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.