Wednesday, 12 August 2009


Steve Darnall / Alex Ross
A tramp lies prone on the ground, with loose change scattered around him. His clothes are tattered and dirty, and his face is old and worn, but he still bears an uncanny resemblance to…someone strangely familiar.

UNCLE SAM is a peculiar story, in that, it’s quite clearly and explicitly about the state of the American government (at the time, anyway) whilst also has a main character who’s obviously real, and has existed for a long, long time. OR HAS HE?

Yes, he has. UNCLE SAM is both a parable and a literal representation of said parable: Uncle Sam himself spends the majority of the book muttering famous quotes from American history, and searching for something. Is it his dignity? Is it belief in people? Is it hope that the country he stands for can remember what it stands for? Try, all of the above. Sam suffers flashbacks to frontier times, and the Civil War, as he starts to remember who he is. Has he always being the symbol of democracy we know him has, or did he eventually end up that way? Again, it’s a bit of both.

There is a superhero origin story buried under all the rhetoric, and the glimpses we get are exciting and interesting enough to make us want more (youths try to burn the ‘bum’ alive, but the flames don’t harm him, and he knows exactly what beliefs fuel people he meets, etc). Uncle Sam has appeared in certain DC comics as a full-fledged superhero, powered by the very country itself. The end of this story suggests that Uncle Sam might have been this one, once, but he could have just as easily have never existed.

If this all seems a little confusing, that’s because it is. By being everything and nothing at the same time, Steve Darnall has created a story that suggests the obvious, but rewards the theoretical. Perhaps the best thing in UNCLE SAM, though, is a short essay on Uncle Sam as a mythological figure in American history, and his real origin.

Finally, you really can’t berate the artwork of Alex Ross. He’s long since had the reputation for creating ‘real-world’ representations of superheroes, so using him to paint this book is an obvious, but worthwhile, choice. The only possible gripe is that you’re often left feeling that his work shouldn’t be confined to small frames, but, that’s the nature of comics so what’re you going to do?

Monday, 10 August 2009



How disappointing.

Since I’d never read a full-length novel by Barker before, I figured I’d start with an early “masterpiece”: THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW, aka, The First Book of the Art. Sometimes, the quotes for a book can give you enough of an idea about a book to warrant a purchase, or build up a bit of hype. Such was the case with this novel; everyone from J G Ballard to the Wall Street Journal claims it to be a truly outstanding piece of fiction.

Two things however: not everyone who provides a quote for a book has actually read the book in question (this applies to other authors, especially) and this was written 20 years ago. To put it simply, Barker’s masterpiece has been surpassed, several times over.

But if you can put that to the back of your mind for now, and imagine you’re reading it in 1989…you’d still be disappointed.

THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW is boring. Sometimes, really boring. And the worst thing about this is, there are plenty of interesting and exciting sections and set pieces littered throughout the book – just enough to convince you to keep reading – but not enough to make this 690 page tome particularly recommendable.

Everything starts off promisingly enough, as we join Randolph Jaffe, a middle-aged nobody working in the dead letter department in an Omaha post office. Whilst there (in the ‘crossroads of America’) he begins to discover a lot of the dead letters reference each other, and keep mentioning the ‘Art’. Something snaps in Jaffe, and he becomes convinced that he’s privy to a secret that could, and can, fundamentally alter everything. And what usually happens to people when they discover this sort of secret? That’s right – they go a bit loopy.

Jaffe, in his travels to unlock the mystery of the Art, begins to transcend his normal human state, and ends up as The Jaff. Along the way, he encounters a drug-addicted professor, whom he enlists in his search. The professor’s name is Fletcher, and he also ends up transcending his normal state, and becomes The Jaff’s enemy. Herein lies one of the main problems of THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW: The Jaff, and Fletcher, as supernatural adversaries, are incredibly dull. The Jaff can take fears from people and make them manifest, as can Fletcher, except he uses people's dreams. These are a nice touch, but as powers, ultimately prove as insubstantial as the creations themselves. It’s more a case of ‘dark versus light’ than anything else, which would be okay were it not for the fact The Jaff isn’t a particularly frightening baddie, and Fletcher is, quite frankly, pathetic.

Over the next million pages, The Jaff and Fletcher fight and end up buried underground, in a town called Palomo Grove. The Grove then provides the focus for the rest of the story, as the two enemies impregnate some local girls, and then, years later, return to do battle with the help of their now-teenage offspring. Except it doesn’t quite go to plan. There are two twins, children of The Jaff, but one of them, a girl, falls in love with the sole remaining child of Fletcher, which complicates matters.

