Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Nikolai Dante's final adventure

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 Nikolai Dante (Rebellion, 2012).

The fifteen-year saga of Nikolai Dante finally came to a conclusion this summer. I'm really going to miss having that rogue, that thief, that devil-may-care adventurer with a heart of gold around.

Created by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser, Dante starred in a wonderful and imaginative swashbuckling series set in the far-flung future of 27th Century Imperial Russia. Here, two warring dynasties struggled for control of an impoverished population. Dante learned early on that he was the bastard son of one of these powerful warlords, and fell in love with the daughter of the other. Politics, love and dysfunctional families drove the narrative just as much as Dante's love of adventure, gorgeous ladies, and, occasionally, spectacular crime.

Wrapping up his adventures meant tying up lots of subplots, and giving several beloved supporting characters one last chance to say goodbye before Dante finally got to walk down the aisle with his beloved Jena and take his place as the tsar of all the Russias. The final six week story, "Sympathy for the Devil," saw the bulk of the first episode letting half-brother Viktor leave the stage, and the second saw out his half-sister Lulu. With most of the other cast members dead or already wrapped up, that just left Nikolai and his best friend Elena left to deal with Jena's father, Vlad the Conqueror, who escaped from his prison earlier in the year, and to get that villain out of the picture and get Nikolai to the church on time.

But before Vladimir is ready to go, he wants to talk to Nikolai, man-to-man, about the corruption of power and how Vlad's once-noble intentions turned him into such a monster. And he figures that they should pass a gun back and forth and give the audience one last little familiar trope of Russian-themed fiction, with one bullet in the chamber. That too, of course. When the final collected edition of this series is released later this year - the eleventh, and apparently due in October - it will never equal the breathless, nail-biting thrill of the two cliffhangers set at that table with the game of roulette. Week five was unbearable; I've never wanted to pop ahead in time so badly, ever.

The conclusion to the saga proved to be instantly controversial. Not quite as many plot points were resolved as perhaps people were hoping (he said, saying as little as possible, unlike whoever typed up the character's page at Wikipedia!), although I think the most important and nagging ones were handled. For my part, I'd like so much to think that Nikolai would never let Vlad win by allowing those doubts to destroy his happiness, nor run, hiding, from the massive political challenge. I think the biggest clue comes from all of the narrative captions through the series that are written as excerpts from histories and biographies. Certainly Nikolai would deserve some attention as a major player during this time of huge upheaval, conflict and war, but I believe that it's what comes next that makes the man a critical focus for the historians and biographers of centuries to come. I'm also taken by the story that Vladimir tells Nikolai about having to execute his three closest friends, believing that one was a spy but never knowing which. I think that if anything were to motivate our hero into being an even better and greater man than Vlad, it's that right there.

For subjective and personal reasons, I've been attached to Dante since his April 1997 debut, and I will miss him a lot now that he's gone. I think that it has been a complete and roaring success from start to finish, and, now that it is complete, anybody who loves adventure comics should start getting the books. The current configuration is eleven titles (The Romanov Dynasty [Simon & Schuster's US edition entitled Too Cool to Kill], The Great Game, The Courtship of Jena Makarov, Tsar Wars Volumes 1 and 2, Hell and High Water, Sword of the Tsar, The Beast of Rudinshtein, Amerika and Hero of the Revolution all preceding the forthcoming final book), and your library does not need any other book from anybody else until you've begun these. Highest recommendation.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Carte Blanche

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 Carte Blanche (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011).

You know that you've become old when James Bond is suddenly, and officially, eight years younger than you. Last year, Ian Fleming's estate let novelist Jeffery Deaver, who is highly regarded for his modern thrillers, take a crack at 007. In Carte Blanche, published last year, Bond has been formally rebooted to age 32. Born in 1979 and a veteran of the Afghanistan War, Bond works for a covert agency attached to MI6, and has carte blanche to act in Her Majesty's interests overseas. But when the trail of a strange cypher that states British casualties will number in the thousands leads him back to the UK, he finds that he has to follow the rules of the domestic service, MI5. Is James Bond really ready to be a team player?

Deaver's take on the character was quite fun. I enjoyed Bond's competence and realism, and his humanity. I don't know that it's accurate to say that he feels guilty at one point, but he at least considers the emotional ramifications of his actions. There's even a Bond girl who gets away from him, which is quite amusing. I like the way that Deaver's Bond has a masterful command of tactics, even if the overall strategy sometimes eludes him. What is shaping up to be a major plot point and the deaths of dozens turns out, much to Bond's surprise, to be a completely innocuous fetish on the part of one of the villains. I really enjoyed the way that Bond spends almost the entire book having no idea, once the villain has been established and followed, exactly what the heck his plan actually is. We're so used to the supercriminals in the movies showing off and bragging about their schemes that it was quite pleasing to be as in the dark as our hero.

