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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Strange Stories of Fantasy & Fiction. PW Press (2015)

An anthology of stories by different writers, the art is all by Pete Woods.
What's Not To Like?, written by David Thomas. A man has a debt to the mob and a chance to pay it off. Very short, this is more of an idea than a fully formed story, it is written with care and enough compression to work. The story boils set up and conclusion to the smallest possible space and it does so without loosing anything vital. The stripped down story is all that is needed to capture the idea, it would not support any more weight that is does. The art is vital to selling the idea and it does so very nicely. It is the art that takes the burden of leading the reader and makes the story enjoyable to read again. The captures the nuance that the story needs to come to life and does not depend on surprise to achieve a result. The combination is slender and effective.
Valor & Mettle, written by Michael Consoli, letters by Bolt-01. Starship Captain Steinway has a problem, the new Western Minister of the  Trans-Galactic Union is a dangerous menace who has threatened Steinway's family. A jump from his ship to Shenox's is his chance to deal directly with the problem. A classic set up that neatly develops an unexpected direction, this is smart storytelling. The shift in story gears is not jarring, the transition is nicely signalled by the corresponding change in art and the link between the two is strong, credible and affecting. The art reads better the second time around when the story intentions are known. Before this the art looks a little overblown, when the context is clearer the art become much more effective and the designs much more engaging. There is a subtlety to the art that the reader needs the full context to the story to see, this makes for a more interesting and satisfactory read.
Rouge Trooper: Sniper Alley, written by Tom Proudfoot. This is the most straightforward story in the collection, it is effective while lacking the impact of the other stories. Rouge Trooper is a modified super soldier in an never ending war, working alone with enhanced equipment. He encounters the victim of a sniper attack, the sniper would have to be extraordinary, even beyond Rouge Trooper himself to make the shot. Rouge makes a fateful choice and another choice is also made. The problem the story has is that to work the art has to reveal too much, the reader knows that a choice will have to be made and the likely result of the choice. Given these constraints, everyone works as hard as possible to make the story lift, the writing stages the situation as effectively as possible, the art supports it with care, the sum total is the best it could be, which is a lot better than it easily could have been.
Long Distance Call, written by David Thomas is the best written of the stories, a clever idea with the length to get into the details. A man receives a call from the future, the caller has a proposition to make. David Thomas solves a key problem, the proposition makes sense in both timelines and the validation of the the call is sharp. This is a character piece, no action beyond a phone call, the different locations are nicely set up, all the drama is in the interactions and reactions of the cast. They are very well drawn, the body language and facial expressions sell the situation and give it a solidity the idea needs.
The Last of the Camel Leopards, written by Karl Brandt does not quite work as a story, is has too little detail to come off with the force it needs. A good idea, camel leopards is nicely unexpected, it does not quite explain the conflict that is the context for the story. The art is great, the line work is clear and expressive and  Ms Janet looks fierce, angry and scared all at the same time with a sword to her throat, a panel that delivers her personality in one go.
A very enjoyable selection, the art changes to match the requirements of the stories demonstrating Pete Wood's considerable technical skills and versatility.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Pete Woods who is the artist and the publisher. To purchase a copy, and you should, contact plwoods@gmail.com. (P.L.Woods (Pete Woods) is a London based comic artist. His work has previously appeared in Zarjaz, Futurequake, Metaverse, and Food Chain.  Food Chain (Planet Jimbot) written by Jim Alexander (2000AD, Marvel & DC) with lettering by Jim Campbell (Titan, Boom Studios, Zenescope) and illustrated by Pete Woods was on the long list for the British Comic Awards 2014 for the "Best Comic" category. He has also been nominated for "Emerging Talent" award at the 2014 British Comic Awards. http://plwoods.weebly.com/)
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The Unquiet Bones. Melvin R. Starr. Monarch Books (2008)

A very enjoyable and engaging historical murder mystery. In 1363, Hugh De Singleton the fourth son of a minor knight returns to Oxford from Paris where he trained as a surgeon. When Lord Gilbert is injured outside his lodgings, Hugh treats him and this leads to an offer to become a surgeon at Brampton, one of Lord Gilbert's manors. With a successful operation having established his reputation in the village Hugh becomes involved a mystery when human bones are found in the castle cesspit. Hugh is given the task of discovering the identity of the skeleton and why they ended the cesspit, in particular why they are not the bones of two men who had disappeared some moths earlier. Hugh conducts his investigation with care and attention to detail, the story twists and turns very nicely, the reveals are carefully staged and the unravelling is highly satisfactory.
Melvin R. Starr has solved the two biggest problems involving any historical murder mystery with skill and care, the historical background is presented very naturally without disrupting the narrative with information dumps. The context is allowed to arise  very clearly from the actions of the cast and the context for the story, where needed details are provided without every intruding. The mystery is stitched directly into the historical context, it is not simply resting on it, it could not easily be simply transferred to another context.
The cast are very engaging, lead by Hugh de Singleton himself, part of the minor gentry, educated and needing to earn his own living he is perfectly positioned to move easily across the social barriers and still be an outsider enough to investigate everyone. The first person narrative captures the character of a man who is strongly aware of his situation, is self aware enough to know that he can be mistaken and is tough enough to push forward when needed. He is in love with the wrong woman, knows it and does his best not to fool himself but is still vulnerable.
The rest of the cast are all given the space and time to make their presence felt, Lord Gilbert is a forceful man who wants his holding to be peaceful and prosperous, the villagers are given a chance to show themselves, their voices and choices all ring true.
The plot mechanics are first rate, the initial set up with the surprise that the bones are not those everyone expected them to be is just the first of some very well set up surprises that the story reveals. The investigation is logical and fair, it still travels in interesting directions that never feel forced or simply required to bring the plot in a desired direction. While a simple opportunity is a significant hinge for the story, Hugh de Singleton ruefully acknowledges that an even simpler question would have been quicker. This acknowledgement is a tribute to Melvin R. Starr's craft that it does not undermine the story, it makes Hugh much more credible, hindsight is is stick that beats us all.
Great fun and great company, a hugely enjoyable read.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Wolf Country 3. Jim Alexander (Writer), Will Pickering (Art), Jim Campbell (Letters). Planet Jimbot (2015)

