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Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Trial of Sherlock Holmes. Leah Moore, John Reppion (Writers), Aaron Campbell (Art), Tony Avina (Colours), Simon Bowland (Letters), Dynamite (2010)

An excellent Sherlock Holmes story with a strong original plot. Following an explosion at a warehouse in the East End of London, Sir Samuel Henry, who had been an assistant police commissioner, receives a death threat apparently from the same people responsible for the warehouse explosion. Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson. Inspector Lestrade and Inspector Davis of the Special Branch meet at Sir Samuel's house. Sir Samuel is shot and Sherlock Holmes is arrested for his murder, the evidence against him is very compelling. The story gathers steam very nicely, the reveals are very well paced, the action is very well staged and the climax sharp and thoughtful.
This is a very well done Sherlock Holmes story, Leah Moore and John Reppion have clearly understood both what the requirements are to create a Sherlock Holmes story and how to creatively use the restrictions in a fresh and enticing way. The story brings Dr Watson and Inspector Lestrade to the fore and both presented as intelligent, competent and active characters. They very effectively share the spotlight with Sherlock Holmes and the give the story depth and colour. Sherlock Holmes himself is given an opportunity to be clever, devious and dangerous, the story takes him seriously and the plot is cunning constructed to demonstrate his qualities.
The art is splendid, the details and textures of the period are all there, the cast are superbly drawn, they move and inhabit their context in a natural and effective fashion. The body language is eloquent and clear. The colouring is a joy, it is bright and vivid and lifts the action and gives depth and force to the quiet moments.
The volume itself has great extras, the script for the first issue, The Adventure of the Devil's Foot is printed in full with illustrations by Aaron Campbell. In addition there is a short and informative essay on Sherlock Holmes in comics and best of all Leah Moore discusses writing the story. All in all a superb package.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Best Man to Die. Ruth Rendell. Arrow Books (1969)

A low key crime story with a solid plot, sharply defined cast and a pleasantly nasty undertow. Charlie Hatton is murdered the night before he is due to be the best man at his friend Jack Pertwee's wedding. Charlie Hatton appeared to be always suspiciously free-spending for a truck driver, the investigation into his murder, led by Detective Chief Inspector Wexford, starts with a look at his suspect activities and associates. At the same time the survivor of a fatal car crash regains consciousness. It quickly becomes apparent that the crash is significantly more complicated than had been assumed. Gradually the two incidents intersect and the come together is a credible and satisfying fashion. The story twists nicely, the reveals are well paced and the conclusion is bitterly truthful.
There is a minimum of action in this book, the narrative is propelled by the biting interactions by the cast. There is a powerful thread of restrained anger and resentment pulsing underneath the narrative, the cast are largely in the grip of powerful emotions just held in check. In a sense the book is a period piece, the social context that the cast operate within seems as distant as the moon, Ruth Rendell uses it very purposefully in the book and that ensues that it does not date. The very explicit class structure that the cast are all vividly aware of is an important element in the story.
None of the cast are particularly sympathetic, Ruth Rendell endows all of them with an awkward and vivid life that engages the reader and draws them into the story and the lives of the cast. This gives the book a quietly compelling quality and makes it a very worthwhile read.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

M.C.Escher. The Graphic Work. Benedikt Taschen (1992)

This volume contains a selection of M.C.Escher's graphic work with an introduction and commentary on each piece by Escher. In his introduction Escher notes that for a long period he was concerned with exploring and mastering the craft of creating prints from wood cuts. The images were a means of expressing and exposing the craft, later this charged so that the craft became the means by which the idea could be expressed.
The first set of images in this book are more restrained and more realistic than his later work. There is a very beautiful landscape, "Castrovalva", which is full of detail and texture. It is very much a picture of a actual place, a response to a location and an attempt to capture that reaction in a clear and vivid fashion. The sharp perspectives, the variety of tones and the division of the space in image speak to the depth of technical mastery he had achieved. There is a warm and luminous portrait of his father which is an extraordinary example of the subtlety that he was able to achieve.
The later images are, for the most part, much more clearly the expression of an abstract idea, the craft is the second impression that you get when you look at them. The picture "Day and Night" where a flock of white geese fly to the right into a night sky and a flock of black geese fly left into a daylight sky, with the patterned fields of the landscape in the centre rising up to become the two flocks is stunning. The whole is hard to take in as the movement in the picture seems to both be obvious and completely absurd at the same time. The sheer density of the information overshadows, initially, the wonderful balance and detail of the image which emerges more slowly.
Later work, such as the one pictured on the cover, "Band" with the two heads peeled like orange rinds yet clearly recognisable, somehow intertwined and floating in space have a more subtle balance between craft and content. The lure the viewer in more easily and draw the eye with a lighter touch. There is more room to enjoy the impossibility of the image, to take up the challenge the artist is presenting.
The images in this book are wonderful puzzles and teases that explore the limits and possibilities of the printed page. They are a true delight.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cat Burglar Black. Richard Sala. First Second (2009)

