Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Mysteries of the Diogenes Club

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 Mysteries of the Diogenes Club (Monkeybrain, 2010).

I think that Kim Newman's a much better ideas man than he is a wordsmith, and that's almost okay, because his ideas are really fun. Basically, he took the Diogenes Club, from the Sherlock Holmes stories, and made it a secret service defending the United Kingdom from magical and occult threats for more than a century, and has written short stories in which various club members take center stage in different eras. One of them, Richard Jeperson, got a whole book of short stories set in the late 1960s and early 1970s to himself, but I couldn't find that book and started with this one. Jeperson takes center stage in just one of these; other tales are led by Edwin Winthrop, who was the chief agent in the early 20th Century, and a vampire named Geneviève Dieudonné makes several appearances.

As with any collection of short stories, especially one with a scope as broad as this one, some stories will be better than others, but the Jeperson-led "Moon Moon Moon" was by leagues my favorite, a terrific tale that explains how peoples' imaginations of the moon, prior to NASA's landing upon it, created its own unique world. I really enjoyed Jeperson's louche dandy act, and his teamup with an American government agent is a hoot. The character is not-all-that-loosely based on TV's Jason King, and of course Jason King would have been a member of the Diogenes Club as Newman presents it.

The novella "Seven Stars" at least starts out fabulously. It's an epic tale that starts in Victorian London and winds its way into the future, with every era of Diogenes Club operatives getting into conflict with the Mountmain family over a magical jewel. It really did lose me in the end, but each installment kept my attention, at least for a while. Newman's prose is sometimes very hard to parse. A section of "Seven Stars" that takes place in Los Angeles, allowing him the chance to parody hard-boiled PI stories of the '30s, was particularly tough to wade through, forcing me to reread one section about a reanimated corpse, and the narrator's blase reaction toward it, several times.

Newman dreams up beautiful, fantastic scenarios, but conveys them with all the grace of a junkyard. He's not helped by the woeful production and no-budget design of the book, with chapters literally beginning on the very next line, a new heading marked in bold font. The effect is that of a low-rent DIY publisher churning out barely-penetrable walls of text, and this may sound like a churlish and snobby complaint, but there really is a subconscious level of excitement that can come from good design, and a related level of boredom when anybody, anywhere, could type up the same book for a vanity press. Newman's leaden style needed a little help, and his publisher didn't give him any. I have another of his Diogenes Club books on the shelf and do intend to read it (hoping there's more Jeperson in it), but it's not a priority. Very mild recommendation.



The Bookshelf will take a summer holiday and return in August!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Irène

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 Irène (MacLehose Press, 2014).


Well, I had an idea where this crime thriller was going, and while I was not right, I read about eighty pages with my teeth on edge. It was the sort of climax where it didn't really matter how close to the answer the reader gets, what happens isn't going to make anybody happy.

Writer Pierre LeMaitre has written three novels about a commandant in the Paris police force named Camille Verhoeven. It's taken a little while for them to be published in English, and, foolishly, the second of the books, Alex, was released in the US ahead of this one. I'm really glad that I didn't read that one first.

Commandant Verhoeven has a very ugly case in this book. The brutal and really graphically-described murder of two prostitutes is soon tied in to one cold case elsewhere in France and another in Scotland. Verhoeven's team quickly connects them, despite radical differences between all three crimes. There is a small "signature" tying them together, but they otherwise do not appear to be the work of the same killer. Then someone realizes that one of the killings is uncannily like the one described by Bret Easton Ellis in his novel American Psycho, and the race is on, not only to catch the killer, but also to figure out where in fiction the killer got the inspiration for the other murders.

With a very informed journalist pushing his way into the investigation, a bookseller who's suspiciously eager to help, a wife who is due to give birth within days, and the very real probability that one of his detectives is leaking information, Verhoeven is seeing his case get worse and worse as leads about the serial killer flood in. About two-thirds in, I started having the very bad feeling that the killer's final crime wouldn't be drawn from prose fiction, but from a certain feature film directed by David Fincher... and then Verhoeven's wife doesn't answer the telephone...

It's a good book, to be certain, but it's very grisly and very graphic and not for younger readers or those, as the BBC used to say, "of a nervous disposition." It's dark and bleak and while I'm interested in reading Alex, I need a little more brightness and sunshine before I tackle it. Recommended with mild reservations.

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.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Strontium Dog: The Stix Fix

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 Strontium Dog: The Stix Fix (Rebellion, 2015).


It has been a long time since I really enjoyed a Strontium Dog adventure. Five years ago, creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra began one of the series' biggest-ever epics, a 40-episode beast called "The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha." It was divided into four ten-part chunks and I only liked the first of them. I liked it a whole lot, mind you, especially the really interesting, revisionist death of a supporting character, which was the sort of thing that you never, ever see in mainstream American comics. (You can read my take on that fabulous turn of events over at my defunct blog Thrillpowered Thursday.)

