ron as he grew up, moved away (and back), went to college, chased jobs - all of those things. Fakes never stoops to telling, but he shows how important people in our lives work: they support us, help us, surround us, as we go through whatever it is we're going through. We appreciate them, and they appreciate us.

But then, as Fakes signposted on the first pages, Ron got a dementia diagnosis a few years ago - it was something of a surprise, but Ron was more erratic and forgetful for a while before that, so it was clear something was the matter with him. It turned out to be Pick's Disease, an incurable form of frontotemporal dementia - Ron now lives in a care unit, and Fakes shows, by the end of Fade, that he's forgotten nearly everything.

Fakes draws this in a cartoonier style than the reader might expect for a "serious" memoir like this - but that's his style, that's how he draws. His people have big eyes and are shown larger and more central in panels than many similar "this sad thing" memoirs. Again, that's what makes Fade of Light specific and particular - this is who Fakes became, in part because he knew and was supported by Ron. He can tell this story this way because of everything that happened to him, and the art style and structure are baked into all of that.

This is a sad book, inevitably, but it's a celebration in its sad way. We can remember who people were and what they meant to us, even when they're gone. Or maybe I mean that we have to do that, that we have to hold onto the moments of happiness and celebrate them, even in the context of inevitable sadness.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

A Few Quick Ones by P.G. Wodehouse

I'm reading P.G. Wodehouse books three or four times a year these days - they all read quickly, he was a master of effortless funny prose, and he wrote about a hundred of the things over his long career - so I'm mostly keeping these notes short and focused. If you're looking for a "why read Wodehouse" in the first place, either just re-read the last sentence or dive into what I've written about him in the past.

A Few Quick Ones is a 1959 short-story collection, gathering ten pieces that originally appeared in magazines over the previous decade. It's got most of his major series, at least the ones that appear in short form in that phase of his career: Mr. Mulliner, the Oldest Member, Ukridge, one Jeeves story, and a whole bunch of random Drones Club habitués.

All the stories are short and breezy, basically one set of complications that gets worked out in a traditional, humorous way. The whole thing takes up only just a bit more than two hundred pages.

I do recommend it, as I do nearly all of Wodehouse. But, if you're looking to start on his shorter stories, I'd suggest going to Lord Emsworth and Others first, which has the sublime "The Crime Wave at Blandings" in it, or possibly Carry On, Jeeves, the first of that series.

And, to keep this from being too short, let me end with a quote, to give you a sense of what Wodehouse could do when he got up to it:

It was a large, uncouth dog, in its physique and deportment not unlike the hound of the Baskervilles, though of course not covered with phosphorous, and it seemed to be cross about something. Its air was that of a dog which has discovered plots against its person, and it appeared to be under the impression that in Augustus it had found one of the ringleaders, for the menace in its manner, as it now advanced on him, was unmistakable.

That's from "The Right Approach," pages 62-63 in this edition. If it sounds amusing to you, Wodehouse will likely suit.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Fungirl by Elizabeth Pich

It shouldn't be surprising when we get cringe comedy from a woman - we're more than a decade past Bridesmaids, after all - but it feels like one of those doors that keeps having to be kicked open, that the audience tends to forget women can be just as messy and weird and horrible as men. Today, I have a book that kicks that door open, rips it off its hinges, chops it up for firewood, burns it down, dances on the ashes, and then falls over, awkwardly, to get bruised and covered with schmutz.

Fungirl is, to use the idiom of my youth, cringe to the max, a collection of strips that I think originally appeared in zines or anthologies or online or (waves hands wildly) somewhere and then were collected into this big book in 2021. It's by Elizabeth Pich, also known as half of the team behind the webcomic War and Peas - the art style here is very similar to War, whatever that means.

Fungirl herself - she has no other name here - is the blank-faced woman on the cover. She's young, probably in her mid-twenties - the familiar "old enough to know better and young enough not to do so." She's bisexual, vaguely self-deluding, hugely impulsive, and lacking in any social graces - a cringe comedy protagonist, to be short.

She lives with a roommate, Becky, who used to be her girlfriend, for maximum awkwardness potential. Becky has a steady boyfriend, Peter, who is one of those quiet, feminist, unassuming men who work well in comedy about loud, abrasive, thoughtless women.

Fungirl is already obsessed with sex, so to get the "death" part of the cringe-comedy yin/yang, she gets a job at a mortuary, where she is no more appropriate, low-key, or unassuming than she is in any other facet of her life.

This is a collection of stories, more or less - Pich doesn't use titles here, though she does have vignette-style "photo" pages in between stories - all coming from the core premise of Fungirl: she's a hot mess who causes problems but is loveable enough to always be forgiven. It's all comedy, so it tends to circle back: nothing much changes in Fungirl's life or relationships, except to facilitate the next gag or set up this particular story.

Fungirl is wild and manic and uncontrolled, and she's a hoot to read about. I see there are a few shorter, later books about her, so I wonder if the (very small, very tentative) personal growth we see in her at the end of this book will continue. I'm ambivalent about that: a character like this can't change too much and stay the same character, but on the other hand it's all the same joke if she doesn't change. Either way, I want to see what Pich does next: she's fearless and funny and draws in a neat crisp cartoony style that makes the boobs and blood and flailing limbs all that much sillier.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Basia Bulat

"Portions for Foxes" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song by a woman or a band led by a woman. See the introduction for more.

