Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Sinister Dexter: The Taking of the Michael

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 Sinister Dexter: The Taking of the Michael (Rebellion, 2016).

A little over two years ago, I raved about the return and resurrection of Sinister Dexter, and the series has not done a darn thing to reward my loyalty until now. If you're unfamiliar with this series, I covered its peaks and chasms in that review and won't go into them again. Much.

The problem is that Dan Abnett - who, in fairness, seems to be writing a dozen other stories for a dozen publishers and may not have the time to devote to keeping this series vital - often falls back on comedy and cliche in Sin Dex, and that's amusing to a point but what works best for the series is taking the protagonists dead seriously. Donald Westlake could juggle both jet-black melodrama and lighthearted capers, but he used different protagonists in his stories. Ramone and Finnigan work best when they are frighteningly efficient at their jobs, and when their jobs are really, really serious. But after that triumphant 12-week return in 2013, a handful of subsequent stories were back in the safe arms of gentle parody and mild comedy, throwing away the incredible opportunity that came with the "Witless Protection" story.

But now, oh. We're four weeks into "The Taking of the Michael," written by Abnett and illustrated by Patrick Goddard, and it's remarkable. Ray and Finny are dangerous, ruthless, and completely horrifying in a way that they're rarely depicted. In episode two of the story, one of two bent witness protection agents arranges for our heroes to be abducted in broad daylight, and that turns out to be an awfully bad error. I love the way that Goddard draws the violence. It's depicted with cold, brutal realism and just left my eyes popping.

And I am completely loving the structure of this story. It's told in flashback, as two detectives investigate the aftermath of a huge gunfight on the deck of a yacht. It belongs to longtime series villain Moses Tanenbaum. There are many bodies, many chalk outlines. Each episode opens with a few more words from their investigation, a few more clues as to what will happen as the story unfolds. We're not sure who has died, but each episode shows more of the small supporting cast meeting grisly ends before Ray and Finny even make it to the ship. The second federal agent's wallet has been found. It's possible that she's among the fatalities.

For that matter, our heroes may not have made it out of this one alive. Sure, they probably did, but if any comic in history has ever made readers genuinely question the safety of its characters, it's 2000 AD. The brutality and shock of this story is strong enough that I'm perfectly prepared to place one bet on this story quietly concluding the long-running series (almost twenty years!) with the revelation of the leads' deaths, while also placing a second bet on them making it out alive and showing up in another four-part satire next summer. Fingers crossed for the former, but whichever way, I am absolutely enjoying the daylights out of the uncertainty, and reading each episode with relish. Highly recommended.

(Clicking the link in the image will take you to 2000 AD's online shop, where you can purchase the issue that begins the story. 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.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Domestic Chic

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 Domestic Chic (Waldorf, 2015).

I have grown to really enjoy reading cookbooks. I go through them slowly and deliberately, lingering over the photography and the lists of ingredients, marking the ones that seem the most amazing and appealing with post-it notes, and hoping, occasionally with a slight bite of the lip, that Marie will play with what she found for a Sunday dinner.

I didn't get that opportunity this time. We were invited to look over an advance copy of Domestic Chic by Kristin Sollenne, a chef and nutritionist, and Marie claimed the book first. She really liked the breezy, fun, keep-it-simple attitude that Sollenne advocates, and the book vanished for several days. When I next saw it, Marie had it propped up in the kitchen one Sunday evening, prepping what turned out to be a delicious dinner of Chicken Piccata. Click that link and you can read all about it over at our food and travel blog, Marie, Let's Eat!. But wait! What about my post-it notes?!

Sollenne has worked with the New York City Restaurant Group since 2008, and currently oversees a chain called Bocca Di Bacco that specializes in southern Italian cuisine, which has three locations in that city. She's written a remarkably readable cookbook that we're certain to use for many years to come. It's broken down by seasons, with many full menus throughout to help planners arrange their meals in full, rather than pairing individual dishes from different parts of the book. That's not to say anybody's obliged to follow the menus that she's created, but it certainly makes it easier for readers who wish to.

The chicken dish that Marie prepared was really tasty, and I'm looking forward to whatever she creates next. I see that she's marked a page with Mixed Stuffed Peppers. We'll be on the road this Sunday. Maybe next?

A copy of this book was provided by the publicist 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, September 1, 2015


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 Helium (Rebellion, 2015).

One of the most interesting things that I've read recently is the latest story by Ian Edginton for 2000 AD. It's called Helium, and it launched in July with a twelve-part opening serial illustrated by D'Israeli.

Helium takes place in the future, when chemical warfare has rendered all low-lying lands poisoned by chemical warfare. Survivors built new civilizations on higher ground, above a toxic cloud that instantly kills. Three hundred years of peace and trade and progress later, and airships start disappearing. Something is active underneath that cloud, with its own technology.

Edginton does his usual job creating a unique and awesome lead heroine. Her name is Constable Hodge, and she's a no-nonsense officer who puts the safety of her community first, and, as the story unfolds, is revealed to have a pretty interesting rogue's gallery from prior arrests. She's accompanied by a very curious cyborg called Solace and there's a lot we still have to learn about him, and I can't wait. On the other hand, I was really disappointed that Edginton fell back on an old trope of having the heroine's warnings that something really needs to be investigated falling on the deaf ears of a council obsessed with orthodoxy and not wanting to cause panic. If I never read such a thing again, I'd be grateful, especially since the structure of this story would barely change if the government had said this was worth investigating.

I really enjoyed the first serial despite this, thanks in part to D'Israeli's amazing artwork. He's an artist who doesn't take shortcuts, and this time out, he gets to use a beautiful color palette. I love his designs for absolutely everything - the homes, the staircases, the cyborgs, the big floating ships, the tanks, and the lightweight aircraft. It's a gorgeous series and I can't wait for more of it.

That brings me to the other flaw. Unfortunately, as he often did in some of his other series, especially The Red Seas and Brass Sun, Edginton ends this first 12-parter on a cliffhanger, but these are never the best structured cliffhangers. Since, by 2000 AD's design, each individual episode ends on a shock or a revelation, I wish that he'd always move the story to a good place to leave it. There's clearly a lot more going on in Helium that we've not learned yet, and I'm very keen to know more, but building each published chunk of the saga as a story in its own right, to a defined conclusion to each part of the narrative, will make each chunk much more memorable. Especially since the vagaries of 2000 AD's publishing schedule means that it will probably be quite a few months before this cliffhanger is resolved. Dang it!

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


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.