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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Silent Scream. Lynda La Plante. Simon & Schuster UK Ltd (2009)

This is an efficient and colourless police procedural. Amanda Delany, a rising British film star, is murdered in her home. Robbery does not appear to be the motive, the murder was personal. Detective Inspector Anna Travis is part of the team investigating the death, she is also trying to get ready for a promotion interview process. The investigation reveals that Amanda Delany had lead a high speed life, crashing in and out of the lives of others with damaging results. The list of possible suspects in her murder is extensive and the process of identifying who did commit the murder is skilfully developed. The reveals are very well staged, the plot is tightly wound and the climax logical and very satisfactory.
The problem for this book is that the cast are colourless, they do not have any spark of life to them. There is not character in the book who leaps of the page into the reader's imagination, except possibly the victim. As those who knew her reveal what they know a picture emerges of a tremendously unlikeable person, whose talent and desire for destruction vied for expression. The picture that emerges is the closest to a three dimensional character in the book, the rest of the cast, while more than simple plot puppets, are just not memorable in any way.
The cast do enough to ensure that the reader's interest is engaged enough to follow the story through to the resolution, this is a tribute more to the excellent construction of the story than anything else. This is a pleasant, forgettable read.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Halfhead. Stuart B. Macbride. HarperVoyager (2009)

A very savage science fiction thriller, gripping and imaginative. Sometime in the future serious criminals are lobotomised and mutilated and set to menial and public tasks as a punishment and a warning. One of them recovers her memory and sense of self and starts to climb back to life, which is a problem as she is a terrifyingly efficient serial killer. At the same time Assistant Section Director William Hunter, working with a branch of the police service call the Network, finds himself drawn into a murder at Shermam House, the site of a huge and murderous riots years previously. Slowly the paths of both the revived half head and ASD Hunter start to overlap and the threads of the past become woven into the present. The story is superbly structured, the reveals are cunningly paced, the action is brutal and the climax nasty and explosive.
Stuart B. Macbride has neatly solved how to blend two genres, serial killer thriller and science fiction dystopia without a loss to either. The context for the action is carefully set up and it feels solid and real. Glasgow feels like a member of the cast, the sprawling city comes to life, the details of the technology and the weapons are nicely placed, understated and accepted. Explanations arise from the activities of the cast which gives the context great force. Stuart B. Macbride has a very strong grasp on how large organisations work, the way that the staff within them react to each other and to staff from other organisations. This gives his cast a very effective workplace and allows for a large cast to respond and react to each other with real vigour and tension. Dr. Westfield is a very frightening villain, passionate about her murderous mission and enjoying her work, she provides a real threat throughout the story. The echos of the Hannibal Lector novels are slightly intrusive, they do not overshadow the story, this is very much a work in its own right. Excellent, gory , gripping.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures. Mike Ashley (Editor) Robinson (2009)

A collection of 26 stories that range across the full length of Sherlock Holmes' career. They are neatly organised and the way that they fold into the chronology of the Sherlock Holmes cannon is clearly laid out. The editor has done a very nice job of introducing the stories and placing them in context, all told it is a excellent volume of very entertaining stories.
The stories frequently take as their starting point some of the cases referred to by Dr. Watson but never written up or published for a variety of reasons. Each of them is carefully written so as to respect the full range of details in the original stories, there are no science fiction elements and very few entries by historical figures, the few exceptions are nicely woven into the stories and do add a nice flavour to the mix.
The stories avoid being too reverential in tone or content, within the fairly strict bounds the writers have set for themselves the stories are striking and original, the writers penetrate beneath the surface details to capture the moving spirit of the originals. The required details and flourishes are all present and correct, the deductive reasoning that baffles Dr Watson to be rendered mundane with an explanation, Mycroft Holmes and international diplomacy and intrigue. Most importantly there is the true figure of Holmes, alive only with the chase and the need for a challenge. These stories pass a critical test in how they deal with Dr. Watson, he his handled with care and respect, he is the true friend and confident of Sherlock Holmes, the human heartbeat of the adventures. Great stories and great fun.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Roseanna. Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo. Gollancz Crime (1965)

A gripping, low key Swedish police procedural. A woman's body is dredged from a Swedish canal, she had been murdered. The lack of an identity hampers the investigation, eventually she is identified and the investigation has a crucial starting point. The police team, lead by First Detective Inspector Martin Beck, slowly and steadily pursue the murderer. The final phase of the investigation involves the police taking severe risks to capture the suspect and the conclusion is tense and fierce.
The action in the story, other than the climax, is steady and thoughtful. The investigation is driven by routine and extensive search efforts to establish and confirm information. The stubborn determination of Martin Beck and his team to find the killer drives the story. Martin Beck has a decaying relationship with his wife and a distant one with his children, the focus of his life is his work. He is a rather melancholy figure, he is forceful enough to be memorable as well. The rest of the cast are equally individual, they respond to the pressure of the case with professional fortitude yet they retain an angry hunger to catch the killer.
The story is gripping in the steady accumulation of detail about the Roseanna, the victim, and the way that luck, care, expertise all overlap in a very natural way to provide the breaks that drive the case forward. A really well constructed mystery, a credible investigation, tremendous sense of place and atmosphere and a great cast make this a great read. A top flight crime story.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Borderline. Volume 1. Carlos Trillo (Writer), Eduardo Risso (Art). Dynamite Entertainment (2006)

A brilliant series of increasingly connected stories set in a severely dystopian future. The location is a city dominated by two opposing groups the Council and the Commune, the rich are happy and the poor , the sub-dregs, are valued only for their organs. Both power groups have armed forces to enforce their will and Lisa, know as Crash, works as a captive agent for the Council, Emil, known as Blue, works as a ten year agent for the Commune. Lisa and Emil were lovers before Emil betrayed Lisa in a horrific fashion and now they on opposing sides of an ongoing struggle for power and the control of the narcotics market in the city. The episodes steadily build up the background of Lisa and Emil and the context in which they find themselves, the stories progressively develop in emotional and dramatic weight and power.
The luminous black and white art by Eduardo Risso dominates the early episodes of the book. Where black and white frequently means "uncoloured", this art glories in the extreme contrast between black and white, there are no tones in the art. The line drawings are stunningly expressive, they capture the details of the context and the emotions of the cast with clarity and grace. It manages to be both flamboyant and to effortlessly serve the story at the same time. In the opening episodes when the introductions to the cast and context are being completed the at rightly carries the weight, as the chapters progress the writing become more significant and the art embodies it and enhances it flawlessly.
Carlos Trillo takes a well worn path in science fiction and steadily moves past the usual cliches to delivers stories that capture the lives of the cast and the terrible and emotions that drive them. Lisa and Emil, as well as the surrounding cast emerge from the context they are placed in as damaged, fragile creatures who draw on the reader's sympathy and concern naturally and deeply. Their actions are credible and forceful, they are all struggling to accept the burden of past actions and to cope with desperate circumstances. This is not a pessimistic book, the future is bleak and barren, that is simply a given, the focus is on how the cast manage within this context and how the retain or loose their humanity.
It is also a gloriously action driven science fiction adventure with a mission to enthrall and entertain and it does so with lashings of style and energy. This is a brilliant comic.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Wrong Man. Alfred Hitchcock. Warner Brothers(1956)

A low key and gripping thriller based on a true story of mistaken identity. Manny Balestrero, a musican at the Stork Club in New York, is mistakenly identified as a man who has committed a number of armed robberies. He finds himself enmeshed in the criminal justice system and trying to prove his innocence is very difficult. Manny and his family come under tremendous pressure as he faces the very real possibility of being convicted for a crimes he did not commit. The film is deliberately low key, the story is very straightforward and deeply involving.
Alfred Hitchcock chose a documentary style for the picture and it works very well. The ordinary life of Manny Balestrero is established before events overtake it. Hitchcock creates an extraordinary sense of dislocation as Manny is drawn into the criminal justice process and feels himself helpless in the face of it and unable to understand how he could be in the situation. Henry Fonda gives a powerful performance as Manny, he is subtle and restrained, at the mercy of forces he cannot understand and trying to make sense of his situation. He is superb as an ordinary man who rages quietly against his powerlessness. Vera Miles as Manny's wife Rose is astonishing, the savage impact the situation has on her is developed with great skill. Rose's breakdown comes without melodrama, it has a fierce intensity and profound despair that ring true.
Alfred Hitchcock saw that the terrible aspect to the situation was that everyone involved was acting in the best of faith, the witnesses who identified Manny were sure it was him, the police had a very credible case, Manny's alibis for the relevant times were frail. The absence of malice and the strong probability that Manny would be convicted give the film tremendous dramatic force, which Hitchcock frames with trademark visual skill and panache. This is a great film, a superb cast giving powerful performances under the masterful direction of a true cinematic genius.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Willow Pattern. Robert Van Gulik. The University of Chicago Press (1965)

