Book Review: Hector and the Search for Happiness by François Lelord
Once upon a time, there was a psychiatrist named Hector, who was very good at his job. But he didn’t feel that he was as good as he needed to be, because he had patients who were unhappy, and he didn’t know how to make them happy. So he did what any sensible person would do, and went on a round the world trip to learn more about happiness.
This is the first novel by M. Lelord, which was a big hit in France, then Europe and then did well enough in the United States to be turned into a movie. It’s spawned two sequels as well. The book is essentially a self-help book written as a children’s story. The language used is simple, and it should be readable even by people who aren’t strong readers, with short chapters.
Hector travels from country to country, meeting up with old friends who now live in those countries, and learning something about happiness in each place. He also spends time “doing the thing that people in love do” with several different women, which is not something I’d put in a children’s book, and I have to wonder if they’d even do it in France.
If you take the book as a series of events designed to introduce different concepts about happiness, it’s mildly amusing and has some good points. However, the language sometimes comes off condescending (perhaps a translation problem?) and there’s a lot of male gaze going on here when the narrator talks about Hector’s interactions with pretty women.
The story plays coy with the reader by not naming countries except China; most of them will still be recognizable from context. They’re mostly seen from Hector’s very privileged viewpoint (sometimes he even admits it). And perhaps one of the inadvertent lessons of the book is “happiness is easier if you’re friends with a powerful crimelord.”
All that said, I can see why this book was a hit with certain audiences. If you like your self-help tips mixed with an actual story, this is one with plenty of interest-holding events. If, however, you react badly to perceived condescension, this book may not be your best choice.
Disclaimer: This book review was sponsored through GoFundMe as an incentive reward.
And now, here’s the trailer for the movie. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWFVAIbIkS4
Comic Book Review: 2000 AD #2020-24 Edited by Tharg
As I’ve mentioned before, 2000 AD is a weekly comic paper with a speculative fiction bent that’s been published in Britain for over forty years. It keeps up the schedule by featuring several short stories in each issue, most of them serialized. A while back I c came into possession of the March 2017 issues, which seems like a good chunk to look over.
“Judge Dredd” has been a headliner in the magazine since the second issue, and stories set in the dystopian future of Mega-City One are in almost every issue. We start with a two-parter titled “Thick Skin” written by T.C. Eglington with art by Boo Cook. Two vid stars have their skin slough off on camera in separate instances. Coincidence? Plague? Terrorist plot? It’s up to lawman Judge Dredd to investigate.
This is followed up by “The Grundy Bunch” by Arthur Wyatt and Tom Foster. A family/cult that worships “Grud and Guns” has taken over one of the few remaining green spots in the city. Despite the topical overtones, the story turns out to be a setup for a terrible pun.
“Get Jerry Sing” is by classic Judge Dredd team John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. The title phrase is a bit of graffiti that’s been appearing all over the city. What it means is a mystery, but pop star Jerry Sing isn’t happy about being a target. This one has a karmic twist ending that brought a dark chuckle from me.
Lastly, there’s the first part of a longer story, “Harvey” by John Wagner and John McCrea. The Day of Chaos and subsequent disasters have left the Judges severely understaffed, and it will be a while before they can train new human ones. So there’s a renewed interest in the robot Judge program, Mechanismo. Previous experiments with the artificial intelligences have proved disastrous, but this time, the Tek-Judges think they’ve cracked the problems with earlier models. Judge Dredd is asked to take on “Judge Harvey” as a trainee, to see if this time robot cops are finally viable.
The “Sinister Dexter” series is about Ramone Dexter and Finnegan Sinister, a pair of gunsharks (hitmen) who live in the city of Downlode. Due to shenanigans involving alternate Earths, the pair have managed to get themselves erased from human and computer memory, and are slowly re-establishing their reputations without the baggage of the past. They’re inspired by the hitmen from Pulp Fiction, but now bear little resemblance to them.
We have three stories in this group by Dan Abnett and Steve Yeowell. First, the robotic security system for their new apartment building decides that Sinister and Dexter are a threat to the tenants. A threat that must be eliminated. The second story is from the point of view of the bartender at their favorite watering hole. He doesn’t remember their previous interactions, but does know there’s something odd about the pair. And finally, there’s a new hitman in town, who calls himself “the Devil.” And his killing skills do seem…supernatural.
I find these characters smarmy and unlikable, but this sort of “not quite as bad guys” protagonist is popular with a segment of the readership.