This week I don't have a fancy introduction, or some quirky connection - just a great song by a great singer-songwriter that I've been listening to for a decade and wish that more people knew about. It's one of those songs that starts relatively quiet and contained and just gets big before the end - owns its space, takes it over, filling your ears and telling its story.

This is Tall Tall Shadow by Basia Bulat. It's about what you can get away from, and what you can't.

You can’t run away
When the shadow is yours

There's something reminiscent of the '60s in the song for me - that feeling of size and importance, Bulat's clear crisp voice, the chorus behind her at the climax, the keyboards that open the song and provide most of the backing, the tick-tock drum beat that opens out to the big orchestration for the second half of the song.

I don't know who she's singing to: it could be herself, or someone specific, you, or me, or all of us. 

No, there is no lie that you can live in
Tear it apart
Your own confession
Made in the dark

In the end, it's a song about how you can't fool yourself, no matter how hard you try. That's a lesson so many of us need to keep learning, need to keep hearing. And this is a glorious, ringing, triumphant way of hearing and believing it.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Quote of the Week, Supplemental: Should You Choose to Accept It

The Law of Man is bounded by the limits of the Oikumene. Good and evil, however, are ideas which encompass the universe; unluckily, beyond the Pale there are few to ensure the triumph of good over evil. 

Actually the triumph consists of two processes: first evil must be extinguished, then good must be introduced to fill the gap. It is impossible that a man should be equally efficacious in both functions. Good and evil, in spite of a traditional fallacy, are not polarities, nor mirror images, nor is one merely the absence of the other. In order to minimize confusion, your work will be the destruction of evil men.

 - from a letter giving instructions to a young man setting out on a career of vengeance, Jack Vance, The Star King (p.28 in The Demon Princes, Vol. 1 omnibus)

Quote of the Week: Dealing with Clients

Yes, the humans had wanted to come down here and poke around. I had let Iris and Tarik secure their environmental suits and get out to look at the hatch, but made Ratthi stay at the controls. It was hard keeping him in there because he really likes to walk around on planets and he is also great at finding dangerous shit. The original planetary survey data that still existed was corrupted and incomplete, but so far the colonists hadn't said anything about dangerous flora or fauna. Which meant I assumed there was some because humans have a bad habit of assuming if they know a thing, all the other humans in he vicinity know it, too. Either that or they believe none of the other humans know anything that they don't know. It's either one or the other and both are potentially catastrophic and really fucking annoying.

 - Martha Wells, System Collapse, p.67

Friday, February 16, 2024

Random Illustrated Facts by Mike Lowery

I have found the Platonic ideal of the cash-wrap impulse-buy book. What title could possibly be better, or more comprehensive of the category, than Random Illustrated Facts?

Even better, this is exactly what it claims to be, and it's actually longer and more detailed than it needed to be - about two hundred pages, divided into five sections on History, Animals, Food/Drink, Science, and Everyday Things, sometimes with one big fact on a page and sometimes featuring multiple related facts per page.

All the lettering is hand-drawn, in a charmingly appealing style that changes size as it goes, by author Mike Lowery. And obviously all of the art is also drawn by Lowery; that's kinda the point of the book. In his introduction, he talks about how his habit of keeping sketchbooks changed over the years, as he started talking small notebooks everywhere and then drawing weird facts as he learned them. So, if I'm reading it right, this book is far more organic than I assumed: it's a curated selection of the random pages Lowery made over the course of several years, about things that interested him at odd moments about odd things.

All that is much more random than I assumed, of course, and it thus makes the book that much better. Lowery's energetic illustrative style, full of curlicues and dot eyes and exaggerated expressions, is equally amusing and inventive - I saw his stuff for the first time a couple of months ago with One Star Wonders, and I'm now low-key looking for more.

Look: what you have here are 1) Random, 2) Illustrated, 3) Facts. Just like it says on the tin. How can you go wrong?

(One minor consumer note: I read this in a digital form in my library's Hoopla app. On a few scattered pages, it appeared that some elements were missing on the page - maybe because of a layering error in composition? Here's an example, from what I think is page 18.)

Thursday, February 15, 2024

The Star King by Jack Vance

Revenge is one of the oldest and most dependable plots, sure to bring the reader around quickly to the hero's side. It's a familiar lever in all sorts of more-or-less adventure fiction, whatever the setting or genre: just establish that your character is, for example, looking for the six-fingered man that killed his father, and the creator is golden.

Jack Vance built a five-book series out of revenge - I'm pretty sure I could, given time and thought, work up a substantially longer list of other Vance books also using a revenge theme, so I'm being descriptive rather than exclusive here - which he published between the mid-Sixties and 1981. The first book was 1964's The Star King, which I just re-read for the first time in a couple of decades.

The series is organized around the five targets of revenge. Some years ago, five Demon Princes - call them pirates, ganglords, something like that - combined forces to destroy the peaceful settlement of Mount Pleasant. Kirth Gersen, then a young child, was one of the few survivors, along with his grandfather, and was raised by that grandfather as a weapon to eventually seek out and destroy those five "Demon Princes." One of them is at the center of each of the book of the series: the first is Attel Malagate (the Woe).

The universe is medium-future, the human-settled Oikumene of much of this phase of Vance's career - about fifteen hundred years on, with hundreds or thousands of settled planets, sorted into the "Pale" of civilization, where planetary governments maintain order, and the wider "Beyond," where the only law is power. As typical for Vance, it's a big, complicated background: there are a few pan-system organizations, such as the Interworld Police Coordination Company (IPCC), but they have limited power and reach. Planets and their people can be very different from each other, and the levels of technology can also vary a lot.

