Monday, July 29, 2013

Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures (Harlequin, 2013).

The success of the blog Hyperbole and a Half prompted quite a few writers of modest artistic talent to begin blogging with the sort of illustrations that might not have previously found an audience. Mommy blogger Amber Dusick humbly called her own effort "Crappy Pictures," but she's too harsh on herself, honestly. Having seen what sort of boobs-n-butt garbage gets published by the superhero companies these days, I would much, much rather look at Dusick's "crappy" art than whomever's drawing Catwoman with her ass in the air this month.

Anyway, my wife discovered Dusick at the suggestion of another mommy blogger, and was left breathless with laughter for the better part of three evenings. A story about Crappy Boy narrating a pirate adventure sent her outside for oxygen, and she was hooked for good. When Dusick announced she was finishing up a book version of the blog, my wife knew that she'd buy a copy.

As for me, I don't laugh over Crappy Pictures nearly as much as my wife does, but I laugh all the same. I love her goofball stories and I like the expression and emotion in the silly artwork. The book is not a best-of from the blog; it is more than 70% new stories and artwork, with some classic blog episodes sprinkled around them. (The pirate adventure, sadly, doesn't make it in. You'll have to find that on the web instead.)

I raised two kids, mostly on my own for a good few years, and my wife and I made the bizarre decision to have another one. Some of the anecdotes of the first go-round have become the stuff of legend; Dusick does a terrific and hilarious job reminding us that every family has their own legends. Very entertaining from start to finish, and happily recommended.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Agent to the Stars

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Agent to the Stars (self-published, 1997, reissued by Tor, 2005).

John Scalzi explained that, from his perspective, this was not quite his "first novel," it was an experiment to see whether he could write a novel. Shut my mouth. If ever I write a novel, or attempt to write a novel, I'd pray for something half as effective to emerge. If there's a flaw at all, it's that the moral question at the center of the book is agonized over at very great length, and explained quite repeatedly, as additional parties voice their opinions. It gets a little old.

But before and after that point, this is an extremely clever and successful story. It is a knowing and winking look at the entertainment industry, as a successful agent with an active portfolio of high-maintenance, mid-level actors and artistes is instructed by his boss to dump them and devote his energies to a new project: a benevolent and bizarre alien race has discovered Earth and wants to be introduced to us with a minimum of shock. They need an agent.

Very little in the field of science fiction novels appeals to me, but this pleased me in lots of ways. I really liked the identifiable world and very grounded premise, and I like the way that Scalzi plays fair with the results of this nonsense. As things get sillier and weirder, the story plays true to its origins, and the players don't lose their grounding or act out-of-character as their world gets turned upside down.

Well, our hero's assistant loses her grounding when the alien assigned to hang out on Earth, who ends up possessing the body of a deceased dog, tries to telepathically communicate with an actress who's on life support because she somehow cut off the oxygen to her brain while a film's visual effects unit is making a plaster cast of her face... With calamitous and ridiculous events like that forming part of the narrative, how I could I not happily recommend this?

Monday, July 22, 2013

LSH 1994 Reread, part eight

Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 4 # 86-88 and Legionnaires# 42-45, 1996-97)

Major developments:

*The sorceress Mysa abducts Kinetix, her family, and the four Legionnaires traveling with her, furious that Kinetix failed to retrieve the Emerald Eye of Ekron. After a skirmish, Mysa agrees to restore Zoe's psychokinetic powers and to stop interfering in her life. On Earth, Garth agrees to RJ Brande's suggestion that he serve as interim acting leader. A few issues later, they have a proper election and Invisible Kid takes charge.
*The team takes on three new members to help with their comrades being lost in time. Dyrk Magz of Braal (Magno), Tasmia Mallor of Talok VIII (Umbra), and Princess Jeka Wynzorr of Orando (Sensor), who is a huge snake, are selected.
*A cave-in caused by some of the rejected applicants breaks open a tomb where the sorceror Mordru had been buried.
*Rond Vidar restores Lori to her correct age, and uses the chronal energy from the extraction to very briefly contact the team that is stranded in the past and confirm they are okay...
*In the 20th Century, the stranded Legionnaires (Cos, Saturn Girl, Spark, Brainy, Gates, Ultra Boy, and Apparition, with Shvaughn and Inferno) have been assisting the soon-to-be Justice League and other superheroes from "The Final Night," a very tedious crossover in which the Sun-Eater attacks the planet and it looks like a homeless kid who can turn to iron and is called Ferro is going to sacrifice himself to save the earth, but it actually ends up being Green Lantern Hal Jordan, in one of his funnybook deaths, who dies saving the day.
*Next, most of these heroes show up in a two-part story in the anthology book Showcase '96. While they're away, Jo and Apparition have a team-up with Deadman that ends with Apparition being restored to near-solidity, allowing her to be seen by everybody at last. They also have a team-up with Impulse and Max Mercury that ends with the team being evicted from their temporary headquarters in Metropolis.
*The creative team is as before: Tom McCraw, Tom Peyer, and Roger Stern writing, Lee Moder and Jeffrey Moy as principal artists. Guests Mike Collins and Paul Pelletier each pencil one-third of LSH # 87.