“Kingmaker” by Ian Edginton and Leigh Gallagher is a newer serial. A fantasy world was having its own problems dealing with a wraith king, when suddenly technologically advanced aliens invaded. An elderly wizard, a dryad, and an orkish warrior riding dragons are beset by alien pursuers. When they finally defeat this batch of invaders by seeming divine intervention, the trio realizes they may already have found the chosen one.
Cyrano de Bergerac is the narrator of “The Order” by Kek-W and John Burns. On his deathbed, the boastful writer tells of his experiences with the title organization, which does battle with beings known as the Wyrm. Time has come unglued due to the latest Wyrm incursion, and a mechanical man from a possible future might or might not be the key to victory. The Wyrm are driven back, but at a cost.
“Kingdom” by Dan Abnett and Richard Elson is set on a future Earth where humanity as we know it has been all but wiped out by giant insects known as Them. The genetically-engineered dog soldier Gene the Hackman has finally found the “Kingdom”, haven of the last humans. Unfortunately, there are dark secrets in this supposed sanctuary, so Gene and his allies must strike even against the Masters.
“Brink” by Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard takes place in the late 21st Century after Earth had to be abandoned due to ecosystem collapse. Bridget Kurtis is an inspector for the Habitat Security Division. After the horrific death of her partner on the last case, Bridget is assigned to investigate mysterious suicides on a new habitat that’s reputed to be haunted…even though it’s still under construction.
The latest installment of “Scarlet Traces”, set in a world where H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds took place is by Ian Edginton & D’Israeli. Humanity’s history has been twisted by access to Martian technology. It’s now 1965, and the Martians are doing something to the sun. It may require allying with the Venusian refugees to thwart them. This is fascinating alternate Earth stuff.
“Cursed: The Fall of Deadworld” by Kek-W & Dave Kendall is set in the backstory of Judge Death, the lawman from an Earth where life is a crime and the penalty is death. Sydney D’eath has put himself in charge, twisting the world to fit his vision of a crime-free paradise. We follow Judge Fairfax, his sentient vehicle Byke, and the orphan Jess as they search for a haven. Doesn’t look good for them, frankly.
There’s also two “Future Shocks”, stand-alone shorts. “The Best Brain in the Galaxy” by Andrew Williamson & Tilen Javornik features a descendant of Horatio Hornblower who will do anything to win a competition to become captain of the most important starship voyage ever. Anything. “Family time” by Rory McConville and Nick Dyer is a parody of a certain Hollywood couple who like adopting children from around the world. Except that this version is adopting orphans from across time. The Child Protective Services are concerned that these children may not be orphans in the usual sense. I liked the first story better.
There’s also the short humor strip “Droid Life” by Cat Sullivan in a couple of issues, depicting life for the robotic staffers of 2000 AD. Plus Tharg’s editorials, and actual letters pages.
2000 AD stories tend to be on the violent side, and sometimes get quite gory. I didn’t see any nudity in these particular issues, but the comic doesn’t shy away from toplessness. Parents of preteens may want to vet these comics before giving them to their kids.
As always, it’s a mixed bag for quality, but the very nature of the magazine means that there’s always something different to look at if the current story displeases, and serials are rotated frequently. worth looking into if you can afford it.
Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946 edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Before Analog (see previous reviews), there was Astounding, the science fiction magazine that led the field for many years. Having gotten a copy of an issue from the pulp days, let’s take a look at what wonders lie within. Despite the cover date, the ads indicate it came out in early December 1945.
The lead and cover story is part one (of two) of “The Fairy Chessmen” by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner working with C.L. Moore.) It is roughly a century into the future, and the world is at war…again. After World War Two, the governments of Eurasia had crumbled, and reformed as the Falangists. They and America are the two superpowers and implacable enemies. Thanks to atom-bomb-proof shields and robot warfare, the war has stalemated for years.
Most Americans live deceptively peaceful lives in scattered communities on the surface, while the warmen toil in vast underground cities whose actual locations are closely guarded secrets. Low Chicago might be below the ruins of Old Chicago, or anywhere in the Midwest. Of course, in such conditions claustrophobia and other mental illnesses are a continuing concern, and it’s up to the Department of Psychometrics to keep the warmen in good mental health.
Which is why it’s concerning that Cameron, the head of the department, has been having hallucinations of eyeball doorknobs and talking clocks. He’s trying to keep it a secret, but his help is desperately needed by the War Department. It seems they have captured a scientific formula from the enemy, one that drives anyone who studies it mad (sometimes giving them strange powers in the process. For example, the levitating man who thinks he’s Muhammad’s corpse.)
