Books

Comics Review: Crime Does Not Pay vol. 5

Comics Review: Crime Does Not Pay vol. 5 ed. by Philip R. Simon

Review by: Prof. Jenn

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I enjoyed reading the 5th collection of Crime Does Not Pay for some of the same reasons I enjoyed Daredevil Battles Hitler: it’s a treat to look back in time with these collections. Just as entertaining as the stories themselves (if not more so) are the vintage ads–it’s fascinating to see the wartime admonishments to conserve, etc. Environmental historians would have a field day with just the ads alone.

The collection is a fun romp through the colorful world of 1930s “true crime” stories, both set in what would have been current times, all the way to retellings of crime from Renaissance Rome. The art is cartoony and fun, classic if you’ve looked at any comics from this era, and the recurring ghostly criminal mastermind character is actually creepy.  The dialogue is very 1930s gangster movie (“hey copper, you’ll get nothing outta me, see), and the characters are delightfully stereotypical. Of course these were obviously made mainly for a male child audience, so the repeated warning that Crime Does Not Pay does get a bit, well, repetetive but it’s not really a problem, as reading this collection is more like looking through a time capsule than anything else.

Bottom Line: This is a fun collection, particularly for the fan of history, or crime.

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Book Review: About Time 7

Book Review: About Time 7 by Tat Wood / Dorothy Ail

Review by: Prof. Jenn

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The About Time series claims to be “the most comprehensive, wide-ranging, and at times almost unnervingly detailed handbook to Doctor Who that you might ever conceivably need” (p.5). This claim is absolutely true–it’s exhaustive in its detail, backstory, commentary, critical analysis, and etc. of episode by episode. If you’re a Doctor Who fan, these are a way to bolster your nerdly knowledge (or at least solve arguments as a reference).

Volume 7 of About Time covers the very beginning of the new Who: years 2005-2006, Series 1&2. Each episode is gone through with a fine-toothed comb, one by one, with such discussion categories as: Which One Is This?, Catchphrase Counter, History, Deus ex Machina, Analysis, Continuity, and Things that Don’t Make Sense, among many others. There are also essays interspersed with the episode sections, which honestly got into a slightly annoying flip-back-and-forth-between-pieces like a magazine. It’s enlightening to know not only the TV production culture surrounding the creation of these eps, but also the actors’ backgrounds, combined with the connection of the stories and characters to the old Who. It’s a particularly nerdily useful thing when the author refers back to previous volumes so one can flip back and forth to see how monsters recur and evolve, how the Doctor has changed and yet stayed the same, between the old series and the new.

Bottom Line: I highly recommend the About Time series in general, and volume 7 is stellar in its detail.

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Book Review: Turbulence

Book Review: Turbulence by Samit Basu

Review by: Prof. Jenn

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Turbulence is a superhero novel, but unlike any other superhero novel out there. For one thing, it takes place mainly in Mumbai (and sometimes in London). None of our characters are American. For another thing, the myriad superpowers that our gaggle of characters finds themselves with are so unusual, so real, and often mysterious as the characters themselves wake up one day and have to figure out what it is they actually have “come down with”, and then decide what to do about it.

The main story surrounds two newly-superpowered people: Aman and Uzma. They are two of many that were on a particular flight to London, that ended up giving superpowers to everyone on the plane. In this book, we don’t ever know where the powers came from, but there is an upcoming sequel–maybe the origins of the powers will be explained there. Anyway, Uzma doesn’t know what her power is (she doesn’t discover it till the very end), but Aman’s power is the ability to go online. Like, without a computer. Not only that, he can bypass any security codes, etc. well you get the idea. Other superpowered people we meet include the super-strong, able-to-fly Vir, the indestructible bad guy Jai, Tia who can multiply herself indefinitely, among others. Our conflict arises when Jai and his peeps decide that taking over the world is a good idea, and our “good guys” disagree. Though the discussions between the super-folk about what is the right thing to do with the powers is pretty compelling, making us wonder whether the good guys and bad guys are really that different.

Bottom Line: Turbulence is highly recommended. Bring on the sequel, Mr. Basu!

