Month: September 2011

The Moor

MoorThe Moor is the fourth book published it the Mary Russell series written by Laurie R. King.  The Moor was published in 1998.  I read the first three novels in the series in 2005, but when I read this novel I hardly remembered much from the previous novels except that I really enjoyed them.

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes investigate strange goings-on on Dartmoor. Reprising the setting and some of the plotlines of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes and Russell come to the aid of the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould.

This novel will probably be either loved or hated.  I tended to like the book quite a bit. The main thing about this book is that its plot and the storyline are really not very good. Holmes and Russell are in Dartmoor and if you know anything about moors it’s that they are not very nice. (Think about Wuthering Heights.) Moors are cold, desolate, scary, threatening, challenging, and vicious. I have never been to a “moor” but every time I read about them, I see the same characteristics. I picture terrain that is choppy, difficult, and jagged. I picture weather that is foggy, windy, and cold. It seems anyone that hangs out on moors gets lost, injured, or goes a bit off their rocker. That The Moor is set in such a place takes some stamina from the reader to get through because you know most of the book will be dealing with the challenges the setting places on the characters.  In fact, straightaway we are familiarized with this as Russell travels at night by train to the nearest train station in Coryton and then has to carry a rucksack two miles on uneven ground on a moonless night to meet Holmes who is at Lew House.

For the next 270 pages, most of what happens is inessential to a fast-paced, tension-ridden mystery. Luckily, I do not think The Moor is such a book.  Russell and Holmes truck about the moor looking for information – they don’t find any. This will probably annoy the reader as we are given chapters and chapters of storyline in which we do nothing but familiarize ourselves with the locals, learn some anecdotes, but the characters really do not seem to gain ground on their investigation.  After every foray onto the moor, Russell returns to the Reverend Baring-Gould’s home for warming baths and teas. She’s also usually muddy and highly bruised. In fact, for the majority of the book, it can seem like Russell drinks ridiculously copious amounts of hot tea and takes an inordinate number of baths.

On one of these forays, Holmes and Russell are out on the moor together, and Russell comments on Holmes’ uncanny skill in negotiating the terrain in her witty manner:

“He looked as if he were returning from a gentle day’s shooting; I seemed to have spent the day wrestling a herd of escaped pigs through a bog.”

However, I did not mind this seemingly pointless clambering around the moor. And I was not irritated by the teas and baths. Russell is such a charming and confident character that I love just “spending the day” with her. There is a lot of good writing skill when the author is able to make you enjoy just spending time with the character without the pressure of a storyline or plot. Very, very few authors/books can do this. But something about Russell is just pleasant to be around. One of the things I like about Russell is how she is not the some wilting flower woman overwrought with emotion or squeemishness. Russell thinks nothing of trekking around the countryside alone, handling rifles, falling off of horses, or hanging out in the local pub.  This is not to say that she is some sort of brash ruffian. Somehow, Russell is able to pull off being both educated and intellectual while being adventurous and durable. It’s fun to read a female character like this.  Holmes is a supporting character in the series, but he adds to the goodness of the novel. He does not coddle Russell – though he shows concern for her. I guess, in some way, the relationship and interaction between the two characters is really interesting and fun. I do not seem to mind what Russell and Holmes are involved with as long as I get to spend time with them.

The Reverend Baring-Gould starts off as an enigmatic character, but halfway through the novel he just turns into a sort of focal point:  Russell and Holmes crash at his mansion and consult him when they want to know some folklore or geographic fact. Baring-Gould is a ninety year old churchman who has summoned Holmes because of the recent appearances of a “haunted” carriage and dog on the moor.  One of the things the reader learns from Baring-Gould is about these tors that populate the moor.  A tor is a large, free-standing residual mass (rock outcrop) that rises abruptly from the surrounding smooth and gentle slopes of a rounded hill summit or ridge crest. In my mind I pictured Stonehenge sometimes.

On these Russell comments:  “I personally decided were the result of near terminal boredom on the part of the natives, who would have found heaving large rocks into upright lines an exciting alternative to watching the fog blow about….”

In any case, the author makes the moor easily imaginable for the reader and though a moor is a desolate and dreary place, the book is still engaging.  Unfortunately, the plot is not very captivating and the author loses her hold on several threads throughout.  One of these is Miss Baskerville, whom Russell interviews and then basically dismisses. The villain, Ketteridge, is easily identified the first moment we meet him, the ending is absurdly simple in its brevity.  The plot just is not very well managed. However, it’s all made up for with giving the reader time to roam around with Russell and, yes, take baths and drink tea. (By the middle of the book, I was ready to just go and make tea for the heck of it.)  Baring-Gould has an indefatigeable maid/cook named Miss Elliot who seems to think she can fix all the problems in the world by providing consumables to Russell, Holmes, and Baring-Gould himself.

