Solar: Man of the Atom #1

Solar: Man of the Atom #1, Dynamite Comics; 2014

Doctor Solar has a new series.  Dynamite Comics just released the first issue in a series.  Here is a character that has had a long history – but without much fame and glory.  I believe he was created by Paul S. Newman and Matt Murphy in the 1960s for a comic series with the publisher Gold Key Comics.  I have no idea how I know of this pulp/vintage character.  It is a case of one of those things that I know without knowing exactly how I know.

I know that in 2010 Dark Horse Comics released a small series entitled Doctor Solar.  I think they only made it 8 issues – through design or low sales, I do not know why it ended.  This is not as bad as it seems – Solar’s original run with Gold Key Comics in the 1960s only ran about 30 issues.  But here we are in 2014 and now it seems the property has gone to Dynamite Comics (founded 2005).  If you glance at Dynamite’s title list, you will notice that the majority are franchises from TV or film. Or even books.  Nevertheless, I read nothing of the Dark Horse comics series – so when I saw Solar #1 sitting on a shelf at my local comic book store I grabbed it.

I read it first – out of the large stack of comics that came home with me.

This issue displays the efforts of writer Frank H. Barbiere, artist Joe Bennett, colorist Lauren Affe, with cover artist Juan Doe (probably an alias, but why would you not take credit for this cover?).  I am a terrible sucker for (well, obviously, comic books) (1.) science fiction-esque covers/comics; (2.) vintage/pulp.  I really liked the cover Doe gave us for this issue and seeing Doctor Solar in his own title again definitely was the root cause of my spending $3.99.  Cover art does matter – it is not just something to glance at and cruise on past.

Solar #1, first page; Dynamite Comics

The first page is a keeper, as well, if you are science fiction addict. How can you see the cover, and then the first page, and then not be hooked?  One of the things that I like, generally, about this whole issue is the artwork and coloring.  It is really eye-catching and pleasing.  It works very well with the story.

Now, since I hardly recall any origin story for Doctor Solar, I cannot speak on this issue’s heritage or loyalty to the character.  I can say that the storyline here is worth reading, even if it does not seem incredibly unique.  I mean, a story in which there are estranged family members, ambitious, genius scientists, and rather dull bank robbers does not rank very highly in the annals of originality.  Nevertheless, I do not always need a first issue to be original – I do need it to have elements which will draw me back for issue #2.  That is definitely to be found here.  And so, I think the money was well spent.  It is rather difficult to say much else regarding the storyline – but if the art keeps up and the story progresses, I can see this being a safe monthly purchase.

4 stars

This Fortress World

This Fortress World - James E. Gunn; 1979

This Fortress World – James E. Gunn; 1979

James Gunn’s first novel, This Fortress World, was published in 1955.  I read the Berkley 1979 edition of the paperback – which, of all the publications, I think is the best cover art.  I have not been able to ascertain who the cover artist was – but I do really like this cover art.  And it is not necessarily just this particular piece.  Any comic book cover that resembles the basic structure of this cover is something that will also draw my attention.  Another example:  Glen Cook’s The Black Company cover.

When trying out a new author, I like to start with their first work.  Generally, this has either become their magnum opus – or they have nowhere to go but up, so to speak.  Also, it soothes all of my pseudo-OCD feelings on the matter.  So, naturally, thinking highly of the cover and knowing this is Gunn’s first novel, it was the obvious choice for my next read.

Surprisingly, this is not the most well-read novel.  I figured that I would find heaps of reviews of this.  I, of course, found some, however not as many as I expected.  Interestingly, the ones I found seemed to be very opposing in their overall rating.  At first this looked odd, but after reading the novel I can completely understand this disparity.

It is a difficult novel.  I enjoyed the first few chapters.  The story and characters were engaging, interesting, and this novel seemed to have a lot of good things going for it. However, I had the feeling that a certain viewpoint/ideology was being espoused – one that I am not too sympathetic toward.  This disappointed me, but I read onward.  Just because I disagree with something does not mean I will not read it. But then, around the middle of the book, everything seemed to get bizarre and I felt that the author really had no clear-cut direction of where he was taking this novel.  Threads of the story seemed to get lost or change.  And there are a few scenes that are a bit strange – unless you have some psychoanalysis in your academic background. I mean, why do authors love to torture characters?  But not, as PKD does, in an offbeat and kosmological way.  Instead it is always:  in a dank cell, naked, with torture devices. I could live without a whole lot of this particular trope. . . .

