Monday, April 20, 2015

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/18

Last week I had an epic trilogy, but this time out things look to be back to normal -- an interesting variety of books to write about, but not so many that I need to dole them out over several days.

As usual, these are all books that arrived in my mail over the past week, more or less unexpected. I might not end up reading or loving any one of them, but that doesn't mean you wouldn't, or won't. So I try to describe them more or less accurately for your entertainment and/or edification.

I'll start out this week with the book I'm most excited about, and which has come the farthest to get to me: 14, a new graphic novel by the Philippine creator Manix Abrera. Abrera's last book was the excellent 12, which is currently available only in ebook form in the US. 14 is another wordless comic, about two hundred pages long, and I think it's one story -- 12 was a collection of shorter pieces (twelve of them, in fact), with some thematic connections. The bad news is that I don't think 14 is currently available outside of the Philippines, but the good news is that we live in a big world full of wonders -- like a new major book from Abrera -- and that we can find those wonders with a little work. 14 was published last fall at the Philippine Literary Festival, in trade paperback from Visprint.

And how to follow up a book of comics with no words? Well, how about a book entirely made up of words that's based on a comic? Michael Alan Nelson's new book is Hexed: The Sisters of Witchdown, based on the comic Hexed, created by Nelson with artist Emma Rios. Hexed the comic is about teenage supernatural thief Luci Jenifer "Lucifer" Inacio das Neves, and so is the novel: Lucifer here is trying to save a policeman's daughter from the nefarious plots of the Seven Sisters of Witchdown, and maybe get a boyfriend along the way. Sisters of Witchdown is a trade paperback from Pyr, available on May 5th.

Next up is another book about a runaway teen girl surviving by her own wits: The Girl at Midnight, by Melissa Grey. Grey's heroine is Echo, a pickpocket and thief who discovered an ancient race of supernatural beings beneath the streets of New York, and got caught up in a war that touches both that hidden race and humanity. To stop the war, she must find the mythical firebird -- somewhere in the world. Midnight is a hardcover from Delacorte Book for Young Readers; it's officially a Young Adult book, if categories like that matter to you. And it's available on April 28th.

I had a whole lot of books from Yen Press last week, but they're not done yet -- I have another small stack of recent Yen books to tell you about this week. As usual for them, there are some manga (comics from Japan), some manwha (comics from Korea), and a light novel -- they also do comics by people from other places, now and then. All the following books are from Yen, and I believe they're all available this month.

BTOOOM!, Vol. 10 is the nest volume in Junya Inoue's Battle Royale-descended manga about a small group of people trapped on an island somewhere, forced to battle each other with complicated explosive devices for the entertainment of someone unknown.

I believe Umineko, When They Cry, Episode 5: End of the Golden Witch, Vol. 1is nearly the end of this long, complicated manga of murder and mystery, based on a series of computer games of the same name. (I believe each game has a "Golden Witch" subtitle, and that's how you tell them apart.) Like the earlier volumes, this one is written by Ryukishi07 and drawn by Akitaka.

And then there's Until Death Do Us Part, Vol. 9, by Hiroshi Takashige and DOUBLE-S, continuing the story of the blind swordsman and the precognitive girl that he's defending from the usual evil corporate forces of evil-doing evil in this manga.

Park SoHee's series about a lightly alternate history -- Korea still has a king, and he married the heroine of this story, setting in motion of a lot of soap-opera events -- ends in Goong: The Royal Palace, Vol. 18. I'm assuming this is a happily-ever-after ending, because it seems like that kind of book. This one is manwha, so it reads left-to-right the way Westerners are used to.

Now into the light novels -- just like regular novels, but with half the calories! -- with Kazuma Kamachi's A Certain Magical Index, Vol. 3. I'm not sure I'm in favor of novels that have volume numbers instead of individual titles, but clearly that ship set sail in Japan some time ago. This series is about a nebisshy guy in a fantastic city full of magic and super-science, and of course he gets into all kinds of problems focused on cute girls in short skirts.

Last for this week is the light novel Kagerou Daze, Vol. 1: In a Daze, by Jin (Shizen No Teki-P), and, no, I'm not going to be able to explain anything about that interesting author name. This series is about a shut-in young man -- the kind that never leave their apartments for anything -- who has t go out one day to get a new computer and immediately gets caught up in a hostage situation and forcibly inducted into a strange gang. (See, this is why guys like him never leave.) 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/11, Part Three

Today we come to the epic conclusion, when great deeds will be done and the names of our heroes will resonate down the ages forever.