A very enjoyable murder mystery set in China during the Tang Dynasty. With an outbreak of plague driving the Imperial court from the capital city, Judge Dee has been appointed Emergency Governor of the city for the duration of the epidemic. A prominent merchant is found dead, he is one of three families who had ruled the city during an outbreak of civil war a century ago. These families, now much reduced, are still perceived as being part of an "old world", representative of past times. The very violent death of the last member of another of the there families leads to an investigation which raises questions about the earlier death. The resolution of both these cases involves the last member of the the third family. The mystery is expertly constructed, the period details are integral to the story and the cast are lively and appealing. The reveals are nicely staged, the conclusion is thoughtful and convincing.
Robert Van Gulik manages to create a very nice balance between the need to construct an interesting and credible mystery and animating it as a story with a credible cast. The motives emerge very strongly from actions and personalities of the cast so that there is a strong and true emotional context in the story. The crimes arise very naturally and the investigation is equally natural and effective. Judge Dee is a clever and observant man and it is his understanding of human nature that leads him to the heart of the problems. The rest of the cast are strongly drawn, the context of the city in the grip of a heatwave and a plague is very convincingly portrayed. The fifteen illustrations done in Chinese style by the author add strongly to the charm of the book. This is a very well written and entertaining crime story with a very appealing setting.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

B.P.R.D. Volume 1. Hollow Earth & Other Stories. Dark Horse Comics (2003)

This book pushes the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense and the supporting cast from the Hellboy books into the limelight as Hellboy leaves the Bureau to pursue his own destiny. The lead story, Hollow Earth from the creative team of, Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden & Tom Sniegoski (Writers), Ryan Sook (Pencils & Inks), Curtis Arnold (Inks), Dave Stewart (Colours), and Clem Robins (Letters) sets the stage.
Elizabeth Sherman, who is seeking to manage her firestarting abilities goes to a monastery in the Urals. Abe Sapien, a fishman is growing restive at the Bureau in the absence of Hellboy and Elizabeth and is making plans to depart himself. A new agent Johann Kraus, an ectoplasmic spirit in a containment suit, joins the Bureau. There is significant tension and potential disruption lurking in the Bureau when Abe gets a distress call from Elizabeth Sherman. Abe Sapien, Johnan and Roger the Homunculus go to the monastery to rescue Elizabeth. The find her body, her spirit has been captured and the trail leads down into the hollow Earth. The rescue is brilliantly staged, the reason Elizabeth has been hijacked is suitably ambitious, the action is fast and ultimately a new equilibrium is established.
The remaining stories are much shorter, varied and very well done and include a superb Lobster Johnson adventure that is infused with the true spirit of pulp fiction and a sharp Abe Sapien episode.
This book reveals the strength in depth that underlies the overall Hellyboy franchise, the stories are structurally sound, dramatically strong, the art is fantastic and the invention glorious. Launching a spin off creates some clear problems, the need is to build on the strengths of the original material, establish a new continuity and provide some genuine creative impetus for the enterprise other than simply extending the franchise. Hollow Earth is a model for the process, the cast are given a reason to be striking out on their own, they are also given a dramatically credible reason for becoming an independent team out from the shadow of Hellboy. This is a book with tremendous ambition, it aspires to be a really good adventure book and it achieves it with an engaging and strongly defined cast and a gripping context. Wonderful.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Blazing Combat. Fantagraphics Books. (2009)

This collection publishes all the four issues of Blazing Combat, an anthology of war stories published in 1965 & 1966 which was effectively forced into cancellation by comic distributors as it was considered to be unpatriotic and un-American in the context of the early stages of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. The stories were written by Archie Goodwin and featured art by Wally Wood, John Severin, Alext Toth, Reed Crandall and others. The tone of the stories is unheroic rather than anti war, they frequently examine the experiences of the foot soldiers and in a crucial case the perspective of a non-combatant Vietnamese farmer caught up in the conflict. It was this story, "Landscape", that was the focus of the groups who closed the comic down.
The stories are all short, usually about six pages in length and for anyone familiar with the weekly war comic anthologies that were distributed in the UK and Ireland in the 1960s & 1970s they will seem rather familiar. They have the same tone and inclination as the stories from the late 1960s and early 1970s when the heroic and overtly patriotic elements were replaced by stories that focused on the experiences of the regular soldiers of every army at the sharp end of conflict. The stories in the collection are very well written, they have to struggle against a common structure which imposes a dramatic, frequently a twist, ending on the episode. To Archie Goodwin's considerable credit this format is much less restrictive or repetitive than it could have been, his talent for creating a situation in a short space and presenting memorable action and characters is very impressive.
The art is simply fantastic, the artists were very experienced comic artists who were working at the height of their skills. The great diversity of styles allied to the different locations and periods used gives a necessary variety to the stories, in particular in a collection like this. For me the most striking art is by Reed Crandall, beautiful figure work with wonderful detail in the backgrounds that are never cluttered. The combined talents of the writer and the artists mean that this is not a historical curiosity, it is a superb collection of comics, fresh and relevant.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Blood Money. Chris Collett. Piatkus Books (2007)

A lean and very sharp crime story. A baby is taken from a creche and Detective Inspector Tom Mariner finds himself leading a high profile investigation instead of heading out on leave. The act appears random at first, it becomes clear that there had to have been a considerable degree of planning. Animal Rights activists are identified as probable suspects, then the baby is returned. The case appears to have come to a happy ending when there is a murder and the true scope of the crime slowly comes into view. The reveals are very nicely paced, the cast are credible and the strands of the plot are steadily and very effectively wrought together to a very satisfactory conclusion.
Chris Collett writes with tremendous economy, there are multiple strands within the story, they are introduced and maintained with great precision and excellent timing. The cast lively and engaging, the extended lives of some of the characters is very nicely handled without diminishing the focus or impetus of the plot. DI Tom Mariner is a thoughtful and very capable character, competent and credible and lacking the cliched problems of a lot of police officers in crime fiction. His private life is nicely handled and gives him depth as a character.
The plot construction is first class, the strands are all bound up in a way that is both logical and very credible. The human cost of crime and the enforced degradation of human trafficking and prostitution is made clear with fierce and understandable passion that help ignite the story. Gripping and thoughtful.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cul de Sac. This Exit. Richard Thompson. Andrews McMeel Publishing (2008)

This is a collection of the brilliant newspaper comic strip. The Otterloop family live in Cul de Sac, the star of the strip is four year old Alice who attends the Blisshaven Academy pre-school, her very neurotic older brother Peter goes to school, her father has a job and her mother does not work. The children are the focus of the strip, Alice and the other children in the pre-school class, Peter and a possibly imaginary classmate called Ernesto. The strips tend not to follow any particular continuity, they may follow on directly for a week if there is a seasonal theme such as Halloween or Christmas. They are sharp, artful and very, very funny.
Richard Thompson takes a standard newspaper comic strip set-up and brings it to sparkling life avoiding all the cute kid cliches that drown so many other strips. The art is rough looking, very sketchy and it looks unfinished. This gives the strip a personality right away, the art is distinctive and the figure work has a natural dynamism that is frequently smoothed out of strips. The real joy of the strip lies in the writing, it is crisp, fresh and rings true for the entire cast. The cast are not generic children and adults who exist to purvey jokes that more or less relate to some obvious situation that is described by the art. They are a collection of strongly individual characters who interact with each other and their circumstances with relish and energy. The humour arises directly from the fact that they are so much themselves, there is never a sense of a set-up and pay off at work, there is a tremendous life in the strips.
One of the very best things that Richard Thompson has done is to completely avoid the "children say the funniest things" approach, the children are true to themselves and what they want. They demand to be taken seriously and are funny because of that. This is a great collection of a superbly crafted and truly funny and truthful strip, a treasure.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Kentish Lad. Frank Muir. Corgi Books (1997)

