Read in August

As the summer wound down -- quite obviously so, since there was almost autumn-like weather in my area for most of the month -- I got myself caught back up on writing about the books I read, since I'm obsessive. (If anyone out there wants to harness my powers of reading SF/fantasy/comics for truth and righteousness, give me a buzz.) Here's what did pass in front of my eyeballs over the past thirty-one days:

Charles Stross, The Apocalypse Codex (8/6)

Rachel Klein, editor, Fodor's Los Angeles, 25th Edition (8/6)

Leonard Kinsey, The Dark Side of Disney (8/7)

Matthew Hughes, Costume Not Included (8/9)

Joe Daly, Dungeon Quest, Book Three (8/10)

Rick Steves, Travel As a Political Act (8/15)

Ray Fawkes, Possessions, Book Three: The Better House Trap (8/17)

Carrie Vaughn, After the Golden Age (8/20)

Dave Roman & Justin Green, Teen Boat! (8/20)

Derf Backderf, My Friend Dahmer (8/21)

Matthew Loux, Salt Water Taffy: Caldera's Revenge, Book 2 (8/22)

Lawrence Block writing as Ben Christopher, Strange Embrace (8/22)

Lawrence Block writing as Sheldon Lord, 69 Barrow Street (8/23)

Doug Lansky, The Titanic Awards (8/24)

Chris Strodder, The Disneyland Encyclopedia (8/29)

Michael and Trista Knight, Fodor's Disneyland & Southern California With Kids, 10th Edition (8/31)

I'm almost caught up right now -- with five books to write about, which I can (with any luck) get to over this long weekend. 

Next up: September, when both of my sons go back to school. (Actually, both of them are going to new schools: Thing 1 is a high school freshman, and Thing 2 hits middle school with 6th grade.) I've been warned that I may have to become the homework parent, so we'll see how busy my evenings get.

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

We never know what goes on in other people's heads -- we usually assume that their thoughts are like our own, but we can't know for sure. So other people are endlessly surprising us, positively and negatively, every day of our lives, and we keep rebuilding those mental models as quickly as we can to keep them as close to observed reality as possible.

But sometimes, someone turns out to be vastly less knowable and more alien than we ever guessed.

In the 1970s, John Backderf was friendly -- not quite "friends," but connected in that loose high school way -- with another boy of the same age, named Jeff Dahmer. And, years later, Backderf was a reporter and editorial cartoonist -- working then as simply "Derf" -- when the news of Dahmer's serial-killing streak finally came to light, more than a decade and seventeen deaths later. My Friend Dahmer is the book Backderf created -- after several shorter stories, and one comic-book length version a decade ago -- to explain the Jeff Dahmer he knew and bear witness to that profoundly damaged young man at the moment when he still could have been helped. (And now he's using the credit "Derf Backderf," which sounds to me like the worst of both possibilities, but it's his name, and his career.)

My Friend Dahmer starts with two short sections, setting the scene with a younger Dahmer dissolving roadkill animals in acid in a shack in the woods and being tormented and alone in middle school. But most of the book covers three years of high school, leading up to graduation -- as Backderf and his friends took on Dahmer as a sometimes friend, or, more often, as that weird kid who you can count on to do something outrageous to make everyone laugh. (Dahmer had a fake-cerebral-palsy act, which was either imitating a local interior designer or his own mother's seizures -- or perhaps both -- and this was hugely funny to teenage boys in the mid-70s.)

The called themselves "the Dahmer Club," but they were never really friendly with Dahmer -- he was too weird, too encased in his shell of behaviors at that point. Dahmer was also a full-blown alcoholic by senior year, carrying bottles of hard liquor around (unknown, at the time, to anyone else in the school) in a briefcase and drinking almost constantly. Dahmer was the "class freak" -- the weirdo who acts out, presumably for attention -- but not close to anyone.

Backderf has extensively researched Dahmer's life -- reading all of the many interviews and books, and re-interviewing his friends and schoolmates -- so My Friend Dahmer isn't just "what I remember of that one kid who turned out bad;" Backderf tries to depict what was going on in Dahmer's head at the time. His family was dysfunctional in the best of times, and going through a messy divorce during his senior year -- and Dahmer was not just a still-closeted homosexual, but one whose primary erotic thrill came from imagining completely still bodies, dead or seemingly so. He heard voices in his head, urging him to kill -- and he drank to keep those voices as quiet as he could. But, finally, at the end of his senior year, his parents completely abandoned him -- his father had moved out months before, and then his mother secretly moved out of state with her younger son to return to her family -- and he was left, entirely alone, with only himself and what was in his head. And then, of course, he killed for the first time.

Backderf's point is that someone should have seen what Dahmer was becoming and stopped him; that he could have been helped before he turned into a killer. And a similar boy almost certainly couldn't go through the same progression today -- school campuses are locked more tightly, and obviously drunk students no longer tolerated if they don't cause trouble. But who can know?

Backderf's cartooning has gotten much stronger in recent years: his work used to be just a few small panels of lumpy people talking, but the larger pages of My Friend Dahmer give him space for stronger storytelling, with strong transitions and well-chosen images. His figures are still entirely Derf: lumpy, lanky young men, all legs and arms and joints, with stringy hair and unfortunate clothes and long faces. He draws Dahmer's eyes as utterly still behind his glasses -- or, sometimes, not even showing at all -- a heavy gaze looking straight out at the reader and assessing him for whatever purposes.

Life gave Backderf amazing material for a graphic novel, but he had to actually do it. And he did: My Friend Dahmer isn't impressive simply because Backderf knew and grew up with Dahmer, but because he's spent these last twenty years trying to figure out how he became Dahmer -- and if there was any way that could have been stopped.

Teen Boat! by Dave Roman and John Green

Not every book comes with a fool-proof litmus test, but this one certainly does. Just read the tag-line on the cover:
The angst of being a teen! The thrill of being a boat!
Now, having read that, you will have had one of two reactions: either you smiled, laughed, or otherwise enjoyed it, or you scowled and found it silly. If you were one of the latter, leave now: the joys of Teen Boat! are not for you.

Written by Dave Roman, drawn by John Green, Teen Boat! is the story of one boy with an unusual condition: he can transform into a small yacht (unless he gets water in his inner ear, which causes him to lose control over his changes). It's no secret: his name is Teen Boat, and everyone in his school knows about what he can do, from top jock Harry Cobbs to alluring exchange student Nina Pinta Santa Maria to his boyhood friend Joey Steinberg (who clearly hides some transformative secret of her own).

The Teen Boat stories were originally published in mincomics, so they tend to be short -- some multi-parters, but mostly 8-10 pages long. They're all tongue-in-cheek -- as the names may have already tipped you off -- with an amusing and only slightly juvenile sense of humor. Teen Boat battles pirates, struggles with love (both as a teen and as a boat!), takes his driving test, and works at a restaurant -- just the right mix of every-teen and completely wacky.

