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Sunday, January 26, 2014

The History of England by a partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian. Jane Austen (1791) The Quince Tree Press.

The title is wonderfully true in this spiky and joyously opinionated and very short book. Calling it a history of England is a very considerable stretch, it is a review of a partial list  the kings and queens of England from Henry the 4th to Charles the 1st. The reason for writing the book is declared to ". ..being to prove the innocence of the Queen if Scotland,...and to abuse Elizabeth..." and this intention is pursued faithfully with a glorious disregard for anything other than the writers unvarnished and unsupported opinion.
Jane Austen was 16 years old when she wrote this hugely entertaining book and it has all the virtues of a very talented young writers work. The superb, unconcerned confidence in her own opinion, the sharp flow of words and the very direct address to the reader. The clear indications of the razor with and construction that would mature so brilliantly in her later masterpieces.
The structure of the book is a series of very short,very personal, reviews of the relevant monarchs, history in any sense is the last thing that matters. The subjects have caught Jane Austen's fancy in some way and she has something to say about them and that is their sole purpose. Happily what she has to say is greatly entertaining.
This is history as it is actually remembered by most people, bits of facts, more or less, with mixed opinions as to the status of a monarch as being generally good or bad with a few outstanding ones remember for essentially non-historical reasons.
A snarky, wonderfully energetic pleasure.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Good Cop Bad Cop Casebook #1. Rough Cut Comics (2014)

A very entertaining and enjoyable comic about a wolf in sheepdog's clothing. The comic manages the set up for the story very cleverly before moving to the start of a major on-going storyline.
In the opening story Good Cop Bad Cop , written by Jim Alexander, art by Gary McLaughlin  and lettered Jim Campbell, the story gets off to a nicely savage start. Detective Inspector Brian Fisher is interviewing a suspect in a dismemberment case when the interview goes horribly wrong, just not as horribly wrong as it will do for the suspect. This economical story introduces the two lead characters without stopping for any unnecessary explanations, the events just occur. This is the first of a series of very clever moves Jim Alexander makes to deal with serious structural problems that come directly from the story idea. The bad cop is simply presented as an established fact, the reader is taken off on the ride without further ado.
The next story Mrs MacPhellimey, written by Jim Alexander, art by Gary McLaughlin, and lettered Jim Campbell is a neat, short joke that showcases the pitch black humour that laces the comic. The change in tone from the first story is nice.
Three Strikes written by Jim Alexander, art by Gary McLaughlin, and lettered Jim Campbell  is the next step Jim Alexander takes in turning structural problems into advantages and story possibilities. Detective Inspector Brian Fisher is a dedicated police officer who is also a massively violent and predatory and physically distinctive murderer with a police warrant card. A key storytelling problem is how the tension between the two is managed and this is resolved in a unexpected and very clever way.
Under Investigation written by Jim Alexander, art by Will Pickering and lettered Jim Campbell resolves the last and most serious structural problem arising from the story idea. Given that the police force are reasonably competent the extreme actions by one of their officers is bound to draw the attention of the senior ranks. They way that it does and how Jim Alexander uses that to  create credible story telling possibilities is a joy to see. Smart writing and all done without ever sacrificing any action or without having to make the cast too stupid to be interesting. Indeed it is the fact that the senior policemen are not stupid is the key is a pleasure.
Between the three stories are pages from a crime report about the Partick Cat, a burglar that  Detective Inspector Brian Fisher is pursuing. The report is written by Brian Fisher and the wolf and this performs a vital function for the story start up. The wolf is a savage predator, what the report conveys is the necessary view of the inside of his head and the realisation  of just how dangerous he really is. A barely contained mix of rage, hatred and appetite for violence, the balance struck in Three Strikes looks like a very fragile bargain.
The set up complete a major on-going story line starts with Tiny Acts of Kindness written by Jim Alexander, art by Luke Cooper lettered Jim Campbell. The change in art style is pronounced and effectively marks the departure of the story into the main event. The black humour get used to great effect and the balance between the Brian Fisher and the wolf, the relationship between then is used to drive the story. A suitably ferocious villain is also introduced, someone who would be a more credible opponent for the wolf.
The black and white art for the set up stories by Gary McLaughlin and Will Pickering is lovely line work with minimal use of shading or blocks of colour. The cast, including the wolf are vivid and forceful, the stores have a lean and spare feel to them. Luke Cooper's art is much denser, his use of black is astonishing to give form and solidity as well as express the black tones of the writing. The art gives the longer story greater weight which is a considerable benefit.
Clever, confident writing, great art and fresh heart in an intriguing idea all make for an great read.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy of Good Cop Bad Cop very kindly sent by Jim Alexander. GoodCopBadCop Casebook#1 retails for £7.99/$12.99.  Rough Cut will be launching the book at Plan B in Glasgow Fri 24th Jan and Asylum in Aberdeen Sat 25th Jan.  The trade will be available in all good comic shops thereafter.  Also available through Amazon and the Rough Cut shop (http://www.roughcut-comics.com/).  For more details contact eddie.parade@virgin.net

