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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Upside Down. A Vampire Tale. Jess Smart Smiley (Writer & Artist) Top Shelf Productions (2011)

Vampires, sweets, witches allied with smart energetic storytelling, distinctive art and lashings of clever ideas make this really enjoyable comic. Harold is a young vampire who lives inside a piano and loves sweets, which is a problem when he visits the dentist. Vermillion is a wonderfully nasty witch  who manages to become the sole surviving witch in the world and has plans for world domination, plans that depend on getting her hands on a formula created by Professor Adams. A cunningly staged plot follows as Harold tries to stop Vermillion, save his parents and be a vampire without teeth.
The story is straightforward and takes readers of any age seriously enough to believe they deserve first rate plot mechanics. Vermillion is a truly splendid villain, enough malice to be dangerous and durable enough to be a genuine problem for Harold. The story has a an abundance of clever ideas and sharp turns to make a very satisfying read. Among the cast are vampire frogs which are not only a fantastic idea in their own right they way they emerge is a really nice piece of storytelling logic.
The bold and energetic art is a joy, using just three colours it never feels restricted or underpowered, instead Jess Smart Smiley uses really strong shapes and outlines to make the most of the possibilities. The action is fast and furious, the emotions are conveyed with force and clarity. The art has a very satisfying homemade look about it, this strongly supports the bold lines of the story and the overall personality of the book. It looks like someone in particular drew it, it gives it a happy personal touch.
Jess Smart Smiley has taken a storytelling standard, a child trying to escape a problem finds themselves in trouble and has to be a hero to save their parents and given it a charming and very entertaining twist, keeping within the basic structures but giving enough new flavour to the story to capture why it is a standard in the first place. A seasonal treat that would be good any time of year.
Here are some Halloween activity sheets to test your spooky skills on.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Stoned Ape Society : The Rise of Blue Eyes. James E. Roche (Writer), Rudi Sucipto (Art), Michael Syrigos (Colours), Brant W. Fowler (Letters). www.jameseroche.com/stoned-ape-society (2011)

A clever idea and great art are held back a little by sometimes clunky writing. A pre-human group of apes in particular one ape with blue eyes, witness the impact of a meteor in the clearing where they live and pay not attention to the event. They are preoccupied with the daily struggle to get enough to eat. Frustration leads the blue-eyed ape to discover a dark garden of mushrooms, eating one unlocks some of the potential of his mind. The blue-eyed ape becomes able to plan and trap prey and trains the others how to do the same. When the prey animals flee the clearing blue-eyes is left with a significant problem. How he resolves it and what he realises when he does so it the footing for the continuing story. The story threads are very well set up and the dramatic possibilities are clear.
The theme of the story is not new, the rise to power and then the struggle to maintain it have been staples of dramatic fiction for a very long time, what matters is how the story is told. James E. Roche has chosen a very interesting and unexpected context for the story, the point of human evolution and the underlying cause of it. The stoned apes, their minds altered by the drugs in the mushrooms develop a new way of seeing the world and with it the complex emotional responses that are essentially human. The novelty of the situation in the world is a great storytelling asset, the rise of the apes is reliant on an external factor, control that and you control the emerging society.
The slight failing in the writing is James E. Roche's tendency to show and tell at the same time, he does not rely enough on the superb art to convey the story to the reader, he will add words to underscore the point. This means that the reader is reading the panel twice and not getting something new for the effort, where he does allow the art to do its share and uses to words to add to it the story lifts strongly. The reader is invited into the space between the words and the art and has a chance to become involved.
Rudi Sucipto's art is a joy, slightly cartoony it gives the community of apes great expressiveness and the body language is very strong. There is a welcome variety with the panel placing and sizes, it gives the story a considerable tempo. In particular the close-up shots of the faces are full of life and expression, they give the personality of the character.
The colours by  by  Michael Syrigog are fantastic, bright and sharp they give depth and definition to the the cast, the context and the action. There is a moment when Blue-Eyes stands in the mushroom patch in a shaft of sunlight that captures some of the main themes of the story in a subtle and very effective way.
Brant W. Fowler manages the difficult job of lettering with care and skill, providing emphasis and effect without attracting attention to itself.
It is a pleasure to see a creative team working on an interesting idea as well as they do with Stoned Ape Society, the comic is available as a download from the website listed above and is well worth getting.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Midwinter Sacrifice. Mons Kallentoft. Neil Smith (Translator). Hodder (2007)