Gersen is about thirty now; he's the equivalent of Batman at the beginning of his career - did all of the training, ready to start the actual mission. But the Demon Princes are secretive and hidden, creatures of the Beyond - more names to frighten children with than specific people with known routines and habits. They definitely exist, and still wreak havoc, but the Beyond is a vast area of space including hundreds of worlds and no law, so just finding even one of them is a trick.

But Gersen runs into the path of Malagate by accident, while stopping at a traveler's tavern that is the only building on Smade's Planet. A locator named Lugo Teehalt is also in the tavern, and strikes up a conversation with Gersen: Teehalt has learned his mission was funded by Malagate, and he's worried about what that will mean.

Malagate's goons arrive, and take Teehalt away to kill him. Because of their confusion, Gersen ends up with Teehalt's spacecraft instead of his (identical) own - but also has the recording filament of a paradisiacal planet that Teehalt discovered and that Malagate covets.

So Gersen sets out to use that lure to find Malagate and kill him - it won't be that simple, but when is a good revenge story ever simple? There are four more books in the series, so the reader can assume he succeeds.

This is prime-period Vance, so the joys of reading it are deep. He'd already started adding in-universe quotes to the beginnings of his chapters, to comment on the action or deepen the world-building, and there are some excellent examples here, such as this bit from Chapter 6, ostensibly from Men of the Oikume by Jan Holberk Vaenz LXII:

There are those who, like the author, ensconce themselves on a thunderous crag of omniscience, and with protestations of humility which are either unconvincing or totally absent, assume the obligation of appraisal, commendation, derogation or denunciation of their contemporaries. Still, by and large it is an easier job than digging a ditch.

Vance's dialogue is equally assured and amusing: wry, layered, ironic, thoughtful, and specific to the characters. He was easily the best and most distinctive prose stylist, as well as the most sophisticated in his outlook, of all the SF writers of his era, and his books still provide deep enjoyment.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Anäis Nin: A Sea of Lies by Léonie Bischoff

The subtitle is surprising, particularly for a book as sympathetic to Nin as this one is. Creator Léonie Bischoff clearly means that it's Nin's sea, her lies, but she also is almost entirely on Nin's side throughout the book. Sure, she deceived her husband to have an affair with Henry Miller (and, as I understand it, also with Miller's wife, June, though Bischoff doesn't show the two of them getting physical in this story), but Bischoff can see why and can justify it.

Perhaps I should back up slightly. Anäis Nin: A Sea of Lies is a 2020 bande desinée by Bischoff - the subtitle in French is Sur la Mer des Mensonges, which is the subtly different "On the Sea of Lies" - translated by Jenna Allen and published in English for the first time last year. It's a tightly focused biographical story, taking place in the early Thirties - some flashbacks to the Teens are dated, but the main action isn't, so it's difficult to say how much time is covered - centering on Nin, her relationship with Miller, and what I guess I would characterize as her growing realization that she wants and needs multiple relationships with different men. To be frank, she seems to be the kind of person - they come in both men and women - who meets new fascinating people and almost immediately decides they need to consume that person, usually with sex. (They also often have artistic aspirations - a few of them, like Nin, may actually do something with those aspirations. But being artistic, which of course includes lots of sex with lots of people in dangerous transgressive ways, is the first and most important thing.)

Bischoff does manage to keep Nin sympathetic, even as she tells the story of Nin juggling a marriage - which was supposed to be a melding of artistic equals  - with affairs with Miller, a cousin, her psychiatrist, and even (most famously) her own father. (I may have missed some. It becomes difficult to understand how Nin had time to get anything else accomplished in life with all of this bed-hopping.) I think the main action of the book covers two or three years in the early Thirties - when Nin was living in Paris, before she returned to New York - but the lack of dates tends to make it all seem like it's happening during a short period of time.

Bischoff accomplishes a lot of that through her art, which has a lightness and an imaginative power throughout, with shimmery, almost pastel colors rising and falling throughout the narrative, most dominant when Nin is alone or in the throes of passion. She also keeps Nin centered throughout: our viewpoint is always on her, her actions are central, her concerns are the core of the book.

A reader might think that Nin is yet another far-too-self-indulgent would-be artist, and there's some validity to that. I think things got more complicated and overwrought for her later, with a second bigamous marriage among other things. But, in this time-frame, it's mostly normal adultery - well, aside from a grown woman having sex with her domineering father not being within a million miles of "normal" in any world - and Bischoff believably ties it all into Nin's artistic growth and ambitions.

So this is a lovely examination of a complicated, messy artist, in a style and manner that is vastly more tasteful and lush than a reader might expect from a book so centrally about having sex with a whole bunch of different people.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

System Collapse by Martha Wells

First up: the Murderbot series is superb and wonderful, and you should try it if you haven't already. (The first book is All Systems Red, and it's a novella, so that would not be a big time commitment.) Martha Wells has been a fine, interesting writer of great viewpoints and interesting worlds for a long time - she did, I think, exclusively write fantasy before this series, which means it's ironic that a SF series would be her big breakout, but, whatever. It does mean all the Murderbot fans still have Ile-Rien to discover, which is excellent for them. (Murderbot fans: if you haven't read Death of the Necromancer, try it. It's vastly less pulpy than the title might make you think.)

