Friday, December 11, 2015

The New Deal

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 New Deal (Dark Horse, 2015).

Artist Jonathan Case, who you may remember illustrating Jeff Jensen's grisly Green River Killer, dropped me a line to say that he has a new book out, one that he scripted as well. It's a very fun and incredibly detailed caper story called The New Deal, set in Depression-era New York City. Calling it "fun" may sound like a surprise when I tell you that a big chunk of the story comes from the ugly racism of the day resulting in a false accusation of theft based on nothing more than a character's skin, but the very real and casual ugliness of the characters is part of a believable and dense tapestry that our heroes bounce around.

Our hero is Frank O'Malley, a young man who's working two jobs because he owes $400 to a notable bigwig over a poker debt, but isn't actually saving any money to pay him back. His job as a bellboy at the Waldorf Astoria brings him in contact with the rich and famous and their jewels. A quick bit of work could get him out from under Jack Helmer, and he's very, very tempted. Then somebody in the hotel does engage in that very quick bit of work, and one of Frank's friends, a black maid named Theresa, is immediately accused. Frank and Theresa each suspect the other, and they're both in trouble with management for even appearing to look suspicious and tarnish the Waldorf Astoria's reputation... but if neither of them took the jeweled dog collar, pilfered from a hateful old rich lady, who did?

I really, really enjoyed reading this. Case's artwork is incredibly engaging. It's black and white with spot blue shading, and it looks like he had a ball designing all the clothes for his huge cast, the opulent lobby of the hotel, and the surrounding city streets. The story is unpredictable, yet mostly believable. I was smiling ear-to-ear wondering what Jack Helmer was up to, and how a beautiful troublemaker named Nina Booth was going to impact Frank and Theresa's troubles, especially when Nina takes a shine to Theresa and saves her job.

Overall, this is a terrific book, and clearly a real labor of love from Case. I got a kick out of the real-world setting, including a cute cameo by Orson Welles during his time working for the WPA's Federal Theatre Project. I really enjoyed Frank and Theresa's hesitant friendship, and even if Frank occasionally reminded me of a comic lead like Archie Andrews and not quite a real human, I found myself rooting for them both, even when they break the law and make a terribly bad decision to get out from under their trouble. It's a fine, fun book and comes happily recommended.

(Clicking the link in the image will take you to Amazon, where you can purchase the book. A PDF 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.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Sinister Dexter: The Taking of the Michael

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 Sinister Dexter: The Taking of the Michael (Rebellion, 2016).

A little over two years ago, I raved about the return and resurrection of Sinister Dexter, and the series has not done a darn thing to reward my loyalty until now. If you're unfamiliar with this series, I covered its peaks and chasms in that review and won't go into them again. Much.

The problem is that Dan Abnett - who, in fairness, seems to be writing a dozen other stories for a dozen publishers and may not have the time to devote to keeping this series vital - often falls back on comedy and cliche in Sin Dex, and that's amusing to a point but what works best for the series is taking the protagonists dead seriously. Donald Westlake could juggle both jet-black melodrama and lighthearted capers, but he used different protagonists in his stories. Ramone and Finnigan work best when they are frighteningly efficient at their jobs, and when their jobs are really, really serious. But after that triumphant 12-week return in 2013, a handful of subsequent stories were back in the safe arms of gentle parody and mild comedy, throwing away the incredible opportunity that came with the "Witless Protection" story.

But now, oh. We're four weeks into "The Taking of the Michael," written by Abnett and illustrated by Patrick Goddard, and it's remarkable. Ray and Finny are dangerous, ruthless, and completely horrifying in a way that they're rarely depicted. In episode two of the story, one of two bent witness protection agents arranges for our heroes to be abducted in broad daylight, and that turns out to be an awfully bad error. I love the way that Goddard draws the violence. It's depicted with cold, brutal realism and just left my eyes popping.

And I am completely loving the structure of this story. It's told in flashback, as two detectives investigate the aftermath of a huge gunfight on the deck of a yacht. It belongs to longtime series villain Moses Tanenbaum. There are many bodies, many chalk outlines. Each episode opens with a few more words from their investigation, a few more clues as to what will happen as the story unfolds. We're not sure who has died, but each episode shows more of the small supporting cast meeting grisly ends before Ray and Finny even make it to the ship. The second federal agent's wallet has been found. It's possible that she's among the fatalities.

For that matter, our heroes may not have made it out of this one alive. Sure, they probably did, but if any comic in history has ever made readers genuinely question the safety of its characters, it's 2000 AD. The brutality and shock of this story is strong enough that I'm perfectly prepared to place one bet on this story quietly concluding the long-running series (almost twenty years!) with the revelation of the leads' deaths, while also placing a second bet on them making it out alive and showing up in another four-part satire next summer. Fingers crossed for the former, but whichever way, I am absolutely enjoying the daylights out of the uncertainty, and reading each episode with relish. Highly recommended.

(Clicking the link in the image will take you to 2000 AD's online shop, where you can purchase the issue that begins the story. PDFs of these issues were 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, September 8, 2015

Domestic Chic

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 Domestic Chic (Waldorf, 2015).

I have grown to really enjoy reading cookbooks. I go through them slowly and deliberately, lingering over the photography and the lists of ingredients, marking the ones that seem the most amazing and appealing with post-it notes, and hoping, occasionally with a slight bite of the lip, that Marie will play with what she found for a Sunday dinner.

I didn't get that opportunity this time. We were invited to look over an advance copy of Domestic Chic by Kristin Sollenne, a chef and nutritionist, and Marie claimed the book first. She really liked the breezy, fun, keep-it-simple attitude that Sollenne advocates, and the book vanished for several days. When I next saw it, Marie had it propped up in the kitchen one Sunday evening, prepping what turned out to be a delicious dinner of Chicken Piccata. Click that link and you can read all about it over at our food and travel blog, Marie, Let's Eat!. But wait! What about my post-it notes?!