Teen Boat is utterly awesome, and, if you don't get that, you must have barnacles on your hull. Teen Boat! Long may he sail!

Strange Embrace/69 Barrow Street by Lawrence Block

There's nothing like old pulp fiction to show you viscerally how people thought they were supposed to live -- not how they really did live, in all of its messiness and day-to-day details, but what the narrative of their lives was, the stories that they told themselves about how they were. Fiction that aims at art bends events to fit its conceptions, but pulp doesn't have that luxury: pulp thrives on speed of production and speed of comprehension, so a pulp story can't be too specific or idiosyncratic; it needs to tell the story that the reader expects, and get out of the way.

Two of Lawrence Block's early pulp novels -- he's written a lot of other novels, and shorter works, in various modes since then, but these two books definitely are pulp, and were written at speed in the pulp manner -- have recently been reprinted in a back-to-back edition from Hard Case Crime: Strange Embrace and 69 Barrow Street, both paperback originals from 1962. Each was originally written under a pseudonym -- Ben Christopher and Sheldon Lord, respectively. Neither one would benefit from a serious explication of its plot and themes: they're pulp novels, written quickly to be ready quickly, to give a quick thrill to a mostly young, mostly male audience that just doesn't exist for written fiction anymore. They're both stories of young men who get caught up in "sexy" stories in New York's Greenwich Village -- one is a successful theatrical producer from uptown, investigating a series of murders among his cast, and the other is a local painter, struggling with what we would call a unrealized sadomasochistic relationship with his live-in girlfriend.

But what both books have in common is deeper than that, and is implied by the first title: any "sexy" book in the late '50s and early '60s used "Strange" as a near-synonym for lesbianism, and so both of these books have important lesbian characters. Important to the plots of the books, I mean: they're not going to show up in any history of the literary depiction of gay women, since they're heavily stereotyped according to the assumptions of the time: man-haters, damaged, with something wrong with them because they're not the same as everybody else. [1] The lesbian characters are semi-surprises in both books because they look like "normal" women -- they're not short-haired plaid-shirt-wearing construction workers.

Because these are pulp novels, they're very concerned with "normal" -- 69 Barrow Street even more so than Strange Embrace, which is really just a slightly sleazy mystery trying to milk some frisson from that lesbianism. Barrow, though, is a novel about sex and about how people should interact with each other -- the narrative voice reflexively tells us (meaning that original audience, all of those crew-cutted boys across the country, dreaming of a sexual liberation they didn't seriously expect would arrive later that decade) that it's so very, very wrong, so not normal for women to want to have sex with women, or for any people to want to have sex other than the normal way. (There's an amusingly vanilla orgy in the middle of this book -- entirely couples pairing off and going off to quiet places to have mostly straight hetero sex that's probably in the missionary position most of the time -- and this is horribly, startlingly shocking, and shows that these people are irreparably damaging their sensibilities and souls, even more so because they smoked marijuana beforehand!)

Look, don't read these books to tell you what your sex life should be like -- don't read any fifty-year-old pulp novels for that, because they'll screw you up. (Today's pulp, all of those manly thrillers with fainting damsels and lovingly-described military hardware, are not going to be any better, either.) But do read them to see what people used to think was far outside the pale, and to enjoy how Block was a fine craftsman of prose and incident even at that very early date in his career: even when he was acting as a conduit for standard plots and potted characters, he made them as rounded as they could be, into exemplars of their time rather than the stereotypes that he had to work with.

[1] 1962 was back when "normal" was a defined thing rather than a range; America didn't understand statistics yet.

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

Writing authentic women's lives -- particularly in historical periods when most women had no agency, no power, and only as much influence as their husbands or fathers would allow them -- can be a immensely difficult task. And trying to do so within the context of a commercial genre that valorizes external action above everything and frequently dives into severely anachronistic social situations can just be the set-up for stories that are "fantasy" in even more ways than their writers intended. But it is possible, even within the boyish, flashy confines of historical fantasy, to write about real women leading period-appropriate lives -- and, even more importantly, to have those women both be true to themselves and show their real strength to modern readers.

Mary Robinette Kowal measured out that narrow thread brilliantly in her first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey (see my review), a very deliberately Austenesque novel set in a slightly different Regency era, where small, decorative, illusion-based magics were common, and commonly left for women. Her second novel was promised as a sequel to Shades, and as a story that would send the newlywed couple from Shades -- the taciturn, saturnine established glamourist David Vincent and the unsure but highly talented Jane Vincent -- to Europe, where they would be embroiled in Napoleon's return from Elba. I'll admit to being worried that this novel -- which was published this spring as Glamour in Glass -- would ramp up the anachronistic external action and turn Jane into some kind of freedom-fighting action heroine, slinging bolts of magic at advancing armies.

I should have had more faith in Kowal; the actual Glamour in Glass bears no resemblance to my fears, and instead extends out the world of Shades, in the same way a sheltered young woman of Jane's era would travel out into the world to a greater degree once she was "safely" married. The tone and manner precisely follows Shades; this is a continuation, not a break. David and Jane move to Binche, Belgium, to study and work with Bruno Chastain, an old colleague and teacher of David's who has a major studio and school in that town. And the rest of the novel flows out from that: David and Jane are in a new place, and still very new in their marriage, so they are making a thousand little adjustments, to the place and to each other -- and this in an era where women are expected to obey and to be quiet. Jane, of course, does not have the temperament to do that!

There's also that age-old call to the newly-married woman: where are your babies? Jane wants children, but glamour interferes with pregnancy -- she'd have to give up her work for at least nine months, even assuming she could return to it at full strength after the birth...and that's in early-19th-century medical conditions, remember! So she's torn between two desires -- for meaningful work and for a family --  and cannot control either of them entirely. Her relationship with Vincent is mildly stormy -- he's lived entirely on his own for a long time, and has been accustomed to being in charge of all of his own work -- which complicates their working life and makes her reluctant to want to get pregnant. But, in the early 19th century, pregnancy is not something that can be reliably kept away.

And then Napoleon does return from Elba, as he did in our world. His armies whip up the countryside -- it had rebellious holdouts even when David and Jane came to Binche, and more flock to Napoleon's banner on his return -- which puts them all in danger, none more so than David, who is considered to be a spy for the British throne. And Jane must help to rescue David, and so does take a more active role in this book than she did in Shades, where she was mostly a spectator at the big confrontation at the end. It's not quite an action heroine role -- again, the point of glamour is that it is quiet, it is elegant, and it hides things -- but she is brave and resourceful and smart as we knew she could be, and she shows that, even in a socially realistic historical fantasy, a woman can still be the one to save a man.