There are time travel shenanigans involved, and one character seems determined to produce a specific future. The title comes from “fairy chess”, variants of the strategy game that use changed rules, such as a knight that can only capture backwards, or a 10×10 board. The formula changes the rules of physics, sometimes in mid-equation, and scientifically trained minds crack under the strain.
A nifty throwaway (probably) bit is the existence of “fairylands”, miniature cities with tiny robots that people play with ala the Sims. There’s also an amusing typo when one character claims he’s “half misogynist” when he means “misanthrope.”
Unfortunately, this novel is long out of print, so I have no idea how it ends. The cliffhanger is neat: “The edges of the spoon thickened, curled, spread into cold metallic lips. And kissed him.”
“N Day” by Philip Latham (pen name of R.S. Richardson) concerns an astronomer who discovers the sun is about to go nova. He tells the world, but is dismissed as a crackpot. (Had there been more time, someone would have checked his math and found him correct.) As a result, he finds his spine for the first time in decades.
“Veiled Island” by Emmett McDowell takes place on Venus (the pulp Venus of swamps and jungles.) A three-person anthropological team goes in search of the title island to investigate reports of a new variant of human. Apparently, unlike Earth, Venus just keeps producing new human variants out of the swamps which then climb up the ladder of civilization as they travel to the other side of the planet.
The Earthlings promptly crash-land, losing their clothing and supplies–they themselves have to start from scratch. While struggling to survive, they run into the new variant of humans they were looking for. A variant that seems destined to replace homo sapiens.
The sexism is pretty thick here, the action guy protagonist denigrates his female colleague for wanting to be treated as an equal, calling her a “tomboy” and the type who would have been a suffragette back in the day. (Apparently something like feminism happened in this future, but he’s not too keen on the results.) Over the course of the story, she comes to realize how awesome he is, and they are planning to get married (in the now considered barbaric Twentieth Century fashion) at the end.
The evolutionary science is suspect–emotionlessness is viewed as a huge evolutionary advantage that will allow the new species to outcompete other humans and replace them.
“A Matter of Length” by Ross Rocklynn (pen name of Ross Louis Rocklin) takes place in a far future with galactic travel. A stable mutation has created a new kind of human, the “double-brained” Hypnos, who have the ability to hypnotize ordinary humans. They are not physically distinguishable from other humans, but can be detected by “Sensitives.” Hypnos face severe prejudice, and there’s a war going on between societies that want to exterminate them and those that tolerate them.
All that is background. A Hypno named Joe has been captured by anti-Hypno forces, and was being shipped back to their planet for a show trial and execution when the ship went off-course and landed on a planet where time has gone wonky. There’s a paranoid belief among some of the crew that Joe somehow caused this, or is making them hallucinate this, despite the anti-mind control forcefield surrounding his cell. Eventually, the time wonkiness allows Joe to escape, and he rescues the two people on the ship who are not entirely anti-Hypno.
It turns out that Hypno powers have been vastly exaggerated as propaganda by the anti-Hypno forces; Joe never actually uses his mind control abilities during the course of the story. It’s the holding cell force field that gives him the temporary advantage he needs as it shields him from the time wonkiness for a while. Keitha, the Sensitive woman who tracked him down, is dismayed to learn that she’s next on the extermination list after all the Hypnos have been eliminated (as Sensitives are Hypno/ordinary human crossbreeds.)
Apparently, there are also longevity treatments in this future, as the captain of the anti-Hypno ship holds a grudge against the Hypnos for the death of his daughter nearly a century before, with the war starting later. (It’s a “failure to save” instance–a doctor who was secretly a Hypno couldn’t cure the daughter from a fatal disease, and when his secret was revealed, he was lynched for deliberately killing a human girl.)
“The Plants” by Murray Leinster takes place on a planet with only one form of life. Plants with flowers that follow the sun…or anything unusual that happens. Four men whose spaceship was sabotaged crash-land on the planet. Are they more in danger from the pirates that sabotaged the ship for its precious cargo…or from the plants? A story that has some creepy moments, and could have gone full on horror if the author wanted.
“Fine Feathers” by George O. Smith is the final fiction piece. It’s a science fiction retelling of the fable “The Bird with Borrowed Feathers” usually ascribed to Aesop. A ruthless businessman discovers a way to artificially boost his intelligence by energizing his brain. The process renders the user sterile (somehow) but since he wasn’t interested in having children, Wanniston considers that a small price.
