Nut Ink. Mini reviews of texts old and new. No fuss. No plot spoilers. No adverts. Occasional competency.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

ICO: Castle in the Mist (2008)

Author:  Miyuki Miyabe  |  Translator:  Alexander O. Smith  |  Page Count: 370

'Whatever it was that dripped from the cage, it was blacker than pitch,
the colour of melted shadow.'

The story as presented in the ICO video game (2001) was purposefully vague.  It encouraged players to speculate about the backstory of the characters.  The act of filling in the blanks created a more personal experience, making us not just the protagonist but also the teller, the narrator of the story as it was being lived in real time.  Reading someone else's version of those events is interesting but when put into context it's simply fan-fiction.  Regardless, remember not to judge it for being different to your own interpretation.  If it all it did was recreate what was in your head then there’d be little point in reading it.

I was wholly ignorant of Miyuki Miyabe's reputation in Japan.  She has a huge catalogue of titles available.  Castle in the Mist is her seventh novel to be translated into English.  In all honesty I thought it was a first novel, period.  The stiffness of the dialogue and the formulaic spoon-feeding of conventions that make the majority of fantasy novels so bland is adhered to from the very first page.  The stiffness may in part be explained by it being a translation—there’s a definite lack of love and flair inherent in that aspect—so I can’t say with any certainty if a poetic sensibility is inherently absent from the work or just missing from the English language version.  I'm not able to read Japanese.

Things pick up a little when the story delves into Yorda’s past.  The author is more comfortable and thus more successful exploring things from a female perspective, which makes sense, but even then the story never dares to break away from a safety zone or a trite, established way of genre thinking.  It’s a typical fantasy about a Princess in a castle, a cruel, overbearing guardian that stifles her, and a male saviour with selflessness and innocence in his arsenal.

Kudos to the publisher, Haikasoru, for being brave and taking a chance on it.  The game didn't sell in huge numbers in the West so I can't imagine the target audience for the novel was projected as groundbreaking, but even so, they didn't opt for cheap paper to cut costs.  It's a beautifully presented book.

1½ misshapen shades out of 5

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Physics of Star Trek (1995)

Author: Lawrence Krauss  |  Page Count: 188

'Thanks to Albert Einstein and those who have followed in his footsteps, the very fabric of spacetime is filled with drama.'

It's common knowledge that Star Trek not only 'boldly' ignored the laws of grammar, but that it wilfully ignored the laws of physics, too,  However, in some instances the real-world science behind the fictional quick-fixes is surprisingly close to the TV show technobabble.  Most fans will know why transporters were introduced, but not how they would theoretically work.  TPoST provides answers.

It doesn't set out to debunk or discredit TV writers—it’s not trying to achieve credibility by standing on the ashes of others—instead it aims to inform and explore the reality of what would be needed to achieve the life-changing physics used in the show.  It’s not just another boring cash-in / tie-in / stick-the-arm-in book designed to milk the wallets of every weak-willed Trek fan ever.

Thankfully, you won’t need a degree in quantum mechanics to make sense of the text, but some basic high school science knowledge will help.  If you know why Newton owes a debt to an apple, or why Einstein is more than a black and white poster in a student dig, then you’re all set.  I don’t know if true physicists or mathematicians would agree, but for an average Joe like me the structure of the book is a credit to the author.  Complex theories are built bit by bit atop a foundation of easier concepts, making it very easy to follow.

Not everything pertaining to a hobby or interest need pander to its target audience.  Often the best additions are the ones that teach us something of value at the same time, whether it be academic or emotional.  I think a large percentage of Trek fans would agree with that statement because even if Paramount weren't in it to challenge norms and teach by example, Gene was, and the people he reached keep that vision alive.  Ultimately, TPoST is perfect for Trek fans who possess a passion for learning and have an interest in the wonder of science.

4 cosmic poker games out of 5

Monday, December 1, 2014

Batman: Arkham Unhinged: Vol. 2 (2014)

Author: Derek Fridolfs  |  Artists: Various  |  Page Count: 168 

Penguin’s been hiring people to kill you.”
“That old crow’s wasting his money. I’m already dying… of boredom.”

The second volume of video game tie-in Batman manages to outdo the first, but unfortunately it's on the scale of tedium that it excels. Being tied to a game plot limits the freedom an author has, and at the end of the day any changes made must be reset so that everyone is returned to their game setting. In a situation like that the dialogue becomes even more important than normal, so extra effort should've been made to spice it up as much as possible, but—no disrespect to Fridolfs, perhaps he was busy with other, more important projects—the majority of it could've been written hastily over a light breakfast.

Robin pops in and out of the walled city as if it's a twenty-four hour supermarket, making a mockery of the idea that it's supposed to be near impossible to escape from. Whilst there he becomes an ineffectual bit player in what amounts to an extended fight scene that goes nowhere interesting.

The Arkham City Sirens story fills in some of what happened to the trio of women after the events in the first game, but mostly it feels like an excuse to have ladies with back-breaking breasts jumping around. The three women are at least largely faithful in personality to their game counterparts, which is to say they lack any kind of warmth or likeability; even the colourful Harley, who's admittedly a love-her-or-hate-her character ordinarily, never escapes two-dimensionality.

The only part of the text that I enjoyed was a flashback to a time years before the walled city was in existence, a time that deeply affected one of the villains and set him on the path he's currently on. It's not in-depth enough to be called an origin story, but it's an insightful glimpse into what spurred him to take the first steps into his current career. It was a clichéd moment but because it dared to be dramatic it still managed to feel superior to anything else. Repeated use of flashbacks would eventually draw too much attention to the technique, but the distance it provides from the walled city seemed to have given Fridolfs the space he needed to better express himself creatively.

The book collects together Batman: Arkham Unhinged issues 6–10.

2 punch bag thugs for hire out of 5

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Garden of Words (2014)

Author: Makoto Shinkai  |  Illustrator: Midori Motohashi  |  Page Count: 194

"It's not like we had a promise or anything.  But still..."

Every one of Shinkai’s anime works to date is an emotional tour de force that connects to something malleable inside of me.  Each part is carefully orchestrated to elicit that kind of response in a mass audience, but he somehow makes it feel deeply personal.  In the case of TGoW, when presented as a manga it loses not just the fluidity and the precise, measured silences, but something more significant, something soul-stirring that’s almost indefinable.  It’s still an enjoyable read but to really appreciate the subtleties throughout I’d recommend viewing the anime too, before or after, depending on your preference.

It's the story of Takao, a Kyushu high school student with a dream and the drive to realise it.  On rainy mornings he shelters in a wooden gazebo, and works on his skills.  It’s there that he has a chance encounter with an individual who changes his life forever.  (It makes me wonder what lengths the universe goes to to make the simplicity of a ‘chance’ encounter happen.)  Over time their self-confidence grows and they begin to flourish like flowers after a sun-shower.

There’s a Tanka poem deeply embedded in the narrative.  If you can spare the time, some research into the form and history of the style will enrich the work.

There's a danger I'll unwittingly turn this review into a series of wispy musings on self-indulgent concerns, so I'll end it after saying one thing more: with regards the Tanka device, I believe there’s a poem for everyone but not everyone has found theirs yet, or is brave enough to attempt to write it themselves.

3 cautious steps out of 5

Note: You can find spoiler-free, mini-reviews of some of Makoto Shinkai’s films, including The Garden of Words, at our sister site, In a Nutshell.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Star Trek: The Return (1996)

Authors: William Shatner / Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens  | Page Count: 371

For a silent moment after, even the rain stopped.
When it began again, it felt gentle.  Warm.  Slow as tears.