To cut an extremely long story short, the Art is a way to ‘unlock’ reality, and involves places called the Cosm, the Metacosm, and Quiddity, which is a ‘dream sea’, and therefore not a real sea. It tells you something when some of the characters themselves admit that “it’s very confusing”.

In the battle to unlock the Art, The Jaff and Fletcher have several ‘final stands’, thereby turning the main plot into a bit of a farce. “He’s finally dead!” one of them cries. A few chapters later, “Oh wait, he’s still alive!” is the irritating reveal. Also finding themselves involved in this ridiculously long battle are some of the most improbably-named characters ever created: Tesla Bombeck, Grillo, and Harry D’Amour. Thankfully, most of the human characters are genuinely interesting, and I was left wanting to find out more about some of them (especially Grillo, a journalist whose integrity has been washed down the pan, leaving him to try and reassert his honour and moral compass).

There are some nice touches towards the final, final climax, including: what happens when someone manages to use the Art; The Jaff getting a chance to redeem himself, and the suggestion that a Lovecraftian evil is closing in on our world, ready to send everyone insane.

Overall though, it’s simply too long-winded to attract new converts to Barker, so something easier to digest (figuratively speaking) like his Books of Blood collections, would probably be a more sensible bet. Plus, Barker still hasn’t written The Third Book of the Art, which leaves the final question: do you really want to start reading a story that, technically, hasn’t got an ending?

Wednesday, 22 July 2009



First things first: the formatting of this book is absolutely hideous, and the stories are riddled with typos. Plus, there’s a jaggedness to the text on the front and back covers that suggest a poor quality print job. Since Corsega Press, who released this book, don’t seem to exist any more, this isn’t really a surprise.

What is a surprise, is the quality of the actual stories. I’ve never heard of James Burr before, but the blurb on the back of the book certainly sold me on him. Almost all of Burr’s stories seem to involve a pun as a title/punchline, and a strong psychosexual/drug element, and the only person I can think of that comes close to his style of writing is Will Self. Except, Will Self has been going longer, and is more arch in his story-telling.

There are some stories in UGLY that, quite frankly, are largely pointless, or based on such a terrible pun that it renders the work itself redundant. There are also a couple of stories with mismatched time frame/Americanisms/references, including ‘Foetal Attraction’, in which the narrator tells us it’s the 21st Century, and then mentions Supermarket Sweep….which hasn’t been on telly since the late 90’s. Hmmm.


The majority of the book is brilliantly written, with the basis for many of the stories involving relationships between wives/husbands, boyfriends/girlfriends, people/drugs, that range from the perverse (BOBANDJANE) to the bittersweet (Ménage Á Beaucoup).

My personal favourite is probably ‘Life Is What You Make It’, involving as it does a woman dealing with grief in such a bizarre way that she’s fundamentally altered the structure of reality.
‘Bernie Does Camberwell’, in which poor Bernie find himself in constant demand for sex from women, is another excellent piece. The truth behind what’s happening is so obvious is should come with a farty trumpet ‘parr-arrp’ noise when it’s revealed, but that doesn’t stop it from being crap, and maybe even makes it funnier.

Another thing I liked about these stories is that almost all them exist within the same universe. Characters and locations interconnect and reference each other, helping to build a skewered, strangely 90’s, version of London. When Burr uses a different setting (like Barcelona, for the rather boring ‘Blue’), it doesn’t work quite as well, although it is nice for a change of location.

It might not be too bold to say the world needs more writers with fresh and weird ideas, and James Burr falls firmly into that camp. He’s still apparently working on a full-length novel, so I hope it gets finished and a publisher with a proper bloody editor takes it on.

Sunday, 19 July 2009



BLOOD MUSIC started off as a novelette, before growing into this 243 page novel, and you can almost tell, as, halfway through, you’ve gone from a story about a brilliant scientist experimenting on himself, to a tale concerning a most unusual apocalypse…

Not that it matters, thankfully. It’s skilfully done and serves as an intriguing continuation of the central plot – what happens when matter becomes intelligent at the cellular level, and then realises where it is? This has got to be perhaps the most intelligent, and thoroughly mind-bending book I’ve ever read. Greg Bear has clearly done his research, as the story’s crammed with intensely scientific language. On the one hand, it’s hard not to zone out a bit when you’re presented with sentences like: “He had replaced many intron strings – self-replicating sequences of base pairs that apparently did not code for proteins and that comprised a surprising percentage of any eukaryotic cell’s DNA – with his own special chains.”, yet Bear writes with an even flow, and occasional humour, which prevents things from becoming too dry. Plus, the main idea is fascinating.

