Charlotte Gill is the new writer-in-residence for our town. Her most recent book is about tree-planting, but it had 147-ish holds in our system so I got her older book of short stories, Ladykiller, to familiarize myself with her work. I liked it a lot. The stories tended to be about affairs between people who didn’t really like themselves a whole lot. Which is to say they weren’t upbeat adventure stories. But they captured these characters well.
Cyberabad Days is a collection of short stories set in the world of Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. That world is a 21st century where India has fragmented into mini-states banning or making huge amounts of money on aeais and genetic engineering and drought (and cricket).
The collection is good for getting into the details of how some of the weirder aspects of the world worked than you can really get into in the middle of a novel. Setting up other characters who are marrying aeais while the Water War happens is a great way to make the world feel deeper. The final story in the book is about one of the hugely-long-lived Brahmin gengineered children and it’s the only story that really moves the world past the big events that happen in the novel. I think it was my favourite story because of that, though “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” was te kind of complete little tale that I enjoy.
If you wanted to see if you’d like River of Gods (which is a pretty big fat book) you wouldn’t do too badly to read one or two of these stories, but don’t read “Vishnu and the Circus of Cats” because that will kind of mess up a lot of reveals from the novel. And for the record, my favourite Ian McDonald book is still Desolation Road.
Sardine in Outer Space is a science fictional story written by Emmanuel Guibert and drawn by Joann Sfar that’s much more goofball than y’know, serious speculation, but is also a tonne of fun. Sardine is a little girl who travels around in space with her pirate uncle Captain Yellowshoulder as they fight the terrible villain Supermuscleman in a collection of short episodes.
There’s lots of travel to one-note worlds where they deal with aliens and the stakes are always very high, loads of traps and clever escapes. It’s exactly the kind of thing I wished I’d had to read as a kid, like Spaceman Spiff adventures, but packed into a book. It’s translated from the French by Sahsa Watson but feels very natural in its voice.
Joann Sfar is of course responsible for the grownup comic The Rabbi’s Cat, but also for the kids comics Little Vampire and Dungeon which I also recommend. Sardine is much more madcap and targeting younger readers than the Dungeon series.
Athos in America is a book of short stories by Jason (featuring his trademark anthropomorphic animals, naturally). There’s “The Brain That Wouldn’t Virginia Woolf” a science fictional story of a man and the head of his wife he’s keeping alive and trying to find a body for, “So Long, Mary Ann” a story of a prison escapee, “A Cat From Heaven” a reflexive story about Jason himself being a huge asshole to everyone, “The Smiling Horse” a noirish story of kidnapping and revenge and the titular story of Athos the musketeer hanging out in a bar talking up his exploits in the U.S.
My favourite story though was “Tom Waits on the Moon.” Each page has a character talking to him or herself for four panels, asking a lot of questions, doing a lot of self-doubting, and all coming together in the last page. It just worked really well (despite its lack of Tom Waits as a character).
Sleepwalk and Other Stories is a collection of Adrian Tomine stories. Tomine writes and draws realistic fiction short stories, kind of old-fashioned like Raymond Carver. I really liked these stories. There was one about twin daughters going to a comic-con with their dad which I really liked. They were all quite restrained (even the story about a guy getting curb-stomped ends before the worst of the violence) and made you feel lonely. Very good stuff.
Ax is an anthology of alternative manga stories. I don’t really read enough manga, so I figure anthologies are a good way to help me find new things. There were a bunch of stories I didn’t like, because they were too crudely drawn or too much florid art/language (which might have been better in Japanese). But there were a few I did like.
Love’s Bride by Yoshihiro Tatsumi: A guy gets possessive about a girl he knows so she tells him to fuck off and he goes to the zoo and falls in love with an ape who truly understands him. I’ve read a bunch of Yoshihiro Tatsumi books before so maybe it’s just familiarity with his straightforward style, but the story was well-done.
Conch of the Sky by Imiri Sakabashira: This one was way more metaphorical and weird, with squids crawling into the sick guy’s futon and then going off on a chase through the dark. The narration and the sinuous but not overdone art really sold it for me. It felt like a fever dream. In a good way.
A Broken Soul by Nishioka Brosis: The art in this story was what I really liked. It felt kind of cubist as the main character discovered his soul was broken.
Enrique Kobayahsi’s Eldorado by Toranusuke Shimada: This is the story of an Eldorado motorcycle found in an uncle’s garage. Toranusuke Shimada draws in a style reminiscent of Joe Sacco and tells the history of these Brazilian motorcycle manufacturers who turned out to have gotten their skills from Nazis. This one probably felt the least like what I think of as manga of the book.
Stephen Baxter’s Last and First Contacts is a collection of short stories that to me, have the common theme of scale. There are stories about dark matter ripping the universe apart, and about alien consciousness that is propagated by gravity waves, and story after story of life continuing without people, or with radically changed people. It was a collection of big stories and I liked that.
Strangely, the first story in the book, and the only new story, is the smallest scale, about an amateur German astronomer working on Von Braun’s rockets. I also really liked the pulpy alternate history exploration story about a world where the Pacific was uncrossable, not because of storms, but distance-wise. On a Nazi air-city they fly the distance from the Earth to the Moon over the ocean but never get to the Americas because of a fold in space that hides remnants of the past, mammoths and Neanderthals and dinosaurs. It was very neat.
A Good Fall is a collection of short stories by Ha Jin. They’re set in America (many of them in Flushing, New York) and are about Chinese immigrants. Most of the stories are at least a little bit funny, playing on impossible situations the characters are put into, like helping to hide a former mentor who’s come to the U.S. to defect but ends up as an undocumented worker. Or the husband whose mother comes to visit on a 6-month visa and tries to wreck his marriage because the wife is at school and doesn’t cook and clean for him “like a wife should.”
I love how Ha Jin writes so simply and clearly. You always understand the chain of logic protagonists are following even if you completely disagree. They’re very interesting little stories. Highly recommended.
Metal is the fifth volume of Brian Wood’s excellent Northlanders series. As per usual, it’s got multiple stories in the book, each one with a different illustrator. I wasn’t such a huge fan of the story about the merchant captain who took his boat on a voyage of exploration instead of trade. I mean, it wasn’t bad or anything; it just didn’t grab me the way the big story, Metal, did.
Metal was about a crappy blacksmith who’s chosen by one of the old gods (while he’s tripping out on hallucinogens) to stop his village from bowing down and letting the Christians have their way with them just because they’ve got sacks of money. He rescues a woman the Christians are holding and then burns everything down. The two of them head off like an ancient day Bonnie and Clyde. They’re pursued by a hired sword who takes his job very seriously, and it’s violently excellent.
One thing I love about this series is how it is not tied to any sort of chronology. There are hundreds of years separating different stories, but they’re all Viking tales. It also means they’re easy books to recommend since you don’t need to read them in any really specific order.
The Whisper of Madness is a collection of short Lovecraftian comics. And when I say short I mean 6-10 pages apiece. There are mad people, cultists, murder. One very short story is about a baseball team with a curse. There’s a cruise-line brochure showing all the Cthulhu-worshipping things that will happen underlying the generic text. A young woman sacrifices her roommate to become a Cthulhu high priestess after complaining about how the college wicca scene had failed her.
They were mostly kind of meh and didn’t really have the space to set up a good creepy mood. I wouldn’t recommend it.
The best story was Steve Niles and Shane Oakley’s The Hiding Place, which had a really cool angular black and white aesthetic, and was the story of a detective and his nemesis who’d hanged himself, leaving one last message behind.