Saturday, December 31, 2011

Welcome to the Nerd Farm!

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 Welcome to the Nerd Farm! (Andrews McMeel, 2007).



At last, I have purchased the only outstanding hole in my Doonesbury library. I put it off because I was just completely certain that somebody was going to announce the incredibly long-overdue comprehensive reprint program that I have been hoping to see around the time of the 40th anniversary celebrations this year, but, well, as 2011 comes to a close and we still don't have one...

(We do have two more recent collections than this. I received 2009's Tee Time in Berzerkistan as a gift when it was released. Red Rascal's War, the latest collection, is quite new and on my to-do list to pick up sometime.)

It took me a long time, but I recently reread all of Doonesbury that is in print, which is about 70% of it. I had been keeping a blog which detailed what strips were missing, but man alive, did that ever turn into a chore. It's much more satisfying to just read without letting it turn into work. Around 2002, the books entered their sixth design incarnation - oh, my poor, ugly shelves! - and at least seemed to finally start collecting every strip without skipping any. These are easily picked out as the large format books, about 8x11, with black spines.

The principal storylines in this collection, which is set during George Bush's second term and cover all the empire-crumbling shenanigans around it, include Alex's first hectic year at MIT, BD's PTSD, and Mike attempting to convince his mother to come live in Seattle with him and his wife Kim. As always, the cast grows, and there's plenty of self-aware humor in the reader mail. Creator Garry Trudeau never goes for the easy answer, and keeps complicating things for his characters. It's a terrific, and very funny read. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Brideshead Revisited

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, and, in this instance, spoiler-laden review of Brideshead Revisited (Chapman and Hall, 1945).



It is very difficult to embrace a book when you spend pretty much the entirety of the narrative wanting to punch at least one of the major characters in the snoot. Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited came across my radar after an unusual fashion. I had finished reading Jill Paton Walsh's The Attenbury Emeralds and wondered just how big these gigantic aristocratic country houses were meant to be. My take on things, having read a little about them, is that between the wars, Great Britain had better than a hundred of these gigantic Biltmore-sized estates, to use a scale that Southerners like me will recognize, which is an awful lot of great freaking big, ungainly houses in an awfully small area. In the same sized area here, we've got Biltmore and the RJ Reynolds Estate, I think, and that's it.

Anyway, Brideshead came recommended as a book that dealt with the decline of the country estates. I knew of the 1980s TV serial, of course, but mainly how it came to epitomize, in the US, the culture snobbery that informs perceptions of PBS's Masterpiece Theatre, despite the fact that it never actually aired on that anthology program. I checked out the novel and was, initially, taken with things. It starts during World War Two, and an officer named Charles Ryder's unit is billeted at the decrepit and crumbling Brideshead, prompting him to remember how well he remembered his time as a visitor here.

When Ryder was first introduced to Brideshead, it was as a guest of his college chum, Lord Sebastian Flyte, in the 1920s. They met at Oxford, and how Ryder failed to kick the drunk sissy in the tail, I can't guess. I don't know that I can recall a less sufferable character in fiction than Sebastian. Waugh, writing with a discreet and polite edge, masks their friendship in words and code that leave it to readers' interpretation of how close these two are. I understand that the more recent feature adaptation of the novel just goes full bore and depicts them as lovers, which is the most likely reading. Particularly after Lord Sebastian, the younger son of Lord Marchmain, the Marquess of Marchmain, later makes his way, embarrassingly, across Europe and North Africa in the company of other effeminate drunks, usually under the patient, understanding, tutelage of some priest or other, only the determined would insist there's no hanky panky going on here. Even without actually seeing the TV serial, you can still visualize how all these urbane, sensitive, blow-dried dimwits, as played by Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews influenced the New Romantic movement. I don't actually need to watch the TV Brideshead when a single Spandau Ballet video will do.

But Sebastian... well, he carries around a teddy bear named Aloysius. At college. He tells his barber that he needs a brush with extra-thick bristles for when Aloysius misbehaves and needs a jolly good spanking. What a pathetic, humiliating child. Did Morrissey read this book before he went onstage with a pocket full of gladiolas?

Charles ends up being asked by Sebastian's mother to leave Brideshead and never return after he goes well out of his way to enable Sebastian's drinking. So he goes off, continuing his burgeoning art career, marries another classmate's daughter, lovelessly, spends months in South America drawing things and preparing for a show, reacts to the news that his wife had a daughter, conceived the night he left, with all the interest one might give a rubber ball, and, just like that, I was ready to punch his snoot pretty viciously as well. But his wife Celia's not faithful - naturally, it would make things difficult if Charles was seen to be cruel - and Charles takes up with, of all people, Lady Julia, who is Sebastian's younger sister. And she's also in a marriage of convenience for some idiotic reason.

Let me go back to Walsh. One of the many things that she caught when she took up the characters of Lord Peter Wimsey and his family is that Dorothy L. Sayers made Helen, the Duchess of Denver, a completely awful shrew by virtue of her devotion to duty over love. This book is full of upper-class imbeciles who, like Helen, care more about duty than anything else, forcing them into situations where they excuse their awful, hideous behavior. Waugh puts an interesting twist on things by having the family feel very strongly about their responsibilities as Catholics. It guides their behavior in unexpected ways, particularly as Julia plans to marry the dumb cluck of her life, only to learn quite late in the day that he was divorced some years previously in Canada. It also sets up the climax, when Lord Marchmain comes home to die, taking for-bleeding-ever to do so, and the rules of Julia's faith suddenly throw everything in the air, ruining even the last salvage of something happening in this book that I wanted to see happen. And, just like that, I was ready to take a strong-bristled hairbrush to Lady Julia's rear.

If you can stand any of these idiots, you might be intrigued and interested in how Waugh constructs the novel, and be impressed by his use of language. On the other hand, I found it agonizing and downright exasperating, watching jerks treat each other contemptuously and without connection for years and years. I think most of them got the fates they deserved, but I couldn't even muster any reason to care. Not at all recommended.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Embroideries

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 Embroideries (Pantheon, 2005).



About the best that I can say about Embroideries, which I suppose you could label a "graphic novella" by Marjane Satrapi, is that I don't think I've ever read anything laid out in this fashion before. It has elements of being a comic to it, but if the artist's simple and endearing artwork in Persepolis occasionally threatened to dissolve into unconnected lines and polygons, this goes further to the edge. This book doesn't even have panel borders, and while most of the pages have two or more drawings on them, connected by the narration and dialogue, it doesn't look at all like any comic I've ever seen. I like this a lot.

The story is about little kaffeeklatsches that Satrapi and her grandmother enjoyed in Tehran, "ventilations of the heart" where they gossiped behind all the absent friends' backs about sex. It is an occasionally amusing look at the sex lives of Iranian women, from the ones in control to the so hopelessly conservative that they've never seen their husbands naked.

Briefly, then, it is an unusual topic, told with frank candor and in an agreeably unusual format. It's probably not a book that I will return to very often, and not one that really generated much enthusiasm or inspiration, but certainly a book that I enjoyed reading. Recommended with minor reservations.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Penny Century

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 Penny Century (Love & Rockets Maggie Series vol. 4) (Fantagraphics, 2010).



Love & Rockets is the only series that I don't mind purchasing and repurchasing in multiple editions, although a much, much tighter budget of late has left me far behind with this series. I like the way that Jaime Hernandez's stories read in different configurations. Approaching his little slices of life through flashback or in different sequences lets little details, the sort of which most readers probably miss the first time around, take new shapes and new levels of importance. I really love these paperback editions, about seven and a half by nine, and I even like that the books are unnumbered. This is probably the only book series about which I'll ever say such a thing.

Design nerd that I am, Jacob Covey's packaging on these books is so incredibly appealing, and it honestly doesn't matter in which order people read them. The stories certainly move forward, but at the same time making several looks back. When the two-part "Election Day" climaxes with Hopey learning that there has been a big, important development in Maggie's life that she's missed entirely, it's a punch in the gut that gives Hernandez the chance to turn time back and show what happened. He does this better than darn near anybody else in comics.

Although, while I'm on the subject of design, the only failing of these books is not enumerating where these stories originally appeared. I think that these are all the stories from the graphic novel Whoa Nellie!, the one-off comic Maggie and Hopey Color Fun, and the six or seven issues of Penny Century, in which the characters appeared between the two separate volumes of the ongoing Love & Rockets anthology, along with at least one story from a few issues into volume two.

