Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Mysteries of the Diogenes 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 Mysteries of the Diogenes Club (Monkeybrain, 2010).

I think that Kim Newman's a much better ideas man than he is a wordsmith, and that's almost okay, because his ideas are really fun. Basically, he took the Diogenes Club, from the Sherlock Holmes stories, and made it a secret service defending the United Kingdom from magical and occult threats for more than a century, and has written short stories in which various club members take center stage in different eras. One of them, Richard Jeperson, got a whole book of short stories set in the late 1960s and early 1970s to himself, but I couldn't find that book and started with this one. Jeperson takes center stage in just one of these; other tales are led by Edwin Winthrop, who was the chief agent in the early 20th Century, and a vampire named Geneviève Dieudonné makes several appearances.

As with any collection of short stories, especially one with a scope as broad as this one, some stories will be better than others, but the Jeperson-led "Moon Moon Moon" was by leagues my favorite, a terrific tale that explains how peoples' imaginations of the moon, prior to NASA's landing upon it, created its own unique world. I really enjoyed Jeperson's louche dandy act, and his teamup with an American government agent is a hoot. The character is not-all-that-loosely based on TV's Jason King, and of course Jason King would have been a member of the Diogenes Club as Newman presents it.

The novella "Seven Stars" at least starts out fabulously. It's an epic tale that starts in Victorian London and winds its way into the future, with every era of Diogenes Club operatives getting into conflict with the Mountmain family over a magical jewel. It really did lose me in the end, but each installment kept my attention, at least for a while. Newman's prose is sometimes very hard to parse. A section of "Seven Stars" that takes place in Los Angeles, allowing him the chance to parody hard-boiled PI stories of the '30s, was particularly tough to wade through, forcing me to reread one section about a reanimated corpse, and the narrator's blase reaction toward it, several times.

Newman dreams up beautiful, fantastic scenarios, but conveys them with all the grace of a junkyard. He's not helped by the woeful production and no-budget design of the book, with chapters literally beginning on the very next line, a new heading marked in bold font. The effect is that of a low-rent DIY publisher churning out barely-penetrable walls of text, and this may sound like a churlish and snobby complaint, but there really is a subconscious level of excitement that can come from good design, and a related level of boredom when anybody, anywhere, could type up the same book for a vanity press. Newman's leaden style needed a little help, and his publisher didn't give him any. I have another of his Diogenes Club books on the shelf and do intend to read it (hoping there's more Jeperson in it), but it's not a priority. Very mild recommendation.

The Bookshelf will take a summer holiday and return in August!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


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 Irène (MacLehose Press, 2014).

Well, I had an idea where this crime thriller was going, and while I was not right, I read about eighty pages with my teeth on edge. It was the sort of climax where it didn't really matter how close to the answer the reader gets, what happens isn't going to make anybody happy.

Writer Pierre LeMaitre has written three novels about a commandant in the Paris police force named Camille Verhoeven. It's taken a little while for them to be published in English, and, foolishly, the second of the books, Alex, was released in the US ahead of this one. I'm really glad that I didn't read that one first.

Commandant Verhoeven has a very ugly case in this book. The brutal and really graphically-described murder of two prostitutes is soon tied in to one cold case elsewhere in France and another in Scotland. Verhoeven's team quickly connects them, despite radical differences between all three crimes. There is a small "signature" tying them together, but they otherwise do not appear to be the work of the same killer. Then someone realizes that one of the killings is uncannily like the one described by Bret Easton Ellis in his novel American Psycho, and the race is on, not only to catch the killer, but also to figure out where in fiction the killer got the inspiration for the other murders.

With a very informed journalist pushing his way into the investigation, a bookseller who's suspiciously eager to help, a wife who is due to give birth within days, and the very real probability that one of his detectives is leaking information, Verhoeven is seeing his case get worse and worse as leads about the serial killer flood in. About two-thirds in, I started having the very bad feeling that the killer's final crime wouldn't be drawn from prose fiction, but from a certain feature film directed by David Fincher... and then Verhoeven's wife doesn't answer the telephone...

It's a good book, to be certain, but it's very grisly and very graphic and not for younger readers or those, as the BBC used to say, "of a nervous disposition." It's dark and bleak and while I'm interested in reading Alex, I need a little more brightness and sunshine before I tackle it. Recommended with mild reservations.

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

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Strontium Dog: The Stix Fix

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 Strontium Dog: The Stix Fix (Rebellion, 2015).

It has been a long time since I really enjoyed a Strontium Dog adventure. Five years ago, creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra began one of the series' biggest-ever epics, a 40-episode beast called "The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha." It was divided into four ten-part chunks and I only liked the first of them. I liked it a whole lot, mind you, especially the really interesting, revisionist death of a supporting character, which was the sort of thing that you never, ever see in mainstream American comics. (You can read my take on that fabulous turn of events over at my defunct blog Thrillpowered Thursday.)

But after that, I felt that the story lacked punch and energy, and meandered its way to a shrug-inducing, rushed conclusion. That's why I'm so happy that the newest Johnny Alpha adventure, a ten-parter called "The Stix Fix," is flatly the very best Stronty Dog story in ages. I loved this completely, and it's been the runaway highlight of the last three months of 2000 AD. Well, the latest Grey Area stories have also been terrific, yeah, but each absurdly thrill-packed chunk of this story had me immediately flipping back to read it again, because just so darn much is happening in every six pages that I was certain I was missing bits.

The story opens with some members of the stone-cold, taciturn Stix clan abducting a high-level government muckity-muck from a thinly-veiled North Korea analogue. So the British government, bastards all, ask Johnny Alpha to get on the trail, because Alpha's had dealings with Stixes a time or three before. From there, it's an absurdly dense rollercoaster of a story, with aliens and clans and bad guys all drawn with broad brushes, a trick which always works with Wagner and Ezquerra. The Jong family, you won't be surprised to learn, are all trigger-happy lunatics with very short tempers, and there's certainly a Stix who will discreetly sell out his kinfolk.

But despite the tropes and generally comfortable beats in the characterization, this story goes everywhere and it moves incredibly quickly. It's one of the fastest-paced of all the many Strontium Dog adventures, and that's saying something. As I began reading the eighth episode, I was completely baffled as to how in the world it was going to wrap up with only another eighteen pages to go, until that episode ended with a wonderfully brilliant twist. It was punch the air perfect, the best kind of twist, the one you didn't know was coming, built from very fair clues that I just didn't think were clues at all.

Recommended? Absolutely; it's flawless, one of the very best, funniest, most entertaining and unpredictable Stronty Dog stories ever. Click the image to buy the issue with episode one from 2000 AD's online shop and continue from there.