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Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Oath. Michael Jecks. Simon & Schuster. (2010)

This is a very enjoyable period crime and adventure story with a wide narrative sweep that cleverly comes to focus on a horrific crime. In 1326 in England Edward II is fleeing from his estranged wife, Isabella. Edward's power has been fatally undermined by his relationship with and the actions of his favourite, Sir Hugh le Despenser. Isabella, along with her son Edward and her lover, Sir Roger Mortimer are sweeping across the country and winning the fight with the minimum force and bloodshed. At the same time in Bristol, a family is slaughtered, including an infant and the man accused of it flees. Simon Puttock and his family are caught up in the struggle and find themselves in Bristol with the Queen's army approaching. Sir Baldwin de Furnshill is caught up also and finds himself with the King's rapidly diminishing retinue. The story ties the various threads, from Edward's fall, the siege of Bristol, the murders together into a compelling narrative. The reveals are cleverly stage and the balance between the story elements superbly maintained.
Michael Jecks brings the reader inside the events with a wonderfully realised cast and a willingness to take his time to build up the story. The pathetic figure of Edward II running for his life and kingdom as his wife triumphantly pursues him is deeply confused by how events have run beyond his control. The other historical figures are more lightly sketched in which works very well as the fictional cast are given a chance to shine. The question of loyalty, what it means and what are its limits are explored in a very subtle and effective fashion. They are absolutely central to the story.
The crime plot is not shortchanged, it is cleverly constructed and comes to the fore just as it should and is savage and credible. It sits within its context very well, arising naturally from the demands of the time and the structures of the society.Michael Jecks has the confidence and talent to take the long road in this story and is entirely justified in doing so, this is great fun, packed with memorable characters and sharp observations, a pleasure.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Shadows of Sounds. Alex Gray. Allison & Busby Ltd. (2005)

A low key, very enjoyable police procedural. A member of the City of Glasgow's orchestra is murdered in his dressing room just prior to a performance. Detective Chief Inspector Lorimer finds that an abundance of possible suspects complicates the case and makes it hard to close in on the relevant ones. As the investigation proceeds it becomes clear that the victim was involved in a number of overlapping relationships as well as some other shady activities. A second murder complicates the case and the threads of the investigation become steadily more tangled. The reveals are nicely staged, the investigation is thoughtful and logical, the cast are developed well and the conclusion is satisfying.
Alex Gray avoids the most common situations and circumstances that are used in the genre, the lead detective is both sober and married, the police officers are competent professionals who behave with restraint and good sense. The rest of the cast are treated with the same respect, they emerge as people who have complicated lives and are all the more engaging for it. There is one relatively major character whose presence is not actively tied into the story, his presence is not obtrusive or distracting just a little puzzling in the end.
The story is very well structured, the knot at the centre is a nice one and the way that it ties the cast together is engagingly played out. A significant act of considered kindness, not entirely unselfish in its motives, is handled very well and leads to unexpected and credible conclusion. Alex Gray is not at all shy about the hurt and damage that people are willing to inflict on each other, her calm writing makes it more forceful. A good fun read.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Woman from Bratislava. Leif Davidsen. Barbara J. Haveland (Translator) EuroCrime (2001)

An engaging and leisurely Danish political thriller that manages a big cast and ideas with care and skill. Teddy Pedersen, a Danish academic with a out of date specialisation in the Soviet Union, meet a woman who claims to be his half sister, sharing a father Teddy had thought was dead. When Teddy's full sister is arrested on spying charges, Teddy's family history appears to be the key to a widespread conspiracy that involves the emerging Eastern bloc countries as the brutal conflicts in the disintegrating Yugoslavia. The plot coils around very nicely, the reveals are carefully staged, the cast are vivid and context and implications of the appalling wars in the Balkans are superbly described.
This is as story that advances through the movement of the cast rather than action set pieces, the most important character is the one who is present the least, the woman from Bratislava herself. She is a dominating presence as the cast follow in her wake and try to locate her for various reasons. Her shadowy presence gives the book a surprising force as the cast try to understand her and each glimpse of her usual simply adding to her mystery rather than revealing her. This allows Leif Davidson to move his large cast with great freedom, the different narrative strands weave tighter to create a complex web of family, loyalty and the enormous political pressures the war created.
Leif Davidsen traces the links between individual choices and broader political and historical events with skill, they provide a sharp and mordantly cynical view of how justice is defined and served. The tension between individual actions and beliefs and greater social forces creates an well orchestrated tension in the book and gives the unexpected conclusion extra bite. Clever and unsentimental, this is a story with an angry heart that makes it well worth reading.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Domu. A Child's Dream. Katsuhiro Otomo. Dana Lewis, Tornen Smith (Translators). Dark Horse Comics (1996)

