Monday, September 26, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/24

You probably know that I do this every week -- make a post listing the books that came in the week before, with links to more details (and/or a sneaky attempt to make you buy them and give me a cut -- take your choice). There are some books that I'd like to pull out and give their own week, for whatever reason, but the world rarely cooperates with those desires.

Until this week!

I only got one book this time, but that's perfect: I'd want to stand this one up separately, anyway. Peter S. Beagle is not just one of our finest fantasy writers, but a new novel from him is a rare treat -- he's only written about ten (depending on how you could Lila the Werewolf and Strange Roads) in a forty-plus year career.

But he has a new novel this year: Summerlong, available right now in trade paperback from Tachyon. And, very appropriately, it's the only book I have to talk about this week.

Summerlong is the story of a mysterious young woman named Lioness, who comes to a small Puget Sound community in winter and seems to bring the summer with her. She is quickly befriended by a quirky couple, Abe and Joanna, and moves into their garage. And then Lioness's past comes to Puget Sound as well, to change everything.

I'm looking forward to reading this one myself, and I hope you'll seek it out, too. It's been too long since the last Beagle novel.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Amulet, Book Seven: Firelight by Kazu Kibuishi

I've given up trying to guess how long Kibuishi's Amulet series will run: it was originally a two-book deal with Scholastic, and several of my other posts about this series -- see one, two, three, four, five, and six, respectively -- had some vague supposition about where we are in the overall plot. It just barely could be eight books, I suppose -- a series can always end in one more book, if it has to -- but it could be ten or twelve or twenty just as easily. There is an overall story here, but elements also feel like Kibuishi is adding new complications as he goes, so he could keep this going as long as the audience and he are still excited about it.

Which brings us to Firelight, at the end of which a Chekhov Gun from the very first volume is finally pulled down and fired at the reader. (No, I won't tell you which one. What kind of a reviewer do you think I am?) Firelight continues Kibuishi's transmutation of epic fantasy tropes into a middle-grade graphic novel: the party has been split for several books now, and we also have revealing flashbacks, startling revelations about the nature of magic in this world, difficult moral choices, and enemies-turned-allies. Plus, of course, journeys by the separate pieces of the split party across interesting new landscapes to find surprising and magnificent unexpected places. (Kibuishi's map hasn't changed since the beginning, I think, but there have been a number of places visited that aren't on the map -- and, in this book, one that couldn't be on that map.)

A review of an epic fantasy like this can either be for the fans, and revel in the names of the characters and minutiae of their adventures and new powers and hair-flipping moments, or stay general, on the assumption that most of the world has not read any particular book. By this point, you might have guessed that I usually come down in the second camp, and I'm doing it again here. I'm not going to tell you who all of the people are and what they're doing: it would be a sea of fantasy-book names, and look silly as all such things do.

I will say that this is a solid series; Kibuishi is a fine comics-maker, on all levels -- his pages are well-constructed, each book is a real volume rather than a collection of pages, and the overall series (despite my quibbles about its ever-extending length) moves cleanly and confidently across its landscape and delights in showing us each new thing. Your tween could find much worse things to be obsessed with -- and there's a lot to enjoy for those of us who aren't tweens anymore, too. (Those of us who have read epic fantasy for fortyish years will find a lot of it familiar, but what is a genre but familiarity?)

July Hazes

I've just posted the listing of what I read in July, which precisely no one in the world cares about. (I need my blog to be tidy and orderly, but I'm well aware that I do that for no one but me.)

All of those books have been written about, and links will appear as the posts appear through the magic of scheduling over the next couple of weeks.

I am resolutely not talking about that process, so as not to jinx it.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Commuter

Someday, I’m going to look back and think “was my commute in 2016 really that bad?” And, since it is that bad, I’m writing this to remind future me. 

(If you’re not future me, you have no reason to read this -- which is why I’m burying it in the middle of a Saturday night.)

My current commute has the amazing property of being worse in every aspect that what came before, viz.:

Departure Time
  • Hoboken: 6:20 or 6:25 most days. 6:30 if I was pushing it.

  • Third Avenue: No later than 6:15, and usually earlier.

  • Hoboken: 5.5 miles on quiet back roads, with one traffic light. Total time consistently 11 minutes.

  • Third Avenue: 12.5 miles out (13.5 miles back, with the U-turn) on highways. Eight traffic lights. Unforgiving traffic. Lots of speeding up and slowing down; lots of wasted gas. Time usually 16-19 minutes, unless there’s a backup. (Shorter in summer; longer in winter.)