While Shades was clearly a slightly modified Jane Austen novel -- asking what would happen if there were a different, magical womanly art, and the rest of society was exactly the same? -- Glamour is both more clearly a series book, following from its predecessor, and more firmly in a commercial fantastic genre: our heroes are extending and expanding the scope of their magical arts, which is always exciting and conducive to new plots but leads, before long, to that upward power spiral that most of SFF eventually falls victim to. The spiral is very, very low here, of course. But if Kowal gives us a new novel of the glamourists each year, who knows how far their art could advance?

I doubt, though, that it will come to that. The joys of Shade and Glamour are in the human-level lives of their people, Jane and David above all, and in how they live in their very well-realized world -- their clothes, conversations, physical surroundings, and even attitudes are all very period-specific; they're individual people but also individual Regency people, which isn't true for a lot of historical novels. And even if Kowal spends the next three decades exploring every moment of their married lives and careers together, over the course of the entire 19th century, I'm sure they'll stay as true to themselves, and to each other, as they have been so far.

The Titanic Awards by Doug Lansky

Travel is expensive, complicated, and difficult -- so it's supposed to be sublime and wonderful. But of course things are very rarely what they're "supposed" to be in this world.

And so, in honor of the gap between what is and what should be, travel writer Doug Lansky put together The Titanic Awardsto dishonor the worst people, places, and things in travel -- the worst hotels, cities, airports, cruise lines, passenger behavior, tourists, and just about anything else you can think of. The Awards were given in three ways -- first, some categories were crowd-sourced through a survey taken by over 2000 people from 80 countries; others were from official statistics compiled by industry groups and associations; still others were Lansky's personal choices from years of bad travel experiences; and the last group were other personal reminiscences by other travel writers of the horrible experiences they've had.

So Titanic Awards aims to give a holistic, in-the-round view of bad travel and tourism: airplanes, ground transportation, hotels, food and drinks, destinations, and those pesky fellow tourists. And it succeeds quite well: no one will want to read this book straight through, but it's a lovely schadenfreude-filled voyage of discovery, in which only other people have horrible things happen to them. If you want to know who the worst drivers in the world are, or which major airline has the smallest seats, or which country's tourists are the most rude, or where the world's most crowded swimming pool is, The Titanic Awards is the book for you.

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde hasn't written officially for young readers before -- though the gonzo silliness of the Thursday Next books have certainly attracted some teen readers, and the Nursery Crimes books could have gotten even more, if they'd been more commercially successful. (The Thursday books can be difficult for newer readers simply because they assume their readers are familiar with huge swaths of the literary world, even if just in passing, and it's difficult to get that without a number of years of dedicated reading behind you. See my review of the most recent book, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, for more details or if just easily distracted -- look! Shiny!!!) But Fforde's got the kind of verve and energy that would appeal to younger readers, and, clearly, some editor agreed with me on that, since he got signed up to write a series called "The Chronicles of Kazam," aimed squarely at teenagers.

The first of those books is The Last Dragonslayer, which was published in Fforde's native UK two years ago and comes to American shores next week. (The second book, The Song of the Quarkbeast, hit the UK last year, and a third, The Return of Shandar, will be available there this fall. Those two will presumably make the eastward migration themselves at some point.)

And now I have to backtrack already: the US edition says that it's part of "the Chronicles of Kazam" -- which, to my ear, evokes a bad '90s Shaq vehicle, but maybe that's just me -- but the UK publisher seems to be referring to this as the "Dragonslayer Trilogy," and Fforde's own website just has a Dragonslayer page. But, anyway, there's a series, no matter what you want to call it, and this is the first book.

The heroine of that book is Jennifer Strange, and, if there's one iron rule of fiction, it's that portentous names do need to mean something in the end. But Jennifer isn't all that Strange: sure, she's an orphan -- well, technically a foundling, which means there could be some parents lurking somewhere -- working in indentured servitude at Kazam Mystical Arts Management, one of the finest, and nearly the last remaining, purveyor of magical effects in the Ununited Kingdoms, and the not-exactly-pride of the Kingdom of Hereford. And, yes, she's effectively running Kazam at the tender age of almost-sixteen, because the man she was indentured to, the formerly-Great Zambini, disappeared mysteriously a year before. But magic has been ebbing for several generations, and even the former world-shakers still working for Kazam are now cranky old men and women with unreliable, and frequently minor, powers, facing the possible loss of even the little they have left. So it's more like she's the caretaker and booking agent for a clutch of intermittently useful minor talents than anything more impressive.

The old management adage goes that if you want something done, give it to someone who's already busy, and that's what happens to Jennifer. It starts off simple, as she begins training the new foundling, Horton "Tiger" Prawns, who was just sent over by Mother Zenobia (of the sacred order of the Blessed Lady of the Lobster) to take over some of her work. But then a Magiclysm strikes -- a momentary burst of stronger magic that may be a harbinger of the mysterious Big Magic. And there are rumors that the last dragon, Maltcassion, may soon die in the Dragonlands, which would cancel the ancient magic keeping dragons in and humans out.

And that, on a small and crowded island -- which England is in this secondary world as it is in our own -- would mean an immediate land grab. The sneaky Consolidated Useful Stuff company -- closely tied to King Snodd IV, the ruler of Jennifer's own homeland, and not at all unlike the Goliath Corporation of the Thursday Next books -- quickly makes offer to Jennifer: serious wealth in return for an accurate prediction of the precise moment of Maltcassion's death.

Jennifer finds herself getting deeper and deeper, so she goes to see the current Dragonslayer -- a position formed by the Dragonpact, to keep the peace on the human side, and the only person allowed by the magical barrier into the Dragonlands -- and things only get more complicated when he hands over his duties to her, declares her The Last Dragonslayer, and promptly dies of accelerated old age.

And then things get really complicated: Jennifer is suddenly a celebrity, the center of a brewing war between Hereford and neighboring Brecon over the soon-to-be-empty Dragonlands, under severe pressure from the not-terribly-nice King Snodd IV to make things go his way, and completely personally torn: she doesn't want the last dragon to die. And, even more importantly, she doesn't want to have to kill the last dragon -- but that's what her job now is.

As usual, Fforde throws out details of a complicated, mildly silly world at high speed but in a deeply amusing, immersive way. The Ununited Kingdoms are just as odd as the Colortocracy (of his great novel Shades of Grey) or the socialist Wales of The Eyre Affair or the world of Nursery Crimes -- but equally as believable and humorously real. Fforde has that amazing ability -- most noted in British humorists from Wodehouse to Pratchett -- of declaring the most unlikely, funny things to be true and keeping them both funny and true at the same time in the course of the story.

