Friday, April 29, 2011

Killing Yourself to Live

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 Killing Yourself to Live (Scribner, 2004).

I really enjoy Chuck Klosterman's writing, and I really envy him the assignment that Spin sent him on some years back, basically driving from New York to Seattle through the South over the better part of a month to visit the sites of infamous fatalities in the history of rock. Not that I particularly care to see where the Big Bopper or Randy Rhoads were killed, or visit the place in Rhode Island where a crowd of a hundred was burned to death in a club, but given the chance to just drive and eat and think about life and write it up, I'd leap. I'd hope the resulting book would be a third as entertaining.

That said, it's really not a book about death, or death sites. Seeing the site of the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash might prompt some people into writing something profound, but not me, and not Klosterman, either. There are a few amusing or notable anecdotes that emerge from the actual places visited, but none really resonated with Klosterman more than the trip to Rhode Island. The funniest, for what it's worth, had to be the trip to the Chelsea Hotel, where the owner, politely but firmly, tells him to get lost.

No, this is a book about girls. Readers might get more out of it if they went through a hopelessly romantic and heartbroken phase in their late twenties and early thirties and memoired the hell out of the affairs that they wish they had, but basically, Chuck's got girl troubles, chiefly caught between two women that he's either seeing and loving too much and one whom he has not seen in some time and has not got over, and whom he's going to visit when he gets to Minnesota.

I think it's damn well written and very resonant of how I used to feel. If you don't attach any import to this kind of heart-on-your-sleeve yearning, this book will probably try your patience. On the other hand, if you've longed to either get back the love you put into something, or to drive across Montana and wish to have a vivid, funny writer tell you what that's like, this is definitely the book for you. Recommended for road trippers and romantics.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Death is Now My Neighbor

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 is Now My Neighbor (Macmillan, 1996).

There's an interesting rhythm to the later Inspector Morse novels. By this stage, with the television series a global success and author Colin Dexter a wealthy man, it really does feel like he's coasting, but the previous four books had all been so good that it doesn't feel like it matters very much. If this was a reader's first Morse novel, I can imagine it being hugely satisfying, but after so many of these tropes had been mined by the earliest books - many of them, sadly, inferior in both structure and design to this - what remains feels very repetitious. It will surprise nobody to learn that a major plot arc in this story involves subterfuge and chicanery among jealous Oxford dons. At various points, Chief Superintendent Strange will obliquely hint that he knows that Morse is working outside the letter of the law to collect his proof. Much as it is tedious to read a PD James novel wherein Adam Dalgliesh's holiday is spoiled by some pensioner killing an octagenarian over a betrayal during World War Two, this is by-the-numbers stuff, no matter how well it is told.

Well, before it starts down well-worn avenues, this case opens up with an apparently motiveless shooting in a quiet Oxford street. Turning the dead young woman's life upside down in search of an angle attracts the attention of a neighbor, Geoffrey Owens, who is incredibly curious, even for a journalist looking for a story. Morse's after-hours investigation into Owens turns up evidence of blackmail and all sorts of conspiratorial connections throughout the community, including the deceased. But what if she wasn't the target at all...?

If the preceding paragraph gave away too much of the plot, or what Morse turns up, don't be put out with me. Anybody with more than six or seven works of detective fiction under their belt is going to figure out these connections very quickly in a work of this nature. What makes Dexter's novels of the 1990s so appealing is how well he draws the characters within the framework of the plot. By this point, Strange and Morse are both nearing retirement, and Morse's loneliness has become almost painful to read. There's a wholly unexpected turn of events when Morse becomes ill and checks himself into a hospital, and learns that he's going to have to make some major life and health changes if he's going to retire at all.

As detective fiction, it really doesn't stand on its own two feet, and as something original within the series, it doesn't stand at all, but it's an extremely well-written book, and it's most likely that by this point, readers were picking up Morse more for the character and his friendship with Sergeant Lewis than for anything much deeper than that. Disappointing, but still recommended with a gram or two of enthusiasm.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Greysuit: Project Monarch

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 Greysuit: Project Monarch (Rebellion, 2011).