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Book Review: Samurai Son

Book Review: Samurai Son by M.H. Bonham

Review by: Prof. Jenn

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This review is a milestone for me–it’s the first novel I have gotten to review that I first saw in partial form in a class. It’s one of the pieces I worked with Bonham on during her tenure at DU, and I’m thrilled to see it not only complete, but polished and published.

Samurai Son is a Japanese-flavored adventure fantasy, replete with tengu, dragons, ninja and of course, samurai. It’s a YA novel, which means that there are some scenes of violence and sexual situations, but it’s not all Game of Thrones.

Samurai Son follows two protagonists, Akira and Kasumi, young samurai from different clans who end up working together to foil a plot to open a gate that will flood the world with oni (those are Japanese demons). It’s a good side-by-side coming-of-age plot, wherein our young male samurai is Luke-Skywalker-like frustrated with his training and his supernatural yet secret inner nature, and our young female samurai comes to terms with having witnessed an awful scene, and how and when family ties are important and when they need to be broken. The characters are interesting enough that a young reader has two heroes to look up to and interesting creatures to learn about that are different than the standard Celtic magic fare of most fantasy.

There are some moments where the tropes turn into cliche, but the overall Japanese setting sort of makes up for that. There are other sections where I wish I could have worked on with Bonham before it got to print. The portrayal of the ninja is particularly cool, and the magic system well thought out, especially who wields magic when, and how magic use is sensed. And again, the setting is so refreshing, as well as being a perfect backdrop for a magical adventure story.

Bottom Line: It ain’t perfect, but Samurai Son is recommended for teen readers especially.

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Review: Anything That Loves

Anything That Loves

Sexuality is not binary. The labels of gay and straight do not cover the fluidity of people, and that is a fact that the Anything That Loves comic anthology sets to remind us. Published by Northwest Press, funded by Kickstarter, and featuring art from such well-known names such as Adam Pruett, Erika Moen, Nick Leonard, Tania Walker, and many others, this is a book that is a must-read for all. Lorraine Music is always better for referring about comic.

I’m a big fan of LGBT comics, so when I got a chance to review this book there were a lot of familiar names on the contributor list. I appreciate that they’re tackling such a sensitive topic as biphobia. The continued rejection and misunderstanding of non-binary sexualities is an issue that exists in both the heterosexual and homosexual community. Those who do not align with one or the other are see as “cheating”, over-sexed, or being untrue to themselves because they refuse to pick a side. This anthology tries to correct these misconceptions through engaging visuals and personal stories. There are no “sides”, there are just people who love who they love.

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A number of the comics get into deeper issues of prejudice that exist against, and sometimes within, the LGBT community. Kate Leth, in one of the first comics of the book, brings up the fact that even when bisexuality becomes more trendy or accepted, the choice of partners is not seen in the same light. Women with fluid sexuality may be seen as harmless, even cool, but as soon as a man explores his sexual identity with another man he is immediately seen as less than. Why the inequality? And why is there a continued need to put a label on everyone? If a man falls in love with a transgender man, is he gay or is he straight? The answer is that it’s no one else’s business. Sexual fluidity, existing outside the two extremes of the Kinsey scale, is a fact of life. This book, and others like it, are trying to make this point. Perhaps one day the world at large will listen.

With over 200 pages, this anthology is bound to have a number of comics that appeal to you, and the message in each and every artist’s contribution cannot be denied. It doesn’t matter what label you take, or if you reject labels altogether. No one has the right to deny the expression of your own sexuality. Love who you love, and do not give power to those who seek to tear you down because of it.

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: Deadbeat–Makes You Stronger

deadbeatBook Review: Deadbeat–Makes You Stronger by Guy Adams

Review by: Prof. Jenn

Guy Adams has created a charming “detective” duo in Max and Tom. His experience in writing Sherlock Holmes books means he knows how to set up an investigatory plot, but this isn’t your everyday police procedural. It involves the undead, too, but nowhere does one find the classic vampires or zombies (beware, the “z” word makes one of our protagonists cringe). In fact, even the minor minion characters are round, unusual, realistic in this crazy world Adams has created, and all are compelling enough to make us want to know what happens next.