A very engaging autobiography. Frank Muir worked as a writer, presenter and television executive for decades after the Second World War, starting in radio and moving to television as it was becoming a mass medium. While he had a show business career this is not a show business autobiography, it is is story of a life gratefully lived. At a very young age Frank Muir discover that making people laugh was something he enjoyed, the incidental opportunities provided by his time in the RAF, writing for RAF radio while stationed in Iceland gave him a training and a yearning to make it a career. Post war opportunities arose slowly, luck lead to a long term writing partnership with Denis Norden, which in turn led to a career in television as a writer, presenter and executive. He was also a writer of a very successful series of children's books and other books.
The most significant problem with autobiography is perspective, identifying what would be of interest to a stranger about your life without being a bore is tricky at best, it is always fatal to be too removed and allow others dominate or be to present and loose sight of what is actually interesting about your experiences. Frank Muir manages the task with understated and charming skill, he has a clear and confident voice matched with a nicely self-deprecating wit. His strong enjoyment of and interest in other people means that the famous people he has met come across as people rather than an exercise in name dropping. He writes without malice and with clear opinions and his writing about his family is a model of how to balance relevant exposure with discretion. This is a warm, funny and sharply written book, thoroughly companionable.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Graveslinger. Shannon Eric Denton & Jeff Mariotte (Writers), John Cboins & Nima Sorat (Art), Chris Wood & Carlos Badilla (Colours). IDW. (2009)

An enjoyable Western/Zombie story that mixes up both elements effectively. Frank Timmons is on the trail of a group of zombies that rose from their graves in Gila Flats Prison when and the zombies stumble into a range war. They pick opposing sides in the conflict and story manages to combine classic elements from both genres without loss to either. The action is fast and furious, the zombies are suitably vicious, the climax is sharp and satisfying.
The greatest problem with this book is the jarring change in art style between the two halves of the book. The first two chapters are done by John Cboins, it is a bit harsh, the lines are angular and the colouring is concentrated on the figures with the backgrounds being essentially sketched in. It is a very striking style and gives a very distinctive flavour to the story. The final two chapters with art by Nima Sorat is an abrupt change as is the colouring scheme. The art is much closer to the mainstream of comic art, the figures are much smoother and the backgrounds have more detail. The colour scheme is much brighter and more varied, the more fluid art is better suited to the action in these chapters.
The writing clearly unifies the story, there is a clear appreciation of the structure and requirements for a classic Western story, the context of the range war where a large rancher is trying to drive out his smaller neighbours is a clever one to drop zombies into, they do not disrupt the story, they add nicely to it. It does gives an opportunity for the writers to add variety to the action and they use it to the full. The cast are vigorous, Frank Timmons is a deeply flawed hero, Alice Saylor, defending her home against the living and the dead is a great character, spirited and determined. Strong writing and strong art, well worth reading.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Babes in the Wood. Ruth Rendell. Hutchinson (2002)

A sharp, very bleak and very well constructed murder mystery. Two teenage children and their minder are missing, the parents returned to an empty house and the children's mother is convinced that they have been drowned in the floods that are afflicting the area. All three are strong swimmers and the house is above the floods. The children and their minder remain missing and a search for their bodies in the flood waters is undertaken and does not locate them. The investigation reveals much more than the fate of the children and their minder, it explores, without mercy, the terrible things people do in the name of love. The reveals are well paced, the numerous cast are horribly plausible and the conclusion is suitably savage.
This story has a cold tone to it, none of the cast are particularly sympathetic, Chief Inspector Wexford is competent, effective policeman and a less than competent father. The parents of the missing children are just on the interesting side of appalling and repulsive, the rest of the cast tend to be either self-obsessed, weak or both. It is a considerable tribute to Ruth Rendell's skill as a writer that the book is not unreadable, the cast are vigorous and the story constructed with such skill that the reader is pulled along to see how it will be resolved.
One of the extraordinary aspects to the book is the complete absence of humour, the tone throughout is considered and grave, well matched to the actions,emotions and motives involved in the story. This does not make the story glum or heavy going, humour is simply not required due to the quality of the writing, the necessary shades and contrasts are fully developed in the story. This is steely, first rate writing about crime and humans, grim and fascinating.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Babette's Feast. Gabriel Axel (Director. MGM (1987)

A wonderful film about faith, love, art, memory and food. On a desolate coast of Denmark a small village includes the aging congregation of a sect founded by a pastor whose two daughters carry on his mission. A Frenchwoman arrives on their doorstep, fleeing chaos and possible death in Paris and Babette becomes their servant. Babette's sole link to Paris is a lottery ticket and when she wins 10,000 francs on the lottery the daughter's permission to cook a meal for them on the centenary of their father's birth. This meal becomes an opportunity for memory, love, faith and art to be celebrated, confirmed and cherished.
This film radiates a belief in the possibility of joy and love without ever being false or sentimental. The grim life of the villagers is not glossed over, the petty rivalries of the aging congregation are aired without reducing anyone to caricature. The flashbacks to the younger years of the two daughters where they choose to stay with their father instead of leaving with men who loved them are wonderfully done and do not diminish the daughters.
The meal that is at the heart of the film is a wonder, the exquisite food that slowly mellows the congregation into companionship, that gives the chance for one of the daughter's suitors to return and make peace with her and memory is never forced. The simple pleasure of eating, the extraordinary artistry of cooking and creating the feast are allowed to emerge naturally and effectively.The cast are wonderful, Stephane Audran as Babette and Bodil Kjer and Brigitte Federspiel as the sisters Filippa and Martine are flawless. They give quiet roles depth and dignity and allow the rest of the cast to be more forward and overtly expressive. This film is a remarkable achievement, as much a feast for the viewer as it is for the cast.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Stone Island. Ian Edginton (Writer), Simon Davis (Artist). Rebellion (2008)

Excellent horror comic with a great cast, sharp writing, stunning art and lots of gore being splattered about. Longbarrow Maximum Security Prison, set in a isolated and desolate moorland is where David Sorrell has been sent for the murder of his wife and her lover. Harry Rivers is his cellmate and somewhat mentor in the prison. When one of the inmates mutates into a hideous creature and starts to murder and devour other inmates and guards, Harry reveals his escape plan and he and David flee. They meet up with a few other survivors and find that they are trapped and under siege. The first part comes to an explosive conclusion, the second part takes the survivors and pitches them headlong into a plan to deal with the creatures at source. The action is fast, the cast determined and the story is willing to take a Ian Edginton has written a straightforward horror story with care and craft, the details are sharp and the threats are explicit and forceful. The central element of an isolated group facing an overwhelming threat is nicely managed in both parts, the different context in each case is superbly developed. There is a seam of black humour running through the story that gives the action an additional force and the cast a twist of life as they face their situations. With Sara McCandless, Ian Edginton has created a star, someone you would want at you back when flesh eating creatures are coming in through the window.
Simon Davis' art is stunning, it captures both the gore and the humour, the terrible transformations that some of the cast undergo with great verve, they are both realistic and impossible, just as they should be. The panel layout is dynamic and varied, it gives the story a great pace and allows the lurid colouring space to breathe and exert its influence.
This is a great fun comic, Ian Edginton refers to it a a "gore soaked guilty pleasure", any comic created with this level of care, craft and talent leaves no one with anything to be guilty about the abundant pleasure it provides.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ghost in the Shell SAC. Revenge Of The Cold Machines. Junichi Fujisaku. Dark Horse Press (2006)