Anyway, much of the story itself involves escape/evasion/chase.  The novel is written in the first-person.  We meet William Dane immediately, looking much like the cover art here.  William is an acolyte at the monastery/cathedral.  Because he is an acolyte, I assumed he is between 15 and 25 years old.  I cannot recall the novel sharing his age with the reader – if it did, I missed it.  This is one problem that I have with the novel:  sometimes William seems too capable for someone so young. Maybe his innocence and youth are what help him succeed? However, does his name mean anything to you? It was familiar to me in a dusty way. It finally came to me after reading the book: Cp. Silas Marner.

So what is this novel about?  Telepathy.  It is also a really hopeful, futuristic conception of humanity.  It is also a love story.  And it is also a “chase/escape” plot.  It is about fortresses – personal, architectural, moral, etc. But – most important – I believe this is an entire novel about READING!  (Chapter 6 contains some of this!)

The writing is not so good.  The ideas are good – whenever there is also a consistency and continuance.  When events happen at random, or there are obvious “changes” that don’t mesh so well, the ideas seem forced.  Two things must be said:  the viewpoint that I thought was being demonstrated (the viewpoint that I disliked) actually was not being put forth.  Or, it was, but not in the expected way – in a way that is actually positive and redeeming.  Color me surprised.  In some ways, it is the opposite of the viewpoint that I suspected I was going to be dealing with!  Very tricksy, Gunn!  Also, while the middle chunk of the novel is not great, the last several chapters are quite good; matched with the first few – this would be a 4.5 – 5 star read.  The resolution is interesting and impressive – especially after the middle section.  And I enjoyed it quite a bit.

From late in the novel:

And so we have the fortress psychology which pervades everything.  It means isolation, fear of attack, hatred of the alien.  It means strong, centralized governments. It means concentrations of power, wealthy, and authority.  It means oppressed populations, looking ignorantly, hopefully, fearfully to superiors for defense and order.  It means stagnation, decay, and slow rot which will eventually destroy all semblance of human civilization as technical skill and knowledge are destroyed or forgotten and the links between worlds are broken.   (pg. 193)

Honestly, many readers will hate this novel.  The writing is not good.  The subject matter is not contained enough and seems to try to include too much in such a short novel.  Nevertheless, even if it is not perfect, many readers will also like this novel for presenting the positive, hopeful, and revolutionary feelings for humankind in the far future.  Also:  telepathy.

4 stars

Wool

Wool – Hugh Howey; 2012

The Wool omnibus, which is what I read, is a little tricky to refer to because of its publishing history.  I think the majority of readers also read the omnibus edition.  The omnibus is a collection of five novelettes (which is a word I dislike, by the way) and was published in 2012.  Four of the included smaller “books” were first published in 2011.  Anyway, Wool by Hugh Howey is what is being reviewed here, as collected in the omnibus edition.

The reason some of the above publishing history is significant is because the original “book” forms the first 39 pages of the omnibus.  Overall, after reading this whole omnibus (a word I am already sick of typing), it feels like Howey really went somewhere different (and better) than wherever he may have been going in that first “book.”  Maybe not somewhere entirely different, but I feel like what was written in the second “book” is actually the starting point of the entire storyline.  In other words, the first “book” feels so much like background material, that perhaps I would not have entitled it “Wool,” but rather Prelude.

The second “book” is entitled Proper Gauge and for the most part it moves slowly as anything.  Many readers might abandon the book at this point – and I totally understand why.  It was a slight struggle for me, as well.  There’s one sentence where Howey describes one of the character’s walking stick getting stuck in the ridges of the stairs as they go down over 130 “stories” of stairs.  At points, the journey seems interminable and the reader does feel like they are actually on a Stairmaster or something.  The good thing about this – the reader does get a scope of the size of the environment that really drives home distances and effort.  Nevertheless, I think a few pages of this could have been whittled down without harm.

The novel is not written with the intellectual flair and ability of, say, Calvino or Nabokov.  This is not really high literature.  At it’s base, this is a survival-story told using good, solid writing.  The writing is quite good.  It just is not anything spectacular.  One of the things I did appreciate, repeatedly, was that the author does not utilize many cuss words. I think there are probably ten or twelve instances in the entire omnibus of “bad” words – and they are not all that “bad.”  It is refreshing and comforting to read an adult novel that does not feel the need to bludgeon the reader with foul language.  For that reason, sure, this novel can (more or less) be read by anyone of any age group.  Both of these points means that this novel has a wide audience.