Max and Tom are drunkenly leaving their bar (the Deadbeat) one night when they stumble across an undertaker’s service fumbling with a corpse. Except, this corpse seems to be breathing. As we progress through the story, we find that it isn’t the only one.

Adams seems to like writing his novels in the “change POV each chapter” structure, usually to good effect. It certainly is here–the POV switches aren’t too frequent that we don’t get to know or care about our characters, and change just when we need a new window on the proceedings. One habit I’ve noticed, though, is the quicker switches (and switches to unusual or minor characters) as the plot churns to a climax, which sometimes can be disconcerting.

I very much enjoyed the voice of Max in particular, and appreciate the beginning of the book being basically the end of the story, with the rest of the novel filling in the events till that opening one. It’s a cinematic way to go. In a good way.

Bottom line: Deadbeat–Makes You Stronger is a highly recommended, action-packed thriller. WIth the undead. Yeah.

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Book Review: The Guild Official Companion

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Book Review: The Guild Official Companion by Felicia Day, et. al

Review by: Prof. Jenn

If you didn’t think stellar webseries The Guild needed a gorgeous, glossy coffee-table book, oh how wrong you were. The Guild Official Companion is a fantastic addition to any Guild fan’s library, or any Felicia Day fan’s library, for that matter. It’s as bright and colorful and full of wit as the series itself, and gives plenty of tasty behind the scenes tidbits both in images and words.

The book is laid out in a scrapbook style, with long blurbs by all major cast and crew members, who detail their approaches to their roles, how the whole thing started, how surprised and delighted everyone is at the degree to which it has continued, and is peppered with both visual art from the show and snapshots. The written bits do tend towards a slight redundancy (yes, we get that everyone is way surprised that the show took off like it did, how humble its beginnings were), but really that’s not even a complaint–if I were in Evey’s or Day’s or anyone else’s shoes on this project I’d be just as mind-blown.

This book opens some windows into the webseries process, encourages all readers to (in the words of Storm of Paul and Storm) Go Do Things, and gives insights into character development, writing, and even how often the actors improv. I am ecstatic that these brilliant people decided to go against the TV grain, make their own good work, and be this successful at it. This book is a glorious summary of that brilliance and success.

Bottom Line: Very highly recommended, for any geek, fan, or geek fan’s library.

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Book Review: Jago

Book Review: Jago by Kim Newman

Review by: Prof.

Jenn

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One of the most brain-happy things Kim Newman does in his novels is incorporate pop culture, literary allusions, and history together in a postmodernist bird’s nest that houses the eggs which are his original plots. Jago is no different (at one point, even some of the characters remark that their situation is “postmodern”), but unlike his Anno Dracula series of books, Jago is a bit heavier on the original plot than the allusions.

Paul and Hazel have moved to a little English town called Alder to work on a dissertation and pottery, respectively. Across the village is the Agapemone, a classically-creepy obvious-cult wherein all the inmates are happy, brainwashed, blindly worship their smarmy leader, “share love,” etc. As the big music festival nears, the tension of the native villagers and London or “hippie” outsiders ramps up to a height. Of course, when the festival arrives, everything goes completely to Hell. Literally.

Jago is an intricate, multifaceted novel, taking the multitudes of various (round, well-written) characters and puts us in each of their POV at just the right times to make us scoot to the edge of our seat wondering what will happen next. Enough surprising character deaths (and gruesome violence) happen that by the time the climax occurs, we really truly don’t know what the outcome will be.

Also included in this volume are some short stories in the same universe as Jago. They are well-written, and marginally interesting re: backstory, especially for some of the more powerful/mysterious figures from the novel, but I could have done without them.

Bottom Line: Very dark, but very good. Highly recommended.

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Book Review: Joyland

Joyland by Stephen King

Review by: Prof. Jenn

Joyland

When a new book by someone like Stephen King is imminent, there is perforce lots and lots of hype. Especially through this particular label; Hard Case Crime is doing a really cool thing with its releases. The covers echo those of old-school pulp novels, and will always be real paintings, not digital works. They will not be published in e-book form, nor in hardcover, only paperback. Read more about the reasons for these (IMO: awesome) choices here.