Richard Sala has created a wonderful adventure story with a clever and resourceful teenage heroine,thoroughly unpleasant villains, a dramatic plot and the confident skill to bring it all together. Katherine Westree, she prefers to be called K.,was trained to be a cat burglar by the head of the orphanage she was sent to after the death of her parents. The criminal activities were uncovered and K sent to a reformatory. K had been invited to the Bellsong Academy for Girls by her aunt, whom she had never heard of before. At Bellsong K finds that she is again involved in crime, this time at the behest of "The Obtainers" a group her father had belonged to. The plot concerns stealing the clues to a great treasure hidden somewhere in the grounds. The plot uncoils at a great pace, the action is first rate and the conclusion deeply satisfying.
K is a very engaging heroine, she has a good heart, amazing acrobatic skills and courage. In spite of the suspicions of the other three students at Bellsong she is concerned for them and knows less than they assume. The Obtainers, the gang who are running Bellsong are great villains, they are determined and deadly and quite willing to risk the lives of the girls to get what they want. The mix of family mystery into the story fits very nicely and gives K's situation an extra edge.
What is very noticeable in this story is the confidence with which Richard Sala tells it. He takes classic elements of teenage adventure stories and uses them with great skill and panache. There is nothing very novel in the story, Richard Sala is sure of his relationship with the reader and feels free to concentrate of ensuring that the story works as it should. This confidence by the author allows the reader to sink pleasureably into the story and to be swept along by it, enjoying the twists and turns, the danger of the burglary and the callousness of the villains.
Richard Sala's very distinctive art is a major asset to the book, the grim angular faces of his villains add depth to the story and the the teenage girls look and move like teenage girls. Smart, sharp adventure stories like this are to be cherished for the pure thrill they deliver.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Death in Hamburg. Society and Politics in the Cholera Years. Richard . J. Evans. Penguin Books. (1987)

This is a dense, detailed and utterly griping account of the context, causes and consequences of a cholera outbreak in Hamburg in 1892 that claimed 10,000 lives. This outbreak was a singular event, there were no similar outbreaks in other cities in Germany and Richard J. Evans examines why this should have been the case. What were the specific conditions in Hamburg that supported an outbreak of such magnitude. As the subtitle suggests Richard. J. Evans examines the social, economic and political context in Hamburg in some detail in the years prior to the outbreak and also looks at the consequences for the social, political and economic structures of the outbreak.
The analysis is densely plotted, there is a great deal of statistical analysis included, it is presented in a readily understandable fashion and the accumulated detail is crucial to understanding the context for the outbreak. While Hamburg was part of the Prussian dominated North German Federation and after 1871 the German Empire, it had a very distinctive political and economic tradition that it worked very hard to preserve. Above all Hamburg was a trading city, the power in the city resided with the great merchant families, its lifeblood was trade and everything was shaped by that fact. The political and social structures were designed to support freedom to trade and minimise the cost of doing so. This created a hugely stratified city with a very significant majority of the population earning too little to qualify as tax payers, a very much smaller layer of property owning bourgeoisie and a even smaller layer of seriously wealthy who between them dominated the political process.
Richard J. Evans examines in great depth and scope how this structure created the specific conditions that favoured both an outbreak of cholera and massively amplified the impact the outbreak when it occurred. The intimate relationship between public health and public order with all the implications for individual freedom of action are clearly examined in this book. The contemporary relevance is made clear without being forced. This is a wonderful book that reveals an extraordinary episode in a thoughtful, considered and very effectively structured fashion.
The book was first published in 1987, this edition published in 2005 includes a very informative afterword by the author about the process of researching and writing the book and also replies to a number of criticisms of the book.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex. White Maze. Junichi Fujisaku. DH Press (2006)