Like The Ashes of Eden (1995) did before it, The Return opens on Veridian III and continues the story of the Star Trek: Generations (1994) film.  It’s not a flashback narrative this time; it’s the real deal, an actual continuation of events.

It engineers a ridiculous scenario that brings together aspects and crew of TOS, TNG and DS9 for a ret-conning adventure that’s thick with melodrama and action movie clichés.  Some of the connections made are mind-blowing and will either have fans happy-clapping or furiously fighting.  Either way, some of the reveals in the last quarter are extremely memorable.  It’s unfortunate that a large portion of the remainder of the book is such a chore to get through.

If you're drawn to the novel because it claims that Shatner is the author, you ought to know that he admitted in a filmed interview years later that he’d not watched even a single episode of TNG.  That makes me wonder how much input he had in the writing of a story that’s primarily about the Enterprise D crew.  I'm guessing we have Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens to thank for the majority of it.  But who’s to blame for repeatedly misquoting a famous speech from ST II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)?  And it'll sound finicky but Data casually using contractions in everyday speech irks me, even when acknowledging events in 'The Offspring' episode.

It's a brave attempt at creating a novel for Trek fans who have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the franchise, but the application of that same knowledge to the behaviour of certain characters will leave many a discerning reader unhappy.

The next book in the Shatnerverse series is a direct sequel titled Avenger (1997), but I don't think I can take any more of the pulp-hero, bravado bullshit.

2½ forgotten skills out of 5

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Star Trek: The Ashes of Eden (1995)

Authors: William Shatner / Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens  |  Page Count: 309

He gulped a mouthful of Scotch.  Felt it burn his throat—ice cold and fire hot at the same time.  That was his poetry.  Sensation.  Being alive.

TAoE begins just a few hours after the ending of the Star Trek: Generations (1994) movie, so you’ll need to have seen it first.  But to really get the most from the book, you’ll need to have seen all the TOS movies too, because the story is one of reflection on what’s passed as well as a look to the future.  Even though it’s technically set post-Generations, ninety-nine percent of it is a flashback to an era before Kirk stepped aboard the Enterprise-B, shortly after the political upheaval that occurred at Camp Khitimer (ST VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)).

Didn't you wonder what happened to the Enterprise-A?  Without a ship to command, Kirk is a little lost—it’s as if his very reason for living has been suspended—and daily Starfleet duties do little to assuage the feelings.  He’s secretly hungering for adventure, and more often than not someone with that goal will either find what he’s looking for or set it in motion himself.

It was co-written by Shatner, so it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to learn that Kirk is not just a man’s man within its pages, he’s the hero’s hero.  He's the lover, fighter, tactical thinker, master of combat, etc.  Parts of it do feel like an exercise in ego-stroking, but some of the conclusions made by the character parallel Shatner’s own public life, so at least he’s writing about what he knows.

Beyond that, how do you make a great man even more amazing?  Have him be humble in the presence of simplicity and beauty, but just enough to make him relatable to the common man, lest it detract from the active role he played in his own accomplishments.  Alternatively, don’t make an issue of his legendary status, and by so doing you’ll reaffirm his legendary status.  It’s win-win for Kirk, and an occasionally sickening, self-indulgent bore for the reader.

The book is the first part of what’s become known as the ‘Shatnerverse’ series of novels.  There were nine books in all, three trilogies, by the same authors.  The events in each draw from the rich Trek history but are a separate continuity as the ongoing Pocket Books series.  The next entry was called The Return (1996).

2½ game-changing rules out of 5

Monday, November 3, 2014

Scar Tissue (2004)

Author: Anthony Kiedis, Larry Sloman | Page Count: 465
"I was still high out of my mind and trying not to lose an eyeball or tuft of hair, so I started running through the halls. Jennifer chased me. For some reason, I had a bag of cookies, so I started throwing the cookies at her, to keep her far enough away that she couldn't connect with any of her punches."
Scar Tissue chronicles the life of Anthony Kiedis, lead singer of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, from his birth and childhood in Michigan to his adolescence in Southern California to the formation of the band and his trials and tribulations with fame, love, and drug addiction all the way to his sober present while living a life that was totally untethered and impulsive.

The text reads as if Keidis is telling the story right to the reader which is pretty much how it was written since it was transcribed by Sloman as it was told to him with surprising recollection and detail by Keidis. The window it opens into the world of music and fame is fascinating as well as the change in culture that would allow a prepubescent kid to skateboard around a city unmonitored just exploring and experiencing. That isn't unheard of nowadays, but parents are sometimes arrested for that lack of chaperoning. Keidis' own personal journey is a running theme throughout from his self described egomania to his much healthier and calmer "life of service" which is equally fascinating. There are also several photos presented offering a visual look into his life that are interesting. An absorbing read punctuated with some insights and peeks into the hollywood behind-the-scenes.

4 Nothing drops the panties faster than music out of 5

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Shining (1977)

Author: Stephen King |  Page Count: 512

'A shaft of light coming from another room, the bathroom, harsh white light and a word flickering on and off in the medicine cabinet mirror like a red eye, REDRUM, REDRUM, REDRUM— '

The Overlook Hotel, aptly named in more ways than one, has an attic filled with memories and a basement filled with recorded history, printed and imprinted, waiting to be rediscovered. Sandwiched between the two catalysts are the guest rooms, impersonal spaces haunted by deeds more permanent than the people that temporarily occupied them. They say every hotel has its ghosts, but the ones in the Overlook are more active than most other places.

As struggling writer Jack Torrance receives the details of his winter assignment at the Overlook, the reader gets a detailed rundown of the building, albeit from a biased perspective. It's an efficient device that also gives us our first insight into Jack's thought process. He's a quick-tempered, ex-alcoholic who's seriously lacking in paternal skills. Even when he's trying to be pleasant and caring it's hard to like him because his inner-bastard is always present, waiting for an opportunity to gain the upper hand. More often than not, if he does a good deed it's in the hope that it'll be noticed and go toward balancing out his meanness, not for any inherent sense of rightness for its own sake.

Time-bomb Jack's five-year-old son, Danny, is the most fascinating character. He wants to ease the tension that exists between his parents. He takes the weight of responsibility for their happiness onto his young shoulders and won't do anything to upset it, even if it traumatises him. He's a mirror opposite to Jack's selfishness.

Danny has a level of intelligence not often found in someone his age, but what sets him apart even more from the norm is his special insight into what people are thinking. Unfortunately for the boy, the feelings he receives must share space with childhood fears and a very fertile imagination.

The conflict of the already broken family unit trying to hold together while their environment tries to tear them apart is the main focus, but there's horror elements, too, internal and externalised, that are more chilling than terrifying.

It's a long book with a lengthy build-up period. I admit I got bored more than once with some of the superfluous aspects of the many backstories, but each time was short-lived because King's fluidic prose pulled me back into the action when he returned the story to the present. Also, I'd hoped for an ending more memorable than the one given. It wasn't a letdown, but it didn't outclass what preceded it. It's one of those 'the journey is better than the destination' novels.

3½ unquiet guests out of 5

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Stepford Wives (1972)

Author: Ira Levin  |  Page Count: 139

It’s not a town where reactions can develop to anything.  There’s no place where people really intersect, except the Men’s Association.”

Joanna Eberhart is a wife and mother; she’s a photographer, an observer of life; and she’s a feminist. When she moves with her husband and two children to the seemingly utopian town of Stepford, the male-centric activities of the Men’s Association really get her goat. What’s worse is that the women, the other wives, are like picture book clichés, prime candidates for the Cult of Domesticity annual calendar, with perfect smiles and perfect tits. Joanna tries to initiate change but meets opposition; she then decides to make everyone else's business her own.

