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Friday, February 14, 2014

5 is the perfect number. Igort (Writer & Art). John Cullen (Translation). Jonathan Cape (2004)

A highly enjoyable and engaging Italian crime comic that nicely mixes betrayal, murder, new beginnings and  grief without ever dropping out of the genre requirements. Peppino Lo Cicero is a retired mafia assassin, fishing and making shirts for his son who has taken the same job. After Peppino's son is murdered he goes looking for revenge with the assistance of two old friends. The story stylishly sidesteps the cliches of the genre and the unexpected is delivered with thoughtful force. The conclusion is happily sharp and cleverly approprite.
The astonishingly fluid and dynamic art is the first pleasure of the book. Using three colours, black, white and blue, Igort creates a detailed world where violent action has severe consequences and the cast all eagerly seize every bit of space they have on the page to makes their presence count. Instead of this descending into confusion, the balance betweeen the panels and the cast work strongly together to present the story in a vivid and intense way. The clean lines of the art, which always delivers just the right level of detail, are a pleasure to read. They have to deliver a lot of information and they do so with a subtle and understated grace.
The story, the second pleasure of the book, makes itself felt at a leisurely pace, it does not rush to action, when action comes it is brutal and weighty. The story  comes up through the art to snag the reader with deeper ideas and complexity that is anticipated. Igort realises that every end is a beginning with fresh choices to be made and the choices Peppino makes as he returns to his past are unexpected and frequently moving. The old assassin has a chance to look again at his life and does so, revisiting old choices and taking a different turn this time. The cast who do not have the strength or care to make new choices find that they frequently have made a fatal error.
One of the additional pleasures of the book is that the story is so completely not American or English, the translation is transparent, the cast are clearly and fully Italian speaking expressive, credible English that never undermines their essential identity. Also the explanation for the title is smart, funny and memorable.
An outstanding comic.

Ocean Waves. Tomomi Mochizuki (Director). Studio Ghibli (1993)

A very charming and engaging teenage romantic drama.Taku is a student at a local school in a small seaside town who is shaken up by the arrival in school of Rikako, who has transferred from Toyoko. Rikako has a big city air about her, a sense of a world beyond Kochi. She does not fir in easily to her new life, she had moved following her parent's divorce, she does capture the attention and the romantic attention of  Taku. The film follows the lives of the students throught thier last year in school as they attempt to establish who they are.
The film does not have a plot in any active sense, events take place that lean against each other rather that following on, the emphasis is on allowing the cast demonstrate who they are and how they respond to the events as they happen.
The slow charm of the film comes from the lack of whining by the teenagers, they are full of energy and want to be much more in control of their lives than they are. They are conscious of being in a transition and are not sure about what to do next. In a pivotal sequence Rikako decides to go to Tokyo to see her father and Taku ends up going with her. Rikako's collision with the reality of the divorce is handled with care and subtley as is Taku's response.A post graduation reunion creates the promise of happy endings which are very much in line with the tone of the story.
The animation is soft and quietly engaging, the cast move with a easy naturalness and struggles they have are treated with care and sympathy. The film is a light as a feather, the astonishing skill that it wears so easily is kept in the background as the cast is allowed to shine. A wonderful film that is kind to its cast and spellbinding for a happy viewer.

The Black Box. Michael Connelly. Orion Books (2012)

An enjoyable crime story with excellent plot mechanics and a deeply unsympathetic lead character. On the twentieth anniversary of the Los Angles riots of 1992 and unsolved cases are to be reviewed by the Open and Unsolved Squad of the LAPD. Detective Harry Bosch requests a specific case, the murder of a journalist, Anneke Jespersen, a case he was involved when it happened and is very unfinished business for him. Harry Bosch encounters bureaucratic resistance to his investigation, founded on solid bureaucratic reasons, and finds himself under investigation by the Internal Affairs division. This does not prevent him from pursuing the investigation and the story uncoils with very enjoyable twists and turns as the bigger picture slowly comes into focus. The reach of the past into the present is very well developed and the conclusion is forceful and satisfying.
The problem with the story is the lead character, Harry Bosch he is unsympathetic and fundamentally irritating. This would not be a problem is he was cast as an anti-hero, doing something worthwhile in spite of his general tendency to be unpleasant. Michael Connelly wants Harry Bosch to be a heroic hero, pursuing justice in the face of opposition from his rather duplicitous superiors and the perpetrators. Harry Bosch has heroic qualities, a tenacious sense of obligation to the victim to find those responsible and a strong competence as a police officer. None of which is enough to balance against the fact that in his ongoing interactions with everybody else Harry Bosch is a snot.
The plot mechanics are superb, the investigation is really well developed and the reveals are staged with smart timing and impact. The way that the murder is tracked through the chaos of the riots and leads to danger in the present is seamless and credible. The neat trick at the climax is a pleasure, a clever set up and play on the reader's expectations.
Entertaining but not engaging, worth a read for the smart plot.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Wolf Country# 2. Jim Alexander (Writer,) Will Pickering (Art), Jim Campbell (Letters). Planet Jimbot (2013)