Sollenne has worked with the New York City Restaurant Group since 2008, and currently oversees a chain called Bocca Di Bacco that specializes in southern Italian cuisine, which has three locations in that city. She's written a remarkably readable cookbook that we're certain to use for many years to come. It's broken down by seasons, with many full menus throughout to help planners arrange their meals in full, rather than pairing individual dishes from different parts of the book. That's not to say anybody's obliged to follow the menus that she's created, but it certainly makes it easier for readers who wish to.

The chicken dish that Marie prepared was really tasty, and I'm looking forward to whatever she creates next. I see that she's marked a page with Mixed Stuffed Peppers. We'll be on the road this Sunday. Maybe next?

A copy of this book was provided by the publicist 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, September 1, 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 Helium (Rebellion, 2015).

One of the most interesting things that I've read recently is the latest story by Ian Edginton for 2000 AD. It's called Helium, and it launched in July with a twelve-part opening serial illustrated by D'Israeli.

Helium takes place in the future, when chemical warfare has rendered all low-lying lands poisoned by chemical warfare. Survivors built new civilizations on higher ground, above a toxic cloud that instantly kills. Three hundred years of peace and trade and progress later, and airships start disappearing. Something is active underneath that cloud, with its own technology.

Edginton does his usual job creating a unique and awesome lead heroine. Her name is Constable Hodge, and she's a no-nonsense officer who puts the safety of her community first, and, as the story unfolds, is revealed to have a pretty interesting rogue's gallery from prior arrests. She's accompanied by a very curious cyborg called Solace and there's a lot we still have to learn about him, and I can't wait. On the other hand, I was really disappointed that Edginton fell back on an old trope of having the heroine's warnings that something really needs to be investigated falling on the deaf ears of a council obsessed with orthodoxy and not wanting to cause panic. If I never read such a thing again, I'd be grateful, especially since the structure of this story would barely change if the government had said this was worth investigating.

I really enjoyed the first serial despite this, thanks in part to D'Israeli's amazing artwork. He's an artist who doesn't take shortcuts, and this time out, he gets to use a beautiful color palette. I love his designs for absolutely everything - the homes, the staircases, the cyborgs, the big floating ships, the tanks, and the lightweight aircraft. It's a gorgeous series and I can't wait for more of it.

That brings me to the other flaw. Unfortunately, as he often did in some of his other series, especially The Red Seas and Brass Sun, Edginton ends this first 12-parter on a cliffhanger, but these are never the best structured cliffhangers. Since, by 2000 AD's design, each individual episode ends on a shock or a revelation, I wish that he'd always move the story to a good place to leave it. There's clearly a lot more going on in Helium that we've not learned yet, and I'm very keen to know more, but building each published chunk of the saga as a story in its own right, to a defined conclusion to each part of the narrative, will make each chunk much more memorable. Especially since the vagaries of 2000 AD's publishing schedule means that it will probably be quite a few months before this cliffhanger is resolved. Dang it!

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.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Phoebe and Her Unicorn

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 Phoebe and Her Unicorn (Andrews McMeel, 2014).

Dana Claire Simpson draws an incredibly cute and often hilarious comic strip called Phoebe and Her Unicorn and, let's get this out of the way, it's a lot like Calvin & Hobbes. Phoebe even looks like Calvin's nemesis, Susie Derkins!

The biggest difference is that other characters can interact with the unicorn, whose name is Marigold Heavenly Nostrils. Marigold is enormous fun. She's so absolutely full of herself that Phoebe meets her as she is so entranced by her own reflection in a pond that she doesn't notice a human kid stomping around in the woods. Thereafter, Marigold casts a spell so that nobody sees anything particularly noteworthy about a haughty unicorn hanging around.

The comic is suitable for all ages, and I approve of having a fun heroine for little girls to enjoy. The collected edition collects the original run of the strip as it appeared online - it entered print syndication a couple of months ago - and is similar in shape and appeal to the book versions of another great schoolage comic, Big Nate. Happily recommended for all ages.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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 The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (Twelve, 2006).

Several months ago, I wrote about Chop Suey, USA by Yong Chen, and found it dry and barely-penetrable, in that cold, academic way. Chen referenced a book by the unusually-named Jennifer 8. Lee called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles in his text, and I'm happy to report that her book is so much friendlier, more fun and readable, and anybody who has an interest in the development of American Chinese food really is sure to enjoy this.

I kind of hit a wall here. I mean, I try to dig a little deeper than two paragraphs when I write about something here, but this kind of stumped me, how best to explain to you good people how I felt about this fun story.

Basically, I learned so much by reading this. I even learned that Atlanta is home to the only kosher Chinese restaurant for 400 miles. We'll check that out for our food blog one day. It's a really neat and interesting story, tackling everything from smuggling to the Greyhound routes for itinerant cooks to all those little clear packets of soy sauce to the development of fortune cookies. It's just a terrific little read and absolutely ideal for anybody interested in the history of food. I loved it to pieces and recommend it happily.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The ABC Warriors: Return to Mars

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 ABC Warriors: Return to Mars (Rebellion, 2015).

There's a bit in the introduction to the latest collection of 2000 AD's The ABC Warriors in which writer and creator Pat Mills takes a passive-aggressive swipe - yeah, another one - at the comic's former editor Andy Diggle, and I read it and just rolled my eyes and said "Let it go, guys, you're all brother robots under the synthi-flesh." But if it weren't for the circumstances behind that swipe, this book wouldn't exist in the form that it does, and that would be a great shame.

I really enjoy reading what Mills has been doing with this timeline of future Earth over the last several years. As I mentioned when I wrote about the most recent book of Savage a couple of months ago, a lot of it seems to come from Mills stepping back and looking at the canvas of a quarter-century of stories and finding places where he can connect odd little trinkets and throwaway continuity points into sweeping stories. For example, a big chunk of Return to Mars, which originally appeared across three months of 2000 AD early last year, stems from a one-off line in a 1984 story explaining that, as the ABC Warriors reassembled as supporting characters in the pages of Nemesis the Warlock, one of their members had been killed in a bar fight.

