Thursday, April 29, 2010
This is an action packed and very thoughtful period drama. Peter Crogan is a corporal in the French Foreign Legion stationed in a North African French colony in 1912. He is coming to the end of his service time and clearly unsure about what to do next. His company gets a new commanding officer, a very vain and much decorated Captain. The company are given the task of escorting a group of local notables to a neighbouring city. The group are attacked, beat off the attackers and make it to their fort. The action plies up for the rest of the story, a violent siege, a piece of extraordinary military stupidity and Peter Crogan's struggle to do the right thing in swirling circumstances.
The black and while art is very striking,it is not in the least naturalistic or realistic, the cast are clearly differentiated and all the details needed to establish the various locations are provided. It is full of movement and is strikingly expressive. The large cast are given great force and vitality, the action is fast and never monotonous, the reader is easily swept along without ever risking being lost or left behind.
Chris Schweizer manages a very difficult task, not only does he create a great action story he stitches in the complex political and social context it takes place in and makes it essential to the action. The context explains why the action is taking place and gives it force and weight. Various cast members express the a lot range of opinions that probably did exist, the internal and external conflicts between the coloniser and the colonised, they do not overwhelm the story in any way. Peter Crogan is trying to do his duty as he understands it which places him at the centre of the competing views, he clings to his duty as his defense against them all.The sophisticated storytelling adds flavour and depth to the narritive and allows Peter Crogan to emerge as a wonderful, engaging and interesting character. A great read.
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
This is a very enjoyable police procedural. Detective Chief inspector Alan Banks is still recovering for an attempt made on his life and the burning down of his house. He gets a call for help from his brother, a man he has had very little contact with or in common with. When Banks travels to London to meet his brother, he has vanished and Banks has a strong suspicion of foul play. Detective Annie Cabbot has a case of a woman murdered in her car on a deserted road, she has a hand written note in her pocket giving DCI Banks' address and directions. The two cases converge nicely and the investigation has some very nasty surprises for Banks. The reveals are cunningly staged, the action is clear and direct and the plot at the root of the story is solid and effectively unpleasant.
DCI Banks is a rather unsympathetic character, a competent and effective police officer he is hard to warm to. The story puts him in an interesting position, he is investigating his own family and confronting his own feelings about his brother, whom he essentially disapproves of. He is given a nicely drawn problem of how to respond to the possible criminal activities of his brother, which has his greater loyalty family of the job.
The rest of the cast are well drawn and the investigation is very well structured. The cast share the spotlight and this gives the story range and diversity. DI Cabbot is given a greater emotional range than Banks and some significant baggage. It gives her depth as well as degree of defensiveness that keeps the reader as well as the other cast members at bay. Overall the cast are notable for their energy and sharp corners rather than being engaging. A smart and thoughtful plot and an excellent cast make for a gripping, if slightly cold, story, well worth reading.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
This is a collection of four stories, one of which is absolutely outstanding, another excellent, the other two, while fine, suffer by comparison.
The title story, Winter's Dregs written by Bob Fingerman, art by Tommy Lee Edwards, Colours by Melissa Edwards and letters by John Workman, is astonishing. The large cast are introduced and established as credible individuals, from the Mayor of New York to a homeless man, then a zombie plague is unleashed. They all respond in surprising and unsurprising ways, they react like people in utterly insane situations probably would. The story is relentlessly grim and savage, the tension is driven to unbearable heights and the reader is completely involved in the actions of the cast. The ending is logical, savage, surprising and a genuine storytelling triumph.
Everything about this story work in harmony, the writing and structure of the narrative, the angular, often claustrophobic art, the subtle, dark palette of colours, the lettering that adds the volume and emphasis as required. This has the grip and grim force of the highest quality horror.
