Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Judge Dredd: Dark Justice

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 Judge Dredd: Dark Justice (Rebellion, 2014-15).


John Wagner did not make this easy on himself. In the 1980s, the supernatural Dark Judges were recurring, albeit overused foes in the Judge Dredd strip, culminating in the epic, gruesome 1990 serial "Necropolis." That really should have been the end for the characters, but they spent the 1990s showing up way too frequently, their horror sidelined for broad black comedy. They've only appeared very sporadically since, played straight and played horrific, but the malady lingered on, you know? I mean, did the world really need another Judge Death story?

Well, Death and his gang have returned in an eleven-part story that began last month and is about at the halfway point now, and it's amazing. The art, very old school fully-painted, is by Greg Staples, and it's just gorgeous. This story was announced in 2013 and some of us - like me - started grousing about the time it took to appear, but this was really worth the wait. It's exceptional work across the board.

The story picks up some dangling plot threads and, halfway through, has just barely addressed them, leaving me hungry for more backstory. Judge Death himself was last seen nuked into another dimension, but a brief flashback showed him back in Mega-City One, looking for his trapped brothers. There's a world of intrigue behind that that I could go into but won't; briefly, he pilfers their spirit forms and takes off on a colony ship bound for a distant world.

Judges Dredd and Anderson are about two weeks behind, unable to stop the carnage when Death and his gang all resurrect themselves with their bizarre superpowers and start mass slaughter. At about the halfway point, our heroes finally catch up to them, but too late to save the colonists, and are trapped on board the spaceship, cut off from resources and help, surrounded by the dead...

It's not all doom and gloom, but in this story, Wagner very sensibly let the humor arise from the colony ship and their foibles, keeping reader attention and sparking some smiles before things go straight to hell, and it's been a mean and ugly action-adventure thriller ever since the third episode. As things get bad, there are still dozens of questions to be addressed, including the whereabouts of another one of Dredd's old enemies, who I'd have guessed would have appeared in this story by now, and what the Dark Judges were thinking, engineering a ssssssituation where everybody's trapped on the stranded colony ship. I have the ugly feeling that this is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

"Dark Justice" is appearing weekly in 2000 AD, beginning in Prog 2015 and continuing through progs 1912-1921. Click the image above to visit the comic's online shop and order your thrillpower!!

This story is written in memory of my pal, longtime squaxx dek Thargo Mike Horne of Boston, who passed away last weekend after suffering a stroke in November. Mike wasn't able to read any of this story, which is a damn shame. We'll miss you, Mike.

PDFs of these issues were provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Quigsnip: The Untold Tale of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist

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 Quigsnip: The Untold Tale of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (self-published, 2014).


I think it's wonderful that Charles Dickens is still inspiring writers to create their own pastiches and fanfic. Sometimes, it's the way that his novels were originally written that has given writers that inspiration, by way of little unplanned plot holes. Almost all of what we perceive today as stand-alone novels originally appeared as serials in magazines. Oliver Twist, one of his best-known books, took 26 months to tell, and there are traces in the completed tale of side stories and characters that might have developed differently had Dickens not been hammering out chapters directly for immediate publication. Academic types have been noting these little curiosities in his plots for many decades.

One of those coulda-been avenues in Twist concerns a possible villain, a strange humpbacked person who enters the narrative for a few paragraphs and is never seen again. Writer Sean Phillips has grabbed that character, or rather that possibility of a character, and turned him into the villain Fagin's unseen boss, the vulgar and nasty Mr. Quigsnip, and has created a fun, albeit ungainly adventure in which Quigsnip goes after Oliver for some revenge.

I call this ungainly because it is a self-published book that could use an editor to clear away some misspellings and formatting issues, and so what the novel feels like is a promising first draft. The structure of the story is well-paced, exciting, and some of the research seems very thorough. The late 1830s saw Londoners finally start reacting against the workhouses that had sprung up around the capital years previously, keeping the city's underclass in a permanent state of thrall and poverty, and this story reflects the beginning of this social change.

The prose is clear, and I was never confused by the events. Given a little more work, this could be developed into a good adventure story. With a pair of exceptions, I thought this was a well done first effort, and I certainly enjoyed the climax, which incorporates the "ghost" stage effect that unnerved so many theater-goers of the period. Unfortunately, I was not sold on a plot strand that required Oliver Twist to be hypnotized, nor the small but important detail of the only-a-decade-old Metropolitan Police even having a clue what a fingerprint is, never mind giving any credence to one. These are places where a strong editor could have provided a good deal of help to Phillips, building something promising into something satisfying.