I do not read many books in which the main character is a female.  So, for me, this was a somewhat unique read.  I liked the character; she is smart, strong, independent, and honest.  I feel like there were points where the author could have “overwritten” Juliette – and he refrained from doing so, avoided doing so, and therefore made a really decent character.

The ending is a bit abrupt. On one hand, after 500 pages, I did not think I wanted to read anymore. Not that the work is bad, but one cannot read a story infinitely.  On the other hand, the ending just kind of happens within four brief chapters and done.  And there is a lot left open for possibility – future novels/storylines and for imaginings of the reader.  I am a big proponent of not drawing out endings unnecessarily, but this makes this omnibus seem unbalanced – weighted heavily for the first two sections.

Now, many places categorize this novel as science fiction.  Frankly, I do not think this is science fiction. Again, this could start an endless dispute regarding the definition of genres and science fiction in particular.  Let’s just take some widely accepted view of the genre – aliens, robots, futuristic, lots of advanced science, space travel, etc. are all common ingredients in such a pie.  I don’t think Wool contains any of those.  This is just a survival story – a post-apocalyptic (although not perfectly detailed on what sort of apocalypse) story of human survival.  No aliens. No time travel.  No robots.  So, again, the readership on this one should be quite broad.

There is a basic “scenario” hinted at here.  The author does cause the reader to think about morality several times throughout this work.  The author does present to the reader two views of the situation that the humans survivors find themselves in.  There is a question of the “control of information” (which, by the way, is why I suspect many people think this is a dystopian novel).  However, nowhere does Howey bludgeon us, grind on us, or proselytize at us about these matters.  He tells us an entertaining story in which these are some of the elements of the story.

I have ordered the second omnibus in the Silo Series… I’m given to understand that it is not a direct storyline sequel.  That’s fine.  On the cover of my book (paperback) the author Justin Cronin writes a blurb saying “You will live in this world.”  I think that’s rather accurate.  For the majority of the book, I did feel connected to and entrenched in this world.  I did not have to struggle to imagine anything and I did not have to work to relate to the characters or scenery.

4 stars

Metropolis

Metropolis – Thea von Harbou; ACE

I read some books. I review some books. But I think this will be among the most difficult of reviews to write.  Metropolis – the novel and the movie – is no simple thing to be just dismissed.  Also, it is difficult to explain any part of the plot without giving away the whole thing.  Metropolis was published (I think) in 1926.  Its author is Thea von Harbou (1888 – 1954), one time wife of Fritz Lang (1890 – 1976), the very famous German filmmaker.  In a lot of ways, Thea’s life is just as fascinating as the author whom I read before this novel (Ernst Jünger) and I feel like reading that novel and then Metropolis was a good one-two punch.

I have decided to write this review as if I have never seen the film.  As I was reading the novel, it did make me want to watch the movie again. Beyond that I kept comparing the two and it got slightly messy. So I think it best to just focus on the novel.  However, if you have seen the movie, you should definitely still read the novel as it explains and fleshes out a lot of the movie.  Let’s face it, the movie is not the most straight-forward and watchable movie ever made.

Anyway, I do not know if this is science fiction, romance (traditionally used), or propaganda.  I also do not know if it fits in the category of “dystopia.”  I have seen it referred to as “expressionist” and “fantastic.”  I mention all of this to share with the reader that this is, from the start, a difficult novel to read and/or describe.

A lot of reviewers/critics have said that this is a futuristic story.  An early science fiction dystopia, as it were. Something along the lines of 1984.  I do not really agree with any of this.  Sure, there are some “fantastic science” elements, but I would not classify this novel along those lines.  I think that to do so really misunderstands the author and the story itself.  I maintain that the author is very much a product of her times and as such is very connected with the political, social, and economic sensations rippling through the continent in these years.  I believe, also, that she was an intuitive and creative person.  Finally, reading this novel I got the feeling that Thea von Harbou was a “strong German woman.”  This woman was ensnared in her country and in her times.  And she made decisive movements within them.