Return to Mars shows us that fight, and the character, Happy Shrapnel, meeting his grisly end, and then, centuries later, being resurrected along with every other dead thing on the planet - a plot point from a one-off episode that was published something like fifteen years later and had nothing to do with Happy Shrapnel. And then Happy, working as armorer and mechanic for his robot comrades, is seen to be working in the background of all the subsequent stories that Mills has written over the last decade and change, including the one that sparked the argument between Mills and Diggle.

The amazing thing is that this doesn't feel at all like obsessive continuity porn from some lunatic obsessed with finding every last point that needs a resolution. Happy's tale weaves in and out of many previous adventures, but familiarity with them isn't at all necessary to following - no, loving this story. It's marvelous. Mills takes a character who hasn't been used since 1979, treats him as brand new, not counting on nostalgia, and recasts him as the cowboy who does not want to kill again but is forced to. When, against his wishes, a human teenager adopts him as his "father," you'll be counting the pages until the boy's murder will bring Happy out of retirement - it's an obvious enough trope that this shouldn't be a spoiler - but the circumstances are sure to surprise everybody.

The artwork is by Clint Langley, who's illustrated all of the Warriors' more recent adventures. As with the previous story, it's a mix of his beautifully bizarre computer manipulation for the "present," with pen and brushwork for most of the flashbacks. He's equally comfortable with his own outlandish designs for new characters as he is reusing, for example, Mick McMahon's old "humpies" from much older stories. It all looks beautiful, and the flow from computer color to pen-and-ink black and white never jars.

It's all packaged in a gorgeous hardback that can be shelved alongside the previous five Langley-illustrated editions, and it sets up the action in the next ABC Warriors installment, which will begin serialization a little later this year. Of course, having said that, there are so many plot threads in this adventure that it might be setting up the action for the next nine or ten installments. For longtime readers, it's a thrill from start to finish, and for new readers, it might even be the best jumping-on point that the characters have ever had. Happily recommended!

A PDF 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, April 28, 2015

The Fall

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 Fall (Atria, 2015).

John Lescroart is in the process of trying to do something that's really, really rare in series fiction. He's begun transitioning a second generation character into the lead role in his series of legal thrillers and mysteries. Rebecca Hardy, aka "The Beck," wasn't even born when the series began with Dead Irish in 1989. We've watched the character grow up as the original leads in the series have also aged, in about real time. Dismas Hardy and Abe Giltsky are now in their sixties, and since his series has always had the flexibility to move supporting players up to the spotlight, it feels natural and right for Dismas's daughter to step up.

The Beck is now in her early twenties and an associate in her dad's firm, and she ends up defending her first murder case. Dismas is on hand to provide advice and support, and investigator Wyatt Hunt is there to do some ground work, but otherwise this defense is being undertaken by somebody who's probably not ready for how bad things can get in a Lescroart novel, particularly with a client as unhelpful as this one is.

To be bluntly honest, any author is attempting a real highwire act when they create a client as unsympathetic as The Beck's. They risk alienating the reader. Lescroart did something like this many years ago, when Dismas had a disagreeable, overly-affectionate woman to defend - Hey! You leave Mrs. Hardy's man alone, lady! - but this guy's a real piece of work. He lies, he holds back critical information, he ends up making The Beck look bad in the cops' eyes before his arrest, he questions her strategies, he downright refuses to let her consider finding a way to end the proceedings with a mistrial, and so it's not the easiest read. Is it possible to root for our heroine while simultaneously hoping that her sleazeball client is guilty?

Some of Lescroart's novels keep me riveted and some leave me curious about what will happen while not really able to embrace the situation. Since I couldn't warm to the accused, I found myself more entertained than I sometimes am by all the red herrings, diversions, alternate theories, and more about who threw the young murder victim to her death, and several thrilling sequences as some of these play out. One of these even leads to one of the ongoing cast's many supporting players taking a gunshot wound that leaves him bleeding in the streets of San Francisco. In previous books, I have occasionally, and unfairly, lost patience with some of the detail-heavy side stories that Lescroart employs, waiting on pins and needles to get back to the lawyer and client, but I found them really engrossing this time out, with so many rich characters to meet. Perhaps the next time that The Beck takes on a client, I'll get exasperated with the roadblocks instead of the fellow she defends! Recommended, naturally.

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, April 21, 2015

The Great Zoo of China

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 Great Zoo of China (Gallery, 2015).

Regular readers of the Bookshelf know that I really try to avoid spoilers. In the case of The Great Zoo of China, the new novel by Matthew Reilly, I paused over the name in Entertainment Weekly, read some words like "animal previously unknown to science," and looked away with a smile, thinking "Yeti."

Nope. My spoiler-avoidance was ruined when I opened the book and saw Chinese dragons on the endpapers. Ah, well. Perhaps there will be a story about abominable snowmen in a zoo some other day.

It won't take readers very long to see where this book is going. It's Jurassic Park with dragons, a female lead, the Chinese army, and lots of machine guns. It's a thriller that acknowledges its roots - Michael Crichton's book is mentioned at least twice in the text with thematic callbacks peppered throughout it - and is super fast-paced, with darn little character development as things fall completely apart. The world-building is incredibly interesting. I love the speculation about how the Chinese government would develop such a zoo in secrecy, how they'd construct it and staff it. It's simply a much larger enterprise than anything that some billionaire could concoct on Isla Nublar; there are important people in the government and military who, after years and years of consultation with marketing people from Disney, are convinced that this zoo will turn their nation into the dominant cultural center of the planet, and they're willing to kill to ensure that happens.

As for the whole business of things falling apart and dragons eating people, well, it's been done before. Cassandra "CJ" Cameron is a pretty fun heroine, although possessed of superhuman stamina for all she and her fellow VIPs endure. Some of the dragon battles whiz by so quickly you'll forget to eat any popcorn. A big change in the narrative hinges on CJ communicating with one of the dragons, which, even in a book about dragons ranging in size up to big airplane-length beasts, is faintly ridiculous. I could have done with two fewer close calls and sixty-eleven fewer explosions and more about the politics of the piece, but should he ever sell the movie rights, close calls and explosions will be what this story's all about. Very mild recommendation for popcorn eaters.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

March Book Two

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 March Book Two (Top Shelf, 2015).

