Thursday, October 20, 2016

Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam by Simon Hanselmann

Well, um, that was a thing, wasn't it?

I believe Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam is the second book by Simon Hanselmann about his series characters Megg, Mogg, Owl and Werewolf Jones, after Megahex. Megg is a witch -- green skin, long nose, black pointy hat, the whole package. [1] Mogg is her cat/boyfriend. They're both layabouts, stoners, and general losers with no apparent source of support. Owl is their third roommate, and the requisite functional adult of the group: he's a wet blanket, a whiner, and more than slightly annoying, but he actually holds down a job and presumably provides all of the income for this crappy little household. So he takes substantially fewer drugs than Megg or Mogg...which isn't to say he doesn't take any.

Oh, and Werewolf Jones is their dealer, who uses his own product far too much if his temper and mood swings are any indication. Jones also is the sometimes caretaker for his two feral tween sons, who are barely sapient at best. He sometimes seems to be supposed to be wild and wacky and a crazy guy, but more often he just seems psychotic and cruising for some very heavy object to be lovingly placed upside his head. There are some minor characters, too, but they tend not to talk much -- and the main four talk incessantly.

All of these are unpleasant people who do dull things in annoying ways and are both deeply horrible and deeply boring. Hanselmann's art, also, is on the dull side: he mostly uses a simple, almost animation-derived line, and his layouts are relentless grids, varying only in the number of identical boxes on each particular page. He generally puts a lot of small panels full of tedium on every page, so it takes a while to read all of the dull words these dull unpleasant people fling at each other.

You may guess that I did not exactly enjoy this book. You would be correct.

I don't mind comics about stoners -- I really loved Joe Daly's Dungeon Quest books, and wish there was another one of them right now. But I do need those stoners to interact with the outside world at least somewhat, and not sit and stew in their own drug-fueled misery. Even for stoners, Megg and Mogg are whiny dull losers, and that's saying something. If they did anything interesting, they'd be fine. If their non-adventures had snappy dialogue, they'd be OK. If the pages were attractively designed and pleasing to look at, they'd be all right.

But it's not all right. It's not even close to all right.

[1] She doesn't seem to do anything witchy, but then she doesn't do much of anything of any kind. That's kind of the point of these stories.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Crooked by Austin Grossman

The "everything you know is wrong" story is a long-time favorite, with an eternal appeal. Listen, the storyteller whispers as you lean closer, and you'll hear how it really is, the story behind the story, and the secrets that should never have come out. Those stories have to go big, of course -- no one cares about little secrets about little people, like that substance that we call "2% milk" is really, horribly 3% milkfat due to a cabal of fat-loving dairy farmers.

(If the 3% milk was a carefully calibrated amount designed to slow the brains of men as part of a fiendish operation led by the only-appearing-to-be-cows advance force of an alien invasion fleet, then you might have the beginnings of something. Outlandish. Unbelievable. Bizarre. Crazy -- that's what we look for in these kind of stories.)

So what would you say if I told you that Richard M. Nixon was actually the greatest President who ever lived, a man who sacrificed everything to make America permanently safe, a hero who threw away vast power selflessly? Well, I hope that, like your imaginary self in the first paragraph, you'll lean closer and settle in comfortably to learn more.

That's the story Austin Grossman has to tell here. He calls it Crooked. And it tells you that all you know about Nixon -- as well as about the roots of American political power and the real roles of its rulers -- is deeply, deeply wrong. You see, Presidents are magicians. Not in the metaphoric fooling-people sense, or even in the stage-magic sense. Lovecraftian gods are real, the world is full of horrors, and the only thing that keeps human societies safe are mystic bonds forged by blood between rulers and their lands. But magician-kings can be benevolent or malefic, just like any other kind of kings -- and the same goes for presidents. And sometimes power can be claimed in such a way that it can never be taken away again.

I probably shouldn't write too much here about the twists and turns of the plot: in fact, I may have already said too much. (But the whole Nixon's-the-one twist is the whole point of the book; it's hard to discuss it without at least gesturing in the direction of Nixon the ritual practitioner.) Grossman brings us this story in Nixon's own words, and explains many puzzling moments in his life, in the best secret-history style.

And, even more so, Grossman is a fantastic writer of sentences and paragraphs and scenes, with prose that's absolutely perfect dozens of times in Crooked. Look, here's one: "Like an aeons-buried elder god, or a vast extradimensional intelligence, the heart lives by unreadable codes and incomprehensible motives, knowing nothing of dignity or humanity, and more often than not brings only destruction and madness on those who are exposed to its baleful cravings." (p.13)

Or this even better bit, two pages later:
This is a tale of espionage and betrayal and the dark secrets of a decades-long cold war. It is a story of otherworldly horror, of strange nameless forces that lie beneath the reality we know. In other words, it is the story of a marriage.

