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Monday, August 12, 2013

Savage Spring. Mons Kallentoft. Neil Smith (translation). Hodder 2013

Good plot mechanics are not enough to rescue the book from an un-engaging cast and a very intrusive writing style. A bomb blast in the Swedish town of Linkoping kills two small girls and gravely injuries their mother. The blast took place at an ATM and the first possibility is that the attack is a terrorist one. Detective Inspector Malin Fors has to deal with the intrusion of the very secretive Swedish Security Police into the investigation. The terrorist angle is supported by  unfolding events only later do other possibilities emerge. The investigation becomes smaller and considerably darker as it follows the appalling trail left by unfettered greed and poisonous vanity. Mailn Fors has a domestic crisis to deal with as the death of her mother allows a long held secret to come into the light.
The bare bones of the story are very good, the investigation is thoughtful and competent, the set-ups are well done and the reveals are, mostly, well executed. The significant problem that the book has is the way that Mons Kallentoft bludgeons the reader with a brutally intrusive style of writing that leaves no room for the reader to engage with the cast on their own terms. The reader is instructed and directed as to the correct response and the over wrought responses of the cast make the story very heavy going. This would be bearable if the cast had the strength to stand by themselves, unfortunately they do not, they are too busy being puppets for the all too visible author.
Malin Fors has the potential to be an interesting and engaging lead character, a single mother with an alcohol abuse problem that is under supervision, she is a committed and thoughtful investigator. She is also fantastically high maintenance for a reader, she is a  constant spin cycle of emotions and responses, which are thrust at the reader as proof of the fact that she is wonderful. The rest of the cast have a rather strange protective attitude to her, which does her no good. She is denied any real independence because the author appears to be so busy winding her up and watching her go.
The rest of the cast operate under the same difficult circumstances, including the ghosts of the murdered girls who appear as a pointless chorus to review the action. The supporting cast, outside the investigation, are operatic in the worst possible sense, burning with a shrill melodrama that robs them of the weight the plot offers them.
The plot is by far the best part of the story, it is tense, gripping and pitch black, it is a shame that it is thrown away by such a heavy handed execution.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Castlereagh. Enlightenment, War and Tyranny. John Bew. Quercus (2011)

A very engaging biography of a fascinating man who has the extraordinary ill luck to be vilified by by two great English poets in stunning memorable ways. The words of the poets, Byron and Shelly, captured a very vivid strain of popular comment about Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh, as a brutal reactionary and a lackluster, second rate political schemer. John Bew scrapes the mud off to take a more considered look at Castlereagh and to evaluate his very considerable achievements.
The most  important point about Castlereagh is that he was the right person in the right place at the right time, he had a willingness and capacity to do what had to be done for the horribly mundane reasons of  political and social necessity at the time regardless of the the current intellectual climate. Castlereagh was an Ulster Presbyterian, brought up in an Enlightenment tradition of political liberalism that was the bedrock support for the development of  self-governing Ireland. That he was vital to to the success of the Act of Union which removed the Irish Parliament was a breach with his original social and political community in Ireland that never healed. One of the most striking aspects to the change by Castlereagh and one of the defining characteristics of his life that Jhn Bew effectively brings out, is that the breach was not an intellectual bonfire or conversion by Castlereagh. It was much worse than that as far as his former colleagues were concerned, they would have been much more forgiving of a romantic conversion to another faith. Instead it was a  simple understanding that the current situation would not stand. A change was going to come and Castlereagh, as he was to do all his life, worked to bring it about peacefully rather than wait for an explosion.Castlereagh was to suffer all his life from a determination to adhere to the bruising details of reality and to push actions based on that rather than on the flavorsome ideals that his contemporaries enjoyed so much.
Following the demise of the Irish Parliament Castlereagh was elected to the House of Commons, this process in itself is a wonderful drama of politics and patronage, and became a member of Tory Party led by William Pitt. The Napoleonic wars were being fought and in England there was considerable support for Napoleon as the heir of the French Revolution and the idea (if not the substance) of Liberty. As Secretary of War, Castlereagh lead a determined political campaign to defeat Napoleon and to support British national interests. He was a vital support for Wellington and became one of the most influential people in Europe at the Congress of Vienna after Napoleon's  first defeat and exile.After the Battle of Waterloo the post-war economic depression and civil disturbances cemented his reputation as a blood stained reactionary. His eventual suicide was greeted with scarstic pleasure by his most determined, Irish, enemies.
Castlereagh's biggest problem was his greatest strength, he was a technocrat  who was significantly more concerned about the process than the city on the hill, he was a competent speaker at a time when ability with rhetoric was highly prized and most of all his greatest successes were what had not happened. The Irish Parliament did not implode under the weight of its own entitled, corrupt incompetence, Napoleon did not strangle Britain, Europe did not fall apart in a post-Napoleonic series of wars between Austria and Russia. It is very hard to get get credit for an invisible success.
One of the most interesting aspects to the book is also something invisible and that is the impact of the fact that Castlereagh was Irish and dominant in an English institution. Castlereagh was vilified to an extraordinary extent by his opponents even by the standards of the time and it would seem reasonable to trace some of the outrage to offended pride. Being lead by someone who would be considered a social, political and racial inferior was very likely a factor in the extremity of the response he provoked. John Bew never address the question in any sort of detail which is a loss to a very fine study. John Bew is a first rate writer, he brings the details of the time to life with care and clarity and in doing so reveals an extraordinary and ultimately, very attractive, man.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Think of the Children. Kerry Wilkinson. Pan Books (2013)