In the end of the book in chapter twenty four, Baring-Gould is having one of his rambling sessions of conversation and I found this section rather interesting:

“I am sure you have heard of this crystal wireless set which seems certain to achieve popularity; I imagine that the resultant instant communication will complete what modern education and quick travel have begun, and we will soon see the death of regionalism and individuality.  Haven’t you found this, Holmes?  The world is becoming filled with sameness, with men and women as like as marbles. Not a true eccentric in sight.”

I suppose instead of calling this novel a mystery, one should consider it a meandering description of the isolated folk who dwell on or near the mostly inhospitable moor. I recommend reading this novel in the winter. When what you are reading combined with the outside weather makes you chilled, you can draw a bath and brew some tea.

4 stars

Of Bees and Mist

Of Bees and MIst

Of Bees and Mist

Of Bees and Mist was published in 2009 and is author Erick Setiawan’s first book. Setiawan (b. 1975) graduated from Standford University.  This novel was longlisted for 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

…. chronicles three generations of women under one family tree and places them in a mythical town where spirits and spells, witchcraft and demons, and prophets and clairvoyance are an everyday reality. Meridia grows up in a lonely home until she falls in love with Daniel at age sixteen. Soon, they marry, and Meridia can finally escape to live with her charming husband’s family—unaware that they harbor dark mysteries of their own. As Meridia struggles to embrace her life as a young bride, she discovers long-kept secrets about her own past as well as shocking truths about her new family that push her love, courage, and sanity to the brink.

The most surprising element about this book, for me, was that it was written by a male author. I really, still, have a hard time believing it. I guess this surprise makes me seem utterly old-fashioned, jaded, brusque, obsolete, and politically incorrect. Well, I cannot help it – and I am not attempting to offend. The novel is about a “domestic drama.”  The main character is a young woman named Meridia, and the majority of characters in the book are indeed women. Women in the book are:

  • Meridia
  • Eva
  • Malin
  • Permony
  • Ravenna
  • Patina
  • Pilar
  • Hannah
  • Rebecca
  • Leah

The witchcraft and supernatural elements in the book can be taken in a realist manner or as allegorical or as metaphorical. And it is a marvelous credit to Setiawan that he is able to smoothly work these elements into the story. The title of the book actually includes the most important concepts/metaphors in the book.  Yes, this book is about bees and mist. Bees as the vindictiveness, cruelty, and manipulativeness that is the mark of the character named Eva.  Eva is the villain in this book, and she is crafted very well. One of the best things about Eva, as a character, is that she is consistent. I think authors sometimes make characters inconsistent under the guise of “development.”  Eva’s evil runs through the entire novel and her relationships with other characters are scenes of her force of shrewd cunning.  As a reader, I really detested Eva – and that means she was an excellent villain. Beware the bees and the mist!

The heroine, Meridia, is very likable. One cannot help but pity her, cheer for her, or worry for her.  We follow Meridia’s growth from a quiet child to her becoming a strong and intelligent young woman.  As she ages, the reader is supposed to see how her understanding of her parents and her husband deepens. Instead of becoming bitter, Meridia ends up being the binding force between the rest of the characters.  Meridia is also morally blameless – she does the right thing, she holds tight to her courage and her stamina. In this way, this character is a marvelous heroine.

However, my favorite character was Meridia’s mother, Ravenna.  I don’t know why, but Ravenna was a fascinating character right from the start of the novel. If I have to hazard a guess, I suspect it was Setiawan’s skilled descriptions of her. For some reason, I was drawn to this character more than the rest. Ravenna is enigmatic, stern, and indomitable and as such, she is a very memorable character.  I will probably continue thinking about this character a few books hence. At the end of the book, it is interesting to see that Meridia has learned so much from her mother and yet still traces of Eva (Meridia’s mother-in-law) also have their home in Meridia.