I end up writing an awful lot about Pat Mills' comics in this blog, because there are so darn many of them and they're so darn good. Also, the older ones keep getting reissued in nicer new editions which I keep buying, that too. But Greysuit is one of the newer ones. Two stories of this brutal super-agent have appeared in the pages of 2000 AD, the first in 2007 and the second in '09. Issue 1540 of that comic was one of its high-water marks, because that featured the debuts of two brand new Mills series, this and the excellent Defoe, which has proven more popular, but that shouldn't be taken to mean that Greysuit is anything less than special, too.

Greysuit is a pretty wild amalgam of secret agent fiction. The protagonist, who goes by the handle John Blake, is a superhumanly powerful agent for Great Britain, his mind and memories wiped to serve as a very brutal enforcer of whatever Her Majesty's government has sent him to do. In many places, it's incredibly brutal. Artist John Higgins doesn't shy from illustrating what would really happen if somebody with this kind of strength punched somebody in the jaw. Oooh, it is a nasty comic. While he's out on a mission, some of Blake's programming and mental blocks break down, and when he subsequently learns that a senior member of the government is responsible for some heinous crimes, Blake hunts him down.

Obviously, this is a comic with lots of obvious sources and influences, even down to the main character's initials (James Bond, Jason Bourne). But none of it is played for laughs or parody, as this is a mean-spirited and inventive storyline with the usual Mills trope of bouncing new and wild ideas at readers as often as the plot will allow it. They don't always work - there's a subplot about a character known as "the ginger ninja" which is just so darn weird that it beggars description - but for sheer volume of wild ideas in a compact space, Mills is in a class by himself.

Rebellion's new collection contains the entire series - two stories - of Greysuit to date. A third story has been suggested but not yet confirmed, and sadly the book leaves a heck of a lot of subplots open for one. There's still a pile of wild ideas that Mills can develop further and readers certainly hope that we'll see it again, and new readers will definitely want to be caught up when that time comes. Definitely recommended.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History

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 Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History (Faber & Faber, 2009).

This is an interesting story, but I can't swear that I enjoy the way the author told it. It's an "oral history" of The Simpsons, in which many of the behind-the-scenes figures open up for a warts-and-all discussion of the series. Jon Ortved got several of the writers and producers to go on the record about the show. Others, notably Matt Groening and Jim Brooks, declined, and old interviews from other sources are used in their place. It's structured to let the sources do almost all of the talking, without much in the way of narrative interruption.

When Ortved does impose some authorial weight on the story, it didn't come across well at all. The tone in the book's earlier chapters is overly cloying, just lavishing praise on how allegedly important The Simpsons has been to comedy and to television. By the end, with far fewer comments from writers on the record, he is dismissing more than half of the series and devoting pages to praising the program's descendants, including the Fox-dominated Family Guy, which is sort of like buying a book about Monty Python and finding three or four pages towards the end about how that series they did without Cleese was a little disappointing, but isn't that Benny Hill Show funny? In the end, this was an interesting book, but not one that I can really recommend with enthusiasm.

Besides, surely everybody knows that the only really good Simpsons stories of the last six or eight years have been the ones that Evan Dorkin and Sergio Aragones have done for Bongo Comics. They're much better than Family Guy too. Much. Hmph.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Star Wars Tales # 20

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 Star Wars Tales # 20 (Dark Horse, 2004).

As much as everybody has enjoyed Marvel's recent Strange Tales anthologies, which open the company's characters to a gang of unexpected creators, none of them really known for drawing superheroes, it is strange that the 20th issue of the old Star Wars Tales hasn't been mentioned more often. This is the spiritual ancestor of the Marvel books, in which the outgoing editor, Dave Land, commissioned many of the same people to have fun with the Star Wars universe. In most cases, this involves making fun of Jar Jar Binks.

Tony Millionaire has a good time with his story about Jar Jar's despairing father, George*. Peter Bagge, who has written some very entertaining political cartoons in his time, shows us how Jar Jar's time on the intergalactic senate is managed by some long-suffering handlers who have to explain exactly what the heck the upcoming votes are about. James Kolchaka, while not among my favorite artists, contributes a fun short story about an incompetent member of the Fett family. Assigned to kill Jar Jar, he finds a Jawa with a talking novelty cup from 7-11 and figures that must be him. Nobody really likes Jar Jar, but he certainly fires up some unexpectedly funny stories!