Or, just maybe, it will all fizzle out with a whimper, like far too many real epic fantasy trilogies.

This is the third piece of what is usually one post on Monday mornings, and it's (by design) the least and shortest piece. (See, it's a metaphor! Don't you believe me?) It was supposed to be the fiction end of my giant pile of mail from last week, but -- as I got down to the bottom of that pile -- I discovered two sneaky manga volumes stuck in there. So maybe that makes my metaphor even better -- the big finale of the trilogy is now notably shorter than the previous installments and doesn't match the initial hype.

Anyway, these are books that showed up on my doorstep last week, and I'm grateful for every single one of them (even the ones I will never read). I hope you find something here you will love.

First up is a book handed to me by a friend in publishing, because this is my blog and I can do what I want. Also, I missed this book entirely when it came out in 2012, so you might have, as well. It's Losers in Space, a YA science-fiction novel by John Barnes set a century from now in a post-scarcity future, where the only way to have more than anybody else -- one of the great motivators of humanity -- is to become a professional celebrity. Several teens, wanting this in the way only teens can want something, stow away on a ship bound to Mars, to get that fame. It doesn't work out that simply, of course, but I'm eager to see what Barnes does here, since he's been good at teens and their voices since all the way back to Orbital Resonance.

Next I'll throw in those two pesky manga volumes that escaped the first two parts of this epic trilogy -- both of them are from Vertical, and both were recently published. They also both have covers that aren't as easy to read as they should be, which is unfortunate. (Books sell primarily online these days, so it's vital to have something that "reads" cleanly at thumbnail size -- and a title and author that are readable at standard display size.) The more difficult to read is Ryu Mizunagi's Witchcraft Works, Vol. 3, which is one of those stories about a young man dragged into the secret supernatural world and how he makes his way. This particular series is full of witches, who seem to be having big battles around him, and he's also discovered that they're everywhere around him, from home to school.

The other book from Vertical is Mitsuhisa Kji's Wolfsmund, Vol. 6, a dark retelling of the Robin Hood story with lots of blood and gore and nastiness. (This particular volume has an extended sequence involving an execution via pointed stake, a la Vlad Tepes.) I reviewed the third volume last year, if anyone wants more details.

And now, finally!, we get into SFF publishing around now, with Marie Brennan's Voyage of the Basilisk, the third of the "Memoirs by Lady Trent" novels about a female naturalist in a vaguely 19th century world filled with supernatural creatures. It's a Tor hardcover, published March 31st, and I still have the first two books on my shelf of stuff I really should get to one of these days.

But then I immediately wander away from pure fiction, with Darwin's Watch: The Science of Discworld III, by Terry Pratchett with Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. It's the third of the four books mixing a Discworld story (by Pratchett, about the Unseen University wizards poking around with the pocket-universe "Roundworld" they created, in alternating chapters) with real science (by Stewart and Cohen, about evolution, in the rest of the chapters). Darwin's Watch was originally published in the UK back in 2005, but it's only just making it to my side of the pond in a trade paperback from Doubleday -- it'll be available in June.

And then last for this week is a new story collection, The Essential W. P. Kinsella, from Tachyon. Kinsella, of course, is the author of the novel Shoeless Joe, which was adapted into the movie Field of Dreams, and also the author of a number of other works mixing sports and the fantastic. Essential collects twenty-seven of his stories, some of them about baseball and some not, from the length of his career, including "Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes To Iowa," which became the first chapter of the novel Shoeless Joe.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Last Girlfriend on Earth by Simon Rich

Even a funny joke can pall if you hear it over and over too quickly. And a book of stories that's entirely built on one single joke needs to be read over a long period of time to stay funny. [1] So, if there are any authors out there contemplating putting together a book of funny stories, my big advice would be to use several jokes.

A counterexample to that advice, for example, is Simon Rich's recent story/essay collection The Last Girlfriend on Earth, and Other Love Stories. That book collects thirty short pieces -- all fictional, in various styles, all humorous, mostly in the vein of a New Yorker "Shouts & Murmurs" piece, though generally not that hermetic -- in the space of barely two hundred pages. And every single one is based on the Standard Sitcom Relationship, Junior Division: she is romantic and demanding and inexplicable, while he is oblivious and distracted and always does the wrong thing.