I do not have a command of German, but there are sections in which I wished I could hear it in German – audio.  Not written-English.  Particularly the times in which von Harbou uses the technique of repetition and reiteration.  I’ll be honest – the first time it occurred I just assumed it was because in vintage things, there is often poor editing and type-work.  But after awhile, I was able to recognize how this repetition really drills home the concepts von Harbou is working with.

The novel is thoroughly saturated with a lofty Christianity; sometimes appearing as symbols, sometimes as apocalyptic themes, sometimes as blatant points (e.g. Maria, Paternoster).  Some of this is a little tedious and it gets a little bizarre at times.  And the level of saturation makes me wonder if von Harbou did not impose a “romance” onto the structure of Christianity?  In other words, did she start with a foundation of Christianity and then tack various fiction story bits onto it?  Well, most of this makes the story somewhat cumbersome and not as accessible as it would be otherwise.

Metropolis is very much a story of redemption.  But the author tries to pack a lot of other heavyweight concepts into the novel.  And for this reason, mainly, I give it only four stars.  There’s too much and the author does lose the reins several times.  Is this a romance? A story of redemption? A novel of revolution? A vindication of the authority or a condemnation of the technocrat?  Are we supporting revolution or denouncing it?  Is this a warning? A call-to-arms?  In other words, all these “themes” are expected in such a novel from that time period – but there’s a little too much going on here.  At times, von Harbou steps back or does a 180°.

However, there are chapters and scenes of breathtaking awesome brilliance.  In fact, I want to ask the author if she went back in time and actually witnessed nights of terror and the storming of the Bastille.  She writes a scary, dark night in which Metropolis falls.  She does not wimp out when she gets to this part.  However, my favorite parts of the novel are chapters 12 and 13.  In these chapters, we see the opposite of a militant, strong German revolutionary.  In these chapters, the author writes love and emotion and loss and sorrow.  Very emotive chapters – but without all the drippyness of current-day writers.  Somehow the massive emotion and understanding of the human condition is transmitted without floppy words or annoying prose.  These two chapters are exceedingly well done.  [Chap. 12:  Joh goes to his mother, Chap. 13: Rotwang implores Maria]

Overall, this is a very weird read.  And it is not very accessible.  It is not a perfect, lovely read – it has plenty of issues. Nevertheless, I think really, really well-rounded readers will want to take a look at this.  And, of course, people who want to understand the film.

4 stars

Superman Unchained #1

Superman Unchained #1 – J. Lee, S. Snyder; DC Comics; 2013

Because we are nearing the end of the year and I have not done a comic book review in awhile, I figured it was time. Not to mention the INSANE backlog of comics stacked around the premises.  I would show you pictures, but I think it would terrify.  Anyway, I happily dove into the first issue of DC’s Superman Unchained title.  This issue starts a new series and was highly anticipated by readers.  Anything involving Superman generally makes news, however the excitement over this title comes from the creator team of Scott Snyder and Jim Lee.  I think DC jumped onto these facts and slapped a $4.99 on the cover just to see if they could do it – i.e. how much value does Snyder/Lee have in terms of buyers?

The cover is nice.  You can tell immediately that it is Jim Lee’s work.  It features the New 52-style Superman (younger and updated costume) ripping through some sort of technological debris. Superman has a gritty look as opposed to the happy, accomplished look he tends to wear.  I really wonder, though, what DC was thinking with the “Unchained” part.  Is this some cool, youthful lingo?  You know, the dialect in which we would say “this is off the chain” or “no limits.”  But the thing is, the whole concept of Superman is that he is never chained.  He’s unchained, y’all…………

frame, Superman Unchained #1, J. Lee, S. Snyder, DC Comics; 2013

I really like the artwork in this issue.  It has frames from all points-of-view and angles.  I like the coloring – very colorful and sharply defined.  I always think of Jim Lee’s work as being high-definition and highly-sharpened.  Included in this issue (and perhaps to soften the price point) is a tagged-in four-fold “poster” that actually is part of the issue.  This fold-out section is part of the storyline – just the art needed an embiggened format to be shown.  Now, did it? Sure, I guess, maybe.  I am not real fond of gimmicks like this.  I found it a bit cumbersome to unseal, unfold, read, and then re-fold.  Overall, the Superman here is drawn with shadows, while frowning in concentration, with youth and almost a slightly dark feel.