The two middle stories, Eat Your Heart out with story & art by Kelley Jones, colours by Stu Hiner and letters by Ken Bruzenak and Home For The Holidays written by Gordon Rennie, art by Gary Erskine, colours by Helen Bach, letters by Annie Parkhouse, suffer from similar problems. The central idea in each story is just not original enough in either case, nor are they pushed to any extreme that would pick up the slack. Both are well written, the art is lovely and the colours and letters are thoughtfully done and effective. They simply do not fly and suffer badly by comparison to the brutal brilliance of Winter's Dregs.
The final story, Tree of Death written by Pat Mills, art by J. Deadstock, colours by Dave Stewart and letters by Clem Robbins is essentially a direct sequel to the original Zombieworld story by Mike Mignola. This story explains why the zombie plague arose and the team working to remove it. Pat Mills is one of the best writers in comics and the story is fantastic. The details of the plot are a pleasure and the action is savage and blackly funny. The reveals are very well done and juicy, the secret behind the plague is not a let down. The art is mouthwatering, fluid and monstrous, the luscious colouring matches it with precision. The lettering is subtle and telling. Because the story is constrained by plot requirements it does not have the freedom enjoyed by Winter's Dregs, it is still a stunning achievement. Outstanding comics that prove even such a broken down cliche such as zombies only need the right talent to burst into dreadful,gripping,undead life again.
Monday, April 26, 2010
This is an anthology of short prose stories featuring Hellboy and other cast members from the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. comics. While it is unlikely that anyone who is unfamiliar with Hellboy would pick it up there is no specific need for any previous knowledge to enjoy these excellent stories. The emphasis in the stories is on the activities of Hellboy as a paranormal investigator, so Hellboy is usually presented as an established fact and the action is allowed to unfold. Within the tight constraints imposed by the subject matter and the form the writers have presented a very enjoyable variety of content and narrative choices. The standard is uniformly high, there is no stand out story due to the overall excellence, none of the stories is a dud, they all sharp and flavourful.
Jigsaw by Stephen R. Bissette is a beautifully structured story that packs an impressive amount of story into a short space. The human cast caught in the coils of the paranormal plot are sympathetically drawn and the terrible price they pay is deeply felt. Folie a Deux by Nancy Holder set in Vietnam during the Vietnam War is spiky and seething with rage at the multifaceted destruction caused by war. The sharp writing and bleak context frame the dark aspects to the Hellboy story very well.
On the other hand, Delivered by Greg Rucka plays a smart and humorous game with the readers expectations while perhaps finally revealing the story behind one of Sherlock Holmes' most famous unrecorded cases. Medusa's Revenge by Yvonne Navarro is the story most reminiscent of the comics, the story is clever and the action fast and loud. The other stories in the collection are equally thoughtful and varied. The illustrations by Mike Mignola are as beautiful and evocative as could be expected. This is a great collection of stories by very talented writers, a pleasure to read.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
This is an excellent and very atmospheric crime story set in Venice. Brett Lynch is brutally attacked and given a warning. She is an expert on Chinese ceramics and a friend of Commissario Guido Brunetti. As Brunetti investigates the attack there is a second murder. The murder victim is the Director of an important museum and apparently deeply involved in the theft of important items and their replacement by well made fakes. He was the man Brett Lynch was warned not to meet with when she was attacked. The investigation is pursued through the winding streets of Venice and the ambivalent attitudes of the Italian public and bureaucracy to criminal activity. The story unfurls in a very engaging manner before seamlessly revealing the very unpleasant savagery that lies at the heart of large scale criminality.
Donna Leon has managed to carry out a very difficult task, she has write a story which contains a very abrupt change of tone without it jarring in any way. The threat had been carefully implied, emerging into the spotlight it is horrifyingly credible. What is very striking is how this does not unbalance the book, the writing is skillful enough to have set up the reader without ever being obvious about it.