I think that almost all of it was previously reprinted at least twice before, including in the large hardcover Locas II, a celebrated coffee table book which also contained other, later, material. The design nerd in me cares, and I suspect that budget-minded readers who don't wish to duplicate their purchases might want to know. Small, italicized subscript on the table of contents would answer anybody's questions.

You know, Judge Dredd: "Midnight Surfer," originally appeared in progs 424-429. It's not hard.

Anyway, the "Whoa Nellie!" story lets a couple of the series' minor supporting characters take center stage as Hernandez indulges in his fetish of women's wrestling. It's astonishingly well-drawn, and I love the way he chooses to let pages and pages of combat go on without any dialogue or sound effects, focusing exclusively on the fighting. "Maggie and Hopey Color Fun," presented here in black and white, returns to the main characters, apparently several months after the stories at the end of the previous volume in this series, Perla la Loca. There's a brief allusion to Maggie being missed at home, something revealed in greater detail later in the book, but otherwise, things are back to what passes for normal with our heroines. Hopey waits impatienly, but understandingly, for her flighty soulmate to get her shit together, and tempers her hormones in the meantime by trying to break up her brother and his current squeeze.

They remain on the periphery of Penny Century's life, as they attend a pool party thrown by one of billionaire HR Costigan's other ex-wives, Norma. As ever, the cast grows and swells with new additions. Norma and her daughter with Costigan end up on the lam at one point, trying to avoid an army of attorneys and policemen as Costigan hovers near death. Penny drives Maggie's former lover Ray crazy, does Hopey's hair, sends Maggie down a "horror highway," which is precisely where the flighty Maggie doesn't need to drive, and, either to hide out or to help Izzy with her anxieties, she moves in and mandates that they won't wear clothes anymore. We might accuse Hernandez of giving into another fetish in stories like "Inquiritis!," but, with art this nice, who'd be so churlish?

Actually, though, despite the prurient fun of stories like that, my favorite part of the book is the surreal "The Race," in which Maggie finally meets the little beast inside her "that makes ya fuck up every day of yer shit life," and finds herself woefully unable to cope. As ever, there's just a tiny hint of extra-normal fantasy at work in the stories, just enough for readers to accept that there's something very strange over the horizon or in Izzy's psyche, but never enough to overwhelm the wonderful, human reality of these beloved characters. Highly recommended for older readers.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror

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 Rumpole and the Reign of Terror (Viking, 2006).



I didn't actually intend to read this book. I felt that after suffering the disappointments of three volumes of John Mortimer's lackluster short stories about Rumpole, none of them a patch on the television scripts, I was pleased to end on the very high note of his terrific novel Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders. So I had to bite my lip a little when my friend David offered to lend me this 2006 novel, worried that it might spoil the very happy memory of the very good book that I'd finished. Since I'm certainly not quite so tacky as to reward a friend's generous thought that I should enjoy it with a negative review - it's not like this is some infernal Harry Potter book here, and the lender a fangirl blind to its faults - you dear readers have probably guessed that I did enjoy this novel a good deal in the end.

This time out, Rumpole is again defending one of the members of the extended Timson family when a niece of the present accused asks for his help. Her husband, a doctor born in Pakistan, has been arrested as a terrorist and, because the security of the nation is at stake, not told what the evidence against him is; indeed, not even told specifically what he's meant to have done. Attempting a defense is one of Rumpole's greatest challenges to date; because of the classified nature of the intelligence, even he can't find out where he's supposed to begin.

Britain's draconian laws meant to protect its citizens from terror attacks had clearly got under Mortimer's skin. There was actually a lot of outrage from very good writers about just how oppressive things were getting at this time. A 2005 John Wagner-scripted episode of Judge Dredd, illustrated by Phil Winslade, was written from a similar perspective of disgust and distrust. Poor Rumpole is finding the evolving basics of courtroom behavior enough of a struggle - judges with word processors? - and to have the laws amended so that hearsay can be entered into evidence is almost too much to bear. And now this.

Things are also as bad as ever on the home front. She Who Must Be Obeyed and her eternal ally Dodo are not at all pleased with Rumpole sinking so low as to defend a terrorist, despite Rumpole's insistence that, in the first place, the government hasn't even started to make a formal case proving that he's anything of the sort, and in the second, he's just "an old taxi," obliged to represent anybody who asks for him. But his intransigence costs him his standing with his best-paying clients, the Timsons, who want nothing to do with either their errant niece or anybody who defends terrorists, and, now that his wife is writing her own memoirs to set straight the record about their tumultuous marriage, it will probably give him a blacker eye there than he thought possible. Then when "the Mad Bull," Lord Justice Bullingham, starts calling around after his wife, you start to wonder just how much an Old Bailey Hack is meant to bear.

This is certainly not a good entry point to the series, as there are quite a few subplots and supporting characters and tightly-drawn continuity by this point, but I would certainly recommend it first to anybody familiar with the character from TV, and secondly to readers not necessarily interested in how it reads as one book in a series, but how well the angry Mortimer handles the controversial subject matter. Not as air-punchingly awesome as The Penge Bungalow Murders, but definitely worth a look.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Cardboard Gods

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 Cardboard Gods (Algonquin, 2010).



I really do love the 1970s more than that decade deserves. Heaven knows why, but I get a real thrill from anything that captures the era as well as this book does.

I contend that the very best sources for understanding the decade are all comics: Doonesbury, Howard the Duck and Oh! Wicked Wanda. The first is, bafflingly, still not available in a complete edition, and the last of the three is, criminally, unlikely to ever be available in any kind of legal reprint. But Josh Wilker's Cardboard Gods belongs to a solid, large and respectable second tier of sources that includes Ellen Forney's Monkey Food, Spike Lee's film Summer of Sam, that documentary about Patty Hearst from a few years ago, and the terrific Big Book of the '70s from Paradox Press.

So this is a memoir about a sensitive, night-terror-troubled kid who spent the seventies on the broken end of one of those unsuccessful experiments in marriage that people attempted in those days, and, with his older brother, moved with his mom and her boyfriend, whom she met on a bus to go protest something in DC, to rural Vermont, near the town of East Randolph. Hoping to live off the land and barter blacksmithing services with the locals, young Josh found comfort and solace in a passion for the Boston Red Sox and in his growing treasure box of Topps baseball cards. Each short chapter begins with a reproduction of an old card, which launches a memory, either about the player and his stats, or what might have been happening in his life when he obtained the card.

There are some great stories here, but a lot of them are pretty painful. Until Josh ends up in one of those oddball schools where kids "learn" at their own pace, it's a constant stream of bullying about his hippie home. Things get a little better when he and his brother try to spend some quality time with their hapless, in-over-his-head father, and, at one point, attempt to see a Ted Nugent concert from nosebleed seats in New York, only to realize shortly afterward that they left after the opening act.

Honestly, the book started to lose me as Wilker left the 1970s about two-thirds of the way into it. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but even his pained memories of the decade seem so vibrant that I wanted it to continue. Talking about how they couldn't pick up NBC programming in this area struck a specific "yes! the seventies were like that!" chord with me, even though I never had that experience myself in suburban Atlanta, and in the end, I selfishly wanted the memoir to be more about the decade than about its author.

The only flaws, in the end, are the ones that the reader projected onto the text. Recommended, but, owing to some pretty explicit details about how The Big Book of Teenage Answers impacted his fantasies of Cheryl Tiegs, not for younger readers.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Persepolis 2

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 Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (Pantheon, 2005).



The second of three Satrapi books that I have read this year, Persepolis 2 was originally published in France as two separate 92-page albums and a dividing line between the two couldn't be more clearly shown without a big flagging caption reading "CONTINUED NEXT ISH!!" underneath the climactic splash page of teenage Marjane donning her veil again, her four years in Europe coming to an ignoble end and preparing to return home.

I'm not sure why I had trouble relating to the material in the first collection, but I really enjoyed this a good deal more. I like Satrapi's artwork a lot, and I like the occasional off-model breakdown into completely wonky anatomy to indicate anger or frustration, such as at the bottom of page 78. I like how she occasionally uses solid black panels, with faces pasted in and outlines of bodies drawn with white-out. As a frustrated, deeply mediocre artist myself, I see in Satrapi the same solutions to artistic problems that I had tried, only with greater success here, and I'm pleased to see that in my own failed comic-world past, I was on the right avenue.