Briefly, I was really pleased and entertained by this Bond story, though I am sorry to say that it looks like it's going to be a one-off, and all the neat threads begun in it probably won't ever be developed. Prior to this, the publishers - slash - licence holders tapped Sebastian Faulks for a one-off novel set in Ian Fleming's original, 1960s-continuity, and this will be continued in the next novel, to be written by William Boyd and published next year. Recommended, even if it proves to be a complete hiccup in the character's publishing history, and even though I kept visualizing a young Sean Connery in the part, and not Daniel Craig. Had to keep forcing Craig's face and build into my mind's eye; got a bit distracting, really.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Manly Tales of Cowardice

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 Manly Tales of Cowardice (Staple Genius, 2012).

The first thing that's sure to strike anybody tackling the complete Manly Tales of Cowardice is just how dense it is. This collection, available through Lulu, is 304 quite packed black and white pages, reprinting this long-running series of self-published and incredibly funny comics. These are the exploits of Fleming Hazmat, "one of the world's foremost adventurers, treasure hunters, and paranormal investigators." Allied with a robot who has the preserved brain of 18th-Century superheroine Betsy Ross - she was the archnemesis of King George, and he was an iron-masked Dr. Doom-like villain, you know - and one in an endless series of silent "pawn sacrifices" called Atlantis Lad, Hazmat travels the world in search of occult treasure and wild superscience, hoping desperately to talk his way out of situations before he gets his rear kicked. Since even his most arrogant foes concede that Hazmat is the luckiest S.O.B. alive, he usually manages it.

Danno Klonowski, who illustrates all and scripts most of Hazmat's misadventures, has a great style that leaves him drawing everything in incredibly dense and dark pages. He gives himself tricky character designs and inks the bejezus out of the pages. Compare these to professional Steve Yeowell, and the grand expanses of white nothing that he's been turning in to 2000 AD lately, and it's the amateur indie comic artist who looks like he cares about his product. One major hiccup, however, is the just-this-side-of-illegible lettering, which is a complete mess and a chore to read. I would have greatly preferred that Klonowski gone to the expense of hiring a professional letterer to redo his pages before reprinting them in this collection.

But the story's the thing, and Hazmat's outlandish adventures are huge, over-the-top, ridiculous fun. This is a world that, for centuries, has seen manly men and manly women locked in absurd, melodramatic conflict, honing their skills at treasure-hunting at such institutions as Mack Bolan University. Hazmat's very concerted attempts to not get involved with rapscallions such as the Vegan Ninja and Lord Leigh Britishsmith are doomed to failure, in part because Betsy Rossbot keeps forcing the issue. Speaking of which, that ne'er-do-well Britishsmith features in a short story that has him confronting an English-themed restaurant's "fish and chips" and will probably be the funniest thing you read all month.

Thematically, it's not miles removed from TV's Venture Brothers, but, even with the many gruesome deaths of Atlantis Lad, it's done with a much more playful, light, and silly tone. Packed with bizarre references, in-jokes and awful puns, it's a book that will certainly reward rereads. Recommended.

A PDF of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your comics or detective fiction featured here, send me an email.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Gone Girl

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 Gone Girl (Crown, 2012).

Once in a really great while, I read a review of a new piece of modern fiction and figure that I need to give it a read as soon as possible. Usually, I forget about it. But Jeff Giles in Entertainment Weekly sold me so thoroughly on Gillian Flynn's third novel Gone Girl that I decided to get it promptly. I'm very glad that I did. The book's amazing.

The setup is slow and deliberate and does not paint either Nick nor his wife Amy, who vanishes on the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, at all well. It spends about the first hundred and twenty pages building as a scathing indictment of the Nancy Grace "convict everybody" culture, where it's naturally assumed that whatever happened, the husband did it. Nick's dumb, shit-eating grin and his failure to be totally honest with the police do not help.

120 pages in, there's a thunderous end to a chapter which will force readers to consider that neither Nick nor Amy, whose stories are told in alternating chapters, are being totally honest with the readers, either. This then builds with a frightening new urgency, as neither Nick nor Amy's words can be trusted any longer, and then, round about the time the book comes to a big black page, we start to learn just how utterly messed up this marriage was. Absolutely nothing can be trusted.

