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.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Great Zoo of China

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 Great Zoo of China (Gallery, 2015).

Regular readers of the Bookshelf know that I really try to avoid spoilers. In the case of The Great Zoo of China, the new novel by Matthew Reilly, I paused over the name in Entertainment Weekly, read some words like "animal previously unknown to science," and looked away with a smile, thinking "Yeti."

Nope. My spoiler-avoidance was ruined when I opened the book and saw Chinese dragons on the endpapers. Ah, well. Perhaps there will be a story about abominable snowmen in a zoo some other day.

It won't take readers very long to see where this book is going. It's Jurassic Park with dragons, a female lead, the Chinese army, and lots of machine guns. It's a thriller that acknowledges its roots - Michael Crichton's book is mentioned at least twice in the text with thematic callbacks peppered throughout it - and is super fast-paced, with darn little character development as things fall completely apart. The world-building is incredibly interesting. I love the speculation about how the Chinese government would develop such a zoo in secrecy, how they'd construct it and staff it. It's simply a much larger enterprise than anything that some billionaire could concoct on Isla Nublar; there are important people in the government and military who, after years and years of consultation with marketing people from Disney, are convinced that this zoo will turn their nation into the dominant cultural center of the planet, and they're willing to kill to ensure that happens.

As for the whole business of things falling apart and dragons eating people, well, it's been done before. Cassandra "CJ" Cameron is a pretty fun heroine, although possessed of superhuman stamina for all she and her fellow VIPs endure. Some of the dragon battles whiz by so quickly you'll forget to eat any popcorn. A big change in the narrative hinges on CJ communicating with one of the dragons, which, even in a book about dragons ranging in size up to big airplane-length beasts, is faintly ridiculous. I could have done with two fewer close calls and sixty-eleven fewer explosions and more about the politics of the piece, but should he ever sell the movie rights, close calls and explosions will be what this story's all about. Very mild recommendation for popcorn eaters.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

March Book Two

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 March Book Two (Top Shelf, 2015).

The eagle-eyed among you have probably noticed that I write about very few comics these days other than 2000 AD, but the exception to that rule is the simply amazing March, which is Congressman John Lewis's memoir, co-written with Andrew Aydin and drawn, amazingly, by Nate Powell.

I think that even if I had any artistic ability, I wouldn't want Powell's job. Illustrating the tale of the civil rights movement requires him to draw people being incredibly ugly and horrible and hateful to the point that it made my skin crawl and my eyes tear up. Once upon a time, I'd have said that depicting the enormous crowds of the March on Washington would have been the greatest challenge, but no, it's probably having to draw the unfathomable horribleness of the people in Birmingham or Montgomery or Rock Hill assaulting black citizens for no damn reason whatever. This book will break your heart and make you really angry.

After the first book set up the young Lewis's introduction to nonviolent protesting and lunch counter sit-ins, principally in Nashville, this time out, the focus shifts to the equally passive resistance of the Freedom Riders. The civil rights struggle spread throughout the southeast and many different agencies participated at different levels of involvement, but Lewis and his group stayed passive and refused to pay bail once arrested, thus denying money to the governments that were arresting them.

The action moves around the south, from bus stations in Birmingham to hellhole prisons in Mississippi to last-minute rewrites of speeches in faceless offices in Washington in preparation for the big day. All the while, southern rednecks of the sixties embarrass us who love to live here in the present, Bobby Kennedy urges a little more patience and caution, and the televised highlights of the violence in Alabama begin to force the feds' hands.

It's flatly an amazing and heartbreaking and life-affirming work. I can't wait to see the third and final volume. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Zenith Phase Three

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 Three (Rebellion, 2015).

There's a bit very early on in the third, longest, and very best of the Zenith adventures which lets readers know what they're in for, and which might - with the right cultural background - be one of the all-time best cliffhangers in comics. Grant Morrison has always been really amazing with cliffhangers, but he set the bar really high when Zenith, his spoiled brat of a pop star with super powers, opens the door of his apartment and Robot Archie, the star of a long-running but mostly-forgotten clunky old kids' adventure, is standing in front of him bellowing "ACIEEED," which was the catchphrase of a hit dance song of the day that has also mostly been forgotten.

So in 1989, you had this twenty year-old robot everybody forgot about shouting along to a dance song earworm by D-Mob that everybody reading the comic couldn't get out of their head, and readers of the far-flung future of 2015 are now seeing a forty-five year-old robot mostly known to the world from his appearance in this particular comic, shouting along to a "you had to be there" one-hit wonder, and yet it's strangely still compelling and ridiculous. Even not knowing the pop cultural touchpoints, you can see that there's a contamination of Things That Should Not Be standing at Zenith's door. It could have perhaps been the Robot from Lost in Space singing "I'm Too Sexy" and we'd recognize it a little better, but hate it for its garishness. Robot Archie, instead, points the way toward the secret history of comics that unfolds over the next 140 pages, a glorious epic that swallows the narrative and leaves Zenith a supporting player in his own story.

"Phase Three," also known as "War in Heaven," originally appeared in 26 episodes across nine months of the Galaxy's Greatest Comic, 2000 AD in 1989-90, and has newly been released in a lovely hardback edition for the first time. It's an incredibly fun story which draws its inspiration from DC Comics' ongoing use of parallel universes and superheroes from other timelines all working together to beat some impossible threat. That's what happens here, with long-forgotten characters from older kids' comics all banded together for the first time to save the Multiverse. Some of them have been tweaked a little - "Big Ben" is a moody, Soviet version of the cowboy Desperate Dan - and some, like The Steel Claw, The Leopard of Lime Street, Electroman and Electrogirl, came straight from the 1960s intact. The result was thousands of readers raising their eyebrows in surprise, learning that once upon a time, there were indeed superhero comics in England.