Vergil I. Ulam is conducting experiments into cellular matter behind the backs of the bosses at the research lab where we works. When they find out, they order him to destroy the results, as it’s “unethical”, for one thing. Sensing he’s going to get fired anyway, Vergil injects himself with some of the test material, planning to ‘store’ it in his body until he gets access to another lab, where he can extract it and continue his research.

However, the new cells in Vergil’s body are a lot more intelligent than he thought, and they begin to ‘repair’ his body, turning him into something other than human…

The horror of change versus the need for improvement forms the central argument, as Vergil, and those close to him, begin to suffer unimaginable alterations when his ‘noocytes’ (as the intelligent matter is labelled) spread. But, it’s not all as clear cut as ‘scientist experiments on self/scientist mutates’, and the real implications of the ‘change’ raise the story miles above any similar comic book/video game plot.

Later on, when the noocytes have overwhelmed entire cities (which is chilling, in a strangely benevolent way), an infected colleague of Vergil’s gives himself up for scientific study, in a bid to understand the noocytes. Whilst under ‘house arrest’, a scientist visits him and supposes the following theory: the universe is created out of Thought. His reasoning is far more elaborate than that simple ‘Socrates’ sentence, but that’s what it (pretty much) boils down to. We, as a race, haven’t generated enough new theories regarding space-time to fundamentally alter what we have always assumed and perceived. The noocytes, however, have.

Like I said: mind-bending.

The hard sci-fi element serves as a thread running throughout the entire story, but itself mutates into something concerning metaphysics and the nature of Being towards the end of the book. If you want something that supposes these ideas, but in a manner that isn’t completely impenetrable, and is in fact very interesting and well-written (it’d have to be, really, otherwise you might as well read scientific encyclopaedias), BLOOD MUSIC is a truly mental piece of work. In every sense of the word.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009



Now this is more like it.

If the only encounter you’ve had with John Constantine is via the [actually not that bad, really] Constantine movie, and that film at least piqued your interest, then ALL HIS ENGINES would probably be a good place to properly acquaint yourself with the cunning magus and his general bastardyness. I just made that word up!

A quick character sketch: John Constantine is a powerful magician, chain-smokes, has a colourful turn of phrase, is from Liverpool, looks like Sting, and is also a total bastard.

Legendary comic weirdo Alan Moore created Constantine in the pages of his version of Swamp Thing, way back in 1985. Since then, different writers over the years (including Neil Gaiman and Brian Micheal Bendis) have offered slight variations on Constantine’s main personality quirks (enhancing the aforementioned bastardyness, toning down the bastardyness, or sticking him in London or even an American prison), but Mike Carey is perhaps the one writer who’s struck a near-perfect chord in his reinvention/enhancement of the tricky Scouse.

The magus we get in ALL HIS ENGINES is A Very Crafty Man. The plot revolves around a strange ‘coma plague’ that’s knocking out large numbers of apparently healthy people. The young niece of Constantine’s (only true) friend Chas gets struck down, making it a sort-of personal matter. The story takes Constantine and Chas from England to Los Angeles, where they meet a grotesque demon who’s made his body from cancer growths, and other Hellish creatures. Constantine then tries to wrangle a deal between the various demons and play them off against each other, possibly endangering the life of Chas, his niece, and a young woman who’s tagged along for the ride. Like I said, he is A Very Crafty Man, and a bastard.

To say any more would spoil it. All the characters get meaty parts, with some cracking dialogue, including a scene where Constantine calls a demon a ‘berk’. Fantastic. Chas is shown to be as fearsomely loyal as he is violent; as quick to come to Constantine’s defence in a fight as to start the fight in the first place.

Ironically enough, ALL HIS ENGINES (which takes its title from the John Milton's Paradise Lost) starts to run out of steam towards the end. We get a satisfying conclusion, but certain elements, such as the ‘coma bug’, start to feel a bit like a MacGuffin. Nothing wrong with that, of course, it’s just that it feels more like a misstep than a smart story twist.

Final mention has to go to Leonardo Manco, as everything in the comic looks amazing, from the vision of Hell Constantine gets, to the rendering of city skylines and crumbling churches.