Nevertheless, despite these quite major fumbles, the book was an entertaining diversion. It might have helped that Phillips is clearly paying tribute, not just to Dickens' characters but to his worldview. Dickens, for all his melodrama and romanticism, was a critic of society's failings and of inequality. The heroes of Quigsnip are continuing to make the changes in their world that Dickens had them striving toward in his original novel (probably all of his novels, actually), and so the story certainly rings true and may appeal to Dickens' fans and collectors. Given the hiccups of the formatting, and that hypnotism malarkey, I can't give this a very strong recommendation, but I would encourage the author to keep at it, and possibly hire an editor to help beat this edition into better shape for a revised version that may find home with a publisher and a larger audience.

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Brass Sun: The Wheel of Worlds

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 Brass Sun: The Wheel of Worlds (Rebellion, 2014).


I have not been as engaged with 2000 AD in the last couple of years as I had been for a really, really long time. Part of that's because while the comic is, bluntly, the very best comic that money can buy, there's been a certain staleness to the procedural routine of it, and I've become bored, not with the stories, but with the experience of how they're presented. I never wanted to turn into "that fan" who's constantly moaning about how imperfect it is not making special snowflakes like me happy as clams (although I sort of did), so I kind of shut up about things. I just read quietly to myself these days, mainly.

That said, when a series comes along that partially addresses one of my complaints, I feel like I owe it to the comic to brush myself off and tell the world how good it is. It's called Brass Sun and it's very special and often amazing. It's written by Ian Edginton and drawn by INJ Culbard, who's given the pretty thankless chore of redesigning environments and technology several times over the course of the three stories-so-far. Culbard basically has one hell of a tough challenge and meets it beautifully. There are maybe four panels in this entire book (195 pages of story, plus endpapers and backmatter and such) where Culbard's solid and vivid coloring might have benefited from something more subtle. Otherwise, this is a remarkable story that looks amazing.

Brass Sun is set in a clockwork solar system, an orrery with dozens of full-sized planets connected to each other by metal spars. Centuries before, there had been travel and trade between the planets, but most have been cut off for so long that their populations know nothing about anybody else. And the system is slowing down; winters are getting longer. The story begins on one particularly backward planet, the sort of boring place you've seen in stories before and never enjoyed. Strict religious orthodoxy rules, science is outlawed, heretics are burned alive, the religious nutball in charge talks in "Bad Shakespeare" - you know the language; it's when the bad guy uses phrases like "Speak not to me of--" instead of "Don't talk to me about--" - and you, the reader, will want to leave this silly place as quickly as possible.

Happily, the way out is provided by Wren, one of far too few female protagonists to lead a 2000 AD series that doesn't have her origins in some other, male-led, series. Wren's grandfather had retired from the religious order of stereotypes, figured out something close to the truth about their world, and tasked Wren with saving the day. So fortunately, we're only on this boring, albeit beautifully drawn, backwater world for about thirty pages before things get completely wonderful and unpredictable.

I'm not spoiling much to reveal that Brass Sun becomes a travelogue, with Wren visiting other cultures and learning the secrets of the Orrery. If there's any kind of complaint to be made, it's that Wren sometimes becomes a supporting character in other people's stories, and while we accept that her mission and quest will occasionally be delayed while she gets involved with various intrigues, there are occasions where Wren is too much in the background. I do like how everybody else underestimates her, however.

For all the quickly-penned selling words of "steampunk" that some reviewers use, the real influences on Brass Sun are a couple of mid-1980s films by Hayao Miyazaki, specifically Nausicaa and Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Wren herself is very much like Nausicaa: an ordinary and incredibly resourceful young woman given a monumental task, which she tackles with resolve and intelligence. Wren is one of the best, most interesting characters in comics these days, and I hope to see her in action again soon.

Brass Sun is told in 65-page stories, serialized across eleven or twelve weekly issues of 2000 AD. We've had one story a year since 2012; these three have appeared as a six-issue miniseries in American comic size, and now this very nice hardback edition. Edginton, like Pat Mills, seems to get a pass to structure his stories this way, which means they don't always fit very well into 2000 AD's thrillpowered rocket-fuel five page chunks. There, Brass Sun is, frankly, an awkward fit, slow-moving and often confusing. Read in one sitting, as three stories rather than as thirty-odd episodes, it's a deliberately-paced gem, something unlike anything else in comics and very, very fun. I certainly hope the next story is serialized in 2015, and so on, and that we'll get a second hardback collection for Christmas 2017. Highly recommended.

