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Thursday, August 3, 2017

King John. England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant. Stephen Church. Macmillian (2015)

There are three versions of King John, the villainous prince in Robin Hood, the tyrant forced to sign the Magna Carta and the historical king. Stephen Church is interested in the historical King John, his life and context and this very engaging book gives King John his due.
John was the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and was first called John Lackland as he really had no place in the succession to huge inheritance that Henry had assembled. This changed steadily as he came closer to to being a potential heir and so he joined his brothers in fighting his father. When Richard the Lionheart  became king John had a strained relationship with him as well, finally after Richard's death John became king.
It was at this point that John's great weakness, that he was a truly terrible politician aligned with the unfortunate fact that he was faced with a fiercely determined enemy in Phillip Augustus, King of France who was determined to establish French control of Normandy and Brittany which were part of John's kingdom. It was John's losses in France that shaped most of the actions of his reign as he had to raise huge sums of money to carry out a war to recover his lost lands.
A great deal of the trouble he had in England arose from his efforts to get the money for his wars, made much harder by his lack of success in France. John was faced with a hugely determined opponent who had a home field advantage. John was an effective military commander, his expeditions in Ireland and Scotland and the various battles he had in England demonstrate this. The problem he had was that he could win a battle and fail to win the peace. In England, Ireland and France John never displayed any ability to created and nurture lasting and effective alliances with the major barons. He was unable and unwilling to court them and his innovative tax collections cut direct against their privileges.John also managed to have a serious fight with the Pope over the right to appoint the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leading churchman in the country. John was unfortunate in that Pope Innocent III was determined to actively assert papal privilege, John choose confrontation over finesse and he lost the struggle.
 John inherited a wide ranging kingdom in England, Ireland, and France and manage to essentially lose everything and in the process alienate the two significant power structures of the society, the aristocracy and the Church. He lost his kingdom to the Pope and his political freedom to his barons with the Magna Carta. Stephen Church has written a book that rescues King John from myth and with telling detail and a sympathetic assessment of his character. John has been overshadowed by his father, mother, brother and son and deserves better. Stephen Church has done King John a great service and given the man a chance to stand beside the legend.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Ninth Grave. Stefan Ahnhem . Paul Norlen (Translation). Head of Zeus Ltd (2017)

A very enjoyable and entertaining Swedish crime thriller. In Sweden the Minister of Justice steps out of the Parliament House and disappears. In Denmark a woman is attacked in her home. In Sweden the disappearance of the Justice Minister is secretly assigned to Fabian Risk, In Denmark the murder is assigned to Dunja Hougaard to the fury of some of her fellow detectives. Further murders in both cities put pressure on both investigations. When it appears that suspects have been identified  in each investigation the investigations are pushed into a new direction that leads to a very dark conclusion.
This is a big story and it takes a little time for the momentum to build sufficiently to really compel the reader. There is a huge cast and a constantly shifting narrative which means that the reader is getting a lot of new information before the rhythm of the story clearly emerges.When it does the superb plot mechanics and the deeply engaging cast are very compelling.
The plot mechanics are constantly unexpected, setting up reader expectations and defying them in a very smart and considered way. The structures of the story reveal themselves steadily, the major and minor reveals are superbly staged and the deeply laid connections emerge to complicate everything just as they should.
The cast are great, Fabian Risk, Malin Rehnberg and Dunja Hougaard are given the chance to emerge as fully developed personalities as well as competent, committed police officers. Their personal lives are not just tacked on to their work, they extend and develop who they are in meaningful way. Malin Rehnberg's pregnancy is both realistic and is never used to undermine her position, competence or authority. The supporting cast, including the victims are all given time to register as much more than plot devices, they have time and opportunity to make themselves heard. Stefan Ahnhem has solved the problem presented by a fabulously effective super-villain, the motive is forceful and weighty and he solves the how with economy and credible detail.
There is a event in the story that takes place at a critical time that did not ring true, one of the leading cast members finds themselves in a very difficult position, their response was deeply unsatisfactory, not from a story point of view but as a character. Either the response was wildly uncharacteristic and needed further explanation or the needs of the plot forced the writer to shortchange the character.  In such a carefully constructed book it stands out more that it might in another.
Paul Norlen's translation is transparent, the story and cast are all naturally and completely Swedish and Danish, the cultural differences between both being a thread in the story, the English flows without ever being less than natural. Excellent crime fiction.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Darkest King No. 4 Tony Scott Astley (Writer), Paul Anderson (Art) WP Comics (July 2017)

