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


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


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.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Whispers Under Ground

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 Whispers Under Ground (Del Rey, 2012).

I saw this book in my wife's to-read pile and asked "Hey! Ben Aaronovitch! You know who he is, right?"

"Never heard of him," she said. "The book sounded promising."

"He wrote a really great Doctor Who serial and another one a year later that was a lot worse. Then he wrote some of the Who novels for Virgin, each of which was better than the previous one. One of those names-to-watch, young talent of the early nineties, who sort of faded from view. I wondered what happened to him." Turns out he wrote some direct-to-CD Blake's 7 audio dramas and not much more in the way of fiction during the 2000s. In early 2011, Gollancz released Rivers of London, the first in a series of urban fantasy novels featuring a young constable, Peter Grant, who gets inducted into a secretive branch of the London police force that investigates magical doings.

Whispers Under Ground is the third in the series and I really enjoyed it. I especially liked that while modern magic plays a big role in PC Grant's life and career and punctuates the plot and characters throughout, it is not the critical element of the actual investigation of the crime, which revolves around a doozy of a locked room mystery. The son of a New York state senator, studying art at a London college, is found dead in a station on the city's underground "Tube" Circle Line, stabbed in the back with a piece of pottery. CCTV shows him emerging from the tunnel, mortally wounded, but there's no indication of him entering the system that day. The transport police know about several service shafts and connections that the general public don't, but there's no indication that he used those, either.

The solution requires going back to the Underground's construction, and the architectural compromises made to accommodate steam engines that ran beneath the surface, and some unscrupulous vegetable sellers, and "nazareth" black markets that constantly shift location to avoid detection. It's a very fun and fascinating story, full of history and research that turn a good story into a great one. I enjoyed this a lot, and hope to read the other books in the series soon. Recommended.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Chop Suey, USA

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 Chop Suey, USA (Columbia University Press, 2014).

You know you're reading a book for academic types when this happens: the author, Yong Chen, who's an associate professor of history at the University of California - Irvine, makes a point that "the development of American Chinese food followed the trajectory of America's evolution as an empire." He then spends the next eight pages defining what the heck he means by "empire." Oh, settle in, readers, because sweet and sour chicken might be comfort food for some of you, but this won't be comfort reading for anybody.

Chop Suey, USA is a dry but fact-stuffed analysis of the socioeconomic rise of inexpensive food made for the masses, cooked with compromises for American tastes and shortcuts for ease of service. Food in Chinese restaurants was, in the days before McDonald's, the least expensive dining-out option, letting people in the early 20th Century have a taste of affordable cooking outside their homes on a regular basis.

So this is a denser read than something that would come with a Food Network logo on the front cover. It required me to reactivate long dormant parts of my brain, the ones that, once upon a time, wrote 65 dense, dense pages about Ezra Pound's embrace of fascism in Italy, to tackle any more than about seven pages of economic theory, class, history, and sociology without falling asleep. Those of you who are used to the academic need to explain and footnote absolutely everything for fear of some peer asking a question they had not already answered in meticulous detail - that's why academic texts are so damn dry, because the writers are anticipating scrutiny that the rest of us, particularly bloggers, don't suffer in quite the same way - will probably find this an interesting little jaunt over the last 150 years.

On the other hand, those of you who are interested in the history of Chinese-American cuisine in a slightly more offhand and anecdotal way will find this, frankly, a longwinded bore. See, for me, Chinese-American food was historically a reasonable compromise to enjoy with friends or family who liked it more than me. I knew that it was not "traditional" or "authentic," but never really knew what was until about the last eighteen months, when I started digging into the menus of some Chinese-owned restaurants along Buford Highway in northeast Atlanta that do not really advertise to Americans, or cater to them with sweet and sour sauce, orange goop, or MSG. I make a distinction between what I term suburban Golden-This-Happy-That joints and the more authentic ones, and I wondered whether that's really fair. This book leads me to think that I'm correct. Chapter 7 goes into this in great detail. Interestingly, chop suey itself has gradually fallen out of favor - I honestly don't think that I've ever had it - and kung pao chicken or shrimp is more frequently seen as the most popular Chinese-American takeout dish. Neither dish is generally known inside China.

Don't get me wrong - this is a good book and an enlightening one. The conclusion and the afterword, "Why Study Food?," are fascinating essays on their own, but I found myself craving a lighter touch, more anecdotes, and more studies of modern subcultures where authentic Chinese cooking may be available for locals to find, instead of pages and pages of old economic theories. Recommended, mildly, with a cup of coffee by your side.