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Fragrant

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 Fragrant: the Secret Life of Scent (Riverhead, 2014) that Marie has contributed.


We received a complimentary copy of Fragrant: the Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel for review. Fragrant is a book about an exploration of scent and fragrance, primarily perfumes but secondary of culinary scents, and the love affair the author develops over the course of exploration. It is the opposite of "ignorance is bliss" as the more the author learns, the greater her passion on the subject. And, luckily for the reader, the greater her desire to share what she has found. This is a clearly written journal of a voyage of discovery.

All my life, I have had a complicated relationship with fragrances. On the one hand, on my first encounter with Vietnamese cinnamon, I could not resist going back to the pantry and opening the jar multiple times a day to have a sniff of the wonderful aroma; on the other hand, I was unable to attend high holy days at church as a teen because I reacted very badly to the incense.

On our food blog we try to experience exactly what this book is about: "the appetites that move us, give us pleasure, make us fully alive" although we talk just about the food aspect; however, she also has another thing in common, in that Ms. Aftell reads about the history of scents, and looks for the interesting and unusual. She says "I love the complicated histories of the materials and the complex characters that make the natural perfumer's palette so vibrant." And in the process, she finds points of interest to the cook, such as finding that sugar was used to scrape citrus and make essential-oil-infused sugar for cooking. I, too, love the complicated ways that simple foodstuffs interact to turn into the many things we know and love to eat; it was fascinating to read more details and it really felt like getting a more rounded view of the topic.

The author has five main aromatic compounds which she uses to shape the narrative of the book, and when I saw that cinnamon was one of them it made the book irresistible. The other four are mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine. Each of the five ingredients has a full discussion of where the substance originates, how it's made and its historical place in fragrance and food making. Finally, she talks about the concept of wabi-sabi, the appreciation for the impermanence of objects. When dealing with something as transient as scent, you have to take into account the ability of each component to work together, very much like the ingredients in a recipe; you may love lemon, but if you put in too much the dish is ruined. I see an awful lot of recipes with unnecessarily long ingredient lists. Simplicity calls to me, and I feel that this book shows how simplicity, elegance and beauty intersect. Recommended.

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

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Zenith Phase One

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 Zenith Phase One (Rebellion, 2014).


I keep telling myself that I should go back and update my old Reprint This! blog. For about three years, I was very interested in seeing some older, out-of-print comics repackaged, and got a kick out of championing these old properties and introducing new readers to them. Eventually, I let it turn into a chore instead of something to touch upon once in a while, and now I have too many other things to do than go back and update all the entries. Miracleman's back in print. So's Shade the Changing Man, and Black Jack, and Stainless Steel Rat, and Tales from Beyond Science, and lots of other things that were on my old wish list. And now, holy anna, Zenith by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell. (Here's what I had to say about it at Reprint This!.)

Last year, Rebellion dropped a limited edition brick with the entire series in one huge hardback. Just a thousand copies. In a PR world, this was a terrific idea. It got lots of people talking and paved the way for this four-book series, the first volume of which is out in a couple of weeks.

Zenith is a superbrat celebrity. In the world of this comic, the British government experimented with super-powered soldiers during World War Two, and, after the Allies concluded the unpleasantness by dropping an atom bomb on Berlin, began tests on pregnant volunteers. These children grew up to be short-lived celebrities in the 1960s before some of them lost their powers and some vanished and some died. Zenith is the only second generation human with powers. His mom and dad were killed in what was said to have been an accident in France nineteen years before. And their son? Well, in 1987, he thinks he has some musical talent and he thinks all his parents' boring old friends have got on with their lives, and all he cares about are getting his face in the papers and smooching cute starlets. Saving the world isn't part of his game plan, but when the Nazi supervillain Masterman reappears - he was the reason the Yanks bombed Berlin - not having aged a day since '45, he's got to get his act together quickly...

Zenith was Grant Morrison's first ongoing series and, perhaps despite the writer's protests to the contrary, it does clearly show more than a little influence from Alan Moore's Watchmen. Like that earlier story, it is a "real world" or "realistic" superhero adventure set in a universe where some alternative history has banged everything on the head, and, like that earlier story, the events affecting the present-day characters are influenced by a very large cast from the past, many of whom we only hear about in passing. In other words, Morrison had to design a very detailed backstory to make the present-day adventure work, but it works just beautifully.