At the same time this was running, Morrison was actually working in American superhero books for the first time, writing Animal Man for DC and exploring many of the same themes, as Animal Man ran across forgotten characters like Sunshine Superman and the Green Team from long-discarded and "unimportant" old comics. It's downright criminal that "War in Heaven" has been out of print for so long, because the similarities between the stories are really amazing. Animal Man has been dissected and praised for such a long time, and for readers to finally get to play compare and contrast with how Morrison approached the concepts for each publisher from nice bookshelf editions is long overdue.

It's a heck of a fun story, with so many superheroes - most of them are not named, and a heck of a lot of 'em get killed off, so there's not a lot of point in slowing down and trying to figure out who's who - at work against impossible odds, and Zenith, smugly thinking this all looks like a convention for pervs and leather fetishists, not taking things seriously until the body count rises. The story is admittedly dated somewhat by the grisly narrative and fates for some of the characters. It's one of many (many) superhero stories to take inspiration from earlier works by Frank Miller and Alan Moore that depict the "realistic" take on what would happen if super-strong people actually punched each other.

The story's illustrated by Steve Yeowell with buckets and buckets of black ink. Many years later, I'd be among many who complained about the sparse inking of Yeowell's The Red Seas. That's probably because we were spoiled by these incredibly dense pages, with so much excitement going on, deep shadows and detailed linework. It's just a huge pleasure to look at the angular, sometimes abstract work in this comic, and not just because you want to play the incredibly silly and fun game of identifying all the characters. The collection's also got a one-off tale featuring one of Zenith's co-stars, Peter St. John, that's illustrated by Jim McCarthy.

Over the last couple of years in 2000 AD, they've been resurrecting some of their old properties like Ulysses Sweet and Orlok for new adventures and making them semi-regulars in the comic. The nicest compliment that I can pay "War in Heaven" is that it's impossible to read this and not ask where in the hell the publisher's put the Blue Wizard and Oakman series that damn well should have appeared by now instead of Yet Another Rogue Trooper spinoff. 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, March 31, 2015

Pure Pork Awesomeness

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 Pure Pork Awesomeness: Totally Cookable Recipes from Around the World (Andrews McMeel, 2015).

Chef Kevin Gillespie's PR team asked me whether I'd like to have a look at his new cookbook, which is all about what you can do with pork. Twist my arm, why don't you?

Gillespie, whose restaurant Gunshow is one of the most celebrated and popular in Atlanta, grew up here in Georgia, and I was pleasantly surprised to read that he learned a thing or two about how different parts of the pig are used in cooking when, as a teenager, he started asking questions of the staff at Fresh Air BBQ near Jackson. They use hams there rather than shoulders, which most barbecue joints in this state will smoke. There's a place near Hoschton called John's that also uses hams, but not a whole lot of other restaurants do this.

This cookbook, a follow-up to his 2012 debut, Fire in My Belly, is full of side stories like that which make the experience of reading it so much more fun than most cookbooks. He starts with about twenty pages discussing sustainability, the history of hog breeding, and the important distinctions between pastured and commodity pork. He never talks down to the reader; he makes a strong case for spending the extra money to eat better because the results simply taste a lot better. His tone throughout is approachable and friendly and full of great anecdotes. There's a really funny story from a restaurant where Gillespie had worked previously, Woodfire Grill, in which an older customer chews him out for taking his popular pork belly dish off the menu, and that's one of several great ones. Decades from now, when Gillespie retires, he's going to write a great memoir.

But the main draw for this will be the recipes and how interesting and / or simple they appear to be. And also the photography by Angie Mosier. I read most of this book one evening last week in Memphis, and the only reason that I didn't have to stop looking at her drool-worthy pictures and go eat something was that I'd visited four barbecue restaurants that day and had a fairly full meal at each of them. This is some of the best food photography I've ever seen. Speaking with the authority of somebody who is responsible for some of the worst food photography available online, I was remarkably impressed by this.

But ANYWAY, the recipes. I love Gillespie's encouraging attitude and his inclusion of "worth knowing" tips to make food preparation even easier. Some of these sound terrific: his "really good" Cuban and ham sandwiches that could even be assembled by a bumbler like me, the pork minute steaks with potato pancakes and pumpkin butter that I hope we'll have for supper one evening just as soon as we buy a nice, heavy skillet for them, pork vindaloo, tacos al pastor... no, I wasn't hungry when I read the book, but, foolishly, I waited until now to write this story, and I'm not meeting a friend for lunch for another three hours and forty minutes.

On a final note, because my God, I have to stop thinking about food, I am particularly pleased by Gillespie's recipe for Brunswick stew, which does NOT include potatoes. I am so tired of restaurants sticking those cheap extenders in the stew, especially when they then turn around and charge you extra for it because it's a "premium" side. I think I need to start carrying a copy of this book around with me, and when some barbecue joint serves me a bowl of stew with potatoes, pull it out and firmly tell them, "Page 218." Probably tap on the cover with a heavy, authoritative finger, too. Recommended before a meal, but not too many hours before it.

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