That said, the Murderbot series, since it's mostly novellas so far and those can pile up quickly, has gotten somewhat complicated. The most recent book, Fugitive Telemetry, was a bit of a flashback - not far, but a bit - but Wells has now, I think, returned to the latest moments of her timeframe.

So the new novel - I think it's a novel; I didn't count words - is System Collapse, and it's a direct sequel to the previous novel Network Effect (not the previous book). (I told you this was somewhat complicated.) (Yes, I do start using Murderbot-style multiple-parenthetical-comments right after reading one of these books. What can I say? Wells is a good writer, and her characters get into your brain quickly and take it over.)

If you don't know the background: it's galactic medium-future SF, corporate-hellhole subcategory. There are mostly unmodified humans (probably not entirely unmodified, and likely modified different ways depending on their different planets/groups/backgrounds) and augmented humans (with techy add-ons to their bodies and brains) and constructs (mixed biological/robot humanoids, mostly autonomous and sapient) and bots (full-AI robots, embodied in ships and stations and various bodies, often sapient, too). Given the corporate hellhole background, many of those are held in some kind of control, whether software or legal or hardware or fiscal - or, most likely, as many of the above as the owning corp can manage.

The SecUnit (construct designed to provide security to humans) that calls itself Murderbot hacked its governor unit to become fully autonomous, after being used for some nasty business for a particularly hellhole-ish corporation. It has since gotten away from that corporation and mostly escaped the Corporate Rim, outside of which is an area of space with smaller independent polities and some not-particularly-horrible organizations. It's now loosely attached to a group from the Preservation polity that is mostly (this is vague, probably because Murderbot doesn't quite understand and/or care about the details) connected to the Pansystem University of Mihara and New Tideland.

In Network Effect, Murderbot, some Preservation humans, and the ship Murderbot refers to as ART (actually named Perihelion, also a free AI individual, probably even more secretly than Murderbot) were hijacked away to a distant system, where complications ensued.

System Collapse, as I said, is a direct sequel: many of the same complications, and some new ones, are still ensuing. There is a rapacious corporation that wants to profit from this particular planet, and the best way they see to do so is to get the current colonists to sign up as indentured servants and get shipped off to some other hellhole. There is an ancient alien contamination on this planet, which can take over agricultural bots and other low-level tech to send them on murderous sprees. There is what I suppose I can call a Lost Colony, from before the Corporate Rim was founded and very out of the loop on current events - and, worse, having fractured into multiple somewhat-warring factions.

It's a complicated situation, made worse by the fact that Murderbot recently redacted, and now, after a restart, is not operating at full capacity. But, as so often with fiction, tough situations for the characters makes for a great story for us the readers, and Wells is really good at this kind of thing.

As always, Murderbot's voice - cynical, endlessly commenting on everything it sees, media-saturated, searching and thoughtful and bedrock competent at what it does - is at least half of the draw; it's a brilliantly drawn character and an amazing viewpoint into this universe.

I say this a lot about series, because it's true: don't start here. But get here, because it's a lot of fun, and better than fun. Wells packs a lot into these short books: they are thoughtful and surprisingly deep for stories about a Murderbot in a semi-hellhole future.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Portions for Foxes: The Breeders

"Portions for Foxes" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song by a woman or a band led by a woman. See the introduction for more.

I don't want to be precious with this series. I have hipster tendencies, I know, but I'm trying my best not to go full hipster, all obscure random stuff that I assume no one else will know or remember. It's just songs that mean something to me - songs I think are great, songs that I think I can say something about, songs that I want to share and push out one more time, whether you've never heard them or heard them a million times.

You've heard this one, I think. Maybe not a million times. Maybe not in a while.

This is Safari by The Breeders, the title song from their 1992 EP.

And it starts with what I always think of as a landslide; that hushed moment of reverb, and then the kick of the guitar starting. It always sounds unstoppable, relentless, powerful - with both Kelley Deal and Tanya Donelly playing what sounds like the same chords simultaneously.

It's one of those songs with obscure lyrics, so I won't be quoting like I usually do - I don't know what it means, and I don't really care. Rock songs are often about the sound, and this is a song with a powerful, demanding, relentless sound that's irresistible.

I love that catch-in-her-voice thing Kim Deal does several times at the ends of verses - the "uh-uh" leading into the long "aaaaahs." It's a song about sounds - the sounds of her voice as much as those demanding, driving guitars.

It's a song that sounds like it should be louder than however you play it, a song that wants to push things around to make space for itself. That's a great kind of song, and this is a great one, another three-minute thrill-ride that does what it needs to and then shuts down cleanly.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Quote of the Week: Cosmology

"...The first thing you have to understand is that time is not like a string."

"Time is not like a string?"

"Some people think it is. It isn't. Time also isn't like a series of frankfurters, a loop, a figure eight, a fast train, a fast train with a mosquito in it, a melting ice cube, a floppy pocket watch, a French cookie, rotten apples, Silly Putty, or Swiss cheese."




"So, time is like a map of the state of New Jersey - not like the state of New Jersey or even the state of New Jersey seen from the air, or from a satellite - it is like a map of the state of New Jersey. Got that?"


"Okay, next is space. Space is sort of like a bagel, but an elliptical one, with poppy seeds."

