Monday, January 16, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/14

Another week has come and gone, and it's Monday once again. For Americans of my age, today is the unexpected holiday -- surprisingly soon after Christmas and not a day we got off as kids -- and could be unexpectedly pointed this year. But I'm here to write about the books that showed up in my mail, so let's get into that.

These two books arrived unannounced on my doorstep, and I don't know much about them. But let me poke at them a bit, and tell you what I find.

First up is a new epic fantasy novel from Terry Goodkind, whom you might have heard has been very popular and successful at doing that very thing. Death's Mistress is particularly interesting, since it begins a new sub-series -- or maybe an entirely new series, depending on how you look at it -- in his same very popular world. (Which I don't think has an overall name -- correct me in comments if I'm wrong.) After fifteen novels basically about Richard Rahl, plus his girlfriend and obvious the various Dark Lords he had to defeat along the way, Goodkind's original main character may perhaps have gotten slightly overpowered and somewhat encumbered by responsibilities to keep running around saving the world.

So this book launches the adventures of Nicci, who I gather was a secondary character in some of the earlier books. (I started the series, way back when, but only got through the first three or so.) Nicci is off to map the edges of Rahl's kingdom in this book, which sounds like it could be the basis for a great picaresque adventure series. And those who want more traditional epic fantasy should be happy to note that the description declares that "the future of life itself ... is at stake."

Death's Mistress is a Tor hardcover, on sale on January 24th -- look for it to start climbing bestseller lists soon thereafter.

The other novel I have this time around is from an author I'm less familiar with, Paul Crilley. Department Zero is  the story of Harry Priest, a much put-upon man: he's divorced and has to jump through hoops just to see his daughter, and he also has a messy dead-end job cleaning up crime scenes in LA. But then he accidentally gets caught up in a case of the Interstitial Crime Department -- the cops of all of the alternate worlds -- and learns that magic, Lovecraftian monsters, and much worse really does exist out there. This is a trade paperback from Pyr, coincidentally also coming out on January 24th.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Complete Cul de Sac, Vol. 2 by Richard Thompson

In early 2004, Richard Thompson started a weekly watercolor comic strip for The Washington Post Magazine, where he'd been contributing illustrations and occasional cartoons and the oddball non-continuity strip Richard's Poor Almanac for the last decade. Three years later, that same strip went national with a syndication deal with Universal Press: the first daily appeared on September 10, 2007. The last dailies appeared less than five years later, in mid-July 2012, and the last Sunday in September of that year.

That was Cul de Sac; one of the best strip comics of the past fifty years. And every last bit of it is collected into the two slipcased volumes of The Complete Cul de Sac.

Do you need to know anything more? I guess you probably do.

Cul de Sac was a family strip, focusing on the Otterloops of suburban DC -- they lived on the titular street. There were parents, Peter Sr. and Madeleine, but the kids were the central characters: four-year-old force-of-nature Alice and eight-year-old neurotic Petey, the king of picky eaters. Each of the kids had their own circle of friends -- Alice at Blisshaven Academy, her nursery school, and Petey at the local Cul de Sac Elementary school.

Look, strip comics are tough to describe, since they grow over time organically. If you haven't read it, any comments I could make here about bucket-head Kevin or the imaginary nature of Ernesto Lacuna would fly over your head. Luckily, it's still re-running on GoComics, so you can read it one strip a day, the way comics like this work best. (They're currently close to the end, so I expect they'll flip back to the beginning sometime in early or mid 2017 -- right now is a good time to jump on.)

The characters are great, the writing is bright and funny, and Thompson had a lovely scratchy pen line that's a joy just to look at. If Cul de Sac never ran in your local paper -- or if the phrase "local paper" confuses you in the first place -- check it out online, and you just might become a convert.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Monsieur Jean: From Bachelor to Father by Dupuy and Berberian

This is plainly not autobiography, as anyone can see. First of all, Dupuy and Berberian are two men, and Monsieur Jean is only one. And then Jean is a novelist, while Dupuy and Berberian (their first names are Phillipe and Charles, respectively, but those don't come up much) are cartoonists.

So the Monsieur Jean stories must therefore be completely different from the lives of his creators, right?

...well, that would be going too far. (And I'm obviously being cross-grained here.) The Monsieur Jean stories are the kind of slice-of-life tales that necessarily are grounded in the lives that their creators actually live. And the Monsieur Jean we see here is mostly a young man, unattached most of the time, living in the big city and building a career, not as successful yet as he'd like to be but definitely getting there.