An enjoyable crime story, the plot is clever and well structured, the story telling does not quite engage the reader with the cast. A fatal car crash reveals the body of a missing child in the boot of the car and a map to to location where items from a much older and colder missing child case are found. The investigation uncovers a list of names of children and then another child goes missing and the investigation becomes a race against time. The story unfolds very well, the reveals are cleverly staged and the plot threads are very smartly handled. The resolution is satisfying bitter and complete.
The plot mechanics that drive the story are excellent, the various elements of the story overlap and interact in an effective way. The investigation is competent and the the flow of the action is thoughtful and considered. The problem with the book is the cast, in particular the lead character, Detective Sergent  Jessica Daniel. While it is a relief that she is not a maladjusted gargoyle with a substance abuse problem in continual conflict with her, remarkably stupid, superiors, she is also not engaging either. This is not for want of trying, DS Daniel is given plenty of time and scope to make her mark on the story and an effort is made to give her an extended life beyond her job as well as to be effective within it. She simply does not transfer well off the page to inhabit the reader's imagination, she remains too attached to the plot.
It is the supporting cast that performs the best, the range of civilians caught up in the events that are swirling around them. Kerry Wilkinson has a gift to bring a character to life in a short space and give then credible, scruffy presence and weight. It may be because they are involved in greater extremes of emotion or action that they glow more brightly than the central players. A effort may have been made to present them as more balanced and that has served to dampen them down a bit. If Kerry Wilkinson was a bit more theatrical with his cast the book would lift more.
The plot has a very nice slice of restrained melodrama in it, the central cast could have benefited from a little less restraint and a little more melodrama to match it.

Wolf Country# 1. Jim Alexander (Writer), Luke Cooper (Art), Jim Campbell (Letters). Planet Jimbot (2013)

A very smart, multi-genre mashup that neatly side steps the inherent cliches by drawing on a very powerful central idea to give the story considerable force and potential. A lone frontier settlement in hostile territory is the destination for a young man trying to escape his past, he is sent on a patrol on arrival and finds himself in trouble right away. The story moves back to the events that brought him to the settlement and burden of expectations he has brought with him to the settlement.
Jim Alexander has reached for a classic Western set up as the framework for the story, settlers versus hostile natives and the arrival of a potentially disruptive presence in a dangerously unstable situation.  He then adds a nice layer to it by making the settlers vampires and the the natives are werewolves. This is a great set up, there possibilities are wide open and the room to play with and against story ideas from both sources are huge. Without doing any damage to the two sources Jim Alexander takes out one element and adds another which gives the story a very considerable boost and makes its considerably more intriguing.
The element that he removes are humans, vampires and werewolves move to centre stage as this story is about a conflict between two fully developed societies, not between two  fringe elements of human society. This makes the focus of the conflict much more concentrated and reduces the need to explain vampires or werewolves. The story can plunge directly into the conflict without any need to position it in relation to human activity, this strips out a lot from the story and brings it right down to the essential elements. This strongly works with the western sources which always work best as straightforward conflicts set against an unforgiving landscape.
The second element is the one that really pushes the story and offers the greatest room for development and intrigue, the reasons that the vampires have built the settlement is religious, they are following the direction of their god. The werewolves see the vampire encroachment as sacrilege, there can be no compromise as the motives are beyond anything open to change or compromise. The absolute nature of the conflict is superbly explored in the story, Luke, a vampire is trapped by his past and trying to escape it but his past is public property and it casts a very wide net. Jim Alexander takes a very different road than might have been assumed, cleverly sidestepping reader assumptions that the set up creates and brings fresh, smart writing to comic.
Luke Cooper's art is striking and not entirely successful, the cast are distinctive and the facial expressions are first rate, the body language is too stiff. The cast do not move easily, they appear to posed in action states rather than moving through them. The backgrounds, which are a key element in a western are not given enough definition, there is not quite the sense of the harshness of the landscape that frames the conflict. The cast are too much to the forefront, a litle more setting them in a context would be nice.
When the story involves a close up for the cast, the art is first rate, they interact with each other naturally and  add depth to the story. Luke who could easily have been an angst driven teenage cypher or stereotype is given a both teenage look and a personality that shines from the art. A clever, engaging comic well worth reading.
Chief Wizard Note: This is is review copy I was very kindly sent by Jim Alexander. If anyone would like to buy Wolf Country#1 delivered to his or her door, please contact: planetjimbot@gmail.com