After two issues that set up the extraordinary context, in this issue the plot gears begin to engage in both the Kingdom and the Settlement. In the city, Halfpenny, the leader of the vampire settlement in wolf country is drawn into the work of the Department of Purity, asked to speak to vampire who may have something to say to a zealot he would not say to a bureaucrat. The interview does not go well, and a superbly staged assassination suggests that there are strong forces colliding in the kingdom. At the settlement, the full moon heralds an assault, the soldiers from the city head out on a patrol and question the limited effectiveness of the settlement. The promise of the moon comes true.
Once again Jim Alexander has moved the story in multiple ways without tipping his hand as to the actual direction it will go in. Clearly there is a significant change in the city regarding the value and purpose of the settlement, there seems to be lines being drawn between zealots and others who would achieve the same goals by other means. There is a nicely dangling thread that the apparent goal may not be the real end in sight.
Halfpenny's rigidity provides strength in straight fight with a werewolf at the settlement, outside of that context he is not able to read the situation well. His determination to reduce everything to the satisfying black and while of kill or die is leaving him open to management by others. Back at the settlement the intrusion of the soldiers has had an unsettling effect, they do not share the bonds of zeal or survival that the people who live at the settlement do. They upset the balance of the fort and may weaken it dangerously when the assault comes.
Nothing is settled, there is a satisfying sense of story lift off and the possibilities have been thrown open, the wonderful set up is leading somewhere.
Will Pickering's art is spare and clear, the focus is the cast and they emerge with force and determination. There is very little extra detail beyond that required to set the context, the dram is in the cast, their powerful body language and facial expressions. They interact with each other directly and fiercely, the passion that drives them is clear and sharp.
Jim Campbell's lettering is, as usual quietly effective, the sound effects are big and loud, the dialogue is easy to read and feels natural in the panel.
This is a very satisfying comic, the conflict has arrived and it was worth the wait.
Chief Wizard's Note:  This a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander from Planet Jimbot, Vampires v Werewolves in a wild west setting - and a lot more' continues, having been shortlisted for Best British Comic (b/w) at the Eagles/True Believers award; longlisted at the British Comic Awards and voted as a Top 10 book in last year's London Super Comic Con. For more information or to order a copy, which you should do, please contact,  planetjimbot@gmail.com

Friday, February 13, 2015

Flash Boys. Cracking the Money Code. Michael Lewis. Allen Lane (2014)

This is a gripping and exciting book about two potentially dull topics, stockbroking and technology. Stockbroking, shares something in common with technology, there seems to be no space to be sort of interested. Either someone is really interested and dives into the details or you see it as a series of boxes that produce more or less desirable results from processes that are brain drainingly uninteresting. It is a measure of Michael Lewis's skill as a writer that he can find and present a context which makes them gripping while never excluding any relevant technical details.
Michael Lewis has a fantastic story to tell, how computers have made the apparently simple business of selling and buying shares into a nearly risk free money making process for s select group of companies. At the heart of the process is a very simple idea, if you know someone is going to buy something, they have placed an order for it, and you buy it before they do and you sell it to them you have the opportunity to make some risk free money.
The problem is that up to a certain point in time the technology used to tell a seller about an order from a buyer meant that everyone knew more or less at the same time. Any third party got the same information at more or less the same time, too short a space of time to intervene in the process for profit.Then computers were introduced and the matter of speed became much more relative, the technology meant that the time taken to communicate an order could be accurately and effectively sliced into fantastically small divisions, and technology could use the relative speed of the different computers in the process to create a space to intervene.
This unimaginably small space is a crowed place where a wonderful cast of people try to understand what is going on and for some do something about it. Michael Lewis has used a superb structure to explain a technically complex problem that has all the appearances of a "victimless crime". People are buying and selling shares on a stock exchange, they are not being held to ransom, someone is making money from the process, the biggest problem that Michael Lewis has to overcome is the simple question of "So what?"
They way that that question is answered is deceptively simple, Michael Lewis lets the people concerned talk for themselves and the reader follows along as they discover exactly what is going on and why they care about it. The reader in effect is taken on the shared journey of discovery that the cast follows, this allows the reader to be informed at a comprehensible rate. Where specific details are needed to make something plain, they are provided in the shortest and clearest form, they never interrupt the drama.
There is lashings of drama as the sheer scale and scope of what is going on becomes clear and the determination to do something about it develops.Some of the greatest pleasures in the book are the incidental details it reveals about Wall Street as an financial industry. One of my favourites was when Michael Lewis remarked about a very prominent bank that when it wanted to find out what its competitors were up to the followed a plan, they interviewed people from that competitor for jobs with themselves. Later he remarks that in an era when organisations are becoming ever more paranoid about the security and secrecy of their data their employee loyalty was falling at an equal rate.
Greed is a wonderful motivator of ingenuity to exploit any possible marginal advantage that any unintended consequence of a  process change may create. It is also a spark to others to oppose it, it is this classic human friction that Michael Lewis explores so grippingly. A great read.