The storyline is okay.  I think that Snyder has proven himself a very capable and interesting writer with his laudable work on the Batman title.  In this issue, there are included several pages of “interview” material with Snyder and Lee and he makes some comments regarding the differences and similarities between the characters Batman and Superman.  I do think Snyder will be writing us a Supes who is a bit heavier and grittier than those 1980s Superman characterizations. Anyway, the storyline is kind of vague.  Satellites are falling to Earth – Superman is reacting to this. Clark Kent and Superman (or do we speak of them as the same?) are “investigating” the situation.  A supposed-terrorist/crime group called Ascension is hinted at – the whole time all the characters tell us “it cannot be Ascension who did this.”  Of course, Superman’s go-to is Lex Luthor (who has a few frames which perfectly depict his arrogance.  There are some threads with Lois’ father and historical events (WWII).  Overall, Snyder is setting up a big storyline for us, so it’s too early to decipher much other than there are a few interesting elements here.

I am going to give this 4 out of 5 stars – for the art, for the seemingly bold direction Snyder is driving toward, and because this feels stronger than the Action Comics and Superman titles’ starts with the New 52.  I own issues #2 – 4, so I will have to see where this goes.  Still, at $4.99 I am not entirely sure all readers will feel they got their value.

4 stars

Star King

Star King – Jack Vance; DAW 1978

I finished Star King by Jack Vance yesterday.  It is the fourth Vance novel that I have read and it is the first in his Demon Princes series of novels.  I read the DAW edition (No. 305) from 1978 with cover by Gino D’Achille.  I was not too excited to read this – because I am not feeling like reading a series.  Plus, the tagline “The first of the Demon Princes novels” doesn’t really do much for me.  The cover of my edition is rather amusing – the chubby diaper-wearing dude swinging a lance at spaceman is just silly.

Each chapter is prefaced by a facsimile of some “excerpt” from a book, magazine, report, etc. that is given to explain or give background to some aspect of the storyline.  Some readers did not like this.  I don’t mind it.  It is like data-dumping and being honest about it.  You need to know this, but the author doesn’t want to waste a chapter droning about it. Read these preface pieces and move on with the story.

Anyway, the book begins fairly interestingly.  Smade’s Tavern is a pretty neat thing.  The only building on an entire (rather inhospitable) planet is a tavern/inn where anyone is welcome and there is somewhat of an uneasy truce held.  I have to admit, for better or worse, I kept imagining the Inn of the Last Home and the innkeeper Otik from the Dragonlance series.  I know that that is just offensive to true science fiction/Vance-fans. Sorry.  Anyway, here we meet the main character, he is given his problematic, and introduced to his foes.

The novel feels like a cross between 007 and Clue if it took place in space and presents theories on revenge/vengeance.  The novel does have somewhat of a sluggish start.  I feel like it takes a little bit of patience to read the first two chapters.  And one of my biggest issues of this book is just what the hell the main character Kirth Gersen does/is.  He first says he is a “locator.” Then he says he is not.  Does he or does he not have some connection to the IPCC?  Then we are told he was trained and developed by his grandfather, who wished Kirth to be some sort of roaming anti-hero outlaw-revenger.  But Kirth did get formal training, too, at some institutions.  So, after all of this, I just want some straight answer on this point.

One of the best things about Vance’s writing, particularly in this novel, is the absolute ease with which he moves through his galaxy.  A lot of space opera science fiction novels seem to struggle and really work at trying to get their picture of the galaxy across to us.  Some authors really want to hammer out the “map” and they seem to be working just as hard to remind themselves what the galaxy looks like, too.  Vance does this effortlessly.  He has a whole galaxy mapped out and we move smoothly through it to various points.

It is a really well-written novel.  I like the somewhat wry and flirtatious interlude with Kirth and Pallis.  I like the neat way Kirth deals with the assassin Suthiro.  Vance also writes a very good “mystery” – he also wrote actual mystery novels, even using the famous “Ellery Queen” penname.  So, it is rather interesting to follow along with Kirth Gersen as he “interviews” the other characters and tries to piece together the background.  Finally, I like the carefully-handled science fiction elements.  I liked the projectile weapons, I liked the concept and design of the “Star Kings,” and I really liked the idea of the planet which is a burned-out sun.