Highly entertaining and enjoyable story about a hidden battle taking place in a high rise housing estate in Tokyo. At the Tsutsumi Housing Complex there is an abnormally high number of deaths, suicides and accidental deaths, the pattern is puzzling and concerning the police. A family with a young girl move into the complex, the girl has well developed psychic powers and she quickly encounters the savagely malicious Mr Uchida, an elderly man who is behind the mysterious deaths. In parallel to the police investigation, the girl and the old man engage in an escalating battle for control over the estate. The story escalates in a superbly controlled fashion, the forces unleashed are captured with wonderful care, the quiet climax packs a mighty and very satisfying punch.
At the heart of this story is the Tsutsumi Housing Complex and the people who live there. Katsuhiro Otomo takes the time to make the context for the story be as solid and complete as possible, the way the action cuts across the lives of the residents gains weight and power from the way they have been given chance to establish themselves. The same is true for the police investigation, the team doing the investigation are varied and thoughtful.
Mr Uchida, is a brilliant creation, spiteful and greedy, he relishes his power over the inhabitants of the housing estate while being effectively invisible to most of them. His gleeful enjoyment of his actions and control is captured and makes his memorable. Etsuko, his opponent is very determined with a solid sense of what is right and wrong as well as being a entirely credible small girl.
The art is a joy, it is detailed and captures the small scenes as well as the huge explosions that wrack the complex. The cast are all clearly individual, their body language as well as their expressions are are clear. One of the multiple pleasure of the book is how Japanese it is, it is enjoyable to read a different cultural context. This is a great comic, gripping story, superb art combined into a harmonious whole, a pleasure.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

True Grit. Charles Portis. Bloomsbury. (1968)

A superbly written and griping Western adventure story. Frank Ross is killed by Tom Chaney and his fourteen year old daughter, Mattie comes to Fort Smith,Arkansas to recover his body and ensure that Tom Chaney is punished for his crime. Finding that the local law enforcement are not likely to take any action, Mattie hires Marshal Rooster Cogburn to track Chaney in the Indian Terrority he has fled to. A Texas Ranger, La Boeuf is pursuing Chaney also. Cogburn and La Boeuf are united in their determination to not include Mattie in the chase, Mattie is significantly more determined that she should. The pursuit is harsh and bloody, the action is superbly staged and the climax is outstanding.
The writing is breathtaking, Mattie is narrating the story as an elderly woman, she is brilliantly evoked both as her fourteen year old self and as a mature woman, you can feel her breath on the page. She is stubborn, hard headed and straightforward. The way the story is told allows the rest of the cast emerge with a startling clarity, even as they are being viewed through Mattie's eyes. She is unfazed by the events she is involved in, she has a duty to perform and a solid sense of what she wants which provides her with tremendous strength.
Rooster Cogburn is great Western character, he is not a hero while being heroic, he is a man you would want to have by your side in a tight spot. La Boeuf is a talker, fond of boasting about himself and his home state, in the end he is also brave and decisive. The dialogue is unexpectedly and entirely credibly formal and somewhat high flown, it captures the charachters of the cast with precision and clarity.
This is an astounding book and an unmitigated joy to read, not to be missed.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dark Blood. Stuart MacBride. HarperCollins (2010)

This is a gripping, savage, brutal and very darkly funny thriller with a superbly realised cast and a great setting. Richard Knox, a violent sexual predator, is released from prison and being housed in Aberdeen. DS Logan McRae is involved with the protection of Richard Knox, aided by Detective Superintendent Danby from Nothumbria, the man who had arrested Knox years earlier. Complicating matters are the efforts by an Edinburgh gangster to set up in Aberdeen, counterfeit goods and money and a thief robbing jewelry shops with a sawn-off sledgehammer. The reveals are staged with care and relish, the cast are all active and engaging, the plot gets darker with each turn and it leads to a horrifying conclusion.
Everything in this story works well, the setting, Aberdeen in the snowy depths on winter, acts as the bleak backdrop to the even bleaker activities of the cast. Logan McRae is is a downward spiral, personally and professionally and his efforts to regain a hold om his life push nicely against the currents of the story. The plot is big and very well constructed, the main story weaves and twists alongside a number of smaller threads, neither detract for each other and they combine to give a vivid picture of the criminal activity within the city.
Bursting out of the book is Detective Inspector Steel, a foul mouthed force of nature who provides a great deal of the book tar black humour. The whole cast are given a vivid life and their active determination gives the story tremendous energy and momentum. This violent, unpredictable and very funny book is a great read, written with great care and skill, top flight crime fiction.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Descartes. The Life of Rene Descartes and Its place in his Times. A.C.Grayling. Pocket Books (2005)