But after that, I felt that the story lacked punch and energy, and meandered its way to a shrug-inducing, rushed conclusion. That's why I'm so happy that the newest Johnny Alpha adventure, a ten-parter called "The Stix Fix," is flatly the very best Stronty Dog story in ages. I loved this completely, and it's been the runaway highlight of the last three months of 2000 AD. Well, the latest Grey Area stories have also been terrific, yeah, but each absurdly thrill-packed chunk of this story had me immediately flipping back to read it again, because just so darn much is happening in every six pages that I was certain I was missing bits.

The story opens with some members of the stone-cold, taciturn Stix clan abducting a high-level government muckity-muck from a thinly-veiled North Korea analogue. So the British government, bastards all, ask Johnny Alpha to get on the trail, because Alpha's had dealings with Stixes a time or three before. From there, it's an absurdly dense rollercoaster of a story, with aliens and clans and bad guys all drawn with broad brushes, a trick which always works with Wagner and Ezquerra. The Jong family, you won't be surprised to learn, are all trigger-happy lunatics with very short tempers, and there's certainly a Stix who will discreetly sell out his kinfolk.

But despite the tropes and generally comfortable beats in the characterization, this story goes everywhere and it moves incredibly quickly. It's one of the fastest-paced of all the many Strontium Dog adventures, and that's saying something. As I began reading the eighth episode, I was completely baffled as to how in the world it was going to wrap up with only another eighteen pages to go, until that episode ended with a wonderfully brilliant twist. It was punch the air perfect, the best kind of twist, the one you didn't know was coming, built from very fair clues that I just didn't think were clues at all.

Recommended? Absolutely; it's flawless, one of the very best, funniest, most entertaining and unpredictable Stronty Dog stories ever. Click the image to buy the issue with episode one from 2000 AD's online shop and continue from there.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Phoebe and Her Unicorn

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 Phoebe and Her Unicorn (Andrews McMeel, 2014).


Dana Claire Simpson draws an incredibly cute and often hilarious comic strip called Phoebe and Her Unicorn and, let's get this out of the way, it's a lot like Calvin & Hobbes. Phoebe even looks like Calvin's nemesis, Susie Derkins!

The biggest difference is that other characters can interact with the unicorn, whose name is Marigold Heavenly Nostrils. Marigold is enormous fun. She's so absolutely full of herself that Phoebe meets her as she is so entranced by her own reflection in a pond that she doesn't notice a human kid stomping around in the woods. Thereafter, Marigold casts a spell so that nobody sees anything particularly noteworthy about a haughty unicorn hanging around.

The comic is suitable for all ages, and I approve of having a fun heroine for little girls to enjoy. The collected edition collects the original run of the strip as it appeared online - it entered print syndication a couple of months ago - and is similar in shape and appeal to the book versions of another great schoolage comic, Big Nate. Happily recommended for all ages.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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 (VERY) brief review of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (Twelve, 2006).


Several months ago, I wrote about Chop Suey, USA by Yong Chen, and found it dry and barely-penetrable, in that cold, academic way. Chen referenced a book by the unusually-named Jennifer 8. Lee called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles in his text, and I'm happy to report that her book is so much friendlier, more fun and readable, and anybody who has an interest in the development of American Chinese food really is sure to enjoy this.

I kind of hit a wall here. I mean, I try to dig a little deeper than two paragraphs when I write about something here, but this kind of stumped me, how best to explain to you good people how I felt about this fun story.

Basically, I learned so much by reading this. I even learned that Atlanta is home to the only kosher Chinese restaurant for 400 miles. We'll check that out for our food blog one day. It's a really neat and interesting story, tackling everything from smuggling to the Greyhound routes for itinerant cooks to all those little clear packets of soy sauce to the development of fortune cookies. It's just a terrific little read and absolutely ideal for anybody interested in the history of food. I loved it to pieces and recommend it happily.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The ABC Warriors: Return to Mars

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 ABC Warriors: Return to Mars (Rebellion, 2015).

There's a bit in the introduction to the latest collection of 2000 AD's The ABC Warriors in which writer and creator Pat Mills takes a passive-aggressive swipe - yeah, another one - at the comic's former editor Andy Diggle, and I read it and just rolled my eyes and said "Let it go, guys, you're all brother robots under the synthi-flesh." But if it weren't for the circumstances behind that swipe, this book wouldn't exist in the form that it does, and that would be a great shame.