And that’s it. If you’re tired of lycra-clad superheroes, and other goody-two-shoes types, and want to see how a real shit handles things, the HELLBLAZER series is where to go, with ALL HIS ENGINES an excellent introduction to everybody’s favourite bastard, John Constantine.

Monday, 8 June 2009



Loren D Estleman is perhaps as well-known for his hardboiled crime fiction as his westerns, since he’s won numerous awards for both genres. Which he writes best, I cannot say, although if the gushing praise plastered all over his books is anything to go by, the man could turn The Bible into an eminently readable tale about charming con-men and tough gunslingers. Or explode*.

In Johnny Vermillion, we’re introduced to the titular character as he brings his theatrical troupe, The Prairie Rose Repertory Company, to the town of Tannery. Unbeknownst to the locals, however, Vermillion is a debonair thief, who’s hit upon the novel idea of using the troupe as a front for committing robberies. Aided by an English major and his stern wife, a playwright, and the stunningly beautiful Miss Clay, Johnny pulls off quick-change cons during a play’s performance, thereby offering the perfect alibi and cover, as no-one in the audience ever suspects or notices that an actor has vanished.

Into this mix comes an agent of the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, and the Ace-in-the-Hole Gang – a dastardly bunch of outlaws, all with their own unique personality quirks. The detective and the outlaws seem to be the only people who’ve figured out the truth behind Vermillion’s troupe, and as the story progresses, the three factions slowly converge upon each other…

If you’re looking for a rip-roaring, gunfights-and-saloon-brawls western, this isn’t it. THE ADVENTURES OF JOHNNY VERMILLION, despite being about a gang of theatrical crooks, doesn’t have a lot of action in it. It fits, perhaps more accurately, into the niche of ‘comedy-drama’, as Estleman utilises a mixture of historical facts and the sort of humour that tends to give a little wink to the reader.

Thankfully, Estleman isn’t as arch as, say, Kim Newman, but his style does border on the smug. I can’t really pinpoint how or why, but it might have something to do with his preponderance of describing everything as if you’re watching a movie. It’s amusing, and quite clever to start off with, as we’re introduced to famous names and places from history in a version of the Old West “that should have been, but never quite was.” Unfortunately, after several chapters of ‘wink wink’ writing, the clever-clever use of familiar names and real individuals begins to grate. Yeah alright, we get the idea now; stop selling us a screenplay and get on with the actual story.

Vermillion himself feels underutilised, in that he’s clearly a cunning and intelligent individual, but you can’t help but wonder if his talents are actually being wasted. In this respect, THE ADVENTURES OF JOHNNY VERMILLION feels more like an origin story than anything else. Are we seeing the genesis of a legendary Wild West criminal or just a moderately interesting con-man who had his shot at infamy than disappeared into the annals of history? The ending, maddeningly, suggests both these things.

THE ADVENTURES OF JOHNNY VERMILLION doesn’t quite live up to its own cleverness, but still proves an occasionally amusing read, and, providing you’re not after an action-packed western, is a decent way to pass the time.

*What we have here is a true pofessional, a writer of a sort increasingly rare...a craftsman so given to his work as to spontaeously combust to genius - The Boston Globe [I know it doesn't mean literally, although that would be quite something to see]

Tuesday, 26 May 2009



Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

An army convoy transporting a mysterious chemical runs into trouble, causing the chemical to leak into the immediate area and turn people into zombies. Driving into this are two bank robbers and their hostages, who literally run into trouble. They then head for a nearby rest stop and hole up with a few other people, including a crazy scientist and a solider who’s slowly turning into a zombie. Ho hum.

This is the collected first run of Marvel’s re-imagining of its Zombie character and is issued under the MAX banner…which is supposed to be a ‘suggested for mature readers’ type of thing, but all that really means, compared to normal Marvel, is a few f-words and extra gore – and even that’s boring.

Obviously, the only way to kill a zombie (which the main characters figure out pretty damn quickly) is to shoot them in the head. All this really means is that almost every single zombie that gets killed in ZOMBIE has their head explode. And believe me, I never thought I would find exploding zombie heads boring but so many scenes are filled with brains and eyeballs flying off at funny angles that it got very, very repetitive very, very quickly.

