Eddie Campbell - The Fate of the Artist
Between 1988 and 1993 I worked in a comic shop. 4 days a week surrounded by garish depictions of overly muscled costumed superheroes. Comics were having one of their periodic resurgences and there were lots of very good writers and artists crashing through into the mainstream or at least as close to the mainstream as they were comfortable getting. British writers and artists were leading the pack - Alan Moore (Swamp Thing), Neil Gaiman (Sandman), Jamie Delano & John Ridgeway (Hellblazer), Grant Morrison (Doom Patrol), Brian Talbot (Luther Arkwright) and many more were amongst our biggest sellers. Most were still pursuing the American idea of comics of the fantastical and the amazing but they were doing it really well so that was cool. In amongst all this horror and violence I one day chanced upon a graphic novel that was to move my reading habits permanently, it seems, to the slightly left of centre - for which I am eternally grateful. It was called 'The Complete Alec' and was written and drawn by Eddie Campbell. Within it's sketchily drawn black and white pages were stories of love, loss, birth, death, childhood, adulthood, sex, incontinence, holidays, work, alcohol, philosophy and most of all the realities of friendship. 17 years later I still have my copy it gets reread every year or so. and it still makes me laugh and sigh in equal measures.
When I left the comic shop I parted company with comics - they were getting really bad by this point - and so fell out of touch with what was going on. Now and again curiosity would drag me into a comic shop. If I saw that beautiful scratchy art I would always buy it and so I had read some of Campbell's work since - the most famous being 'From Hell' - it's all been good, some of it very good ('The Cheque Mate!') but nothing has come close to replicating that original impact. Until, that is, I read 'The Fate of the Artist.' A detective story without a detective. The story of a missing person who is present throughout. An analysis of one man's life and it's impact on those around him. A peak behind the curtain and a dissection of fears, foibles, fantasies and family. As a narrative it's exemplary, as a piece of art it's sublime. A truly stunning read that doesn't so much demand your attention as deserve it.
Eddie Campbell – The Lovely Horrible Stuff
A new Eddie Campbell is always a reason for joy as far as I’m concerned. This new one explores his relationship with money whilst also providing a look at the stone money of the island of Jap.
It’s typically Campbell. It’s poignant, insightful funny, informative, beautifully drawn and just downright fabulous.
It isn’t as balls out beautiful as his ‘Fate of the Artist’ but few things in life are.
Philip Carr-Gomm & Richard Heygate – The Book of English Magic
I’m not sure why but I had a craving to read this since I spotted a damaged hardback version in a local corporate bookshop. It was too damaged and pricey but it caught my attention. As luck would have it later that day I walked around the corner and found an immaculate paperback copy for a fraction of the price.
The book itself is split into two sections, part history and part new age instruction manual. I ended up skipping over large chunks of the book as the latter sections hold no interest to me whatsoever. The history parts on the other hand were very interesting indeed.
Telling the development of English magic from Druidry to Chaos it was a fairly vague undertaking (that’s a lot of ground to cover in a single volume) but with just enough detail to keep a curiosity reader like me satisfied.
Gail Carriger - Soulless
Now that was just pure unadulterated fun. Thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.
Soulless is the first of three (currently) books featuring the stroppy, intimidating and really rather awesome (in the correct sense of the word) heroine Alexia Tarrabotti.
Alexia exists in a post-supernatural steampunk London filled with dirigibles, vampires and werewolves. Alexia herself is a preternatural being able to utterly cancel out supernatural abilities when in physical contact.
Having been quite rudely attacked by an unknown and lisping vampire whilst attending a soiree Alexia becomes embroiled in a plot to do all manner of beastly things to the supernatural elements within polite and refined Victorian society.