Now, there are things that I found odd or disliked. The Stockholm Syndrome weirdness with Robin Rampold and Dasce is a bit…. weird.  It amuses me that Dasce calls himself “Mr. Spock.”  I was glad we got to meet a bunch of characters one-on-one with Kirth, but I was disappointed with how Tristano was dealt with.  A minor complaint.  Finally, Kirth is both adept and skilled, but also gets sucker-punched and fails sometimes.  Maybe this makes him a good all-around character – he possesses flaws as well as skills.  But there’s something about this that seems slightly off-balance.  He gets ambushed by the assassins, but on the other hand manages to pilot a ship with a variety of very difficult persons on it.  I don’t know how familiar you are with road trips, but I can barely go down the street without a measure of pandemonium in the vehicle.  And I like everyone in the car!

Finally, we are constantly told how bad Malagate the Woe is… but when we find out his motive for this particular situation Kirth is dealing with – it is not so “evil,” I guess.  And Vance just gives the reason to us, we nod, and then we move on. I feel like we could have explored this a little bit further without detriment.

Overall, I can see some readers being bored by this.  Maybe too much mystery and too much rumination on the ends of revenge.  However, there is a whole lot of good writing and originality to be found in this novel.  I do want to read onward in the series and I think this was well worth my time.

4 stars

Death of a Dissident

Death of a Dissident – Stuart M. Kaminsky; Ivy Books; 1989

Today I finished Death of a Dissident by Stuart M. Kaminsky (1934 – 2009) .  This is the first book that I have read by Kaminsky.  I started purchasing the Kaminsky novels in the Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series that I find at cheap prices.  Unfortunately, I do not have book two.  Death of a Dissident was first published in 1981, but I read the 1989 edition.  I picked up my copy used for $2.

I was not sure what to expect from this novel.  I was wary of trying out a new author.  I generally enjoy cozy mysteries, but am leery of bloody, crazed murderers (as you should be, too).  I was okay with the Michael Connelly novel I read, I really enjoy Agatha Christie, and I have been pleased with the few other light mysteries that I have read in the past.  I was worried, though, that this novel might be a bit too gory or dark.  That is generally one of the main reasons I am nervous about reading mysteries.  I do not like reading thriller/mysteries which are filled with depravity and gore.  Another reason I was wary was that I worried the background and setting of this novel might feel really dated.  Or that the author would try to over-write the whole USSR background.

Luckily, my fears were unfounded.  I actually really liked this novel and read it fairly quickly.  The best part of the novel is that Kaminsky did not overwrite the “dismal, politically-charged” USSR setting.  It is actually written really well and gives a really good insight into Kaminsky’s interpretation of the USSR.  The characters were also really well done, I think.  Nothing massively in-depth, but I came to like all of them.  They are all interesting and make the novel much better than it would be with flat or hideous characters.  The subtle and not-so-subtle political awkwardness of the police force dealing with the political structure made for a unique and interesting setting.

Rostnikov was worried about the girl, true, but he was also worried about how he might explain the destruction of the automobile.  His body and that of the driver could be repaired by doctors.  Doctors in Moscow were good and there would be no cost.  But to repair an automobile. Ah, thought Rostnikov, that may be much more difficult.  (Chapter Twelve)

The villain was a bit twisted, to be honest.  There was a scene toward the end of the book where I was worried things were going to cross that line into “too graphic and gory” for me to want to read.  But the whole thing turned out okay and Kaminsky did not cross the line-of-yucky.   The main character, Porfiry Rostnikov, is a big hit, I think.  He is a fairly good Russian imitation of a war-hardened hard-boiled detective.  He is patient and brooding, just as one would expect.  But he also is politically savvy – although he is not completely subservient and whipped by the political edifice.   I like the supporting characters, too, particularly Emil Karpo.  Karpo is really fun and awesome – I am glad I met this character.

This is the sort of book you want to see as a movie – but done well, not ruined by some ridiculous Hollywood interpretation.  I am giving it four stars for the writing style (dry-humor and subtle) and for the characters.  The background of the USSR is worthy and should interest those with a fondness for Russia.

Moscow begins work at five in the morning.  The few hours before are for the criminals, the police, taxi drivers, government officials at parties, and party officials working on government.   (Chapter Two)

4 stars

Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino

I tend to demand more out of books.  I want the intellectual challenges.  I want authors to be brilliant.  And Invisible Cities can be read on such a level.  In fact, all over the internet and in universities you can find analyses of this text that are of high-academic level.  There are charts.  There are theories. And there are examples.  However, I enjoyed this text on a more purely reader-ly level.  Published in Italian in 1972, Calvino presents a unique text which can be read as fiction, short prose, or even as fantasy.