A clever pick up from issue 1 with glorious art. Halfpenny, the leader of the  Settlement, a vampire outpost in werewolf country, is transported back to the Kingdom for a meeting with the High Executor while a trio of soldiers go to the settlement for an audit. Using this framework Jim Alexander starts to expose the fault lines in the Kingdom, between the sternly religious group in the settlement and the more pragmatic groups back in the kingdom.
The disappearance of Luke in issue 1 may be the opportunity that some have been looking for to ask questions about the value of the Settlement and the way the sacred mission is being managed. Very neatly and effectively blood is used to make a point both at the Settlement and the City Chambers, the points are very different and set up the depth of the potential conflict.
Halfpenny in the City Chambers and the soldiers in the Settlement are out of their preferred contexts and the tension is building nicely. The rigid purity of Halfpenny and the Settlement mission is subtly contrasted against the more ambiguous activities in the city, it will be interesting to see if rigidity is a strength or a weakness. The reveal at the end is typically clever and very well staged.
Will Pickering's art is beautiful, the lines are fluid and expressive. The cast are strongly presented, the tensions are captured by body language as much as the words. Halfpenny's ritual at the City Chambers is astounding, the look on his face as he makes his deceleration of faith reveals the ferocious depth of his devotion. The cover by Graeme MacLeod is great.
The story is developing in very interesting ways, gripping and highly entertaining.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander, To order a copy of Wolf Country# 2 please contact

Why Socrates Died. Dispelling the Myths. Robin Waterfield. Faber and Faber (2009)

Socrates' trial and death gave Western philosophy its first martyr, the problem with martyrdom is that the act itself obliterates the context it occurred in. In this very engaging and well written book Robin Waterfield rescues Socrates from this fate and makes the event both much more ordinary and far more interesting. As a martyr Socrates moved beyond ordinary comprehension to a very extreme location that is removed from history. Instead of being an event taking place within a web of human social, cultural and political events and forces, it is a pristine event.
This is remarkably convenient for anyone who wants to use the event to pursue their own agenda, the martyr is such an abstract that they can be usefully adapted to pretty much any purpose. Robin Waterfield manages to place Socrates back into his historical context and in doing so makes the event much more comprehensible and meaningful.
Over the course of Socrates life Athens underwent a protracted and very violent transition from a self-confident, aggressive empire to a severely humbled and insecure city state and it is this development that forms the missing context for the trial and death of Socrates. As Robin Waterfield makes clear Socrates was a political philosopher, he was deeply concerned with the best way to organise a society as the means to develop the best humans. At a time of colossal political upheaval, in particular upheaval that leads to destruction, loss of prestige and social uncertainty being a political philosopher can be a dangerous profession.
The other aspect of Athenian life that is nearly impossible to understand at this distance is the fundamental importance of religion, so fundamental that it was effectively invisible as much as air is. A key part of this belief was the favour or disfavour of the gods as an explanation for major or minor events. The string of disasters that Athens had suffered would have been understood as a clear sign of divine displeasure, and divine displeasure had to have a cause.
Robin Waterfield makes a very persuasive case that Socrates, by his own determined actions and choices was very well positioned to be identified by a nervous and deeply unsettled Athenian society as a source of political, social and divine trouble making and that his trial and death sentence were the direct result of that. By dispelling the myths of martyrdom Socrates is rescued as a fascinating figure from a pivotal time in world history. Clear, articulate and very thoughtful this is great read, clearing away myths to show the far more engaging history.

The Holmes Affair. Graham Moore. Century (2011)

Clever and gripping, with a very smart narrative structure and strong central idea this is an unusual and very engaging story.  Harold White is an obsessive Sherlock Holmes fan who at the moment of his greatest triumph finds himself thrust into a murder mystery that has distinctly Sherlock Holmes connections. In the second narrative Arthur Conan Doyle, having killed off his troublesome character finds himself, very unwillingly, drawn into a real murder case. The twists and turns of each case are cleverly set up and the connections between them emerge carefully and lead to a wonderfully satisfying conclusion.
Rather that actually featuring Sherlock Holmes himself, Gordon Moore uses his very long shadow to drive his cast to ask "What would Sherlock Holmes do now?" to great effect. In both cases Sherlock Holmes is both an inspiration and a taunting presence to both Harold and Conan Doyle, a fictional character that appears to have a greater reality than either his creator or his fan. One of the strengths of the story is that Gordon Moore does not use this as a chance to undermine the cast, rather it is the way that they struggle with it that gives them depth and force.
Thankfully Gordon Moore never forgets the importance of a good plot and the mechanics of the story are very well played out, the murders that Conan Doyle is investigating are laced with enough political and personal complications to present a genuine conflict for Conan Doyle. In a typically smart move, Conan Doyle's colleague in the investigation is Bram Stoker, another writer frequently lost in the enormous shadow of his most famous creation. The interplay between them captures the differences and the similarities as men and writers which add a nice dimension to the story.
Harold moves from being a near cliche of the obsessive fan, unable to manage the burden of other people and retreating into a safer domain to finding a way to actually apply his knowledge and make rather than avoid decisions. The this is a development not a transformation greatly helps, Gordon Moore moves his cast carefully within the bounds of credibility and the intense pressure they come under make them more of themselves rather than someone else.
Creators and fans can have very strong and contradictory relationships with the characters that they are involved with, both have a stake in the character and it is a situation that seems tailor made of sharp edged mockery. Gordon Moore has a keen sympathy for both, no creator wants to be enslaved by a character they have created, fans can want to bury the creator to give more light to the character. Gordon Moore uses a fan's sensibility to create the climax of the book and as a fan I was shot to the heart by it. A treat to read and relish.