 - Daniel Pinkwater, Borgel (pp.35-36 in 4 Fantastic Novels)

Friday, February 09, 2024

Lights by Brenna Thummler

I got very cynical about "trilogies" very quickly, working in SFF publishing. It's hard not to: any semi-successful book that doesn't end with the death of all of the main characters - and even a couple of those - can and probably will lead to more adventures of the same people if the financial incentive is there. And the financial incentive is usually there.

But it's still a thrill, even in my cold cynical heart, to see a trilogy done well - to see it wrap up the themes of the prior books, note how the second book introduced some of those themes, and approvingly point to the way each of three books is mostly about one of the three main characters, with important roles for the other two.

And it also reminds me that a lot of the best work in graphic novels today is being done for younger readers - it shouldn't be a surprise, since that's a massive market, but "market" is not always synonymous with "quality." (Rather the opposite a lot of the time.)

Brenna Thummler closes out a trilogy with Lights, and does so really well. It extends and mostly completes the story from Sheets and Delicates; she could tell later stories about some or all of these characters, but she doesn't have to. And I think she probably won't.

Sheets was Marjorie Glatt's story: she was a middle-schooler trying to keep the family laundromat running after the death of her mother and her father's overpowering grief. Through some shenanigans, and with the help of a ghost named Wendell, she did - and got to a better place herself.

Delicates was Eliza's story - a new friend of Marjorie's early in the next school year. Eliza is neurodiverse in some way: quirky, particular, prone to obsessions, the kind of kid who stands out, especially in middle school. They become friends at the same time that Marjorie is having trouble with her old friends - they've fallen into the orbit of the local mean girl - and Eliza, obsessed with ghosts and death, also meets and befriends Wendell.

So who's left? Lights is Wendell's story. We know he's from this town on Lake Erie, that he died by drowning, that he was younger than Marjorie - eight, maybe, old enough to do things on his own but not to always do them successfully. His memory comes in flashes; we think this is common for ghosts. He doesn't remember exactly how he died, what caused it. And that's bothering him, as he has more and more memories sparked - as he remembers his nanny, his parents and their dance studio, and someone he calls the Sea Witch.

From the first book, we know that Wendell makes up stories - they're not called lies here, but we see the kind of stories he told about his life when he was alive, making mythology out of the dance studio regulars and lights and stage and everything else. Marjorie and Eliza chase down those stories, wondering if someone killed Wendell - someone who might still be around. They don't get the answer they expect, but they do learn the truth.

The whole trilogy is about death, in a way that's unusual for a middle-grade series - sure, about moving beyond a death and finding your way to the other side of grief, but deeply about death and loss. Just as central is friendship and the kinds of jealousy that close friendships among young people can bring - the old "I thought I was your best friend" question.

Thummler navigates all of that and more here, with Marjorie juggling Wendell, Eliza, and even her old friends, now circling back from the mean girl, and trying to find places for all of them in her life. I suppose every book for middle-graders ends up teaching lessons, even if it's not blatant about it - and one of Lights's biggest lessons, or moments, is the realization that no one can have "too many" friends, as long as they're being honest and true with all of them.

In the end, this trilogy is about the big things: being there for your friends, taking them as they are, understanding what they're going through, trying to help as much as you can. About being kind and helpful and connected, compassionate and open and accepting. And, more importantly, Lights is about those things mostly without blatantly sermonizing - by telling a particular story about particular people, grappling with those problems and ending up doing the right things. 

Thursday, February 08, 2024

But You Have Friends by Emilia McKenzie

Every story is specific - not just the events told, but how they're told, who is telling them, and where we the audience fits into the whole thing. It's why there can be multiple biographies of the same person with radically different takes: same story, different slant.

Some stories are personal, to the point that the creator wonders if she should even tell it - if it's really her story to tell. But there's always a way to tell a story - your way - even if it's mostly someone else's story. There's always a way to be honest and true.

Emilia McKenzie's graphic memoir But You Have Friends is the story of a friendship. That friendship ended abruptly and violently: Emi's friend Charlotte died in 2018, by suicide, after several years of escalating bouts of depression.

There could be a story of Charlotte's life; this isn't it. McKenzie says she deliberately focused the way she did, to tell the story that was hers to tell. These are the comics pages she made, starting soon after Charlotte's death, to remember her friend and put as much down on paper as she could. To turn it into a story she could share. So this is specific and personal - the story of a friend remembered afterward - but not a memoir of mental illness or a full story of Charlotte's life. McKenzie made a good choice there: Friends is specific and grounded and particular, in all the ways that makes it relatable and universal.

McKenzie uses a crisp art style here, all thin lines and a light grey tone, illustrative in its big-eyed faces and minimalist backgrounds, mostly in a six-panel grid. She narrates this story heavily, so there are a lot of captions as well as dialogue - her lettering is clear and easily readable. It's a friendly, welcoming book, about two women and their times together, starting when they met in the middle of their school years.

(Both are British, and met at school in Britain, so exactly which year and what that translates to in American is slightly vague to me - looks like they were tweens.)

We get some of McKenzie's life here, because she lived it, and many of the ways that life intersected with Charlotte's, especially in those early school years before they went off to separate universities and started their adult lives. Friends is a book about the ways you can just click with a specific person, how you understand each other and extend each other, sharing ideas and becoming more yourselves for having a mirror or model.

Friends is told in lots of short chapters or moments - it's made up of memories, organized chronologically, to tell the story of what it was like to be in this friendship, to be one of these two people. It's a lovely book, inevitably sad but ultimately positive. It doesn't claim to be more than it is, but what it is is plenty.