As far as the storyline, I don’t quite know what to say. Overall, from a general perspective, this is a novel about nothing. Or, rather, nothing important. I have found no more apt description than that it is about “domestic drama.”  I mean, its about failed marriages, people who have affairs, women who have babies, mothers who dominate their households. (Also, there seem to be an inordinate amount of jewelery stores in the novel, which I found ridiculous.) However, the story itself, while extremely well written, is lacking in something that would make this book a powerhouse novel.  In some sense, this novel is a lot like Wuthering Heights. It is a study in people’s influences over those around them and how their gullibility, loyalty, or strength affects their relationships.  In a weird way, the good characters overcome their difficulties and win out, but the win does come with some heavy tolls.  It is a very well written novel, the language and diction are very smooth and comfortable. It is not too mundane, nor is it too lofty. However, as I read along, I did have this nagging hint at the back of my mind that I was not really reading “anything.”

The ending is good; it wraps up the plot in a satisfying way. While the good characters overcame evil, they did not succumb to revenge and they are able to, finally, recognize the stealthy pits wherein they could follow in the footsteps of their nemeses. The very ending, though, (the last two pages, perhaps) really bothered me because it seemed forced and contrary. I feel that this last act by Meridia in the story was silly and not in keeping with her solidity that she displays in the previous chapters. Still, I guess an argument can be made to say that this act of welcoming by Meridia is what separates her from her mother Ravenna and the wily scheming of her mother-in-law Eva. At the end of the day, I would recommend this book to most readers who can handle books that are not “cheery.” I want to give it four stars for the writing and the characterizations, but the storyline is somewhat lacking in ….. substance.

3 stars

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

There is a lot of polarization in the reviews that I have read online regarding this book.  I actually thought quite a bit about what to say in my review.  This book was published in 2003 and written by Mark Haddon.

Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions, Christopher is autistic. Routine, order and predictability shelter him from the messy, wider world. Then, at fifteen, Christopher’s carefully constructed world falls apart when he finds his neighbor’s dog, Wellington, impaled on a garden fork, and he is initially blamed for the killing. Christopher decides that he will track down the real killer. As he tries to deal with the crisis within his own family, we are drawn into the workings of Christopher’s mind.

The book is a short, quick read, I read it in one night. It is told from the point of view of Christopher, who is writing the “book” at the suggestion of one of his teachers at school. The concept of writing a novel is challenging and intriguing for him and I think the author, Haddon, successfully shows this.  There are a lot of things in this book I can understand. I was going to type “relate to,” but anyone can relate to things. I mean “understand.”  I think a lot of the negative reviews of this book come from people who absolutely cannot understand elements of the book or the character.  It is not the fault of the reader, I suppose, but every negative review almost ratifies the overarching concept of the book itself.

A reviewer named Chris on Goodreads had this to say:

First, by page twenty-five I was just sick of the all the words in bold and all the diagrams and illustrations. Yes, I understand that the story is told from the point of view of an autistic kid, it would be damned hard not to grasp that, but was it really necessary? Is this supposed to be representative of how autistic people think? Who the hell knows, but I personally found it annoying.

Honestly, I did not think the book was full of “bold, diagrams, illustrations.”  It had some, and the ones it did have did not impede the reading of the novel. Also, this statement is somewhat hypocritical because just as Christopher hates the colors brown and yellow, it seems the reviewer has a similar dislike for bold print. Furthermore, since this novel is supposed to be the writings of a 15 year old autistic kid, I think it makes perfect sense that (1.) Christopher is unsure what to include in his book; (2.) he uses a variety of items to describe and explain the story.  The same reviewer continues:

I’d have preferred something darker; an historical account of an autistic person prior to the recent mollycoddling. It seems like all I hear about these days are autistic kids, and I wonder why history isn’t choc full of anecdotal tales of their presence, where did they all come from? I can only speculate that prior to 1850, once a child displayed the symptoms of autism they were unceremoniously dragged to the nearest river and drowned, or smothered with hay. A story like that would be solid.

I do not wish to delve into the issues of autism in this blog. Therefore, I want to address the reviewer’s comments that he wanted something “darker.”  It is quite disturbing that the reviewer would actually rather have read some novel about the torture and killing of autistic people.  Indeed, such a story would be darker – but I have to disagree that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is itself not dark. Frankly, the big story is about miserable, immoral people. The parents of Christopher, while obviously stressed and frustrated with having an autistic child, are also nasty people.  The story starts off with a neighbor’s poodle being murdered by what I imagined to be a pitch fork.  That’s pretty gruesome. Ever killed an animal? With a pitch fork? Think about it for a minute – that’s a sick, twisted act. It isn’t until the latter half of the novel that we learn that it was Christopher’s father, Ed, who killed the dog. And why? Because the owner of the dog broke off her relationship with him. Actually, Ed’s wife ran off with the dog owner’s ex-husband, Roger. So, basically, four adults all having an affair with each other and having miserable relationships. If that is not enough (and I truly think it is), Ed tells Christopher that his mother is dead rather than telling him that she ran off with Roger. I don’t care if a kid is autistic or not, that’s a mighty cruel thing to do.  The only reason that Ed lied is because he did not want to deal with the fallout from Christopher and he felt that because Christopher is autistic, he could get away with the lie. Suffice to say, this story is very dark from a moral aspect.