The eagle-eyed among you have probably noticed that I write about very few comics these days other than 2000 AD, but the exception to that rule is the simply amazing March, which is Congressman John Lewis's memoir, co-written with Andrew Aydin and drawn, amazingly, by Nate Powell.

I think that even if I had any artistic ability, I wouldn't want Powell's job. Illustrating the tale of the civil rights movement requires him to draw people being incredibly ugly and horrible and hateful to the point that it made my skin crawl and my eyes tear up. Once upon a time, I'd have said that depicting the enormous crowds of the March on Washington would have been the greatest challenge, but no, it's probably having to draw the unfathomable horribleness of the people in Birmingham or Montgomery or Rock Hill assaulting black citizens for no damn reason whatever. This book will break your heart and make you really angry.

After the first book set up the young Lewis's introduction to nonviolent protesting and lunch counter sit-ins, principally in Nashville, this time out, the focus shifts to the equally passive resistance of the Freedom Riders. The civil rights struggle spread throughout the southeast and many different agencies participated at different levels of involvement, but Lewis and his group stayed passive and refused to pay bail once arrested, thus denying money to the governments that were arresting them.

The action moves around the south, from bus stations in Birmingham to hellhole prisons in Mississippi to last-minute rewrites of speeches in faceless offices in Washington in preparation for the big day. All the while, southern rednecks of the sixties embarrass us who love to live here in the present, Bobby Kennedy urges a little more patience and caution, and the televised highlights of the violence in Alabama begin to force the feds' hands.

It's flatly an amazing and heartbreaking and life-affirming work. I can't wait to see the third and final volume. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Zenith Phase Three

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 Zenith Phase Three (Rebellion, 2015).

There's a bit very early on in the third, longest, and very best of the Zenith adventures which lets readers know what they're in for, and which might - with the right cultural background - be one of the all-time best cliffhangers in comics. Grant Morrison has always been really amazing with cliffhangers, but he set the bar really high when Zenith, his spoiled brat of a pop star with super powers, opens the door of his apartment and Robot Archie, the star of a long-running but mostly-forgotten clunky old kids' adventure, is standing in front of him bellowing "ACIEEED," which was the catchphrase of a hit dance song of the day that has also mostly been forgotten.

So in 1989, you had this twenty year-old robot everybody forgot about shouting along to a dance song earworm by D-Mob that everybody reading the comic couldn't get out of their head, and readers of the far-flung future of 2015 are now seeing a forty-five year-old robot mostly known to the world from his appearance in this particular comic, shouting along to a "you had to be there" one-hit wonder, and yet it's strangely still compelling and ridiculous. Even not knowing the pop cultural touchpoints, you can see that there's a contamination of Things That Should Not Be standing at Zenith's door. It could have perhaps been the Robot from Lost in Space singing "I'm Too Sexy" and we'd recognize it a little better, but hate it for its garishness. Robot Archie, instead, points the way toward the secret history of comics that unfolds over the next 140 pages, a glorious epic that swallows the narrative and leaves Zenith a supporting player in his own story.

"Phase Three," also known as "War in Heaven," originally appeared in 26 episodes across nine months of the Galaxy's Greatest Comic, 2000 AD in 1989-90, and has newly been released in a lovely hardback edition for the first time. It's an incredibly fun story which draws its inspiration from DC Comics' ongoing use of parallel universes and superheroes from other timelines all working together to beat some impossible threat. That's what happens here, with long-forgotten characters from older kids' comics all banded together for the first time to save the Multiverse. Some of them have been tweaked a little - "Big Ben" is a moody, Soviet version of the cowboy Desperate Dan - and some, like The Steel Claw, The Leopard of Lime Street, Electroman and Electrogirl, came straight from the 1960s intact. The result was thousands of readers raising their eyebrows in surprise, learning that once upon a time, there were indeed superhero comics in England.

At the same time this was running, Morrison was actually working in American superhero books for the first time, writing Animal Man for DC and exploring many of the same themes, as Animal Man ran across forgotten characters like Sunshine Superman and the Green Team from long-discarded and "unimportant" old comics. It's downright criminal that "War in Heaven" has been out of print for so long, because the similarities between the stories are really amazing. Animal Man has been dissected and praised for such a long time, and for readers to finally get to play compare and contrast with how Morrison approached the concepts for each publisher from nice bookshelf editions is long overdue.

It's a heck of a fun story, with so many superheroes - most of them are not named, and a heck of a lot of 'em get killed off, so there's not a lot of point in slowing down and trying to figure out who's who - at work against impossible odds, and Zenith, smugly thinking this all looks like a convention for pervs and leather fetishists, not taking things seriously until the body count rises. The story is admittedly dated somewhat by the grisly narrative and fates for some of the characters. It's one of many (many) superhero stories to take inspiration from earlier works by Frank Miller and Alan Moore that depict the "realistic" take on what would happen if super-strong people actually punched each other.

The story's illustrated by Steve Yeowell with buckets and buckets of black ink. Many years later, I'd be among many who complained about the sparse inking of Yeowell's The Red Seas. That's probably because we were spoiled by these incredibly dense pages, with so much excitement going on, deep shadows and detailed linework. It's just a huge pleasure to look at the angular, sometimes abstract work in this comic, and not just because you want to play the incredibly silly and fun game of identifying all the characters. The collection's also got a one-off tale featuring one of Zenith's co-stars, Peter St. John, that's illustrated by Jim McCarthy.

Over the last couple of years in 2000 AD, they've been resurrecting some of their old properties like Ulysses Sweet and Orlok for new adventures and making them semi-regulars in the comic. The nicest compliment that I can pay "War in Heaven" is that it's impossible to read this and not ask where in the hell the publisher's put the Blue Wizard and Oakman series that damn well should have appeared by now instead of Yet Another Rogue Trooper spinoff. Happily recommended.