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Children of Palomar & Other Tales by Gilbert & Mario Hernandez

Today is not Monday: my tag is a lie. But I'm doing something else on Mondays these days, so everything else has to shift over, like the crowd in the backseat of an big '70s car as they pick up one more person on the way to some big event.

Children of Palomar & Other Tales is also not one thing, if that matters: it's the fifteenth in the omnibus series collecting "all" of Love & Rockets, under the general title The Love & Rockets Library. It's a mostly-Gilbert Hernandez book - there are a couple of pieces Gilbert drew, but were written by his brother Mario, the Halley's Comet of the Hernandez comics family. And it gathers three long stories and one short one: two of the long stories were previous collected as books on their own, while the other is a quirky thing that I suspect wasn't seen as commercial enough for that.

So what we have here is Julio's Day - the story of one man's life, somewhere in America (southwestern US, maybe, or perhaps nearby Mexico, since they seem to go off to WW I at the same time as American forces), over the course of a century, and what changes around him - and then the flashback stories of The Children of Palomar (originally a comics series called New Tales of Old Palomar), set in the timeframe, or slightly earlier, of Gilbert's first burst of Palomar stories in the 1980s.

Since I already covered those stories in detail, and don't have anything new to say about them, I'll leave it at that: dive back into the links for more if you want.

Then we have the Mario-written pieces. He's a much more clotted writer than his brothers, maybe more of a traditional old-fashioned comics writer, with lots of captions and random action and density of activity and words on his pages - deconstruction has no home in a Mario story. They read very differently than the all-Gilbert pieces, which have more space and grace to them, doing a lot more of the storytelling through art and visuals.

The short story is "Chiro El Indio," from the first issue of the book-format Love and Rockets series, in which a couple (literally, a couple) of rural goofballs are tricked by smarter, nastier people into religious mania (different for the two of them) in order to steal their land, but then the ending has an actual god zapping people, so...I think the plot didn't work?

The long Mario story, "Me for the Unknown" - reprinted from a stretch of the second Love & Rockets series, around twenty years ago - leads off the volume, and it's a pretty typical Mario thing: corporate skullduggery and violent criminal shenanigans in fictional Latin America, involving the complex family of an exploitative company. It's a nine-part story, and each part sees new complications which are mostly forgotten or changed by the next section - again, this is all heavily narrated and deeply wordy, explaining all of these things that then shift entirely a few pages later.

I will admit I'm not a fan of Mario's comics, and leave it at that.

If you are a fan of Mario, this is the first new collection of his stuff in a while, so that's good news. Otherwise, it's a great book if you like having the uniform series, and less good if you already have Julio's Day and Children of Palomar.

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Borgel by Daniel Pinkwater

The thing about Daniel Pinkwater's novels is that they're welcoming - for everyone, but especially for weirdos. For two or three generations now, he's been the writer saying to quirky kids that there's a place for them in the world, that the world is bigger and stranger and sillier than they imagine, and that, no matter what they may think, things will actually work out pretty well if they pay attention and find the places they belong.

There's usually only an illusion of conflict in Pinkwater's worlds: there are "bad guys," sometimes, but they're usually juvenile pranksters or grumpy misanthropes, or just creatures who do bad thing because that's who they are. And the heroes may oppose those people, or be stymied by them, now and then, but that's not the point of the story - that's not what's important.

What's important is living and exploring and learning - finding out about the world, talking to new people, trying new foods, going unexpected places. There's no writer better for that sense of infinite possibility that a smart preteen wants and needs more than anything: the sense that there is definitely going to be a place for the person she will become, and that there will be friends and acquaintances and random goofballs who will help her to find that place and to be that person.

I haven't re-read any of his older books in a while - there were two big omnibuses around twenty-five years ago, first 5 Novels and then 4 Fantastic Novels, which collected most of his novels up to that point - but I got a copy of Fantastic for Christmas, and will use that as an excuse to read those books over the next however many months. (And maybe see if I have a copy of 5 Novels in the house after that.)

So first up in that omnibus was Borgel, a 1992 novel about Melvin Spellbound, his elderly relative Borgel, and their trip through time-space-and-the-other in a 1937 Dorbzeldge sedan. As usual for a classic Pinkwater novel, the main character is a preteen boy, probably smarter, quieter, and quirkier than his agemates, who is not always said to be fat but probably is, and who gets pulled into unexpected adventures and strangenesses of the world that he never suspected existed. 

In this case, first Borgel came to live with his family when Melvin was small - claiming to be a distant relative and a hundred and eleven years old, though he keeps claiming to be a hundred and eleven every year since then. Borgel speaks odd languages to odd characters at the local diner, takes the dog for long walks, and seems to like Melvin best of the family, introducing him to Beethoven and telling usually-obviously-made-up stories of his past.

Before too long, Borgel takes Melvin (and the dog, Fafnir) on a roadtrip, down an Interstate that runs across time and space. It's a picaresque adventure of a kind, though, as usual for Pinkwater, danger is generally minimal and humor is high - it's a sequence of oddball places and people, culminating in a transformative encounter with one of the "twenty-six immensely powerful energy bundles that maintain the shape and quality of reality." (Namely: The Great Popsicle.)