My biggest problem with the stuck-in-the-20th-Century Legion is simply that a huge chunk of their story is happening off-panel. It looks like the editors decided to really incorporate the hell out of the Legion and introduce them to all of DC's readers who had written off the LSH as too convoluted and confusing. So the team starts their exile right in the middle of the big 1996 DC crossover event and from there, they go everywhere. They guest star in everybody's book: Superman, Impulse, Sovereign Seven, you name it. Done right, these crossover appearances shouldn't be important to this book, but these aren't done right. Every issue of LSH either leads into one of these supporting titles, or it references the events from those titles. The only people who could possibly enjoy reading these books are Footnote Fetishists.

Actually, there's another small problem. At the time of the "Final Night" story, all of DC's biggest names were not actually in the Justice League. This was during one of DC's occasional periods where the JLA was staffed with C-listers. But the A-team - Superman, Green Lantern, Batman, the Flash - all show up here, working together, and drawn brilliantly by Lee Moder. About eight months later, Grant Morrison began writing the relaunched JLA starring all the big names. I started following that because I followed Morrison most places then. The stories were terrific, albeit needing a little editing and clarification and less influence from lesser titles, but the art was so bad. A guy named Howard Porter drew it and I loathed it. To see Lee Moder drawing these characters, who mainly just stand around and debate the next battle plan against the Sun-Eater, is to see what could have been. A Morrison-Moder JLA would have been a thing of beauty.

What's happening in the 30th Century is much more interesting, once this subplot of Mysa is finally wrapped. I am so glad that this pointlessly grouchy old lady has left the story and will be leaving Zoe alone. Now back to her original power set and, mostly, costume, she can impact the story and characters on her own, and not via some other person's manipulation.

Other than that - heck, we're down to just three issues - everything is terrific. I like the new take on Projectra a lot, though I remember some people just couldn't stand it. Sensor Girl was amazing in her day, but her day was the mid-1980s. I also like the new take on Shadow Lass, who's incredibly tough and cool even outside of her powers. Well, three out of seven isn't really terrible, but I hope this 20th Century story ends soon...

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Blue Hammer

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Blue Hammer (Alfred A. Knopf, 1976).

Excerpts from a Mad Magazine parody of a Lew Archer novel (unpublished in the periodical):

"I really liked that toothpaste. I'd like to hire you to find it and bring it back."
"Is there anybody else who could have been in this bathroom?"
"My daughter. She's at the university, but why would she have taken my toothpaste? No. She wouldn't."
"You mean she's thought about stealing toothpaste before?"
"She might have done. She hasn't been the same since she slipped in the shower fifteen years ago."
"Who installed the tile?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"The shower tile. Who installed it?"
"Elmo Anderson. He normally does drywall. He vanished ten years ago."
"Your daughter, is she on the drugs?"

* * *

"Kid, I need to know where the toothpaste is. Also what happened to Elmo Anderson and who's supplying you with the drugs."
"Man, it's cosmic. There are birds. There's oil. I'm fragile."
"Oil? What's Elmo Anderson's connection with the oil company?"
"His uncle. He was a retired admiral."

* * *

I found the guy who sold Anderson the grout while walking to the hobo camp. I followed a trail of blood to get there too late. Of course, I found out back on page 22 that the girl who was on the drugs had the toothpaste and I suppose I could have told my client that, but I get paid a hundred dollars a day and figured I could make three days out of this once I tied in twelve or thirteen other unsolved crimes and missing persons cases. Long as I have a client.