Admittedly, that setup is not, technically, a "joke." But it is the basis, in one way or another, for every one of the pieces in this book. Individually, any of them would be quite funny. But, in aggregate, they begin to look like a failure to understand that women are actually people, and not just puzzles to be solved or prizes to be won.

In a book of thirty love stories, one might hope that some would be from the point of view of a woman. Or one, at least. But Last Girlfriend is entirely male -- yes, the first story, "Unprotected," is technically told by an inanimate object, but you would have a hard time arguing that object is feminine. If you're looking for an example of the male gaze, this is a pleasant little one: Rich's heroes spend all of their time looking at women, and none of that time understanding what they see.

Still: a lot of this stuff is very funny. It would have been funnier, though, interspersed with pieces that had slightly different jokes. And it would have been less unnerving if it had been interspersed with pieces that sometimes made an effort to look at things from a point of view that isn't so young, nebbishy, and entirely male.

But, if you like that joke, Rich does some awesome things with it. And if you have enough time to spread Last Girlfriend out through, you could manage to completely enjoy that joke every single time.

[1] In this particular case, I took nearly two months, and that wasn't long enough.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/11, Part Two

What Has Gone Before: Girk, the young yak-herder with the suspiciously crown-shaped birthmark, was told by the wandering wizard Phlegethon that he was the secret heir to the fallen throne of Great Inthrix, the greatest nation in the history of Unglatia. Gathering a few friends with him -- the sardonic trader Jaxter, feisty redheaded priestess-trainee Rhodentine, and sneaky little Barry Johnson -- Girk set off to find his destiny. But now the intrepid travelers find themselves on the doorstep of the land of the Mid-sized Mountain Elves, the Alf'aretta, without the wizard to guide them. Can they convince OverKing Fa'la'la'la-Lah to lend them a guide for the tricky paths through the Dusky Woods, or will the mercurial elf-lord throw them all in his mountain-deep dungeons?

Or, maybe, I got so much mail last week that I had to divide this usual Monday-morning post into three parts, creating an epic trilogy. This, then, is the middle volume, which has neither a beginning nor an end, and exists primarily to separate readers from more money. Luckily for you, blogs are free.

This entry includes another stack of books from Yen Press, plus one ringer, and all feature words and pictures juxtaposed at least somewhat, though it whipsaws back and forth from manga to light novel at a moment's notice -- like the tone of a typical epic fantasy middle volume, actually. All of these are real books at this point, either already in stores or making their way through distribution channels right now. So if anything looks interesting to you, go buy it already!

The "ringer" is Last Man, Vol. 2: The Royal Cup, a middle book in its own right -- though this series is six books long -- and a graphic novel from First Second that will hit stores in June. It's from the French team of Balak, Michael Sanlaville, and Bastien Vives, and continues the story of an unlikely pair of combatants in the magical gladiatorial battle tournament of a country not unlike medieval France. The first book was The Stranger, which came out in March.

From here on out, it's all Yen, starting with Reki Kawahara's light novel Accel World, Vol. 3: The Twilight Marauder. Haruyuki is a junior-high loser -- chubby, quiet, ignored when he isn't teased -- but that's only in the real world, because he's the heroic Silver Crown in the online game Accelerated World, where he's the trusted second of the most popular girl in his school. But, in this adventure, his protector and status-definer is absent on a class trip, so he has to fend for himself.

Next up is that rarest of things, a single-volume hardcover standalone manga story: The Angel of Elhamburg by Aki. There's a king and his knight, friends and rivals since childhood. There's the Lady Prima, in between the two of them. I think this is supposed to be a tragedy, triggered by the Lady's son Perseus as he grows up, but the early pages are full of oddly stilted banter between the king and knight, so it might aim to be lighter than I expect.

I have two volumes of Satsuki Yoshino's gentle fish-out-of-water comedy manga Barakamon as well -- volumes three and four. I reviewed the first one a few months back, if you think you might be interested in the story of a stuck-up calligrapher and the small town that teaches him what life is really all about.

And we're back to light novels with Kazuma Kamachi's A Certain Magical Index, Vol. 2, continuing the story of the unluckiest student in Academy City, the town where seemingly everyone has supernatural powers, and the magical girl Index who found him and dragged him into her wacky adventures.