Train Station Parking
  • Hoboken: Flat, free lot. Parked in the same very close spot almost always. Out of my car and right to grade-level tracks fifteen feet away.
  • Third Avenue: Large multi-level parking garage, which costs $3 a day. Garage mostly full of college-students’ cars, so it’s packed even at 6:30. Takes several minutes to find a spot up on the 5th or 6th levels, and longer to walk downstairs, across the pedestrian bridge, and down to track level. Getting out at night is slow and the ticket machines have broken several times already.

Train Ride
  • Hoboken: Rarely too crowded. One-seat ride. Delays were exceptionally rare. About 50 minutes.

  • Third Avenue: Generally crowded, and regularly packed by the time we head into NYC. One-seat ride. Delays were not uncommon, though reasonable given how old the tunnels and signals were. Scheduled to take just less than an hour, usually was about 1:05.


Final Approach to Office
  • Hoboken: Five-minute walk on waterfront. Occasional inclement weather.

  • Third Avenue: Either a 30-minute walk or a 15-20 minute ride on two subways. (Latter costs $2.75, each way.) In bad weather, the walking portion from subway to office building is still 4-5 times as long as the whole walk in Hoboken.

Arrival Time
  • Hoboken: Consistently at 7:45. Total elapsed time about 1:20.
  • Third Avenue: Occasionally as early at 8:00 (with a quick subway connection) but often as late as 8:20. Total average elapsed time 1:55.

The return journey is pretty much the same -- only, obviously, in reverse. Each leg of the commute is a bit more than a half-hour longer, and the working day itself is a full hour longer, which means an increase of 2+ hours every single day. (Just looking at working hours, I’ve estimated that the lower number of PTO days and the longer days mean I’m now working about 311 more hours in a year.)

So, yes, I’m tired all the time. And I do know why. Here’s hoping you (meaning future me, the only person who cares about these minutiae) have it better.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell

This is a retelling of a fairy tale -- a story of that genre, not a story specifically with fairies in it -- and it has very pretty pictures in it. It's in a large format, and could easily be mistaken for a book for children.

The Sleeper and the Spindle will probably not confuse or horrify those supposed children the way Gaiman's earlier The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains (illustrated by Eddie Campbell) might, but it's not really written for a young audience. Gaiman's prose here is precise and clear, as always, but he doesn't explain as he might for a less-experienced audience, and he leaves a lot implied and assumed. (On the other hand, as Gaiman rewrites of fairy tales go, this is altogether gentler and less bracing than his masterful short story "Snow, Glass, Apples," which I do not expect will ever be turned into a pretty illustrated book.)

It's the story of Sleeping Beauty -- or of a beauty who is sleeping, amid thorns and a plague of sleeping that grows a bit every day (and has been growing for more than sixty years), and of the person who goes into those thorns and that sleeping land to find and wake the sleeper. That person is not a prince.

(Would you expect anything that obvious from Gaiman?)

That person is a Queen, a black-haired young woman from the nation on the other ride of a mountain range, and she's aided by several dwarf friends on her journey. (You may perhaps have some sense who she may be, now.) It's the day before she is to be married, but she instead puts on her armor, and sets off under the mountains, through dwarven ways, to the sleeping kingdom on the other side. She travels through the thorns and the sleepers, and finds her way to the bed of a beautiful young woman, deep in sleep.

That's not all she finds there, of course. And I wouldn't dream of saying what she does there, or what else she does find. This is a short book, with gorgeous illustrations, told in exquisite prose by a master. You need to read it for yourself.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions

As I mentioned here once before, [1] I've been typing things on the website Quora for about the past year, answering questions in my own grumpy unhelpful unique puckish way.

And, since Antick Musings is meant to be the central hub of all things Hornswoggler, I wanted to link to some of the better/longer/more interesting questions I've answered there recently:

[1] Last July? I haven't mentioned Quora in over a year? I am neglecting this blog.

A Brief History of Video Games by Richard Stanton

This apparently is part of a series -- from Robinson in the UK, home of the Mammoth Guides and other things, and Americanized by the fine Philadelphians of Running Press -- of brief histories and/or guides to various things, from James Bond to Walt Disney, from the Magna Carta to France. So there's a bit of a whiff of product here -- it was made to fill a slot in a publishing schedule, and chosen presumably because there would be an audience -- but that could describe many more books than most people like to think.

A Brief History of Video Games is a well-illustrated look at the development of electronic boxes that play games, from arcade to home and back again, starting with the cathode ray tube and going just about to the present day (it was published in 2015). It's inevitably a bit British-focused, but I found that entertaining -- the UK market was quirkily different from the US market for a long time (and may still be), so it told me a lot of things I didn't know or suspect. And Stanton covers Japan as much as the US, obviously -- those two countries have been the primary global drivers of that industry so far. (Who knows if that will continue -- there's a pretty important Polish studio now, with one of the best games of 2015, and both India and China have enough smart, connected people to strongly enter any market.)