The first half of the book follows Marjane's European misadventure, starting out with high hopes but ending up homeless and spending all day riding trams and getting incredibly sick. She grows up a lot in Austria - addressing a comment left in my article on the previous book, I don't believe that her nihilist punk friend Momo turns into a jerk so much as Marjane, maturing, becomes able to see through his crap.

It all ends in tears, but even back in Iran, Marjane still has a lot of growing up to do. I enjoyed this segment, and the look at how women's lives in public were nothing like the lives they led away from the prying eyes of their police "brothers" who enforced public dress and conduct. An incident where Marjane, needing a distraction, fingers some innocent dude to get away with some lipstick, and initially finds it hilarious, thanks to some enabling by her boyfriend, is really horrifying, considering what that poor guy probably suffered at the hands of armed thugs. The stark black and white silhouettes of a later section with simple shapes of guards chasing students from rooftop to rooftop is over in a flash, but it packs a punch.

Her story comes to an end that's every bit as inevitable as her time in Vienna, and I was caught up the whole time. It's a very good story, and one told well. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Batman: Contagion

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 Batman: Contagion (DC, 1996).



There might be two ways to look at this book, but the question of why in the world I own it should probably be raised. When I lived in Athens in the late 1990s, I would occasionally visit the J&J Flea Market a little north of town. There, one vendor had a very impressive room full of very inexpensive comics. Most of them were three-for-a-dollar and probably worth even less, but he also had several boxes of more entertaining 1970s books - Superman Family, Metal Men and the like - for not more than two bucks each. Occasionally, a trade paperback or graphic novel would slip in for the same very low price, and I would usually snap it up, thinking $1 a quite fair price to sample a very long story from comics with which I was unfamiliar.

I also suffered from that foolish malady common to collectors where I wished to have shelves full of books. The quality could come later; first, I wanted the shelves to look impressive and full. This sometimes meant that I would spend an occasional dollar or two on books that I normally would not, just to swell the shelves. You know the greatest thing about swearing off the bloat of my material world a year and a bit ago? I'm no longer tempted by dumb things like that.

At any rate, I suspected that I wouldn't enjoy the book, and I was proved right. I disliked it from the start, as the designer evidently chose to blow his budget on a long lunch. The very first page of the book is the first page of story, and it opens very abruptly, without any kind of scene-setting or even credits. Parsing out who wrote and drew what, and where this material originally appeared, is like a jigsaw puzzle. On the inside back cover(!), there's a list of comics where these chapters were originally serialized. I count twelve, but there are thrteen chapters inside. The twelfth episode is labeled "part ten." The original covers of these twelve comics are reproduced at the size of postage stamps. Alan Grant is credited as one of the five writers on the inside front cover, but because some of the interior credits are edited out, I'm unable to tell what pages he actually scripted.

In other words, this is yet another slapped-together, thought-free, half-assed cash-in to rip off as many Batman readers as can be suckered in by it. Having said that, it is certainly possible that the $19.99 edition presently in print might have addressed some of this volume's deficiency. That is, after all, a price 50% greater than the $12.95 that DC originally charged for this book. We know that DC is capable of so much better - see their astounding series of Starman Omnibus volumes - and so it's just pathetic seeing how they can just crap out books with the barest minimum of work and get away with it.

But really, all the tinkering in the world couldn't turn these comics into anything readable. DC, like its principal rival, often creates "crossover" stories which wind their way through several loosely-related titles over the course of a couple of months. Indeed, "Contagion" was a management-decreed storyline, mostly (apparently) written by Chuck Dixon, and given to the comics' regular creative teams to tell. For my readers unfamiliar with this practice, it would mean that on one week, you could read part one of the story in Batman # 529, and parts two and three the following week in Catwoman # 31 and in Azrael # 15, and so on. There is, bluntly, no way in the universe that this could ever result in a satisfying read for anybody. It never has worked, and it never will. The closest that it has ever come was in a Grant Morrison-led crossover called One Million, and that worked because DC suspended its normal operations for a single month and let the story, as directed by Morrison, take over its entire line through individually-labeled and designed titles, and even that epic was fraught with pointless, unnecessary moments and melodramas that fell on their faces.

Well, maybe it worked somewhere else. Sometime soon, I'll try looking at a similar Superman crossover event from the period and see how well it reads.

This time out, the five writers attempt to tell a story where a lethal, no-known-cure plague called The Clench is brought to Gotham City and many of the city's wealthiest are trapped with it in a luxury high-rise. They send word to the city's underworld that they will pay five million for a cure, leading Robin, Catwoman and a bounty hunter in a race to find one of the only known survivors of the disease. Meanwhile, Batman, Huntress and Nightwing try to keep order in the city after the Clench escapes into the population, and the untrustworthy Poison Ivy, who is immune to all diseases, is recruited to help.

The patchwork story, with its artificial cliffhangers, just does not engage in any way. Dixon's installments are the most energetic, and Denny O'Neil's the most somber and humorless. At one point, Robin starts to succumb to the Clench, leaving no doubt as to how quickly this plague will be cured. Unresolved subplots from these books wander through and just confused me. Commissioner Gordon has been outed from his job when the book opens, and his replacement is a dim buffoon. The Clench has evidently been dumped into the population, deliberately, by a gang of Azrael's old enemies. I'm sorry to spoil that, but telling you that the rogues' gallery of an already-forgotten C-list supporting character is behind this allegedly important story might best explain why this book is not recommended at all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Attenbury Emeralds

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 Attenbury Emeralds (Hoddard & Stoughton, 2010).



I used to keep a blog about Lord Peter Wimsey, but it turned into work. A chore without pay. Reading Dorothy L. Sayers' novels and stories have always been just about the greatest pleasure imaginable - Gaudy Night, firmly, is my favorite novel of the 20th Century - but I didn't enjoy keeping that blog, and shelved it, and let the books rest for a while longer.

Eventually, happily, my wife finally picked up the first book and started reading. I returned the later Sayers books to my own reading pile to refresh my memory of things so that we could discuss them. I fell in love again so much that I decided to give the fanfic of Jill Paton Walsh another try. When Thrones, Dominations was released in the nineties, I read it without enthusiasm, appreciating the effort but not able to embrace it. I never picked up the second continuation, A Presumption of Death. Each of these were built from, rather than being based on, existing material - an unfinished novel and some magazine articles about how the Wimseys were coping with the war - and it is perhaps discordant and rude of me to use a word as dismissive as "fanfic" to describe Walsh's very hard work, but that's just how I perceive it.

Thing is, though, I love Peter and Harriet so much that, as I reread Have His Carcase and Murder Must Advertise to discuss them with my wife, and we watched the BBC adaptations together, I found myself not only willing to give Walsh another try, but excited. Thrones, Dominations was much improved after collecting dust for so long on my shelf, while A Presumption of Death felt a little long-winded and didn't really inspire either of us to talk much about it. I ordered The Attenbury Emeralds, but Presumption didn't leave me very optimistic. Fortunately, I was very pleasantly surprised.

Set in 1951, with Peter now a striking sixty years old(!), it's a story that begins with Peter telling Harriet the story of his first case, in 1921, eight years before they met. As a personal aside, Walsh chose, unwittingly, to debunk my own theory, unfounded, that Peter had met his close friend, and future brother-in-law, Charles Parker while Peter was still engaged to a woman named Barbara, based on the familiarity with which the two speak of her in Clouds of Witness. One must, grudgingly, concede that Walsh is almost certainly correct, and that Barbara had to be history before Peter had any reason to ever meet Charles. Peter was still yammering about her in 1926, seven years after she dumped him, because that is simply what men, unguarded, will do. The silly ass waited around for Harriet for six years, so we should know full well he lets his romantic fantasies lead him through heartbreak, no matter how long it takes.

Anyway, Peter brings up this first case after they read of the death of Lord Attenbury, whose prized emeralds vanished during an engagement party. The complex story takes quite some time to tell, and when that adventure had concluded, Peter had found his standing and command, and was mostly over the shellshock that had laid him low for most of his first two years back from the war. But there is still a great deal more book to cover, as Attenbury's heir turns up with a curious problem. He needs to sell the emerald, which is stored in a bank, to cover the very high death duties set in place by the government after World War Two, but the bank will not return it, as they have been told that Attenbury was not the actual owner.

As with the best of Sayers novels, the actual detective fiction is equally important to the development of the characters and the very keen sense of social observation. I do regret that Walsh did not take the opportunity to write further adventures set during wartime rather than skipping so far ahead, but this allows her to really get into the disintegration of the aristocracy, its sons and heirs killed in action and the survivors hit with crippling, estate-shattering death duties and the subsequent changing social strata.