Monsieur Jean: From Bachelor to Father collects the first five books about Jean, from 1990's Love and the Concierge to 2001's When It Rains, It Pours. As the subtitle implies, Jean starts out as a young man whose first novel has recently been published, and grows to be a notable and successful man in his field, with a long-term girlfriend and a young daughter. He's French, so the big city is Paris, but the rhythms of the creative life and of the friendships of twenty-somethings doesn't need any extra translation -- those are the same anywhere, in any big city or any language.

(There's at least one later book inserted into this sequence, The Singles Theory, which is also available in English.)

The first three books are made up of discrete shorter stories that add up to tell a larger story like a mosaic, but the later ones drop the titles every page or two in favor of an organic approach -- each of the five books covers a few weeks or months in the life of Jean and his friends, skipping from this event to that, but the later books do it seamlessly as one story. (I suspect because those last two were conceived as books to begin with, while the first three appeared in periodicals first.)

So there's a lot of dating here, at first casual but more serious as the books go on. There's a lot of long conversations with old friends, particularly Felix, Jean's ne'er-do-well oldest friend, who imposes on Jean again and again over the course of these stories. There's a lot of Jean's worry about his career, and about trying to write when the words don't want to come, and a fair bit of dealing with the people of a literary career -- agents and publishers and movie people and opportunities for publicity.

There's a lot of life -- these books are about living a good life, doing work you believe in and spending time with friends you love. And, about, Jean hopes, finding someone special and lasting to spend even more time with. Dupuy and Berberian tell  those stories in a slightly cartoony style, just loose enough for physical comedy and just tight enough to make all of the characters real people despite the big cartoon noses. And the words, as translated here by Helge Dasher, are true as well -- this is a big book full of talky scenes, but the dialogue is enjoyable and all flows well. These are people who like to talk and who make sense of their lives through talking, and that comes across.

If I were being hugely reductive, or wanted to pitch it to Hollywood, I'd call Monsieur Jean "like Friends, but a French comic." That's not really true -- Dupuy and Berberian are more subtle than sitcom-funny -- but it's a nod in the vaguely right direction. It's a bunch of stories about an interesting man and his interesting friends, in an interesting world.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Belated Notes on the Milo Yiannopoulos Boycott

This has probably all already been said elsewhere. But it's been annoying me for several days now, so here goes...

Noted right-wing asshole [1] Milo Yiannopoulos has signed a book deal with the Simon & Schuster imprint Threshold Editions, for a reported $250,000. The book will be called Dangerous, and it will go on sale in March. Yiannopoulos previously was most famous for being banned from Twitter for harassing actress Leslie Jones and for proving that a gay man can indeed be homophobic, but he's still young: he has many years of assholishness ahead of him and will likely top them.

Many people who are not right-wing assholes are deeply unhappy with this, and right-wing assholes are ecstatic. (And, like everything else in this world, the vast majority doesn't really care.) A collection of non-assholes have called for a boycott of Simon & Schuster in retaliation.

First Point: I don't recall any similar boycotts of the publishers of books by Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney, who actually lied this country into war and arguably committed war crimes along the way. Perhaps being an asshole on the Internet is just worse behavior than that?

Slightly less snarkily, where have you people been? This is what the right-wing imprints do -- they put out quick fatuous books by currently popular right-wing assholes (Sarah Palin, that fake plumber guy) with deliberately incendiary titles and themes to grab the money of angry old white men (of various ages, races, and genders). I find it hard to believe that Yiannopoulos is clearly worse than the dreck that has been pouring out of that sector of publishing for the last couple of decades.

Second Point: You know that S&S is just a mid-rank link in the corporate chain, right? The actual decision-maker for the Yiannopoulos book was presumably Louise Burke, the publisher of the group of imprints that Threshold is part of. If you want to target the actual people connected to this book, boycott Gallery and Pocket as well as S&S mass-market paperbacks. The rest of S&S is run by other people who weren't part of this decision. (Anyone thinking about joining this boycott isn't going to buy any Threshold books in the first place, of course.)

Alternatively, if you want to punish the actual larger company, that isn't S&S. S&S is just a division of the CBS Corporation. So your boycott should include Showtime, The CW, Stephen Colbert, 60 Minutes, and so on.

But Andy! you say, those things aren't books! I want to boycott books!

Well, then head your time-machine back to 1969, because big publishers these days are firmly ensconced in large global media companies as part of a deliberate multi-media strategy. Books are one revenue stream of many, as part of a synergy strategy for continued incremental growth in major markets, among other bullshit buzz terms. They are not a separate thing from other media.

So: your choices are:

  • boycott books from Threshold, Gallery, Pocket, and S&S mass-market
  • boycott the entirety of CBS
  • whine online but not get around to doing anything
  • be an idiot and boycott some slightly larger piece of a big media company

Seriously, this is like boycotting ESPN but not ESPN 2, because you want to keep watching soccer. Or boycotting PTI but nothing else because you want to watch the playoffs.