If I wanted to ding Grossman on anything, it would be on his worldbuilding: there's a faint sense that he's spinning this all out as he goes, and that he hasn't done the obsessive research and background writing of someone like Tim Powers. The world in Crooked isn't thin, but at times it's very convenient, and Grossman is more interested in the flow of Nixon's voice than in nailing down (even in the background or his own head) exactly how ritual magic works and what practitioners need to do to accomplish their ends.

Still, it's a surprisingly emotionally resonant mildly Lovecraftian novel with Richard Nixon as its hero, which is three kinds of unlikely success rolled up into one. And it's a fine third novel from the quirky writer who already brought us Soon I Will Be Invincible and You -- all odd, spiky novels driven by voice, deeply focused on a sideways take on a geeky obsession, and with a slight tendency to skate over lurking plot complications and logical holes.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Turtle Recall: The Discworld Companion...So Far by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs

It's hard to make a guidebook to something that keeps expanding, particularly if you keep trying to nail it down between covers. (Sure, there's always a Wiki if you want ease of updating, but a Wiki is much harder to sell than a book, and publishers aren't in the habit of spending money to build out something that they then give away for free.) Turtle Recall is, if I'm counting correctly, the third edition Discworld Companion, after two earlier versions with separate individual titles.

And not to be morbid or anything, but the only reason why this one is likely to stick is because Terry Pratchett died in 2015 after having only written two more books than those incorporated here. If he'd still been around, he would have kept writing, and Turtle Recall would have been outdated in a few years, just like the other two editions were.

(And, yes, we all do wish we were in that leg of the Trousers of Time. Sadly, we never get that choice.)

Turtle Recall is credited to Pratchett and Stephen Briggs, who has been the motivating force (or maybe just an able pair of hands) behind most of the "non-fiction" Discworld projects for the last two decades -- Mappes, cookbooks, the previous Companions, etc. The text is all pretty Pratchetty, though I have my suspicions that it was Briggs who actually assembled all of it. Of course, one reason bits of that text may be particularly Pratchetty is that they were originally written by Pratchett -- I don't think there's much more than phrases lifted out of the novels, but much larger pieces come from the annual Desk Diaries, from the Mappes, and the other miscellaneous books.

Which is, of course, all as it should be: this is a guide to those other things, so it should tell us what is in those other things. (Preferably in a shorter space, or else the map is equal to the territory and we're into a Borges story.)

That's exactly what this third edition Companion does, in much the same way as the first two editions did it. The Discworld keeps getting bigger and more full of people, so this new edition has to mention many more people and places and shiny new technologies as the Disc strides confidently forward into the Century of the Anchovy.

(Hey, since I can't find any other place to shove it into this post, here comes my theory of Discworld plots. Like most things, Discworld can be divided into three historical eras, based on the typical plots.
  • Early Disc: Creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions want to eat us, and they Must Be Stopped.
  • Medium Disc: There is a very nasty thing -- possibly a creature from elsewhere (not the Dungeon Dimensions!) and possibly a human being with a distinct lack of affect and empathy. It also Must Be Stopped.
  • Late Disc: It's steam-engine time! Aren't steam engines neat! Oh, OK, have a little plot, too. Here are some people doing things, probably including Moist von Lipwig. Nothing Must Be Stopped, because Progress Cannot Be Stopped, and everything just keeps getting better all the time, gosh darn it.)

So, anyway: a guide to Discworld. Updated through Snuff. Quite possibly the last edition of this book, unless Rhianna Pratchett utterly changes her mind and decides to take over the Old Establishment herself. (I'm not betting on it, but who expected Brian Herbert to write more Dune novels than his father when the old man kicked off in 1986?) Utterly useless if you're not interested in those books, but why did you read so long in this blog post if that's the case?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/15

You can't tell, but I'm not here this Monday. I'm actually off in San Francisco, working a trade show for the mighty Thomson Reuters Legal empire, sitting in on sessions and probably meeting a lot of lawyers. But Reviewing the Mail goes on no matter what, and so here are the books that arrived last week. As always, I haven't read them, and what I'm about to say will be based on my suppositions and prior knowledge but may not end up being completely accurate. If I get anything wrong, I apologize in advance.

