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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cold in the Earth. Aline Templeton. Hodder (2005)

A compelling and engaging crime story with a great cast, brilliantly realised location and a tightly wound plot. Following the death of her mother Laura Sonfeldt decides to investigate the disappearance of her older sister fifteen years previously. In Galloway in Scotland, a remote farming community is hammered by the outbreak of foot and mouth in their sheep and cattle herds as well as the discovery of a skeleton. Detective Marjory Flemming has to investigate the case as well as keep public order in a community splintering under the impact of the mass slaughter of the flocks of animals. The threads of the plot are carefully woven together, the reveals are brilliantly staged, and the climax packs a considerable punch.
The context for the plot is superbly done, an isolated community under savage pressure that is attacking the focus of its identity, a farming community being forced to watch its stock be destroyed. Marjory Flemming, a police officer, a farmer and a farmer's wife is stretched across the fault lines and forced to make damaging choices. She is smart, resilient and dedicated playing a poor hand with force and thoughtfulness. Laura Sonfeldt, trying to recover her bearing in life after the death of her mother develops strongly throughout the story.
There is a glorious supporting cast who are all vying for the readers attention, they are full of life and vigour, none are stereotypes or shortchanged by Aline Templeton. A pleasure.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Hellboy. Masks and Monsters. Dark Horse Books (2010)

Two very enjoyable cross over stories featuring Hellboy, Batman, Starman and Ghost. The first story, Batman/Hellboy/Starman written by James Robinson, art by Mike Mignola, colours by Matt Hollingsworth and lettered by Willie Schubert is a Hellboy story with a different cast.In Gotham City, Ted Knight, the original Starman is kidnapped by a mysterious group. This draws the attention of Batman and Hellboy and they combine to discover that it is a secret Nazi group that have kidnapped Ted Knight and taken him to their South American base. While Batman has problems in Gotham to deal with, the current Starman, Ted Knight's son, fly out to rescue him. The story unfolds wonderfully, with a great Hellboy Nazi/Elder God plot bubbling away, plenty of smart dialogue and action. The reveals are clever, the art is glorious and the whole package tremendous fun.
The second story Ghost/Hellboy written by Mike Mignola,pencilled by Scott Benefiel, inked by Jasen Rodriguez, coloured by Pamela Rambo, lettered by Sean Konot takes a different tack. Ghost is the vengeful spirit of reporter Elisa Cameron, who deals out death to criminals. Ghost enters a netherworld and in pursuit of peace of heart pulls Hellboy into a netherworld ruled by a wearing a metal mask. The reveals are sharp and unexpected, the action is excellent and the conclusion sour and satisfying.
The contrast between the two stories is interesting, James Robinson writes a very straightforward Hellboy story, in essence substituting Batman and Starman for some of the regular Hellboy cast. Their presence does not fundamentally make any difference to the dynamic of the story. The presence of Ghost in the other story is central to whole structure and tone of the story, she is much more significant. To an extent it is a Ghost story with Hellboy as the guest star, one who does have a vital part to play. It is very noticeable how Mike Mignola takes Ghost, who is a signal example of the sleazy coyness that infects comics, and gives her a personality that is bigger than her breasts. She is very much a character, a clear individual voice that plays strongly against Hellboy and drives the story. A very enjoyable collection with more punch than may be anticipated.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Surgeon of Crowthorne. Simon Winchester. Penguin Books. (1999)

The astonishing story of one of the most important contributors to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is gripping and constantly surprising. The Oxford English Dictionary was a stereotypical Victorian project, it was intended to project the power and majesty of English, the language of Empire. More than simply providing a source of explanation, it was intended to be a biography of the language, capturing the current as well as deceased aspects of the language with a confident sweep and authority. The structure of the dictionary would include both a definition of the word as well as quotations that tried to show how the word had entered the language, shifted in meaning and possible passed out of usage. It was an extraordinary project, one that breathes the steely assurance of the English Victorians.
Simon Winchester traces the general development of dictionaries as well as the extraordinary development of the OED itself. In particular he examines the lives of two men, James Murray who was the most important editor of the first edition of the OED and Dr. William Minor who would become one of the most important contributors. James Murry, the son of a Scottish farmer, rose due to his intellectual force and determination to being appointed as the editor of the OED. He proved to be exactly the right person for the job, combining a range of organisational skill, willpower and lively, deeply informed curiosity needed to push the process forward.
William Minor was a convicted murderer who was confined to Broadmoor, a hospital for the criminally insane. Minor was an American, a doctor in the Union Army who had been at the front line of the horrifying battle of the Wilderness. From Broadmoor he contributed an invaluable series of quotations for the dictionary and was recognised for his contributions in the introduction to the first volume.
Simon Winchester tells the intertwined story of the OED, James Murray and Dr. Minor with skill and care. It is a riveting story. What lifts the book to unexpected heights is that George Merrett, the man Dr. Minor murdered, is not lost in the shadows of the story. He is recognised as being more than a a footnote to a larger narrative and this honest remembrance gives the book an unexpected depth.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol 10. Eiji Otsuka (Writer), Housui Yamazaki (Art) Toshifumi Yoshida (Translator) Dark Horse Magna (2010)

A superb mix of gore and black humour with a brilliant story premise and a engaging and very well defined cast. The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service are a group of people who locate corpses and deliver them according to the corpse's last wishes. The first story in the collection presents a problem to the Kurosagi team, corpses appear to be disappearing and when they do find one they do not want to assist it. They find that they are not the only ones looking for corpses and when they encounter a policeman with a very particular interest in them a deeply sad and gripping story unfolds. The second story takes a Japanese legend about the murder of a guest and gives it a very modern and grimly funny makeover. The final story ties up a television programme featuring a "psychic" and look at the background of one of the team. The mix of satire, comedy, gore and character is astonishing.
The most striking aspect to the collection is the variety of the stories, they use the same premise and team and manage to follow very different directions in each case. Eiji Otsuka has a talent for mixing up genre requirements with the unexpected and entirely appropriate, the comedy and gore sit very comfortably with the strongly emotional currents within the stories. The cast are given room to shine over the effects. The clean lines and detail of the art by Housui Yamazaki are a pleasure to read. The corpses have a satisfying grimness to them, their injuries are explicit, their rage is clear.
An outstanding aspect to the book is the final section, "Disjecta Membra" by the editor Greg Horn. Not only does it include a very informative essay about Japanese written characters, it is a glossary of the sound effects and other items within the comic. They are funny, surprising and hugely enjoyable, very much like the stories themselves. A great read.