Last Dragonslayer is aimed at teens, most obviously though its length and size (a bit shorter and less complex than usual for Fforde) and through Jennifer as its heroine. But it's very much the same kind of book as Eyre Affair or Big Over Easy; Fforde is just writing for a slightly different audience, but in the same way he has for the past decade. And his unique knack for deeply interwoven light comedy and serious drama is in full force here: Jennifer's plight is deeply real and true, even as she's worrying about her bizarre unstoppable Quarkbeast or explaining the slapdash rules of wizardly appellations. Fforde is a master at dropping his protagonists directly into the very deepest soup and then seeing how amusingly they can swim their ways out, and the soup Jennifer Strange has to dog-paddle through here is as tasty and full of unexpected meaty lumps as anyone could have asked for.


Salt Water Taffy: Caldera's Revenge, Part 2 by Matthew Loux

Rubber-hose animation will never be dead as long as Matthew Loux is still cartooning (and I hope that will be for a long, long time). His figures have a looping, rubbery energy, defined by utterly precise black lines that always feel quickly dashed off. No matter what stories he's telling, his pictures have a deep energy and verve, as if his figures can only barely be contained by the page.

For the last few years, we've mostly seen Loux with his Salt Water Taffy series for younger readers, telling the adventures of two boys one summer in one of those towns where strange things just keep happening -- in this case, it's Chowder Bay, on the Maine coast. (I reviewed the first two books together, and then the third separately, with the fourth ending up in a stories-about-kids roundup.) Caldera's Revenge! Part 2 is the fifth book in the series and -- as that title hints -- the second part of the story that began in the last book.

It picks up right after the cliffhanger of the first part of Caldera's Revenge -- in which the nasty sperm whale of the title has attacked a boat in which our heroes are riding and hurtled one of them, Jack, into the sea. Jack is rescued, which is good -- but by a ship of two-hundred-year-old ghost whalers chasing Caldera, which is not as good. Most of this fifth volume follows Jack on board that ship, with a secondary plot following his brother, Benny, trying to figure out how to stop Caldera while their friend Angus fixes up the boat to go find Jack.

In the end, they all do something -- ghost pirates, both boys, their lost kid talking-quid friend from the last volume (just trying to get home to his pod, and terrorized by Caldera), and even that big ol' nasty whale -- to fix the situation and get everything back the way it's supposed to be. This volume has more action and adventure than the previous books, though it's not as funny and kid-sized as the others -- that's the trade-off, I suppose. And Loux's art -- I haven't even mentioned his detailed backgrounds; he's got a fantastic range to go with his energy and style -- make every page a joy to look at and a bolt of pure movement. It may well be true that there's nothing better in life than being a kid during summer, and the Salt Water Taffy books evoke that feeling of freedom and possibility like nothing else in the world.

The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis

Writers are not gods. They're not superhuman, they don't completely understand the world any more than the rest of us do, and they can't see the future. But, sometimes, their characters have to be some or all of those things. And that then is one of the toughest tests for a writer of the fantastic: how to believably depict someone vastly smarter, powerful, and knowledgeable than the writer. Of course, the writer starts off with an advantage: the entire fictional world is his to mold and create, but, in the end, those godlike entities (weakly or strongly) have to be godlike, to do and see and know things that the humans in the story don't and in ways that surprise and impress the reader.

Ian Tregillis clearly is not afraid of writing godlike entities: he has a whole race of them (mostly offstage, and almost entirely unknowable) in his "Milkweed Triptych" books, and the central character of that trilogy is a cold, calculating woman named Gretel who can see the future -- more than that, who has seen a near-infinity of possible futures and calibrates her actions and the effects she can cause to steer the entire world to the one future she wants.

Gretel is central to this trilogy, but she's not our main character: she's too much of an enigma, too casually cruel. Besides, she's not where the action is -- she tells people things to get them to act, so the interesting events happen at one remove. The viewpoint characters are three men -- Gretel's brother Klaus, the British spy Raybould Marsh, and William Beauclerk, an aristocrat with a deep and disturbing inheritance.

The first book in the Milkweed Triptych was 2010's Bitter Seeds (see my review; I also put it on my list of favorite books of that year), which told the story of an alternate WWII: one where the Germans had discovered a technique to turn a few people into superhumans (and kill the vast majority of the children they put through the process) and where the British countered with ritual magic, invoking otherdimensional beings called Eidolons who would commit nearly any act of destruction if it reduced the number of living beings in the world. Bitter Seeds told the story of that world's second world war: shorter, bloodier, nastier.

The Milkweed Triptych continues with The Coldest War, which was just published in mid-July. As the title implies, it's set twenty years later, in a 1963 beset by a much icier Cold War than our own world. The Soviets captured the remnants of the Nazi program and systematized it, as Soviets were so good at. And the British have found ways to industrialize their own supernatural resources, as well. The stakes in Bitter Seeds were about which country would dominate the other, but Coldest War raises the possibility that the world may not survive their conflict: remember that those Eidolons would like to do nothing so much as wipe humanity from the face of the world, and every negotiation with them has the chance for a catastrophic error that will let them in for good.

Klaus, Ray, and Will are all twenty years older in Coldest War as well: slower, more battered by life, with fewer resources of their own to make it through. Ray has spiraled down, having left the government long before and being trapped in the sour shards of a marriage by his profoundly damaged now-adult son (though he doesn't know why his son is so damaged, or that someone was responsible). Will seems fine, but has been consumed by secret guilt for his part in the war effort -- he led the magicians that called down the Eidolons, and thus also found them the ever-increasing amount of blood and deaths they needed for their aid -- and has made horrible choices to assuage that guilt. Klaus has been a virtual prisoner of the Soviets for twenty years, stuck with his sister and their few remaining compatriots from the war years in a secret city deep in Russia, helping to train the new generations of superhumans.

The Coldest War is the story of how those three men come together, and how the world comes apart. I'm sorry to say that it's very much the middle book of a trilogy -- primarily because I want to read that not-yet-extant third book right now -- but it's as compelling, chilling, and darkly plausible as Bitter Seeds was. Tregillis has a tough, merciless eye, and takes his premises to their logical conclusions; there's a Chekhov's Gun on the mantelpiece of this trilogy, and he knows that he must use it.

New readers should find Bitter Seeds first, of course, but that's no hardship: those new readers have two excellent, darkly entertaining novels ahead of them. The Milkweed books are in the tradition of Tim Powers's best novels, though with a willingness to bend history to tell a new story. And they may be of interest to readers of Charles Stross's "Laundry Files" novels: Tregillis is deadly serious while Stross is sardonic, but Tregillis's Eidolons are a less baroque version of the Lovecraftian horrors of Stross's world, and the sense of tension and potential danger is not dissimilar. Look: if you like to read smart fantasy, and know enough about WWII to know which country was on which side, you'll enjoy these novels: they're compellingly readable, filled with amazingly real characters, and have awesomely terrifying and impressive moments. Tregillis is already a major fantasy writer with this series he's no longer someone to "watch" or "keep an eye on" -- he's here.