Being superhumanly intelligent gives Wanniston a huge advantage over his fellow Earthmen, and he is soon the most powerful businessman on the planet. But he yearns for more, and when a suicide trap makes it untenable for Wanniston to stay on Earth, he decides to join Galactic civilization, where dwell people who have come to super-intelligence by eons of evolutionary processes. He keeps using the brain energizer, and is soon even more intelligent than the Galactic Ones.
Being logical beings, the Galactic Ones recognize Wan Nes Stan’s (as he now calls himself) superior intellect, and are willing to install him as their leader…as soon as his experience catches up to his intelligence in a few centuries. Wan Nes Stan tries to shortcut the process, only to discover his true limitations and destroy himself.
The story bookends with identical dialogue at the beginning and end, which would be effective if the language in those conversations wasn’t so stilted. It also uses the 10% of your brain gimmick (which admittedly was less debunked back then.)
John W. Campbell’s editorial “–but are we?” is prescient on the subject of nuclear proliferation though thankfully humanity has survived so far.
There are two science fact articles. “Hearing Aid” by George O. Smith is a very short piece on radio proximity fuses. “Electrical Yardsticks” by Earl Welch is about the international standards for the volt, ampere and ohm; how they were decided, and how they are maintained. Lots of math here, and possibly the technology is dated, but likely fascinating reading if you want to know more about electrical engineering.
I liked the Leinster piece best because of the thin line it walks between horror and SF; “The Fairy Chessmen” has some great imagery, but with only part one I can’t judge its full effectiveness.
Overall, an average issue, but well worth looking up for old-time science fiction fans.
Life is tough for Ichiro Inuyashiki. He’s only 58, but looks a good ten years older. His wife and children think he’s a loser (and they’re not entirely wrong,) he gets pushed around by jerks, and now he has cancer. The prognosis is terminal, a few months at most, and he’s not sure anyone will miss him when he’s gone.
The only creature on Earth that seems to appreciate him is his Shiba dog Hanako. And it’s when he’s out walking Hanako in the park that Ichiro’s life takes an unexpected turn. When he wakes up in the wee hours of the morning, Ichiro has missing time, and his aches seem to have disappeared. Little things keep adding up, until Mr. Inuyashiki finally realizes he isn’t human any more.
This seems to be the last straw, until Ichiro sees some juvenile delinquents attacking a homeless man, and for the first time in his life, he can step up to help…
The “aliens accidentally kill an Earthling, and rebuild him (or her) with superpowers” plot device is a long-running one, even being parodied in Osamu Tezuka’s A*Tomcat. The writer is fully aware of this, and references Tezuka’s Astroboy, which A*Tomcat was riffing on. But it’s mixed with the “dying man finds a new purpose in life” plot from Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Ikiru.
The opening scene is the Inuyashiki family moving into the new home that Ichiro has saved up years to be able to buy–which would be a nice place except that it’s literally overshadowed by newer and bigger houses on either side. It’s clear that Ichiro didn’t consult anyone else in the family before making the purchase, and the surprise he wanted to impress them with is a huge disappointment. Still, they could be a teensy more appreciative.
The homeless man later in Volume 1 is almost ridiculously sympathetic. He’s working again, tomorrow he’ll be able to move into a place with a roof, his ex agreed to take him back, he has everything to live for…so naturally now is when the monstrously cruel tweens decide to attack him for funsies. Saving him and finding a way to punish the children without using violence against them makes Ichiro feel alive again. Saving lives makes him feel…human!
Unfortunately, Ichiro wasn’t the only person in the park that night. Teenager Hiro Shishigami was also present, and also rebuilt by the aliens with unusual powers. In Volume 2, he takes center stage for a while, helping one of his friends who’s being bullied–and also murdering an entire family for fun. Hiro only feels alive when he’s killing, and now he can whenever he wants. Ichiro tries to confront the boy, but neither of them recognizes the other, and while Hiro is able to escape, his instant-death power doesn’t work on the older man.
In some ways, Hiro is a very typical teenager. He likes comics, is bad at talking to girls, wants to help his friend, and lets his impulses override his better judgement. The excessive bloodthirst is much less typical.
Not knowing how to track Hiro down, Ichiro explores various ways his abilities can help others.
In the third volume, the gigantic Yakuza thug Samejima becomes the main enemy. A man of enormous appetites, he chooses to kidnap a woman to be his sex slave until his abuses kill her. Through gumption and quick thinking, she temporarily escapes, but that just makes Samejima angry and willing to kill her boyfriend. It’s at this point that Ichiro interferes; but even with his new powers, Samejima’s physical prowess may be too much for him to handle. Plus, of course, making the entire Yakuza his opponents.