Peter and Bunter's relationship is an anachronism in 1951, and events within the family - which, incidentally, absolutely blindsided me - put further strain on their place in the bold new world of the 1950s. Getting to the bottom of the curiosity of the emeralds, and identifying the series of accidents that have been plaguing the family for thirty years as murders, is exciting on one level and might have made for a good read; wondering what will happen next to the Wimseys makes for a spectacular one. Recommended with pleasure, and the hopes of more to come.

(In a perfect world, of course, based on how she handled Peter's fantastic cameo in A Letter of Mary, Laurie King would be writing stories of the 1920s Peter, while Walsh continued in the 1950s. And we would have one novel from each writer in alternating years. And ponies. And ice cream wouldn't make us fat.)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Bite 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 Bite Club (DC/Vertigo, 2007).



When Bite Club, a miniseries written by Howard Chaykin, first appeared in the mid-2000s, I dismissed it out of hand because it looked like pandering. Sexy vampires. If they're in YA prose books, then they're brooding, misunderstood young males, and if they're in comics, then they're aggressive females, usually naked. Make no mistake, Risa, the usually naked central character of the two miniseries, is every bit of a stereotype as Edward in Twilight. It just depends on your target audience. If you're writing for eleven year-old girls curious about sex, your vampire is Edward, and if you're writing for sexually frustrated twentysomething boys, your vampire is Risa.

I paused after I found a very, very cheap collected edition of the eleven issues of Bite Club when I realized David Hahn was credited with the art*. Hahn had, at that point, shown up a surprising number of times in some Bookshelf entries over the summer. I really do like his art quite a lot, and I'd probably enjoy looking at the work even beyond all the bare comic book boobies. Unfortunately, I chose to read it as well.

Oh, most of the original series covers were drawn by Frank Quitely. Some of them are cheeky and silly and those are worth looking at. Just not the text.

Bite Club is every bit as tired and tedious as I felt it would be when I first heard of it, and a lot of it is down to the protagonists who circle around Risa. The premise is that in this world, vampires are treated as an ethnic minority and have been running organized crime in Miami for decades. Just to show how much originality and thought went into this production, the family consigliere is an old Jewish lawyer who calls the young male leads "boychik." Well, of course he does.

But if no thought at all went into coming up with a Sopranos-with-vampires comic, even less thought went into crafting this thing so closely to the Vertigo template that it's practically a parody. Of course Risa is gorgeous, and a lesbian, and gets naked a lot, because this is a Vertigo book! Of course she comes onto the male protagonists, who are unsure and lack confidence about a) sex and b) vampires, who are just a metaphor for sex, because this is a Vertigo book! This hews so closely to the Vertigo stereotype that I think Chaykin spent more time seething about his contempt for the audience than he did developing the characters.

Put another way, when Risa is finally sent to jail early in the second story, above the objections of the rookie detective who has fallen for her aggressive, untouchable charm - and Lord, it's infuriating, the way the "nice boy" becomes so smitten with the idea of Risa as she makes the first move - anyway, when the narrative tells us that Risa is heading for jail, anybody who is unable to guess that Hahn will soon be illustrating an expansive naked girl fight in the prison shower has not read any fiction since kindergarten. It's that obvious, and that tiresome, and, really, not at all sexy and certainly not recommended.

*Note that, owing to poor reading of the credits on the part of this reviewer, the original draft of this review credited co-writer Tischman with pencils and Hahn with inks. I regret the error.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale

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 Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale (2nd edition, BBC, 2010).



This was a little exhausting. It was also a pain in the rear to read! At 704 pages, no paperback will be long for this world without putting only one half of the book down on your reading desk or table at a time while holding the rest gingerly. Since a book as compelling as this will be sending fans and researchers back and forth to their bookshelf constantly, I suspect this was a ploy of BBC Books to sell more copies - one to keep in as-pristine-as-possible condition, and one to have its spine destroyed by constant rereading.

Anyway, it's a lengthy, exhaustive, incredibly engaging back-and-forth correspondence between Doctor Who's executive producer and head writer from 2005-2009, Russell T. Davies, and journalist Benjamin Cook. It starts just before transmission of the 2007 season with David Tennant and Freema Agyeman, while Davies was prepping for the fourth season, which co-starred Catherine Tate, and goes right through the end of Tennant's time in the lead role. It is huge fun, because Davies is so incredibly effusive, candid and indiscreet.

There's a fair amount of celebrity gossip, but it's all much more interesting than trivia. The remarkable stardom of Kylie Minogue will probably leave most American readers, unaware of her really amazing run of British hit singles, baffled, but the genuine affection that Davies has for the actors that the show employed - especially the great Bernard Cribbens, whose real-world wartime experiences became the fictional Wilf's - was great to read.

The best experience is just understanding how Davies somehow managed to function at all in such an incredibly high-stress job. British television drama places far more of the load on one person - Doctor Who, unlike American shows, doesn't have a writers' room - and the amount of rewriting that Davies did on most of the stories will probably have you questioning why on earth he didn't just write every episode himself. I didn't always agree with Davies's choices on Who - despite so much to enjoy and embrace, four of his five super-big endings just fell flat for me - but there's no question that his work is the living definition of a labor of love. Recommended for anybody who enjoys the show, or anybody who wants to write.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Persepolis

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 Persepolis (Pantheon, 2003).



This was an entertaining, albeit occasionally frustrating experience. Marie and I saw the film version ages ago when it was playing at Cine Athens, and we kept intending to pick up the comics from which it was adapted, but just never found the time or pennies to do so. Fortunately, the market took care of that for us. Since the books have been assigned in so many college courses - probably that recent wave of "Graphic Novels 101" that comp lit departments have been offering - there are second-hand copies all over the place now.

You can see why this material really appeals to academics. If you're unfamiliar with Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, it is a memoir of a young girl's childhood in Iran in the mid-1970s, as the Islamic Revolution begins the overthrow of the Shah. Autobiography! Important recent world events! A female writer! Graphic novels! This thing ticks just about every conceivable box of the lit department's diversity checklist. In the defense of the hundreds of undergraduates who have dumped their copies of this book, I can see why it might not appeal to audiences who really want to believe that comic books are synonymous with superhero action.

Like Art Spiegelman's Maus, this is a work that has found so much academic and critical approval that other peoples' opinions get in the way of forming your own. Frankly, it's a book that I wish that I could love, but I really do find it quite cold. I do love her art style, and the bold, clean lines and the stark black and white. I like the simplicity of the flat character designs, but at the same time, they are so simple and so without depth that all of the art is just a breath away from dissolving into random polygons on paper. There were moments where the simplicity got in the way of really connecting with the emotions; young Marjane's immature rant at, and rejection of, God really did not resonate with me.

There are certainly elements and anecdotes that I liked a lot. I love the little tween rebellion that goes on with young Marjane embracing western pop music like Michael Jackson and Kim Wilde and getting grief for it from grown-ups, and I love her character's ongoing naive hero-worship. But after finishing it, I was left with a feeling of curiosity rather than satisfaction. I would like to read more Satrapi, and certainly will, but the elevation of this slight, often whimsical tale into the award-winning juggernaut that it became leaves me utterly baffled. It is cute and charming, but probably not a book that I'll be diving back into any time soon. Recommended with reservations.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Lenny Zero and the Perps of Mega-City 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 Lenny Zero and the Perps of Mega-City One (Rebellion / Simon & Schuster, 2011).



I really don't envy anybody's job in trying to introduce Americans to the sprawling world of Judge Dredd. (This collection is among the titles co-published with Simon & Schuster for the American market.) Start anywhere in the present day, and much of the subtleties of such long-running subplots are lost. Start at the beginning and you're looking at something that really takes a lot of effort, primitive stories told in a visual language with which most Americans are unfamiliar. Dredd is always a work in progress, and his stories have leaked out into dozens of other short-run series with other lead characters, set in his universe with rules most familiar to readers who already know Dredd fairly well.

The godawfully titled Lenny Zero and the Perps of Mega-City One collects two of these short series, along with three installments of Dredd that feature a recurring criminal, wrapping up with a fourth memorable character starring in a two-part Dredd tale by Robbie Morrison and Henry Flint. There is some very good stuff in this collection, but as a book, it is really difficult to embrace.