This is a gripping biography of the iconic French philosopher, Rene Descartes which places his life and work firmly into the context of his own times as well as showing how his work remains relevant for modern times. Descartes was both fortunate and unfortunate to live in violently exciting times, the clash within the Christian faith between the Catholic Church and the various Protestant churches savagely intensified the strategic and political underpinning of the Thirty Years War. Descartes may have had more involvement in the early events of this war, A.C.Grayling makes a persuasive case that Descartes did undercover work for the Jesuits. This created the situation where Descartes would have been opposed to French interests in the war which may well explain his hurried departure from France and his long sojourn in the Netherlands.
One of the very striking aspect of the era was that scientific thinking based on observation and experiment was emerging and challenging the orthodox religious view of the world. This was a potentially fatal route to take, Descartes is one of the people who found a way to safely separate the two so science could be freed from the charge of heresy and the possibility of being burned at the stake. A.C.Grayling conveys the tremendous pressure that Descartes was under to be true to his passionately held religious beliefs and the equally passionate desire he had to pursue understanding and knowledge. The book explains the originality and urgency of Descartes though in a way that is comprehensible and exciting to a lay reader without ever reducing them to parody. The character of Descartes comes to life very strongly and this gives the ideas clarity and force.
Descartes was a prickly and proud man, he was constantly trying to ensue that his ideas got into circulation without distortion and at the same time not cause offence. A.C.Grayling conveys the excitement of the whole process and brings out the wonderfully human man behind the phrase" I think, therefore I am" and shows why the ideas surrounding that phrase are still thrilling and exciting today.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Dylan Dog Case Files. Tiziano Sclavi (Writer), Bojanna Dozic, Hazim Kazic, Violeta Jurkovic (Translators). Dark Horse Books (2009)

This is a collection of seven stories about Dylan Dog, Nightmare Investigator. Dylan Dog is an ex-policeman, living in a wonderfully eccentric version of London with his Groucho Marx look alike assistant, Felix. The cases he takes on range from the very straightforward to the fantastically playful. The most straightforward and weakest of the stories is "The Return of the Monster" art by Luigi Piccatto. Sixteen years after a massacre the murderer escapes from the secure hospital where he was being held and the survivor of the event fears he is coming to kill her. It is played too straight to be successful, the art is clear and graphic, it serves the story without enhancing it.
The rest of the stories have a greater willingness to take up the challenge implied in the job description "Nightmare Investigator". "Dawn of the Living Dead" and it companion story "Morganna", both with art by Angelo Stano have entertaining twists on zombies. "Dawn of the Living Dead" is rather more straightforward, a woman kills her husband in self defence, except that her husband was already dead when he attacked her. The investigation is good fun with an new version on why the zombies have risen. "Morganna" is one of the best stories in the book, it plays with the reader and uses the fact that it is a comic to great effect. The art in both stories adds greatly to the story, it brings out the depth and humour of the writing very well.
"Memories from the Invisible World" and "After Midnight" with art by Giampiero Casertano are both crime stories that have cleverly stages reveals and narrative structures that lift them up. "Memories from the Invisible World" features someone who has been noticed so little he becomes invisible as well as a plot about a serial killer. The plot is constructed with care and the reveals are sharp, the cast are given a chance to come to life and the conclusion is harsh and sad. "After Midnight" is a clever riff on the dangers of being locked out of your house, without any cash while there is a killer crossing your tracks. The art in each case has a layer of detail that anchor the stories.
"Johnny Freak" , art by Andrea Venturi is another of the best stories in the collection. A legless boy escapes from a burning building and the mystery of who he is attracts Dylan Dog. The story develops in a very unexpected fashion, the art is strongly expressive and brings out all the tones in the story. "Zed" with art by Bruno Brindisi is the most playful story in the collection, both in terms of storyline and plot. Dylan's girlfriend vanishes and he tries to find her. He finds that she has gone to another dimension called Zed and he follows her. The art and the panel layouts take full advantage of the possibilities of a new dimension and the story itself does the same.
This collection is full of the unexpected, a very different flavour to Anglophone comics, great fun.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Hellboy. Oddest Jobs. Christopher Golden.(Editor). Dark Horse Books. (2008)