This is a very enjoyable science fiction adventure story set in an information saturated future Japan. A number of savage killings, dubbed "vampire murders" have taken place and there is a suspicion of a political element to the attacks so Public Security Section 9 become involved. When Major Motoko Kusanagi finds a connection to the Anti-China faction and the ruined and partially sunken city of Tokyo, she has to undertake a very dangerous investigation. The plot coils nicely through political skulduggery, war time scientific experiments and revenge. The action is staged with great skill, the cast are lively and very engaging, the reveals are very well timed and the conclusion very satisfying.
The context of a post war society that is so saturated with information that everyone is fitted with cyberbrains in addition to their organic ones to allow them function is more than just an overlay. The story is woven out of this context and the implications it brings for what being human means as well as the hugely expanded range of ways of creating problems. Junichi Fujisaku is a skillful writer who manages to provide all the information required without having the reader feel that they are being force fed.
The cast are well developed and very engaging, in particular Major Kusanagi. She is essentially an organic brain in a robot body, blurring the lines of where humanity lies and what it means. She is a tremendous action hero, fast acting, decisive and coolly intelligent. In spite of having a wholly artificial body that could in theory have any shape or sex required, she is a striking female character. This is a nice piece of writing that underscores the overall quality of the book. The translation by Camellia Nieh is invisible, the book is clearly from a non-Western imagination while reading as if written directly in English. Excellent science fiction

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Gambling Man. Charles II and the Restoration. Jenny Uglow. Faber and Faber (2009)

This superbly written book examines the first decade of the Restoration of the monarchy in England after the Civil Wars and the reign of Cromwell. It was the start of a massive political and social restructuring that was not completed until William of Orange defeated James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, thirty years after Charles returned in triumph. Charles returned to England on a wave of mixed expectations that could never have been satisfied, they were so huge, vague and frequently flatly contradictory, he truly was the "once and future king". He represented a return to an old order whose followers had suffered greatly and wanted both to be restored and to exact retribution, he was also the king of a fundamentally transformed nation and had to deal with political and social reality as it actually existed.
Jenny Uglow places Charles in the wider context of the nation he returned to and was attempting to lead. From the start Charles was constrained by two deeply rooted structural forces that would shape his entire reign,the shortage of money and the excess of religion. One of the major pleasures of the book is the way Jenny Uglow integrates the personalities of the political players within the social, religious and economic context of the times. She shows how Charles was a very private man who hid his calculations from those around him, in effect Charles hid inside his public persona as the accessible King. Charles understood that the nature of monarchy had changed irretrievably, the struggle to reshape it to maximise his advantage was the deepest current of his reign.
The early restoration years were a very tumultuous time, they were an enormous release of energy held down by the rules on the Commonwealth as well as a direct reaction to its restrictions. Charles was the "Merry Monarch" due to his flamboyant lifestyle as much as his affable personality. Jenny Uglow does a tremendous job of revealing the capable and devious politician whose pragmatic calculations drove his actions. This is a wonderful book, it presents a detailed and fascinating panorama of an extraordinary decade and the truly extraordinary man at its centre.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Poets and Murder. Robert van Gulik. The University of Chicago Press. (1968)