Calvino is, generally, a bit of a difficult author.  I am rather sure that he knew that and liked that fact.  He’s arrogant, because he knows that he is educated and a bit monied.  So, he is not writing for the common man.  His audience is not the beginning reader or the basic reader. Technically, this work is structured by a conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. Some of these sections are repetitive.  Maybe they could have been done slightly better.  Interesting:  Polo and the Khan do not speak the same language – so though we read dialogue, it is also (possibly) imaginary.  Imagine instead Polo playing charades and gesturing to describe cities.  Seriously – imagine it.  If I had you describe the city you live in without using vocabulary (just gestures, expressions, movements, and sounds) could you do it? How would you do it?

At times, some of this conversation alludes to chess.  And these are some of my favorite parts.  What does the chess game represent? What does the victory actually gain? Can a city be made of chess pieces?  The majority of this text is symbolic and metaphorical.  So, none of the answers are immediate and prima facie.  At one point we are told that Polo is not actually describing the dozens of cities he encountered in his travels.  Instead, he is re-describing Venice, his hometown.  It makes for another interesting intellectual point of interruption.

To be honest I focused on reading about the cities themselves.  There are 55 cities described.  Each of these falls under one of eleven categories.  Some readers may want to focus on these categories.  I did, to an extent, but I got a bit disinterested in doing that.  I probably should have done better on that front.  Anyway, even if you read this work on a very basic level – as I did – you should find something intriguing or surprising in the descriptions of the various cities.

My favorite cities were Clarice, Eusapia, Adelma, and Perinthia.  These were my favorites because I found them most shocking to imagine and consider.  These descriptions provided the most shock-value and curiosity to me.  I suspect other readers may select different cities to remark upon.  When I read the descriptions of these cities, however, I got an eerie feeling, or I was surprised, or I gasped at what I imagined.  Anyway, I want to keep a copy of this book around so I can pick up and read these cities in the future whenever I get the urge to do so.

At times I feel your voice is reaching me from far away, while I am prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present, where all forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new forms they may assume.  And I hear, from your voice, the invisible reasons which make cities live, through which perhaps, once dead, they will come to life again.  (Chapter 9)

I selected this quote from a section of dialogue between Polo and the Khan.  I think this is the best summary of the entire work. I wish I was expert-level in Italian to read this sentence in its original and really let this concept sink in my brain.  In English, it is not terrible – but I feel like there is a whole lot in just this little excerpt.

In the past I’ve studied and written about Ayn Rand’s novels, Flatiron buildings, China Mieville’s novels, and human geography.  Reading Calvino’s work actually did not cause me to move into a science fiction/fantasy mindset – but one that focused on the city qua city and architecture.  I was slightly disappointed, because some part of me wanted the science fiction catalyst.  However, I did not really mind the foray into these other subjects.  A result of this is that after reading the work, I’ve been considering all the cities I have lived in and visited and trying to see them through Marco Polo/Calvino’s imagination.  This is definitely an ongoing process, so I am glad Calvino gave me some solid food for thought.  At the end of the day, this is not going to be every reader’s best-loved work.

4 stars

The Big Four

The Big Four – Agatha Christie; Berkley

The Big Four is Agatha Christie’s fifth Hercule Poirot book, fourth novel.  I enjoyed it, Poirot was a lot of fun, and it was good to have Hastings back in the story.  It was originally published in 1927 and some of the language is not as politically-correct, as we say nowadays, as one would think.  Christie was, obviously, a spunky and sharp-witted woman.

The Big Four is perfect for people who are new to Poirot, I think, and don’t really enjoy cozy mysteries.  This is really a mystery/thriller and really seems a prime candidate for some film company to use as a summer blockbuster.  Adjust a few things, get a couple solid actors, and shazam! a movie.   The storyline speeds along much quicker in this novel than in the previous ones and there are more physical confrontations.  In the previous novels, Poirot and Hastings do not really deal with situations in which they are in true physical danger.  Generally, they are involved in intellectual battles.