Venice itself is one of the major characters in the book, the smallness of the city and the ebbing and flowing of the water are very nicely presented as being taken for granted by the native cast. Guido Brunetti is a warmly engaging character, he has a stable and believable personal life, he is confident and professional at work. The rest of the cast are very well drawn, the impact of the crimes on the lives of the cast is thoughtfully explored and depth to the story.This is first rate crime fiction.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
This is a collection of strips from the very funny and inventive Wondermark web comic. The Wondermark strips are usually collages of Victorian and Edwardian images, prints and photographs, with dialogue inserted. What could easily become stale or repetitive is kept fresh and funny by David Malki's sharp and absurd sense of humour. The strip reproduced on the back of the volume where a bear and a man in an old fashioned diving suit have an altercation is a prime example. The straight faced set up and execution allows the biting humour to shine through and the sheer cleverness of the the item is a major bonus. The rest of the strips in the collection maintain this high standard. David Malki updates the strip twice a week and maintains an impressively consistent level of inventiveness and wit.
One of the abundant pleasure of this book is the way that David Malki has taken advantage of the fact that it is a physical book. It is considerably more than a straight collection of the strips, they are presented in a superbly designed format that is packed with additional content. The tone of the extras, there are adverts, extra text items which pick up on and expand on some of the strips, and a stunning item that runs on the foot of each page, the book needs to be turned upside down to read it, is cleverly consistent with the images.
The book has the same grasp of the myriad possibilities of a physical item designed to be read as the web comic does for an item intended to be read on a screen. This thoughtfulness about the format and how the reader will interact with it is wonderful. David Malki's generous vision of the work in each medium, backed up by his razor sharp design skills and extraordinary creativity make this collection and the web versions outstanding pieces of work. A brilliant comic in a beautiful book.
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Detective Comics Annual 7. Chuck Dixon (Writer), Alcatena (Art), David Horning (Colours), Starking/Comicraft (Letters). DC Comics (1994)
This is a fantastic Batman story pretending not to be a Batman story at all. As an Elseworlds story the cast are removed from the mainstream continuity and put into a different context. Batman is an English pirate captain, Leatherwing, he preys on the ships and treasure of the Spanish and Portuguese in the Caribbean. He hides his identity under a bat like mask. Robin is a street urchin who stows away on the Flying Fox, Leatherwing's ship. The Joker is the Laughing Man and Catwoman is Capitana Felina. The Laughing Man and Capitana Felina hatch a plot to discover the location of Leatherwing's treasure. The plot is cleverly unfurled and the conclusion nicely surprising.
Over time with any long running franchise the underlying formula gets shopworn and somewhat tired. The formula's restrictions become restrictive instead of creatively provoking as the delicate balance between commercial necessity and creativity become skewed to commercial dominance. In the right hands the formula retains its power and it is the eternal possibility of renewal that lies in the heart of genre fandom.
The creative team on this book dust off the Batman formula with wit, creativity and compelling energy to reveal it in all its glory. They achieve a remarkable feat, they have created a first rate pirate story that is also a glowing Batman story. Neither aspect is compromised at the expense of the other. Chuck Dixon understand so comprehensively the nature of the Batman formula that he can play with it with startling confidence, changing it as required so that Leatherwing is and critically is not Batman at the same time, the same aplies to the rest of the Batman cast. Each are recognisably the character from the mainstream continuity, they are also very much the singular characters in this story.
Alceatena's art is astonishing, the cast are bursting with energy and life, a cast of distinct individuals who clash with each other with glorious energy and rage. These are the pirate visuals no film budget could ever hope to realise. They look exactly as they should, they are as romantically outrageous as they need to be to give the story a sense of swashbuckling reality. The panel borders are a detail that sets off the depth of the care and attention lavished on the story. David Horning's colours along with Starkings lettering's are a pleasure, they wrap the art and the story in vivid clothes, they give the story the flourish is calls for.