Superb Scandinavian crime story with a engaging and likeable lead character and a satisfyingly chilling story. A body is found hanging from a tree in a frozen deserted plain outside of the town of Linkoping. That it is not a suicide is clear from the outset and Inspector Malin Fors has a difficult case on her hands. The investigation is managed with care and thoughtfulness and steadily gains a focus. A second murder adds to the urgency and the final unraveling is as bleak and savage as the winter itself.
Malin Fors is a great charachter, she is an effective police officer, forceful and determined and also a credible divorced single mother. She is not burden with the genre cliches of being a loner with a no real existence outside of the work. She has an active and plausibly stressed private life that she does her best to manage without being stupid. Her relationship with her teenaged daughter and her ex-husband are full of complications and distractions and they give her a very strong context from which to work.
She is surrounded by a vivid and lively cast that are all pursuing their own agendas and as they overlap and sometimes clash the friction generate very enjoyable heat and light. The plot threads entangle the cast and the reveals are cunningly staged. The way that historical ideas of sacrifice, human and otherwise, are used and abused by contemporary worshipers of long gone gods and spirits is nicely explored.
The narrative is broken up among the cast to very good effect, it gives the story a greater depth and weight as the reader sees  the cast act in their own right both involved directly in the investigation and otherwise. The community that surrounds the investigation is revealed and the wider context for the killings and their impact is made clear
The horrifying truth at the root of the killings is slowly revealed and is sad and desperate with a great may victims and a cruel and vicious act leading to cruel and vicious consequences long after the event. The plot mechanics are subtle and very effective, the steady accumulation of evidence and the increasing focus of the investigation force the pace of the action. In the end an incomplete and brutal justice may have been done and that may the best that could be hoped for.
The translation is happily transparent, it is clearly a Swedish story, the language never jars or suggests anything else, it bring out the frozen majesty of the Midwinter with care and force. A great read.

Dead Men's Dust. Matt Hilton. Hodder (2009)

A gripping and very enjoyable macho thriller with an engaging cast and first rate plot mechanics. Joe Hunter, an ex-Special Forces operative, is assisting his ex-sister-in-law who is having a problem with a local gangster. Joe discovers that his half-brother is in trouble in the USA and heads over to help him. With the assistance of an old friend Rick, Joe starts to track his brother who has been publicly identified as a serial killer called the Harvestman. As Joe tracks his brother the plot twists and turns in a very nice fashion and the cunningly staged reveals  move the story in happily unexpected directions. The action is both furious and well thought out, the climax is satisfyingly bone crunching and very well played.
Joe Hunter is a really engaging character, violence is his stock-in-trade and he is very good at it, at the same time his is aware its limits and works to use it as tool rather than being consumed by it. The competent thoughtfulness he brings to the business of hunting his brother through a series of violent encounters gives the action a sharp edge. The action is always loaded with consequences, some foreseen most not and Joe is attractively quick on his mental and physical feet.  The tension about the possibility that his brother is a serial killer and what action he will take when they meet is threaded with care through the story.
Tubal Cain is a very dedicated killer and the way that Matt Hilton ties him into the story is clever and plausible and conflict between two highly competent and dedicated hunters is gripping. Matt Hilton manages to resolve one of the most serious problems facing any writer wanting to use a serial killer in a story. How to make them deranged enough to want to kill others, be smart enough to be hard to catch, creative enough to provide colour to the book and not be a supervillian at the same time. Matt Hilton manages this by deftly using a very black and dry humour to describe Tubal Cain's plans and exploits. This gives him just the space he needs to bring the character to vivid and bloody life. This really pays of as the story reaches it climax and in less skillful hands the climax could have become overburdened with Gothic flourishes, instead they are recognizably true physical expression of the mental landscape of Tubal Cain.
The plot mechanics are superb, the story is carefully set up to appear to be heading in a fairly well trodden route before sliding away in an unexpected direction and then slipping away like an eel when it should. This care in plotting gives the cast a strong context to act in and they make the most of it, it draws cleverly on the back story of the cast without drowning them.Thoroughly gritty without ever being needlessly grim, this is a great fun read.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Die With Me. Elena Forbes. Quercus (2007)

