Book Log: Mr Bingo – Hate Mail: the Definitive Collection

I had far too much fun backing random “that looks interesting/amusing” publishing projects on Kickstarter a few months ago, and the fruits are now falling into my letterbox. Yesterday’s was this:

Hilariously obscene collection of Mr Bingo’s favourites from his Hate Mail project – pay good money to a professional artist to have him draw a lovingly rendered insult on the back of an item from his collection of vintage postcards, and post it to you. Having done nearly a thousand of these, he then launched a Kickstarter to publish his favourites as a high quality art book. Whether or not you enjoy the contents depends very much on your sense of humour, but if it is your sort of thing, here it is in a physical object that’s a work of art in itself. It’s printed on heavy art paper, Smyth-sewn, clothbound casing, and tastefully stamped in gold foil with the title on the spine and a line drawing on the front cover reflecting the contents. That line drawing being of an octopus putting two fingers up at the world with all eight legs…

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book log 2015: 6) Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett — Good Omens

Usually I make a note when I happen to know the author (or in this case, one of the authors). It doesn’t normally affect my review much, but in this case — I last read this book before Terry went public about The Embuggerance. That’s coloured my recent re-read, putting an edge on the humour that wasn’t there last time round. Nevertheless…

This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and yes, that includes Terry’s other output. The Bible is true on a literal level, the Antichrist has just been born and Armageddon is coming, and a somewhat shopsoiled angel and demon would really rather it didn’t, thank you very much. Aziraphale and Crowley have spent the last six thousand years doing their jobs on Earth, after that unfortunate incident in the Garden of Eden, and in the manner of undercover agents everywhere, have discovered that they have more in common with each other than their masters. They like humans, and they like the human lifestyle. They don’t at all like the idea of returning whence they came. And so they decide to do something about it.

All of which was predicted by Agnes Nutter, Witch, who left a set of prophecies for her descendents. Very, very accurate prophecies written by someone who saw things but didn’t necessarily understand what she was seeing. Her present day descendent knows that Armageddon is coming, and sets out to do something about the Antichrist.

Who just happens to be a perfectly normal English boy with a gang, and a dog. The dog is from hell, but the gang isn’t, in spite of the collective opinion of the adults of the village. One too many swaps in the nursing home left the Antichrist as a cuckoo in the nest of a completely normal middle class family instead of the American diplomat’s, and completely untended by satanic nursemaids to guide him in the wrong path. And thus the stage is set for a satire that mercilessly dissects all manner of things about modern life, and has enormous fun along the way.

Very much recommended.

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2011 book log: 102) Edward Gorey — The Lost Lions

I feel rather guilty about taking so long to write my review of this one, partly because Pomegranate were clearly hoping for timely reviews to drive sales for Christmas gifts, and partly because so many of my friends would doubtless have been very happy to help with the “Christmas gift” sales figures…

102) Edward Gorey — The Lost Lions

Note: I received a review copy of this through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

Pomegranate provides a treat for Gorey fans with this new edition of a title from 1973 which has been long out of print as a standalone book, although it was available in omnibus format. Hamish, a beautiful young man who likes being outdoors, opens the wrong envelope one day, and finds himself on a path to fame and fortune in films. He finds this to be less appealing than one might imagine, and prefers to raise lions… The story is told in a bare 14 pen-and-ink illustrations with one sentence per illustration, and can be skimmed in a few minutes, but Gorey does a great deal with those 14 illustrations. It’s not as blatantly macabre as some of Gorey’s work, but still has that eerie, off-kilter humour that was his trademark. And the book might take only a few minutes to read the first time, but you could lose yourself for hours looking at the detail in the drawings and thinking about the things implied therein.

There are other books which are more accessible to new readers and I’m not sure this one would be ideal as someone’s first introduction to Gorey, but you don’t need much familiarity with his body of work to appreciate the faintly sinister whimsy of The Lost Lions.

At US$13, this edition isn’t cheap, but you do get what you pay for. Pomegranate have a done a superb job on the physical production side. The book is a small hardback with high quality paper in sewn signatures, and crisp reproduction of the pen-and-ink illustrations. It’s laid out with one sentence and illustration facing each other per page spread, on a 6 inch square page size that makes it easy to take in the whole illustration at once while still being large enough to see the fine detail. The cover illustration is in colour, but the interior illustrations are in the original black and white. If all you want is access to the story, there are other options, but Pomegranate’s new edition is a gorgeous presentation that’s a joy to handle. This is a perfect “indulgent treat” for anyone who loves both beautiful books and Edward Gorey.

My review copy came packed with two Pomegranate catalogues, and one of their Edward Gorey bookmarks, which was a nice item in its own right, and I think well worth the $2 catalogue price if you like nice bookmarks. It’s crisply printed on heavy stock, and comes in a heavy plastic protective sleeve, from which it can be easily removed if you prefer to use it without the sleeve.

Hardcover smyth-sewn casebound book, with jacket. 32 pages, 6½ x 6 inches.

ISBN 9780764959578

Edward Gorey — The Lost Lions at the publisher’s website.

Librarything entry, with more reviews.

