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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.