Three short stories set in a future , post World War III Japan where cybernetics are common and prosthetic body enhancements are frequent. The three stories are concerned with the activities of Public Security Section 9, an anti-terrorist group that deals with cybernetic related terrorist threats and activities. The first story is about a plot to kill the leader of Section 9, the second is about and incident that one of Section 9, Artificial Intelligence equipped mobile tanks, a Tachikoma has, the final story is about an assault on a leading cybernetics company. The three stories are all very tightly woven and complete in themselves, they are also ultimately all tied into a bigger plot. The writing is sharp, clear, informative and brings the cast and context to life.
The stories delve further into the context and cast from the Ghost in the Shell continuity created by Shrrow Masamune, specifically the animated series, Ghost in the Shell "Stand Alone Complex". Junichi Fujisaku, who is a writer on the series, develops these stories with enough inherent information that they can be read without any prior knowledge of any of the continuity. The stories are enjoyably laced with political intrigue as the background in which Section 9 operate is made clear. This gives a nice extra dimension to the actions and decisions of the cast and gives weight to the plot.
The stories are well structured, the reveals are nicely paced and the action is fast and enjoyable with a large and lively cast. Anyone interested in science fiction would enjoy these stories, be they fans of the Ghost in the Shell continuity or not, they are excellent.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hip Flask. Unnatural Selection. Richard Starkings (Writer), Joe Casey (Writer), Landronn (Artist). Active Images (2003)

A fantastic concept, luscious art and brilliant execution make this book a superb comic and outstanding science fiction. In 2218 Dr. Nikken is involved in creating human animal hybrids and having failed to do so successfully using an artificial womb uses living women instead. The monstrous hybrids are trained to be violent soldiers, an army in the service of MAPPO. They have a human intelligence and stance with the heads and other features of the animal they were crossed with. The MAPPO base in North Africa is stormed by UN troops and Dr. Nikken is arrested after a fierce resistance by the hybrids. The hybrids are escorted from the site and in a flash forward at the end of the book appear to be integrated into society and referred to as Elephantmen. The book is a set up for a continuing series called Elephantmen.
This book takes the unlimited capacity of comics to describe and explore fantastic ideas and really embraces it, this is top flight science fiction. The opening pages where Dr.Nikken is introduced and his appalling plans are revealed is both wonderfully economical and savagely informative. The art conveys the scale of his ambition in the vast industrial process he in involved in, the words convey the extreme poverty of his spirit and motivations.
The Elephantmen themselves are astonishing, Ladronn has managed to subtly combine the animal and human elements is a unified whole that breathe personality and rage. They are the visible monsters in the book, the real monstrosity of Dr Nikken is nicely underplayed by contrast.
The urban context for the story is a Blade Runner like setting, the art uses the similarity without being drowned by it. The discipline in the art is extraordinary, the details are numerous, they never overwhelm the whole, they give it depth and solidity. This set up does exactly what it should, it provides a vivid and deeply enticing introduction to the on-going series as well as being a very memorable piece of work in its own right. Fantastic.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Play Dead. Richard Montanari. William Heinemann (2008)

A very gripping serial killer thriller. While investigating a cold case, the murder of a young runaway whose body was found posed in a glass display case in an abandoned building, detectives Kevin Byrne and Janet Balzano are given clues that lead to the discovery of a second murder. These two deaths are part of larger "performance" by the killer that taken together are a challenge to the city of Philadelphia to understand and unravel the puzzle he is creating. The story very well constructed and paced, the reveals are carefully set up and effective and the strands of the plot are expertly bound together.
The dreadfully cunning and theatrical scheme pursued by the killer does not provide the energy or momentum of the book. The killer is given scope and background, yet he remains more of a performer than anything else, he lacks a core of humanity. He is strongly contrasted with the rest of the cast who are all given a twist of life. Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano are wonderful characters, they are competent professionals trying to combine the terrible demands of their jobs with still having time and care for others. They have to work hard as they are surrounded by a vivid and compelling cast who all provide life and colour to the story and want to be seen and heard.
Richard Montanari never is seduced by the killer, he is clearly on the side of those trying to prevent his actions and to save lives. The urgency in the book comes from the race to save lives rather than the details of how they are lost.This is a tremendously accomplished book, thoughtful and thrilling, a compulsive pleasure.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tokyo Godfathers. DVD (2003)

Gorgeous animation and a story that has the perfect balance of action, drama and warm hearted sentiment combine to create a wonderful, touching film. A makeshift family of homeless people, Gin, Hanna a melodramatic gay man and Miyuyi a runaway teenager, find an abandoned infant on Christmas Eve. The three start on a journey to find the baby's parents and return the child to them. In the course of this they find themselves confronting their own past decisions that lead them to their current situation. The reveals are very nicely paced, the action sequences are superbly staged and the conclusion is hard won and very satisfying.
The trio at the heart of the film are wonderfully developed characters, they argue and fight and look out for each other. The story is full of twists and sharp moments that capture the pressures of poverty and homeless living, Gin is brutally assaulted by some young men who are "cleaning up" for the New Year. The reasons that each of the trio are homeless are sad and ordinary, their humanity burns brightly and they find that bridges have not been burned after all.
The animation is joyous, the cityscape's are full of life and colour, they give a great context to the story. The character work is outstanding, each cast member is given a clear individuality and life, in particular the wonderfully, flamboyantly melodramatic Hanna is given extraordinary mobility and expressiveness. This film is a gem and should not be missed.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Not Dead Enough. Peter James. Macmillan (2007)

This is a very compelling and well constructed police procedural set in Brighton. A wealthy Brighton socialite, Katie Bishop is murdered in her home. The chief suspect is her husband, Brian Bishop. Detective Superintendent Roy Grace leads the police team investigating the murder. A second murder is discovered that has clear ties to Brian Bishop, who is protesting his innocence and has a reasonable alibi for the night of his wife's murder. More evidence is uncovered that that provides strong motives for Brian Bishop to kill his wife. Brian Bishop may not be quite who he appears to be, the reveals are very nicely paced, the large cast is well orchestrated and lively and the conclusion is thoroughly satisfying.
The best aspects to this book are the cast, they are varied, believable and all are given sufficient space to register with the reader. Roy Grace is a very engaging character, competent, thoughtful and tough minded he is a very credible senior police officer. The villain is enjoyable dedicated to the task at hand and ingenious enough to present a real problem for the investigative team. The major supporting characters are given enough space and development to ensure that they emerge in their own right and engage the reader. The problem with the book is a sub plot regarding Roy Graces vanished wife that really does nothing other than take up space. A sharply told story in an interesting setting with an enjoyable cast, well worth reading.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Ancient Rome. The Rise and Fall of an Empire. Simon Baker. BBC Books (2007)

A superb overview of the span of the Roman Empire from the collapse of the Republic to the last Emperor.The name of the last Roman Emperor, a sixteen year old who held a title without functional meaning was Romulus Augustulus. The last Roman Emperor was named in honour of the Romulus, for whom the city and empire were named and Augustus the first Roman Emperor. Simon Baker tells the extraordinary story of the Roman Empire with great skill, telling detail and a tremendous relish for the scale of the story.
Rome had an empire before it became the Roman Empire, it was the dominant force in the Mediterranean, and a proud Republic. Romans were proud of the fact that they had removed the tyranny of kingship and ruled themselves, SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus-the Senate and the Roman People) was the essence of their political system. It mixed control by an elite with involvement by the free, male citizens of Rome. The expansion of the area controlled by the Republic, the creation of an empire unleashed the forces that lead to the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire.
Simon Baker examines the span of the empire by looking at the lives and times of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Nero, Hadrian, Constantine and the final dismantling of the empire in the west. He looks at the slow transition from Republic to Empire, the way the position of Emperor developed and expanded and how finally the long success of the Empire was critical to its destruction. The writing is clear and the details are chosen with care, the political and economic context for each section are presented very well and an absorbing picture of the empire is developed. Given the lethal nature of the politics of the time and the relatively limited technology available the breath and stability of the Roman Empire are staggering. The extraordinary advantages of being part of it created an internal resilience that allowed it survive the multiple very bloody transitions of power from Emperor to Emperor.
Reading this book the continuing fascination that the Romans have exerted over subsequent generations is easy to understand, the mix of utterly alien and familiar is gripping and the sheer scale of their activities are truly epic. This is a great overview of an always relevant period.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Best of H.T. Webster. A Memorial Collection. Simon and Schuster (1953)