A PDF 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, March 31, 2015

Pure Pork Awesomeness

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 Pure Pork Awesomeness: Totally Cookable Recipes from Around the World (Andrews McMeel, 2015).

Chef Kevin Gillespie's PR team asked me whether I'd like to have a look at his new cookbook, which is all about what you can do with pork. Twist my arm, why don't you?

Gillespie, whose restaurant Gunshow is one of the most celebrated and popular in Atlanta, grew up here in Georgia, and I was pleasantly surprised to read that he learned a thing or two about how different parts of the pig are used in cooking when, as a teenager, he started asking questions of the staff at Fresh Air BBQ near Jackson. They use hams there rather than shoulders, which most barbecue joints in this state will smoke. There's a place near Hoschton called John's that also uses hams, but not a whole lot of other restaurants do this.

This cookbook, a follow-up to his 2012 debut, Fire in My Belly, is full of side stories like that which make the experience of reading it so much more fun than most cookbooks. He starts with about twenty pages discussing sustainability, the history of hog breeding, and the important distinctions between pastured and commodity pork. He never talks down to the reader; he makes a strong case for spending the extra money to eat better because the results simply taste a lot better. His tone throughout is approachable and friendly and full of great anecdotes. There's a really funny story from a restaurant where Gillespie had worked previously, Woodfire Grill, in which an older customer chews him out for taking his popular pork belly dish off the menu, and that's one of several great ones. Decades from now, when Gillespie retires, he's going to write a great memoir.

But the main draw for this will be the recipes and how interesting and / or simple they appear to be. And also the photography by Angie Mosier. I read most of this book one evening last week in Memphis, and the only reason that I didn't have to stop looking at her drool-worthy pictures and go eat something was that I'd visited four barbecue restaurants that day and had a fairly full meal at each of them. This is some of the best food photography I've ever seen. Speaking with the authority of somebody who is responsible for some of the worst food photography available online, I was remarkably impressed by this.

But ANYWAY, the recipes. I love Gillespie's encouraging attitude and his inclusion of "worth knowing" tips to make food preparation even easier. Some of these sound terrific: his "really good" Cuban and ham sandwiches that could even be assembled by a bumbler like me, the pork minute steaks with potato pancakes and pumpkin butter that I hope we'll have for supper one evening just as soon as we buy a nice, heavy skillet for them, pork vindaloo, tacos al pastor... no, I wasn't hungry when I read the book, but, foolishly, I waited until now to write this story, and I'm not meeting a friend for lunch for another three hours and forty minutes.

On a final note, because my God, I have to stop thinking about food, I am particularly pleased by Gillespie's recipe for Brunswick stew, which does NOT include potatoes. I am so tired of restaurants sticking those cheap extenders in the stew, especially when they then turn around and charge you extra for it because it's a "premium" side. I think I need to start carrying a copy of this book around with me, and when some barbecue joint serves me a bowl of stew with potatoes, pull it out and firmly tell them, "Page 218." Probably tap on the cover with a heavy, authoritative finger, too. Recommended before a meal, but not too many hours before it.

A copy of this book was provided by the PR company 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, March 17, 2015

Beale Street Dynasty

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 Beale Street Dynasty (Norton, 2015).

I really envy Preston Lauterbach's talent. He seems to immerse himself so totally in his research and has a ball sharing stories. The problem with Beale Street Dynasty, inasmuch as there's a problem at all, is that so much of what he has to share this time around just wasn't fun to read. That's not his fault in any way, but man, an awful lot of innocent blood was spilled to make Memphis the city it is today. I wasn't able to read more than forty pages at a stretch without wanting to go back in time with a baseball bat and hit somebody.

This is not a light read. I was expecting something breezy about the blues and barbecue, but Memphis is much heavier and deeper than that. Lauterbach builds the narrative around Robert Church and his son, Robert Jr. After the Civil War, the senior Church moved into the gambling houses and whorehouses and drinkin' houses on Beale Street and outshone all his rivals in the world of vice. He became a millionaire - very probably the first black millionaire in the South - while surviving race riots, assassination attempts, and crooked cops.

The incredible contradictions in Church's life make for an amazing story. He made his money from prostitution and gambling and funneled it into real estate and civic life and the arts. Blues pioneer W.C. Handy benefited from Church's patronage. Handy came to Memphis in 1909 and was quickly commissioned to write an election jingle for the politician E.H. Crump on the eve of his first mayoral race. Handy turned that tune into one of the era's biggest hits, "Memphis Blues," and Church's son, who took over his father's businesses after his death in 1912, spent the rest of his life in a very awkward and uneasy relationship-of-mutual-benefit with Crump, who spent years in charge of the town as its political boss. Church Jr. got black voters around Tennessee's Jim Crow laws by paying poll taxes for hundreds of people and kept Crump, and all of his subordinates, in office for decades.

It's an incredibly interesting story, and often an infuriating one. If you're curious about Memphis, but are also the sort of guilt-ridden sort who gets incredibly aggravated by how aggressively awful, racist, and bloodthirsty our ancestors so frequently were, then you probably need to read some other book to find out about Sun Records, B.B. King, Jim Neely, and that funny pyramid building that used to be the basketball arena. But if you like seeing history come alive and really detailed anecdotes about the lovers and fighters of the day, then Lauterbach's worth digging into, even if you'll want to smack some of these awful people in the face with that shovel before you're finished with it. Recommended to read with some period music on YouTube for a soundtrack.

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, March 10, 2015

Savage: Grinders

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 Book Nine of Savage: "Grinders" (Rebellion, 2015).

Thirty-eight years ago, writer Pat Mills came up with a fun idea for a gritty comic series set in the not-very-distant future. It was 1977, and Mills posited that in the year 1999, the "Volgan Republic" would invade Great Britain, and that the guerrilla resistance would find a home for a former truck driver named Bill Savage and his shotgun. Over the next six or seven years, Mills would set other stories in the aftermath - some in the centuries-later aftermath - of the Volgan invasion of the UK. Since these were stories in 2000 AD aimed at imaginative eight year-olds, there were many contradictions and plot contrivances between all the tales, but it never really mattered at the time.