The creator’s previous work was Gantz, a long-running SF action series noted for over-the-top violence, gratuitous nudity and disturbing sexual situations. The first volume of this series might fool you into thinking it’s more sedate, but by the third volume we’re back to things like mass eye-gouging and on-page rape. Sensitive readers should exercise caution.
One thing this series has that Gantz initially didn’t is a sympathetic viewpoint character. Mr. Inuyashiki means well from the beginning, even if he doesn’t have the courage or physical skill to back up his convictions. And while his family does come off as pretty awful people, we can understand some of their feelings about the situation.
On the other hand, the “teens are monsters” thing gets tiresome quickly, and in a way it’s a relief when the adult criminals take center stage.
Recommended to fans of Gantz and those who enjoy well-drawn ultraviolence with gratuitous nudity in their science fiction.
In the not so distant future, technologies for human alteration and augmentation have advanced rapidly, so that many people are considered “transhuman” and there are a few that are possibly “post-human.” One of the new developments is Nexus, a “nanodrug” that allows humans to communicate mind-to-mind to some degree.
Kaden Lane and his friends have developed a new variant of Nexus they call Nexus Five. It makes the effects of Nexus permanent and gives the user new capabilities that are near or at superhuman levels. Young and idealistic, they want to help the world with this new technology. Samantha Cataranes and the agents of the Emerging Risks Directorate want to protect humanity from the misuse of new technologies like Nexus Five, even if it means holding back progress by the strongest means available. These two groups, and several more, are on a collision course.
After several horrible incidents (one of which Samantha was a direct survivor of) involving various new human enhancement technologies, the governments of the world decided that people who had passed a certain line were no longer human in the legal sense, and thus had no human rights. In the U.S., the ERD has taken this to an extreme, censoring, imprisoning or even killing as necessary to prevent what they see as harmful alterations to humanity. Of course, to battle criminals with these enhancements, the government agents themselves have to become transhuman, a bitter taste in Samantha’s mind.
Kaden and his friends are caught early on before they can spread Nexus Five beyond their immediate circle, and Kaden is extorted into working for the ERD. It seems there’s this Chinese scientist, Su-Yong Shu, who is violating the international agreements on behalf of her government, and she’s taken an interest in Kaden’s work. The ERD wants Kaden to go to a scientific conference in Thailand to be contacted by her and eventually infiltrate her laboratory. If he doesn’t do what the ERD wants, his friends will be imprisoned incommunicado permanently. Naturally, the agent assigned as his partner is Samantha, the one who busted him. She is against her will dosed with Nexus Five to help in the assignment.
While firmly in the science fiction camp, this book has the structure of a techno-thriller. Every so often, the action is interrupted for “Briefing” sections that fill in some of the future society’s backstory. The technologies have both good points and bad ones–it’s pointed out by a minor character that because many of the enhancements are produced illegally due to the heavy restrictions, safety and side effects aren’t tested as rigorously as they would be if researching the technology was legal.
One of the things I like about this book is that most of the characters are at least trying to do the right thing. The ERD really does good work pursuing criminals who abuse new technologies. Kaden and his friends want to improve everyone’s lives. Su-Yong Shu wants to protect her people, even as her government perverts her work. A scientist-monk wants to invite people to live in harmony. But these goals come into conflict, and there are a few people in the story whose motives are greedy and self-serving, and they force the story on to a violent path.
Kaden and Samantha both grow over the course of the story, Kaden learning to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions (and to think more carefully what those actions should be) while Samantha moves past the pain of her past to find a new way into the future.
Early on, there is a scene where a faulty “sensual enhancement program” turns a consensual encounter into involuntary sexual assault, and one character’s backstory involves rape and sexual abuse. The abuse of mind control technology is a constant theme.
In the author’s note, he discusses the real-life technologies he’s extrapolating from–it’s fascinating stuff.
Recommended for science fiction fans up for discussions of transhumanism and the possibility of post-human people.
Comic Book Review: Jacked written by Eric Kripke, art by John Higgins.
Disclaimer: I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review. No other compensation was offered or requested.
Josh Jaffe is hitting a mid-life crisis. His body is beginning to fall apart, he doesn’t really talk to his wife much any more, and his entire job field was rendered obsolete by new technology, so he’s been unemployed for the last six months. Nothing has turned out like he’d imagined it would as a kid, or even as a teenager. Josh’s dentist brother recommends nootropic supplements, “smart drugs” that supposedly improve cognitive function. Sounds kind of shady, but while surfing the web, Josh finds an ad for “Jacked,” which seems to speak to him.