This is an undiluted comics pleasure, it would not work in any other medium. That comics are not this good more often is a pity, that they are this good at all is the glory of the medium and the joy of being a fan.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Frank Bellamy's King Arthur and his Knights. Clifford Makins (Writer), Frank Bellamy (Art). Book Palace Books (2008)
A great version of the Arthur legend that is interesting for what it leaves out as much as for its gorgeous contents. The story starts with Arthur removing the sword from the stone and proving his claim to the throne. This claim is disputed by King Lot who fights with Arthur and looses and swears allegiance. Lancelot, a knight from France travels to Camelot to join Arthur's court and Arthur and Lancelot become firm friends. Mordred, another knight, plots against Lancelot ans Arthur travels to France to fight Lancelot, Mordred in his absence usurps the throne. Arthur discovers the plot, returns to England and is mortally wounded in the battle against Mordred. Arthur, dying, has his sword Excalibur returned to the Lady of the Lake who gave it to him. The story is told with great momentum, the action is swift and exciting, the story never rests, it is always pushing forward.
The format of the comic can appear a little clunky, there are blocks of text beneath each panel as well as dialogue within the panels. After a page or two the reader ceases to notice and I found myself reading the comic as I would any other. This was aided by the vivid and dynamic art. It is simply astonishing, the flowing lines and expressive details, the panels never seem static, they are full of movement. One of the most extraordinary aspects to the art is the level of detail, the way the armour on the horses ridden by the knights is drawn. It does not crowd out or slow down the action, it gives a tremendous solidity and weight to the action. The cast are a joy, Arthur is clean cut and heroic, Merlin looks like a wizard, Mordred has an unmistakable atmosphere of villainy in every motion. The story emerges from the art with force, grace and power.
The story itself is compact and cunningly structured to provide a series of rousing adventures and remain true to the broad outline of the legend. What is very noticeable by its omission is the triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot that powers so many other versions. While romantic complications may have been excluded because of the age of the intended audience, this remains a brilliantly exciting story about honour, friendship and knights going into battle. In short is is everything it should be and quite a bit more as well. Fantastic.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Careworn, and still hopeful romance rarely sounds better than in this superb collection of songs. Tom Waits' confiding voice and beautiful arrangements merge and play with each other across a range of songs about loss and the eternal possibilities of love.
Opening with a song that uses "likedsplit" naturally and effectively it is clear that Tom Waits is a very confident songwriter. The second song "I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You", is a minor masterpiece of melancholy romance, the struggle between the possibility of romance and the unwillingness to act on that possibility.
"Martha" is the standout song of the collection, a stunning song about memory, regret and the joy of being young.
The songs have a welcome variation without straying too far. They are carefully constructed to make the most of Tom Waits vocal delivery, it has a relatively narrow range with great depth. The songs are much more celebratory than otherwise and this gives the whole collection a subtle power and grace. The weight of experience and expectation is clearly visible yet the optimism of the hopeless romantic seeps through to invite the listener in. Effortlessly atmospheric and glowingly truthful about love this collection is unfailing pleasure.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
This is a gripping thriller with a very clever set up and first rate execution. Jack Reacher is trapped in the South Dakota town of Bolton due to a bus accident and severe cold weather. The police in Bolton have a equally severe problem, there is a large drug running organisation camped on the outskirts of the town on an abandoned military base. The leader of the biker gang running the drug operation is in the local prison and there is an unimpeachable witness to his doing a significant drug deal in the town. The police need to keep the biker bottled up and the witness alive, while unaware that larger and very dangerous forces are also have a very time sensitive plan that include the witness and the base. Jack Reacher is a complicating factor for everyone. The plot is superbly constructed, the action is fast and harsh, the reveals are cunning paced and the conclusion devious and forceful.
Jack Reacher is a non-costumed superhero, willingly adrift in the world and with a very strong dislike of those who put the world to wrong. He is a very stripped down character, his background in the Military Police is expertly used to explain his skills and attitude as well as giving him some depth. The rest of the cast are more developed, they have more personal and physical baggage and they contrast nicely with Reacher. The major active villain in the book is thoroughly despicable, he is very competent, ruthless and experienced enough to be a credible threat to Reacher and to put some genuine momentum into the story.