I didn't much like The Stepford Wives.  I found it tedious and lacking drive.  It didn't get even vaguely interesting until after page 100, and there are only 139 pages in the entire book.  But it wasn't badly written.  It wasn't wasteful.  It was just dull.

It works perfectly as a satire of deeper concerns, a focus upon which was much more politically stirring in the 70s when it was written, but as an enjoyable novel not so much. The term ‘Stepford Wife’ has entered the vernacular of popular culture, so I'm going to assume most of you will be able to garner what those concerns are. That knowledge may have been part of my problem: knowing in advance what the big twist was left me with nothing to get excited about.

Joanna and Walter exist separately most of the time, so we never really get an in-depth view of how loving their relationship is or isn't. He supports her, they sleep together and they appear to share some beliefs, but there was no evidence of love or even desire for each other in their daily lives. They were flat, lifeless characters, which left me indifferent to their individual plights.

I'm one of those people whose inner-voice emphasises italics whilst reading because that’s what they’re there to denote, an emphasis, but they were so abundant that doing so got to be a real pain. If you do the same thing with this sentence, you’ll understand perhaps what I mean when I say italics should be used in moderation. Now, wasn't that a pain in the ass?!

I acknowledge that it’s achieved ‘classic’ status, but there’s no right or wrong where subjectivity is concerned, and we don’t all like the same things.

2½ notes on newcomers out of 5

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Night Watch (1998)

Author: Sergei Lukyanenko  |  Translator: Andrew Bromfield  |  Page Count: 489

'Many years ago someone told me something that I flatly refused to accept.  And I still don't accept it now, despite all the times I've seen it proved right.'

Night Watch are the good guys; up to a point.  They have their own agenda, like any organisation, but on a day-to-day basis they’re responsible for policing the actions of their opposites, the Dark Others.  The Dark ones draw their power from the negative feelings of mankind; some even feed on mankind itself, but that requires special dispensation.  Balance is all important.  If the evil should outweigh the good, the world is screwed.  If the good should outweigh the evil, the world is screwed from the other side.  But knowing that doesn't stop either side from trying to achieve dominance.  Among the casualties will be us, the humans.

Both the Light and Dark Others, irrespective of rank, have access to a deeper level of reality known as the Twilight, a place that exists beneath the fragile top skin of our own world.  The Twilight has many uses but equally as many dangers.  It's not a place for sparkly vampires who like to sniff girls.

Much like the Twilight, the events in the novel take place on a number of layers: there’s the familiar world we know; the unfamiliar world of the Watches; and the fantastical world that we can imagine exists all around us, separate from but wholly dependent on the other two for its contrasts and sense of magical realism.

Anton Gorodetsky exists in all three of those worlds; he's our guide.  Anton is a Light Other, relatively new to field work.  He patrols the night, hoping to catch the Dark ones doing something they ought not be doing so that he, and his organisation by extension, can gain an advantage in the inevitable war.  He knows that even little things, if left unchecked, can develop into catastrophic things.

The urge to read faster almost overwhelmed me as I neared the end of the novel, as the layering increased even more, but I knew I had to keep pace or risk overlooking something crucial.  Only the best stories have that quality.

4½ divergences in the probability field out of 5

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Girl with All the Gifts (2014)

Author: M.R. Carey  |  Page Count: 460

'…[S]ome things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl "I'm here for you", the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement.'

The only thing I knew about the book before picking it up was that the author, M.R. Carey, was a pen name of Mike Carey, and seeing as how I'm a huge fan of Carey's work in comics I bought it. I didn't even read the blurb on the back, not that it would have helped any. In truth, if I'd known what genre the novel fell into, then I'd probably have placed it back on the shelf. But then I'd have missed out on solid worldbuilding and characters that had more to say than it seemed at first.

The post-apocalyptic setting isn't very original and many of the events will be recognisable to fans of that kind of cinema, but woven within the familiar encounters are some thoroughly engaging stand-off and bonding moments.

The narrative voice is present tense, split between that of a young girl, Melanie, and a small number of very different adults. Melanie's education is limited, for reasons I won't divulge, but she's intelligent with well-developed cognitive abilities, so her responses and judgements aren't typically childish. Furthermore, there's both a sympathetic, fragile tenderness and a contrasting savage darkness lingering at the edge of each of them. What that means for the reader is that even mundane events take on a special kind of observational critique.

In many ways it's a road movie (okay, road book) in which the road is fraught with danger and overrun with visible reminders of why each character is wired the way they are. It forces us to ask if they would be much different if the circumstances weren't so grave. Also, for a child, trust and love are connected, two halves of the same treasure, is that something we outgrow as adults, or does it just become greyer, more complex? Those questions, and more, linger after each encounter and are the meat of what kept me page-turning into the small hours.

3½ partially normalised social contexts out of 5

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search: Part 2 (2013)

Author: Gene Luen Yang | Page Count: 76
When people come to your throne room and bow, they're not bowing to you. They're bowing to what you represent.
Continuing on their quest to find the whereabouts of Ursa, the Gaang are increasingly at odds with Azula until Zuko makes a concession over Ursa's letter and a confession to Aang about his willingness to rule. With some peace between them, they make it to Ursa's hometown of Hira'a  where they meet the director of the acting troupe of which Ursa used to be a member. The director leads them towards Forgetful Valley, a dangerous place where people who enter supposedly never return.

The suspense is killing me, but leaves me giddy with excitement. The characters felt so alive, I could picture them moving like I was watching the show, especially a certain bit of Sokka making faces. The interwoven flashbacks are also deliciously revealing and contain quite a few continuity nods to the series. Azula's antagonism was a little tiresome as it was clear that she would only freak out so as to add some drama that wasn't really needed, but she is there so she needs something to do. Still a decent read with great art, characters and the reveals on a tragic and romantic story.

4 involuntary poop face out of 5

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Assassin's Creed: The Chain (2012)

Authors: Cameron Stewart / Karl Kerschl  |  Illustrators: Cameron Stewart / Karl Kerschl  |  Page Count: 96

"They like to think of themselves as a Brotherhood. A family. But if that’s true, then they’re a family of wolves."

A sequel to Assassin's Creed: The Fall (2011) that continues the story of both Daniel Cross and the assassin Nikolai Orelov. In one man's world a peace time is broken, while in the other a kind of peace is attained but it’s quite possibly fallacious.

The book explores the resultant struggles of the two men, but it's difficult to say how Daniel got to where he is at the beginning without spoiling the end of the previous entry, so I’ll take the easy option and not mention him again directly. On the other hand, the Russian born Nikolai's story is easier to summarise. He's settled in a new territory but experiences the same old prejudices. It follows that where there’s hatred and men willing to do evil for money there’s often tragedy.

Central to everything, and the part that carries the most emotional weight, is the journey of a young boy who learns the difference between killing out of necessity or mercy and allowing suffering to continue by doing nothing—the understanding of which is a basic tenet of the Assassin order.

There’s a second lesson to be learned, too, that every deed has consequences even if sometimes they take years to surface or occur. How we deal with them determines what kind of man we are, and that in turn determines which side an individual is compelled to take in the Templar/Assassin war.

There are a number of pages with little or no dialogue, meaning the onus is on the art to tell the story, which it does very effectively. The changing colour palette also contributes in a clever, almost subliminal way.