First up are the three stories of Lenny Zero by Andy Diggle and Jock. These are hugely fun little adventures about a clever undercover judge who decides that a life of crime is too darn appealing and sets about taking down the assets of a gangster. They're followed by the first three of four stories for Bato Loco by Gordon Rennie and Simon Coleby. Our "hero" here is a weaselly little con artist and very minor link in various organized crime chains who manages more last-second lucky breaks than anybody deserves.

Unfortunately, while these are both fun little series and, as they are too short to be realistically collected any other way, it's good to see them finding space in an anthology like this, they are also the clear standouts of the material, and the rest of the book just doesn't measure up. Three Dredd episodes featuring the villain Slick Dickens follow these, and it won't take a very trained eye to realize that they all have the same plot, and not a particularly good one. The less said about "Street Fighting Man," with its sentimental underpinning and risible, out-of-character climax, the better, although it's certainly drawn well by Henry Flint.

The problems are just huge, across the board, despite the quality of the ten or so episodes that form the six Lenny Zero and Bato Loco stories. These are good stories, but this presentation doesn't make any sense to me. 160 pages simply isn't enough to really dig into the fun of Mega-City One's criminal culture. Slick Dickens is stunningly out of place among the violence and mayhem, and would have worked better as a single episode coda, suggesting how the criminal class of the city would like things to be. A larger book that incorporated, say, some of the classic Mega-Rackets of the early 1980s, or the completely brilliant "Flood's Thirteen" caper from five or six years ago, would have fit much better thematically.

While 160 pages were not enough to really dig into the material that could have been included, most of the stories here are still entertaining, and they're presented with Rebellion's expected attention to detail and excellent reproduction. Curiously, this book retains the interior design elements of the rest of their extensive line, but neither the front cover nor the spine match anything else from the publisher, an aggravating oversight that will annoy completists, most of whom probably have most of this material in other editions already. Recommended, therefore, for new readers only.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Devil in a Blue Dress

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 Devil in a Blue Dress (Norton, 1990).



Publisher's Weekly, strangely, described Walter Mosley's debut novel as "jaunty." That is not at all the word I would use for Devil in a Blue Dress. Set in 1950, it is the first in a cycle of novels featuring Easy Rawlins, a veteran recently fired from his job at an airplane manufacturing plant. Needing money, he takes a commission to find a lady recently seen in the company of a gangster. If you know your Chandler, then trying to find people who don't want to be found, in the presence of people who don't want anybody to find them, invariably leaves violence and corpses as the story progresses.

Plotwise, there isn't anything new at all in this book. Even the sex scene, once a bruised and beaten Easy falls into the arms of his femme fatale, proceeds with a weary sense of inevitability. But what I had never seen before in earlier work in this genre is the strong characterization and sense of place. Mosley's ability to build a 1950 that audiences have rarely had chances to see - the poor black neighborhoods of postwar Los Angeles - is downright amazing. It's a world where the bigotry and secrecy are natural and uncompromising, and where nothing is really left buried.

Violence is just an expected ingredient in hard-boiled, or California-based, detective fiction, but the sheer brutality of this book is nevertheless eye-popping. DeWitt Albright, the man who hires Easy, is revealed early on to have a sadistic, cruel side that overpowers everything and leaves our hero very uncertain about continuing, but then we meet Mouse. Oh, man. Mouse is a violent former associate of Easy's who stays in Texas most of the time. Dropping him into the proceedings is like lobbing a grenade into a burning building. Yeah, the force of the explosion might blow out the nearest flames, but at one hell of a cost.

In the end, the book is most satisfying if the reader is watching how this events affect Easy. The heroes of Ross McDonald or Raymond Chandler novels are wired to handle these kinds of escalating messes of lies and emotion. Easy isn't. While the outcome of the plot is fairly obvious from about thirty pages in, the impact on his character is less certain. Readers will be confident that he'll make it out in one piece, but the cost might be a little higher, and a little more honest, than what earlier writers have doled out on their casts. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Indigo Prime: Everything and More

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 Indigo Prime: Everything and More (Rebellion, 2011).

Of all the deliciously high-concept series and serials that have appeared in the pages of 2000 AD, John Smith's Indigo Prime, which weaved its way in and out of its own and a few other stories from 1986-91, is just about the wildest. Briefly, it's about an organization located at the nexus point of all the countless parallel universes and is responsible for policing them from the reality-altering damage caused by things like time travel or breaking-the-laws-of-physics experiments. Basically, if the scientists of your world have split enough atoms to cause jackbooted reptilian Nazis from the Earth's core to emerge and conquer the Roman Empire, these are the guys who come and fix things. For a price.

The original run of Indigo Prime, despite one or two stories that rank among my favorites told in the medium of comics, was a mindbender of a series, with its high concepts frequently told in a deliberately obscure and challenging way. Part of the thrill was guessing what was happening one or two minutes away from the action, learning the background of the action and the relationships of the handful of characters that we met. A much, much larger cast was always hinted at, and even higher stakes suggested, but as Smith retired the concept in 1991, these were left to readers' imaginations. (I discussed the series in much greater detail over at my Thrillpowered Thursday blog a few weeks ago.)

A 2008 Smith-written serial called Dead Eyes revealed, stunningly, that agents of Indigo Prime were still at large. It's been far too long a wait, but September saw the formal return of Indigo Prime in a new four-part adventure that, as patiently as the mercurial and restless Smith can manage it, eases new readers into the incredibly weird and thunderously wild world of this bunch. This reintroduction - actually, it's the closest thing to an introduction that the series has ever seen, as they originally just sort of snuck in like infiltrators and weirded up the place - ran in 2000 AD issues 1750-1753. A second story began in issue 1756 and, at the time that I am posting this blog, is a couple of weeks into its run. Digital copies of these comics, as PDFs or CBZs, can be purchased from Clickwheel or from better comic shops.

Smith's way of easing us into things is to show us the cataclysmic destruction of one reality as a result of Science Gone Wrong. Agents Winwood and Cord, whom we met in the original run, arrive, but this time they are accompanied by a first for the series, an audience identification figure, to whom the characters can explain what the heck is going on. Unfortunately, the in-at-the-deep-end approach is not working for Indigo Prime's newest recruit, and so a gentler way is called for, courtesy of a curious old friend of the new recruit, and two agents who can manipulate dreams.

Settling the new fellow in is just one of the agency's problems. Two agents have just returned from one universe that has been decimated by a planet-killing fungus, and in a prison at the heart of a star, there's some old villain cunningly plotting his escape, and talking directly through the fourth wall to the reader. If this doesn't thrill you and leave you wanting more while simultaneously ordering you to reread every page, something's just downright wrong with you.

Smith is ably assisted by one of the best artists with whom he's ever been teamed. Edmund Bagwell, in turn, has been possessed by a spirit of Jack Kirby the likes of which all of that great artist's many acolytes have just been trying to grasp. With planetary extinctions, crazy phantasmagoria, double-page spreads of impossible technology crackling in the void between stars and a sense of bewildering excitement, Bagwell has knocked this work completely out of the park. His design sketchbook must be twelve inches thick by now.

With a mix of older characters and new ones for new readers to meet - one of whom, in a moment certain to cause double-takes, is a notorious criminal from our world - this first story is certainly busy and full of things to demand readers' attention. But, and I say this as honestly and as objectively as I can, the payoff is completely enormous. The last time that I looked so forward to seeing what would happen next in an ongoing series, it was Grant Morrison's celebrated run on DC's JLA more than a decade ago.

2000 AD's editor has been characteristically tight-lipped about what the future holds for the series, and whether we can expect far more cosmos-exploding fun in 2012 after the second story of this too-short return wraps in December, but I've got my fingers crossed. The story's title, "Everything and More," is remarkably apt. It is truly everything that I wanted from Indigo Prime's return, and a whole lot more. Highly recommended, and I hope it runs forever.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 1969

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 latest freaking League of Extraordinary Gentlemen story (Top Shelf, 2011).



Have things really become this awful? Honestly, the best that I can say about the latest, interminable, bloodless exploit of the restless and bored adventurers of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is that it's not quite as bad as I thought it was when I first read it. It did improve markedly on a second read, but I still didn't like it at all.