It is goofy and fun and full of random moments, with all of Pinkwater's inventiveness and open-heartedness on display. A Pinkwater world, again, is a welcoming, wonderful, quirky one, with wonders around every corner - not necessarily the kind you expect, since you may end up having a dinner consisting only of grilled onions - but wonders nonetheless. And Borgel in particular ends with a lovely evocation of communion and togetherness, one of the best crystallizations of that core Pinkwater philosophy in his books.

My recommendation: read Pinkwater. If you have young people about you, read him to them, or leave his books around and maybe make vague imprecations that they're too young for those books, or that Pinkwater is probably "too weird" for them. If you don't have young people, you'll have to just read his books yourself. I wish you joy of it.

Monday, February 05, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Haley

"Portions for Foxes" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song by a woman or a band led by a woman. See the introduction for more.

First up - I know this musician as "Haley Bonar," since that's the name on the records of hers I have. But she now performs as just "Haley," and has changed her name officially to Haley McCallum.

The song I want to celebrate is "Big Star," title track from her 2008 record.

Haley isn't the Big Star: she's singing to someone else. I've taken it as a friend or colleague, someone close, but it could be an acquaintance or current/former lover. The song is ambiguous enough for that. But it's definitely someone else. Definitely someone who will be a Big Star.

They're gonna call you "baby"
Treat you like a symbol
Something that they'll never understand

But for how long?

They'll all hate you tomorrow
When no one buys your single

Haley sings this all at a slight distance, as if this person is already on those airplanes. It's one part cheering the departing Big Star up, one part setting her own expectations for being left behind.

But the part that always gets me - the lines that make this one of my favorite songs - are these, near the end:

But I can't make you happy
I can't make you money
I can only fold your laundry

It's almost a koan: this is what we can do for other people. We can't make them happy. We can do small physical things, take chores over for them.

Even if they are Big Stars. Even if we care deeply for them. What I love about this song is that insight, that moment of clarity, even as the singer is metaphorically watching the Big Star walk out the door into Big Stardom.

Sunday, February 04, 2024

Books Read: January 2024

It's time for the monthly index again, and this is it. Links, as always, will follow once posts go live.

Léonie Bischoff, Anaïs Nin: A Sea of Lies (digital, 1/1)

Jack Vance, The Star King (in The Demon Princes, Volume I, 1/1)

Mike Lowery, Random Illustrated Facts (digital, 1/6)

Elizabeth Pich, Fungirl (digital, 1/7)

P.G. Wodehouse, A Few Quick Ones (1/7)

Nate Fakes, A Fade of Light (digital, 1/13)

Thierry Smolderen and Jean-Philippe Bramanti, McCay (1/14)

Michael T. Gilbert's The Complete Wraith! (1/15)

Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1/15)

Philippe Brenot and Laetitia Coryn, The Story of Sex (1/20)

Ben Zaehringer, How Not to Get Into Heaven (digital. 1/21)

Saophie Adriansen and various artists, Nina Simone in Comics (digital, 1/26)

Eoin Colfer, Highfire (1/26)

Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin, Tank Girl Full Color Classics, Vol. 3: 1993-1995 (digital, 1/27)

Doug Savage, Zombies According to Savage Chickens (digital, 1/28)

I'm pretty sure I will continue reading books in February, and do this again.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Quote of the Week: Specific Advice for Specific People

In truth I must recommend to all young men that they find a wife. Not that they marry, though they may do that as well, but that they find a merry, pleasing wife, with whom they may delight the hours. For a wife, being married already, will leave a man his freedom and will not harry a man to join her in wedded union. Nor will they play such games as coy virgins play, saying "nay" one day and "maybe" the next; and because wives have knowledge of the world, they will know how to please, and how in his turn the youth should please them. A wife may therefore be part of a man's education, and certainly the most pleasurable part thereof.

I have treasured all my wives, and warm memories of them take up a special place next to my heart.

 - the main character in Walter Jon Williams' Quillifer the Knight, p.86

Friday, February 02, 2024

The Book of Onions by Jake Thompson

Continuing my streak of reading books of webcomics that I don't realize have recently ended - see, oh, about half-a-dozen posts over the past two or three months - I just found and read the 2018 collection of Jake Likes Onions.

And, as sure as night follows day, when I googled that strip to find the best link for this review, I discovered that the last strip was about a year ago. I'd claim that I'm killing these webcomics, but since it's happening well before I read the book, it would need to be a very wibble-wobbly timey-wimey mechanism to be my fault.

Whatever is actually happening, it feels like there was a die-off event that hit a lot of the things I like (or would like, since it seems to have hit before I was paying attention). So let me just shake my fist futilely at the indifferent cosmos and then move on.

Shake, Shake.

The Book of Onions collects a hundred and twenty "Jake Likes Onions" strips, which originally appeared digitally. They're all by Jake Thompson, who I gather is an onion aficionado. Let me quote the text from the first strip, to give you a sense of the tone, but it should be familiar from similar webcomics:

He was a city boy from the streets of New York
She was a country girl from Arkansas
But it was 1802 and they did not have the means to travel
The End

Mildly cynical, more than a little smartass, full of references and curses - it's smart humor for people with a fairly wide knowledge base and a liking for often-dark humor. The kind of thing that would never in a million years make it into a newspaper: that kind of strip. Consistently a four-panel grid, with a title/caption that often serves as the punchline, or an additional punch-line.

Thompson has a slightly fussy style, with lots of little lines and tones, though his figures are usually very simplified - he uses wide, nearly empty faces with small features, like smiley faces come to life and having found nothing to smile about.