This parody was later published as The Blue Hammer, Ross Macdonald's final novel.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Barbecue Crossroads

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Barbecue Crossroads (University of Texas Press, 2013).

There's a bit in this book where Robb Walsh, a Texas-based food writer who took several weeks driving across the southeast in the company of an amazing photographer, O. Rufus Lovett, eating barbecue and talking to chefs and pitmasters and the owners of very old restaurants, describes the sensation of being so aggravated with a clueless book that he threw it across multiple hotel rooms in several cities. Heh. Know the feeling.

140-odd pages into Barbecue Crossroads and I don't know when I've ever enjoyed a book about my hobby so much. Then I got to the chapter about Georgia barbecue. Now, y'all forgive me. It is difficult, in the printed word, to affect a pose of artificial outrage without seeming honestly aggrieved. I read the five pages - five - that Walsh deigned to bestow upon Georgia barbecue and was reminded of Arthur Dent looking up his home planet in the first edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and finding that its editors had granted it a single word: harmless. These five pages break down thusly: three pages about the very good Fresh Air Barbecue, which is between Jackson and Flovilla, half a page making the owner of Purvis Barbecue in Louisville look like a dingbat, and a page and a half singing the praises of parched peanuts. Sprinkled within them, a general dismissal of whatever other unnamed shacks he tried, and of Brunswick stew, which, done right, is simply the finest side dish that smoked pork can hope to have on offer, although he does kind of wish that he could have found a place in Georgia that still makes Brunswick stew with squirrel.

Now, you'll forgive my mixing genuine disagreement that our state was so slighted with wholly artificial outrage, but seriously? My regular Bookshelf readers might not know about it, but my wife and I write a food blog called Marie, Let's Eat!, and, if I do say so myself, we have done a fairly decent job covering barbecue within our immediate travel radius. We lack the funds to spend weeks on the road like Walsh and Lovett and envy their journey, but we do pretty well, and have, in the last three-plus years, visited and written about more than 220 barbecue restaurants, most of which are in Georgia. Even as Walsh claimed to have paced the floors of the house near Lake Lanier where they stayed, frustrated that he could not find a meal he enjoyed, my telephone did not ring. It feels, for all the world, like Walsh allowed his biases to keep him where he expected to find great stories (in Texas, Memphis, and North Carolina), and ushered him through the areas where he expected little to nothing. Speaking as someone who loves to learn and aspires to become ever better in the business of sharing the lives and the careers of people in the world of cooking and serving food, and also as someone who loves to champion the underrated wonder of the barbecue in this great state, this was 95% genuine and honest disappointment that Walsh done us so wrong, and 5% flippant fury that the jackass failed to reach out to somebody in this community's hobbyists and amateurs - if not us, then three or four others I could recommend - and break some bread with 'em before he gave up and took I-85 out of town.

And these five pages stink up the rest of the book so much for me that it's doubly disagreeable, because it's otherwise one hell of a read. There's just a hole in the middle of the book. He done us wrong, so wrong that it wounds the project almost fatally.

And it was doing so well. I acknowledge and greatly appreciate Walsh bringing up some very important points that, as a hobbyist and writer, I need to remember as I gallivant off on my little amateur expeditions. I've long been attempting to acknowledge my ethnocentrist bias, for example. There are little things, but serious things, that we can do as we write our reports and our chapters to not come across as privileged and smug. Just by reading the work of so many other hobbyists, I've become aware that there are language cues that we should all practice in our writing - excising the word "ethnic" in describing dishes or restaurants is a good start - but I was not prepared for the really fascinating chapter in which the dynamic duo visit the impoverished areas of the Mississippi and Arkansas deltas and click away at the poor folk. Walsh takes this opportunity to give a remarkable shotgun blast at Jane and Michael Stern of .

I got as far as this section before I left on my most recent "circumnavigation," a two-day eating tour that I hope to take every eight months or so, during which I try to briefly visit 13-15 businesses, at least half of which have not been covered by other hobbyists or writers. (You can read about this most recent one starting here.) The section, in which Walsh and Lovett visit Craig's Barbecue in DeValls Bluff, Arkansas and find the locals not really interested in communicating with these fancy-pants food tourists, was very much on my mind, a reminder that I need to get to know the people whose stories I'm sharing. The Sterns, who visited this same establishment in 2004 on assignment for Gourmet, wrote it up with all the sensitivity of big-city toffs sharing slideshows of the carny geeks.