I’m afraid I’m not familiar with Mike Raicht’s work, but if this is the best he can do when given zombies to play with, it doesn’t really inspire confidence in his storytelling abilities. Oh look, it’s a fat, stupid bad guy who’s bullied by a skinny, smart bad guy. Ah, here come the army to clean up the mess…oh wait they’re just as evil as the undead! Maybe the chubby biker can prove an interesting charac-oh wait no hang on, he’s just been eaten in yet-another ‘Rhodes’ moment. It’s a wonder he didn’t shout ‘choke on ‘em!’ when the zombies ripped his guts out. Hmmmmmm.

Kyle Hotz, as well, is disappointing. I enjoyed his style when he drew The Hood but here, it’s…just…dull. It doesn’t help that this comic has perhaps the worst inking I have ever seen, leaving scenes looking washed-out and characters apparently suffering from yellow fever.

Back to the ‘re-imagining’ comment: Zombie is Simon Garth, who originally appeared in the 70’s as a typical voodoo zombie, albeit with some vestige of his soul still intact. This time around, he’s a bank teller, taken along for the ride by the guys who robbed his bank. During the tedious siege narrative that unfolds within ZOMBIE, Simon gets attacked, and subsequently infected. I’m really not spoiling things by telling you it ends with the army carting him off whilst going on about ‘having found a suitable subject’. The one good thing about this origin story is that I do want to see what sort of antics Brand New Zombie gets up to. But, since Mike Raicht also wrote the second run of comics I don’t want to find out that desperately.

There are a few other problems, including the idea that the rest stop is apparently in or near a small town, but you can’t really tell because there’s no sense of place, or of the outside world being that close. And you’re telling me a small military roadblock managed to hold off an entire army of zombies just long enough to provide the relevant ‘oh no we’re totally screwed’ reveal at the most opportune moment?

ZOMBIE is clichéd rubbish. It is about as substantial as a zombie fart; don’t bother wasting your time on this anaemic guff.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009



Stephen King, you crafty bastard.

You had me reading your latest full-length thinking it was one of the best non-horror stories you’d written – so good, in fact, that it made me want to go back and re-evaluate your earlier non-horror work. But then you started to introduce a supernatural element, closely followed by a decidedly sinister plot twist, and I thought ‘Well this is interesting; I wonder what’s going to happen next?’.

What did happen next, Mr. King? What did happen?

You suddenly reveal that DUMA KEY really is a horror story after all, that’s what. Cheeky monkey!

That this happened is by no means a bad thing, in fact it is quite the opposite. I fell out of love with King a while ago, as I started to find his work disappointing and, dare I say it, boring. I only started getting back into him fairly recently, first with Everything’s Eventual (very enjoyable), then Cell (good fun but a bit light on substance) and most recently, Just After Sunset (above average, but still haunted by the spectre of ‘been there, done that’). The synopsis to DUMA KEY didn’t really grab me, to be honest, but it was mainly for that reason I thought I would try and read it…and I’m glad I did.

After building contractor Edgar Freemantle suffers a worksite accident that costs him his right arm and leaves him with aphasia and memory loss, things are looking a bit grim. And then when his wife leaves him teetering on the edge of a bitter divorce, it seems to be the last straw. However, before he can do anything rash, Edgar’s doctor suggests he head somewhere to recuperate. That somewhere is the small Florida island of Duma Key.

Once there, Edgar rediscovers a talent for art, and is soon experiencing both phantom limb pains and sinister visions of an ancient ship out on the Gulf of Mexico. In short, it transpires that Edgar may not be in complete control of his artwork’s subjects…

King has featured ‘cursed paintings’ in his stories a few times, and the central conceit in DUMA KEY is very Twilight-Zone (art becomes reality) but even so, King crafts a dramatic horror story that, despite being 600 pages long, positively rockets along. Long-term fans of King will probably agree this is a nice change from his usual/old habit of taking ages to get anywhere, although that does creep into the book at the beginning – Edgar is happy to tell you all about his new best friend, Wireman, yet takes unnecessarily long to get there. Oh well, tomato/tomato.

Usually, I like to try and find a paragraph in the book I’m reviewing that perfectly sums it up. I couldn’t find one for The Tooth Fairy but that’s not the case with DUMA KEY – there were simply too many to choose from, and like a film that’s crammed with quotable dialogue, this is a very good thing. From Wireman and Edgar’s verbal sparring to the strange ‘just whose memories are those?’ excerpts that litter the book, there’s a surfeit of memorable lines and set-pieces.

DUMA KEY isn’t entirely perfect (there a few other minor niggles, such as characters using phrases I could never imagine a real person uttering) but it is as close as King’s got in recent years. And it’s not set in bloody Maine.