The Book of Human Insects by Osamu Tezuka

Some writers love their characters, and can hardly bear to have anything bad happen to them. Osamu Tezuka, though, is not one of them: particularly in his books for adults, like MW, Ayako, Ode to Kirihito, and Apollo's Song, he creates profoundly damaged -- and damaging -- characters, and then sets them up to bounce off each other like frenzied fighting cocks until he's satisfied.

The Book of Human Insects is another work in that vein, though even more so -- it's main character is a cuckoo of a woman, who "steals' the creative abilities of every person she comes into contact with, doing what they do just a bit better and more impressive and leaving them wrung out and ruined when she moves on. It's from that period in Tezuka's career when he was focusing on comics like this -- it was serialized in Play Comic during 1970 and 71, at roughly the same time as Ode and Apollo. And, to be honest, the people that Toshiko Tomura (or any of her many other names) steals from aren't much better than she is -- they're certainly not innocent, or anything more than slightly better than she is.

Tomura has just won a major literary award with her first book as Human Insects opens -- but, as we come to see, that means it's time for her to move on, since she can only have one great achievement in any field. (Since they're not her achievements, really, except in that she takes them and makes them hers.) Human Insects follows Tomura as she stalks forward into new territory, and we also slowly discover the people -- men, primarily; this is a story from the early '70s and could be read as a curdled take on a certain kind of feminism -- that she's already met, seduced, co-opted, and abandoned already.

A Western story of the same era would probably spend a long time psychologizing about Tomura, explaining why she is the way she is, with references to her childhood traumas and whatnot. Tezuka, coming out of a different tradition, just presents Tomura: we see some hints of her past, and she clearly doesn't have a healthy relationship with that, but there's none of the deadening "now I'll explain everything to you" that an American would have felt compelled to include in 1970. Tomura is nasty and manipulative and utterly self-centered: that's just who she is. And, because that's who she is, she will win, even when faced with men more powerful and seemingly as ruthless as she is.

Human Insects is not the most pleasant read, in common with Tezuka's other books of this era: in a world full of scoundrels and bastards, there is only nastiness and back-stabbing. And Human Instincts doesn't have the supernatural majesty of Ode to Kirihito or the epic family-saga sweep of Ayako (or the pure feral energy of MW), so it's pleasures are at a more human scale, and driven by schadenfreude and bemused head-shaking. These are nasty people doing nasty things, but we recognize them all: Tezuka makes them all very real nasty people, doing exaggerated, large-scale versions of the kind of petty slights we see every day. Human Insects is a misanthropic book, as you'd expect from the title, but not an unconvincing one.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/25

It's a near-certainty that this is a happier Monday for me than it is for you, since I'm on vacation this week. (If you are, too: congratulations! We're like a little club. If not: sucks to be you.) But, like all other Mondays, it contains a "Reviewing the Mail" post, which is one little shaft of light, I suppose.

The following books all arrived in my mail -- generally in discrete packages sitting on my front steps when I got home from work -- having been sent by the functionaries at various publishing companies. They send me these books in hope I'll review them, and get people to buy and love them -- which is kind of the entire point of the publishing enterprise -- so I try to do what I can. But I can't read everything, and I clearly don't love everything (some folks may silently emend that to "anything," but they are even more cynical than I am). What I can do, every single week, is list the books I've just seen, and attempt to present them in the most flattering manner possible. (Sometimes, as when those book contain zombies, that is not flattering at all, but it's still the best possible manner for me.)

So, then, this is what I saw this past week:

Daniel Pinkwater is one of the treasures of modern literature, the author of a long string of great novels for teens and younger kids (The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, the two "Snarkout Boys" books, Fat Men From Space, Borgel, and the sublime Young Adult Novel), one novel for adults called The Afterlife Diet, two excellent books of essays based on his NPR broadcasts, as well as a slew of picture books, many of which he illustrated himself. And he's back with a new novel, Bushman Lives!, which will be a October hardcover from Houghton Mifflin. And, if that doesn't convince you, see my reviews for Pinkwater's recent novels The Neddiad, The Yggyssey, and Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl.

I also have a cluster of books, mostly manga, being published by Yen Press in September:

Kieli: As the Deep Ravine's Wind Howls is the sixth in the light novel series by Yukako Kabei, with illustrations by Shunsuke Taue, and I have to admit that I still don't entirely understand what makes some novels "light." (Is it the illustrations? The fact that it's a manga-like series? The length?) If I remember correctly, Kieli is a sensitive young woman traveling with the ghost of a soldier trapped in a radio and a hunky young man who's a supersoldier or something like that, and they're looking for Plot Tokens across a basically modern but clearly secondary world.

Jack Frost, by Korean creator JinHo Ko, is back for a sixth volume -- I reviewed the first two for ComicMix, if you want more details of the series. It's a dark, violent story for teenage boys -- like so many of the most popular comics of the last half-century, both Eastern and Western.

JinJun Park's Raiders series returns for an 8th volume -- I reviewed the first for Realms of Fantasy back in 2010, but you're out of luck unless you have a copy of the April magazine to leaf through -- which may have diverged greatly from the stories I read at the outset. But, back then, it was a big, bloody supernatural adventure comic that plundered Western mythology indiscriminately (the hero drank some authentic Jesus Blood to become immortal, and there are also related immortal cannibal zombies) in the way that so many Westerners have done to Eastern culture, so I was entirely in favor of its gonzo energy.

My two sons have already tried to steal away Yotsuba&!, Vol. 11, the latest in Kiyohiko Azuma series of low-key stories about a really, really excitable little green-haired girl and all of the interesting things that she learns about the world. (Several years ago, I read the first book and didn't get it -- this might be something that I just don't click with.)

The complicated Higurashi: When They Cry series is back with a very big volume, Massacre Arc, Vol. 1. (Previously, there's been "Abducted by Demons," ""Cotton Drifting," "Curse Killing," "Time Killing," "Beyond Midnight," "Eye Opening," and "Atonement" arcs; "Festival Accompanying" and several side stories are still to come.) Higurashi is based on a series of Japanese games -- actually, they sound more like click-through scenarios, where the action follows a predetermined path -- about murders in a small town in 1983, and the manga seems to follow the storyline of the games pretty closely. (I also think, from the back-cover copy on this volume, that each game is separate, detailing a different version of the events of 1983.)

Until Death Do Us Part, Vol. 2 is also quite massive -- well over 400 pages -- but there's less backstory for this one (written by Hiroshi Takashige with art by an entity known as DOUBLE-S). It's another violent boy's manga story, with a precognitive girl on the run from the shadowy organization that used her abilities for their own ends, and a blind swordsman who she finds and runs away with.