Josh orders a supply of Jacked, and discovers that the ad was perhaps underselling the product. He can think more clearly (other than the hallucinations), has energy to spare (especially in bed), his aches and pains vanish…and he can pull a car door right off the hinges. Josh’s formerly unimpressed son starts looking up to him again! This is the good stuff.
But then Josh discovers that his next door neighbor Damon is a drug dealer that’s been beating his girlfriend Jessica. The outcome of that encounter puts Josh and Jessica on the wrong(er) side of some very bad people. Worse, the nastier side effects of Jacked start coming to the fore, and what if Josh runs out of the drug before the bad guys run out of bullets? And how will this affect Josh’s wife and child?
Eric Kripke is probably best known as the creator of the popular television series Supernatural. According to the introduction of the collected volume, he had his own mid-life crisis a couple of years ago, and his musings on that led to him proposing this comic book series to Vertigo Comics. He mentions that writing for comic books is a whole different kind of hard than writing for television, and gives much credit to John Higgins for making the script actually work on page.
One of the themes of the story is that Josh doesn’t live in a superhero world, so even though he gets some low-level superpowers, things tend not to work out as they would in a traditional superhero story. Even when he dons a costume, it only makes him look ridiculous. In the end, it’s his human abilities and connections that give Josh the ability to resolve the situation. (We do get cameos by a few classic DC heroes, and a reference to obscure series Electric Warrior.)
This is listed as for “mature readers” and has some nudity, non-graphic sex scenes, a lot of gory violence, body function humor and even more vulgar language than is called for by the plot and setting. I suspect Mr. Kripke may have gone overboard on that last one because of having had to work to TV’s broadcast standards.
One of the features I really liked was that most issues’ last pages were flash-forwards to the next issue that weren’t quite the same as the depiction in that later story. Also, all the points that were important at the climax were properly set up earlier in the series.
Josh does a fair bit of self-absorbed whining at the beginning of the series, and it takes a while for him to get his head out of his own funk. I do like that while Josh and Jessica do team up against the drug gang, it’s all about survival (and revenge on Jessica’s part) with no attraction between them at all. Josh loves his wife, and much of his motivation is being a better husband for her, even if he doesn’t understand the best way to do that.
The main villain is Damon’s brother Ray, who has a rather narrowly defined sense of morality. He takes care of family, but everyone else is fair game.
Recommended for fans of the “ordinary schlub gets superpowers and screws up big time” type of plot.
Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013 Introduction by Lizzy Attree
The Caine Prize is awarded to a short story written by an African author (which primarily means one born in Africa–all the authors in this volume are from Sub-Saharan Africa), published in English in the last five years and submitted for consideration. This volume contains the five stories that were shortlisted for the prize in 2013, plus twelve more written at a workshop sponsored by the Caine Prize.
The collection leads off with the 2013 winner, “Miracle” by Tope Folarin. A group of Nigerian immigrants attend a tent revival in Texas. A great faith healer is scheduled to appear, but will there be a miracle tonight, and what form will it take? I found this to be rather a blah story, but I am not one of the judges for the contest and don’t know what criteria they based the decision on. Nigerians dominate this volume, with four of the five shortlisted stories and several of the workshop ones as well.
Three of the five shortlisted stories have a heavy Africa-America connection, to the point that Chinelo Okparanta’s story is actually titled “America.” A schoolteacher who wishes to join her lover there uses the Gulf oil spill as a wedge to try to convince the immigration people to give her a green card. There’s an interesting ending in which the protagonist remembers hearing a folktale similar to ‘Jack the Giant-Killer” except that it stops short of the “ever after” with no explanation of what happens past a certain point.
The title story, “A Memory This Size” by Elnathan John concerns a man mourning for his brother, who died years ago, and yet he cannot let go.
There are common themes in these stories, most of which are “slice of life” tales: government corruption, marital infidelity and environmental destruction.
There are a couple of stories that move into the “magical realism” camp (that is, fantasy, but not called that so critics can treat it as actual literature.) The better one is “Howl” by Rotimi Babatunde, about a dog named Jack who may or may not have the extraordinary powers the villagers think, but is certainly not a normal dog. “Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile” by Stanley Onjezani Kenani, however, has the best title in this volume. That story is about a fishing village threatened by oil developers, and the sacrifice one man makes to save their way of life.