At the end of the first day of that tour, I spent about fifteen minutes just talking with two employees of Brooks Barbeque in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. When I got home and resumed the book, I saw that Walsh had also been by. (He also confirmed the name of the current owner as Marvin. The ladies there briefly debated whether his name was Marvin or Melvin, before concluding that it didn't really matter.) Anyway, even though I didn't know, then, that Walsh had visited, I reminded myself that I'm a guest, and a privileged one who uses advertising dollars from a website to fund my trips, and repay my readers with a Twitter check-in from a smartphone letting them know where I am. If I am a guest in somebody's place of business, I should always be respectful, and when I write about my visit, whether I'm visiting a low-income area of Memphis or a Chinese-owned kabob place in Doraville that serves ox penis on a stick, I need to not be that tour bus operator showin' off the "poor" and the "ethnic" to an audience of reasonably upscale suburbanites with a large entertainment budget. Walsh's experiences on the Delta are the strongest reminder of my responsibilities that I have read so far.

The other part of the book that I found tremendously important details the changing realities of the restaurant trade, and how many restaurant owners, cutting costs, have moved away from outdoor pits and into indoor burners, using electricity and gas and maybe just a chip or two of wood to do the job. I have done a very poor job getting these details for our work. I've done all right once in a while. I'm quite happy with the few minutes that I spent with Phil Beaubian at Hickory Pig in Gainesville, Georgia learning about his awesome outdoor pit, where he smokes "with hickory and oxygen," emphasizing the particular route that the heat takes up a U-bend to smoke his pork, and there have been many other instances of enjoying the details and the fine print about how my food was prepared. But I've been hasty and I've been in a hurry before, and I've left places with scattered words and notes and didn't really learn anything. I must try harder.

I've rambled enough. I'm in Walsh's debt for reminding me about elements where I can always improve. Were it not for the black hole in the book's center, I'd call it remarkable and insist that everybody in this hobby needs to read it and learn and work at doing a little better. But honestly, and haughtily, Walsh is also in this hobby and, where Georgia is concerned, he needs to do a little better, too. Very strongly recommended for all us food bloggers, but recommended with an eyebrow raised and maybe a lip silently bit.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

LSH 1994 Reread, part seven

Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 4 # 82-85 and Legionnaires# 39-41, 1996)

Major developments:

*Shrinking Violet has been elected team leader.
*After months of speculation, Tinya is confirmed to be alive. She "hid" inside of Jo's body at the point of her own body's physical death and it has taken all this time to get the strength to leave. She can only be seen by or communicate with Jo or other Bgtzlians like her mother.
*Cos and Imra seem to have started dating. Ayla's secret admirer is outed as Chameleon. She's not pleased.
*The heroes chase down Dr. Regulus, who's escaped captivity. Very weird things start happening. Triad splits into her three bodies, but they're all quite radically different: one is a seven or eight year-old girl and one is a brazen sexpot.
*The weirdness escalates. Cos believes that he is dating Imra, but XS believes that she is dating Cos. Brainy is getting room to work. Gates is thrilled that people are listening to his political rants. Leviathan's heart's desire is to die a hero. He gets his wish, breathtakingly, stopping Regulus and dying of his injuries. We learn why: Violet has discovered the Emerald Eye of Ekron, which is warping her subconscious wishes into reality, and everybody is getting what they want. But even the Eye can't revive the dead...
*The Eye has completely taken over Vi and enslaves the rest of the heroes. Imra breaks free from its control first, and there's a massive explosion as the Eye shunts half the team a thousand years into the past. It still has control over poor Salu, and retreats into space.
*Leviathan is buried with full honors on Shanghalla. Wazzo tries to enlist his parents into her cause to disband the Legion, but she is immediately put in her place by Admiral and Mrs. Allon, who remind her that their son was a soldier, and who died doing what he loved.
*Cos, Saturn Girl, Spark, Brainy, Gates, Ultra Boy, and Apparition arrive in the 20th Century above Metropolis, along with Science Police officer Shvaughn Erin and the Work Force's Inferno, who were present when the Eye was being overwhelmed. The city's Special Crimes Unit tangles with the team until Superman, who met the previous Legion on one of his recent travels in time, arrives to clear up the confusion.
*The creative team is as before: Tom McCraw, Tom Peyer, and Roger Stern writing, Lee Moder and Jeffrey Moy as principal artists. Mike Collins pencilled several pages in LSH # 83.