I was not expecting much; Kevin O'Neill, whose work stopped thrilling me at some point between Metalzoic and Marshal Law many years ago, has always had trouble hitting deadlines, but the amount of time he spends drawing these comics only for them to emerge looking so darn ugly just leaves me baffled. It's not as though he's phoning it in; the amount of detail that he packs onto the page really is amazing, but it all looks so flat and it doesn't serve any damn purpose whatsoever other than to give Jess Nevins something to annotate. There's not a point in the world in agonizing over putting caricatures of the actors who played Steptoe and Son into the crowd scenes of your pages when they don't serve the story, slow you down, and, oh, look like they've been run through the ugly machine. Well, not that those guys were winning beauty pageants in the real world, but still.

So, I was predisposed to dislike this comic because I greatly dislike Kevin O'Neill's art, which is certainly heretical in many of the quarters in which I visit, and because I'm amazed that he keeps getting a pass from a fandom for taking such an absurd time to finish the work. I know that sounds like a reverse Woody Allen complaint, but, really, when artists whose work I enjoy more could have illustrated this story in far, far less time, it really feels like a story that I (once) wanted to read is being held up by substandard art. I've given previous editions of the book a break because I was willing to overlook the art that I find unappealing in order to get to the story. Alan Moore often gets that kind of a pass, but often, lately, he's lost me. I'm not about to spend money on, to use a beacon-bright example, Lost Girls, because, while I've no objection to comic book porn, that doesn't sound like the sort of porn that I want to read, and worse, it's just about the most awful art that I have ever seen in any comic, ever, and is, by consequence, the least erotic thing imaginable. Johnny Ryan and Sam Henderson could have made a sexier comic.

But anyway, the flat reality, now that we're into the "Century" cycle of stories, is that I no longer want to read about Mina and the boys, and this art that I can't stand is just making matters worse. Mina's stiff and grouchy exterior played well as a supercilious Victorian, but what the hell is she still doing stomping around with a Victorian-era chip on her shoulder in the nearly-modern day? Socially, the world has become so much brighter and more effervescent since her time, but she's absolutely joyless when not hateful; she's given up, and her malaise infects the story. Orlando and Quatermain seem to want to move on and enjoy life, but they're stuck, loyal and subservient, for some mad reason, to her. When the climax sees Mina separated from her associates, I was left with relief. Soon, Orlando and Quartermain will be able to hang out with Jason King and have some fun for once.

It's always been amusing to watch Moore just get down in the dirt and mess with perceptions and expectations about how the great and the forgotten characters of fiction really would interact with each other. Seeing the not-James Bond-for-trademark-reasons James Bond get such a comeuppance for his vulgar chauvinism in The Black Dossier was a scream, for instance. But Moore has Adam Adamant so utterly backwards in his cameo that it drives home how unpleasant Mina has become, and how there is no longer any reason to read about her. The televsion Adamant was trapped in suspended animation from 1902 until 1966, when he was unfrozen and began solving the sort of cases that John Steed and Emma Peel would normally handle, and, much like Steed, he loved life. Swinging London confounded him for a few moments before he jumped in and took the city and the 1960s by storm. Well, as much storm as a cheap 1960s BBC videotape drama would allow.

So Moore takes a character, who, cut adrift from his stodgy old morality and culture, adapted to the 1960s with wild enthusiasm and abandon, and then lets the unpleasant and bored Mina undermine him and play him for laughs? It's long been suspected that Moore just doesn't like modern life at all, but perhaps more was revealed here in the telling of the joke than was intended. The old crank has lost me. Not recommended.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned

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 Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (Norton, 1997).



I thought that I'd try a few things by Walter Mosley. I enjoyed his Black Betty some years ago and am looking forward to rereading it, and so I picked up a pair of his many other books. Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned introduced a new character named Socrates Fortlow, who was played by Laurence Fishburne in a TV-movie adaptation of this set of short stories. Fortlow is a thoughtful but rage-filled ex-con who let his temper run away with him only once, at entirely the wrong time, and since his release, he's been eking out a tough existence in a two-room apartment in Watts.

While this is a collection of short stories, it's not a simple anthology. Each of these tales builds on the events of the previous story, and certainly reads as well as any deliberately-constructed novel. Fortlow is a fascinating character, and it's illuminating to see the directions that his wounded pride takes him. At one point, it gets him a needed job, but it also gets him in confrontations that really should have been avoided.

This was a very unpredictable and satisfying read, with moments where it gets really sad and touching. I think this goes a long way towards cementing Mosley's status as one of the most important authors of the last twenty years. Recommended.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

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 Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (Pyr, 2010).



It's curious that I should now be writing about this book just after my best mate Dave linked to an article where SF author Neal Stephenson called for an end to all this backwards-looking steampunk SF and a return to actually writing books about the future. Dave's never had any time for or interest in steampunk. Neither have I, for that matter, but one must admit that some of those cosplayers dress pretty well.

At any rate, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is the first in a series of novels - the third is due to be published in the spring - featuring two adventurers in an alternate timeline where Queen Victoria was assassinated early in her reign by a time-traveling lunatic. Time has gone off the rails, eugenics has taken hold, very quickly, and phantasmagorical science has led the empire into a technological revolution at the cost of an even greater underclass of poverty than our world had in the 1890s. It's a very fun read, if you're willing to really, really suspend some serious disbelief, and it sparked some interesting questions about how time travel works in this world.

It is, however, quite painfully flawed in places. It is the debut novel from Mark Hodder, and there are bits where it's painfully apparent that he's a novice with this. At one point, our hero meets with a police inspector who was just a rookie on patrol the day that the Queen was shot, and who saw the bizarre apparition of Spring-Heeled Jack in the area. This sequence was just painful to read, as the inspector relates events to Sir Richard Francis Burton that Burton assuredly already knows, in an awkward and fumbling way to get this information to the reader. There's a lot of this in the book, with weird inventions and the results of odd experiments launching alternate London into its bold future, and the book repeatedly stops to explain what the heck some gadget or messaging service does.

I enjoyed considering the ramifications of the rules of time travel that Hodder employs. Apparently, you only get one shot at altering time, and once you're done, you can't change it again. You certainly can't change it back, but everything else that the hapless villain of the piece tries has already been done, and he just learns about it too late. I wonder why. It certainly sparked an entertaining discussion about all the "time-wimey stuff," as Doctor Who terms it, with my wife, who brought the book home from the newspaper after it made its way to an employee sale. She was less taken with it than I was, though I confess I was more taken with the book's promise, and the curious questions that it raised, than by the nuts and bolts of the world that Hodder created. It seems that somebody went to an awful lot of unbelievable trouble in genetics and breeding to create the far-out messenger bird communication when just letting Alexander Graham Bell have his run of things would have been a whole lot simpler. Recommended with reservations.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Bendatti Vendetta

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 Bendatti Vendetta (Rebellion, 2011).



I must admit that I was very surprised to see a complete collected edition of The Bendatti Vendetta, a series that first appeared in the pages of Judge Dredd Megazine about a decade ago. It's not very long - 12 episodes, comprising three stories, over just 96 pages - but with its creators, Robbie Morrison and John Burns, quite popular from their work on other properties, notably Nikolai Dante, a collection has a hook upon which to hang a little publicity.

While many of Morrison's scripts emphasize character, this is a neat exercise in going plot-first and seeing whether readers will wish to follow. The first episode has all the appearance of the most exciting pre-credits sequences of any action film from the seventies. We don't know who the characters are, but some people have slipped into some mob boss's party and caused almighty havoc, with fisticuffs and bullets flying every which way.

I say this is perfectly suited for John Burns because I perceive him, rightly or wrongly, as an artist most comfortable in the modern age. No matter how well he paints the adventures of Judge Dredd or Nikolai Dante, something about his work on those strips never completely gels for me, particularly in conveying a sense of place. His Mega-City One is rarely more than dark alleyways, and his future Russia is often just bombed-out war zones. But The Bendatti Vendetta is clearly set in the humdrum of our world, and when Burns brings this to life, it's vastly more vivid and exciting. Well, it's less our world than our recent history - it doesn't appear that Burns has updated his reference material in many years, but since the violent iconography within the script screams "seventies action film," it doesn't matter, he's still exactly right for the artwork. Put another way, I keep expecting Ian Hendry and Britt Ekland to make supporting appearances.

We never learn very much about them, despite scenes and sequences set in their headquarters, but the Bendatti are sort of a reverse Mafia, handling personal cases of vengeance and retribution. Each of the stories is incredibly satisfying, but despite the inclusion of the full series, it still feels incomplete, like these tales were setting up something involved and intricate that never came. Or perhaps it just hasn't come yet. Who knows, maybe with Nikolai Dante coming to an end in early 2012, there will be a chance for Morrison and Burns to return to this and give it the teeth it seemed like it really wanted to show. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders

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 Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders (Penguin, 2005).