An engaging cast and a well judged take on the police investigation makes this a very enjoyable story. A young girl meets a man at a small church in London and later is found dead, it looks like suicide. As it becomes clear that it may not have been suicide after all Detective Inspector Mark Tartaglia suspects that it is not an isolated incident and his investigations reveal that there may be other victims and that an unsuspected serial killer is at work. Having a new senior officer put in over his head to manage the investigation creates tension and discontent within the investigative team and the killer continues to pursue his victims. The reveals are very well staged and the structure of the book allows the plot threads to be given time and attention. While the conclusion does not quite have the desired bite, the book is gripping and enjoyable.
Elena Forbes refreshes the story of a clever serial killer and the investigation by giving the investigation a nice layer of internal conflict that is grounded in the cast themselves. When Detective Chief Inspector Steele is put in charge of the investigation she is not sure if she is being set up for success or failure, the bad start fractures the investigation from the outset. With this Elena Forbes manages to generate considerable stress and tension within the investigation without having to rely on genre stand-byes like an incompetent superior, much more effective motives like hurt pride and poor communication give a better result. When trouble strikes at the heart of the investigation, the results of the personal friction adds a bitter edge that sharpens the outcome very much.
The killer is given space to develop and emerge, not as a brilliant killer rather he is a predator on the lonely and the vulnerable, he is clever only because his careful choice of victim makes him so. It is hard to give any serial killer a genuine depth due to the fact that they are naturally monotonous, their focus is on killing and they do not have much of an emotional range or context. In this case the killer's process is very well thought out and has a nasty believability to it.
The wider supporting cast are very well drawn, they have clear individual voices and emerge as fully fledged characters. With the killer using suicide as a cover, Elena Forbes looks at why suicide was plausible and deals with care and compassion with the topic and does not use it as a handy prop only.
The story stumbles at the conclusion, it is not glued on, it does arise naturally from the story it just needed to be a little less well trodden. Very well written and entertaining.

Prime Time. Liza Marklund.Ingrid Eng-Rundlow(Translator). Simom & Schuster UK Ltd (2002)

A very enjoyable Swedish crime story with a great central character and an clever plot. At the end of the filming of a series of television programes the shows host is found murdered. There are twelve possible suspects, the other people at the location and involved in the filming. Annika Bengtzon is a reporter for a struggling tabloid just returning to work after maternity leave and one of the suspects is a good friend of hers.  Annika has trouble with her partner and is being drawn into a power struggle at work while trying to pursue the story. The story twists and turns gracefully, the reveals are very well staged and the final revelation is superbly managed.
While the undoubted star of the book is Annika Bengtzon, she is spiky and uncertain as well as fiercely competent and determined, she is surrounded by a wonderfully developed supporting cast. Liza Marklund avoids cliches and stereotypes, the cast are full of vigor and each has the pulse of life within them. The three main threads of the story are cunningly juggled, they bump into each other rather than overlap, still they do not crowd each other and the book has a nice unity to it.
Thomas, Annika's partner is annoying, for a lot of the story he is awash with self-pitying frustration about the fat that the choices he made have not given him the life he wants. Liza Marklund pulls off the very difficult task of making it possible that such a strong woman as Annika would tolerate let alone feel grateful for the attentions of such a man. The dynamics of their relationship do develop in an interesting way across the length of the book, overall it remains the least appealing aspect of the story. The power struggle at the newspaper where Annik works is superbly staged, the newspaper is struggling due to incompetence at the top and frustration pushes a senior manager into action. The route he takes and the way he stages his battles is great, office politics rarely are described as well as they are here. The friction between personality and business requirements is subtly and effectively drawn out. The fight is not life or death, it is not any less intense however.
The core murder story is excellent, a great set up is not wasted in any way. A remote location, a clear list of suspects all of who had a reason to wish the victim ill, the mechanics are managed with considerably skill. The plot is unraveled at a considered pace, there are no explosive action scene, the final confrontation is as tense as any gun battle and prove that words can be dangerous.
All told, a very enjoyable read with a sharp edge of humor and a hefty punch, well worth reading.