Saturday, 9 May 2009


Graham Joyce

Recently, Orion Books began a run of seminal horror/sci-fi/fantasy novels under the imprint of Gollancz. Apart from gathering together a good handful of respected authors and novels (including Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes and Poppy Z. Brite's Exquisite Corpse), these new printings have excellent cover art. That might seem like a fairly redundant comment, but I believe it shows that Orion genuinely care about their products. After all, how often have you sought out a novel by an established/favourite author, only to find it's been saddled with godawful cover art? Some major league publishers are guilty of this; I'm not just picking on the small press, who stick skulls on the cover of every horror title they publish.

Anyway, Graham Joyce writes the kind of horror fiction that manages to fool you into believing that you're reading something completely different. This put me off THE TOOTH FAIRY to start with, because it seemed to be trying far too hard to be a family drama with a 'fantasy' element. That, coupled with Joyce's tendancy to use peculiar synonyms [obsolescently, anyone?] makes it a little tough to get into.

After losing a tooth, seven-year-old Sam Southall sticks it under his pillow and subsequently summons a tooth fairy. This creature initially appears as a vile humanoid with sharp teeth, ragged clothes and a foul mouth, but as the years progress and it continues to visit Sam, it's appearence changes in some quite unexpected ways...The book follows Sam Southall through to his teenage years, as he discovers - yes, you guessed it - how the world really works.

THE TOOTH FAIRY is a coming-of-age tale, although unlike books with similar themes (such as Something Wicked This Way Comes or A Fine Dark Line) it's one imbued with a crude vulgarity that blossoms into a perverse eroticism as Sam and his friends discover masturbation and the allure of the female form. I don't think I've ever read a horror novel with quite so many references to young boys playing with themselves, or how being around women gives them a 'fierce erection'.

To be honest, it's a little off-putting; I have no qualms in reading about the main character's awkward ascent into and through puberty, but I don't really want it ramming down my throat as much as Joyce does. See, I can't even write a review about the book without slipping in a smutty innuendo.

THE TOOTH FAIRY is also marred by a few implausible characters and situations. Sam's psychiatrist, whom he visits often throughout the story, never feels or sounds like one right until the end, when he starts to act more like a friend than a therapist. Sam and his friends also find themselves embroiled in a truly hideous Scout troupe, which never quite feels right - and in fact only really seems like a convulted way of generating one of the book's (admittedly effective) horrific moments.

However, these are examples of what could be construed as mis-steps rather than a bad novel as a whole. Sam, his friends, their families, and the Tooth Fairy itself, are all handled extremely well. Of particular note is the introduction of Alice, a girl who initially annoys and perplexes Sam, but gradually becomes one of his closest friends. The way the Tooth Fairy insinuates itself into the lives of those around Sam is both creepy and baffling - does it genuinely want to protect Sam, or does it enjoy messing with the minds of those close to him purely for it's own insidious amusement?

THE TOOTH FAIRY is neither a flawed masterpiece nor a below-average cult novel. It has some very good ideas, but ruins them with a preponderancy towards uncomfortable (not in a good way) vulgarity of both language and tone. What elements of horror there are in this are actually quite powerful, as is the handling of the passage of time (the book starts, I would say, in the early 60's). Not excellent, but not that terrible, either.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009


Elmore Leonard

Right then. Why is HOMBRE often thought of as a 'classic'? I honestly don't know. Is it because it's told in the first person, and as such is the very first Western done in this way? No, since plenty of Westerns were written in this manner before 1961. Is it because of the historical accuracy apparent within the story? Nope, because Leonard's previous Westerns managed to pull this off well enough. So, is it because it deals, in a round-about way, with racism? Possibly.

"This wasn't any of my business. He couldn't help the ex-soldier, saying it was none of his business. All right, this was none of my business. If he wanted to act like an uncivilised person - which is what he must be and you could see it clearer all the time - then let him alone. Let him act any way he wanted."

Carl Allen is the narrator here, as he details his initial meeting with John Russell (the hombre of the title) and the stagecoach jouney that leads to the climatic stand-off between Russell, and a small gang of outlaws.

John Russell is a white man who was raised by Apaches. The crux of the story revolves around how others see him, and how he responds to them; from the corrupt government agent who stole from the Native Americans he'd been charged to protect, to the young lady recently rescued from savage Indians.

And that's pretty much it. Of course there are more characters, with a couple of interesting exchanges and confrontations, but the story and plot are both pretty thin on the ground - the book itself is only 168 pages long, and as such can easily be finished in a day, or a particularly slow afternoon.

