Tuesday, May 29, 2012


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 Vanguard # 1-2 (self-published, 2011-12).

I confess that I don't know much about the small press scene of any area, much less anywhere in the UK, but every once in a while, something really fun turns up that entertains me more than I had expected. Dirk Van Dom's Vanguard, an anthology book with four recurring high-concept adventure stories, was not completely satisfying - one of the four was not to my taste at all - but it's a good example of a writer playing with several very disparate influences and turning them into a consistent package.

That's not to say that it's completely successful, just consistent. There's an incredibly violent strip called Mammoth Jack about an intelligent and bloodthirsty donkey, drawn by Owen Watts, of which I have seen enough. I don't like the lingering, gleeful, lip-licking focus on the gore and the ultraviolence, although I concede that the plot of the first episode blindsided me about three times. That said, none of the art comes from illustrators who are quite ready for their close-up, although Louis Carter's very distinctive and curious, abstract linework on the much more fun Halo & the Griffin suggests that he has no real interest in more commercial illustration for mainstream properties, and would much rather forge his own way, doing nontraditional work like this. It's still doesn't quite look fully formed, but on the other hand, it doesn't really look like anybody else's work either, and so I really like it for its moxie.

The most traditional of the stories is an adventure series, Atomic Call, which features a competent, super-tough lead named Colleen Malone. She's a hired thief in the employ of a legendary con-artist and brothel owner, and she wears a wrist computer like Electra Woman & Dyna Girl. It's just a little too Warren Ellis for me to completely embrace it, although David Blankley draws it fairly well and, while he has a bit to learn, he looks like he's having fun with it, particularly in the second episode, when he gets to set the action in the brothel and draw lots of half-naked ladies. Malone is a fun character and I enjoyed all the subplots simmering in the background, and just how natural all of this feels. While rough around the edges, both Call and the book in general sing with the unforced competence of somebody who's been doing this for a lot longer than Van Dom actually has.

Years and years back, when I thought myself an aspiring comic book majordomo, I was planning to do a four-series anthology, each strip drawn by a different artist. It was going to include Riotstürrm, about an all-girl metal band, Bubba Dershowitz, Redneck Attorney, Jesus Christ, P.I., and something else. Vanguard doesn't bowl me over with every page, but I'm still impressed and a little envious that Van Dom was able to pull this off when I was not. I look forward to the third installment, if for no other reason than to see what will happen with Colleen "Call" Malone next. Recommended for anybody curious about small press comics; clicking the image above will take you to the book's blog to learn more.

PDFs of these comics were provided for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your comics or detective fiction featured here, send me an email.

Monday, May 21, 2012

You Never Give Me Your 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 You Never Give Me Your Money (Harper, 2010).

I've always been more interested in what the Beatles did after they split up, because the story is just so much more engaging, and so much more of a story. The tales of the 1960s are well-trod and everybody knows them. Trying to figure out how drunk Ringo was when he recorded the Bad Boy LP for Portrait, now that's obscure.

For people like me, Beatles books are frequently very annoying, as they dismiss the Beatles' comparatively more interesting careers into practical appendices, when they're not passing ugly judgments and criticisms about the supposed quality of the material. I'd really love to have a biography of Paul McCartney as detailed and comprehensive as Howard Soanes' Fab written by somebody who actually likes Paul's music a lot. I'm all for objectivity, but opinions really can color a work too much, you know?

Peter Doggett's You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup is the closest thing yet released to what I would most like to read on the subject. Against it, the book is simply nowhere close to being as comprehensive as I'd like. Vast swaths of Ringo's career go without mention, and his falling-out and legal troubles with Mark Hudson are passed over, despite a good deal of ink devoted to George Harrison's apparently similar business failings with Denis O'Brien, which brought down Handmade Films. By comparison, other segments of the story are burdened by an incredible amount of detail. An editor tasked to prune all the stories of Allan Klein and Lee Eastman's legal war would have been welcome.

The spectacularly well-chosen title reflects the book's overall focus. This is a book more about lawsuits than about musical success. As a result, the period of 1970-75 gets the most attention, as it was during this period that the Beatles were still, legally, a unit, and still suing each other. Once each man was no longer signed to EMI through their company, Apple, the detail begins slipping away.