The Big Four is actually an international group of anarchist criminals.  There are four and we are to believe that they have a hand in many worldwide occurrences.  In fact, today, we would call them a terrorist cell.  Christie, I feel, was trying out Poirot on a big stage – international events and crimes that affect the world, not just some small UK village.  I kind of want to ask Christie:  “So, how do you feel about Poirot and Hastings on this level?”  I think Poirot is much more charming on a smaller scale, but I do want to say that this story seems to make Poirot even more unbelievably impressive.

At points, the reader will truly feel that Christie is pulling a bit too much from Doyle’s Watson, Sherlock, Moriarty, Irene setup.  And I’m okay with it.  Other readers may want to complain about using a recycled idea.   Another small complaint:  Hastings rushed off to Argentina, but in this novel it seems like he is in England with Poirot (and for no other reason than hanging out with Poirot) for at least two years.  I mean, what was all the googly-eyed romance about his wife about if he can take off to England for years?  This was a bit odd.  On the other hand, yeah, we missed Hastings, so who cares about his silly wife in South America?

I probably should give this novel 3 stars.  However, I am giving it 4.  I cannot help myself… I still love Poirot and Agatha is a Dame Commander, so who am I to criticize?  I think I will try to cast this movie in my head this evening. Should be a fun supper activity.  And thinking about a book after the last page is done good and read is a good sign!

(Not to put too fine a point on it, but OF COURSE I have to give this FOUR stars!)

4 stars

Demon Knights Vol. 1

Demon Knights, Vol. 1 – DC Comics

After returning N. Gaiman’s The Sandman Vol. 1 to the library, I picked up Demon Knights Vol. 1.   Demon Knights is a title DC introduced as part of their New 52 reorganization/reboot in 2011.   I confess that I was not/am not fully versed in DC’s magic realm. I know of The Phantom Stranger and I know of The Spectre, but that’s about it.  The demon Etrigan and his connection to Merlin and Vandal Savage has a vague and fuzzy image in my brain.   However, I saw this tradeback sitting on the shelf and could not resist.

This volume collects issues #1-7 of the title.  I had no idea what to expect and after reading it, I am a happy reader. The title has survived the various “waves” of roster moves that DC made since the New 52, which is good.  (Some titles, like Blue Beetle, didn’t last.)  Overall, the story is interesting and the art is suitable.  It’s not perfect, the flaws are there, but I think as a whole this title adds a diversification to the DC lineup that allows readers to read something different than a Bat-title (how many are there? 6? 8?)

So, when I say that I had no idea what to expect, I mean it. I just enjoyed the cover for a few minutes and then started turning pages.  The story starts off at the fall of Camelot.  Arthur is dead and three women are in a boat taking his body to Avalon.  Excalibur is tossed into the waters – but Xanadu, one of the women in the boat, dives after the sword.  We are then taken to the castle wherein we are given something of a point of departure for the demon Etrigan.  Merlin has summoned and captured the demon.  Jason of Norwich, a young boy, enters to tell Merlin the castle has fallen and they must flee. Merlin then “fixes” the demon to Jason.  Moving forward in time, we meet Mordru and the Questing Queen.  They are marching their horde army through the land to Alba Sarum.

That’s basically the first issue.  And while it is a bit in media res, the careful reader can follow the storyline well enough.  Part of the impetus of the New 52 was to re-introduce readers to the DC universe – without the readership having to be familiar with the entirety of DC’s history.  I think this is done in this issue/volume, but it does take some patience.  In some places in this volume, it seems like a simple battle book.  I think that the “demon knights” are made distinct enough by the writer (Paul Cornell), but I also think that the storyline moved really fast.  We are given some background story on some characters, perhaps enough to keep readers curious, but maybe not enough to keep us invested in the scenarios.

I like Conan and Kull and so this title works for me.  I like the dark ages feel to it, with the debates of battle-strategy, magical elements, and questions of personal honor and destiny.  The pacing was a bit too quick for me and the Questing Queen seems too distant/unknown to me.  Also, I’m kind of guessing at how the magic powering works… people seem to “power down” and “power up,” but I am not entirely sure how that works exactly. Madame Xanadu is definitely a good character and has a lot of fun frames by the artist.  Also, the covers done by Michael Choi are really pretty.

I definitely want to read the next volume – and I hope DC keeps this title running.  Overall, I’m going to give this volume 4 stars.

4 stars

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