I also enjoyed “Stuck” by Davina Kawuma, told in a series of emails by a young woman who is tempted to have an affair. One final email changes everything.
My least favorite story was “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist. This tale of a man who returns to Sierra Leone after many years in America, thinking he will be a big man thanks to his money, was too predictable and made me cringe rather than care.
That said, I am glad I took the chance to read this book and learn what some African writers are doing. There are thirteen volumes of Caine Prize stories published; check your inter-library loan system for any one of them.
I should also mention that there is some disturbing subject matter, and would best suited for college age and up.
Comic Book Review: Vertigo CYMK edited by Scott Nybakken
Disclaimer: I received this volume from a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review. No other compensation was offered or requested.
I don’t talk a lot about colorists. In most comics, they’re not noticed unless they really screw up, or there’s a particularly striking image. But they are an essential part of the color comics creation process. It’s the colorist who makes sure that the characters have the same color clothing and hair from panel to panel and page to page. The colorist has to choose appropriate background colors that will complement the foreground without hurting the eyes, and create mood with appropriate shades for the circumstances. It’s a difficult job and one that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
The reason I bring this up is because this anthology comic book is all about color. It’s named after Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/blacK, the four inks used in tiny dots to create all the colors in the “four color” printing process that allowed color to work on cheap newsprint paper. For many years it was used both for the Sunday comics and comic books. The latter are printed on fancier paper now, allowing for more shades and variations, but “four-color” is a history that all comics creators know. This was originally a four-issue series with each color getting a focus.
The Cyan section leads off with “Serial Artist” by Shaun Simon (writer), Tony Akins (artist) and Andrew Dalhouse (colorist.) A struggling musician falls in love with a girl he finds “tagging” a building. When he inherited a funeral parlor, he feels obligated to make a go of that instead. His girlfriend has an idea for bringing in some business…he really should have asked more questions about that building she was putting graffiti on.
Many of the pieces aren’t full stories, but mood pieces or story fragments.
One of my favorites is “Adrift” by Jody Houser (writer) and Nathan Fox (artist who did his own colors.) A bereaved girl has a conversation with her little sister’s “Barbara Jean” doll while they wait for her grandmother’s funeral. The doll’s garish magenta clashes with the gray tones around her in a way that emphasizes she’s not of this world.
The Black section tends towards…well, darker pieces, but a couple of them play against this expectation. “Super Blackout” by Gene Luen Yang (writer) and Sonny Liew (art & colors) is about an app that allows you to erase photos on your smartphone–but that’s not its true purpose. There’s some effective use of app icons to carry the story with a minimum of dialogue.
Each section ends with a story by Fabio Moon, who does all the chores himself. They form a connected narrative about a vase artisan and his friend who lose one gallery and go in search of another. The artisan is able to see this loss as an opportunity and sees hope in the future.
While some of the pieces are weaker than others, it’s a beautiful assortment. I should mention that this is a Vertigo “mature readers” title, so there is some violence and nudity, as well as rough language. There are stories that involve suicide and rape, both off-page. (It doesn’t wallow in it like some other Vertigo series have, however.)
I’d recommend this book especially to art students to see how different colorists work with artists and writers to enhance the stories.
Book Review: Bring Back Yesterday| The Trouble with Tycho by A. Bertram Chandler and Clifford Simak, respectively.
This is another Ace Double, two short novels printed upside down from each other. Very nostalgic.
Bring Back Yesterday stars John Petersen, a merchant ship’s second mate. Or he was, until he decided to have a night of drugs and sex with one of his former passengers in port. The drugs were more potent than advertised, and he wound up missing his ship. Apparently, there is a surplus of starship crewmembers, as the line promptly fires him under their one-strike rule, and he’s blacklisted from any other respectable starship company.
Which leaves Mr. Petersen stranded on Carinthea. His options are few, as there’s no jobs for starship officers on the planet. He can take a menial, minimum wage job, competing with the local unskilled workers; sign up with the Rim Worlds starship line on the lonely frontier and their deathtrap ships; or wait until a ship goes by heading to Earth so he can be deported back to that dying planet. Carinthea has recently left the Federation, so that might be a while.
None of these sound appealing, but Mr. Petersen meets someone who knows a person who’s looking for someone just like him. Steve Vynalek is a private eye who needs a field operative that knows how to operate in space. Why? It seems there’s a retired starship engineer who may have invented precognition and/or time travel, and he’s living on Wenceslaus, Carinthea’s moon, under a spy-ray-proof dome. The government would very much like to know what’s going on, but their regular spies have been stymied by other circumstances.