I'm really most impressed by the objectivity that Doggett shows toward his subject. Each Beatle is shown to be a very flawed human being capable of making good music and horrible personal choices. Lennon's career, sadly, was one of incredibly mediocre records. Walls and Bridges was his highlight, the only genuinely terrific album that he ever made, and it is given praise appropriate to its quality. Happily, McCartney's albums don't suffer the general dismissal that Soanes routinely gave them in Fab. The fumbles, like Press to Play, are acknowledged, but so are the triumphs, of which there have been many.

I greatly enjoyed reading this book. I learned a lot, and appreciated the tone and position taken by the author. It's easily among the very top tier of books about the Beatles and highly recommended.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley

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 Death Comes to Pemberley (Knopf, 2011).

I swear, it is like the gods of literature granted my wife and I a boon with this book. Jane Austen is one of her very favorite authors, and P.D. James is one of mine, and here we have a book where James, at age ninety, decided to indulge herself and write some Jane Austen fanfic. James is by no means the first; I think that my wife has read seventeen or eighteen different attempts at finishing Austen's incomplete Sanditon. I am, surprisingly, no fan of Austen at all; I think that the only fiction that I've ever enjoyed that was written prior to "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is The Scarlet Letter, but that is my issue, and I recognize that I am in one heck of a minority.

All right; Elizabeth's father, Mr. Bennett, had me in stitches. I'm not a complete ape.

James, on the other hand, is one of contemporary literature's greatest talents. In her detective fiction, she does a masterful job building a place, almost always tightly-knit and wrapped in secrets, the more isolated, the better. Her novels may be set in, say, a research base, or a publishing house, or a nuclear power station, and the tension between the people trapped there, locked in by employment or unspoken debts, just keeps ratcheting up and up. When the murder finally happens, the effect is unlike any other modern detective fiction. The killing is not quite the crime against nature that the tradition of detective fiction expects to be restored by the intrusion of the detective. Rather, the murder creates a crack that lets Superintendent Dalgliesh in. It is the isolation and jealousy that is the crime against nature in James's novels, you see, and Dalgliesh the force that restores balance by overseeing the destruction of the place or the forces linking people together, away from the world.

If you have never read one of these novels, I urge you to find time. I have, lately, been enjoying Robert B. Parker's Spenser stories, and have greatly enjoyed other tough guys in the works of Raymond Chandler and Donald E. Westlake, but what the tough guy protagonists in these novels set out to solve with their fists and their mouths, Dalgliesh accomplishes by presence of will. Hiding something from Dalgliesh, the quiet, calm, sensitive poet and widower, is the worst mistake anybody can make. It's that simple contradiction that brings all the fun. James admittedly succumbs to tropes - Dalgliesh on vacation or leave, octogenarians still angry about something that happened fifty years previously - but she is on fire most of the time, and burns brighter and more harshly than any of her peers.

With the importance of place in mind, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice makes perfect sense. Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy live in one of those why-the-hell-is-this-house-so-big country estates called Pemberley, and that's the perfect setting for James to work her magic and turn this place upside down by killing somebody. This is, despite what I described in the previous two paragraphs, a much more traditional work of detective fiction in that the killing is the issue, and not the unnatural isolation. I doubt that James could call herself a devotee of Austen and then be so churlish as to tear down Pemberley in the way that she did that damnable family in A Taste for Death. No, here, Pemberley represents what is right and good in the world, and the murder on the estate grounds is the only thing that must be avenged. Well, something must also be done with Elizabeth's dimwit younger sister Lydia, who brings the chaos to the Darcys' door when she arrives screaming that her husband and a friend have been killed.

Now, the interesting thing about setting any kind of detective fiction in the early 1800s is that murder most foul in a community like this really is a complete nightmare. Everybody knows everybody else, and there was such a different approach to privacy three hundred years ago. A murder on this property is a huge burden and a social problem of magnitudes we don't have today. How in the world do you cancel a ball at almost no notice when the only socially acceptable way to get word to dozens of guests is by a handwritten letter?