3 balance adjustments out of 5

Monday, September 22, 2014

Lone Wolf and Cub: Omnibus: Volume Five (2014)

Author: Kazuo Koike | Illustrator: Goseki Kojima | Page Count: 712

"Love, affection, obligation, revenge!  Joy, anger, sorrow, pleasure!  Of the human emotions we choose revenge!"

Three years have passed since father and son set out on the road.  In that time there's been much death and there’s more to come.  The Yagyū letter arc that featured in Volume Four continues into Volume Five.  The Lone Wolf, Ogami Ittō, who carries the letter on his person, is hunting for his missing son, Daigoro.  The perspective is split between his journey and the lost and lonely Cub's search for his father.  Even when separated the path on which they walk is unchanged, so neither of them neglects their other duties.

For Daigoro, even being close to death is no reason not to honour a father’s teachings.  For Ogami and Retsudō, history repeats.  For the Yagyū clan, the retrieval of the letter is all-important, because if the secret hidden within it is discovered then the consequences for them would be grave.  Everyone has something to lose and no one is prepared to be the one that does.

One of the things that fascinates me the most about the series, other than the two protagonists, of course, is the way Kazuo Koike is able to put us quickly and directly into the troubled mindset of the people that hire Ogami to kill on their behalf.  They've reached the end of their tether and it's snapped, but does that justify paying a man with a child five hundred ryō to kill someone?  If we sympathise with their situation, quite often the answer to that is a resounding yes.

The book collects together chapters 53 - 63 of the original Lone Wolf and Cub manga (the remainder of Volume 10: Hostage Child; all of Volume 11: Talisman of Hades; and all of Volume 12: Shattered Stones).

5 wild dogs out of 5

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Mrs Fry's Diary (2010)

Author: Mrs Stephen Fry  | Page Count: 346

We told the kids a homicidal clown lives in their wardrobe today.  It wasn't an April Fool, we just thought they should know.’

Mrs Fry’s Diary is a diary by Mrs Fry, the fictional wife of the recipient of the reincarnated wit of Oscar Wilde, Stephen Fry.  Edna, as she’s also known, is oblivious to her husband's career as a television and radio personality.  She believes him to be an occasional window cleaner, taxi driver, avid collector of Razzle magazine and part-time father to her six kids.  (Or is it seven?  She’s not entirely sure.)  Her struggles and flashes of insight are recorded on a daily basis, and when read chronologically they become a kind of story.

I've read a small number of books written in a diary format, and out of curiosity have even used it myself on one occasion, but I'm definitely not a fan of it.  It's difficult to engage with the start / stop nature of the narrative.  It’s like reading twitter.  Apparently Mrs Fry is a popular tweeter.  That was news to me.  Unlike Stephen, I have nothing nice to say about Twitter at all but it doesn't look like it’s going to go away any time soon, more's the pity.

Anyhow, back to the book.  There are dozens of subtle references to Stephen’s career both past and present buried in the wordplay that long-time fans will get extra chuckles from, knowledge of which isn't a prerequisite but will definitely make a reading more enjoyable.  It’ll also help if you’re able to spot references to other famous literary works, and know what tinned Spam tastes like.

3 pitchers of Dorian Gray tea out of 5

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Death Note: Black Edition: Vols I - VI (2011)

Author: Tsugumi Ohba  |  Illustrator: Takeshi Obata  |  Page Count: Approx 400 in each volume (2424 in total)

We’re both using them as bait to lure each other out...
and we’re both well aware of that…

At its most basic level, Death Note is the story of two determined individuals, each of whom have people that support them in various ways.

The first is Light Yagami, a seventeen-year-old high school student with a high IQ, an elevated sense of superiority and a tendency to get bored easily. He wants to make the world a better place and doesn't care who he has to step on to achieve it.

The second is his nemesis, the mysteriously named L, a young, reclusive detective with a sharp, analytical and overly-suspicious mind. L never fails in anything he does but he’s never been up against anyone as merciless as Light Yagami before.

What unfolds is a battle of skills, wills and wits between a pair of evenly matched masters of second-guessing and deductive reasoning. When the line between who’s the protagonist and who’s the antagonist begins to blur, the question of what's right and what's wrong grows more and more difficult to answer.

Revelling in the chaos caused by the actions and reactions of the two main characters is Ryuk, a Shinigami. Ryuk’s not the sharpest tool in the box but that trait makes him arguably more interesting: there’s the possibility of a false sense of security being devolved between the Shinigami and the human it attaches to.

Obata’s artwork is amazing. He gives every detail full attention, from the smallest car headlight to the largest building. I could fill an entire post about just it.

I must mention Misa Amane. The story doesn't have many female characters, but even if it had Misa would eclipse them all. For a time she’s one of the most fascinating, tragic additions to any manga I've ever read. It’s a shame that she gets shuffled to the side as the story goes on.

Note: There are six volumes in the Black Edition that when collected together contain all twelve of the original mangas. Alternatively, you can buy a box set for only a few notes more that collects the same twelve books as individual editions. The box also includes a thirteenth volume of character profiles and production art, etc. The reason I chose the Black Editions is because they're slightly larger than the usual manga format (the same as a Viz Big) and seeing the art presented as beautifully as possible is more important to me than shelf-busting packaging.

5 distinctions out of 5

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Doctor Who and the Loch Ness Monster (2012)

Author: Terrance Dicks | Page Count: 162

A hand came down on Sarah’s shoulder.  But it wasn’t a human hand.  It was orange-green in colour, claw-like and alien.’

There’s something rotten in Scotland and it isn't just haggis.  In the village of Tulloch, located in the South highlands, strange happenings warrant the attention of no one’s favourite military organisation, UNIT, and everyone’s favourite time-hopping eccentric, the Doctor (fourth incarnation).  He’s going to need that scarf.

Sarah Jane Smith provides commentary on the Doctor’s actions and draws attention to his quirks when needed, for those readers not familiar with them already.  She gets some investigative scenes of her own; she was a journalist after all, so that makes sense.  With Sarah being useful the plot needed a bitch to be kidnapped. i.e. Harry Sullivan, the third wheel.  Poor Harry wasn't cut out for adventure.  And finally Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart is… well… he just is.

It’s a reprint of the original Target edition (Doctor Who Library #40) published in 1976 that was itself based on a four episode arc of the Doctor Who TV series (Terror of the Zygons) originally broadcast from August to September 1975.  I admit to not having seen the original episodes but familiarly with the production values of the show during that era and with Tom Baker’s inimitable style made it easy to visualise the happenings.

It’s not the most exciting Doctor Who book I've ever read but I never expect high art when I sit down to this kind of thing.  I expect hurried advancements and convenient turns that get me from point A: danger and mystery, to point B: happy resolution.  It delivers that with some cheapo 70s charm.  Job done.

2 hullabaloos out of 5

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dredd: The Illustrated Movie Script and Visuals (2014)

Author: Alex Garland | Illustrator: Jock | Page Count: 240

You were shit out of luck when you ran into the Ma-Ma clan.

If there’d been a poll asking what people would like to see in a book titled 'Illustrated Movie Script and Visuals,' everything that’s already included would be on my list.  As someone who enjoys Dredd comics, screenplays and can happily waste an hour studying concept art, it seems almost tailor-made.

On the left hand pages is Garland’s script, laid out in the usual format.  It’s also where you’ll find trivia, concept art depicting various stages of evolution and full colour production stills, not all of which were used in the final version (unused hall of justice, judge badges, etc), with brief passages of text describing what each one is and how it fits into the overall structure.  It’s the ‘Visuals’ half of the book.

