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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Elephantmen. Wounded Animals. Image Comics (2007)

This is first rate science fiction combining huge ideas and superb execution. The Elephantmen are human animal hybrids created by Dr. Nikken as super soldiers to be sold to the highest bidder in the war between Africa and China taking place in plague devastated Europe. The surviving Elephantmen have been rehabilitated and integrated into human society and the stories in the collection follow the uneasy aftermath. There is not a central narrative spine to the stories, there is a common cast and threads of continuity as the stories overlap each other. The cast is very engaging, the stories are sharp and very cleverly structured, the art frequently luminous and they exploit the possibilities of comics in a gripping and thrilling way.
The creator and lead writer of the series, Richard Starkings, has managed a very impressive feat, he has embodied the structural ideas that drive the stories effortlessly in to the actions of the varied and credible cast. None of the leading characters are somewhat animated symbols, they are rounded personalities who are responding credibly to their circumstances. This gives the stories a depth, flavour and texture that makes them a pleasure to read. The problems that the Elepthantmen have with their current situation and their past are woven carefully together with the problems that humans have with the Elephantmen. The interactions are not all negative and that can be a problem as well as a pleasure, the skillful, subtle storytelling allows for a wonderful range of possibilities.
The extraordinary art by Moritat, Chris Bachalo, J. Scott Campbell, Ian Churchill, Nick Filardi, Henry Flint, David Hine, Aron Lusen, Joe Madureira, Tom Scoli, Dave Stewart and Chris Weston combines the high concept and the mundane to establish the world of the Elephantmen as a physical reality. The human cast are varied and expressive, the Elephantmen are a triumph. They are both human and animal without compromising either, their personalities are sharply and clearly embodied in their gestures and actions. The difference in scale between them and the human cast is captured effectively without overbalancing.
The collection contains the pirate fairytale "Captain Stoneheart and the Truth Fairy", written by Joe Kelly. That the story sits so comfortably in the collection is due to the tremendously skillful way Joe Kelly captures the themes of the other stories in an way that is entirely appropriate to a significantly different context. An outstanding collection, a must read.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Brass Verdict. Michael Connelly. Orion (2008)

This is a very gripping and hugely entertaining thriller. Mickey Haller is getting ready to resume his career as a defence lawyer after emerging from an active addiction to pain killers, when another lawyer he worked with is murdered. Mickey finds that he has been nominated to take of the murdered man's cases, including a very high profile murder case. Mickey has to decide if he is ready for the pressure, in particular as he is told that the dead lawyer was probably killed by one of his, now Mickey's, clients. The plot twists and turns at a great pace, the reveals and counter-reveals are cunningly staged right up to the close of the book. The cast are lively and engaging, the legal detail used to considerable effect, the whole story is thoroughly satisfying.
As a first person narrative, the book is carried by Mickey Haller and he does so with ease and confidence. Faced with the decision to return much more suddenly than he had planned the way that he copes with the pressure is credible and thoughtful. The pressure is as much a force in returning him to stability and strenght as it is a sapping demand on his ability to cope. The way that Mickey rediscovers his hunger to work and his desire to assert himself through his professional skills is compelling.
The double helix of the plot, the murder case that Mickey has inherited and the murder case that created the inheritance, is brilliantly spun. They do not crowd each other out, when one falls out of the spotlight the other one emerges in a very natural way, the tension is consistently maintained and the way they are resolved is masterly. The rest of the cast are roundly drawn, Mickey is telling the story, it is not just his story, the supporting cast emerge with force and clarity. The masterful control that Michael Connelly has over the material is nearly invisible, the story flows with such confident ease that the reader is free to simply become absorbed and enjoy the experience. Superb.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Mammoth Book of Dickensian Whodunnits. Mike Ashley (Editor). Constable and Robinson (2007)

