Saturday, January 13, 2018

MY BROTHER'S HUSBAND, manga by gay man about eww-ick homophobia

(trans. Anne Ishii)
Pantheon Books
$24.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Yaichi is a work-at-home suburban dad in contemporary Tokyo; formerly married to Natsuki, father to their young daughter, Kana. Their lives suddenly change with the arrival at their doorstep of a hulking, affable Canadian named Mike Flanagan, who declares himself the widower of Yaichi's estranged gay twin, Ryoji. Mike is on a quest to explore Ryoji's past, and the family reluctantly but dutifully takes him in. What follows is an unprecedented and heartbreaking look at the state of a largely still-closeted Japanese gay culture: how it's been affected by the West, and how the next generation can change the preconceptions about it and prejudices against it.

My Review: In my ongoing quest to retard the ossification of my brain, I made it my business to choose a graphic novel to read. I detest graphic novels. It's hard for me to follow the story, what there is of it, and I am routinely unimpressed by the artwork. I keep trying because there are occasions where the graphic format is the only one that can tell a particular story, and once in a while it's a pleasant discovery to learn that not everything in a given format is as tooth-grindingly annoying as I expect it to be.

The story is one I relate to. I've been Mike Flanagan, the Canadian bear whose dead husband's family he's meeting by his own insistence, in relationships. (Y'all shoulda seen the 24-year-old's father's face when he caught us kissing. And incidentally, Dad's a decade younger than I am, hot, and I would totally trade up.) (Just kidding about that last part, honey!) (It says here.) It's weird to see that experience told from this point of view, that is, the family that's being invaded by strangeness.

Oh my...poor Mike...hugging a straight man in a foreign country...Yaichi shouts at him to let go, of course, and everyone's thoroughly flustered and freaked. Yeah, this'll go well.

But it does, after the two men are joined by Yaichi's daughter Kana. She just wants to know why she never knew she had an uncle, why men can't get married in Japan, how Mike got so hairy...

...everything a kid wants to know, in short, about someone new in her life. Who was the wife, Kana wonders, and when Mike explains that there was no wife but there were two husbands Yaichi goes into a reverie about how he always wondered the same thing only about their sex life...and then Yaichi snaps out of it and reprimands himself for wondering such a crude thing when he wouldn't question a mixed marriage's sex life.

Yaichi's "acceptance" of his identical twin's sexual nature was, in fact, simply refusal to think about it or process it.

Now here's this big gaijin staying in his home, charming his daughter, making his ex-wife laugh and smile when she pays a visit, and generally going out of his way to be sweet and agreeable. Yaichi the orphan, now siblingless, is getting to grips with the cost of his absence of acceptance. By the end of this fat little volume, he's on a major journey into what his brother's husband has done to his future life.

Reading the manga way is weird for Westerners, or at any rate old ones like me. Back to front, right to left...and add in the graphic parts! Well, it was a read outside my comfort zone. The more alert among you will have noticed a favorable star rating atop the review's text. I liked the story of a man's journey from unquestioning homophobia to questioning discomfort through to earnest effort to understand and integrate The Other into his world. I wasn't comfortable with the format and I'm not a bit convinced that the story couldn't have been told another way, but the story itself is a good and timely one for 45's America as well as for Japan at any time.

I most certainly will not buy the book for $25 but checked out of the library it's a well-spent afternoon. I'd say graphically oriented consumers would do well to visit Yaichi, Kana, and Uncle Mike. They are good company and the world they find themselves working to understand and create is one I'd say is very, very important for us all to visit. Who knows, y'all might wanna set a spell.

Friday, January 12, 2018

BAKING WITH KAFKA, cartoons for the intelligent and the bookish


Drawn & Quarterly
$19.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: A best-of collection of literary humour cartoons from the critically-acclaimed Guardian cartoonist

In his inimitable style, British cartoonist Tom Gauld has opened comics to a crossover audience and challenged perceptions of what the medium can be. Noted as a "book-lover's cartoonist," Gauld's weekly strips in The Guardian, Britain's most well-regarded newspaper, stitch together the worlds of literary criticism and pop culture to create brilliantly executed, concise comics. Simultaneously silly and serious, Gauld adds an undeniable lightness to traditionally highbrow themes. From sarcastic panels about the health hazards of being a best-selling writer to a list of magical items for fantasy writers (such as the Amulet of Attraction, which summons mainstream acceptance, Hollywood money, and fresh coffee), Gauld's cartoons are timely and droll—his trademark British humour, impeccable timing, and distinctive visual style sets him apart from the rest.