The right hand pages display the ‘Illustrated Movie Script’ half.  Jock’s sketches give life to the scene as written on the left.  The monochrome art is somewhere between traditional storyboards (minus the giant arrows) and a regular panelled comic.  It's filled in places with black and white screen tones (repeating dot patterns often seen in manga).  Dialogue is included.  It’s the best of both worlds.

Had it been created after the film I’d have said there’s a vibrancy and urgency to the lines that capture and communicate the gritty, uncompromising and violent aspect well.  But it was made first, so it’s fair to say that the film captured those aspects of Jock’s sketches.  Had a non-comic artist been responsible, someone without a history of Dredd, the film might not have felt so authentic.

I found it more enjoyable to read the comic part in one sitting, and go back afterwards to concentrate on the left hand pages.  Doing that spilt the book into two distinct halves but the alternative was disruptive to the flow of the story.

People who bought Dredd: The Screenplay (2012) as an ebook might be a little sore double-dipping but if any of the additional content mentioned above is to your liking, there’s likely enough to warrant a repurchase.

5 Munce Box Meals out of 5

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Guru Is Born (2012)

Author:  Takeshi Kitano  |  Translator:  Dawn T. Laabs  |  Page Count: 189

It’s easier said than done. It takes real strength to live freely, and if you’re still working at it, then you’re not really free.”

Beneath a cover that appears to promise some kind of awful beach novel is a story about religion and its usefulness, or lack of.  The deeper aspects of Japanese religion would be lost on most Westerners but the novel isn't really about that, although being able to use it as a contrast would certainly be useful.  It focuses on one of the many religious sects that pop up across the country like weeds in a neglected but fertile field.  The ones that mix old and new, creating something not quite as unique as they like to pretend they are.  Kitano is both a traditionalist and a rule breaker, so that particular mix is perfect fodder for him to explore.

At a gathering of one such group is Kazuo Takayama, a young guy hunting for a cause to believe in.  He dares to believe that the lack of satisfaction he feels about life will ease if he's able to devote his efforts to something altogether larger than himself.  He's awed by the figurehead of the group, the silent Guru, a miracle-worker of great importance.  In Kazuo’s inexperienced mind the serendipitous nature of such a meeting can’t be mere coincidence.

Even in translation the language is whittled down to just the essentials without losing the beauty of allusion.  Within the larger whole are numerous tiny passages that can only be described as the product of a haiku culture.  They aren't structured as haikus but they work upon the reader in a similar way.

Unlike the majority of the Western world, Japanese stories don’t require an easy resolution.  It’s something I've gotten used to in film, they’re usually only 90 – 120 minutes of my life, but in literature, where much more time is invested, usually over a number of days, it’s still a bit of a shock when it happens.

2½ end results out of 5

Note: Guru was originally published in Japan in 1990.  It was adapted into a film by Toshihiro Tenma, titled Kyôso tanjô (1993); known as Many Happy Returns in English, although at time of writing it seems to be unavailable for purchase.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Judge Anderson: PSI Files Volume 4 (2014)

Author: Alan Grant  |  Illustrators: Steve Sampson / Arthur Ranson  |  Page Count: 304

'Resyk was way past its limit – an’ the corpses just kept pilin' up.'

Anything goes (usually illegally) in Mega-City One, but esoteric concerns have always been better suited to Anderson's corner than that of the typical street judges. There's a lot of that kind of thing in Vol 4 and she's at the centre of it.

The first part finishes Steve Sampson's excellent run on art duties. He returns the reins to series regular Arthur Ranson for a multi-part epic that manages to be set present day (for the Meg) and simultaneously be tied into an event that happened prior Necropolis. It could've been a mess but it isn't, it works and it references a lot of history while doing so. It's also bloody and gruesome in places.

Being a senior PSI means Anderson's often relied upon to make the big decisions, but for her sometimes the personal ones are the biggest of all and there's nothing more personal than the world that's formed when you retreat into the confines of your own mind. With imagination having no boundaries, the vastness can be terrifying; more so when your deadliest enemy has also spent some time there.

If she's to be saved then the decision-making will need to fall to someone else, followed by consequences carefully weighed and action taken. It's fortunate she has a good working relationship with the current Chief Judge.

Something that not unique to 2000 AD and the Megazine, but certainly isn't commonplace in comics, is the acknowledgement that characters get older. They have a finite period of usefulness. For Judges that means it's only a matter of time before they’re either dead or forced to take the Long Walk into the Cursed Earth. Anderson isn't at that stage yet, but it's on the horizon.

As usual there are brief 'bonus stories' at the back of the book taken from various 2000 AD / Dredd specials, collectively featuring scripts by Mark Millar and Tony Luke with illustrations by Dermot Power and Russell Fox.

4 fields of death out of 5

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Cowboys for Christ (2006) / The Wicker Tree (2011)

Author: Robin Hardy | Page Count: 216

"I am what the Goddess wants me to be.  All things to all men."

The Wicker Tree was originally published in 2006 as Cowboys for Christ, but the title was later changed to match the name of the filmed version (2011).  Normally I'd cynically bemoan such a change but the film was directed by the author, so it's not piggybacking sales on the strength of someone else's adaptation.

It’s Hardy’s semi-sequel to The Wicker Man (1978) but it has none of the same characters.  It's a sequel only in that it once again explores the similarities and differences between two different faiths, namely Christianity and Paganism.

Batting for God are two young born-again Christians from America: a successful pop singer turned evangelical voice of an angel, Beth Boothby, and her rather dim cowboy fiancé, Steve Thompson.  The two hopeful missionaries leave Texas to spread the good word in Tressock, a town of happy heathens situated close to the Scottish/English border.  Many of the Goddess-worshipping Scots welcome the pair warmly, especially Sir Lachlan Morrison and his wife Delia.  Lachlan is a businessman who also functions as a kind of well-respected town spokesperson.

The differences between the two cultures plays a crucial role.  Robin Hardy returns to the subject often, sometimes playfully and sometimes sensitively.  His writing is still occasionally awkward—there are continuity errors and unnecessary scenes that serve no purpose—but the structure, as before spread over just a few days, feels more natural than it did in The Wicker Man novelisation.

However, Beth and Steve are so fucking naïve that I found it impossible to get attached to either of them.  They walk into dangerous situations clearly signposted from a mile away.  If they weren't so Scooby-Doo dumb, if they had some believability to their actions and reactions, perhaps the exchanges and story twists would've felt more consequential and less shoehorned in.

Nevertheless, it's a better novel (but not a better story) than it's predecessor.  I'm going to keep my fingers crossed that the novelisation of the next planned film, The Wrath of the Gods (2015), follows the trend and is better again.

3 stuffed birds out of 5

Monday, August 4, 2014

An Abundance Of Katherines (2006)

Author: John Green | Page Count: 236
It kept the loneliness of crushlessness from being entirely crushing. Driving was a kind of thinking, the only kind he could then tolerate. But still, the thought lurked out there, just beyond the reach of his headlights: he'd been dumped. By a girl named Katherine. For the nineteenth time.
Colin Singleton is an awkward former child prodigy who has yet to live up to his potential. Much to his chagrin, he has yet to turn his intellect into anything resembling extraordinary; what he calls a "eureka moment". This is only exacerbated by his girlfriend, a girl named Katherine, dumping him; a scenario that has happened to him a total of 19 times. To help him heal from the breakup and assess his life, his middle eastern friend, Hassan,  takes him on a road trip.