This is a brilliantly focused book, all the elements are designed to fit into the plot, exploit and extend the tension and propel the cast up to the final confrontation. It does this without ever being crudely mechanical, the cast are given enough time and space to emerge as individuals and the action is staged brilliantly so it involves the cast. Lee Child uses a countdown throughout the book, counting down 61 hours, it could be either hokey or intrusive, it is in fact a wonderful ratcheting up of tension as the likely objects of the countdown appear and recede. Excellent work by a writer in complete control of his material, great reading.
Friday, April 16, 2010
A sharp and distinctive crime story, very well written and hugely enjoyable. In Houghton-le-Spring,an annual festival, known as the Feast is due to start and a woman is found murdered. Inspector Lorraine Hunt starts the investigation, and more women are attacked. With the influx of strangers to the town for the festival the possible suspects are numerous and then a young girl goes missing. The plot treads are developed in a very satisfactory fashion, the reveals are well staged and the conclusion is excellent.
Sheila Quigley manages a very difficult task with considerable flair and wit in this book, the crime plots are a means to explore the lives of the huge and varied cast in the book. The crimes draw the members of the cast into and out of the spotlight and they way that their lives, personal and professional overlap and interact is at the heart of this book. Sheila Quigley has an astonishing gift for conjuring up credible characters in a short space and the major players are very engaging and lively. The circumstances that the cast find themselves in are nicely revealed and as the pressure of the plot increases on them they respond in surprising and entirely believable ways. The time taken to develop the context of the town and the cast is well spent and provides considerable depth to the impact of the murders and the disappearance of the child.
Lorraine Hunt is a warm and capable leading actor, she is involved in a romantic sub-plot which just stays on the right side of stupid, she is such a vibrant and confident character that she does bring it off. There is the near obligatory struggle with an, apparently,incompetent male superior officer. Happily this is a minor part of the book and does not interfere with the story. Smart, confident crime fiction, a great read.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
The Book of Heroic Failures. The Offical Handbook of the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain. Stephen Pile. Routledge & Kegan Paul. (1979)
While success is rightly celebrated, failure is much more common if rather overlooked. This glorious volume celebrates some of hard won failures that represent a far greater share of all human activity than succeeding does. Stephen Pile has assembled a wonderful array of truly heroic failures, ones which took dedication, hard work, persistence in the face of the obvious and a significant element of luck to pull off.
Stephen Pile divides the book into sections and provides compelling and utterly hilarious evidence that there is nothing that cannot be done really badly, from crashing a a space probe due to a minus sign being omitted from the instructions, to the Indiana General Assembly legislating in 1897 that the the value of PI was four, an error that would mean that a pendulum clock would gain fifteen minutes every hour to a bank robber who gave written instructions that the money should be put in a paper bag and fled the bank when the cashier wrote back that he did not have a paper bag.
The book is written without malice or sadistic glee, Stephen Pile does not list failures that have lead to death or destruction, the failures rooted in geed or corruption. This is a very deliberately light hearted book that delights in absurdity and pomposity and the unintended consequences of the best of intentions. It is fantastically funny and quietly comforting, an enduring pleasure.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
A gorgeous heroic fantasy that makes the most of the anthropomorphic cast. Mice live in scattered settlements across the Mouse Territories. The Mouse Guard guide and protect travellers between one settlement and another, fighting predators if required, acting as a network that helps link all the settlements. In the autumn of 1152 a team of Guards find evidence of treachery and head to the settlement of Barkstone to track it further. Another guard, Sadie is sent to find out why there has been no contact from a missing Guard member. Sadie also finds evidence of a traitor and heads back to the Guard headquarters to alert them. The story unfolds in a very entertaining fashion, the action is fast and exciting, the reveals are nicely staged, the threads of the story are neatly woven together and the adventure is brought to a very satisfactory conclusion.
The most striking aspect to this book is the stunning art, in particular the beautiful use of colour. The tones are autumnal, a riot of red, black, gray, orange and brown. The soft tones give a lush depth to the art and a great sense of the season. The cast are superbly drawn, each character is clearly an individual, the different colouring for the fur is used with subtle differences to draw out the personality of the each cast member.