Lauded both for his frequent contributions to New Scientist, The Guardian and The New York Times, and his Eisner-nominated graphic novels, Tom Gauld is one of the most celebrated cartoonists working today. In Baking with Kafka, he proves this with one witty, sly, ridiculous comic after another.

My Review: You already know who Tom Gauld is, since I reviewed his earlier works this past Booksgiving. I expect you knew beforehand, since you're reading my blog. I love Tom Gauld's work largely because it's so witty and so sly. I am his fanboy for life because he's got no truck with dumbing down his humor. That's so rare in this life, and it always was. Why do you think Hollywood versions of novels were always excoriated for grafting happy endings onto stories? Mass entertainment is always bland. So let's revel in the counterculture's High Priest of Snark!

You're welcome. Now go buy one.

Monday, January 8, 2018


(River of Teeth #2) Publishing
$3.99 eBook platforms, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A few months ago, Winslow Houndstooth put together the damnedest crew of outlaws, assassins, cons, and saboteurs on either side of the Harriet for a history-changing caper. Together they conspired to blow the damn that choked the Mississippi and funnel the hordes of feral hippos contained within downriver, to finally give America back its greatest waterway.

Songs are sung of their exploits, many with a haunting refrain: "And not a soul escaped alive."

In the aftermath of the Harriet catastrophe, that crew has scattered to the winds. Some hunt the missing lovers they refuse to believe have died. Others band together to protect a precious infant and a peaceful future. All of them struggle with who they've become after a long life of theft, murder, deception, and general disinterest in the strictures of the law.

My Review: This quote about sums up the basic operating principle of this follow-up to River of Teeth:
"Alone and lonely ain’t the same thing at all," Hero said, shaking their head.
At the end of River of Teeth, the dramatis personae are forcibly scattered when the pardon me, operation...reaches a satisfying if not successful conclusion. I say "not successful" because Winslow Houndstooth's carefully planned...operation, all perfectly aboveboard, not a caper at all...for the elimination of feral hippos (HIPPOS!!!) from a section of the Mighty Mississippi goes quite wrong and ends up making the feral-hippos problem more widespread.

The opposite of good.

But more to the point of our story here, Winslow's dearly beloved Hero the non-binary munitions and poisons expert, is separated from him. Archie the fat Frenchwoman, Houndstooth's longtime friend and co-caperer, loses contact with Gran the U.S. Marshal that's hunting vanished Adelia the assassin and traitor to their caper...operation...whose interference separates the scooby-group into two pairs. And so our story begins.

It's safe to say that the actual search of the two pairs of conspirators for each other is not the point of the book. It is far more the case that the emotions of the separated lovers are the point. Archie is pining for her big, beautiful lawman, despite the fact that she's a confidence trickster who's given zero apparent thought to how that's going to play out. Houndstooth, her longtime friend, unravels into obsession with his vanished Hero and makes the world around himself into the projection screen of his misery. He tests his friend Archie to and past the breaking point with his rage at the injustice of Hero's disappearance. He takes exactly no notice of Archie's pain in her separation from Gran the lawman.

Adelia and Hero, the second pair of caperers, are left thinking Archie and Houndstooth are dead. They're also the subject of a plot by an unknown bigwig baddie to force assassin Adelia into a murderous plot despite her determination to remain retired from death-dealing. Hero refuses even to think about their beloved Houndstooth, dead in the by-blow of feral hippo killing blasts. They help Adelia with her new baby. They recover from non-fatal but very serious wounds that were dealt them by the aforesaid Adelia. And, all else aside, they stay with Adelia to execute the final stage of the failed caper. Mostly because they need something to do, some action to take in order not to remain still and therefore finally face up to their grief at Houndstooth's loss.

And the spoilery bits are now open.

All is resolved. The unhappy separations are ended. The reveal of the big baddie's identity is quite quickly over and done, along with a condign fate for the rotten asshole. The problem that ignited the entire series...feral hippos in the Mississippi...isn't remotely touched by the plot's hurried and incomplete resolution.

I remain unhappy at the Civil War's insignificance. I'm not going to get happier about it, and I'm not going to get a more completely fleshed out backstory either.


It's $3.99 and it's fun and it's got such promise as a writer's declaration of imagination. Give it a whirl.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

RIVER OF TEETH, implausible, delightful, engaging and entertaining

(River of Teeth #1)
$3.99 eBook platforms, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.

Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.

This was a terrible plan.

Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.

My Review: Okay, there's this little-known weirdness about the Congress actually considering the importation of hippos for real in the early 20th century...see my four-year-old review of the Kindle Single for my take on that...but it went nowhere, thankfully.