This is a hugely enjoyable anthology of murder and mystery stories that take elements from Charles Dickens's life and works as their starting points. The spine of the book is the chronology of Dickens's life, the short and informative introductions by Mike Ashley provide the context for each story. The quality of the stories is uniformly excellent, there are a number of stand out entries. There is an enjoyable variety in the tone and strategy chosen by the writers. Some of the stories pick up directly on events from Dickens's life, others use characters from his stories and some blur the distinction very nicely. All of the writers are sufficiently confident to ensure that none of the stories feel like a Dickens's knock-off. Some of the stories match more closely to Dickens's writing patterns than others, they carry it off because the intent is flavour rather than straight imitation.
"Awaiting the Dawn" by Marilyn Todd, a superbly structured story that uses Dickens's response to the public execution of Fredrick and Maria Manning for murder is one of the stand out entries in the collection. It packs a very considerable amount into a short space without ever being crowded and has a breathtaking heroine. "Miss Havisham's Revenge" by Alanna Knight is gripping and horrifying, it takes one of Dickens's great characters and without any violence to the original casts a superb and ghastly light on their life beyond the novel.
"Tom Wasp and The Swell Mob" by Amy Myers draws a sad contrast between the inspiration that Dickens used for a famous character and the short and desperate life of a girl from the slums. "Encounter in the Dark" by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre is an astonishing story that centers around a possible meeting between Charles Dickens ans Edgar Allen Poe, this is a grim story that allows both complicated artists shine brightly.
My favourite story in the collection is "The End of Little Nell" by Robert Barnard, it is sharp, funny and a wonderful reminder of the acid truth in Oscar Wilde's famous remark about the death of the girl who was simply too good to live. This collection is superb fun in its own right, as a reminder of the unparalleled pleasures of Charles Dickens's novels it scores a double header.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Scar Night. Volume One of The Deepgate Codex. Alan Campbell. Tor (2006)

This is an excellent fantasy story with a great setting, a sinuous plot and an outstanding cast. The city of Deepgate is suspended both on great chains over a bottomless abyss and in a war between Heaven and exiled angles who live in the abyss. Dill, last of the battle angles who protected Depgate is about to assume his duties, Rachel, a Temple assassin is assigned to tutor him. The city is haunted by a rouge angel, Carnival, who kills once a month on Scar Night. All three become caught up in a plot started to protect the city but which threatens its final destruction. The reveals smart and fast, the action is superbly staged and the cast busting with life.
The twin pillars of the city of chains and the theology that created it and sustain it are developed with great confidence and clever, unexpected detail. Both have numerous surprises in store and they are revealed in a very entertaining fashion. The cast are very much grounded in the physical and supernatural realities of the city and its surroundings, the plot uses the details with relish. The cast are revealed and develop through action, they are constantly in motion with just enough time and information to grapple with the immediate problems and never enough time to think about the bigger problems they have.The shifting narrative means that the reader is just barely ahead of the cast in knowing what is going on, the plot grips tightly, the twists and turns never undermine its credibility.
Dill is a little of a blank slate, which given his carefully structured upbringing is unsurprising. Rachel is sharply etched, confident and capable as well as feeling isolated and unsure. The rest of the cast emerge with force and determination as they struggle to shape events that are running ahead of them. This superb fantasy adventure is gripping, thoughtful, constantly surprising and hugely enjoyable, a treat.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Lindbergh Child. Rick Geary (Writer and Artist). NBM Comicslit (2008)

On Tuesday, March 1st 1932 the infant son of Col. Charles A. Lindbergh, one of the most famous men in America, was kidnapped from his bedroom. Rick Geary tell the story of the events prior to and following the discovery of kidnapping. It is a remarkable story with a cast of characters that could grace any crime story. While a man was tried and convicted of the crime there are enough questions remaining to leave room for doubt.
Charles Lindbergh had gained worldwide fame with his sole flight across the Atlantic in 1927, he was a national hero in America and possibly the best known man in the country. The kidnapping of his child was "The Crime of the Century" and attracted an astonishing array of official investigators others who involved themselves in the case for a variety of reasons. One of the most horrifying aspects to the case is the way the kidnapping was exploited by fraudsters, not always for financial reasons. While a ransom was paid, after a near farcical process, the child was not returned. Subsequent events led to his discovery. A suspect was finally arrested in 1934, he was traced via the ransom money. He was tried, convicted and executed.
Rick Geary presents the whole story, being careful not to add to the story, he sticks to what is known and avoids speculation, in a very clear, comprehensive and gripping fashion. The introduces all the relevant people clearly and concisely, the multiple details of the investigation are presented with great clarity. Rick Geary remains non-judgemental throughout the book, he presents the details and the questions that remain. His art is detailed and clear, the panel layouts are carefully used to provide as much information as possible without crowding the page. This superb comic treats a sensational topic with care and respect, informative and compelling it is well worth reading.