This is a very enjoyable and extremely well constructed murder mystery set in seventh-century China. Judge Dee is attending a regional conference in Chin-hwar and staying with the resident magistrate Lo Kwan-choong. It is the time of the Mid-autumn festival and Magistrate Lo has arranged a dinner party to start the celebrations, also attending are an obese Zen Buddhist monk known nationally for his calligraphy, the Court Poet, the former President of the Academy and a beautiful poet accused of murdering a servant and on route to the capital for her trial. A young student staying with Lo is found murdered and Dee is asked to assist. This is followed by the murder of a dancer due to perform at the dinner. Dee pursues the investigation with shrewd insight and care and finally comes to the dangerous conclusion.
The cast and context for this absorbing mystery are wonderfully set up, all the information needed to understand the society and the social positions of the cast, vital to the story, is conveyed as required. It does not block the narrative in any way, Robert Van Gulik subtly embodies a lot of the information into the actions of the cast. The cast is large and varied, moving from a homeless woman living in a ruined temple to top rank Imperial officials. The society that Robert Van Gulik describes is formal and stratified, passions boil behind the formality, desire and revenge motivate the plot with vigour.
There are a number of very nice illustrations by the author in the book, they are done in a period style and add greatly to the pleasure of the book. A very enjoyable story with a sharp bite.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Madame Mirage. Paul Dini (Writer), Kenneth Rocafort (Art), Troy Peteri (Letters). Top Cow Productions (2008)

A very sharp script with beautiful art combine for a great superhero story. When bio-engineering and technology start to make super powered people a reality, the emergence of super villains overshadowed the existence of super heroes. A backlash ensures that the science and technology were outlawed and the inventors imprisoned. The more perceptive blended into the corporate background and continued with their activities on a more covert level. A mysterious woman is picking off the villains that hide behind their legitimate business ventures. The story develops very nicely, the reveals are cleverly staged and tired, familiar expectations are raised and dodged and the climax is satisfyingly sour. Also it has the best supervillian corporation name I have ever read.
Paul Dini has a very interesting spin on the sleazy coyness that infects so many superhero stories. The title character has the anatomy and costume of all to many female comic cast members, sadly overdeveloped, under dressed and usually written as skimpily as their costume but as one character remarks in the book, "Appearances can be deceptive". Paul Dini takes a chance in using a cliche as sticky as this one, he is a skillful enough writer to not get trapped by it, Madame Mirage has a personality bigger than her breasts.
There is one jarring point in the book, it is a "the hero escaped with a single bound" variety. It jars because Paul Dini has been so careful in the rest of the story to make the action flow naturally from the context, it feels as though he had written himself into a corner and to get to where he wanted he needed to be he had to simply jump. It does not detract from the story, that it is visible at all is a tribute to the overall quality of the script.
Kenneth Rocafort's art is a joy to read, it brings all the life and colour out in the script, the cast are full of energy and individual presence. Action scenes are fast and detailed as required, the slower scenes are full of expression. It is nicely distinctive, the panel layouts are superb. This is a rare beast, a clever, thoughtful superhero story that respects the genre and the reader equally.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Scarpetta Factor. Patricia Cornwell. Little, Brown (2009)

This is a very enjoyable, well constructed and gripping thriller. Kay Scarpetta is working in the New York City's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and is involved with two high profile cases. The disappearance of a financier Hannah Star and the murder of a young woman, Toni Darien, in Central Park. A disastrous guest spot on a television programme and the delivery of a suspect package to her apartment start the coils of the plot. They tighten very satisfactorily around Kay Scarpetta, her husband Benton Wesley, her niece Lucy and an old police colleague, Pete Marino. The reveals are very well timed and delivered, the story is nicely expansive and the cast are sharply drawn and the climax logical and satisfactory.
What is most striking about this book is that the central cast, other than Kay Scarpetta herself, are in a state of rage for the course of the story. It is not the events of the story that upset them, they are furious before the plot takes shape. It is an interesting dynamic to follow, each of the principals is hobbled in some by by nearly overwhelming anger. Of the cast the most extraordinary is Kay Scarpetta's niece Lucy. She is fractionally socialised, someone who breaks what she cannot control, obsessively self-centered and maddeningly self-pitying, to all intense a bully who classifies herself as a victim. She is also strongly identified as one of the good guys in the struggle. It is a neat twist by Patricia Cornwell to have such an obvious villain play an unexpected role and the book strongly benefits from it.
For a book that is a late entry in a long running series, Patricia Cornwell manages continuity with skill, there are enough hints of back story to convey the history of the cast without it ever intruding or being required to enjoy this story to the full. A sharp plot and interesting cast combine to create a very enjoyable read.