Argh, every time they pull the Legion out of the 20th Century, somebody pulls them back in. The previous two defied expectations, but this one is setting off all my alarm bells, and with good reason. The nine characters are going to stay in the 20th Century to first join the DC Universe in fighting the Sun-Eater during a weekly crossover called "Final Night," and they'll stay in the contemporary day for at least the next twelve months of issues.

But before that, things are very fast-paced and wild. I really love the way the creators chose to introduce the slightly altered realities from each Legionnaire's P.O.V. as apparent art errors. It looks, for all the world, like Lee Moder just plain forgot who he should be drawing in certain panels, but it all comes together as Violet loses her grip on the "real" reality. This means there's an interesting beat - a pause where we have to question whether Leviathan is really dead. This was a simply huge surprise. Nobody saw this coming.

The whole of the story, as it plays out across several issues, is really entertaining. The writers do a great job in just keeping the action moving. Yes, it's about five issues, but it's not like a five-issue fight scene. So much is going on that it feels epic, and it doesn't feel like the heroes are right to want to help Violet. In time, I believe that she'll be rescued, but for the present, it feels like she is gone, completely absorbed by the Emerald Eye. Reader sympathy is torn between the conventions of the genre - and like of the character - and what we see on the page, which does not suggest that anything of Salu Digby is left. It also leaves me wondering whether the Eye will meet up with the Empress of Venegar anytime soon.

But, sadly, things come to an end, and this story, again, leaves the team scattered. Several heroes have been transported back to the contemporary DC Universe. As it happens, I kind of like this version of DC - it's right on the cusp of Grant Morrison's very entertaining takeover of JLA - but I'm simply not looking forward to seeing what will happen with them next. I'd rather my Legion stay in the future.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Papa (Greentea Publishing, 2013).

A writer named Vera Greentea dropped me a line to let me know about a really entertaining anthology of comics that she has written. It's a 56-page book comprising three grisly and dark stories, each effectively similar to a Tharg's Terror Tale with a very loose theme of a father's decision having unplanned and frightening consequences.

In the case of the first story, "Papa," that might be a little unfair to the dad in question. This episode, illustrated by Joseph Lacroix, sees a famous superhero's body washing up on the shore beneath a beach house. The hero's costumed corpse is found by a little boy whose dad has spent the last three years writing a biography of the superhero. Sadly, all of his research has blinded him to a reality about superheroes: they never die.

Ben Jelter got the fun task of designing and illustrating my favorite of the three tales. "The Princess and the Robot" is an odd, timelost fairy tale that incorporates winking nods to modern life, including a reference to windshield baubles attached by suckers, in a strange land of kings and princesses, royal courtiers, DNA splicing, and giant robots. The script pares the action down to its key points, leaving a lot of the activity in the reader's imagination. Jelter's artwork is just sublime, and the story rushes along to a simple and effective climax, with a final, unbelievably gruesome kick in the pants in the very last panel. This isn't just the best story in the book, it's the best one-off story I've read anywhere in a couple of months.

While I could not embrace "Nightbirds," drawn by Lizzy John, nearly as much, it occupies the right place in the collection and is the longest of the stories. It's a moody and slow-paced tale of a very strange future world, where a handful of survivors of some wild catastrophe - suburban homes are buried under tons of dirt and sand, accessible by chimneys - eke out a sad survival while being preyed upon by huge, human-sized birds. Here, the father's failing is obvious and tragic: he's neglecting his child while trying to prove his theories about the possible angelic origin of these creatures. It's a strange and exotic story that needs all of the pages that it uses to breathe well.

All told, this is a downright fine collection. I enjoyed the chance to meet these four creators and look forward to seeing more work from each of them. Clicking the image above will take you to Greentea's site where you may order Papa and see other comics that she's created. Happily recommended.

A PDF of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your comics or detective fiction featured here, send me an email.