Colin's obsession with the name Katherine is one of his many eccentricities which also include excessive anagramming of words and phrases and adding lists in the middle of sentences. Since he cannot seem to make himself matter to the world, mattering to his girlfriends worked as a substitute until they inevitably crush him. Colin's motivation for learning and excellence contrast with Hassan who has no game with the ladies and is excessively lazy. Watching Judge Judy instead of enrolling in college classes is his favorite past-time as well as jabbing Colin on his awkwardness and atheism. Both are set to learn something on this road trip.

Colin is supposedly unlikeable, but I found him much more interesting than the protagonist of author John Green's previous novel, but this second novel is full of his non condescending and flawed, but personal characterizations that would become even more refined in his later novels. The inserted footnotes are both informative and entertaining and similar to the list interjections that Colin favors which makes me feel Green has put some of himself in the character. This only helped with the engagingly thoughtful ideas that really make the book worthy of any reader and not just the "young adults" it is targeted at.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand out of 5

Saturday, August 2, 2014

.hack//Alcor (2009)

Author: Kanami Amou | Illustrator: Rena Izumibara | Page Count: 176

“…do you have any quests where you don’t have to fight?

The .hack// world can accommodate many kinds of stories within its virtual bordered structure. Alcor is just one of the possibilities. It’s a one-shot about Nanase, a young girl who wants to progress in life but is afraid of taking risks and of failure. She uses the game world as an escape, but brings into it her anxieties and failings, making her online world as complicated as her offline one.

Except it’s not complicated at all. The book could easily be summed up in one sentence. I won't do that, so don't worry.

It’s fair to say, though, hopefully without seeming too harsh that it's wishy-washy, angsty, early-teen drama. So if you're an irritating, self-absorbed, angsty teen with troubles of your own making, Alcor might just be for you.

Most everyone else will have trouble connecting because the other characters, of which there are many, are loosely written and two-dimensional. It’s only Nanase who provides any kind of solid gateway into the work. That may have been the author's plan from the outset, because it's clearly targeting a younger, less emotionally discerning demographic. If so. then the book successfully explores another aspect of the hack// versatility that I mentioned previously.

2 lucky animals out of 5

Monday, July 28, 2014

Judge Dredd: Necropolis (1998)

Author: John Wagner  |  Illustrator: Carlos Ezquerra  |  Page Count: 192

If you bring them back, th-thousands will die!
I disagree. You’re setting your sights too low. All will die. Total annihilation – it’s the best way!

In light of some poor decisions by the Justice Department, Chief Judge Silver makes another one that leaves the Big Meg vulnerable. Elsewhere, a door is being opened to a place where judgement of the guilty and the innocent returns the same sentence…the Sisters of Death are ready to move.

Ah, Necropolis. There have been bigger and some would say better Dredd epics since then but it remains my favourite for a number of reasons. It’s not Dredd specific. The story, by original creators Wagner and Ezquerra, is much too big for just one man to carry. PSI Division plays an important role, which means Judge Anderson's talents are needed. It splits the reactions and resolutions in a number of different ways. That could've made it feel fragmented but John Wagner was too focussed to allow that to happen. The build up toward it was extensive (see below) and the aftermath shaped many aspects of the world and the works that followed. In short, it was a huge game changer.

It’s from an era when 2000 AD was commissioning fully painted artwork for many of its ongoing stories. There are time-saving colour blocks but it doesn't feel like a cop out; the colours used are often representative of deeper allusions (e.g. the colours of malady). Ezquerra’s art style will forever be associated with Dredd; those weird black dashes that he uses to outline certain characters became a part of that. I even began to miss them when they weren't there.

Some backstory is needed if you're to fully understand the scope of what happens during the 26 chapter storyline, why it happens and how the Justice Department themselves were partly responsible. The minimum of which would be knowledge of the Morton Judd / Judda storyline and The Dead Man arc. The latter acts as an essential prelude to Necropolis and helps explain why Joe looks like someone has taken a huge acidic shit on his face.

It might sound like a daunting task tracking it all down but Rebellion made it easy by reprinting all past adventures in chronological order as The Complete Case Files. I don’t know which volumes you’ll need because I've not bought them yet, but if you’re still reading this then you’re well equipped to find the answers.

5 black hearts out of 5

EDIT: According to Wiki, the entire Necropolis story is in The Complete Case Files: Volume 14, along with The Dead Man arc that I mentioned above.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Assassin's Creed: The Fall (2011)

Authors: Cameron Stewart / Karl Kerschl  |  Illustrators: Cameron Stewart / Karl Kerschl  |  Page Count: 96 / 128 (Deluxe)

"Nothing is true, everything is permitted…"

Considering how asinine and clusterfucky the story of the AC games was, is and likely will become, I didn't have high hopes for The Fall. Shock news: It’s surprisingly good. It's not amazing but it does a better job at balancing two different time periods and making them feel like one cohesive whole than any of the games I've played so far have managed to do.*

You ought to know by now that each instalment has two protagonists; one in the present and one in the past. In the present (sometime around the turn of the 21st Century) there’s Daniel Cross. The book spends a fair amount of time showing us what kind of guy Daniel is and, perhaps more importantly, what kind of guy he isn't. He’s not a noble champion of the people. He’s quick to anger and full of doubts, dislikes authority, enjoys a drink and is slowly spiralling out of control.

By contrast his ancestor, a Russian born assassin named Nikolai Orelov, is selfless, honourable and fully committed to a cause greater than himself. His goal is that of all his Order: to stop the Templars from creating a new Eden structured solely to service them. (If you think about it, there are zealots on both sides.)

There are similarities between game and comic, such as the obligatory artefact that, like Desmond’s Apple, is of great importance but easily forgettable. However, by being self-contained the book doesn't have to drag out the modern day part of the story ad nauseam. It has a proper beginning / middle / end.

Okay, there’s a sequel, so you could argue that the 'end' is merely a stop gap, but you don’t have to read the sequel if you don’t want to. In short, it doesn't tease you with something and then fail to deliver it like the games do.

The artwork serves the story well. Panels aren't just rigid squares, there’s some thought put into them, including splash panels and pages when needed.

The Deluxe Edition has some extras including a 10-page epilogue that diminishes the power of the original ending and leads into AC: The Chain (2012). If you've more money than sense, both The Fall and The Chain were collected together in AC: Subject Four, a TPB that was part of The Ubiworkshop Edition of AC III (2012).

2½ things that 'used to be' out of 5

*You can read reviews of some of the games on our sister site, Nut Load.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

3001: The Final Odyssey (1997)

Author: Arthur C. Clarke | Page Count: 272

Finding TMA ONE on the Moon was a big enough shock, but five hundred years later there was a worse one.  And it was much nearer home…’

3001 is the fourth and, like it says in the title, final entry in the Space Odyssey series.  It’s a kind of semi-return to form after the abominable 2061 (1987).

Clarke seems to have enjoyed speculating about future technology and society almost as much as he enjoyed detailing the minutia of space dust and comet trajectories in previous books.  His enthusiasm translates into reader interest.  We came for science fiction and we got it.  It does eventually give way to droll lecturing, but it's broken up by some interesting letters to home that comment on developments and give an insight into people's thoughts.

The main protagonist is someone we've encountered before, but I'm not gong to reveal who it is even though the blurb on the back does.

There’s a secondary character introduced about halfway through that I suspect functions as the voice of the author undiluted.  He comes into the story, says some poignant things and then gets shuffled aside like the others.

That’s illustrative of the main problem with the book.  The characters are interesting but mostly they feel like nothing more than conduits to enable events to move from point A to point B.  It’s point B that we all want to know about, so it’s some consolation that when we do get there it references the previous adventures and uses our feelings of what transpired to enhance it.