In non-Jar Jar tales, the often reliable Gilbert Hernandez has a short about Young Lando Calrissian acting like a rogue and passing as a Jedi to scam some naive locals, and Rick Geary plays it straight, unlike most of his peers, with a great Luke Skywalker story that turns into a clever piece of detective fiction. Best of all, however, is Bob Fingerman's six-page contribution that shows a Jawa turning away from the business of ripping off farmers to become a consumer advocate.

I really enjoyed the twinkling sense of fun with this comic, and the goofy willingness to poke fun at sacred cows, and Gungans. Possibly not for the humorless, but otherwise recommended. It's long out of print, but better comic stores may be able to source a copy for you. Shop around!

(*Astonishingly, Millionaire just reposted this tale at his blog. Somehow, possibly because I'm a shortsighted idiot who needs to be hit over the head to notice a clever pun, I failed to catch the deliciously good pun that is the name of Jar Jar's father, George R. Binks.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Confess, Fletch

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 Confess, Fletch (1976).

I have to tell you, following Gregory Mcdonald's Fletch series has proven more of an interesting challenge than I thought it would be. McDonald did not write the series in chronological order, and I love that. The first of the novels, written, turned out to be the fourth in the series. The second written, Confess, Fletch, is the sixth. I picked up a hardcover omnibus that contains stories four, five and six - these would be the books written first, seventh and second. You with me so far, or did you drop out to follow something sensible?

Well, book five - slash - seven, Carioca Fletch, was a huge disappointment. Set in Brazil after Fletch found himself incredibly wealthy at the end of story four - slash - one, it seemed to be a case of the character caught up in other peoples' events and never affecting the outcome of anything himself. Fortunately, Confess, Fletch proved to be a massive treat, almost as good as Fletch's introduction.

In this story, Fletch returns to the States claiming to be researching a painter for an art history biography, but finds a body in the apartment that he's rented. This would be a pain in the neck had Fletch caught any fictional detective to give him, and his unlikely story, the once-over, but he has the great misfortune of having a real bulldog called Frances Xavier Flynn assigned to the case. Flynn would prove popular enough to get his own series of four novels. Watching the cat and mouse game that these two play is a complete joy, because Fletch doesn't want anybody to know the real reason he's come to Boston to talk about paintings, or why he left California in such a rush two years previously.

I really love the way that Mcdonald structures this story. Fletch has a very complicated scheme in mind, and it requires lining up an awful lot of pieces to make it work. Mcdonald carefully and deliberately puts all these pieces together without giving anything away, or letting the audience know what the hell Fletch is up to. The payoffs are beautiful in every way, and with an adversary like Flynn opposing him, he really doesn't get off easy. I enjoyed this tremendously and recommend it wholeheartedly.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Charley's War: The Great Mutiny

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 Charley's War: The Great Mutiny (Volume 7) (Titan, 2010).

Overshadowing the release of this seventh collection of Charley's War has been some interesting commentary by the strip's writer Pat Mills. First, I was pleased to learn that Titan intends to release the entirety of his run on the series, which originally appeared in Battle Picture Weekly in the early '80s. Drawn by the late Joe Colquhoun, Mills wrote the first 300 or so episodes before stepping down, leaving Scott Goodall to take the helm for another few years. It is apparently Titan's intention to issue all of Mills' run across ten hardbacks. That's wonderful news, because this really is the finest comic about war ever made, and even simply sitting down to marvel at Colquhoun's artwork without taking the time to engage with the story is a terrific pleasure.

But I was also very sorry to read that Titan is not paying any royalties from their releases to either Mills or to Colquhoun's family. That's a ridiculous and stupid shame; I can't freaking believe that this is the 21st Century and publishers are still acting like that. I understand that, especially with a pleasantly reasonable $20 retail price for such a nice hardcover, the profit margin for these books must be slim - the audience, sadly, must still be very small - but seriously, guys, charge an extra five bucks a book and send Joe's family a little check, would you? It puts a damper on all the other, long overdue Battle reprints that are allegedly coming out. I hear that the first Johnny Red book is finally out in some places - it was reviewed over at The Comics Journal - but Diamond hasn't delivered a copy of that to the comic shop where I buy them.