Also thankfully Sarah Gailey got wind of this deliciously loopy piece of fucked-up thinking. This novella is a terrific playful use of reality's undercooked braining. I can't be any more pleased about that.

I could be a bit more pleased about the novella. No. WINKING! Not at all, not ever, not even the three times in this book. *ahem*

But the main source of my discontent is the slightness of the characterization of Winslow, our "British"-or-maybe-not hero. He's very intriguing which is the source of my mild disgruntlement. Just as we're getting to know him, *whiz* offstage he goes with Archie the stout and stout-hearted confidence trickster...and just as *she* is getting interesting, what with her tendresse for U.S. Marshal Gran! Who barely registers before his search for the evil Adelia fails and he has to get our non-binary fascinator Hero to medical help... I making myself clear? There is a LOT going on in these pages, all of it fun, much of it necessary, and some of it far too glossed over. More room for Mama's goodness, please. Yes, there's a sequel and I will be reading it soonest, but this is literary coitus interruptus.

I was delighted by the comeuppance delivered to the very appropriate party at the end; I was hugely relieved that the author provided us with a timeline at the end of the book; but really, there's only one thing that I can't explain away or make better with rationalizations: Handwaving away the Civil War. This wasn't a fixable slip-up. The fact is that hippos in the Civil War would've changed things drastically given the location of the Harriet (our lawless, feral hippo-infested stretch of Mississippi marsh). Its construction in Louisiana would've made the economy of the state radically different; its slave or free labor demands would've changed the military calculus of the region in extremely significant ways.

So I'll accept a gayish hero, I'll go along with a non-binary person passing unchallenged, yup yup okey dokey mm hmm, but not the unchanged Civil War. That by itself would've cost a less gung-ho gonzo nuts author with a blah little idea all but one star. You, Sarah Gailey, disappointed me where a less talented writer would've made me snort derisively, roll my eyes, and Pearl Rule this bad boy. You're capable of better thinking than this elision of a central fact of US history.


Sunday, December 31, 2017

THE BAD-ASS LIBRARIANS OF TIMBUKTU, an adventure story about books and the people who love them


Simon & Schuster
$26 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.

In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.

In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.

Over the past twenty years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara’s heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali’s—and the world’s—literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city’s manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants’ march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism.


My Review: A journalistic telling of a summer-blockbuster level tale...not that that's a bad thing!

What's most exciting in the book is the interaction of Al Qaeda and the resistance. What's least exciting about the whole story is the fact that we need to be told about the awful and hideous actions of the hate-filled anti-intellectuals who are, even as we speak, eviscerating an entire world's millennium of progress so their imaginary friend won't be mad at them.

And then there are the angry anti-intellectual greedy motherfuckers running the US government as an ATM for the world's wealthiest people.

And that, my dears, is 2017 in a nutshell. Books threaten these scumbags. They have to eliminate them somehow, and here in the US they've chosen the modern path of making them irrelevant, while in the old-school climes of Africa they physically destroy them. Same result. The forces of rage are out to stupidify the globe and it looks depressingly like they're succeeding.

But there are people like the brilliant, beautiful-souled Mr. Haidara. There are nooks in cyberspace where learning and passion for words still matter. There will always be a way to prevent the final night from falling.

It's more urgent than ever to remember that #READINGisResistance!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Happy Yule, my friends!

The Solstice is upon us, the longest night of the Solar year. I'll be off, as in not posting, until a few reviews come out late next week. Today at 11:30am Eastern Standard Time, the day will begin its journey to night. This is the moment during the year that cultures more closely attuned to the seasons than Western cultures are have used to celebrate the brightness that begins its inexorable return to the Northern Hemisphere. Traditionally a toast offered at Yuletide is, "All the Yule blessings rain on {your friend's name here}!" This year, the Solstice coincides with a rare astrological alignment of the Sun and Jupiter in Capricorn.

For the astrologically illiterate, that means "whoa Nelly, this gonna be one really bad motherin' day." That toast would just rain hellfire on your friend this year, so don't use it!

I hesitate even to type much worse could it be than the other 350-plus days of 45's totally illegitimate presidency?

What a year this was. What a difficult and complicated year! An illegitimate government based on fraud, lies, and misrepresentation. The worst sort of people, an actual kakistocracy, blatantly colluded with a foreign power for the first time in US history. They wrenched control of our country away from We The People on the 8th of November 2016. One full cycle of the Sun later, the horrors are unraveling but not fast enough, not soon enough, for the most vulnerable among us.

The "laws" passed by the Gross Old Pedophile Party's "lawmakers" are, as they themselves have proved by attacking Obama's very modestly progressive legislative legacy, susceptible to repeal and replacement. It's what they used voter suppression and Russian hackers to achieve, after all, a spurious and invalid "majority" to invalidate, erase the best true Republican president of modern times.