The book itself is as much a romantic romp as an adventure story. A fun mix of comedy of manners with swashbuckling daring-do. The plot of the book is solid if a bit thin but that's not where the charm lies. The real strength of Soulless is the central characters and the way they interact. Carriger has a lightness of touch and a deft sense of her protagonists that makes them utterly alive on the page. Alexia is deliciously modern but wrapped so strongly in the expectations and confines of her time that she is in constant battle to live her life the way she rightfully thinks it needs to be lived. Lord Maccon, the werewolf pack leader, government representative and hulking love-interest is a strong and unintentionally (on his part) comedic element whose emerging infatuation with this firebrand of a woman is driving him to rampant distraction and the oh so charismatic Lord Akeldama, well, he's just joy personified. I'd read volumes about him alone, think Mark Gatiss' Lucifer Box but with pronounced canines.
My favourite thing about this book though - it's a small thing in real terms but huge thing for me - is that this book contains, what I like to call, an ending, as opposed to just ending. Too often does a book get through the big set piece climactic battle / confrontation / expose only to then immediately fizzle out in a mad dash for the last page. Not here though as Carriger slowly wraps things up and allows us the luxury of seeing the aftermath of events (I almost cried along with Lord Akeldama as his wish came true) in much the same manner as we see their development.
I do think though that the cover blurb associating Carriger with Austen and Wodehouse is both lazy and detrimental making her sound anachronistic. Her prose is tight, energetic and very modern (as is her heroine) and, it must be said, it reminds me somewhat (although this is probably due mostly to my unfamiliarity with this specific end of the genre market and my perceived similarities between the principal characters) of Laurell K. Hamilton but without the vaguely creepy gun fetishism that always seemed to pervade that writers work.
On the shelf behind me I have the next two volumes of Alexia Tarrabotti The Parasol Protectorate novels and I am very much looking forward to getting to grips with them.
Gail Carriger - Changeless
An Abundance of work commitments meant reading this second Alexia Tarabotti novel became quite a dragged out affair.
Not quite such an all round joyful read as the first volume this one tells the story of a curse of 'living' that first blights the afterlives of London's supernatural set before moving north to Scotland to afflict the remains of Lord Maccon's old pack. Alexia's investigation into this phenomena throws her into an adventure filled with spies, lies, assassins and intrigue.
The story this time is a little light. The set up is all in place for a rollercoaster romp but it never really delivers on this. The airship sequence could have been so much more than it ended up being and the climactic showdown was lacking in both derring-do and pathos. Too much time and effort was expended on Felicity and Ivy's bickering and nowhere near enough time was spent fleshing out the far more interesting Madame Lefoux. This leaves a large chunk of the book (the middle sequence) rather slight and unsatisfying.
All this negativity aside though I did enjoy Changeless. Carriger has a light touch and witty turn of phrase and the book was a fun way to spend a couple of sunny afternoons and the ending, whilst I have reservations (surely they (the core couple) must have contemplated the possibility of this knowing Alexia's powers - there are several references to everyone else having done so), certainly leaves everything wide open for the third book in the series.
Gail Carriger - Blameless
Ah now that was much more like it. After thoroughly and I really do mean thoroughly enjoying the first in this series I must admit to having been a little disappointed with the second. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't as good. Inevitable I suppose. This third one though was another good natured, frivolous, humorous, tea-loving, straight-laced, well-mannered melange of romp, romance and, eventually, romping (if you catch my drift).
The newly pregnant Alexia finds herself excluded from the pack, outcast from polite society and the object of concerted vampire attacks due to her condition. So, being Alexia she takes matters into her own hands and along with Floote and Madam Lefoux heads off to Europe to find out more.
Lord Maccon meanwhile has retreated into the bottle leaving Professor Lyall to deal with both the pack and B.U.R. Lord Akeldama has fled and the vampires are out for blood - specifically Alexia's. Lyall's increased role in this book is fine by me. I always have a soft spot for characters of his type - quietly and ruthlessly efficient with and unerring moral compass. His sartorial excellence doesn't hurt either. It is he who initially investigates the missing Akeldama whilst bringing Maccon back to sobriety and it is he who is left to explain about Biffy.