Jake Likes Onions is another one of those strips you've probably seen examples of if you spend much time on social media - it's been shared and cropped and reused a lot, mostly in ways that don't lead back to Thompson's site and don't give him any credit. That's the way the world seems to work now, and did I mention that this strip, like so many others, seems to have ended? There may be a lesson there: if you enjoy things, you need to find ways to support and pay for them, or they go away.

That's all a shame: Jake Likes Onions was consistently funny, with a clear point of view, an art style that was adaptable to lots of different gags, and a wide enough frame of reference to keep being fresh. Maybe it will come back; maybe Thompson will do something else. But this book does exist, at least - the strips aren't just going to bit-rot if and when the hosting fees for the site run out.

Thursday, February 01, 2024

Quillifer the Knight by Walter Jon Williams

This is the middle book of a trilogy, so the first thing I should say is to go see what I wrote about the first book, Quillifer. I tried to avoid spoilers there, mostly talking vaguely about the world and set-up and main character.

I suppose it's not a spoiler to say the main character of a trilogy narrated in the first person survived the first book, and probably not a spoiler to say he survives this one, too. (The third book, Lord Quillifer, was published in 2022, and I suspect he survives to the end of that one as well.)

Quillifer the Knight takes place three years after Quillifer; our hero has settled into his new life as a part-owner of several ships and a very minor noble of Duisland. It begins with him returning on one of his ships from a successful voyage to somewhat distant lands - not on the map, at least - with a valuable cargo, but mostly takes place in the capital of Howell and among the scheming factions of the court.

Here's the one big spoiler for Quillifer: in the middle of that book, Quillifer was saved by, but then scorned - from her point of view - the goddess Orlanda. She then vowed to ruin his life - though he managed to get her to promise not to directly harm him or anyone he loves. So he is always expecting conspiracies and schemes to attack him - and they do occur regularly, since it doesn't take much goading from a goddess to get rich and established noble families to dislike a butcher's son turned knight.

To be clear, Quillifer would likely run into a fair bit of that scorn and scheming anyway: he's smart and cocky and wants to rise faster and further than a lot of this world is comfortable with. He's also young and attractive, bagging several wives - none of them his own - during the course of this book, which is the kind of thing that also will tend to create enemies.

He tells this story in first person, so we're on his side - you can imagine a story from other perspectives in which he would not be as sympathetic a hero. He is a lovable rogue, mostly on the side of right as we modern readers would see it - inclined to justice and freedom of commerce (so he can make more money) and people being able to live their own lives.

Knight covers a lot of ground, and more than a year of time - Walter Jon Williams structures this book, as he did the first one, as if Quillifer was telling this story to one of his lovers, presumably in bed, after certain activities. (Williams isn't fiddly about it, but it's clearly the record of many such conversations, over a long period of time - he never lets the story-as-told become a separate timeline to keep track of besides the story-that-happened, but that potential gap is there, and becomes important at the very end. It also becomes important who he is telling the story to, but I'll leave that for each reader to discover.) Williams ends up skipping over a lot of plot-important events that Quillifer is not there to witness - this is his story, so it focuses on what he does and sees and accomplishes.

I liked Quillifer as a character in the first book, and I like him just as much here. I also enjoyed the glimpses Williams gives us of the larger world: this seems to be an alternate Earth, with roughly similar planets but a very different Terran geography and only somewhat parallel history. For example, the big Empire was run by the Aekoi, another sapient humanoid race who are very similar to humans but not interfertile. And Duisland, the England-analog that is the center of the story, borders on Loretto, which is vaguely Italianate (or maybe Holy Roman Empire-ish). Duisland also stretches across the island of Fornland and the region of Bonille, which directly borders Loretto and seems to be on the mainland of this unnamed continent. So it could, perhaps, be seen as a version of England-plus-France, if you wanted to take it that way, though Fornland and Bonille seem to have been unified for a long time in this world.

The courtly maneuverings in this book center, of course, on Queen Berlauda of Duisland, in whose forces Quillifer served in the first book, helping to put down the rebellion of her bastard half-brother. This time out, she has married the son of the King of Loretto, Priscus, and raised him to co-ruler. Quillifer is loosely connected to the court of her younger sister, Floria, who is the heir only until Berlauda and Priscus have a child - and, after that, she may be entirely extraneous.

Matters get more complicated, as Loretto launches a war against their neighbor on the other side, dragging Duisland into the war. Loretto is more autocratic - in both their kings and their religion - and the this causes quite a lot of friction when Priscus places one of his stricter, blood-and-thunder countrymen as Viceroy Fosco, ruling over Duisland while Their Royal Highnesses are traveling in Loretto to support the war.

It gets yet more complicated than that, but I'll avoid talking about events later in the book - let me just say it all cooks up in ways you might expect, and ways you probably won't. Wars are random and destructive, particularly in a late medieval/early modern society like this one. We trust that Quillifer can make it through, and save the people he cares about - but he does have a goddess scheming against him, plus many more mundane enemies and rivals.

Knight is a little middle-book-ish, particularly in the ways Williams covers an entire war happening offstage. I didn't quite read it with the same rush I did the first book, but it's still easily the longest book I read this year, and I still very much enjoyed Quillifer's voice and exploits. I'm looking forward to the third one, and maybe, just maybe, finding time to catch up on the rest of Williams's books that I've missed the past few years.