Except... in 2004, Mills returned to the character of Bill Savage in a more nuanced and mature take on the invasion, and also began filling in the blanks in the very popular cousin series The ABC Warriors. Stepping back to the canvas after so long away, Mills began to see how he'd flung so very many things at the wall to see what stuck, and that it was now possible to actually draw a spiderweb of connections between all of the events that previous stories had only mentioned.

And so, in recent ABC Warriors stories, Mills and artist Clint Langley have been working backward, addressing old questions about what happened to certain characters. And in Savage, which is wrapping up its ninth and final story, we're seeing the 2010 conclusion of the second Volgan occupation, and, at long last, the explanation of how the unscrupulous defense contractor Howard Quartz, got himself transplanted into a robot body.

The first three Savage stories, set in 2004 and illustrated by Charlie Adlard, were an amazing, real-world take on how this invasion might have played out. Starting with the fourth, Patrick Goddard took over art duties and it's there that the wild sci-fi elements of ABC Warriors and the robot wars that it referenced begins. These tales begin in 2007 and see the rudimentary use of robot soldiers and some wilder-than-reality technology.

The six books of Mills-Goddard Savage, despite all the fun technology, weirdness, and great cast of characters, not to mention that great little sidetrack to recruit the former hippie rock star who'd been researching teleportation, never quite made their way out from the long shadow of the original three stories. (Honestly, not nearly enough has been written praising the climax of book two, which is one of the crowning achievements of Mills' long career and One Of The Damndest Things I've Ever Seen In A Comic, Ever.) But they've still got so much to recommend them, and this latest book caps off a great series.

I think one reason that Savage works so well is that, certainly after the first three, 2004-set stories, Mills let the character evolve into something close to Parker, from the Richard Stark/Donald Westlake novels. He's lethally dangerous and frightening, but he keeps his emotions in check and can think his way out of any problem before he needs to pull his gun. Plus, Mills never, ever makes it easy for him. Savage's enemies are not stupid, and keeping the hero one step ahead of them is a remarkable balancing act. When his enemies do make slips - and Quartz makes a big one in this story - Savage is able to quietly step in and change the narrative. There's a brief bit in this story involving a mute button, and one of the rules of comic book foreshadowing tells us that we're going to see this plot point again a few chapters later. When we do, even knowing there was more to come, I still punched the air. It's cold, brutal, and completely wonderful.

A case might be made - though I certainly won't make it - that the surprise return of Bill's brother Jack is one coincidence too far. It's terrific. Readers learn early on in the story something that Bill, for all his cool planning and insight, misses: that Jack cannot be trusted. It builds to an amazing confrontation involving insurgents called "grinders" who've taken on cyborg enhancements in order to override the American combat robots, and Bill losing his temper for the first time in a very long time, and possibly the last time.

"Grinders" is an excellent story, and runs for thirteen episodes. You can get it in serial form from 2000 AD's online shop by purchasing progs 2015 and 1912-23. The smart money's on it being included as a collected edition with books seven and eight, but that's not yet been announced; maybe next year? But yes, this is certainly recommended however you purchase it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Fifth Heart

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 Fifth Heart (Little, Brown and Company, 2015).

I'm such a dingbat that I don't know the difference between Stephen Dobyns and Dan Simmons. Seriously. I enjoyed the former's Church of Dead Girls, which came with a glowing quote from Stephen King, many years ago, and when I saw the gigantic uncorrected proof of this month's Fifth Heart, also sporting a glowing quote from Stephen King, I thought it was the same guy. I got the initials right, anyway. Just... reversed.

ANYWAY, The Fifth Heart is actually written by Dan Simmons, the fellow who has carved out a niche with great big historical fiction, mixing densely-researched reality with just a little bit of twinkling implausibility. His best-known novels, Drood and The Terror, showcase his talent for creepy and disturbing mysteries, letting just the traces, the shadows, of dark modern fantasy loose on the nineteenth century.

I was interested in this novel because I do love a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche. This one's set in 1893, and features Holmes and at least the third iteration of his-son-by-Irene that I've come across. Sadly, it's not Auguste Lupa / Nero Wolfe, but Super Assassin Son o' Holmes. That's okay, I'm always up for something new. Part of me feels that I might be spoiling a revelation by introducing this, because the information is revealed in two separate chunks, but on the other hand, this novel joins a very full collection of Holmes pastiches to introduce a son to the story. By this time, the real surprise would be introducing a son of Irene Adler whom Holmes did not father. (You know, like Marko Vukčić. *grin* )

But I'm also up for something a little tighter than this. The Fifth Heart swells with bloat, badly needing an editor to crack to the core of things. It's set over the course of several weeks, starting in Paris and moving to DC and finally Chicago more than a month later, as Lucan Adler plots the assassination of President Cleveland, and Holmes, allied with the writer Henry James, investigates the years-old death of James' old friend Clover Adams, whose widower Henry Adams is at the center of the political turmoil.

It's not possible for me to read any writer's take on Holmes without hearing Jeremy Brett exclaim "Patience! All will be revealed!" And, to be sure, lots of writers have had lots of fun leaving Holmes three steps ahead of his associates in the story while they seethe, furiously, waiting for some explanations. If you enjoy this take on the character, then what Holmes puts poor Henry James through in this book is certain to entertain you. Simmons lets us see Holmes orchestrate a beatdown of a local drug gang, arrange an early meeting of what will evolve into the contemporary Secret Service, and take a lengthy side trip to one of Samuel Clemens's homes to have a look at a particular typewriter. It is amusing watching Simmons throw the investigation and drama into all these side streets - one of them involving chimney sweeps! - and wonder how in the world he's going to tie it all together. Then Henry James gets his own investigation going, wondering what's up with Holmes's enemy Moriarty, giving him yet another thing to juggle.