Once again, there's some acknowledged minor inconsistencies in continuity due to real life science and space exploration catching up with or shedding new light on Clarke’s educated guesses.  In that respect, the entire series can be viewed as both a product of its time and a fixed record of how real science influenced the fiction writer.  It does that more successfully than it does most everything else.

2½ long-distance deliveries out of 5

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Ōkami: Official Complete Works Art Book (2008)

Author: Capcom | Illustrator: Various | Page Count: 288

As my evangelical work, I do record herein the various events to which I bore witness during my long travels with Ōkami Amaterasu.’
~Issun, Celestial Envoy.

It seems like every cash-grabbing, whoring video game developer or publisher these days is producing special editions of their biggest titles that require fans to dig deep into their pockets to acquire.  Most include some kind of plastic figurine with little or no articulation; they’re for display purposes only and that’s fine as long as you know beforehand what you’re getting.

The lazier developers don’t bother with any kind of plastic tat.  They throw in an A5 art book with shiny paper and minimal content and think it'll suffice.  The Ōkami Complete Works is like that except it’s on a bigger, grander and more beautiful scale.  Another difference is that it wasn't part of a game bundle.  It’s a separate release.  But if ever a game needed an art book, it was Ōkami.* It crosses the line from fan-pleasing tie-in into a collection of genuine artwork that justifies itself by being worthy of gallery space.  The Japanese watercolour style that made the game so stunning is returned to its origins on parchment style paper.

You get all the usual stuff, character art, concept sketches, location designs and production notes from the creators of the game (Clover Studios), but you also get some piano arrangements at the back of the book, so if you’re able to read music you can learn how to play the score.  I’m aware this’ll sound like I'm fan-wanking pretty hard but the music of the game is one of the finest video game scores I've ever heard.  Even separate from the imagery, if you play it to someone who likes Japanese instrumentation they’ll likely fall in love.

If you’re a fan of this kind of thing and can afford the asking price, it doesn't get any better than the Official Complete Works.

5 image scrolls out of 5

*There's a review of the game on our sister site, Nut Load.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Escape From Camp 14 (2012)

Author: Blaine Harden | Page Count: 210
A perverse benefit of birth in the camp was a complete absence of expectations.
And so Shin's misery never skidded into complete hopelessness. He had no hope to lose, no past to mourn, no pride to defend. He did not find it degrading to lick soup off the floor. He was not ashamed to beg a guard for forgiveness. It didn't trouble his conscience to betray a friend for food. These were merely survival skills, not motives for suicide.

Escape From Camp 14 tells the true story of a North Korean man Shin Dong-hyuk as he was born in a political prisoner labor camp, his life growing up inside and his eventual escape from the camp and North Korea. The hardships that he faced are some of the worst crimes against human rights that can be imagined. I felt a sort of disconnect at first like I was reading a history similar to the holocaust or stories of Russian gulags; terrible but with a distance that time and historical perspective brings. The author and Shin however stress in the text how North Korea has perpetrated among the cruelest and most long running campaigns of human rights violations ever that is still going on right now and how it is allowed to continue by a clusterfuck of politics, denial, conspiracy and apathy.

That is the point, but the tale itself is more personal as it relates to Shin. He is one of many who were trained from birth to be subservient to authority with no cause towards things like human dignity and integrity as well as the physical hardships of forced slave labor, malnutrition, starvation and murder. Things like respect and love were not even foreign concepts; they didn't exist at all. When his mother and brother are executed for a planned escape, Shin is forced to watch and won't meet his mother's  eye not because he can't bear the sight of her death, but because he was angry at her for putting him in danger by escaping. She was his mother only by fact she birthed him, but there was no love. She was just a person and competitor for food who would beat him when he stole her lunch. Even his eventual escape wasn't prodded on by some grandiose uprising of the human spirit within him. He escaped because he was tired of being hungry and heard from an outside prisoner that grilled meat was particularly good.

A fascinating look at a personal tale behind North Korea's cloak that gives some insight to international geopolitics and the perhaps unseen side of the strength of human spirit.

5 spit roasted rats out of 5

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Let the Old Dreams Die (2005)

Author: John Ajvide Lindqvist | Translator: Marlaine Delargy | Page Count: 518

“…as I stood there, I don’t know why, but I became more and more convinced that if… if she turned around… she wouldn't have a face.

A collection of eleven short stories from the Swedish author, most of which were originally published in his homeland as Paper Walls (2005).  The English language edition added the titular Let the Old Dreams Die, which takes place after Lindqvist’s full-length novel, Let the Right One In (2004).  Similarly, the last story in the book, The Final Processing, is a sequel to the full-length Handling the Undead (2005) novel.  The remainder of the shorts are standalone but some could be called spiritual successors in other ways.*

Some will appeal to people with a twisted, grisly imagination, but some will only really make sense to individuals who've felt isolated, distanced or uncomfortable in their own skin or in familiar surroundings.

A lot of the protagonists are in a position whereby they fear the truth of a situation because it will invariably cause some kind of gulf to open and separate them from their safe, routine existence.  The situations start normal but the observations fantastical; together they create a strange believability, even when logic says that those kinds of things really couldn’t happen… I hope.

I've never had such difficulty in choosing a quote to use on a post.  I had a dozen or more jotted down, each as good as the other but for very different reasons and evocative of equally different emotions.  If the endings had been as perfect as the singular observations, the book would've been even better.

3½ meaningful lyrics out of 5

*The US edition appears to be missing Paper Walls, whereas the UK edition lacks Tindalos.  Mine’s the UK edition so I have no idea what Tindalos is about but I can say with certainty after having read it that I’d not want Paper Walls to be absent.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Boy (2007)

Author: Takeshi Kitano | Translator: David James Karashima | Page Count: 185

He probably couldn't run fast enough and had been caught.  I suddenly became really worried.  I was completely alone.

Takeshi Kitano is best known as a filmmaker, but in Japan he’s also a famous comedian, writer, critic and painter among other things.  It seems as if he’ll turn his hand to whatever best enables him to communicate with an audience.
Boy was the first time any of his fiction was translated into English.  It was published in Japan many years ago as Shonen (1987), so it wasn't a new work.

Two of the three stories are told first person and revolve around something I know a lot about: having a brother.  My own brother was a huge inspiration and defining presence in my life as a child.  I’d not change a thing about our time together, even the bad times, because they helped me become who I am.  That same connection is part of the glue that binds the first two stories together.

All three utilise a specific aspect of adolescence as a foundation.  There’s a school sports day that’s memorable for more than just the runners.  There’s a shared, inherited interest that gives two brothers a deeper understanding of each one’s nature.  And finally, there’s a tale that explores the tentative first steps of a youth experiencing the duality of love for the first time.

The language used is simplistic and beautiful; there’s nothing wasted.  The urge to fill the narrative with more complex allusions must have been difficult to quell.
However, that same simplicity may disappoint readers hoping for something closer to his violent film work.  If I had to compare it to one of his films it’d be Kikujiro (1999) but even that is far off the mark.

What the two mediums do have in common is an understanding of the value of expression.  Kitano is a ‘show-don't-tell’ kind of filmmaker and he uses that same principle in his writing.  Little gestures filled with deeper meaning are littered throughout and may go unnoticed if you don’t pay careful attention.