Harold Tucker Webster (1885–1952) was a widely syndicated cartoonist in the US from the 1920s to the 1950s. He drew single panel cartoons that frequently ran along a theme such as "Life's Darkest Moment" and a series that gave rise to a new word in English, "The Timid Soul". The protagonist of the Timid Soul series is Casper Milquetoast, a man whose severe timidity ensured that milquetoast has entered English as an adjective.
H.T.Webster's topics were the small triumphs and disasters that occur in any life and that linger much longer in our memories that they should do. He captures, with understated skill the pleasure or sting of the moment without ever undermining those involved. There is a strong wash of nostalgia in his work, in particular where it features barefoot boys that echo his own rural boyhood in the wonderfully named town of Tomahawk in Wisconsin. One of the reasons that H.T.Webster's work is still appealing today is that he clearly liked people, his cartoons of the arguments that can erupt between husbands and wives over a game of bridge are done with a lack of spitefulness that makes them a pleasure still.
As someone with a near mystical lack of ability with anything mechanical or electrical I can strongly attest that the look of mingled relief and pride displayed by the man in the picture above has been drawn from life. Superb drawing and incisive writing that nailed the underlying emotion and captured the humour make H.T.Webster a master of his craft, a book to savour.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Ghost In The Shell. Shirow Masamune. Dark Horse Manga (2004)

A great collection of stories revolving around an anti-terrorist public security team in a future Japan where the boundaries between human and machine are becoming blurred due to advances in prosthetics. Public Security Section 9 is lead by Major Motoko Kusanagi who has a fully artificial body, her spine and brain are the only biological elements, the rest of the team are more or less equipped with mechanical upgrades. They operate in an information drenched society where a cyberbrain in required to provide access to the net and allow normal functioning. This naturally gives new opportunities to criminals an terrorists to infiltrate individuals and attack the "Ghost in the Shell", the human personality of the individual. The stories are nicely varied, they mix up the political landscape of the future state of Japan with straightforward criminal activities. The final episodes raise interesting questions about what would happen if a machine intelligence became self aware.
This is a really dense comic, the art is crowed with detail and the stories are packed with ideas and explanations as well. Shirow Masamue manages to use this density to enhance the momentum of the stories, to place his cast in a credible context and to bring them to vivid and sharply defined life. The art is wonderfully easy to read and skillfully uses changing styles to move the mood of the story. Major Motoko is a great character, vibrantly human in her artificial body.
Ghost in the Shell is smart, funny and thoughtful science fiction, in a word, brilliant.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Spider. Michael Morley. Penguin Books (2008)

A gripping and very well constructed serial-killer thriller. Jack King was a FBI profiler who broke down while trying to capture the Black River Killer, a very prolific serial killer. Jack and his wife move to Italy and take over a hotel and try to rebuild their lives. The Black River Killer case remains unfinished business for Jack King and on the twentieth anniversary of his first murder it returns to his life. A woman in murdered in Italy and the details are very suggestive of the BRK and Jack is brought into the Italian investigation. At the same time the BRK is active in America and as the story cleverly twists these threads together to a gripping and unexpected climax. The reveals are very well paced, the savagery of the BRK is made clear and the structure of the investigations are dynamically unfolded.
Michael Morley has no sympathy for the BRK while developing him as a credible and compelling character. His motivation and the reasons for his lengthy career in murder are clearly laid out, he is clearly an aberrant and extremely dangerous person who is devoid of any human sympathy and inspires none in the reader. His victims and the rest of the cast however are drawn with underlying compassion and care and they do come to tumultuous life in the book. Michael Morley develops a very large and diverse cast and gives each person enough definition and room to breathe that they emerge as individuals.
This swirling crowd serves to emphasise the hollow nature of the BRK and the damage that he wreaks on the lives of others. The structure of the book is thoughtful and carefully wrought, the investigation feels like it really is being made up as it proceeds, actions and reactions move the momentum of the story and create a very engaging and tension drenched read. Excellent.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Saga of Solomon Kane. Dark Horse Books (2009)

This is a very welcome omnibus reprinting of the Solomon Kane stories that ran in the Savage Sword of Conan and other Marvel comics. They are a wonderful collection of pulp fantasy action stories starring Robert E. Howard's Puritan,adventuring, god fearing, avenger, Solomon Kane. Kane was born in Devon and started his wanderings when England became politically inhospitable for Puritans under the Tudors, he travelled to the Far East, sailed with Sir Francis Drake and Sir Richard Grenville, was captured and tortured by the Spanish Inquisition, escaped and travelled Europe and Africa, returned home briefly before taking to the seas again.
The stories all take a wonderful, deeply serious and suitably extravagant treatment of the material, they bring out the pulp glory in the stories. The action is fast and furious, the settings are gloomy remains of ancient cities in Africa and Satanic castles in the Black Forest. Solomon Kane sees himself as God's instrument of vengeance and retribution and he is presented in exactly the larger than life stature that he requires. His passion is allowed to shine brightly and the desire for action and adventure that underlie it freely acknowledged.
The art is as generous as the writing, the range of styles is very great and the quality is consistently very high. The drama of the black and white art is relished by the artists as is the freedom to draw the swashbuckling action and the beautiful women. Great fun.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Famous Players. Rick Geary ( Writer & Art). NBM Comics (2009)

A true crime story told with wonderful care and detail. On the 2nd of Feb 1922 the body of William Desmond Taylor was found at his home in Hollywood. William Desmond Taylor had been a successful director at the Famous Players studio, he had know all the first wave of film stars and his murder was a sensational affair. Rick Geary explores the story in a very clear and detailed fashion, including the unexpected and fascinating life of William Desmond Taylor.
Rick Geary places the murder very firmly in the context of the early establishment and development of Hollywood and the film industry. The process was being established, film stars were becoming a new breed of celebrity and the the enormous amount of money that films could create was beginning to have an impact. At the same time films were pushing at the boundaries of what was publicly acceptable in American society of the time. The murder along with the sensational trial of Fatty Arbuckle gave great impetus to moves to restrict the content of films and disguise the activities of those working in the industry.The case was never solved, Rick Geary follows the activities of the police and others as they tried to establish what happened and to identify any likely suspects. William Desmond Taylor proved to be as fictional as the films he directed, his real life and activities prior to arriving in Hollywood and reinventing himself are fascinating. No solutions are offered and speculation is held on a very tight leash. The art is very distinctive and full of detail without ever being crowded or busy. Rick Geary portrays the situations with clarity and depth and the cast are very well portrayed. An interesting topic dealt with sympathy, clarity and care, excellent work.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Millennium. Tom Holland. Abacus (2009)

In one of the greatest practical jokes in history modern Europe was born because the end of the world failed to arrive when it was expected. The Christian world expected that the world would end and the Day of Judgement arrive in the at the first Millennium, one thousand years after the birth or death of Jesus Christ. The enormous social, political and religious forces this expectation released collided, combined and confronted each other to create the foundations of Western Europe as we have it today. Tom Holland has written a hugely entertaining book that shows how and why the process took place. It is a fantastic story and it is told with outstanding skill, with an enormous cast of vivid characters and a geographical range from London to Kiev, Tom Holland's talent for clarity and comprehensiveness never falters.

The prospect of the end of the world crystallised a number of forces that combined and confronted each other. On one hand there was the growth in empire building and the emergence of new ruling elites. This activity was savagely brutal and bloody. The new ruling elites wanted to be granted legitimate status and the source of this was the Christian Church. The Church was concerned with the violence of the emerging rulers while at the same time realising that they were the vanguard of the spread of Christianity, a very necessary project in the light of the upcoming divine day of judgement. The Church, as much as the secular rulers, had new elites emerge in the drive to develop an Christian empire and the confrontations between these forces is at the heart of the book.