Although HOMBRE may not be the epic Western some might claim, or want, it is still a decent example of pulp writing; we've got the inscrutable anti-hero, the ruthless bandit villain, and a few gunfights. The racism is quite standard for the time period, with it fuelling distrust more than anything else (such as inflammatory violence). Another thing HOMBRE does have going for it, though, is a pleasantly surprising ending.

However, as enjoyable as it is, it's not an example of Leonard's best work. Last Stand At Sabre River, his previous novel, is a better choice if you're trying to decide which of his earlier Westerns to check out. Like HOMBRE, it has a very simple story and plot (Confederate soldier returns from the Civil War to find Union soldiers using his farm), but expands on it to a more successful degree.

Thursday, 16 April 2009



A FINE DARK LINE is a ‘Murder Mystery’ in the same way that Nick Cave is a ‘Blues’ musician; both take elements and staples of their respective genres but add darker, more sinister aspects, subsequently warping something previously thought familiar into the unknown.

In this case, we have what is essentially a coming-of-age tale, supported by backwoods folklore and an almost supernatural tone in parts. There is also a lot of violence in this book; towards women, African-Americans, children, and animals. Although some of it is quite brutal, it is never glorified or gratuitous, and always serves the story rather than detracts from it. Unfortunately, violence is the only language some people understand, and it is this ugly truth that informs many of the more aggressive situations that crop up during the course of the story.

And what of the actual story? We’re introduced to thirteen-year-old Stanley Mitchel, who lives and works at the Dew Drop Drive-In Theatre with his mother, father, older sister and black housekeeper Rosy Mae. It’s 1958 and summer in the small Texan town of Dewmont, and young Stan’s eyes are about to be opened to how the world really works…

"It was so wild the way the world and Dewmont really were. Probably all towns were like this and most people never found out. I wished I were most people. It was like once the lid was off the world, everything that was ugly and secret came out."

After discovering a metal box buried at the edge of some nearby woods, Stanley manages to open it and finds it filled with old diary pages and love letters between two people, referred to in the notes as only ‘M’ and ‘J’. And thus begins an investigation that involves murder, secret truths, and one of the most influential families in Dewmont.

Stanley teams up with a few people in his search for the truth, with perhaps the most influential in his young life being Buster, the near-alcoholic projectionist from the Drive-In. Buster is around seventy years old, and an extremely grumpy bastard. He is also a keen fan of Sherlock Holmes, and it’s this literary creation’s motto of ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’ that he applies to the investigation into the love letters.

Some of the ‘twists’ in A FINE DARK LINE aren’t entirely unpredictable, but that’s not really a problem, or even that important to be honest, as the story keeps shifting your expectations and subverting the focus of both the plot and the story.

There isn’t one character or line of dialogue that feels false, and everything, from the father whose casual racism that gives way to real respect, to the creepy description of what might be a headless ghost, is excellent. I love this book. I could have quite happily wrote 600 synonyms for ‘brilliant’ instead of a proper review.

But, I did write a review and as such I need a closing statement for it. So, in reference to the opening comment (and because I feel it really is the most appropriate comparison): If this book were to be turned into music, it’d be a concept album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - and it would probably be the best album of their career.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009



The fourth book in the Odd Thomas series, ODD HOURS is (much like its protagonist) an unusual and unorthodox creation that promises action, wit and drama, but never delivers it in quite the way you’d expect or hope. This has been an endearing quality implemented in previous Odd Thomas adventures, with varying degrees of success:

The first Odd novel was a near-faultless mix of supernatural horror, corrupt human nature, and emotional personal drama. Forever Odd continued these themes but on a smaller scale, and as such had a disappointing climax. Brother Odd changed location from the desert to snow-capped mountains and involved a sinister force that threatened an entire abbey of children, and proved to be an excellent return to form. And now, Odd Thomas has found himself in the small coastal town of Magic Beach, accompanied by the ghosts of an alsatian called Boo, and Frank Sinatra.

"So much death was coming that it would be the end of death, such absolute destruction that nothing would escape to be destroyed hence."

Odd Thomas, as a character and a book, is always at his and its best when dealing with some huge disaster. In this respect, ODD HOURS doesn’t disappoint as it features the possibility of a truly apocalyptic event. Haunted by a premontion involving a pregnant woman hovering over the sea as it boils red, Odd finds himself involved with everything from corrupt local officials to mysterious packs of coyotes.