Nor, for that matter, did Diamond ever deliver volume six of the series, which is why I begged off buying this for a couple of months, fingers crossed in vain that I would get to read it before volume seven. Eventually I caved and really enjoyed this book. It's titled "The Great Mutiny" and about the first half of the book covers that interesting incident at √Čtaples, and I have had a great time reading background to that. It was a much smaller rebellion than I realized, but what made it remarkable was that it happened at all. (I've also learned that William Alison and John Fairley's infamous Monocled Mutineer was really playing fast and loose with the historical record by placing Percy Toplis in √Čtaples in time for the uprising, but I can grudgingly forgive it, since Paul McGann was so good as Toplis in the miniseries.)

Anyway, after √Čtaples, Charley goes back to the front and wants to make up for some of his earlier actions by volunteering as a stretcher bearer, and then things go completely to hell. It really is remarkable that Mills was able to sustain the energy and drama in Charley's War for as long as he did. At this point, we're something close to 200 episodes into the series - the only failure of these reprints, other than compensating the creators, is the lack of original credits and dates, as seen in other recent Titan collections - and, apart from a three-month break in the original publication as Colquhoun recovered from a heart attack, there was a new episode of Charley's War damn near every week for six years. I don't know how in the world they managed it. Recommended, but with some newly-found distaste about the publishing biz.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Showcase Presents: Legion of Super-Heroes Vol. 4

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 Showcase Presents: Legion of Super-Heroes Volume 4 (DC, 2011).

Every so often, reading Legion of Super-Heroes in this period (1968-1972), you get some real gems, but they sure can be ugly. This latest edition in the Showcase Presents series collects another 500 pages of LSH action and futuristic melodrama, and most of it's pretty entertaining, but it's not very easy on the eyes. I was reminded of a 1993 newspaper review of a twenty year-old Doctor Who serial, dusted off and run in prime time on BBC1, which summed up just how dated the garish, glam rock production was by noting "Sometimes, Doctor Who doesn't time travel well at all."

That's certainly true about the late '60s Legion. DC Comics, in the period, was confused and frustrated and throwing everything at the wall, desperate for something to stick. Sometimes they found something that really worked well; giving teenage writer Jim Shooter a crack at humanizing the characters and bringing a vital, modern energy to the old-fashioned plotting was among the best things that corporation did that whole decade. But then they shot themselves in the foot by letting some guy with the awesomely rock-n-roll name of J. Winslow Mortimer illustrate some of them. Eventually, Jack Abel is brought in to ink this artist's work and made it look competent, but until Abel arrived, DC was publishing some of the ugliest, blockiest, dullest, sloppiest artwork imaginable. Here's a rare example of me speaking against the Showcase series' black-and-white reproduction: My own collection of old comics where these originally appeared had long told me that these were ugly comics. Stripped of color, they are revealed as flat, unimaginative and hurried as a Whitman coloring book.

In this period, the Legion is still hamstrung simply by virtue of DC being DC. There's a good two-part story about several Legionnaires learning that they have been fatally poisoned, and you can really feel that unreal, Silver Age attempt at pathos. Characters want to tell their parents farewell, but they end up standing around stoically, weeping a silent tear and not saying anything, but thinking a gigantic thought balloon choked full of long sentences of what they wished they could say. On the other hand, Shooter does make progress in giving characters more human motives. Duo Damsel's unrequited love for Superboy is never really heart-wrenching, but it means well and feels real. Karate Kid's decision to spend his dying days tracking down the Fatal Five and bringing them to justice is the sort of thing that DC Comics just never did before Shooter. It was too aggressive, too proactive a tactic for such a reactionary publisher.

The whole book is like this, taking baby steps towards becoming energetic and lively and slipping away from the (sorry) Silver Age shackles. E. Nelson Bridwell contributes some pretty good scripts before Cary Bates drags the property kicking and screaming into the 1970s with some really fun stories and great characterization, and the drab Mortimer / Abel team eventually gives way to Dave Cockrum, who, finally, seems to have a desire to make the 30th Century look futuristic. The last 60-odd pages of this book are really fun, and I'm left feeling quite hungry for the fifth volume, which should be full of the stories that I grew up reading and loving. Recommended with reservations.