The huge energy dedicated to getting the world in order for an event that never arrived created significant forces that had the time and energy to continue shaping the world in whatever way they saw fit. The momentum of the millennium carried them on to creating the extraordinary developments that saw Europe emerge as the political, religious and technological global leader in defiance of any prospects prior to the millennium. This exhilarating book is sweeping narrative history that shows how the present is never far from our past. Unmissable.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Blind Eye. Stuart Macbride. HarperCollinsPublishers. (2009)

A bleakly funny, savagely brutal and very gripping crime story. In Aberdeen Polish men are being found with their eyes gouged out and the sockets burned, the victims are left alive after the mutilations. Detective Sargent Logan McRae under the supervision of the bitingly sarcastic Detective Chief Inspector Finnie, is involved in the case. With the presence of a paedophile who becomes a witness , a gang from Manchester who are bent on trouble and strong indications that a major gang war is brewing the situation continues to become more complicated and desperate. The reveals are wonderfully paced, the writing is razor sharp and the big and wonderfully energetic cast drive the story to a suitably grim conclusion.
This is crime writing of the highest order, the action is brutal and vividly described, the plot is tightly wound and carefully constructed. The glory of the book is the cast that swirls and swears their way through the story. Logan McRae is a superb central character, he is battered and bruised and frequently unlucky, he is also diligent, compassionate and genuinely and sometimes falteringly trying to do the right thing.
Detective Inspector Steel emerges in this book to take her rightful place as one of the greatest characters in contemporary crime fiction. Stuart Mcbride has done something wonderful, he has created a lesbian character whose sexuality is central to who she is and proudly worn and completely irrelevant to to her professional life. DI Steel is mater-of-factly lesbian, she is also heroically foul mouthed, temperamental and extremely competent. She is a wonderfully realised character, one of the significant pleasures of the book. A great read.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mercy. J.M.DeMatteis (Writer), Paul Johnson (Art), Todd Klien (Letters). DC Comics (1993)

Glorious art catches the spirit of the passionately overwrought writing to create a striking and memorable comic. Joshua Rose is lying in a stroke induced coma in a hospital watching himself from a limbo and wondering why he has not died. He muses on his life and the utter dissatisfaction of it all, the breathtaking , bitter futility of it all. He has become aware of the presence of an entity he has named Mercy and is drawn to her and the lives she seems to be intersecting with, a unhappy family in London, a terrified Indian boy in a South American jungle and a lonely old woman in an Brooklyn. The set ups are done with great and forceful skill, the resolutions are equally strong and the conclusion is passionate and truthful.
J.M.DeMatteis has recreated "A Christmas Carol" with outstanding skill and confidence, the central story about the resurrection of a defeated spirit remains, the other aspects of the story are creatively re-fashioned. Best of all the naked passion and belief in the reality of human compassion that burns so brightly in Dickens is blazing in the comic also.
Paul Johnson's art is simply extraordinary, it pulses with life an colour. The page layouts are superb, the capture the rhythms of the story and boost them. The use of colour is masterful, the bursts of light and use of muted colour provide the exact visual counterpart for the emotional framework for each scene.
This glorious comic is a direct and potent assault on the reader's casual cynicism that we slip on to protect ourselves, a reminder that all the unassuming acts of kindness and civility committed by countless number each day really count.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bruno Chief of Police. Martin Walker. Quercus. (2009)

A wonderfully evocative and engaging crime story set in the Dordogne region of France.In a small village in rural France an elderly Algerian immigrant is murdered in a brutal fashion. Details of the crime strongly suggest a race crime and Bruno, the Chief of Police for the village of St Denis finds that the murder is arousing a lot of attention and tension. As the various elements of the criminal justice process come into play Bruno struggles to remain part of the investigation and to protect his peaceful way of life. The reveals are distributed at a leisurely pace and conclusion is wholly satisfying.
At first this story is very like a cosy Sunday night television feature featuring murder in some idyllic village populated by a more than usually interesting cast. Martin Walker invests a considerable amount of time carefully establishing the scene, the structure and life of a small village in France and the people who live there. He skillfully brings the cast to life and quietly shows the tensions that exist in the village and how the murder and the racial overtones bring these tensions to the surface. He also shows how national forces can seize an opportunity to use such a murder to push their own agendas regardless of the impact on the locality. What is remarkable is how the conclusion reveals just how high the stakes really are and it takes its force from the understanding that Martin Walker has carefully built up beforehand. The story logic does not have to be contorted to achieve a truly dramatic conclusion, it arises naturally and logically from the context.
In a very understated way Martin Walker has written a very serious book, clothed it in the warm sunshine of rural France and a truly memorable cast. This book is as great a pleasure as the mouthwatering food that is consumed with such relish by its cast.

Monday, October 19, 2009

John Stuart Mill. Victorian Firebrand. Richard Reeves. Atlantic Books (2007)

This is a superb biography of an extraordinary man. The title of the book is brilliantly chosen, John Stuart Mill was truly a firebrand and the importance of his work is still incendiary today. John Stuart Mill is a very unusual man, an English public intellectual whose writing was aimed directly at shaping and influencing public policy. As a rule intellectuals are not welcome in open public policy debates in England or Ireland, we have a preference for technocrats, professional administrators and professional politicians. Intellectuals are seen as essentially not engaged with the dirty work of public policy and their contributions are given less weight because of that. Mill escaped this tendency to be sidelined partly because of the times he was active in, partly because he was a professional administrator and later a professional politician, chiefly because he strove embody his ideas in his own life.
Mill was a fabulously prolific writer, he wrote on economics, politics, women's rights and a host of other topics. His writing is dense and lucid, he moves argument in a considered logical manner that remains easy to read and invigorating to encounter. Mill is not a strikingly original thinker, he is a profound one, he takes ideas and subjects them to rigorous scrutiny and develops insights from thus scrutiny. He also lived life to the greatest extent that he could and the details of his life are as interesting as his work.
John Stuart Mill's essay "On Liberty" is required reading anywhere and anytime elites confuse their interests for the public good, that is everywhere and all the time. This biography bring a great, passionate and movingly human man to life and reminds us that we are privileged to be standing on his shoulders.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Team of Rivals. Doris Kearns Goodwin. Penguin Books (2009)

This is a fascinating biography of Abraham Lincoln that places him firmly in his historical and political context. On May 18th 1860 Abraham Lincoln won the Republican Party nomination for President, the way in which he did so was an example of his political skill and thoroughness, how he managed his Presidency is a measure of his genius. Lincoln won the nomination over the heads of three other candidates who were all considered far more likely to win it, when he became President Lincoln invited these same three men to join his Cabinet. That Lincoln choose to staff his cabinet with political rivals at a time when the country was sliding into Civil War is, as Doris Kearns Goodwin shows, a measure of the man. The choices were made both to preserve unity in the Republican Party when it was sorely needed and critically because Lincoln though that they were the right people for the positions they were offered.
Doris Kearns Goodwin gets behind the iconic image of the assassinated President to present a view of a shrewd and amazingly skillful politician and administrative manager. Lincoln was always his own man, confident enough to surround himself with very strong and ambitious personalities who frequently did not work well with each other, yet they were ultimately the right people for the fearsome tasks they faced in a civil war. Lincoln was a very talented staff manager and he drew the best from those around him.
One of the most extraordinary achievements of this book is that it explains why politicians are necessary, the fact that the majority of any set at any time are not very competent at the role has reflected badly on the role itself. By demonstrating what a truly competent politician does, Abraham Lincoln was a politician to his fingertips, Doris Kearns Goodwin illustrates the necessity for politics and politicians. Lincoln was a leader and a follower of public opinion, his actions were shaped by the need for public support and the requirement to create it. Any war has a significant political dimension and there was no better political general than Lincoln. This large, inclusive, wonderfully written book is inspiring and engaging.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Orion. Shirow Masamune (Writer & artist). Dark Horse Magna (2008)

An exuberant and not entirely successful comic. In the Yamata Empire magic and technology are the same thing and a plan has been developed to gather all the negative karma in the Empire and have it consumed by the nine-headed Naga dragon. The process does not proceed smoothly as the assumptions underlying the plan prove to be faulty and Susano, the God of Destruction is called forth. Susano realises what the problem is and tries to deal with it in the face on considerable opposition from the magicians of the Empire who still believe in the plan. More significantly Seska, the daughter of one of the major wizards pf the Empire has become involved in the process and wishes to take over the Empire herself. The story is told with considerable pace and humour and arrives at an amusing and satisfying conclusion.
The significant problem with the story is the weight of the explanations that is provided for the theory underpinning the activities of the wizards. Instead of providing enough detail to provide cover for the story, there is a virtual tutorial provided regarding the various processes and how they relate to each other. This weight of detail does not add depth to the story rather it stops it in its tracks and ejects the reader from the process. Shirow Masamune has clearly put a considerable amount of thought into the theoretical framework for the action and he seems determined to show it off.
On the other had his wonderfully friendly art is a treat, the characters are lively and endearing, the pages burst with detail none of which is distracting, they add to the story and pleasure of reading it. When explanations are not weighting the story down, it comes to exuberant life as the the energy of the cast splashes across the pages. The range of styles that are used is amazing as is the fact that they do not compete with each other, they sit comfortably together.This is a good fun comic that has a little too much gravity for its own good.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fer-De-Lance (1934), The League of Frightened Men (1935). Rex Stout. Bantam Books. (2008)