First stop for Alexia is France which introduces two new Brass Octopus scientists before she falls into the clutched of the Templars in Italy. It’s here she at last uncovers a clue as to just what the baby is likely to be and why the vamps are so worked up about it.
The final act is split over several locations and is to the most part very satisfying. I think maybe Maccon was let off too easily by Alexia and the repercussions of Biffy's new furriness and how this will change relationships remains to be seen.
All things told however this one was a fun ride. Lots of action, a bit of plot and some great interaction between the characters. I'm glad to say I thoroughly enjoyed this one again.
Gail Carriger – Heartless
The fourth in the Parasol Protectorate novels brings the pregnancy to an end with a riotous conclusion. Alexia receives a visit from a ghost on the verge of going poltergeist telling her of a plot against the Queen. Her investigations lead her into her husband’s past with his Scottish pack and also reveals dark secrets about the current pack and her own past.
Meanwhile the plot continues and she may need to look elsewhere for answers.
The first recruit to the protectorate is recruited here as Ivy proves herself a lot less vapid than previously implied.
This one is very much the action sequel to the series - although the last had its moments – with a concluding battle between vampires, werewolves and scientists featuring a giant mechanical octopus. It is there to set everything up for the next book which is blatantly going to deal with the results of the birth at the very end that reveals that Prudence has a number of unusual traits.
Another fun episode in Alexia’s travails that opens up all manner of fun avenues for the following novel to explore.
Gail Carriger – Timeless
The fifth of the Parasol Protectorate novels sees Alexia, Maccon and the offspring heading off to Egypt at the summons of the oldest vampire queen. Whilst there they find themselves also investigating the godbreaker plague. Meanwhile back home Lyall and Biffy investigate the murder of the Kinair Beta and find out both that they have rather specific feelings for each other and that Biffy may be more than he realises.
The story romps along as usual and is full of pithy little observations and one-liners. There’s also plenty of daring-do and intrigue.
As ever it’s cracking good fun and ends with the creation of the most unlikely of vampire queens.
Gail Carriger -Etiquette and Espionage
The author of the Alexia Tarabotti stories here returns to that world but at a slightly earlier date -about 20 years maybe - to tell the story of a finishing school for assassins.
A fairly daft premise sees the young and troublesome Sophronia packed off to an unknown finishing school where she soon learns that the lessons are a lot more fun than anticipated. She also gets herself embroiled in an escapade around an early aetheric communications device that gives her ample scope for hi-jinks and exploring.
We get to meet some familiar characters along the way and the whole thing has Carrigers characteristic light touch. It's at YA novel so it's a bit light and fluffy but on the whole it's a bit of fun.
Mac Carter & Tony Salmons - The Strange Adventures of H.P. Lovecraft
What an absolute mess of a book, it's all over the place.
The story is an attempt to link old Howard into his own stories and drag his cosmology kicking and screaming into his biography. It's in trouble right from the off as it assumes too much familiarity on the part of the reader with HPL's life whilst not really giving one the chance to experience the mundane before the chaotic intrudes. It all boils down to some haunted book related twaddle and the demon who needs Howie-P to be the 'gate' into our world. It's a load of hackneyed piffle filled with characters who are paper thin and cliched to the level of a soap opera.
The art is OK. nothing particularly eye-catching but diverting enough from the script.
I've never been a HPL fan but thought I'd give this a shot. I'm now a fan of neither.
Andrew Cartmel – Doctor Who Novellas: Foreign Devils
This was the book that caught my eye and alerted me to the existence of the Telos books and it pleases me to be able to report it was a real corker of a read.
Cartmel was the script editor that was trying to revitalise the TV series just as it was being cancelled. Here he takes a break from the Seventh Doctor and tries his hand at the Second.
The Doctor, Zoe and Jamie find themselves in 1800 in China where an opium smuggler named Roderick Upcott has just found himself cursed by the court astrologer and discovered he was warming his bum on a box containing the slowly roasting remains of one of his customers.