Reviewers have been careful not to spoil this one, and with good reason. I've read many books with twists and turns, but I've rarely read one that so masterfully yanked the rug completely out from under me, and then waited just long enough for me to dust myself down before doing it again. And again. It is not airtight - would that I could tell you about the three loose ends that I spotted, but North Carthage, Missouri doesn't seem to employ the most skilled and trained of police detectives - but it is assembled with remarkable care and attention. The two stories complement and contradict each other at precisely the right places. The story might not be watertight, but the telling of it is. It's fascinating, fun in the bleakest way, and certainly comes recommended.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of 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 brief review of Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (Ivy, 1993).

Some weeks ago, I tried M.C. Beaton's most recent novel about Hamish Macbeth, and I enjoyed it enough to try sampling her other character, fiftysomething amateur sleuth Agatha Raisin. She lives in retirement in a little Midlands village not really unlike somebody else's setting of St. Mary Mead, where, steeped on a diet of detective fiction that she's borrowed from the local library, she absolutely insists on assisting police with their inquiries.

Unlike Macbeth, I started with the first Agatha Raisin novel. It reads very much like the confident work of somebody who's reasonably assured that she'll have a publisher interested in whatever she wishes to write, and can fill her pages with a giant supporting cast. It feels more like a TV series pilot than a novel, and why not? At the time, Macbeth had been made into a successful, lighthearted BBC drama starring Robert Carlyle and while Raisin has not yet made it to television, there have been a few full-cast recordings for radio. (If there ever is a Raisin TV series, it must surely star Dawn French.)

On the one hand, this is as fine an example as ever there will be of the modern "cozy" mystery, but at the same time, it's done with a really impressive knowledge of the genre. It's not quite a parody, but it knows what it's doing. Quite apart from namechecking so many authors who came before her, Beaton is able to devise precisely the sort of overinventive and very silly killing that used to aggravate the hard-boiled Chandler so much. Here, somebody has poisoned a quiche that Raisin purchased from a shop in London to enter into a local cookoff as her own. But they haven't even done it with arsenic or something sensible, but some absurdly rare and lethal plant. So was the poison meant for Raisin, who started off in the village making enemies-for-life with her big city ways, or for the judge. There's little to the murder beyond the intellectual puzzle, and Raisin's interest is hardly a quest for truth, but the role that she's invented for herself.

Frankly, I'm darned if I can figure how in the world Beaton is able to sustain such a silly premise, but she's written something like two dozen of them. I've set aside the next two books in the series. I won't claim that I'm chomping at the bit to tackle them, but I can certainly appreciate construction as clever and diverting as this. Recommended for people looking for light reading.

Saturday, August 4, 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 Esperanza (Fantagraphics, 2011).

I made a decision, about the time that I read Jaime Hernandez's most recent Love & Rockets story, "The Love Bunglers," that I was not going to give Fantagraphics any more of my money any more than once for the material that I wished to read. See, they keep publishing these fantastic comics - really, other than 2000 AD, they're the only comics that I am interested in purchasing anymore - and then they keep repackaging them. And I keep buying them. They observe multiple potential audiences who enjoy the material in different configurations - tall and thin hardcovers, big coffee table books, these shorter and fatter paperbacks - and I just sign up for each of them.

I have "reviewed" this material previously. It appears to be all the stories that Jaime drew about Maggie, Hopey, Ray and the Frogmouth in volume two of Love & Rockets, and appears to be all of the material in the second half of the larger, $40 Locas II coffee table collection.

I really love this stuff. I love Maggie, at different times in her life, being haunted by a weird dog who rises on its hind legs. I love how she gains weight and Hopey doesn't. I love how Hopey tries on different glasses to stick around the optician. I love how she and her girlfriend, all the lust gone from their life, agree without any rancor or passion to break up, and how it hurts the reader more than either of them. I love how Maggie never really figures out to never, ever mention Julie Wree around Hopey. I love the artwork. I love that idiot wanna-be gangster shouting about doing a solid at his buddy's funeral and his dimwitted, unpredictable demise. I love the artwork. I love the format. I love the book. I don't love trying to come up with anything new to say about it. I don't love coming up with new excuses to myself to buy the stuff again and again when I don't earn very much money.

I'll almost certainly buy New Stories # 5 when I'm next in Athens. The next time, down the line, that Fantagraphics finds a new format for that story, and "The Love Bunglers," I'll probably put it on my Amazon wish list or something. The center can't hold, and such. Highly, highly recommended for older readers who didn't already buy it someplace else.