Fer-De-Lance and the League of Frightened Men are the first two of the Nero Wolfe stories written by Rex Stout and they are a treat. In Fer-De-Lance a death on a golf course that is first considered accidental is revealed to be murder. In the League of Frightened Men, the victim of a college prank that went wrong is taking murderous revenge of the perpetrators. In each case Nero Wolfe takes on the case and with the assistance of Archie Goodwin, follows the twists and tuns of finely wrought puzzles. The reveals are very nicely paced and executed with considerable flourish, the action is stylishly described and the conclusions are very satisfying.
Nero Wolfe is a wonderful character, he is brilliantly eccentric without ever being tiresome or foolish. He simply has organised his life in a fashion that suits him best and sees no reason to alter his routines. Being a private detective pays for his life, he is capable of seeing the structure beneath an event and understanding its significance. Archie Goodwin, who does the active part of the process is charming and provides a slyly humorous narration for the stories. He humanises the process and Wolfe and effortlessly engages the reader.
These stories plot an original course between the gentleman private detective stories of a previous generation of writers and the emerging more realistic hard boiled mystery stories. They combine virtues from both to develop a fresh and very enjoyable style that has aged very well. The characters are so well realised that they stride off the page with equal force today as when they were first published. These stories sparkle with wit and are highly and pleasureably addictive.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Just a Pilgrim. Garth Ennis (Writer), Carlos Ezquerra (Artist), Paul Mounts, Ken Wolak (Colours), Chris Eliopoulos (Letters). Dynamite (2008)

This is a punishingly bleak, very well written and fantastically illustrated story about the end of the world. The dying sun has grown bigger and dried up the earth, the seas have gone as hove most of the population. What remains is scrabbling for life fighting other humans and mutated marine life that survived the Burn. A group of people under attack by pirates are rescued by a man who calls himself a pilgrim. He quotes the Bible and offers to guide them to where they are heading for. The group includes a young boy, Billy who becomes intrigued by the Pilgrim much to his parents dismay. The pirates continue to harry the group until a final very violent confrontation. In the second part a group of people are under threat from creatures called sliders, they take over the bodies of the people they kill. This group have a plan to leave the earth with a cargo of human, animal and vegetable DNA. The Pilgrim arrives among them as the threats they face become critical.
The first story is the better of the two, as it relentlessly follows the logic of a situation where only extremes make sense. People still cling to ideas and structures that they carried over from the pre-Burn world, they are out of place in the new environment. The Pilgrim, a religious fanatic, is at home in this new world due to his extremity as is the leader of the pirates, everyone less extreme is likely to be ground up between the two forces they represent. The story is airtight, it unfolds with a rigorous logic, underscored with a pitch black humour that only adds to the parched tone of the story. The cast are pitch perfect and the conclusion as flinty hearted as it should be.
The second part backs away from the dusty savagery of the first, the context is slightly softer and the change is not for the better. Brutal strength of will rather than extremity is the key note and the inherent insanity of the Pilgrim is jarring in this setting. He is undermined as a character because the story required that he should be. It is a good story, it looses in comparison to the first one.
This is a very striking comic by a wonderfully talented creative team, at its best is has the uncompromising grip of the best horror stories, even when it slacken off a little it packs a considerable punch.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Riverman. Alex Gray. Sphere (2007)

This is a low key, enjoyable murder mystery. A body is fished out of the Clyde river in Glasgow and appears to be an accidental death. A partner in an accounting firm finds some disturbing news and and talks to his Managing Partner about it. A woman receives letters informing her that her husband is having an affair and suspicion floods her life. The body from the river becomes identified as a murder and steadily the threads of the story start to wind around each other in an very engaging fashion as DCI Lorimer begins to investigate. The reveals are nicely staged and timed and the plot widens ans develops very well.

The story is driven by the large and well developed cast rather than by action set pieces, the tone is largely low key, it is the jostling emotional and professional agendas of the cast that provides the momentum for the story. Glasgow provides a welcome setting for the story, it is described with care and gives the story a very welcome sense of physical space. The cast is large and Alex Gray manages the multiple viewpoints with care, the cast are distinct and each one has enough humanity to engage the reader.

This is a very well told story, there is a credible motive at the heart of the plot, the reactions of the cast are reasonable and the action is restrained enough to be effective. The investigation is believable, the developments are logical. One of the striking aspects to the book is that none of the cast are stupid, they are greedy or insecure, they are never treated with a lack of respect by the author. The criminals and the police officers are allowed to be competent at least and this gives the book a nice depth. Well written and very satisfying.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Defoe 1666. Pat Mills (Writer), Leigh Gallagher (Art), Ellie De Ville (Letters). Rebellion (2009)

Superb writing and beautifully expressive art combine to in a griping and inventive comic.On the 2nd of September 1666 a great comet passed over London, houses were set on fire and many died. The earth cracked open and gases flooded up that reanimated the dead and a desperate battle between the living and the living dead began. A bite from a zombie is infectious, it will turn the living into a zombie too, Titus Defoe fights the tide of zombies using weapons designed by Issac Newton and inoculated against the zombie infection by a cordial. It becomes clear that there is much more to the comet and the zombie attacks than chance, there is a much greater battle being fought. The story unfolds with great panache, the reveals are well paced, the action is amazing and the cast are exciting and engaging.

Pat Mills has managed to find a genuinely new way of telling a zombie story and using it to reach for a much bigger story at the same time. By placing the story in the context of post Civil War England he has an extraordinary context where huge political, social, religious and economic divisions strained the fabric of society. The story utilises historical characters in a wonderfully inventive way to place the zombies in the context of a greater war that is spoken of but critically never fully explained. The adds depth to the savage action on the front lines of the struggle against the "reeks".

Leigh Gallaher's black and white art is astounding, his command of both savage action sequences and the way that his cast are both wholly individual and expressive is a joy. He takes full advantage of the story and gives it a fierce reality that makes the struggle against the"reeks" a grippingly close run affair.

Any comic where the reanimated head of Oliver Cromwell stuck on a pole leading a New Moral Army of zombies in an assault on a naked Charles II in his palace is only one small episode has ambition, this comic fully realises that ambition and then pushes even further. Brilliant.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Appleseed. Geneon Entertainment (2004) DVD

This is a very engaging and enjoyable animated science fiction film. Deunan Kane is kidnapped from a battlefield and taken to the city of Olympus where she finds out that the war had already ended and that her missing lover Briareos is now a full cyborg. Olympus is the last human city and is populated by humans and biological robots called Bioroids who provide the administration for the city. The city is ruled by a computer called Gia and a council of human Elders, Olympus is intended to be a Utopia. There is trouble in Olympus, a group of humans wish to remove the Bioroids and Deunan finds that she is central to the struggle and the survival of Olympus. The reveals are nicely done, the action is staged with great flair and ambition and there is a genuinely interesting idea at the heart of the film.

The CG animation is excellent, it uses motion capture to build upon which creates a very natural sense of movement and interaction among the cast. The backgrounds are breathtaking in their scope and detail. The guns and the armoured suits the cast use are lovingly rendered, they are a major part of the cast in themselves. The story does not get lost in the detail, the interactions and machinations of the cast are the drivers in the film, the cast get to express themselves as much in action as in speech and the mix is nicely judged.