Like many histories, it's most interesting in the early chapters, when Stanton can focus on personalities and big changes. Stanton also struggles to tell a massive world-wide story in a coherent way, so the last third of the book turns into thematic or studio-based chapters from the more chronological organization of the early chapters -- and the book turns into thumbnail vaguely critical sketches of important games for pages at a time near the end, as well. Again, that's inevitable when writing about a huge industry with so many consumer products -- and, as far as I can see, Stanton does cover everything important, and his opinions are all reasonable and backed by facts.

The design is a little quirky: the type takes up only about the top two-thirds of the page, with the bottom mostly being given over to illustrations. But those illos sometimes move up the page, and there's also a lot of white space -- I suspect to make this book seem a bit heftier than its actual word-count requires.

Most history books are for people who don't know a lot and want to learn more, but video games are not like most things. The audience for this book will in large part be as knowledgeable as Stanton -- well, will consider itself vastly more knowledgeable than Stanton -- and I'm sure some subset of them will grumble, because such people always grumble. But they will have to go out of their way to find things to grumble about, because this is an honest and even-handed book that covers pretty well a big and complicated industry in a short space.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Explorer: The Hidden Doors edited by Kazu Kibuishi

To talk about The Hidden Doors, we first need to know what has come before. (But, Andy! you say. Isn't this a collection of unrelated short comics stories? And I say, Yes, that's true. But it's also the twelfth in a series of anthologies of varied size and scope and audience. So stop interrupting me.) So I might as well just copy in what I wrote about The Lost Islands, the previous Explorer anthology, back in 2014:
First there was Flight, of which I reviewed volumes three, five and seven. Then there was one volume of Flight Explorer, a version of Flight for younger readers that I also reviewed. And then came Explorer: The Mystery Boxes, a themed anthology edited by Kibuishi that looked awfully like Flight Explorer with less flight. Now, there's another volume of Explorer, which is more aggressively good for you than the first one (unfortunately).
Flight was not officially aimed at younger readers, but it was a nice, soft-focus "all-ages" book, mostly by people working in and around the US animation industry and apparently having internalized that industry's obsessive focus on sweetness, light, prettiness, and eternal childhood. Those books, though, were also very big and expansive, so there was a variety of stories in that general gee-whiz neato-keano vein, and the art was always a delight. The Explorer books have all been shorter, and are now running to odd themes -- islands last time, doors this time -- and the kid-book scent of spinach is apparent more often than before.

Luckily, The Hidden Doors is less spinach-y than Lost Islands was; all of the stories here seem to agree that going through mysterious doors to explore new places is actually a good thing, unlike the last book. But every story here feels like it was adapted from the storyboards from a cartoon. I was going to say "a cartoon short," but that's not true -- they don't feel like the more elliptical, fun shorts that show up just before the big animated movies these days, but like initial sketches or pitches for those big movies themselves. The tone is not as emotionally deep as Pixar or as wisecracking as Dreamworks, but somewhere blandly in the middle, a pitch that could be molded either way depending on who picked up the option.

Now, they're all perfectly OK stories. And young readers will likely enjoy this. But I doubt more than a tiny handful will love any of these stories, or do for for any reason other than the art. It's all too safe and middle-of-the-road for that.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 3: Crushed by Wilson, Miyazawa, and Bondoc

I'm reading this series a year or so behind everyone else, because I really don't care about the Marvel Universe Reboot of the Moment and all the rest of that continuity crap. But Ms. Marvel does get mentioned as one of the "good mainstream superhero comics right now" -- it was the standard reference for that between Hawkeye and Squirrel Girl (which seems to have lapped it) -- so I thought I might as well keep up at least that much.

(You can see what I said, at greater length, about Vol. 1, and in brief about Vol. 2, if time hangs heavy on you.)

Kamala Khan is realio-trulio an Inhuman in this collection of stories, working out at the gym in New Attilan (conveniently located in the middle of the Hudson, so she can get there from Jersey City) and having other Inhumans talk about how really special and important she is in random panels so we don't forget. Again, she's a junior-league Elongated Man in a universe stuffed full of vastly more powerful people -- even leaving aside the efficacy of dressing up in spandex and punching people as a career choice or vehicle to affect the world -- so this is special pleading at the very best. And didn't the Inhumans used to be a family that lived on the moon? I miss those Inhumans; these road-show mutants are dull and derivative by comparison.