Honestly, there's a good story here, and possibly a very good one, but as with a few other writers' takes on Holmes at his most inscrutable - Laurie King's The Game comes to mind - I really did feel a bit too much for the unfortunate sidekick. No protagonist has ever deserved a bloody nose and a demand for answers quite as much as this Holmes does. In part, that's because the narrative really does get too bloated. The visit with Clemens goes on for pages and pages of cigars on the veranda and nostalgic reflection and thoughts on the subject of whether Holmes is actually a fictional character (and, if so, what that would mean for everybody else), and a good thirty more pages could have been chopped out by making Henry Adams not so damn stubborn and simply agreeing to the demands of the plot.

Going back to Nero Wolfe, you'll recall that in almost all of his tales, writer Rex Stout would have Wolfe remind everybody that things would go along much quicker if he could proceed without interruption, and, in the most wearying of them, probably Please Pass the Guilt, every blasted member of the supporting cast insists upon interrupting him, almost as though they're padding out the story until we hit an arbitrary page number? A lot of The Fifth Heart feels like that. The plot is already complex and nuanced; it would have been an easier and less frustrating read with fewer roadblocks and detours in the way. Simmons does not appear to be a snappy writer - much of his success appears to come from the feeling of complete immersion into the past - but I finished the book badly wishing for a snappier story. A mild recommendation with that in mind, wishing that I would have enjoyed it more, but I also finished this curious to read Drood sometime soon, so it was perhaps more successful than I first thought.

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, February 24, 2015

The Doctor's Lives and Times

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 Doctor's Lives and Times (Harper, 2014).

I loved this book completely and enormously! The Doctor's Lives and Times is a ridiculously fun book of found objects from another world - objects from the fictional universe of Doctor Who. Its breezy, photo-filled format makes it a great gift for readers of all ages; younger readers will be captivated by all the illustrations, and even the nerdiest of us will thrill to all the connections between stories.

James Goss and Steve Tribe have created a collection that includes an example of the "Karkus" comic strip that Zoe Herriot mentioned in 1968's "The Mind Robber," conspiracy buffs debunking some "cheap" 8mm color film footage of the Loch Ness Monster the same way that people in our world debunk the Patterson–Gimlin Bigfoot film from '67, blog posts from Mickey complaining about Rose going off into space with that Doctor, K-9 obliviously breaking Sarah Jane's heart by telling her about the companions that the Doctor took on board after her, and dozens and dozens of other things.

Each Doctor gets a chapter of fiction, followed by a few pages and photos of production information about their era, informed entirely by quotes from actors, writers, and producers. The authors intrude so little that their own opinions are not seen at all, which is a really novel approach to a Doctor Who book these days. The approach is one of tribute to the whole program and its narrative, not picking favorites or torching anything. It's a sweet and loving 50th anniversary book. Happily recommended for anybody with an interest in the show, of any age.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cassette From My Ex

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 Cassette From My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves (St. Martin's Griffin, 2009).

I had a really good feeling that I'd like this book. Jason Bitner used to run - or perhaps "curate" is a better word - a blog at, but it's been down for quite some time now. There, he got submissions from all over the map from people who'd held onto old mix tapes from old flames, and sent in photos and stories about them.

I wish that I had seen the blog before it vanished, but happily, the project did net Bitner a book deal. While the hardcover collection is out of print, it's easily obtained and definitely worth a look. It's just so fun, touching on all of these wonderful shared experiences with other people from the 1980s and 1990s who somehow knew all the same "rules" for making mixtapes as I did.

The last time I made a mix tape was the last day of 1999. It was kind of bitter. I made a second copy for myself and rediscovered it this past summer, cleaning out the basement of my childhood home. I have no way to play it any longer, which is probably for the best, because that is one mean, hurtful, heartbroken, dagger of a tape. They were always more than the sum of their parts, weren't they?

The book is full of essays and track lists, with lots of photos of the surviving tapes, track lists that double as love notes, and all sorts of heartbreak and blissful memories. Most of the writers were not known to me, but Claudia Gonson of the Magnetic Fields contributed a great story, as did - kind of unsurprisingly - Rob Sheffield, who's probably more responsible than anybody else for keeping memories of mix tapes alive all these years after we quit making them.

It's very fun, although probably not a book that you can expect to read in one sitting. It's fun to linger over, a couple of stories a night, while reading something a little heavier on the side. Recommended for readers who made these.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Country of Ice Cream Star

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, my wife Marie contributes a brief review of The Country of Ice Cream Star (Ecco, 2015).

The Country of Ice Cream Star is only superficially described as "post-apocalyptic." Most post-apocalypse books talk about either the survivors in the immediate aftermath or shortly thereafter, and there are people with living memories of the event. This book is set in the new normal that has emerged multiple generations after the event...but it's only eight decades after, because 21 is an advanced age in those who survived.

This book reminds me strongly of the description of The Princess Bride as presented in the narrative; it is terribly tempting to say "...Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion..." But that only works once. Besides, there are differences - this book has child soldiers
instead of pirates, and a living saint instead of a princess. Nevertheless, this book shares the essential lesson that life is beautiful and painful, full of adventure and fighting and love, and also deeply and painfully unfair, and scattered in among the tragedy and beauty, there are some really good funny bits.

There are two main stumbling blocks that I see for the reader in maintaining suspension of disbelief, rooted in difficulties of our culture rather than any flaw in the writing, and they are well worth getting over. First, the author, Sandra Newman, has given each group in the book a distinctive voice and dialect, especially the main character's, and that requires some getting used to. Second, our culture does not permit children of the ages in this story the power, agency, and capability that they show; but without what we would consider adults this world works and makes sense. Even so, the practice of using "every child" instead of "everybody" and "my children" instead of "my people" draws an emphasis to the essential youth of all the actors that the characters are all blind to. This is especially marked when an actual adult is dropped into the action as the event that breaks the initial equanimity, and the main character calls him, too, a child.

In fact, that particular factor is one of the most admirable part of the storytelling, how the author does such a good job of showing things that the main character does not see, at least at first. She does not talk down to the audience, either. Even minor characters have depth and humanity. There are few clear-cut bad guys, even when individuals are in conflict and even when they do evil things to one another. People have motives for what they do that make sense and conflicts arise from those motives. The main character is permitted to make poor decisions, learn from them, and feel guilt which changes her priorities. And there are some horrific things done in this book; it is not a light read for a lazy day at the beach. The characters learn and grow, quickly (perforce) but with natural arcs that allow initial imperfection either to become a hard-won positive or to grow into a deeper flaw - it is refreshing to see both options available.