I really enjoy reading what Mills has been doing with this timeline of future Earth over the last several years. As I mentioned when I wrote about the most recent book of Savage a couple of months ago, a lot of it seems to come from Mills stepping back and looking at the canvas of a quarter-century of stories and finding places where he can connect odd little trinkets and throwaway continuity points into sweeping stories. For example, a big chunk of Return to Mars, which originally appeared across three months of 2000 AD early last year, stems from a one-off line in a 1984 story explaining that, as the ABC Warriors reassembled as supporting characters in the pages of Nemesis the Warlock, one of their members had been killed in a bar fight.

Return to Mars shows us that fight, and the character, Happy Shrapnel, meeting his grisly end, and then, centuries later, being resurrected along with every other dead thing on the planet - a plot point from a one-off episode that was published something like fifteen years later and had nothing to do with Happy Shrapnel. And then Happy, working as armorer and mechanic for his robot comrades, is seen to be working in the background of all the subsequent stories that Mills has written over the last decade and change, including the one that sparked the argument between Mills and Diggle.

The amazing thing is that this doesn't feel at all like obsessive continuity porn from some lunatic obsessed with finding every last point that needs a resolution. Happy's tale weaves in and out of many previous adventures, but familiarity with them isn't at all necessary to following - no, loving this story. It's marvelous. Mills takes a character who hasn't been used since 1979, treats him as brand new, not counting on nostalgia, and recasts him as the cowboy who does not want to kill again but is forced to. When, against his wishes, a human teenager adopts him as his "father," you'll be counting the pages until the boy's murder will bring Happy out of retirement - it's an obvious enough trope that this shouldn't be a spoiler - but the circumstances are sure to surprise everybody.

The artwork is by Clint Langley, who's illustrated all of the Warriors' more recent adventures. As with the previous story, it's a mix of his beautifully bizarre computer manipulation for the "present," with pen and brushwork for most of the flashbacks. He's equally comfortable with his own outlandish designs for new characters as he is reusing, for example, Mick McMahon's old "humpies" from much older stories. It all looks beautiful, and the flow from computer color to pen-and-ink black and white never jars.

It's all packaged in a gorgeous hardback that can be shelved alongside the previous five Langley-illustrated editions, and it sets up the action in the next ABC Warriors installment, which will begin serialization a little later this year. Of course, having said that, there are so many plot threads in this adventure that it might be setting up the action for the next nine or ten installments. For longtime readers, it's a thrill from start to finish, and for new readers, it might even be the best jumping-on point that the characters have ever had. Happily 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.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Fall

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 Fall (Atria, 2015).


John Lescroart is in the process of trying to do something that's really, really rare in series fiction. He's begun transitioning a second generation character into the lead role in his series of legal thrillers and mysteries. Rebecca Hardy, aka "The Beck," wasn't even born when the series began with Dead Irish in 1989. We've watched the character grow up as the original leads in the series have also aged, in about real time. Dismas Hardy and Abe Giltsky are now in their sixties, and since his series has always had the flexibility to move supporting players up to the spotlight, it feels natural and right for Dismas's daughter to step up.

The Beck is now in her early twenties and an associate in her dad's firm, and she ends up defending her first murder case. Dismas is on hand to provide advice and support, and investigator Wyatt Hunt is there to do some ground work, but otherwise this defense is being undertaken by somebody who's probably not ready for how bad things can get in a Lescroart novel, particularly with a client as unhelpful as this one is.

To be bluntly honest, any author is attempting a real highwire act when they create a client as unsympathetic as The Beck's. They risk alienating the reader. Lescroart did something like this many years ago, when Dismas had a disagreeable, overly-affectionate woman to defend - Hey! You leave Mrs. Hardy's man alone, lady! - but this guy's a real piece of work. He lies, he holds back critical information, he ends up making The Beck look bad in the cops' eyes before his arrest, he questions her strategies, he downright refuses to let her consider finding a way to end the proceedings with a mistrial, and so it's not the easiest read. Is it possible to root for our heroine while simultaneously hoping that her sleazeball client is guilty?

Some of Lescroart's novels keep me riveted and some leave me curious about what will happen while not really able to embrace the situation. Since I couldn't warm to the accused, I found myself more entertained than I sometimes am by all the red herrings, diversions, alternate theories, and more about who threw the young murder victim to her death, and several thrilling sequences as some of these play out. One of these even leads to one of the ongoing cast's many supporting players taking a gunshot wound that leaves him bleeding in the streets of San Francisco. In previous books, I have occasionally, and unfairly, lost patience with some of the detail-heavy side stories that Lescroart employs, waiting on pins and needles to get back to the lawyer and client, but I found them really engrossing this time out, with so many rich characters to meet. Perhaps the next time that The Beck takes on a client, I'll get exasperated with the roadblocks instead of the fellow she defends! Recommended, naturally.

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.