Via a spirit gate Zoe & Jamie find themselves catapulted to 1900 England with the Doctor following in his usual manner. There, at a party held by Upcott’s well-healed descendant, they find murder, intrigue and a kindred spirit in the form of Thomas Carnacki the ghost hunter created by William Hope Hodgson.
The Doctor and Carnacki with Zoe in tow (Jamie sits this one out unconscious in the greenhouse) investigate each murder in turn, finding one to be not so supernatural in origin, before the curse reveals itself in both the possession of Carnacki’s girlfriend and the resurrected corpse of Roderick Upcott.
It really was a cracking romp with a decidedly dirty mind – one of the Upcott’s liking to shag the maids with the butler watching from behind an two-way mirror.
In addition, there was a back-up story from the original Carnacki stories called ‘The Whistling Room’ which was odd and a bit creepy in a slightly dated and stilted way but a good way to end a cracking read.
Mark Chadbourn - Wonderland
I've been saving this one for a time when I had a Who craving but not much time to spare. This is the last of the Telos Doctor Who novellas that I have here. They were, on the whole, a pretty enjoyable set of romps being a different, more adult, odd and creepy set of tales than is usually the case.
Wonderland is a second Doctor story that fins him, along with Been & Polly wandering around San Francisco's Haight Ashbury at the height of its hippy fame. Two different things - which inevitably prove to be the same thing - are happening here. The Doctor is receiving strange visitations that detail former foes whilst a young hippy girl - our narrator - is searching, often with Ben & Polly's help, for her missing boyfriend.
It's a little unfocused and the ending was both a bit sleazy and unsatisfying but Chadbourn has constructed a fairly interesting take that probably needed a lot more room and a little more development to tell properly.
Albert von Chamisso – Peter Schlemihl
First published, in German in 1813 by a French aristocrat in exile, this book is, by all accounts, a classic of its type.
It tells the story of a man who trades his shadow for an endless pouch of gold only to find that a man without a shadow is shunned by all and sundry. With the help of a trustworthy servant / confidant he manages to cope for a year and a day before the mysterious stranger returns and offers to sell him back his shadow in return for his soul. This sends Peter on the road away from his servant and his love eventually obtaining a pair of seven league boots with which he spends the rest of his days undertaking scientific research around the world.
It was an odd little book. Fairytale logic and a coldly bleak plot. Enjoyable but not exactly life affirming.
Simon Clark – Doctor Who: The Dalek Factor
This, the fifteenth and final Telos novella was written by the guy who wrote a sequel to Day of the Triffids a few years ago and here he’s continued the theme with a story set on a world of killer flora and fauna...and Daleks.
The Doctor is not identified but definitely isn’t the First and his request, whilst amnesiac, to be called Professor leads one towards the Seventh but who knows.
It was fun, lots of fun in fact. It was very light but also very ‘Who’; particularly very modern ‘Who’. I could imagine the showdown featuring the Tenth, all it needed was the word ‘Sorry’ a lot.
Jonathan Clements - Doctor Who Unbound: Sympathy for the Devil
A way beyond canon Doctor story starring David Warner as the Doctor and Mark Gatiss as the Master. The tale describes the arrival of a very different 3rd Doctor arriving on earth some thirty years later for his exile on Earth and finding a world that was very different from what was expected. The world has been changed irrevocably by the Doctor's absence during events such as the Auton invasion that he wasn't there to stop.
The Brigadier is living in disgrace after having been drummed out of UNIT and has bought a pub in Hong Kong. The Doctor arrives on the verge of the handover to China and just in time to foil the Master's plan to make use of some sort of mind control parasite (from the 'Mind of Evil' episode).
The story was excellent and both Warner and Gatiss are perfectly cast. It's fun to hear the Brigadier again as he must be a fair old age by now (and indeed has since passed on between the time I wrote this and now). One of the strangest things here though is the presence of David Tennant as the new head of UNIT. He's in full scenery chewing mode here with Scottish accent fully intact as a very gung-ho colonel.