The striking art does not overwhelm the narrative in any way, the story is simple and boldly confident. Heroic fantasy works best with simple structures that allow action to arise naturally and effectively and give a strong central struggle. The cast are developed enough to really engage with the action and be revealed by their actions. The confidence with which David Petersen presents the world in which the story takes place is a joy, the details are precise and telling without being cluttered. This is a superbly conceived and very beautifully executed and produced comic, a treasure.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
This is a very enjoyable pulp style thriller. Jonas Chapel was a doctor whose taste for drink and gambling left him in the grip of one of New York's most fearsome gangsters. Fleeing Rocco Fazzina after a botched medical job, Chapel goes to Mexico where he stumbles upon a skeleton with very unusual properties. Seizing the opportunity Chapel returns to New York and sets in motion a plot by a evil creature to return to life and dominance in the human world. Opposing Chapel is Lobster Johnson, a mysterious vigilante. The plot races along at great speed, the supernatural elements are nicely integrated with the Depression era underworld New York aspects. The action is very well set and the conclusion is thoroughly satisfying.
This is a very nice updating of pulp stories, it has the essential flavour without feeling forced or self-consciously retro. Lobster Johnson is given enough exposure to be a significant character, his essential mystery is retained. There is no explanation for who or why he is, he simply exists and carries out his mission with credible single minded ruthlessness. The surrounding cast are well developed, they carry the weight of the story easily and in a very engaging fashion. The context of the mass unemployment of the Depression and the power of the rising tide of gangsters is well done, it provides a solid base for the supernatural elements.
Thomas E. Sniegoski manages to align the supernatural elements very closely to the activities of the gangsters so that they reinforce each other rather than intrude on each other. The steady matter of fact way that the rising threat is dealt with means that the action escalates in a natural and credible fashion. This book is very well crafted, thrills and spills and the smokey flavour of the period abound, great fun.
Monday, April 12, 2010
Spanish Still Life from Valazquez to Goya. William B. Jordan & Peter Cherry. National Gallery Publications Ltd. (1995)
This well written, very informative and lavishly illustrated book was produced to coincide with an exhibition of the same same at the National Gallery, London. While Velazquez did have still life elements in the paintings, it is the jaw dropping work by Juan Sanchez Cotan that are the first really unambiguous still life paintings. The paintings of various fruit and vegetables resting on or hanging in a window with a black background have a startlingly contemporary feel. They are so concentrated and minimalist, the detail of the fruit and vegetables, the careful placing of the items in the window frame so that they are harmoniously balanced creates an extraordinary force and intimacy.
The subject matter for still life paintings that followed followed from Juan Sanchez Cotan in frequently having food or flowers as the principal items. Another trend was to have subjects such as skulls or clocks, subjects that would remind the viewer of the vanity of possessions, the brief span of life and the depth of eternity. One of the most beautiful of these Vanitas themed pictures is by an unknown artist, Still Life with Books and an Hour Glass. The books are old and have had a great deal of wear, they have been handled a lot. The subtle and expressive way that the irresistible passage of time is proposed by the pages of the manuscripts, the pervasive sense of the long gone hands that held them is haunting.
What that picture does abundantly share with other still life paintings of fruit, flowers and game is an acute detail that carefully guides the eye. The lush flowers artfully arranged in beautiful vases have a lushness verging on the overripe, they are vibrantly sensual. The portraits of game, fruit and cheese are done with a heightened realism that gives them power and force.