2½ bars of magic chocolate out of 5

Note: You can find spoiler-free, mini-reviews of some of Takeshi Kitano’s films at our sister site, In a Nutshell.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Guild: Knights of Good (2012)

Author: Felicia Day | Page Count: 129
"I recited Ozymandias offstage per your request for character motivation. Look on your works ye mighty, and despair."
The second volume of The Guild trades collects the one-off comics that featured the backstory of the guild members and functions as pretty much a prequel to the first season of the show actually ending right where episode one of the show would begin. Ms. Day's writing chops shine through, but are also enhanced by the guest writers that include many of the actors that portray the characters which gives them an extra bit of authenticity and they really help the characters translate from screen to page. The fleshed out backstories adds layers and insight into the characters.

The art is vivid and varied and the plots are character driven hilarity with a touch of maudlin. The Zaboo one is exceedingly entertaining as it is both hilarious and somewhat manic with some even sort of interactive minigames added to it, as it should be I suppose given the gamer tendencies of the franchise. I don't imagine non-fans will find a lot to enjoy, but for viewers it can add much to the experience.

4 infections of Hand AIDS out of 5

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Matrix Comics: Volume One (2003)

Authors: Various | Illustrators: Various | Page Count: 160

"The answer. It's right there. I can touch it. It's beautiful. Simple. And it scares the hell out of me."

Beyond the infinite possibilities offered by a virtual world, part of what keeps the Matrix universe so appealing is that it hasn't been milked to death by a greedy studio. Exploitation and oversaturation would've killed it as easily as it does any other commodity. I assume the Wachowski's had some hand in regulating that, so kudos to them and everyone else who stuck to their guns - although I'd really love another anime collection like The Animatrix (2003).

Anyhow, most of the twelve stories (eleven comics and one short prose work)* contained in the collection were originally available on the Matrix website from 1999 to 2003. They're gone from there now, so your only option if you want to read them is to buy the book. As with all the other tie-ins, they expand upon and attempt to enrich the core concerns explored in the film trilogy. They were created over a period of time, so aren't tied to, or designed to reflect, any one specific film. Some were written before the first movie even came out.

I'm delighted to have them archived in some manner, and I did enjoy them for what they were, but the truth is that the majority of them just aren't very interesting. As web comics they'd have been a fun way to keep a viewer/reader connected to the ongoing story, but they don't hold up when brought together into a medium they weren't originally designed for.

The short creator profiles that accompany each entry are a nice touch; every anthology should have those.

2½ zeroes and ones out of 5

NOTESee the comments section of this post for a full list of contributors.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ghost in the Shell: Vol 2: Man-Machine Interface (2001)

Author: Masamune Shirow | Illustrator: Masamune Shirow | Page Count: 312

"Characters and letters are mirrors on the soul—books are their body. Life can be defined in so many different ways…"

If you've read either of the previous books in the series (Vol 1 (1991) / Vol 1.5: Human-Error Processor (2003)), the first thing you'll notice about M-MI is the difference in art style. The technology needed to fully visualise the future world as Shirow imagined it had finally caught up with his vision. His obsession with depicting the future as detailed and as sexy as possible took him approximately four years and five months to achieve. It's the most perfect blend of traditional manga and digital colouring that I've ever seen. I don't generally like the technique, but it's almost impossible not to be awed by the result.

It’s set in 2035, five years after the events of the first book, but it's not a direct continuation. Section 9 feature occasionally, but mostly it follows the Major, who's now the chief security officer for a huge conglomerate. She protects their business interests while also financing some of her own.

As ridiculous as it may sound, your enjoyment of the book will be partly dependent on your reading speed. If you're a slow reader, the rigid, tech-talk will appear to reduce everything else to a stuttering pace. Conversely, if you can read at a steady and moderate speed, you'll be able to better balance the action that's happening around the information overload. Yes, Ghost in the Shell is about lofty concepts, but it's also about action and about moving from problem to solution in the quickest possible time. Unfortunately, Shirow throws constant interruptions at you in the form of lengthy and atmosphere-breaking footnotes, further impeding the all-important flow.

It's a feast for the eyes, there's no doubt of that, but the plot is much too complicated for its own good, so expect to be overwhelmed and possibly even completely lost on your first read through. For me, the deeper understanding that came with repeated readings was accompanied by a realisation that a sizeable part of the first half could've been cut with no great impact to the resolution.

3½ remotely controlled humanoid terminals out of 5

Monday, June 16, 2014

Mother, Brother, Lover: Selected Lyrics (2012)

Author: Jarvis Cocker | Page Count: 192

If nobody’s listening you can say whatever you want.

A selection of lyrics (sixty-six in all) penned by Meister Cocker over the span of three decades.  They're mostly from his time in Pulp but his solo work is well represented too.  Each one is accompanied by notes that act as illumination and commentary on the themes and allusions made in the songs themselves; which will be helpful to people outside the UK or those who were born too late.

Before you get to the main event, there’s an introduction from Jarvis that’s so beautifully constructed and insightful that it’s worth the asking price alone.  He speaks of the profound things that occur in everyday life, the things that don’t stand out until later, and he speaks of them in common language for (ahem) common people.  It’s from a point in time that enables experience to lay tender hands on and memory to whittle away anything superfluous.  Without meaning to demean anything that comes after, the intro is the highlight of the work.

With regards the lyrics, despite Jarvis’ insistence to the contrary, they’re intrinsically poetic and therefore I'm labelling the book as poetry.  (He’s never going to read this so I think I’ll get away with it.)
They’re narrative-based, so work just as well when written on the page as they did when put to music.  I could go into depth about why I think that is but I’d need twice the word count I have, and you’d not care anyhow.  I will say, though, that the lyrics of songs I've not heard sung were more enjoyable to read than the ones I know well.  I found myself breaking up the words of the familiar ones into their metre structure, attributing qualitative and quantitative, and because I was hearing the music in my head, I was putting pauses in places that a pause would be better left out.  It was a very odd experience.

I'm not appraising with blind bias; I'm a Pulp fan, yes, but that fact doesn't influence the score.  I only own two Pulp albums and one Jarvis solo album.  I'm interested in the others but just haven’t got around to purchasing them yet.

4 less obvious places out of 5

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Batman: Arkham Unhinged: Vol. 1 (2013)

Author: Derek Fridolfs | Artists: Various | Page Count: 160

"There's always a reason to send in the clowns."

A collection of stories of differing lengths that are connected to events in the Batman: Arkham City (2011) video game. I didn't much like the game, but it's Batman in comic form so I read it. It's okay. It's better than expected.

Both the game and comic exist in their own kind of Elseworlds universe, so any changes to character design or attributes from the norm should be overlooked.

In this version of Gotham the old part of the city, Old Gotham, has been sealed-off and now houses the inmates from Arkham Asylum and Blackgate. The area is a large prison but the freedom given to the inmates makes it also a playground for crime, similar to how Manhattan was in John Carpenter's Escape from N.Y (1981). The area is overseen by Hugo Strange, Operations Manager. Batman mistrusts Strange, so he enters Old Gotham to sniff out the professor's true agenda.

Batman is the moody, broody kind. He kicks some ass and then returns to a nearby rooftop to converse with Gordon and comment on the themes and concerns that weren't able to be fully explored during the action scenes.

The familiar locations are there and the characters are plentiful, but putting heroes in a building that features in a game doesn't enrich the story all that much. What's more interesting are the alliances and disagreements that the villains, who will eventually each control their own little area of the game-world, engage in.

For the most part the art is as good as the other half a dozen (or more) regular Batman monthlies, which was a welcome surprise.

The book collects together Batman: Arkham Unhinged issues 1–5.

2½ double-crosses out of 5