And perhaps...just might want to find some kind of positive message to rally behind, and not just "fuck everyone associated with this asshole." Because the world is full of assholes, and the next four years are going to bring that home over and over. You're quickly going to run out of ability to boycott if you start out like this.

[1] Not exactly his job description, but pretty much what he does for a living: he's an asshole to various people (mostly minorities of one kind or another) in public for the entertainment of others. He's also an instigating asshole: his thing is inciting virtual hate mobs.

Bad Machinery, Vol. 6: The Case of the Unwelcome Visitor by John Allison

OK, to get it out of the way up front, here are links to the previous cases of the six young people who are definitely not called the Tackleford Mystery Teens: one, two, three, four, five. Oh, and have a link to some pre-Bad Machinery collections of Scary Go Round, also set in Tackleford, and the first two volumes of the only loosely related Giant Days.

When Bad Machinery began, there was something like a loose formula: the six young people (tweens then) were investigating some local mysteries with a supernatural element, as typically the three girls dug into one odd thing and the three boys another. And then, of course, the two cases would turn out to be intertwined, and the groups would either work together or compete to solve it first. That "formula" didn't last long, as the kids kept growing up -- each book takes something like a third or half of a year -- and developed crushes and love interests (on each other at least once) and just got older and more sophisticated.

By the time of The Case of the Unwelcome Visitor, another school year has just ended with the wrap-up of the not-otherwise-chronicled "Case of the Rock Bottom," in which they fingered a local '90s alternative-band drummer for the murder of his singer (now a ghost). Shauna and Mildred and Sonny -- the relatively posh kids, which Allison doesn't say but a careful reader will have realized -- are all away for the summer at various vacation activities. Ace reporter Erin Winters is back in Tackleford and shaking up the staid local paper, the Cormorant.

And there's a strange figure appearing at night and frightening people into comatose states -- mostly the local miscreants, true. Some call him the Night Hero, some the Night Creeper. Charlotte thinks that he's her mother's new boyfriend, a boring sewer engineer who has just moved into town. (Though Charlotte's sister has also just moved back to town with her boyfriend, a dashing young doctor.) Linton's father is the new Chief of Police, and so he wants to solve the mystery to help his dad.

All of the theories are not quite right, and the story of the Night Hero/Night Creeper is more satisfyingly complicated than it seems at first. But the teens left in town, with the help of Erin, do get to the bottom of it, and save Tackleford from another bizarre supernatural thing before the story is done.

Allison told this story once in the Bad Machinery webcomic, but the book version is longer, better paced, and gorgeous -- the books are in an appealingly large format, giving his sprightly art room to breathe and work at its best. And his dialogue is as funny and spiky as ever, particularly since this story is very Charlote Grote-focused. (Allison's best characters, in each generation of his Tackleford stories, are the smart, sharp-tongued young women, from Erin to Esther DeGroot to Charlotte.)

Look, Bad Machinery is one of the great comics of our times, period. You should be reading it, if you read comics at all. I can't say it any plainer than that.

When You Know You're Getting Old

Your college installed a brand-new president right as you got there as a young freshman, and she served for twenty years.

When she retired, the college found a new president, who also held the job more than a decade.

Now she's retiring, and the college has picked the second entirely post-you president to take over that job.

Then you're getting old.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

Satire is a tricky thing. You need to recognize the thing being satirized to really get the point, and that can be difficult as time goes on. Oh, sure, some foibles are just human nature and don't ever change much -- but most of the really cutting satires are about the specific mores and manners of their times, and those are the details that quickly get opaque to later generations.

Evelyn Waugh's first novel Decline and Fall was published in 1928, almost ninety years ago. And it focuses intensely on the English social and class system of its day -- as it was already beginning to crumble around the edges under the weight of modernity, the Great War, and the pressure of an unsustainable empire. I read it first in the mid '90s, in my own mid twenties. And I suspect I found it pleasant and amusing, since I went on to read most of the rest of Waugh over the next couple of years.

This time, though, I can see the knives more clearly as Waugh plunges them in. I'm not expert enough in the period to know which of the things he presents basically straight and which he outrageously exaggerates, but I suspect the exaggeration is not actually all that outrageous. But you should know this about Waugh: his early books are vicious and unrelenting, and if you don't see that (as I didn't, the first time around), you're missing some context.

Paul Pennyfeather is our hero, a harmless young man studying to be a parson at Scone College, Oxford. But there's a night of drunken mischief -- for traditional reasons, by a long-established group of high-ranking and high-spirited young men -- and Paul is sent down in disgrace for having the bad luck to get in their way. This leads to his traditional journey of the naif through strange places and meetings with various scoundrels and knaves. As one would expect in an English novel, Paul's essential good nature at first leads him to increasing successes: first a job as a schoolmaster and then quickly engaged to a rich, beautiful young heiress.