The Spanish still life paintings explored in this book are extraordinary works of art, they use balance and detail to restrain a surging passion, this gives these paintings a clarity and directness that is shocking and inspiring. The writing is informative and thoughtful, the heat of the book is in the paintings, still life and still passionate.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
This is a brilliantly designed and very funny film. Rodney Copperbottom(Ewan McGregor), is an idealistic young inventor who leaves his home to travel to Robot City to present his invention to Big Steel(Mel Brooks). When Rodney arrives at Big Steel Industries he finds that there has been a change of management and policy. Ratchet(Greg Kinnear) is running the company and no longer produces spare parts so robots can be repaired, upgrades only will be the business. Rodney ends up meeting a bunch of misfit robots and with their help uncovers a sinister plot. The story continues exactly as expected,it really is just an excuse for plenty of excellent jokes and fantastic animation.
The slim story is given as much attention as it can reasonably bear, the struggle between the out-moded robots and the villainous corporate schemers is done with zest and sentimentality is kept to the genre required minimum. A considerable effort is made to give Rodney some class of a personality that extends beyond "pure hearted hero", he remains the weakest aspect to the story other than corporate big wig with a heart of gold, Cappy(Halle Berry).
With he rest of the cast and in particular, Robot City itself, the creators unleashed a torrent of brilliant and imaginative design ideas and flowing, colourful animation. The cross town express on which Rodney and Fender(Robin Williams) cross the city is a stunning sequence of Mouse Trap style set of connections that is a kinetic joy to watch. The styles of the various robots are beautifully realised and the possibilities inherent in their various forms are fully realised. The jokes are fast and furious enough, nicely balanced with visual and verbal cracks, to keep the dead weight of the plot at bay. This is a wonderfully exuberant film, superbly and wittily animated, a pleasure.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
Henry Winstanley and the Eddystone Lighthouse. Adam Hart-Davis & Emily Troscianko. Sutton Publishing Ltd (2002)
This is a fascinating and highly entertaining book about the first man to build a lighthouse out at sea. Henry Winstanley was a serial entrepreneur who decided to build a lighthouse on the Eddystone Reef, 14 miles outside of Plymouth harbour and a notorious and extremely dangerous location, after two of his ships were wrecked on the reef. In the face of the common wisdom that the task was both impossible and ridiculous, Winstanley spent three years rowing out to a rock in the sea and after considerable struggle built the lighthouse in 1698. In 1703 in the midst of the worst storm ever recorded in Britain, Henry Winstanley and his lighthouse were swept away, leaving nothing except some iron bars jutting from the rock to mark the presence of the lighthouse.
Adam Hart-Davis and Emily Troscianko tell the extraordinary story of Henry Winstanley, a truly remarkable self-made man. Winstanley took advantage of the increased social mobility and the increasing opportunities for men of determination and ingenuity that came with the restoration of Charles II. He was not an original thinker, he could and did see commercial possibilities in the scientific curiosity and desire for novelty that existed in the population. He built a house of wonders and charged admission. It was a very popular attraction.
The amazing strength of will and purpose he showed in building the lighthouse is revealed by the authors in detail. Adam Hart-Davis & Emily Troscianko have written a very readable and enjoyable book that puts Henry Winstanley in his historical context and provides a nicely detailed portrait of the man. This is wonderful small scale history that restores a astonishing man back to the public attention he so craved and ultimately deserves.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
A gripping crime story with a well developed cast and a thoughtful plot. With a new Chief Constable who does not approve of the team that Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan has set up, she has a short time to prove the benefit of her operation. When a murdered and mutilated teenager is found DCI Jordan's team take on the case, they are hobbled by the absence of their usual profiler, Dr. Tony Hill. Excluded from the case by the Chief's instructions and struggling with the implications of an unwanted legacy from a father he never knew, Tony Hill finds himself involved in a case with a neighbouring force. Links between the cases start to emerge and the story uncoils with considerable tension and a nice level of understated nastiness. The reveals are very well staged, the conclusion is sharp and focused.
The criminal plot in the book is very well thought out and enjoyably surprising, the very visible strength of the book lies with the varied and engaging cast. Val McDermid confidently moves the spotlight around the supporting cast in the book, highlighting both long running cast members and new players with great dexterity. The cast are given the space to establish themselves as individuals as well as part of an effective, established team.