The very entertaining and engaging noir crime story continues to unfold in unexpected ways. Kurt King has just found out that the crime lord he was trying to find is his brother Victor who is running for mayor of Coldwood.A severely complicated personal history is given a sharp twist by the revelation. A flashback reveals the devil's bargain that Kurt made to get out of prison, and leads him to realize just how difficult his current position is. Victor also finds his freedom of action constrained by events, until the brothers meet again at a the worst possible moment.
Tony Scott Astley continues to twist the story very nicely, Kurt how finds that he has to take savage action to survive and finds that the unintended consequences are even more savage. Trying to balance what he has done is leading him down a dark spiral to more trouble. Victor, the successful businessman and possible mayor who sees only the results and not the causes of Kurt's actions has reached a final decision. No one is quite whom they seem and the brutal reality that surrounds them lets no one escape.
Paul Anderson's vivid and expressive art captures and expresses all the nuances of the story. The cast are vital and physically solid, they move through their context with power and determination. Moving form a brutal conversation in a prison to a deathbed each scene is captured with tension and barely contained emotion. The forces that are battering away at Kurt, Victor and the supporting cast are revealed in their attitudes and features as much as their words.
The layers of the story are beginning to wrap tightly around each other as the context deepens and widens, the brother's conflict is deeply personal and also has significant consequence beyond themselves. Kurt is emerging as a great noir hero, a wounded romantic who finds his choices vary between hard and harder, opposed by a villain to whom he is bound to in intractable ways. Great crime comics.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Tony Scott Astley, to give yourself the deep double pleasure of excellent crime fiction and excellent comics, The Darkest King 4 can be purchased from http://www.wpcomicsltd.com

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Unspoken. Mari Jungstedt. Tiina Nunnally (Translation).Corgi Books (2009)

A quietly gripping and very engaging Swedish police procedural. A man is beaten to death in his darkroom and found a week later. Henry Dahlstrom was a photographer and full time alcoholic who had had a large win   the race track before he was killed. Chief Inspector Anders Knutas leads the investigation into Harry's murder finding a simple case to be rather slippery in fact. At the same time a young girl, Fanny, who has a strained home life with her mother, develops a friendship with an older man that starts to develop into something more serious. When Fanny goes missing the threads that tie both cases together twist very neatly together to a very satisfactory conclusion.
The lot mechanics are excellent, the murder investigation is driven in a professional, competent way by DCI Knutas, as each lead is pursued the list of suspects gets smaller and answers more elusive. The disappearance of a vulnerable child increases the pressure and the investigation has to manage the additional work. The reveals are nicely staged and the final unravelling is very well set up.
The cast are very engaging, Mari Jungstedt has a gift for quickly establishing a character, as she does with Henry Dahlstrom, as much as for steadily developing one as she does with Fanny. That both victims are given the space to clearly register with the reader is crucial to the story, the investigation is in part an investigation into them as much as their circumstances and they are given their due importance.
Ander Knutas is a professional police officer with a functioning marriage and a stable relationship with his young children. He avoids being a genre staple or being dull by virtue of being fully developed so that his life outside of his work and his relationship with his work is thoughtful and engaging. The supporting cast are given the chance to establish themselves and they take it in full.
There is an interesting sub plot regarding a relationship between a married woman and a television reporter which is essentially independent of the main narrative. Mari Jungstedt is able to write this without it ever appearing distracting or redundant, it feels natural within the story. This s very impressive as it widens and deepens the general context for the events and Gothland in particular. It acts as a satisfying balance to the investigation.
Tiina Nunnally's translation is transparent, the language never jars or suggests that the story and context are wholly and naturally Swedish. Excellent crime fiction.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Tomb of Horror 2. Kim Roberts (Editor) Swamp Line Productions (2017)

A very engaging and enjoyable horror anthology that is being released via a Kickstarter campaign, details below. A happy variety of excellent horror stories that include the following:
Der Schatten, Mariano Falzone (Writer), Alfredo Retamar (Artist), Alfonso Marugo (Colours). A man is having a problem with hi shadow and is sent to a specialist. She provides a remedy which does solve the problem in an unexpected way.  A clever set up and a smart pay off combine very nicely. Alfredo Retamar' art is strongly expressive catching and holding the balance of the story with care and strong detail. Alfonso Marugo' colours give depth and force to the art.
Hell House. Jack wallace (Writer), Francesco Conte (Art), Chris Allen (Colours & Letters). Jenny has a dream that her grandfather tells her of treasure in his house and she travels there with her partner, Rob. This proves to be a bad idea is the most satisfying way with tremendous atmosphere and a very nasty edge. Francesco Conte's standout art nicely blurs the lines between dreams and reality and as they bleed into each other brings out every nuance in the story. The colours by Chris Allen are spot on, slightly subdues they give force to the unnerving atmosphere and the letters are easy and natural to read.
High Seas Undead People. Paul Bradford (Writer), Matt Olson (Art). This is a lesson on how to cram a lot of story into a very short space, pirates fight zombies, fantastic. Matt Olson's art is a joy, it brings pirates and zombies to brutal, fierce life.
Scarecrow. Kim Roberts (Writer), Zaex Starzax (Art), Chris Allen (Colours & Letters). Scarecrow shows the undying power of tradition , full tilt horror when a paranormal investigation at a isolated farm goes as expected. Kim Roberts sets up all the elements with care, Zaex Starzax delivers intense, claustrophobic art that never lets the reader escape. The colours by Chris Allen capture and emphasis all the tones in the story and the sound effects are superb.
Demonic Sudoku. Julio Paz (Writer), Pietro Vaughan (Art), Nikki Sherman (Letters). A sharp, bleak and very satisfying short . A mathematician solves a sudoku puzzle that leads to hell and beyond. Pietro Vaughan 's stunning black and white art gives the story force and depth that is needs to work. Nikki Sherman's lettering is subtle and quiet, natural to read.
Good anthologies are hard, getting diverse stories to work in harmony is tricky, this anthology not only does this it creates a cohesive whole where each of the stories get a lift from being in the collection.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Kim Roberts. To support the Kickstarter campaign, get a great collection of stories from very talented creators and relish the joy comes from reading excellent comics please follow the link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1870476470/tomb-of-horror-vol-2-horror-anthology