There's also the question of how the community polices itself and investigates something as outre as murder. This is set, after all, some decades before even a big city like London had the forerunner of its Metropolitan Police. This does lead to an astonishing lapse on James's part, where her otherwise perfect prose just falls apart. When some of the menfolk retire to talk about this dirty business, Darcy delivers a line that reads a lot like, "For the benefit of anybody who might be reading an account of this some hundreds of years from now and who has no idea how in the world this works, please remind me, dear lawyer friend, how we magistrates are supposed to conduct this inquiry." Well, maybe it isn't quite that bad, but it's eye-poppingly awkward. I don't believe James has ever made such a narrative stumble before.

Reading this, and enjoying its cheek, its fun, and its masterful, fair play with the rules of the genre, I found myself a little sad that we have so few books by James, comparatively, to cherish. There are only nineteen over a fifty-year career. If Pemberley is indeed the last, then she has certainly earned her retirement, and it was nice that she gave Dalgliesh a happy ending in The Private Patient, and it's actually a little refreshing to see that James can still pull off something as comparatively light as this, after the incredibly heavy events across the last half of the Dalgliesh novels. No, it is not quite breezy, but it is light, and very entertaining. Recommended.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Robert B. Parker

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 few brief notes about the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker.

Parker is one of those novelists of whom anybody who's interested in detective fiction is always aware, even if his actual writing might be unknown. He passed away two years ago, leaving behind an astonishing stack of books. With a little focus, anybody can finish Raymond Chandler in three weeks or so. Wikipedia lists sixty-eight novels by Parker, one of which is his completion of Chandler's unfinished Poodle Springs, and which I've been putting off reading for many years. Now that I see just how entertaining Parker's work is, I'm going to tackle that sometime soon.

On a whim, I checked 2003's Back Story out of the library. This is the thirtieth(!) of forty(!) novels featuring a PI in Boston called Spenser. By this point, Spenser's world and cast of supporting characters is very much established - the dude was averaging one Spenser novel about every ten months, so he had plenty of time to build up quite a world for him - and it crosses over into another series of books featuring a small-town police chief called Jesse Stone, who, in turn, crosses over into another series of books starring a PI named Sunny Randall. With Parker's characters adapted for television, it's easy to visualize the parts as played by Robert Urich, Avery Brooks, Tom Selleck and Helen Hunt, even if all that I really know of Boston, where all these stories are set, is a single day's whirlwind visit and all of those establishing shots of the city on Banacek.

Having finished Back Story, and reflecting that I might have enjoyed it a little better had Spenser not performed like a superhuman killing machine in an exciting sequence set at night in Harvard's stadium, I went back to the beginning and have read the first three novels. 1973's Godwulf Manuscript has the dry humor down from the start, and some obvious Parker tropes like incredibly detailed accounts of what Spenser cooks for himself and an unflinching use of corporate trademarks. It's distasteful and dated beyond belief in some regards - Spenser beds a mother and her daughter in the same day, and I can't imagine anybody reading that today without a furrowed brow - but the investigation is interesting and I enjoyed how Parker basically telegraphed to all his readers that he's going to remain obsessed with university campuses for the next thirty-something years.

1974's God Save the Child has a hysterical moment early on where Spenser, leaving town and driving north through suburban sprawl, engages in an incredibly long run-on sentence where he describes every awful thing that he passes on the state highway, and it introduces one of his regular supporting players and lovers, Susan, but is otherwise a skippable story of bodybuilders and missing kids, with that very ugly 1970s distaste for homosexuality leaking from every page. 1975's Mortal Stakes is a much better read, with an ugly secret threatening the career and the marriage of a star Red Sox pitcher, thanks to a far-too powerful radio personality knowing more about the team's scandals than he should.

I've enjoyed three of the four books a great deal, and am about to start on the celebrated Promised Land, which won the Edgar Award for best mystery novel of 1975 and later served as the pilot for the ABC Spenser: For Hire TV series. Even if I only keep enjoying three of each four books, then I figure I have fifty-one good reads in front of me.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Milk & Cheese

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 Milk & Cheese (Dark Horse, 2011).