Alien Morning is, I think, Rick Wilber's first novel -- I'm a little vague because the book doesn't precisely say that and I know I've heard his name around for a while now. (On the other hand, the cover letter does talk about how he's written lots of short stories, which could be the reason for both things.) It's a first-contact novel, aliens-come-to-Earth subdivision, this-ordinary-guy sub-sub-division. The ordinary guy in this case is a journalist, or what that job has been debased into by 2030, and his genius scientist brother is engaged to the equally brilliant female scientist who is the main point of contact with the aliens. (Isn't that also a Robert Charles Wilson book?) It's a Tor hardcover, available November 8th.

The rest of the books this week are manga from Yen Press, and first among them is Ato Sakurai's Today's Cerberus, Vol. 1. An ordinary teenage guy -- yeah, Standard Manga Protagonist #1, Shonen Division -- was bitten by a three-headed dog as a young boy, as you are, and he thus lost a piece of his soul, because obviously. That dog is now back as a sexy schoolmate -- I think, it can sometimes be hard to tell if a teen girl in manga is supposed to be sexy or is just in the standard look -- and wants to help him get that soul-piece back. But supernatural girls in manga never do anything the easy way, so wacky hijinks ensue.

Then there's Tohyo Game, Vol 1: One Black Ballot To You, credited to G.O. (original story), CHIHIRO (adaptation) and Tatsuhiko (art). I'm not sure what it was adapted from -- my guesses are 1) video game and 2) light novel -- but it clearly was adapted. This is one of those horror stories about kids at school who get killed in ironic and horrible ways; in this particular case, it's all set off by a popularity contest, and then the least popular kids start dying hideously. I am old enough that such blatant symbolism no longer appeals to me, but your opinion may differ....

And last is the latest in the reprinting of a very popular series: Natsuki Takaya's Fruits Basket: Collector's Edition, Vol. 6. This new edition collects two of the original tankobon volumes into each larger book, for those who like more pages and bigger art. I haven't read the series, but I think it's a story about a girl who drops into a weird family that also transforms into strange creatures, because every manga has to be in at least two genres at once.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Snoopy and "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night" by Charles M. Schulz

Back when we all did our shopping in person, malls -- remember malls? that was where we did a lot of that shopping -- had bookstores, and those bookstores had checkout counters. And on those counters would be a collection of silly small books, designed for impulse purchase and quick reading. Perhaps it was designed to catch your eye for yourself, or for Aunt Gladys whose birthday is coming up, or for that nice Johnson boy who delivers the paper, but there would be a small clutch of cardboard displays, each with eight-to-ten copies of something amusing, often tied into some vague media idea or fad. (The Olympics or Yuppies or cats or whatever -- it's what we did before the Internet made memes a competition sport.)

And so a lot of things that had "regular" books also threw off little books, for that particular ecological niche. Because if your audience is already shopping for books, why not try to grab them again just before they leave?

That's how the world got Snoopy and "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night." It's essentially the graphic-novelization of the sequences of strips from the late '60s in which Snoopy (then in the process of taking over Peanuts from that round-headed kid) wrote a bad novel and tried in vain to get it published, presented as what may be drawings from those panels or may be then-new art from Sparky. (The book does not make this entirely clear. Knowing Schulz's work ethic, though, my suspicion is that he re-drew it for the book, or at least a lot of it.)

The words, though, are very familiar, as they must be. ("It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed.") Snoopy is writing a bad novel here, obviously, full of melodrama and cliches -- and more amusingly, writing it in the space of two pages, because comic strips don't have that much space to begin with.

But there is enough space for metafiction in Dark and Stormy; we see Snoopy write the book, we see him send it off and be accepted by a publisher, and we eventually see him receive his own copies of that book. And then we read that book, with a cover by Lucy (actually painted by Mark Knowland in a fictional-fussbudget style) and all of the words we've seen Snoopy type -- again, it's not that many of them -- organized together into two sections to form something that vaguely looks like a narrative if you squint really hard.

And the old publishing hand of me is particularly happy to see that the book-in-the-book is printed on different paper and in a different font than the frame story: that's the way to do it.

This is a very silly object, that only exists because Peanuts was world-famous at this point and the licensing folks were happy to leap on any hint of product that could be sold. Still, it's a wonderful silly object, and I'm glad to finally have a copy for my very own after all these years.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man by Lawrence Block

I concluded the Smut Week of early August with this novel from one of the great mystery writers of our time. But it's not a mystery.

It falls into a very small subgenre: the metafictional sex novel. (I know of two other examples, Donald E. Westlake's Adios, Sheherezade and Hal Dresner's The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books.) The metafictional sex novel is written by the author of actual sex novels, the kind that are hacked out in a few weeks to fill a trashy publisher's behind-the-counter slots in the '50s or '60s, and generally is fueled by a rising tide of bile and self-loathing about writing so much bad vague sex in too short a time. Westlake's book is the exemplar of the form, and Dresner's also falls mostly into line.