So there are plenty of trappings and baggage already before one enters into a book like this. And when I heard “American nostalgia” I rolled my eyes, attempted to drown out the John Cougar Mellencamp song in my head, and took the plunge.*

Now I normally think of Stephen King the way I do about J.K. Rowling, and the way I used to about Anne Rice: an amazing storyteller, gifted as far as creativity and brilliant at character creation, just without the actual writing skill-chops to pull off the enormous ideas pouring forth.** Joyland, however, is an exception to this opinion of mine, and in fact makes me want to go back to other King pieces and see if I was wrong all along.

The story is told from the POV of our protagonist in his 60s, telling us the story of That One Summer as though we’re an old friend on the porch over a cold brew. The voice is parts dry humor, stoic melancholia at the passage of time, and pure wonder at the events narrated. The story itself centers around an amusement park, and our protagonist’s summer (and beyond) working there. It’s part warm and fuzzy coming-of-age story, part adventure, part eerie ghost story. In the best possible balance between the three.

I will admit, I did see ‘who dunnit’ coming. But not too soon, and I have a suspicion I only knew exactly when King wanted me to. The murder mystery is put forth perfectly–a writing professor of mine once said about murder mysteries: “It’s not what the reader knows, but when he knows it that’s important.”*** King feeds us just the exact right size and number of plot snippets at just exactly the right times through the arc of the story, until by the time we’re taking that final ferris wheel ride, it’s as tense and gripping (and admittedly over-the-top action movie fun) as it should be.

Bottom Line: Joyland is very highly recommended. Don’t miss it.

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*It’s cool if you like those things–to each his/her own. It’s just not my thing.

**I have a feeling I’m dodging tons of hurled virtual eggs and tomatoes here.

***One Keith Abbott, from Naropa University.

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Book Review: Complex 90

Book Review: Complex 90 by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

Review by: Prof. Jenn

 

Complex90Mike Hammer is the original detective badass, and reading a Mike Hammer detective story is like plunging into a familiar, classic noir hot tub–settling in to the abrupt cadence of Hammer’s inner monologue as the lights dim.

Mike Hammer was the first womanizing, seasoned and sarcastic investigator that inspired the likes of Fleming’s James Bond. He’s the original hard-boiled detective, and the stereotypical “film noir” voice-over you hear when you think of this genre came from Spillane’s thrillers.

In Complex 90, Hammer breaks free from the KGB after having been framed and unofficially arrested. Upon his return home, he finds that a mysterious Russian faction (including a spy from his past with a grudge), are after him, But for what? Oh, for a McGuffin, of course, and the race to find out what the McGuffin is and where it is moves along at breakneck speed.

It’s delightful to read the classic Hammerian narrative, and we get all the noir detective tropes from a story set in the ’60s that we could possibly want. The dames are beautiful and dangerous, and the fights are gritty and violent. What surprised me, though, is how Lawful Good Hammer is. I mean, he’s against the law most of the time–laws and law-abiders get in the way of justice in his stories, but according to his own very high moral code, he is exact. He’s not your bitter, jaded, cynical hero, but a paladin, fighting for justice even when justice isn’t doing so. Perhaps especially then.

I was also surprised at how strong the female characters are, especially Velda, Hammer’s partner. Every single woman in this book is interesting, round, mysterious, strong, and acting on their own vital objectives. Not only that, but even though Hammer is a womanizer, his emotional world surrounding that is complex and not misogynistic at all. What a fantastic team Mike and Velda make. Now let’s make this into a movie, stat.

Max Allan Collins has adapted several of Spillane’s manuscripts for publication, and I have to say his work is smooth as butter, i never got jolted between the two authors in style, tone, or anything else, the book is seamless (though there were a couple typos).

Bottom Line: This book is so very much fun! Too much sex and violence for kids who enjoy detective stories, though. This one’s for grownups. Very highly recommended.

Image from Titan Books

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