The two principals, Carol Jordan and Tony Hill are given severe personal and professional problems to resolve that do really challenge them. This pressure gives them the opportunity to emerge as credible, competent professionals with well developed personalities. Val McDermid understands the need to have a strong plot drive the action, it never seems mechanical, the action is a vivid human drama. It is very welcome that the victims are drawn with such clarity, murder and loss are given their terrible due in the book. This is a hugely satisfying story from an tremendously accomplished writer, a real treat.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Outlaw. The Legend of Robin Hood.Tony Lee (Writer), Sam Hart (Artist), Arthur Fujita (Colours). Walker Books (2009)
A fresh and vivid version of the classic story that uses all the traditional elements and avoids any hint of cliche. Robin Of Loxley, Earl of Huntington returns to England from the Crusades upon hearing of the death of his father. He finds himself enmeshed in a plot created by the Sheriff of Nottingham and his henchman, Sir Guy of Gisburn. Arrested as an outlaw, Robin seeks refuge in Sherwood Forest where he swears to bring justice back to Nottingham. The fight between Robin Hood and his Merry Men against Guy of Gisburn, The Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John is delivered with great pacing, excellent action, a very solid plot and it bursts with the vital spirit of romantic adventure.
One of the great strengths and joy of this book lies in the vivid and lively cast that Tony Lee has created. Robin Hood, Little John, Friar Tuck & Maid Marian step out from the countless previous versions and move through the story as credible, fresh characters who are actively involved in the action of the story. Guy of Gisburn is a wonderful villain, heartless and violent, cunning and ruthless he is a genuine threat. To oppose him requires honest courage, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a more sinister man, he understands that the true enemy is the hope Robin Hood inspires not just the man himself. Tony Lee has perfectly balanced the mystical and legendary and the physical and mundane aspects of Robin Hood and shows why this legend is an evergreen.
The art by Sam Hart is forceful, clear and an understated delight to read. His panels are uncluttered,the layouts varied and interesting, the details are carefully chosen to give depth to the figures who dominate. The body language of his cast and their facial expression brings the cast to energetic life.
The colouring by Arthur Fujita is a major part of the story, the tones shift and vary is a subtle and very effective way to reflect, emphasise and underscore. Both the art and the colouring are at the service of the story, the fine blending of three very strong elements make this a superb comic.
Thursday, April 1, 2010
Judge Sewall's Apology. The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of a Conscience. Richard Francis. Fourth Estate (2005)
This is a fascinating biography of Samuel Sewall, one of the judges at the Salem Witch trials, the religious and political context in which he lived and the long term consequences of the Witch trials on his life. Samuel Sewall was born in England, he profoundly felt himself to be an American and he had a very explicit vision for the future of America. In 1692 Sewall was one of the panel of judges who presided over the Salem Witch trials and subsequent executions. Five years later he issued a very public and very explicit apology for his actions, he was the only judge to do so. The trials were a key event in Sewall's life, they were not the central one however. His most important and lasting work was related to his vision of America as the site for the, literal, New World that would arise after the Apocalypse. Sewall identified the Native Americans as the lost tribe of Israel and foresaw that they were the key to America's glorious future. Sewall gave voice to the first great expression of the American Dream.
Richard Francis draws heavily on Sewall's diaries which are extensive and detailed, to create a rich portrait of the the man as well as the public figure. The diaries are full of observations of the weather and the food Sewall eats, as well as thoughts and concerns about his family. The book shows the development of Sewell's thinking and how this development drove his public and official actions. One of the strongest aspects to the book is the subtle and sympathetic description and explanation Richard Francis provides of the ideas that were embodied in Puritan theology and how this shaped their view of the world.
Richard Francis has a keen and witty eye for a telling detail and as he explores the early colonial period he presents a great many simple human moments that reveal the beating hearts within the formal costumes.This is a wonderfully warm book about a extraordinary period and a contradictory, fallible and ultimately honest and loving man at the involved so closely in the foundation of America.