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Apothecary Rose. Candance Robb. Arrow Books (1993)

A very engaging and enjoyable medieval murder mystery with a great cast and a cleverly used historical context. Owen Archer lost an eye and position as Captain of Archers at the same time and became a spy for his master the Duke of Lancaster instead.  In 1363, after the death of the Duke he  find new employment with John Thoresby, Lord Chancellor of England and Archbishop of York. Two suspicious deaths in York need to be investigated, one of them was a man closely connected to Thoresby and he needs Owen to establish if there is an threat to Thoresby or not. For cover Own will become an apprentice to a notable apothecary in York, who had provided herbal remedies connected to both deaths. Own arrives in York and starts his investigations and his apprenticeship and discovers that there is a nicely tangled web of  old secrets that remain very dangerous. The plot unravels at a calm pace, the reveals are very well staged and the conclusion is very satisfying.
The great pleasure of this book are the noisy and vivid cast that Candance Robb creates, that bustle and jostle with each other in a natural way, Own Archer, a man who works hard to be honorable, stands at the centre of the story,. His actions push the plot forward and create the pressure that drives the sharp conclusion. He does not dominate the story, the rest of the cast are full of life and make happy claims on the reader's attention, in particular Laurie, the wife of the apothecary, who has taken over running the business. She is vivid and strong, she responds to the way her life is turned inside out with strong appealing courage, rage and confusion.
The central romance that emerges between Own and Lucie never feels like a plot device, the mutual attraction is developed with a light touch that feels both adult and forceful, never contrived. The smaller players are given clear individual voices and strong presence in the book, they make the story considerably more engaging as they act to sometimes hide and sometimes reveal the plot. The reasons they respond the way they do rings true for the character and it is the mix of plausible motives that gives the mystery its focus and force. Candance Robb does develop a great villain, the horrifyingly understandable forces that drive him make him ever more dangerous.
The historical context is draped lightly over the story, where it is is needed to explain the motives of a cast member, it is clearly and unobtrusively explained, for the most part is is simply included as minor and effective details that firmly place the cast into their context. This allows the cast and story to emerge strongly and to drawn on the context without it ever being mere painted scenery nor overwhelming. A very enjoyable story.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Cat Returns. Directed by Hiroyuki Morita. Studio Ghibli (2002)

A warm, charming and very engaging animated film that balances all the essential elements with light handed grace and humour. Haru is girl who is rather unsure of her footing in the world and struggling to find it. When she rescues a cat from being run over and the cat thanks her she is sure it is a dream. She discovers that in fact she has saved the life of the son of the Cat King and the King and the cat kingdom want to thank her. Along with an assortment of gifts that would only really appeal to a cat, live mice and catnip, she gets the news that the Cat King wants her to marry his son, the Cat Prince. Haru is attracted by the possibility, but a warning sends her to the Cat Bureau and she meets the Baron. Following on from being kidnapped and transported to the Cat Kingdom as well as being slowly transformed into a cat herself , Haru has to fight to escape to her own life.
The story manages a very difficult task with deceptive ease, the threat to Haru, become a cat and loose her identity as a human girl is strongly presented. There is a distinct edge of menace in the story and it takes considerable courage, hard work and risk to oppose it. The arc of the story works because the problem is a significant one, and this is one of the many pleasures of the film. The creators respect their audience enough to provide strong plot mechanics, they do not confuse child friendly with marshmallow sentiment.
The art is a joy, friendly and inviting with beautiful colours highlighting astonishing details. When the procession from the Cat Kingdom first arrives, all the cats from the kingdom walk upright, there are security guard cats with markings like black suits, white shirts and ties and the remove the local felines with force and dexterity. The art is never angular and sharp, it is soft and inviting, it allows the darker aspects of the story emerge on their own terms rather than signposting them. The key cast members, in particular the Cat King and the Baron are brimming with life and vitality, assertively pursuing their aims with clarity and force. The Cat King gives the appearance of being an aged hippie, there is a forceful and greedy personality hiding beneath the drawl, the Baron is a wonderfully, suave and unflappable action hero.  Haru only emerges when she does find herself and the finale is a smart showing of what that really means.
The film has a strong confidence that the problems of living are better dealt with than run away from, that doing so is not easy, it is worth it. Wonderful and funny, a serious pleasure.