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Strange Shores. Arnaldur Indridason. Victoria Cribb (Translation)Vintage (2014)

Gripping and memorable Icelandic crime story that has deep melancholy heartbeat. Detective Erlendur is staying on his parent's abandoned farm when he hears a story about a woman who vanished in storm from a neighbour. Erlendur lost his younger brother in a storm decades before and the wound has never healed, so he responds to the story be asking questions among those who were alive at the time. Slowly a story emerges as peoples memories are brought to the surface. It becomes clear that there was more going on than had been known and the final unravelling is smart and bitter, exactly as it should be.
This is a very quiet story, the action is mostly Erlendur asking questions and stirring up memories that have long been dormant. The grip of the story lies in the cast and in particular Erlendur  himself. He frequently asks himself why he is pursuing this story, as it becomes clearer that there may have been foul play involved, he wonders what he will do about any information that he finds. It is always apparent to reader that Erlendur is attempting to hide himself from the story of the loss of his brother while being constantly having it brought back to him by his investigation.
The supporting cast are given a tenacious life, they are elderly now but they have a force and depth that bring the reader deeply into the story. As the lives they lived in the small fishing village emerge and the forces that trapped them it becomes increasingly clear that the past has never let them go. As the investigation continues the compromises and stories they have told themselves start to wilt under scrutiny, they become more engaging and vivid. Erlendur is doing something they want and do not want.
The plot mechanics of the story are superb, the pieces of the story that emerge fit together with a strong credibility and slowly lead to a brilliantly set up conclusion. The second story about Erlendur 's brother is masterfully woven into the narrative and the conclusion is deeply sad and and entirely suitable.
A novel about the long term impact of cold, very cold, crime Strange Shores is stunning, the poisonous effects of crime are rarely so carefully considered and revealed. Top class fiction.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Lone. Stuart Moore (Writer), Jerome Opena (Art), Michelle Madsen (Colours), Sno Cone (Letters). Rocket Comics/Dark Horse Comics (2004)

A hugely enjoyable and engaging science fiction Western that mixes both with care to deliver a great story. Ravenous zombies have overrun the post-apocalyptic town of Desolation. Luke and her brother Mark are sent in search of a legendary gunman, Lone. When they find him it starts to become clear that there are bigger forces than zombies at work and that an terrible threat from the past has come back. The story unfolds at a great pace, the reveals are cunningly staged and the conclusion is satisfying bitter.
Stuart Moore makes the difficult task of successfully merging two distinct genres into a unified and satisfying whole look easy. The Western framework for the story fits nicely into a devastated post-apocalyptic world. The solitary gunman pulled back into the action is given an entirely effective science fiction twist that manages to lift the story up where it needs to be.
Luke, the tough, resourceful and female sharpshooter who does not realize just how much trouble is waiting is deeply engaging and brings the reader easily into the story. The fact that Luke is female is both deeply significant and does not matter at all. Stuart Moore has quietly demonstrated that it is the personality of the character that is key not the gender. There is no grandstanding or calling out about Luke, she is simply a cast member. It is a little worrying that thirteen years later this is as noticeable as it is.
Jerome Opena's art is entirely equal to the task of meeting the rival genre requirements with collision or confusion. Lone is a classic western hero, laconic and dangerous without flash, just fierce competence and a hat that shades his eyes. He moves through the story with anger and determination, bearing his burdens as he should. Luke and the rest of the cast are expressive, move with grace and physical force through the beautifully realized context. The science fiction robots, guns and monsters never seem out of place, this is the frontier where all sorts wash up and make trouble for each other. The use of panels to control the pace of the story is expert, they bring out the nuances and beats of the story.
Michelle Madsen's colours are science fiction bright, they catch the wide open dusty space of the frontier as well, it captures the emotional context of the story with subtle grace and care.Sno Cone's letters are quiet and natural to read, the sound effects are big and bold, they give the edge the actions scenes want to really land.
Lone is a great story and a smashing comic.