And that's it from Yen for this week.

Philipa Bornikova's This Case Is Gonna Kill Me is the first in a new urban fantasy series, subclass Humanity Ruled by Supernaturals, with vampires, werewolves, and the elven Alfar competing to control everything. Our heroine is a new law school graduate just starting at a vampire law firm -- where partnership might mean never seeing daylight again and living forever -- where of course she's caught up in mysterious and nefarious doings. It's a trade paperback from Tor, hitting stores September 4th.

John Ajvide Lindqvist is the Swedish horror author behind the novel Let the Right One In, which became movies both in his native language and mine. He's also the author of Harbor, a horror novel with a trade paperback edition from Tor this month, about a couple living on an isolated island whoe six-year-old daughter disappears mysteriously one day.

Reaper is the new novel by K.D. McEntire and the sequel to Lightbringer, in which a young woman learned that she was "part of a powerful and ancient family of Repaers" -- and, this time out, she's been inflicted with one of those "you'll die really soon" thingies, and has to figure out her dead mother's secrets and get her Reaper family to accept and heal her so she can move on to the third book in the series. Reaper is a hardcover from Pyr, which hit stores on August 14.

And last for this week is the new paperback edition of Rough Justice: The DC Comics Sketches of Alex Ross, which was designed and edited by Chip Kidd. (Though it's much less obviously designed than some of Kidd's other work; perhaps working with a living artists with ideas about the presentation of his art tempered his approach.) As the title makes clear, it's a lot of sketches and roughs -- pretty tight roughs, though -- and some color work related to the DC universe, which, since this is Alex Ross, means lots and lots of Supermen, some Batmen, lots of obscure and Golden Age characters, and a lot of middle-aged guys squinting out flintily at the reader. It's a Pantheon book, hitting stores on September 11th.

This Weekend's Blogging Has an Unexpected Theme

And that is the mammalian development of the human female, since today was Go Topless Day, a holiday I would have been happy to mention ahead of time if I'd heard of it ahead of time.

I'm sad to see that Go Topless Day is a subsidiary of the mildly loony Raelians (a UFO cult, though one of the nice ones); toplessness is much too important to be left to religious nuts of whatever persuasion. But, hey, everyone's religion started as a disreputable cult off in the hinterlands somewhere, so perhaps I shouldn't judge.

If you celebrated today's holiday, good for you. If not, there's always next year.

Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

Every man is the hero of his own life. [1] And they all are deeper than they look to others -- particularly when those others aren't paying much attention.

I know Rick Steves as an energetic, slightly squeaky-voiced host of a bunch of programs on PBS about traveling in Europe -- your experience may be similar -- and so I'd basically filed him as a modern-day Thomas Cook, most likely of use as a source for tactical tips (what hotels, what sights, and so forth) if I ever had a change to get across the Atlantic.

But I found a copy of Travel as a Political Act -- just less than a year ago, actually, on one of my last book-acquiring trips to the then-dying Borders chain -- which shows Steves in a different light: as a thoughtful, committed, politically and religiously centered man with an interest in making the world better in the ways he cares most about.

He's an interesting mix of devout Lutheran, reasonably hard-headed entrepreneur (he runs the company that produces his books and TV shows), and internationalist liberal, and Political Act is his (polite) manifesto about how international travel, done right, can connect people and cultures and make us all act better towards each other. Each chapter looks at one country or topic: the aftermath of the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia, Europe's social-welfare state apparatus, El Savador and its civil war, highly-taxed and highly-serviced Denmark, two faces of secular Islam in Morocco and Turkey, Europe's managed approach to drug laws, and the account of a trip to Iran.

Political Act is slightly potted -- these are clearly topics Steves has thought about, probably written about, and definitely given talks about many times before -- but it's filled with good photographs, and Steves is honest and good-hearted, which goes a long way. I do suspect he soft-pedals his views in several of these cases (particularly when he talks about Islamic countries, there's a little dance to avoid anything that could possibly offend the most hair-trigger of Israelis), but the man does make his living talking to the public, and he clearly has an interest in keeping that public willing to listen to him.

I agreed with Steves on pretty much all of his major points and a lot of minor ones, so I consider him exceptionally intelligent and insightful on world affairs -- though Political Act, since it was published in 2009, has more than a whiff of a pre-crash mindset -- and he is mild enough that even those who don't agree will find Political Act to be pleasant rather than hectoring. (Though I'm sure hardcore Greens are grinding their teeth at the very idea of this book.) If you actually still want to do good in the world, Political Act will give you some ideas of how you might accomplish that -- either for or against, depending on your tendencies.

[1] Women, on the other hand, are smarter than that, and less likely to be self-blinded.

Shrewsbury Folk Festival

Nu på kvällen och tidiga natten har jag varit på Shrewsbury Folk Festival... framför datorn! Det streamas nämligen därifrån.

Kate Rusby gjorde första framträdandet efter födandet av hennes andra dotter. Lika smakfullt som alltid, med suverän sång och mycket prat mellan låtarna. För att fira 20 år som artist kommer snart en skiva med nytolkningar av 20 låtar, många med gästartister, och vi fick höra en rad finstämda sånger på ren Yorkshire-dialekt.

Sen avslutade Show of Hands med ett framträdande som imponerade stort. Jag höll på att applådera flera gånger och när Steve Knightley och Phil Beer kramade om varann efteråt blev det verkligen känslosamt. Show of Hands har nu också med Miranda Sykes på kontrabas och sång. Steve Knightley sjunger, spelar gitarr och skriver de flesta sångerna. Phil Beer kramar undersköna ljud ut ur alla möjliga och omöjliga sträng-instrument, som en slags brittisk motsvarighet till David Lindley. I kväll hade de några gästartister och även en stråksektion.
Och sina tre utsökta röster i harmonisk sång.

De gjorde otroliga versioner av bland annat "Cruel River" och "Exile (No Going Home)" och när de avslutade med "Cousin Jack" och "Santiago" kom jag i fullständig extas! Nu går jag lycklig till sängs, alla problem och orosmoment är som bortblåsta.

En duo-version av "Exile" från 2011:

I morgon kväll återvänder jag till Shrewsbury. Plainsong med Iain Matthews och Andy Roberts gör en konsert på sin avskedsturné och sen avslutar självaste Richard Thompson.

Ta dig till Shrewsbury du med:
Shrewsbury Folk Festival - där finns länk till den steamade konserten.

The Things You Find When You're Not Looking For Them

This morning I stumbled across the website for The Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Appreciation Society, which is exactly what it sounds like: a group of New Yorkers (mostly young and female, from the pictures) who have been getting together for at least the past two summers to read Hard Case Crime and similarly noirish stuff, usually in Central Park, with their tops off. (There also seems to be a connected series of read-ins on the roof deck of some building, where full nudity is allowed.)