Sometimes, I find myself really disliking Law & Order because Sam Waterston's character is so insufferably smug and perfect, and sometimes because the defense attorneys hired, fruitlessly, by the clearly guilty criminals on that show are just a bunch of shysters and thugs, weasels every bit as crooked as the men on trial. The police never make errors on that show, except for the occasional errors in procedure which could possibly put a monster back on the street to kill again.

So it's honestly a little refreshing to have John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey stand up to defend people who were on the receiving end of police incompetence or corruption. It is coincidental that I'm writing the first draft of these paragraphs two days after Georgia executed Troy Davis, but it would, occasionally, be nice to see that before a man's life is ended, somebody would stand up for him and point out, as in Davis's case, that the majority of the witness statements were obtained by pressure. I don't think anything of cop killers, but I also don't think anything of suppressing the concept of reasonable doubt.

Throughout the Rumpole television and radio series, and into the print adaptations and later short stories for prose, Horace Rumpole would constantly refer to his first, and greatest triumph, defending something ominously called The Penge Bungalow Murders. This is such a wonderful concept, to have the man borne aloft by the nostalgia of something that, thirty-plus years later, the newer, junior members of his chambers only know because the fat, grouchy cigar smoker won't shut up about them. Before the actual details were lost to time, Rumpole elected to finally give the gruesome facts in a short novel. It is a treat, and far better than the disappointing adaptations and subsequent short stories that disappointed me so much.

In Rumpole's world, the Penge Bungalow Murders really were a cause celebre at the time. Two RAF veterans were killed, and the estranged son of one, who foolishly threatened his drunk father with a revolver earlier in the evening, is charged. In a nation only a few years past World War Two, venerating its veterans and hanging every murderer, it looks really bad for the young man. Rumpole, then just a junior barrister in training, is the only man who wants to listen to the boy's claim of innocence. The lead barrister is more concerned with not causing a fuss and aggravating the judge assigned to the case. Scheduling circumstances leave Rumpole in court alone on the second day of the trial, and he goes against his lead's instructions and gives a withering, impulsive cross-examination to a witness. The accused, finally seeing that somebody wants to believe him, dismisses his counsel and asks Rumpole to defend him, alone. If you can put the book down for an evening after that development, something's just wrong with you. I punched the air. Mortimer builds up this moment so well that it's no wonder the character spent the next three decades bragging about it. You would, too.

At the same time, a young woman named Hilda, daughter of his chambers' head, decides to take an interest in this scruffy young firebrand, seeing a promise in him that nobody else does. Hilda's motives are a little delicious, and it's just as satisfying to watch how She Who Must Be Obeyed started out. But what I really like here is how some of the material about the Rumpole household is left for the reader to infer. Hilda had high hopes and aspirations, and Rumpole never really came through for her on that point, did he? His win in this case was so much more important to him than networking and getting fatcats and aristocrats out of trouble.

Rumpole wanted to be the voice of the unjustly accused and the railroaded, and the high life was never his goal. A life of doing the right thing, and protecting the rights of the innocent, was to be his, with the occasional glass of Pommeroy's Plonk. I really don't believe that his creator and writer ever did him quite the justice in print that he did on television, but man alive, in this novel, he came through for Rumpole. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Coffee and Beer Money

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 Coffee and Beer Money (French Toast Comix, 2011).



Becky Hawkins was kind enough to let me know about her fun little journal and autobiography comics, which she publishes online and sells at conventions under the banner "French Toast Comix." Honestly, they're a little outside my present interests, but in Coffee and Beer Money, her latest 24-page mini-comic, she tells some pretty funny stories.

I think that the seeds are here for better, more assured work down the road. There are some undeniably funny episodes - an uncle shrewdly observing that she's doomed her self-caricature to the role of unromantic lead, a passerby misinterpreting her criticism of quad bikes and their turning power - but they lack context, in longer stories where the punch lines might mean a little more. I love Hawkins' sense of timing. Both the page where she gets yelled at about the bike and the first page of the longer story about her accident upon one of them feel very Pete Bagge to me, and I can't make a more complimentary comparison, but Bagge would include these hilarious moments as beats within a longer story, with less omniscent narration and more dialogue between established characters, and the moments would be even more memorable. There would also be less waste of negative space. The quick story about the uncle is a simple, two-panel observation, crying out for more context and more information.

I like her character designs, but her inking is sporadically rushed and blotchy. One page, regarding high school girls dressing trampy at cons, is particularly troubled by this. I understand the desire to use the medium as a journal, but when this results in work as uneven as that can be, perhaps the art should be redrawn before publication.

Still, when Hawkins nails it - a one-page story about the best-laid plans of putting on a good table at a con falling apart before the weekend wraps, a longer, hilarious story about an ex who phones with an aggravating new job - it's very good work indeed. She doesn't completely succeed all of the time, but when she does, it is great, and the misfires at least suggest better material could be drawn from it. There's enough to enjoy and consider to certainly make this worth the price. Recommended.

A PDF of this comic was provided by the author for the purpose of review.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Zatanna: Everyday Magic

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 Zatanna: Everyday Magic (DC, 2003).



So I was talking the other day about Paul Dini's Madame Masque. Coincidentally, I pulled out an old DC project of his from the many boxes of comics that I no longer want, to give them one more airing before moving them along.

They don't seem to publish them very often anymore, but DC used to release these longer-than-usual comics, 48 pages in this case, under a heavier card cover and a spine binding. They're called "prestige format." There isn't anything prestigious about the story. It's an uninvolving entry from the publisher's Vertigo imprint with art by Rick Mays, an artist with whom I'm not familiar.

It's really in-one-eye and out-the-other stuff. Zatanna, a stage magician and superhero, is shown to be playfully promiscuous in a way that superhero ladies usually aren't. An old boyfriend, the popular character John Constantine, shows up for help removing a hex, leading Zatanna into conflict with another sorceress. It's all really unimaginative; drawn without the occasional bare butts, then the comic could have been an all-ages book published by DC's regular imprint.

I'm not sure why I bought it at all. Maybe Brian Bolland's cover swayed me, or maybe I was, then, hopeful of a regular Dini-scripted Zatanna series from Vertigo? I don't remember. Based on the evidence, this might have made an acceptable $3 comic, but not $6, and certainly not the $30 and up that some Amazon sellers want for their copies. Not recommended.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Madame Mirage

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 Madame Mirage (Top Cow, 2008).



Can't help but envy Paul Dini just a little bit. He's worked his way up from the grind of the writer's rooms at Warner Brothers animation department, where he gained name recognition on the 1990s Batman cartoon, into enough of a known quantity to be in demand whenever anybody needs a comic book about a sexy brunette in fishnets, lingerie or evening wear. Take Madame Mirage, for instance, a comic book that looks so incredibly obvious that, when I first saw it on the racks at Marietta's Great Escape, I genuinely said, "Hey, a Paul Dini comic" before even seeing his name on it.

Years later, I cashed in some store credit at a shop in Chattanooga for a very low-priced collection of the title, firstly because it was cheap and secondly because I'm a rather idiotic male who occasionally gets distracted by comic books about sexy brunettes in fishnets, lingerie or evening wear.

So the heroine of this book has boobs like basketballs and wears this anachronistic fetish-wear dress in the same sort of bleak, angular technopolis as Witchblade and Aphrodite IX and all these other Top Cow heroines with long legs, giant boobs and large foreheads. This time out, the world is one where the superheroes have been outlawed, and so the villains have formed some sort of corporate conglomerate to control all the new technology. The baddies thought they killed off two sisters who invented some hologram mcguffin, but one of them - the stacked one - shows up again with a gun and bod for sin.

The artwork, by Kenneth Rocafort, is serviceable enough for this sort of material, but this is scarcely very challenging work. He draws Madame Mirage well enough to be considered for any fill-in work on Witchblade or the other Top Cow titles, but this really looks like nothing more than a standard Top Cow house style, with emphasis on babes and weapons and a little gore.

All the elements are here for a really terrific comic book for a fifteen year-old boy without access to the internet, basically. I think I would have liked it a lot in 1986, but then again, I liked the similarly titillating DNAgents back then. It's kinky without being vulgar, but also unimaginative, dull, plays its one plot twist about two chapters too early for it to impact the climax, and lives up to every stereotype about Top Cow comics and their monotone interest in the restraint of "good girl art," where it all seems to be about tease without payoff. Not recommended at all.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Popeye: Wha's a Jeep?