Book review: Pati Nagle – Pet Noir

79) Pati Nagle – Pet Noir

Note: I received a review copy of this through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

Short fix-up novel about a genetically engineered cat whose creation is commissioned by the security chief of a large space station. The chief wants an undercover agent who’ll be overlooked by criminals who might be suspicious of humanoids. A Maine Coon who’s been genetically engineered to have human level intelligence, opposable thumbs, and a tongue that can wrap itself around human language is a useful thing to have loitering around fast food outlets and in cargo holds, picking up the gossip. An ordinary-looking cat won’t be suspected because the high cost of gengineered animals means they’re still rare — but it’s a price that’s worth it for someone who wants to bust a drug-smuggling ring.

The book is structured as a series of short stories covering the first year or so of Leon’s life, a first person retrospective from the day the Chief collects a know-all kitten from the labs to a year or so later, when Leon’s experienced enough to understand how very inexperienced and naive he was that day. The general tone is that of a hard-boiled detective story, only here the hard-boiled tone is distinctly feline-flavoured and the setting is futuristic.

It’s a lot of fun following Leon’s emotional and intellectual development alongside his cases, and the cases themselves mostly make good stories. There are some good observations of feline behaviour worked into this. Leon’s mostly plausible as a portrait of a cat with boosted intelligence, and his relationship with his human partner Devin, a mix of self-centredness and genuine affection after a rocky start, works well. However, there are two flaws which badly broke suspension of disbelief for me.

The first is that Leon is not just super intelligent, at 4 weeks old he speaks fluent English and he’s already showing a better grasp of human culture than a human ten year old. Yes, cats develop much faster, but there hasn’t been time for him to physically assimilate that amount of information, even if he does spend all day in front of the tv.

The second is that Leon speaks to other, unenhanced animals, who appear to be also human level intelligence in their conversation, even if they’re speaking in cat rather than English, which rather undermines the point of him being genetically engineered for human level intelligence. There also appears to be a single human-level language across at least three species who are not regarded as fully sentient by the humans and other sentient species on the station. It felt as if the author was trying to appeal to readers who like to think of their cats as being just little humans in fur coats.

One of the things I did like about the book is that it touches on the ethics of uplifted animals. It’s a very light touch, and anything stronger would have unbalanced the book, but it’s made clear that Leon is under an indentured contract and is required to pay off the costs of his creation by working for whoever owns the contract. He’s effectively the property of Gamma Station Security for several years, and he’s unimpressed by this.

Overall, something of a mixed bag. It’s a fun light read, and has some laugh out loud moments, but there are some niggles which mean I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. A free sample consisting of the prologue and first chapter are available for download at Book View Cafe, which will give you a reasonable idea of the style.

LibraryThing entry

book log: 74) Alexander McCall Smith — Corduroy Mansions

Onward to August’s books — though starting with one I began in July.

74) Alexander McCall Smith — Corduroy Mansions

Gently funny episodic novel about the inhabitants of Cordury Mansions, a Pimlico apartment block built in the early twentieth century and currently providing a comfortable home to a variety of tenants. It’s good-natured and enjoyable, but about two-thirds of the way through I found that it simply wasn’t holding my interest any longer, in part because it didn’t feel as if there would be any resolution to any of the storylines. I put it down for a while, and find myself disinclined to pick it up and finish it. At this point I’m declaring it a DNF. I think I would probably enjoy this as an audiobook better than I would as a print book.

LibraryThing entry

Book log: Alexander McCall Smith — The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

43) Alexander McCall Smith — The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

The first of a series about Precious Ramotswe, the Botswanan woman who sets up a detective agency. I’d read one of the later books first, which felt more like a mystery genre novel, and by comparison this one strikes me as aiming more at the literary genre, with more overt meditations on life in southern Africa. While it’s written by a white man, it’s written by a white Zimbabwean who’s worked in Botswana, who is writing what he knows. What he’s written is a loving portrait of Botswana, both the good side and the bad, framed through a woman who respects many of the old ways but thinks change can bring good.

The structure is a series of small cases interspersed with chapters looking at how Mma Ramotswe came to set up the detective agency with an inheritance from her father, and how her father came to have the money to leave to her. Some of the individual cases have serious consequences, but it’s largely a gentle and subtly funny novel. It feels almost like a series of short stories within a frame story, although some of the story threads run through the length of the book. As such, it makes for easy reading, even though there’s a lot of thoughtful social commentary worked into the narrative. I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series.

LibraryThing entry

book log: Ursula Vernon — Digger [graphic novel]

41) Ursula Vernon — Digger [graphic novel]

And this is what ate my Good Friday in 2011, courtesy of a link at Making Light — the webcomic “Digger”. There is not a single mention of the Abrahamic religions in it. However, there’s a lot of thoughtful exploration of ethics and morality, and the author’s background in anthropology shows, in a good rather than bad way. I got dropped into it via link very early in the archive, where the heroine (a wombat mining engineer by the name of Digger) has just dug her way to the surface after an encounter with some toxic gas, and finds herself in a temple with a statue of the Hindu god Ganesh. A statue that is an avatar of the god, and is still talking to her even after she’s had a few lungfuls of clean air and is therefore not hallucinating. I found it interesting enough to backtrack to the beginning, and got sucked in.

Originally a webcomic (which is what I read), but also available as a series of five graphic novels.

http://www.diggercomic.com/

LibraryThing entry