Yes, there are pictures, and many of those pictures will not be safe for work. That seems to be the point of it: it's more "look at us having fun reading and tanning with no shirts on" than "and here's what we thought of these books." I've chosen one tame image to put here, to illustrate the concept. (If anyone from OCTPAS comes by and wants me to remove it, my e-mail is in the right sidebar.) I'm also happy to see the focus is clearly entirely on the fact that they think this is a fun thing to do, and not on wanting people to look at them. (There's plenty of the other on the Internet already, of course.)

I was hoping for book criticism, but tits are pretty darn nice, too. I never want to be someone who complains about tits; that would be sad. But it would be swell if those readers wrote a tad more about what they read, particularly the ones that multiple topless readers enjoyed -- because that could make a completely wonderful back-of-book blurb.

Still, this is an activity that should be encouraged. Well, both of them: reading and public toplessness. Not necessarily together, I suppose, but there is a lovely chocolate-and-peanut-butter piquancy to the combination. The world turns out to be a little more interesting and exciting than I thought it was when I got up this morning.

Stating the Obvious

This story is a week old, but I neglected to mention it when it hit: Amazon declares that Suzanne Collins's "Hunger Games" trilogy is the highest-selling series ever for them in the US.

This does not mean that Collins's books have sold more copies overall than, for example, J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, which was the prior record-holder. And it doesn't mean any of the things implied in Sara Nelson's self-lauding statement at the link.

What it means -- and what everyone who works in publishing already knows, but doesn't usually like to say in public -- is that Amazon is capturing an ever-larger share of the book business, which means that they sell a larger percent of books now than they did ten years ago -- so of course the big sellers now are bigger for Amazon than the big sellers were ten years ago. (Look for a similar statement about those "Fifty Shades of Grey" books in another year, especially if a movie does get made.)

This is good if you think that a single retailer should dominate the entire retail landscape for a particular kind of product. If you don't think that's such a good thing, your mileage may vary.

But what the statement really is saying is "we own the book market now, suckers." So you might as well learn to love Big Brother.

World Fantasy Award Nominees

I am a bad SFnal blogger, since these nominees were announced a good two weeks ago. (Perhaps I delayed because I believe, based on my own WFA judge experience, that the winners in all categories have already been determined, and so most of the nominees are doomed to forlorn hopes.)

Anyway, congratulations to all of the nominees, and good luck to them. I leave the annual exercise of determining which two entries in each category were voted on by the convention membership and which were picked by the judges to fandom assembled.

  • Those Across the River, Christopher Buehlman (Ace)
  • 11/22/63, Stephen King (Scribner; Hodder & Stoughton as 11.22.63)
  • A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin (Bantam; Harper Voyager UK)
  • Osama, Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)
  • Among Others, Jo Walton (Tor)

  • "Near Zennor", Elizabeth Hand (A Book of Horrors)
  • "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong", K.J. Parker (Subterranean Winter 2011)
  • "Alice Through the Plastic Sheet", Robert Shearman (A Book of Horrors)
  • "Rose Street Attractors", Lucius Shepard (Ghosts by Gaslight)
  • Silently and Very Fast, Catherynne M. Valente (WSFA Press; Clarkesworld)

Short Fiction
  • "X for Demetrious", Steve Duffy (Blood and Other Cravings)
  • "Younger Women", Karen Joy Fowler (Subterranean Summer 2011)
  • "The Paper Menagerie", Ken Liu (F&SF 3-4/11)
  • "A Journey of Only Two Paces", Tim Powers (The Bible Repairman and Other Stories)
  • "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees", E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld 4/11)

  • Blood and Other Cravings, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Tor)
  • A Book of Horrors, Stephen Jones, ed. (Jo Fletcher Books)
  • The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, eds. (Harper Voyager US)
  • The Weird, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, eds. (Corvus; Tor, published May 2012)
  • Gutshot, Conrad Williams, ed. (PS Publishing)

  • Bluegrass Symphony, Lisa L. Hannett (Ticonderoga)
  • Two Worlds and In Between, Caitlín R. Kiernan (Subterranean Press)
  • After the Apocalypse, Maureen F. McHugh (Small Beer)
  • Mrs Midnight and Other Stories, Reggie Oliver (Tartarus)
  • The Bible Repairman and Other Stories, Tim Powers (Tachyon)

  • John Coulthart
  • Julie Dillon
  • Jon Foster
  • Kathleen Jennings
  • John Picacio

Special Award Professional
  • John Joseph Adams, for editing - anthology and magazine
  • Jo Fletcher, for editing - Jo Fletcher Books
  • Eric Lane, for publishing in translation - Dedalus books
  • Brett Alexander Savory & Sandra Kasturi, for ChiZine Publications
  • Jeff VanderMeer & S.J. Chambers, for The Steampunk Bible

Special Award Non-Professional
  • Kate Baker, Neil Clarke, Cheryl Morgan & Sean Wallace, for Clarkesworld
  • Cat Rambo, for Fantasy
  • Raymond Russell & Rosalie Parker, for Tartarus Press
  • Charles Tan, for Bibliophile Stalker blog
  • Mark Valentine, for Wormwood

2012 World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Awards

The convention is pleased to announce that the 2012 World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Awards will be presented to Alan Garner and George R.R. Martin.
I note, in closing, that each category has only five nominees, which means either that the judges didn't object too strenuously to the voters' choices, or that the administrators tamped down on any objections. (When you see more than five nominees, that means the judges really liked another work/person in that category, and wouldn't let that choice get overruled by the voters. It's good to be the king.)

Chicken In Every Pot, 2012 Edition

Not only do I entirely agree with the message of the below infographic, I'm frankly stunned at its source: an blog about MBA programs. Dare we hope American business leaders might have realized that chaining people up for long hours doesn't really acomplish anything?

(Clicking should enlarge the image, if it's not large enough to read.)

Dungeon Quest, Book Three by Joe Daly

The Dungeon Quest series, as far as anyone can tell, is not based on any particular paper-RPG campaign -- in fact, the creator, Joe Daly, has said that he's been much more influenced by video game RPGs, and was never a D&D guy.

And that's surprising, since Dungeon Quest has the feeling of a particularly goofy campaign -- to find the pieces of and reconstruct the Atlantean Resonator Guitar, and, as we find out later, to use that to activate the Gogh Verbirator Vortex device to replace the Earth's missing second moon and put the world back to rights -- as played by a bunch of slackers (three men and what I could swear is an NPC female, Nerdgirl, to give the party someone with decent ranged weapons -- she hardly ever speaks, and has no personality to mention) who are deeply fond of smoking weed, insulting each other, and sophomoric philosophizing.