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 Popeye: Wha's a Jeep? (volume five) (Fantagraphics, 2011).



Fantagraphics is very nearly finished with their complete reprint of E.C. Segar's run on Popeye, with just one more volume to go after this. It's a breathless, surreal and ridiculous collection of fisticuffs and wonderfully funny violence, and every home should own it.

As before, the format is broken down between the daily continuity strip in the first half and the unconnected color Sundays in the back. Some of the Sunday strips have their own storyline - there's a "gold rush" story that runs for a few weeks - but mostly, each stands alone and, as before, shares a page with Segar's other strip, Sappo. Unfortunately, Segar completely lost interest in this little strip, but rather than retire it and give the main strip a few more panels, he oddly decided to have the character do a weekly lesson in silly art, like drawing a letter A and adding enough lines around it to turn it into a person's face. This went on for many, many months. Clearly, Segar was saving all his might for Popeye. There's one where Olive decides to disguise herself as a male suitor to make Popeye jealous. This was a terrible, terrible idea. I don't know whether anything funnier than this page appeared in print, anywhere, for two or three decades.

The daily strips start with Popeye having started an island nation of men who've grown tired of wives bossing them around and this goes on for quite a few entertaining months before the characters, having won a south Pacific war, return home for the introduction of Eugene the Jeep, a prized and coveted weird animal who, living partially in the Fourth Dimension, is able to predict the future and escape any confinement. Confronting a salt-of-the-earth fellow like Popeye with a high concept like that is a work of genius. The Jeep leads Popeye on a quest for his long-lost Poopdeck Pappy, so's he won't be an orphink no more, only to find Pappy a coarse and rough old salt who's not interested in his ugly kid. Pappy, of course, looks exactly like Popeye, just with a couple of extry whiskers.

The disappointment of the once-cute Sappo deteriorating into a waste of space knocks this down just a peg from the previous volumes, but the half-hour I spent guffawing over that strip with Olive dressed as a guy probably makes up for it. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fletch Won

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 Fletch Won (Warner, 1985).



Well, here's a pleasant surprise. I've kept slogging through Gregory Mcdonald's novels despite several back-to-back losers. I figured that he completely peaked in the 1970s, but Fletch Won is not at all bad. It's not as good as the first couple of Fletch novels, nor the first Flynn book, but it's a pretty good read, and the first seventy pages are just one laugh after another. It's a very intelligent and funny book.

This is the earliest Fletch case that Mcdonald penned, with our hero being bounced from one newspaper department to another. He doesn't make a good obituary writer, for example, because of his tendency to truthfully note that some of the recently deceased never actually accomplished anything in their life. So he gets moved to the society page, ideally to interview a wealthy tycoon who plans to make a huge donation to an area museum, only the tycoon gets murdered in the newspaper's parking lot, and nobody other than the paper or the museum seems to know a thing about this donation.

Fletch begins investigating, angering the paper's actual crime reporter, and finds himself shot at, doused with gin, and stripped naked, all before noon. He's supposed to be getting married in a couple of days, and somebody else at the paper has an idea that he should be looking into an escort agency that wrangled its way into free advertising on the paper's sports page.

It's a dense, ridiculous book with lots of competing plot threads jamming against each other. It's so much more fun than the dull Carioca and Moxie, which each had just a single, tawdry plot that the inventive, decisive Fletch of the earliest novels could have handled in his sleep. Our hero is at his best when complications from every possible angle pile up. It's not always successful - the liquor store shooting isn't resolved in any satisfying way, and the climax requires the police to move very, very slowly so that a house of cards can be coherently constructed from all the random aces that Fletch has been given - but it's a pretty fun book overall. It gave me hope - dashed, as it turned out - that the next couple would also entertain. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Rumpole Rests His Case

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 Rumpole Rests His Case (Penguin, 2002).



When Columbo returned to television in 1989, on ABC after a twelve-year absence, it was a shadow of its former self. It was pretty good for the most part, and even brilliant a couple of times, but not a patch on the consistent quality of the 1970s NBC series. People debating why usually focus on the pacing, the light comedy padding, or the really awful guest stars. Seriously, Columbo had the best rogues gallery of anybody on TV in the 1970s, and in the new series, they gave him Fisher Stevens? Rip Torn? Greg Evigan? George Wendt?!

But the real problem with 1990s Columbo was that the writers had completely lost touch with how to connect to a general audience. In the 1970s, the series was watched by audiences of all ages and demographics, and the writers respected their intelligence. There's a 1976 episode where a Betamax is used to fake an alibi. Video recording was still mostly unknown to most of Americans then, but it's treated very matter-of-fact and no fuss is made of it. Compare that to what happened fifteen years later when a fax machine was used for a similar purpose. A forensic scientist has to explain what it is to Columbo, and the late, great Peter Falk then spends four minutes doing his "How about that? Gosh, I've got a cousin in Long Island. He sells used cars, and, gee, I bet he really could use a machine like this. Wait 'til I tell my wife, etc." schtick. See, 1990s Columbo was written for Matlock's audience. The producers never made any attempt to connect in any way with modern, urban viewers, just the Centrum Silver crowd, and assumed that they wouldn't understand technology unless some other old fogey joked about it. And from there, it's just a short hop to the "dancing Dick Van Dyke" animation, some six years after that idiotic baby was on Ally McBeal.

I mention all this because there's a short story in one of John Mortimer's last collections of Horace Rumpole stories that absolutely blew my mind with its clueless fogeyness. I figure he wrote this story in 2001, by which time even the last of those brain-dead "You've! Got! Mail!" aol.com zombies that we spent the 1990s fighting with had been, at last, assimilated into internet culture. Email should not have been a mindblower anymore, and yet here we still have "Rumpole and the Teenage Werewolf," in which the spectacular courtroom twist is that, wait for it, somebody else sent emails from the accused's computer! Look, I understand that you've got to make the protagonist the hero in detective fiction, but the reader should be safe to assume that the story in front of the protagonist is one that reached him for reasons that include nobody else, prior to events reaching the hero, has been able to make sense of them. This? The first question anybody should have asked is, "Who else had access to your computer?"

There are other, similarly predictable twists in some of these stories - it will stun nobody to learn that an Afghan refugee is not who he claims to be - but nothing really sinks to the bottom like that email story does. At least, unlike the previous collection that I detailed for this blog, this collection does have a few interesting subplots that work through the stories. The best of them concerns Rumpole's grouchy war against his chambers' new ordinance against smoking indoors. Rather than admit defeat and taking his cigars outside, he attempts to blackmail his head of chambers, Soapy Sam Ballard. Rumpole has learned that, many, many years before, Ballard had sung in some pub rock Doors cover band. Watching this backfire on Rumpole as the stories continue, with Ballard embracing his rock star past, is every bit as satisfying as the ongoing war of attrition with She Who Must Be Obeyed. It's only in the courtroom where Rumpole's victories are more than just moral, but it's in the courtroom where the plot is the least satisfactory.

Why in the world are these so incredibly inferior to the TV series? Admittedly, there, you had the pleasure of remarkably consistent casting and some excellent performances by so many terrific actors, but I don't think that I was overlooking slipshod plotting just to be wowed by the guest stars. There's just a depth to the television Rumpole that the short stories don't convey at all. I'm looking forward to trying one of the novels, where, presumably, a much deeper and involved main plot is required. There are three, and I'm hopeful that finally finding out what happened with those Penge Bungalow Murders will be a pleasure. This collection, however, I don't recommend.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Cardboard Valise

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 Cardboard Valise (Pantheon, 2011).



Oh, I've got a lot of time for Ben Katchor, and it's always very well rewarded. I haven't enjoyed a comic as much as I did his latest work, The Cardboard Valise, in ages.

In his previous books, Katchor has created a sort of skewed version of New York City and its environs. This time out, he really broadens his view in a story - really a series of interconnected strips that can be read in any order - that links three travelers from a big city to the island nation of Outer Canthus.

I found myself eventually reading just a few pages a day and, when finished, I put it back on the bottom of my pile for a reread as soon as it's feasible. It's a book where the odd angles at which Katchor stages the action work in tandem with the strange revelations of the text. Everything is revealed in such a natural way that readers might have to stop and question whether something mentioned in passing is a real occupation or restaurant, or another of Katchor's only-a-little implausible fictions. It's an amazing example of world-building, and the sort of place I could easily lose myself. Highly recommended.