(Perhaps we'll see some similar books coming out from the flood of modern ebook erotica? But those writers do it themselves, because they like it, and not to fuel a sleazy capitalist enterprise -- unless you count Amazon. So I think the self-loathing is absent, mostly, in this generation.)

Lawrence Block, though, was doing something else. He'd mostly gotten away from the sex-book world by the late '60s, and he was never the bridge-burner that Westlake was. He instead wanted to see if he could take what he learned about writing a lot of sex and turn it into a more literary exercise, an epistolary novel in a contemporary style. Maybe he also wanted to do something more cheerful than the noir and mystery books he was writing at the time; even his sex books had mostly featured varieties of thriller and mystery plots. All of that led him to the cheerfully vulgar Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, an example of how much chaos one man can cause with a typewriter, a gleeful lack of propriety, and the kind of joie de vivre that only works out right in fiction.

I read Ronald Rabbit once before, soon after Subterranean published this edition in 2000. But that reading was before this blog, and that copy was lost beneath the waters in 2011, so, eventually, I knew I had to get another copy and take another run at it. And Smut Week was the perfect opportunity.

Laurence Clarke [1], in the best fictional tradition, loses everything at the outset of this novel. First, his employer discovers that he's been "stowing away" on Whitestone Publications after the magazine for children that he was hired to edit, Ronald Rabbit's Magazine for Boys and Girls, shut down six months ago. Then, his wife Fran turns out to have been sleeping with his best friend Steve, and the two of them leave him a sad note on their way to Mexico with all of the marital savings. And his ex-wife Lisa has just called off her impending marriage, which leaves Larry on the hook for continued alimony. (This is 1971, remember.) All he has left is the typewriter that he hasn't managed to produce a novel on and a stack of Ronald Rabbit stationery. Oh, and his native wit and anarchic sense of fun, which will be as important.

So he sets out to write some letters -- to his runaway wife, to his erstwhile best friend, to his nagging ex-wife, and to his former employer. (He'll come up with more people to write to along the way, and a few of his targets will even write back -- but most of this short book is in Larry's words, as it should be.)

This is a sex book, so Larry falls into sex. And it's a sex book of the late '60s, so he falls into sex by letting himself be free and open and getting out into the world -- becoming that manic agent of lunacy, basically. It's mostly loving, consensual sex -- not always guaranteed for that era and that genre -- and it's generally in service of the overall aim of the book, which is to show how much chaos and fun Larry can cause  once he's freed from having anything else to worry about.

Ronald Rabbit is not one of Block's major novels. But it's a joyful, manic romp, easily his most gleeful book -- even the frothiest of the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels doesn't come close. And it's an interesting signpost on the long, crooked path of sex in the 20th century novel

[1] Who is clearly Not Lawrence Block. No, no, not the same person at all! Not at all like his creator! Perish the thought.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Young Girl's Handbook of Good Manners by Pierre Louys

Smut Week continues with Book #3, a fake handbook of etiquette from the French writer Pierre Louys, one of many erotic manuscripts discovered in his papers after his death in 1925. I read a review of it somewhere over the past year, and it sounded like my sort of thing -- I like really cutting satire, I like books that pretend to be a kind of non-fiction that they aren't, and (like everyone else) I like sex.

All that led me to this slim guide: The Young Girl's Handbook of Good Manners. It's in the form of one of those interminable lists of rules for behavior, which were even more common in the late 19th century when Louys was writing. But these rules are all about sex, and Louys paints a picture of ubiquitous debauchery through the things he keeps insisting young ladies should not do.

(How young is that "young" in the title? Too young, for anyone this century. Probably too young even at the time, which is part of the point -- Louys wrote this for his own amusement, and to break as many taboos as possible. If you're not offended, then he failed in his task.)

As usual in works like this, the assumed young girl is polymorphously perverse, engaging in all conceivable sex acts with men and women, family friends and house servants, sex toys and fruit, at all times and in all places. Louys organizes the book into page-long chapters, each with a list of things not to do (and, more rarely, to actually do). Some of the amusement for modern readers comes from the social and cultural assumptions embedded in those rules -- Louys wrote for an audience of people who had servants and fancy dinners, among other things seen less often these days.

This is, of course, a book with no particular redeeming value. But then, so are most books, and Young Girl's Handbook is also wickedly amusing, which most books are not.