Let's whipsaw back to manga with Kaori Yuki's Demon from Afar, Vol. 2, which combines an amnesiac hero, a love triangle, and a disguised Duke of Hell all in one household -- there also may be some reincarnation going on by this second volume. It's in hardcover, the better to contain all the angst.

And another light novel: Satoshi Wagahara's The Devil Is a Part-Timer!, Vol. 1, in which the Lord of Evil (of another dimension) was defeated and sent into exile by a steely (also young and female) Hero. That exile is as a young man with no magic in modern Tokyo, accompanied only by one trusted general -- so the demon lord gets a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant, planning to rise through management and conquer the world. This could be fun: the second chapter is entitled "The Devil Goes on a Date in Shinjuku With This Girl From Work," which strikes a great tone.

You know, how about an all-ages comic from an American creator, as a palate cleanser? That'll be Gabby & Gator, about a girl and the pet she discovers eating dogs in the park, from James Burks. It's a story about friendship and being yourself, naturally, but it also looks appealingly weird -- the gator has a computer in his sewer lair, and hates himself for eating dogs, though he does need to eat something to live.

Back to light novels with Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, Vol. 2 by Fujino Omori, which combines video-game style dungeon crawling with high-grade macking. I'm not entirely sure if its set in a "real" fantasy world, or the girl-picker-upper is playing a game, but does that really matter?

Yoshiki Tonogai's current exercise in torture porn in comics form comes to an end with JUDGE, Vol. 6, in which most of the horrible people gathered in a courtroom are killed by others of the horrible people for the horrible things they've done, and some of the horrible people possibly survive this most horrible of events.

I'm having a difficult time figuring out what Touya Mikanagi's Karneval, Vol. 1 is about -- there's no description on the book, and the covers are just close-ups of characters -- but there's clearly a wan orphan boy with an object (that thing on his wrist) that doesn't belong to him, and a brusque older guy who helps that kid find whatever or whoever he's looking for. (I don't think it will turn into yaoi, but that wouldn't entirely surprise me.)

The Kingdom Hearts games are already a genre mix-up, with Disney characters and worlds shoved into a JRPG framework, but they've since become manga and other things. And now there's Kingdom Hearts: The Novel, written by Tomoco Kanemaki from the game script, to give it yet another medium to conquer.

It's been at least a few paragraphs since I talked about kids getting stuck in a lifelike MMO, so it must be time for Mamare Touno's Log Horizon, Vol. 1: The Beginning of Another World, in which that very thing happens. This is one of the rare worlds in which in-game death isn't instantly fatal -- this instead is a place everyone is stuck in and can't die, which is a nicely ironic reversal. But they still want to get out, of course.

And we're back to manga with Fuka Mizutani's Love at Fourteen, Vol. 2, continuing what looks like a nice slice-of-life story about normal teens without magic or demons or malfunctioning high-tech systems.

And back again to light novels, with Yuu Kamiya's No Game, No Life, Vol. 1, in which two shut-in siblings -- who completely avoid the real world to play games -- are recruited to be humanity's champions in an alternate world where all conflicts are settled by games. (I think I read that book when Iain M. Banks wrote it, without the obvious audience-insert.)

Isuna Hasekura's long-running light novel series continues with Spice and Wolf, Vol. 14, which doesn't seem to have a subtitle -- I guess, after a bakers' dozen previous books, you don't need anything but numbers to differentiate them. This series is still about the mercantile adventures of master trader Lawrence and his assistant, the ex-fertility goddess Holo, across a vaguely medieval landscape of small villages and larger towns.

And we're back to those virtual-reality games again to finish up this middle installment, with two pieces of the larger Sword Art Online saga. First is Sword Art Online, Vol.  4: Fairy Dance, from Reki Kawahara. Our heroes escaped the MMO they were stuck in during the first book, and at this point are playing others games in which they are not, as far as I can tell, stuck. But I'm sure there's still tension and danger -- the main character's would-be girlfriend is trapped by nefarious forces at the center of this particular game-world, in that old Princess Peach style.

Then there's Sword Art Online: Progressive, Vol. 1, also by Kawahara, which goes back to the beginning of the story, in that first inescapable video-game deathtrap. It's about the budding relationship of the main characters, Kirito and Asuna, but I'm not sure if this is "telling the same story in more detail, to increase the feels" or "let's do this over, just because." Either way, this looks very feels-heavy.