The story is absolutely wonderful, and, unlike quite a lot of Morrison's later books unfortunately, it's clear and straightforward and still rewards rereads with lots of foreshadowing and hidden double-meanings, and the artwork by Steve Yeowell is just sublime. There were four long-form Zenith stories, along with four "interlude" one-offs, and a one-shot that appeared nine years after 1992's finale. This new hardcover collection includes the first storyline, or "phase," along with the first two interludes and several pages of character sketches by Yeowell and by Brendan McCarthy, who had done some early design work on the series. It's very nice to see this terrific series given such a nice collection at last. It shouldn't be missed. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Lewis Man

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 Lewis Man (Quercus, 2014).


I enjoyed the characterization in this work of detective fiction, but the number of coincidences and dumb decisions by the hero made this, the second novel in a series by Peter May, a disappointment in the end. The protagonist is a retired cop, the former Detective Inspector Fin Macleod, who has lost all of his interest in police work in the wake of his toddler son's death and the end of his marriage. So he retires to his family home on the distant Isle of Lewis, pitches a tent, and looks up an old girlfriend.

So here's what sets everything in motion: a mummified body is found in the peat. Fin is invited to the post-mortem and they learn that the long-dead man is not many hundreds of years dead as thought; he has an amateurish Elvis Presley tattoo from the late 1950s, and he was murdered. DNA matches him as related to Fin's old girlfriend, but her father Tormod, the best chance to help determine who he is, is in the middle stages of senile dementia and cannot communicate to anybody effectively. He has always claimed to be an only child, but this man seems to be his brother.

Through his recollections, for his memories are intact, we learn the old (and lengthy) story of his childhood and his brother, so the reader is given lots of background - though not all of it - while Fin takes on an amateur investigation, hoping to keep the family secrets intact before the state policeman arrives to begin a formal inquiry. Some of the mechanics are fascinating - getting to some of Scotland's remote areas is a very, very lengthy ordeal of ferries and causeways that are underwater during high tide - but as Fin misses out on the obvious identity of a retired actress and makes the almost comically stupid decision to confide in a shady possible source, it feels like May had to bend his story far past the breaking point of the suspension of disbelief. Not recommended.

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

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Rooms

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 Rooms (Ecco, 2014).

What an unusual book. It is simultaneously unpleasant and compelling. Let me clarify that. Many books can be unpleasant in that they feature unhappy or harsh incidents and situations, but that isn't what I mean here. This book is full of unpleasant, unhappy, wholly unsympathetic people. There's not one who I wished to latch on to in any way; I'd be happier crossing the street to avoid them. And yet I was captivated by what was happening to them. The story is so interesting that I was willing to put up with them.

Events are kicked off by the death of a wealthy grouch named Richard Walker. His estranged family comes to his huge country home to hear about their inheritance. These are his alcoholic ex-wife, his nymphomaniac mid-twenties daughter, and his selfish, pretends-to-be-depressed teenage son. They're sharing the home with two former inhabitants: ghosts who have never left the building since their own unhappy deaths many years before. The judgmental lady who died in the 1950s and the sarcastic woman who joined her about thirty years later are still here, narrating alternating chapters from their first-person perspectives. They are waiting for Richard's ghost to join them while the family continues their bickering. They know everything and see everything, but are surprised when the ghost that actually joins them is actually a teenage girl.

But who the heck is she?

The family stays in the house, the boy contemplating killing herself and the girl taking random delivery employees to her bedroom for a few minutes, tensions escalating, while waiting for the memorial service to finally be over. Secrets are revealed, new mysteries are uncovered, and I was left enraptured, wondering where this book was going and what would need to happen for the plot to be satisfied to such a point where it would make sense to end the book. I couldn't wait for the book to be over so I could be rid of all of these unhappy people, but I stayed with it because I just had to know how such an outre and unusual story was going to resolve.

This is Lauren Oliver's first book for adult readers, but she's actually been writing YA fiction for some time, including the bestselling Delirium trilogy. I enjoyed the conceit that even ghosts can keep secrets, but you know how, when you finish a really good book, you want to spend more time with its players? That does not happen here. A very mild recommendation for its oddball premise and construction.

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