Also, as is typical in real life, alliances change, sometime rapidly, as circumstances change, Today's enemy is yesterday's friend, with all the grief and rage that comes from that. And when yesterday's enemy is today's friend, earlier conflicts are not allowed to disappear either just because the alliance is needed.

Love is not a simple thing either. In this way the story differs from The Princess Bride. Although characters love each other deeply, there is no uncomplicated feeling. While people do heroic and horrible things because of it, love is still only one emotion and motivation among many.

The cast is large, but so well introduced and so well marked by the language, names and behaviors that it is easy to keep track of them. Sandra Newman has written a truly remarkable, compelling and vivid story. It is highly recommended.

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.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Judge Dredd: Dark Justice

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 Judge Dredd: Dark Justice (Rebellion, 2014-15).

John Wagner did not make this easy on himself. In the 1980s, the supernatural Dark Judges were recurring, albeit overused foes in the Judge Dredd strip, culminating in the epic, gruesome 1990 serial "Necropolis." That really should have been the end for the characters, but they spent the 1990s showing up way too frequently, their horror sidelined for broad black comedy. They've only appeared very sporadically since, played straight and played horrific, but the malady lingered on, you know? I mean, did the world really need another Judge Death story?

Well, Death and his gang have returned in an eleven-part story that began last month and is about at the halfway point now, and it's amazing. The art, very old school fully-painted, is by Greg Staples, and it's just gorgeous. This story was announced in 2013 and some of us - like me - started grousing about the time it took to appear, but this was really worth the wait. It's exceptional work across the board.

The story picks up some dangling plot threads and, halfway through, has just barely addressed them, leaving me hungry for more backstory. Judge Death himself was last seen nuked into another dimension, but a brief flashback showed him back in Mega-City One, looking for his trapped brothers. There's a world of intrigue behind that that I could go into but won't; briefly, he pilfers their spirit forms and takes off on a colony ship bound for a distant world.

Judges Dredd and Anderson are about two weeks behind, unable to stop the carnage when Death and his gang all resurrect themselves with their bizarre superpowers and start mass slaughter. At about the halfway point, our heroes finally catch up to them, but too late to save the colonists, and are trapped on board the spaceship, cut off from resources and help, surrounded by the dead...

It's not all doom and gloom, but in this story, Wagner very sensibly let the humor arise from the colony ship and their foibles, keeping reader attention and sparking some smiles before things go straight to hell, and it's been a mean and ugly action-adventure thriller ever since the third episode. As things get bad, there are still dozens of questions to be addressed, including the whereabouts of another one of Dredd's old enemies, who I'd have guessed would have appeared in this story by now, and what the Dark Judges were thinking, engineering a ssssssituation where everybody's trapped on the stranded colony ship. I have the ugly feeling that this is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

"Dark Justice" is appearing weekly in 2000 AD, beginning in Prog 2015 and continuing through progs 1912-1921. Click the image above to visit the comic's online shop and order your thrillpower!!

This story is written in memory of my pal, longtime squaxx dek Thargo Mike Horne of Boston, who passed away last weekend after suffering a stroke in November. Mike wasn't able to read any of this story, which is a damn shame. We'll miss you, Mike.

PDFs of these issues were 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.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Quigsnip: The Untold Tale of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist

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 Quigsnip: The Untold Tale of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (self-published, 2014).

I think it's wonderful that Charles Dickens is still inspiring writers to create their own pastiches and fanfic. Sometimes, it's the way that his novels were originally written that has given writers that inspiration, by way of little unplanned plot holes. Almost all of what we perceive today as stand-alone novels originally appeared as serials in magazines. Oliver Twist, one of his best-known books, took 26 months to tell, and there are traces in the completed tale of side stories and characters that might have developed differently had Dickens not been hammering out chapters directly for immediate publication. Academic types have been noting these little curiosities in his plots for many decades.

One of those coulda-been avenues in Twist concerns a possible villain, a strange humpbacked person who enters the narrative for a few paragraphs and is never seen again. Writer Sean Phillips has grabbed that character, or rather that possibility of a character, and turned him into the villain Fagin's unseen boss, the vulgar and nasty Mr. Quigsnip, and has created a fun, albeit ungainly adventure in which Quigsnip goes after Oliver for some revenge.

I call this ungainly because it is a self-published book that could use an editor to clear away some misspellings and formatting issues, and so what the novel feels like is a promising first draft. The structure of the story is well-paced, exciting, and some of the research seems very thorough. The late 1830s saw Londoners finally start reacting against the workhouses that had sprung up around the capital years previously, keeping the city's underclass in a permanent state of thrall and poverty, and this story reflects the beginning of this social change.

The prose is clear, and I was never confused by the events. Given a little more work, this could be developed into a good adventure story. With a pair of exceptions, I thought this was a well done first effort, and I certainly enjoyed the climax, which incorporates the "ghost" stage effect that unnerved so many theater-goers of the period. Unfortunately, I was not sold on a plot strand that required Oliver Twist to be hypnotized. A strong editor could have provided a good deal of help to Phillips, building something promising into something satisfying.

Nevertheless, despite these quite major fumbles, the book was an entertaining diversion. It might have helped that Phillips is clearly paying tribute, not just to Dickens' characters but to his worldview. Dickens, for all his melodrama and romanticism, was a critic of society's failings and of inequality. The heroes of Quigsnip are continuing to make the changes in their world that Dickens had them striving toward in his original novel (probably all of his novels, actually), and so the story certainly rings true and may appeal to Dickens' fans and collectors. Given the hiccups of the formatting, and that hypnotism malarkey, I can't give this a very strong recommendation, but I would encourage the author to keep at it, and possibly hire an editor to help beat this edition into better shape for a revised version that may find home with a publisher and a larger audience.

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.