In Book Three, those three men -- Millennium Boy, Steve, and Lash Penis (see what I mean? those are exactly the kind of names a bunch of toked-up friends would think up during a long evening of playing and indulging at any college in the English-speaking world) -- learn the history of Atlantis and the true nature of that quest (the Verbirator and the bringing-stability-to-the-world thing), and then set off to do it. There's then a long prose section, as Millennium Boy reads from The Romish Book of the Dead (a secret ancient text from the Romish people, the heirs to Atlantis) for forty pages or so of silly invented prehistory and anthropology -- this is indulgent and silly, but it fits the laid-back vibe of the series (and the deeply nerdy, and entirely self-invented, pseudo-knowledge of the kind of person it evokes), so there's no way to be annoyed at it.

Eventually the story starts back up, and our heroes get further on their quest -- this time out, they gain another member of the party and have to deal with an ambush (which also results in the kidnapping of Nerdgirl -- it would have been nice for Daly not to have made the only female character a pure plot token, but I suppose that's also authentic for the kind of people he's writing about) along the way. Book Three is substantially longer than the first two books, but less happens here: Millennium Boy and his pals learn the full scope of their quest, but don't get any further into it, so the end looks further away from the end of this book than it did at the beginning.

But Dungeon Quest is so mellow and stoner-joyful that there's nothing to do but go along with it. Unless you bounce off the premise entirely -- and I can see many readers, particularly women and the reflexively anti-druggie, doing that -- it's an entirely amiable, perfectly cromulent wander through well-emulated quest-fantasy tropes, enlivened by cursing, drugs, and just a hint of sex. (Though the sex is mostly the kind that teenage boys have by themselves up in their rooms.)

Gaining, and Losing, Capital

Anyone plugged into US politics has heard the debate about capital-gains tax rates -- currently pegged at 15%, lower than most rates for earned income (particularly for the people actually earning capital gains). Supply-siders claim that capital gains are "double taxation" (as if all monies in markets are not taxed, repeatedly, as they move around and are involved in various transactions) and that lower rates stimulate investments by increasing the potential rewards for such investments.

Those things may well be true. But those same supply-siders are usually also the people who note that taxation tends to depress interest in the things taxed -- if something costs more, people tend to do less of it. This is one of the rationales behind "sin taxes" -- cigarettes have a punitive tax on them in part to discourage smoking.

I haven't seen anyone connect those two things, though.

If we have a tax regime in which capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than earned income, we are systematically providing a disincentive to work and an incentive to passively gain from already having already accumulated wealth.

In a healthy, well-functioning society, though, working would be privileged -- taxes would be organized so as to provide incentives to work rather than to let your money do the working. We are clearly not a healthy, well-functioning society.

The Hollow City by Dan Wells

Dan Wells is making a career out of the non-neurotypical -- and I'm not insulting SFF readers! (For once!) His first trilogy, beginning with I Am Not a Serial Killer (see my review of the three of them) followed a possibly sociopathic young man as he discovered that his impulses to murder and torture could possibly be turned to useful ends.

John Wayne Cleaver had to struggle with his own impulses, and saw unbelievable things, but he could always trust in his own perceptions, no matter what unlikely things he saw. Unfortunately, Michael Shipman -- the first-person narrator of Wells's new novel, The Hollow City -- has it even worse than John did: he's a paranoid schizophrenic, subject to hallucinations and complex fantasies of persecution. And, when the novel opens, he's just woken in a psychiatric hospital after some time spent off his medication -- and possibly out of touch with reality.

The Hollow City is entirely from Shipman's point of view, so Wells has a tricky balancing art: to depict what Shipman sees and feels -- particular in the early pages of Hollow City, when he's been unmedicated for a while and has been grabbed by people he doesn't know -- to keep us identifying with Shipman, and to subtly clue us in about the distinction between what Shipman sees and what is really there. Hollow City was published by Tor, a noted SF/Fantasy imprint, and is by Wells, whose previous books have featured supernatural creatures -- so the reader's genre instincts are to believe Shipman, and to assume that, even if he is a paranoid schizophrenic, that doesn't mean that horrible unlikely creatures aren't also after him.

Hollow City is not a long novel, but it feels longer than it is; it doesn't have a lot of external action, and stays tightly focused on Shipman's is-it-real-or-am-I-crazy concerns. Wells does have Shipman talk about how he hallucinates more before the medication kicks in, but he doesn't directly narrate that very much; not only are we inside Michael Shipman's mind the entire time, but we often get his summaries of what's been going on and how he's relating to the world.

Hollow City is a mostly hermetic novel, stuck in Shipman's head as he's stuck in this psychiatric ward, concerned with the possibly-conflicting goals of getting Shipman "well" and solving the mystery of the truth behind his hallucinations. There are elements of the ending that don't work as well as they could -- the truth behind Shipman's delusions is weird and underwhelming, though Wells gets bonus points for it being completely new and unexpected -- but it would be difficult to get into them without giving away the whole point of the novel: a reader must go into it not being sure what Shipman is hallucinating and what is real. Even with that said, Hollow City is well worth reading: Wells shows again that he has a knack for unreliable narrators and worlds that look just like the real one until the big twist.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/18

Welcome back to Monday one more time -- as usual, Antick Musings celebrates the return of Monday with the traditional "Reviewing the Mail" spectacular. These books arrived in my mailbox over the past seven days, speeded there by publicists at various houses of publishing, all with the hopes that I will review them or otherwise bless them with what little publicity I can muster. I haven't yet read them, so this will not be an actual review, but I can tell you things about these books by looking at them and bending my powerful mind to their emanations in the Oversoul. (Or, alternatively and more prosaically, reading the cover letters.)

Patricia A. McKillip is a fine, inventive, and entirely grown-up writer whom I regularly feel guilty about -- I've only read a few of her books, and I really should read more of them. And I now have another opportunity, because Wonders of the Invisible World will be published by Tachyon as a trade paperback in October. Wonders collects sixteen stories (and one WisCon Guest of Honor speech), mostly from the past decade or so, though one story comes from as far back as 1985 and others are from '90s and early aughts. This looks like the second half of McKillip's short fiction, following up on 2005's Harrowing the Dragon, which collected mostly '80s and '90s work. If these stories are like the rest of McKillip's work, they're classy, smart stories about well-rounded people in interesting fantasy worlds -- and I can't imagine anyone wouldn't want to read those.

My other book to write about this week is Black Bottle by Anthony Huso, the sequel to 2010's The Last Page. It's a fantasy novel set in a secondary world, though there are hints that Black Bottle contains SFnal stuff as well -- Glen Cook's back-cover blurb, for example, compares Huso to Henry Kuttner - -and I suspect it's on the dark side: there's a high king who came back from the dead, and he seems to be one of our viewpoint characters. Black Bottle is a hardcover from Tor, hitting stores on August 21st.