It’s off to Wenceslaus then, and Mr. Petersen soon becomes aware that someone doesn’t want him to get there, as the shuttle is sabotaged. His space training really comes in handy. From there, it’s dodging death while trying to discover the truth. But the truth may not set him free, but instead condemn him to eternal imprisonment….
This is in the line of hard-boiled detective stories; our hero does relatively little in the way of mental detection, and a lot in the way of engaging in life or death struggles, including against the deadly Post Office. It’s also got more sex than was common for SF in 1961, in that it mentions sex at all–Mr. Petersen gets it on with two women, and is interrupted in the middle of a third tryst. No gory details of that, though.
There are also a number of improbable coincidences, with an actual reason behind them. The science fiction bits make a certain amount of sense in context, and the action scenes are exciting. Most of the female characters are there to be sex objects for Mr. Petersen or secretaries, but we do have Liz, the hard-bitten proprietor of the Spaceman’s Hostel, who has a bit more personality and gumption.
It’s middling-good science fiction.
The Trouble with Tycho takes place on Earth’s moon. Chris Jackson is a prospector who’s not been doing very well, and is in danger of losing his stake. When he runs across Amelia Thompson, a stranded traveler, he learns that she knows the location of valuable salvage. Just one problem–that location is in Tycho Crater, which no one ever escapes alive. Joined by a scientist who has his own reasons for entering Tycho, they start an expedition to certain doom.
This is more of a straight-up adventure story with survival elements. The deadliness of Luna’s environment is played up, and that’s even before the mysterious dangers of Tycho are added in. It turns out that the secret of Tycho is highly implausible, but Mr. Simak does his best to make it all fit together.
Amelia is depicted as being reasonably competent, but undercuts this by emphasizing that she learned her skills from her brother (who should be the one doing this, but got sick) and giving her a “schoolgirl” appearance. And of course, Chris is far more competent. This was a thing in stories of the Twentieth Century; a female character whose useful skills are due to being related to a man who either taught them to her, or allowed her to follow in his footsteps.
The suspense is good. though, as their resources dwindle and their escape options are cut off.
Overall, not the best work by either author, but a fun read if you happen across it.
Book Review: Twin Cities Noir: The Expanded Edition edited by Julie Schaper & Steven Horwitz
Like the previously reviewed USA Noir, this is a collection of grittier crime stories from Akashic Books with a regional focus. In this case, the cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota, and the surrounded metro area, plus one up north in Duluth (“Hi, I’m God” by Steve Thayer; a teenager drowns in Lake Superior…or does he?)
This is the “expanded edition” released in 2013 with three new stories, bringing it to a total of eighteen. The new ones are conveniently all in the front in the “Star of the North” subsection, starting with John Jodzio’s “Someday All of This Will Probably Be Yours” about a speed dating scam gone wrong. The other sections are “Minnesota Nice”, “Uff Da” and “Funeral Hotdish.”
Each of the stories is set in a particular neighborhood, several of which I’m familiar with. One scene takes place less than a block from where I live! This makes it easy for me to picture the action in my mind. This may not be as evocative for non-locals, but will please readers in the Twin Cities area.
Some standouts: “Skyway Sleepless” written and drawn by Tom Kaczynski takes place in Minneapolis’ extensive skyway system. The art uses the rectangular boxes of the skyway to indicate the maze-like architecture of the story, as people are found filling chalk outlines and no memory of how they got there.
“The Brewer’s Son” by Larry Millett is a period piece set in 1892 Saint Paul, and starring his series character, saloonkeeper and amateur detective Shadwell Rafferty, acquaintance of Sherlock Holmes. The title character has been kidnapped, supposedly by the Black Hand, and Mr. Rafferty is called in by the concerned father. This is noir, so expect some darkness.
Mary Logue’s story “Blasted” takes place in upscale Kenwood, as a police officer tells her daughter about a domestic dispute call that was the most frightening experience of her life. The officer is still alive, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t good reason for fear.
The final story is “”Chili Dog” by Chris Everhart. A small time crook stops in downtown Saint Paul for lunch, and things go very wrong for him.
As a crime story anthology, there’s a fair bit of violence, one story features domestic abuse, and there’ mention of suicide.
If you are local to Minnesota, or have lived here in the past, highly recommended. The book’s pretty good if you’re not local, but you might miss some of the nuance. Akashic may have a volume set in your area; check their catalog. If you own the previous version, you might want to save money by going with the e-book, so you can check out the new stories without shelling out the big bucks.