The one solid, reliable joy in this dark night of our national soul has been reading good books. It's a tough world out there. #ReadingIsResistance, my year-long scream of outrage at 45 and his cronies, has kept me from curling up and giving up and resigning from life. They can't colonize my mind if I stuff it full of ideas I want to support, believe in, guide myself by. This is their worst nightmare: The quiet small-time resister with a big mouth and an agenda.

I want everyone to resist the continuing drumbeat of stupidity battering each of us as media outlets report the inane and idiotic blather of the kakistocracy to us. Listen to what these idiots are saying, and in public no less, thinking that the US populace is less a body politic than a hoi polloi, a rabble to be roused then doused with the piss they've trickled down on us.

Here's my one and only positive idea for this Yule, this season of renewal and revival: Raise a glass and toast, "All the Yule blessings rain on you, {insert 45's horrible name here}!" Then so mote it be.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

PINEAPPLE, a comic novel about the end of civilization told in verse...wait! Come back! It's good!


Sagging Meniscus Press
$22 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Welcome to Los Alamos, where the big-brained boys and girls are at it again. But atoms have turned passé: now it's the Higgs boson, which they are using to develop a clean, efficient weapon of mini-destruction, mysteriously dropping bodies into junior black holes within a fifty mile radius. Moreover, they're accomplishing this perfidy in comic rhyming quatrains. Can an intrepid group of six amateur do-gooders resolve the mystery and prevent the unleashing of this new WMD?


My Review
: But anyone who's ever had a chance to hear my mouth on the subject of poetry knows that the best a friend who commits versification can hope for is silence from my general direction. It's better than what I'm likely to say, I assure you.

The sharp-eyed among y'all will note that this is a review, and carries a star rating, and isn't a bad rating at all. What gives? Well gather round, kiddies, and let Uncle Daddy tell you a little tale.

Waaaaaay back in the Mists of Time, I was a literary agent. A manuscript sailed over the transom one day, a humorous and bitter comedic romp about the North American Executive council of witches and their attempts to come to grips with a very, very bad madre of a witch in Florida (where else?) who was upsetting the cosmic balance in a big, nasty way. I was hooked. This was a decade before the paranormal book boom and I was sure the sheer verve and delight of the novel could ignite a movement.

Publishers disagreed.

It was Joe Taylor's manuscript that I couldn't, to my eternal chagrin, sell. But never mind, Joe was publishing good books via Livingston Press! Maybe I could, you know, movies or...but no. Sad to say, nothing ever eventuated except my snarky correspondence with Joe and a number of laugh-out-loud funny phone calls over the years.

So one fine day not so long ago, I got a missive from Joe telling me about this wizard idea he had for a comic novel about quantum mechanics (he's prone to saying things like that, I wasn't especially worried) where the End of the World was going to be brought about. Uh-huh, sounds cool, I said. Then Joe said IT: "I'm going to write it in rhyming quatrains."

"Are you out of your MIND? Joe, do you not WANT people to read your stuff?!" I shouted at my computer screen as I typed those very words.

Having heard the identical sentiments from me before about his dialect novel Oldcat and Ms. Puss, Joe tinkled a merry laugh and went about committing versification concerning quantum physics and the End of the World.

It's a darn good thing he doesn't listen to me. This is a comic novel of sharp, biting wit. This is poetry *about* something, not just its own pit-sniffin' self. This is what Daniel Defoe would be doing were his rotting zombie corpse to get access to a PC and a blogging platform.

It's impossible to quote poetry in a review. Well, damn near. And narrative poetry? Fuggeddaboudit.
It was a dark and bleary night. Which means,
I s'pose, Ol' Sol done gave it a rest.
Dave's dad, bandanna in teeth, was last Sol'd seen.
Now Ms. Moon watches two Hansons, a harsher test.

Do you think, by the way, sun and moon
communicate? Morse code? Telepathy?
Ah, but I promised no spiritual loony tune.
Still, it'd be nice to think they share empathy.
Nice layers of humor in there, doncha think? Suns and sons and moons and loonys...Joe knows how to make a word nerd grin, always has, and bless his cotton socks for it.

Will this book light everyone's fire? Nope. Will it light yours? If you're reading my blog, chances are it will. *I* liked a book of poetry! Even Joe was gobsmacked about that. Go on, be a devil, try out a small indie press's big indie author's seriously weird novel-in-verse. Hey, even if you hate it, you're gonna score big on the cooler-than-thou meter (see what I did there? haw) just having it on the coffee table.