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.

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.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

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 Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Bloomsbury, 2003).


This could well be my very favorite fantasy novel... not that there's a whole mess of competition, as I generally don't care much for the genre. I reread it recently, and it took a little while. My edition is more than 1000 pages long; it took several days to finish. I didn't mind at all. It's an epic story that takes place over the course of more than a decade. It shouldn't be read in a single sitting.

The novel is an alternate history that suggests sometime in the 15th Century, magic was somewhat common to England, but it fell into disuse, neglect, and not a little embarrassment, after the "Raven King," John Uskglass, abdicated his strange claim to a throne of sorts, incorporating the north of England and some of the kingdoms of Fairie. Centuries later, in the early 1800s, a recluse called Mr Norrell decides it is time for English magic to return, but only on his terms.

Not long after Norrell sets himself up in London society and finds ways of getting in good with the government, he takes on a brash pupil, the talented and slightly arrogant Jonathan Strange. He, in turn, is asked by the government to go to Spain and assist the Duke of Wellington in the war against Napoleon. Unbeknownst to both men, an earlier act of magic by Norrell has had amazing and tragic consequences. The wife of Sir Walter Pole lives half her day in our world, exhausted and entranced, and the other half in Fairie, where a thistle-haired gentleman slowly - very slowly - plots to restore magic to Earth in his own way...

The story itself is absolutely fantastic and huge fun, and I can't wait until the TV adaptation (January of next year, they say...?), but the way that this book is written is part of the joy of the story. It's full of archaic spelling and sentence construction, and punctuated throughout with lengthy footnotes. Some readers have been seen to complain about them, missing the simplicity behind them. Many are effectively short stories set in the same world. Highly recommended for readers with a couple of weeks free.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Keeper

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 Keeper (Atria, 2014).

Can't help but spoil this one a little, friends. It's a doozy.


John Lescroart writes the very best legal mysteries in the business. His characters - a great family of friends centered around attorney Dismas Hardy and retired cop Abe Glitzky - shine like none others in the world of series fiction. I love the way that anybody from the group can take the lead role in an adventure. This time out, it's Abe's turn.

In The Keeper, a deputy at the San Francisco County jail comes to Dismas after five days of his wife being missing. Even though she has not been found, Abe's former colleagues at homicide have come around to begin the interview process, suspecting foul play. Abe has been stagnating since his enforced retirement in an earlier novel, so Dismas hires him to help find the wife and, if indeed she has been murdered, find the actual killer.

You wouldn't be surprised, after twenty-five years writing these characters - who age in real time! - if Lescroart started to rest a little bit and let the trappings of the cozies creep into his stories, like pretty much all his peers in the genre do. But he's constantly surprising readers with new left-field changes in the characters' lives, and still coming up with really terrific plot twists.

Take this one. Indeed, the wife has been murdered, and her death is connected to several others. We know that two characters, call 'em BAD GUYS X and Y, are behind it. The book is fifty pages from its conclusion when BAD GUY X is found dead in a car, victim of a self-inflicted gunshot. So the protagonists start looking into the probability that BAD GUY Y shot his partner and staged a suicide. Round about page 272, I suddenly got a tingle in the spine. I knew BAD GUY Y didn't do it. There were just enough tantalizing clues to make the readers see that FEMALE SUPPORTING PLAYER A did it. I didn't want it to be her. Twelve pages crept by like glaciers. Surely it was me misreading things. Thirteen. Nope. Couldn't have been BAD GUY Y. He has an alibi for the first killing. Had to be the lady. I winced the whole time, and exclaimed aloud. I never do that.

So Abe goes to talk to the lady. And IT IS NOT HER EITHER. It's an absolutely. completely brilliant bit of misdirection and I loved it to pieces. Have you ever seen the Mission: Impossible episode "The Mind of Stefan Miklos," I wonder? It's hailed as one of the best episodes of TV drama ever. In it, the team has to very subtly put clues together so that their target thinks he's put a puzzle together. They have to make him think that he has cleverly uncovered something which does not actually exist. It's unbearably complex and complicated - it makes absolutely no sense in a cut-up syndication copy because there's not thirty seconds of footage not critical to the plot - but anyway, what makes this so darn fun in The Keeper is that Lescroart is simultaneously bluffing the detectives in the narrative and bluffing the reader with asides and clues that they don't have. Double misdirection! I loved it to pieces.

Start with Dead Irish, if you haven't already. Highly, highly recommended.