But the world Paul is traveling through is tougher and nastier than a would-be parson can easily navigate. And the book is called "Decline and Fall." And that heiress's fortune does not come through a source that society wants to think about. So Paul does decline, and falls, but keeps meeting the same few people at every stage of his journey.

In the end, he ends up right where he belongs: this is actually one of Waugh's sunnier novels, with something like a happy ending. And that ending might help some readers to miss the satire along the way -- as I say, I think I missed a lot of it the first time around and I'm sure I still missed many specifics this time. But early Waugh is one of the great nasty writers of all time, and his books are particularly good for those who spend too much time watching PBS costume dramas about the struggles of the deserving rich, with their four-hour dinners and their endless plans for advantageous marriages.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/7

Every week, I post here to talk about the books that arrived in the mail the week before and to prove that I am not dead.

Well, I'm not dead for another week -- the longest I've ever been not-dead, which is something to be celebrated -- but this week I have a wrinkle. You see, this week I did get one book in the mail, which is awesome. But I also bought one book and got one book from the NYC library. That seems too parallel not to put all together, and so I will.

Mail: A manga volume from Yen Press with the slightly odd name Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody, Vol. 1, with art by Ayamegumu, story by Hiro Ainana, and character designs by Shri. This is adapted from a light novel of the same name (by Ainana), which is usually what credits like that mean. The "death march" in this case is at least partially metaphoric: our hero is a programmer working crazy days to finish a game on time, rather than someone actually marching to his death, which would be less suitable for light entertainment. But he takes what he thinks will be a quick nap at work, and wakes up in something very like the game he's working on. And, of course, he can't wake up. (Hey, a new take on the stuck-in-an-MMO idea!)

Bought: From John Allison and Max Sarin, Giant Days, Vol. 3, the third collection of comics stories about Susan, Esther and Daisy, three new best friends in their first year at the mostly fictional British institution of higher learning Sheffield University. Please see my reviews of the first and second books for more of my burbling about why Allison is totally awesome and you should all be reading all of his comics.

Library: The gigantic Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels [1] edited by Tom Devlin with the D&Q brain trust (founder Chris Oliveros, Peggy Burns, Tracy Hurren, Julia Pohl-Miranda). This is frankly a bug-crusher: nearly eight hundred pages of comics by a whole bunch of people from around the world. I may end up buying a copy for myself one of these days, but I can read it now if I figure out a way to fit the thing in my commuting bag.

[1] Having all three in the subtitle may seem silly, but there are comics people who will get into knife-fights with each other over whether "graphic novels" are actually a thing or not. Luckily, they're mostly weedy indoor types, so it only rarely leads to actual bloodshed.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Gahan Wilson's Out There

Gahan Wilson is one of the great cartoonists of the grotesque: the obvious heir to Charles Addams and forefather of a younger generation of weird and alternative cartoonists. And he's been closely associated with genre fiction as well -- more towards the Lovecraftian horror and weird mystery end of the field than mainstream SF and fantasy, certainly, but still part of that world for decades.

So it amuses me that it took a comics publisher, Fantagraphics, to collect all of his work for The Magazine of Fantasy & SF from 1964 to 1981, when SFF has had a very active publishing community since well before even Wilson started working in the field. (And that outsider-ness, I think, led to some odd phrasing in the introduction by Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth, implying that F&SF is no longer being published, among other things.)

But Fantagraphics does great books, and Gahan Wilson's Out There is no exception. It collects all of Wilson's cartoons for F&SF, plus seven short stories (most of them short-shorts) and the dozen "The Dark Corner" book review columns that Wilson wrote for that magazine. I would have liked to have publication dates for the stories and columns, particularly the latter, but that may be asking too much of a comics publisher.

The cartoons, though, are all reproduced well, at full-page size -- they were all full-pagers in F&SF as well -- and cover the usual creepy Wilson panoply: cultists, aliens, monsters, gods, ventriloquists, and other essentially frightening folks. I have the faint sense that this mostly isn't Wilson's best work -- that he sent his best ideas to Playboy, where they might be finished in color and pay better, and maybe even cascaded those ideas down through other markets before they hit F&SF. There's a lot of good gags here, certainly -- but very few of the sublime ones that peppered the gigantic collection of his Playboy work.

Still: it's a handsome book full of Gahan Wilson cartoons. Full of funny creepy stuff, and his inimitable line. It's a must for any fan of the cartoon grotesque, and for many serious fans of F&SF as well.