This is a collection of short stories by a wide variety of authors featuring Hellboy, the stories are uniformly excellent with a couple that stand out. Setting the scene and the standard for the remainder is "Jiving with Shadows and Dragons and Long, Black Trains" by Joe R. Lansdale. Towns in Arizona are being visited by a long black train and all the inhabitants are swept up by black dragons. Hellboy and the Reverend Jim Jeff investigate and find that frustration and obsession are powerful forces. The action is clever and forceful, the sliding viewpoints give the story depth and flavour, it packs a mighty punch.
"In Cupboards and Bookshelves" by Gary A. Braunbeck, Hellboy is asked to take on a job which involve harsh choices. It is very far from the usual Hellboy stories while capturing something essential about who Hellboy is. It is written with care and skill and leaves sad echos with the reader. "Second Honeymoon" by John Skipp & Cody Goodfellow is the closest in spirit and action to the Hellboy stories in the comics. A eco terrorist group decide to save Earth from humanity by releasing some of the Titans from Greek mythology. The action is both absurd and with a genuine emotional depth.
The two stories that stood out, even from such an excellent selection are "Repossession" by Barbara Hambly and "A Room of One's Own" by China Mieville. "Repossession" develops in a most unexpected fashion from a classic Hellboy opening. As the Aswan dam in Egypt is being built, lots of spirits are being disturbed and Hellboy is on the trail of a man who trades in such things. The story moves seamlessly to become about oppression and possession, how they intersect and how they infect the living. "A Room of One's Own" is a wonderfully playful story about the entirely unexpected dangers of interior decorating. From the title onward it plays with references to other stories that are cunning woven into a very clever knot as well as carrying off a more serious intent. Overall a great collection, a pleasure to read.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Affair of the Necklace. Edgar P. Jacobs. Jerome Saincantin (Translator). Cinebook (2010)

An engaging and enjoyable crime and action story. A necklace one owned by Marie Antoinette has been restored and the owner plans to donate it to Queen Elizabeth, much to the disgust and annoyance of the French public. Francis Blake and Philip Mortimer are in Paris to testify at a hearing for the arch criminal Olrik. Olrik escapes from custody and launches a bold attempt to steal the necklace. Blake and Mortimer attempt to stop Olrik and it emerges that that there are other parties interested in the necklace also. The plot is nicely set up, the reveals are smart and the action is fast and loud.
The most surprising aspect to this comic is how well it works, the attention to detail and the sheer craft that have gone into it lift it up. The story is very straightforward the pleasure lies in how it is told. The cast are given space to breathe and establish themselves as individual voices rather than puppets of a plot. The triangle between Blake, Mortimer and Olrik is used to give some bite and force to the story, they are old opponents and their encounters have the edge of enmity.
The art is there to serve the story and does not draw attention to itself. Still the multiple details do catch the readers eye and add greatly to the depth of the story, they anchor it firmly in a time and place.
The comic is old-fashioned but far from dusty, the action uses pace instead of gore to drive ahead, the villain is nicely cold blooded and ruthless all the same. Great fun.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Agincourt. The King, The Campaign, The Battle. Juliet Barker. Abacus (2005)

A comprehensive and gripping account of the context and action at the iconic battle. Juliet Barker does a wonderful job of placing the major player firmly into their context so that the actions on both sides prior to the battle are clear. The battle itself is described with tremendous clarity. In particular Henry V emerges as a man with a mission, the overwhelming purpose of his actions is made clear, it gives force to his astonishing leadership.
As the son of a usurper, Henry V had a lifelong need to establish himself as the true and righteous King of England and England's French possessions. His father has not lived up to his promise and Henry was determined to do so. He had a superb strategic grasp of the administrative requirements of royalty and imposed his will on England, becoming the undisputed king in his own country. From there Henry felt that he had a god given mission to recover and maintain the English dominions in France and launched a long term campaign to do so. The invasion of France that culminated in the battle of Agincourt was the final phase of the campaign, it was waged with cunning diplomacy and thoughtful preparation first.
Henry went to very considerable lengths to prove the justice of his cause, he carefully pushed his case so that French allies would not join against him when he invaded. His preparations for the invasion were meticulous and careful, this was not a quick adventure, this was a national effort in a just and necessary military action. Henry was greatly and continuously assisted by the savage internal divisions with France, there was a long running and brutal conflict within the French elite that would bear disastrous results at the battle.
At the battle itself, the English, in spite of having a much smaller force that had been weakened by a horrific march through France, inflicted a murderous defeat on the French. While the crucial roles of geography, weather and the English archers are given due weight it is the difference in leadership between both sides that was the key factor. Henry marshaled his forces with fierce skill and personal courage, the French had no effective leadership and squandered their resources. This is a superb telling of an extraordinary event, a pleasure to read.