Friday, June 4, 2010

To Kill or Cure. The Thirteenth Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew. Susanna Gregory. Sphere (2007)

Very engaging and enjoyable period murder mystery with a great cast and a superbly constructed plot. In 1357 Matthew Bartholomew, a Fellow of Michaelhouse College in Cambridge and a physician, is facing serious problems. Richard Arderne, a "healer" has arrived in the town and is providing miraculous cures and turning the townspeople against Matthew and the other college physicians. At the same time a very serious dispute about rents is developing between the University and the town's landlords, the landlords want substantial increases and the University are opposing it. The usually uneasy relations between town and gown are becoming dangerously strained when one of the University Fellow is murdered and Richard Arderne raises someone from the dead. The tension is expertly developed, the reveals are cunningly staged and the conclusion surprising and very satisfying.
Susanna Gregory creates a vivid cast in an interesting context and very nicely twists together the threads of the plot. Matthew Batholomew and the rest of the Fellows of Michaelhouse are lively and well developed. Their interactions are sharp and colourful, they way that they manage their students and spar with each other is very engaging. The relationship between the town and the University is very well developed, the mutual interdependence rankles as much as it is required and the escalation of the dispute is credible and menacing. The limits of medicine in the times are nicely outlined, as well as the residue of fear and resentment left by the Black Death.
The story is not overburdened with historical detail, there is enough to make the context clear, the actions of the cast reveal the times much more effectively than exposition would do. They factions and politicking of the University staff and the maneuverings of the town's merchants are confidently developed and frequently sharply witty. The balance between cast and plot is beautifully achieved, well worth reading.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Nylon Angel. Marianne De Pierres. Orbit (2004)

A very engaging science fiction adventure story. Parrish Plessis lives in the Tert, a giant slum on the coast of Australia situated on the outskirts of the supercity, Vivacity. Parrish works for one of the gangsters who control the Tert, Jamon Mondo, as a bodyguard. She is trapped in the job, Jamon does not let people leave his service and she is desperate to break free. She agrees to look after two fugitives accused of murdering a media star and also takes a job from another Tert gangster which promises her freedom from Jamon. Parrish soon finds that she knows far to little about what is really going on and has no choice but to forge ahead and rely on her wits and strength to stay alive. The breakneck pace never flags, the reveals are very well staged, the action is furious and the conclusion is sharp and satisfying.
Marianne De Pierres has created a very believable and nicely detailed context, a dystopian future that has a nice plausible feel to it. Parrish Plessis is a great charachter, tough, uncompromising and really good in a fight, she is also thouroughaly confused and trying not to be stupid. She has the drive required to push the story forward and the depth of personality to be consistently engaging. The plot threads that wind about her are very well constructed and are balanced very carefully with opportunities for the cast and context to come to the fore.
The supporting cast are credible and full of life, there is a strong sense of the pulsing competing life in the Tert, it crowds the page and frames the action very well. Great fun.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Special Assignments. Boris Akunin (Writer). Anrdew Bromfield (Translator).Wiedenfield and Nicolson (2007)

These two stories about cases involving Court Counsellor Ersat Fandorin, special investigator for the Governor-General of Imperial Moscow, are hugely enjoyable. The first story, "The Jack of Spades" opens with a brilliant swindle carried out by the con man, The Jack of Spades, involving the Governor-General himself. Ersat Fandorin and his new assistant Anisii Tulipov set out to trap the Jack and find that he is a very slippery and enterprising opponent indeed. The story twists and turns very cleverly and comes to a very smart and satisfactory conclusion. The second story, "The Decorator" is about the pursuit of a vicious serial killer who may have connections with Jack the Ripper. This story escalates in a very suprising way and the conclusion is harsh and credible.
The settings for both of these stories, pre-revolutionary Moscow is superbly evoked. The extraordinary and pervasive bureaucracy of Imperial Russia is shown in action as the the cases are investigated. Ersat Fandorin is a nicely fallible character, he is subtle and shrewd, very observant and quick thinking, at the same time he is not infallible. The rest of the large cast are very well drawn, they live and breathe, in particular the two villains.
The Jack of Spades has the desire both to put one over his victims and to get the credit for his cleverness. The money is a very nice reward, it is proving his superiority that really drives him. The Decorator on the other hand is a genuine monster, his blood lust is constrained by his desire not to be caught, his mixture of depravity and cunning survival is horrifying. This mix does allow Boris Akunin to push the second story in a very dark direction without doing damage to the lighthearted tone he frequently uses. The translation has retained an essential non-English flavour while flowing smoothly and easily. Very engaging, well worth reading.