The only problem I had with the whole thing was the ambiguous ending which seemed to have the Doctor behaving against type by leaving quite a major loose end behind by not knowing whether or not the parasites had gone for ever in the Chinese nuke tests or whether or not the Masters newly unbrainwashed minions had gone nuts or not - they had.
A poor ending to a fairly cracking listen and I fully intend to track down some more of these.
Louise Cooper – Doctor Who Novellas: Rip Tide
This is an Eighth Doctor adventure set in a Cornish seaside fishing town. A young girl, Nina, doesn’t like the attention a stranger named Ruth is paying her brother and the strange floppy haired jelly baby wielding man is up to something too. Nina investigates and finds a new world of strange men with mind bending police boxes and alien tourists stuck on Earth too frightened to return home.
I’m glad this was only a novella. I think it would have got on my nerves if it had gone on any longer but it wasn’t a bad read. A little vague and wet (and Nina was massively irritating) but enjoyable enough.
Max Allan Collins & Richard Piers Rayner - Road to Perdition
I've known and liked the film St give it came along which surprised me as I don't really have a lot of time for Tom Hanks movies. The book had eluded me though until I found it in a local charity shop the other day.
It's a different beast to the film, less of a road movie vibe, although that's in there, and also an little bit more real, although I certainly am discounting his escape from Capone's office from that statement.
An enjoyable short of tale even though this whole gangster thing isn't a favourite. It's coherent and complete and satisfying. What more do you want from a Sunday afternoon read.
Mitch Cullin - A slight Trick of the Mind
Behind my head as I write this is a shelf with about 20 Sherlock Holmes books plus various DVD adaptations / versions. It would be pretty safe to say I'm a fan. I am not however even remotely precious about it. Amongst those 20 odd books and sat alongside the canon are a number of pastiches, some are downright silly - the 'War of the World' one springs immediately to mind (written by the magnificently named Manly Wellman). Another features him teaming up with a young Teddy Roosevelt, whilst a third pits him against the gentleman burglar Arsene Lupin although he is called Herlock Sholmes in that one. There's even a first edition of Michael Chabon's masterclass of a novel featuring an elderly Holmes, The Final Solution.So basically, do what you want with him. The character is malleable and durable enough and I'm enough of a fan to go along on the journey and see if it's going somewhere interesting.
In 'A Slight Trick of the Mind' Mitch Cullin takes Holmes somewhere very interesting indeed, to the end. Cullin places the nonagenarian Holmes in two very different settings and the younger version into what at first seems like a rather nondescript case that eventually takes on much deeper meanings.
Switching effortlessly between his life amongst his beloved bees in the company of the housekeeper's son, his beekeeping protégé, and a trip to postwar Japan ostensibly to search for prickly ash but also to satisfy a young man's curiosity regarding his estranged father whilst also being drip fed the resolution of the earlier case; Cullin's book is that rarity, a literary pageturner. It's beautifully written and reveals it's heartbreaking secrets both far too soon and frustratingly slowly. The carefully crafted links between the various stories are given the time and space to allow their tales to tell and to allow us to more fully understand what it means to be both Holmes at the height of his powers and Holmes at their decline.
For many people this will no doubt be an ill fit alongside the canon but those people will be missing the point. This isn't a book about Sherlock Holmes the great detective; he is simply the principal in a book about loss both great and small. Loss of friends, loss of family, loss of a child, loss of love, of memory, of things, of direction and ultimately loss of self. Holmes is ourselves wit large and as such any loss is born magnified and intensified. Through him we are shown what it means to be ultimately, inevitably, inescapably fallible.
I found this to be a beautiful and poignant read that took me to a place I've not visited in a while and brought me back filled with questions for which the answers can only be experienced when the time comes for them to be asked.
Heartily and resoundingly recommended.