Ah yes, here's where we discuss the buzz word for this story: mysterious. Almost everything and everyone Odd encounters in Magic Beach is mysterious, if not in description than in execution. The biggest culprit is Annamaria, the pregnant young lady from Odd's vision. She speaks in riddles and is so vague that both we and Odd start to become frustrated with her deliberate aversion to the truth. This curious strangeness also informs the supporting characters, to such an extent that you start to wonder if there are any normal people in Magic Beach.

Another disappointing aspect of ODD HOURS is that Boo and Sinatra go from story characters to plot devices, only appearing when they're of use rather than to add extra flavour (as Elvis did in previous Odd books). It's a small niggle, but it's compounded by the lack of true supernatural activity - this time around, Odd Thomas goes out of his way to avoid the possibility of running into the lingering dead. There are other ghosts involved, but on a much smaller scale than previous entries into the series. Odd also takes on a more violent persona this time around, and whilst he regretfully accepts that such a thing had to happen eventually, it gives the impression that Koontz is trying to steer the character down a different path to his past adventures.

Despite it's slightly frustrating dips in tone, ODD HOURS is an enjoyable and fast-paced tale. Odd Thomas remains an affable and humourous guide, whilst Koontz continues to create truly sinister characters and wring emotion out of situations you wouldn't normally expect to care about. With more questions asked than answers given, Koontz is clearly setting up a new journey (and style?) for Odd Thomas, so it'll be interesting to see where he takes him.

Monday, 13 April 2009

THE WALKING DEAD, Vol. 9 - Here We Remain


First things first: if you’ve never read this fabulous ‘never-ending zombie story’, and you’re interested in 1) zombies, and 2) graphic novels, then I strongly suggest you seek out Volume 1 and start catching up.

Done that? Excellent.

As with the best zombie apocalypse stories, The Walking Dead excels when concentrating on the more ‘human’ side of things. That isn’t to say that the story falters as soon as any zombies show up, it simply helps to heighten the drama when we actually care about the people involved. And, boy, do we care.

The Walking Dead concentrates on Rick, a cop who wakes up in a hospital to find the world’s gone to hell. Over the last eight collected volumes, we’ve followed him as he sought his wife and son, and other survivors of the zombie outbreak. Along the way, characters we’re actually bothered about have left the main group, returned, betrayed others, repented, and most of all – died.

Kirkman is not afraid to kill his characters off. This is, after all, a world that has devolved into chaos, where every shadowy doorway can hide a bloodthirsty zombie, or worse, a frightened survivor with a loaded gun.

Charlie Adlard’s black-and-white artwork continues to serve the story excellently, with the only complaint being that sometimes the amount of time that passes between panels is unclear. However, this quirk has been part of all The Walking Dead issues so far, so it’s easier to forgive it when it happens again this time around.

Conversely, one of my favourite sections of HERE WE REMAIN is a two-page spread featuring nothing except a shot of a house as a few days pass. It is absolutely lovely in its simplicity.

The drama can become overwrought on the odd occasion, but for every panel featuring a husband crying over his devoured wife, we get more than enough genuinely affecting moments. The last volume, Made To Suffer, lived up to it’s title by packing in a number of truly gut-punching scenes, a couple of which actually made me put the book down so I could gather my wits and take in what had just happened.

HERE WE REMAIN can’t really compete with this level of emotional attachment as it plays more like an ‘aftermath’ of the events in that book; the main group has splintered and separated, with various characters dead and gone, after the attack on their prison base. Rick and his son Carl are back on the road, lost and wandering, trying to figure out what to do and where to go.

We do get a look into Rick’s broken state of mind as he finds himself talking to people who aren’t really there, as well as Carl’s growing sense of independence. It is this latter storyline that is the most interesting, as Carl’s feelings are birthed from his frustration with a father who he feels is failing him, even though he knows deep down that it isn’t entirely Rick’s fault.

Whilst on the road, the pair are reunited with the sword-wielding Michonne, and together they decide to head for a former base: Hershel’s farm. It is here that the next part of the main plot comes into play, as some new survivors show up, one of whom claims to have knowledge of what caused the zombie outbreak in the first place.

However, since this man won’t share what he knows with anyone until he reaches Washington, the question then becomes one of trust: in a world ravaged by the living dead, with survivors who can be as bloodthirsty as these monsters, is it worth putting all your faith in one stranger when all other avenues have lead to dead ends? I, for one, look forward to Volume 10 to find out.