Vol. 3: Crushed collects five more issues of Kamala's series, plus an issue of SHIELD in which she guest-starred, and the overall plotline here circles around her (mostly potential, at this point) love life. Her mopey white wanna-be boyfriend, Bruno, is still pining in his self-imposed friendzone -- admittedly, Kamala has a standard pop-culture Ethic Restrictive Family, complete with thundering father and religious-nut brother, and no human being would willingly subject himself to that, even if he were a teenager in love with a stretchy girl. But then Kamala's family's dream boy actually shows up: the son of a family they know, from the right part of Pakistan, attractive and slightly older and upwardly mobile and all that jazz. (And then they get all confusedly disapproving when Kamala is actually smitten with this guy -- Ethic Restrictive Families don't know what they want!)

Is Dream Guy as dreamy as he seems? Will he turn out to have a surprising connection to the superhero plot? Will Mopey Sidekick Boy rush to her rescue, ineffectively? Is this a Marvel comic?

Kamala is becoming more and more a generic superhero with a few interesting markers -- she mentions writing fan-fiction once here, I think. Instead, we get multiple Peter Parker-esque speeches about Great Responsibility, straight out of the machine Stan Lee had installed in the corner of the office in 1965. That's all repetitive bullshit, and every superhero reader has seen it a million times. But that's what the audience seems to want, so perhaps they will be happy to hear that they get it here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

X-Ray by Ray Davies

Writing an autobiography the normal way is just so boring -- a tedious forced march through the details of a bland childhood, early struggles, and then the inevitable grand success. (Because why else would anyone care about your autobiography?) How much more interesting to start with a near-future dystopian world run by an all-powerful Corporation, and then send a vaguely hostile young writer to interview "yourself" about the secrets of that life?

Well, that's what Raymond Douglas Davies did, anyway. The Kinks lead singer and main songwriter wrote X-Ray -- subtitled "The Unauthorized Autobiography," with more truth that the other folks who have used that puckish line -- from the point of view of that young writer in what was then the medium-flung future of circa 2010, interviewing an aged Ray Davies to make another salable widget for that Corporation to exploit. (Davies wrote the book in the early 1990s, and it was published in 1994 -- as it happened, just as the Kinks were about to finally call it quits.)

The young interviewer starts out hostile, but is soon won over by old man Davies's obvious intelligence and knowledge -- well, of course he does, since "old man Davies" is the one actually writing the book. But Davies-the-author does keep Davies-the-character remote and not entirely knowable, which is an interesting choice for an autobiography. (Davies -- both of them -- also are clearly still smarting over his class and educational status; he was born working class in an England where that deeply mattered and his formal schooling was mediocre and over pretty early. Harkening back to songs like "Arthur," Davies argues those things have twisted his life from what it could have been.)

X-Ray covers the Davies childhood -- Ray's own, and some glancing looks at his wild-child brother, Kinks guitarist Dave -- and their musical education, as they play in groups that eventually turn into the Kinks. The frame story mostly drops away during long chapters of old man Ray telling his story -- ostensibly in dialogue to the young narrator, who is dutifully recording it for the ages -- but the idea of a Corporation, or business types in general, that exploit and control and destroy artists, is always central in X-Ray (as it often was in Davies's songs, cf. Lola Vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround).

This memoir only covers roughly the first decade of the Kinks: the struggle, the first big successes, the transition to a more lyrically interesting and critically lauded style, the long exile from America, and a succession of great records. It cuts off in 1973, just before Preservation showed the limits of the contemporary version of Davies, but the narrative had already gotten unfocused from the succession of albums once the string of big hits stopped.

One thing Davies seems to be trying to do in X-Ray is to emphasize how very popular the early Kinks were: that they weren't just critic's darlings, but major hitmakers for an extended period of time. So once that starts being less true, he seems to be less interested in talking about the songs and albums. He does write a bit about the songs as songs, but the validation of Number Ones and money comes across as more important -- or maybe that's because he's telling the story to a Company stooge?

There's also a fair bit of inter-band dirty laundry aired about the stormy relationships within the band -- and with Davies's first wife, whom he basically admits he would have drifted away from pretty quickly if she hadn't gotten pregnant. (And he did drift away from her, in a more painful way, somewhat later.) But this, like the story of the music, is told in a second-hand way, though Davies's distancing device of the ostensibly neutral future narrator.

It's been another twenty years since X-Ray, and Davies hasn't gone back to tell us the rest of the Kinks story -- maybe because comebacks and big tours aren't as interesting, maybe because "Ray Davies" is dead as of the end of this book. These are the years that most of us really care about anyway. And if Davies doesn't tell us their story in the straightforward way we could have hoped for -- the inspirations for this song, how that album came together, musical secrets and tidbits -- he does tell us his story in a way no one else could, and in a style entirely appropriate for this thorny, private man.