This has got to be one of the most repetitive, one-note strips that I have ever loved, but it's not as though its creator, Evan Dorkin, doesn't know that all too well. About two-thirds of the way through this book, which reprints dozens and dozens of these short strips where Milk, a small carton of hate, and Cheese, an equally short wedge of spite, angrily, gleefully and indestructibly take out their wrath in gory, grisly, hilarious fashion against whomever has pissed them off lately, we come to one of my very favorite of all the strips. It's a simple one page story where Dorkin draws himself having a telephone conversation with somebody about how incredibly tiring it is to keep churning these ridiculous things out. There's no character development, no ongoing stories, nothing whatever that keeps an artist interested and invested in staying with his creations. "They barely sustain a two-page strip," Dorkin says, before recounting a clueless television executive's inquiry about selling the rights to the characters for a children's show, literally unaware that Milk and Cheese are foul-mouthed, murderous alcoholics.

I'm of two minds about Dark Horse's recent collection of the strip, which, heaven knows, was overdue for retirement a while ago. There have not been any new Milk & Cheese stories for quite some time, and, hopefully, this nice hardback will serve as the complete and definitive edition. I can't praise Dark Horse enough for doing this so well; it is a fine package, priced right at twenty dollars, and seems to contain every single published appearance of the duo, along with lots of bonus material. The reproduction is top-notch, on very good paper.

But, oh, reading these again. What is repetitive by the end of a single twenty-something comic book is completely exhausting after two hundred. About halfway through, I stopped reading and just looked at the art. I'm not sure that I missed anything; I had read these all before, years ago, and again, minutes previously. It's not just the same joke, it's the same delivery. Well, there are slight changes. In time, Dorkin seems to sic Milk and Cheese on particular subcultures rather than just society-at-large. The double-barreled attack on RenFesters is amazingly funny throughout, and he comes up with such ridiculous profanities and epithets that, even inured to the same-old violence, continue to get me laughing. I'm not sure that I've ever come across a funnier exclamation of shock than "Jackals of Botswana!"

It is quite neat seeing Dorkin's art evolve. He started out in the late eighties with a much thinner line and fewer solids, but he did not sacrifice any detail as his work tightened up. I really like the way that Dorkin is such a rounded cartoonist that his lettering is every bit as important as the rest of the material. I recall seeing one of his Simpsons comics for Bongo and feeling that it just looked completely wrong because the lettering was the Bongo house style and not his own.

In other words, then, it is a terrific collection, and one done with love and a sense towards pleasing the most anal-retentive and nitpicky of commentators. (I suspect, to be honest, that might actually be me.) But, much like a huge, 50-disc brick of a DVD set containing every single Three Stooges film, this is the sort of enterprise that many will start, but very few will finish. Recommended in small doses, with a couple of weeks' break after each chapter.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Beautiful Blue Death

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 A Beautiful Blue Death (St. Martin's, 2007).

Marie correctly figured that I would enjoy this mystery novel a good deal. Set in 1865, it features a gentleman sleuth named Charles Lenox. He has money and an equally rich brother who's an MP, he's close friends with an attractive, titled young widow who lives next door and with a devil-may-care young doctor He has a butler who is spectacularly capable and the soul of discretion, and a fractious relationship with the newly-formed Scotland Yard, whose barely-competent police detectives have not yet met any fictional supersleuths telling them what they're doing wrong.

Add this character the bonuses of period London, big posh homes, and the struggle between the upstairs and the downstairs as seen through modern eyes. Why this book hasn't shown up at WGBH's door with a note that reads "Please give the BBC money to make me and put me on PBS Masterpiece," I can't imagine.

In his first case, Lenox is asked by his neighbor, Lady Jane Grey, to investigate the suspicious death of a former maid, which is being called a suicide. But there are elements that the police have overlooked, and a possible political scandal regarding the homeowner, George Barnard, who has important connections to England's treasury, and a home full of curious house guests.

Briefly, this was indeed a very fun book. With the posh 'tec's casual and trusted relationship with Graham, Charles Finch has effortlessly evoked the wonderful relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Bunter. It's a good mystery, with an excellent cast of characters, and a real sense of research and hard work put into evoking the period. I almost wish that I had read it in 2007, so that I could hope for and wonder whether there would be additional novels featuring Lenox. As it is, there are five at this point, and I'm looking forward to catching up. I hope that a new one will be out later this year, because the more of these that I have to read, the better.