This is a very ambitious film that very self consciously uses technology to talk about technology and how humans interact with it. Smart, inventive and highly entertaining, a winner.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Between The Lines. Janis Ian. CBS (1975)

This is the most romantic collection of songs I have heard. This is not a collection of love songs, though love is an important idea in the songs, they are adult romantic songs that measure the way ideas and dreams shape and haunt us. We grow up with ideas about how our lives will unfold, how central romantic relationships will feel. The reality of our lives usually diverges widely from these ideas, they still retain a considerable force as a measure of what could or should have been. A romantic adult retains these dreams in a modified form, there is still the hope that they could be fulfilled, there is a undying hope that they may become true.
The songs in this collection are drenched in this struggle between the hope for fulfillment and the sharp reality of living and the compromises that it entails. "At Seventeen" is the most explicit accounting of the divergence between reality and the dreams and the price that is extracted for having them in the first place. "Bright Lights and Promises" looks at what a life is like when the dreams you had are all you have to cling to as you move through a life you could never have imagined, a life that is based on simulating romance.
"Between the Lines" walks headlong into the difficulty of being a couple, how can it possibly be made to work and the beautiful "Light a Light" catches the aftermath of love and its dreams. The music is lush and mellow on the songs, it captures and frames the mood with precision and deepens the impact. It is subtle and pervasive, it does not come forward over the vocals, it gently frames them. Janis Ian's vocal are pure and clear, she has a mellow tone that expresses emotion clearly. This is a great production of a lovely collection of songs.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hunter's Moon. David Devereux. Gollancz (2007)

This is very fast paced, gripping and very English thriller. The narrator gives his name as Jack, he is an agent for a very secret British security department that deals with supernatural threats. A group called The Enlightened Sisterhood were plotting something serious and Jack is sent to investigate it and if required deal with it by eliminating the Sisterhood. Jack is paired with a female agent who has infiltrated the Sisterhood and with some assistance from Jack joins the inner circle. The plot moves at high speed, the reveals are well paced and the action is really well staged. The climax is savage and satisfying.

David Devereux manages to weave the magical aspects of this story into the action in a seamless fashion, they are just one of the tools of the trade, used well or badly depending on the person involved. Jack is a great character, he is a very competent professional, dealing with dangerous problems and people with force and ultra dry black humour. The use of magic is never a means to avoid logic, it is used to increase the tension and the depth of the threat.

Happily David Devereux has conjured up a superb set of villains to oppose Jack, thoroughly competent and effective, they are a force to be reckoned with. The way that the leaders of the group control their followers is brutal and very credible, it reveals the personalities involved as much as providing dramatic force. The tone of the book is restrained, there is dirty work to be done and it will be completed, the calm and determined professional brutality is very English. Gripping and tense, a superb thriller.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex. The Lost Memory. Junichi Fujisaku. DH Press (2006)

This is an enjoyable science fiction thriller set in a credible and well developed context with an engaging cast. The story is set in a future Japan in a world where replacing body partially or completely with prosthetic limbs or full bodies is commonplace and having a cyberbrain, a computer addition to your brain is virtually required to manage in an information saturated society.

A seemingly unrelated series of terrorist incidents carried out by teenage boys with no previous history or discernible motive, called the "Good Morning Terrorists", attracts the attention of Section 9, a Public Security group with responsibility for combating terrorism. Led by Major Motoko Kusanagi, who has had a full body replacement, the team from Section 9 investigate the incidents as well as the threat from a criminal gang to a visiting diplomat. The plot moves nicely, the reveals are well staged and the conclusion is enjoyably paranoid and explosive.

The writer manages to translate the context of the literal information society that is presented in very visual terms in the the animated series in a very unforced way. A lot of context and explanation has to be provided to ensure that the reader can understand the actions and choices of the cast and it is do in a very natural fashion. The cast are well developed, the Major is an engaging and professional security officer, the rest of her team are varied and lively. The story itself has a very enjoyable flavour of conspiracy thriller films of the late 1970's, as the plot unfolds it becomes clear that there is something very nasty lurking in the background.

While the story is set within the continuity from Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex 1st Gig, it is written by one of the writers of the animated series, no previous knowledge of any of the Ghost in the Shell comic books, films or the SAC series is required to enjoy it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

3:10 To Yuma. Columbia Pictures (1957). DVD

A classic Western, tense and gripping. Glen Ford plays an outlaw, Ben Wade, who is captured pretty much by accident by Van Heflin, playing rancher Dan Evans. A plan is hatched to move Ben Wade to a nearby town to wait for the 3:10 Yuma train to take Ben Wade to the jail in Yuma. Dan Evans takes the lead in transporting and guarding Ben Wade for the bounty on offer. The battle of wills between Ben Wade and Dan Evans as they wait in a hotel room for the train and Wade's gang arrive in town and act to free their leader is the heart of the film. The action is sparse and forceful, the tension is developed steadily as the time to the train departure draws closer. The conclusion is satisfying and truthful.

Glen Ford gives an extraordinary performance in this film, Ben Wade is highly intelligent, he is an outlaw because he wants to be, he enjoys it. From the opening scenes it is clear that he is a dangerous killer, he also commands the devotion as well as the loyalty of his men. He charms a bar girl (Felicia Farr) by actually seeing her as the woman she is rather than the job she is doing. His battle with Van Heflin is conducted with words and a deeply cruel insight into the character of his prison guard. He is fantastically dangerous and is deliberately, politely destructive.

Van Heflin gives an equally amazing performance, he has a significantly harder role to fill. He is an downtrodden everyman who takes on a job out of desperation and finds that he has a wolf by the ears. The blows that Ben Wade land on him do not break him, rather they forge him into a man who sees that what was just a job has become a duty and in deciding to do his duty Dan Evans becomes himself, a better man. This ability to make a good man watchable and interesting, to make his struggle not be sentimental nor stupidly noble, just a matter of fact acceptance of what needs to be done provides a steel core to Van Heflin's performance. It gives depth and strength to the battle with Ben Wade and gives a what is essentially a chamber piece force, tension and conviction. This film is compelling and gripping, a must see.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

CVO (Covert Vampiric Operations) Rogue State. Jeff Mariotte (Writer), Antonio Vazquez(Art), Fran Gamboa (Colours), Tom B. Long (Letters). IDW. (2005)

A solid premise and a thoughtful plot are let down by a cramped conclusion. One of the US Government's secret services is C.V.O., Covert Vampiric Operations. They are being attacked and killed while in parallel there is a palace coup taking place in a South (Central?) American country of San Felipe. The two plots run in parallel as a trio of CVO agents refuse an order to turn themselves in a proceed to establish what is actually going on. The reveals are nicely done and the action is graphic and well choreographed. The conclusion is very cramped, it feels as though the series was brought to an abrupt halt ahead of what had originally been planned.

There are a great many good things about this book, the absolute best being the complete lack of a back story to CVO as an organisation or for the agents. They were made into vampires by CVO, the how and why is not explained. This gives a welcome forward momentum to the story, there is no looking back and the reader is forced to take the whole premise for granted. The vampire trio are interesting and varied, they each have a presence and individual personality, their interactions are excellent. The rest of the major parts are well done also, there has been care taken to step beyond cliche while not straying too far from stereotypes.

The art was a bit too dark for my taste, the colouring overwhelming the details, in particular in some of the action sequences. The figure work is strong and nicely suggestive, the facial expressions are expressive and forceful. All told, while it is not completely successful it is still well worth a read.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation. Fletcher Hanks. Fantagraphics (2009)

This is a second collection of fascinating and very distinctive comics from Fletcher Hanks. Fletcher Hanks is one of the very few people who have written, pencilled, inked and lettered all his own work and his style is very distinctive regardless of the genre he was working in. For the most part he wrote science fiction, jungle adventure, lumberjack adventure and superhero stories. The lumberjack stories, featuring the adventures of "Big Red McLane, King of the Northwoods" are the most straightforward of the stories in the collection. Big Red fights a variety of gangsters who are trying to take over his business, he deals with them directly and wins by being better with his fists than any of his opponents. They are simple slices of pulp adventure.
When Fletcher Hanks wrote science fiction or jungle adventures he was considerably less constrained and the stories are extraordinary. The formal aspect to the stories is simple and repetitive, danger threatens the explorer "Space Smith", or the inhabitants of the jungle protected by "Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle", Space Smith escapes or Fantomah extracts some terrible vengeance of the trespassers in the jungle. Within this format Fletcher Hanks manages to create truly staggering villains and extraordinary ideas. The art for the villains is always much more expressive and forceful than it is for the somewhat bland heroes, the villains smoulder with rage, resentment and desire. They also meet the most gruesome and inventive ends.
These stories show the signs of the commercial pressures that were created under, they were intended to be disposable fodder with no intent beyond being a quick and exciting read, forgotten as soon as it was put down. This pressure and lack of real scrutiny meant that Fletcher Hanks could create savage, imaginative stories that are really unlike any others without being caught and stopped. These are wild explosions of imagination, fuelled by powerful passions in Fletcher Hanks and we are very lucky to have them. Editor Paul Karasik has done a superb job with this collection and its companion, I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets! Comics archeology at its best.