Another reviewer named Jen Terpstra writes:

I’m smart, I’m educated. I’m a professional woman who adores literature and loves to read. I bought this book because I was told that it was GREAT by a couple of friends. I’d also read the reviews.  Ack. It took me a full month to get through this book. This from someone who can devour a book in twelve hours. I didn’t like it. I didn’t find it “lyrical” I didn’t find the writing in ANY way “superior” to some of the “genre” authors I read (Nora Roberts anyone?). It left me depressed and out of sorts. And a little pissed off.

I agree with this reviewer in a sense:  this book is decidedly not “heartwarming” or “lyrical,” nor do I think it should be lauded as a great classic.  It was a short novel about some ugly folk. I do not understand why it would take an “educated, professional woman” a full month to read it, though. Does Haddon make “stereotypical” errors about autism in order to sell his book on a gimmick?  I don’t think so. The book is fiction – it is not a medical book. Also, I do not believe (though I might be mistaken) that the word “autism” appears anywhere in the text. So, the error of stereotyping actually comes from the reader drawing their own conclusions based on preconceived notions. And frankly, if a novel can affect a reader in that way – to draw out such response – it must have something good about it.

I think one of the concepts that is lost on many readers is that they are fixated on how hard it is to deal with an autistic person.  But the point of the story is that we are being shown how trying and difficult it can be for an autistic person to deal with non-autistic people.

“That was because when I was little I didn’t understand about other people having minds.” – pg. 116, chapter 163.

3 stars

The City & The City

The City & The City
The City & The City

The City & The City (2009) is the first book that I have read by China Miéville.  I admit that his Perdido Street Station (2000) has been on my want list for several years, but I have never been able to pick up the book on sale anywhere. I had no idea what to expect, except that it would be something very different.

The City & The City has been given many awards:

  • Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel
  • Arthur C. Clarke Award
  • World Fantasy Award
  • tied for the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel
  • nominated for a Nebula Award and John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel

The basic plot of the novel is a police procedural told in the voice of Inspector Tyador Borlú.  Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad in the European city-state of Besźel, investigates the murder of Mahalia Geary, a foreign student found dead with her face disfigured in a Besźel street. He soon learns that Geary had been involved in the political and cultural turmoil involving Besźel and its twin city of Ul Qoma. His investigations start in his home city of Besźel, lead him to Ul Qoma to assist the Ul Qoman police in their work, and eventually result in an examination of the legend of Orciny, a rumoured third city existing in the spaces between Besźel and Ul Qoma.

As far as the police procedural story, it’s pretty average fare. This is no Harry Bosch or Adam Dalgliesh masterpiece.  However, what should be emphasized is that it is much more than simply following a detective around.  Part of the reason that Miéville is telling us a police procedural story is because policemen have a unique and significant relationship and existence withing their city.  And, as many commentators on Miéville have said before…. Miéville is always telling us about the city.  Inspector Borlú is not a gritty, hard-boiled detective.  He’s not the typical “down-on-his-luck,” disobedient, old-enough-to-retire cop.  In fact, the story, while told from Borlú’s perspective, is not really about him at all. If anything, the character development of Borlú is somewhat downplayed in this novel.

It’s beyond my ability to explain the setting/location of the novel better than it has already been done. This is Martin Lewis‘ description:

Besźel permeates Ul Qoma and vice versa:  to us, to the outsider, they are, in fact, a single city.  Not so to their inhabitants.  The process of instinctively recognizing and ignoring the other city is so internalized by the citizenry that it acts as an almost physical barrier.  The city and the city are sometimes densely crosshatched, sometimes physically as well as psychically separated, but the other city is always there and always foreign.

And this is Thomas M. Wagner‘s description:

Besz and Ul Qoman citizens must be the most neurotic people alive. By law, they must choose to ignore — to “unsee” — those parts of each other’s cities that occasionally obtrude on their own. One can be “in” Besźel or Ul Qoma, but whichever of the two you inhabit, you must be wary of those “crosshatched” areas of the city where bits of the other city are more visible than otherwise. A person in Besźel can be walking the sidewalk right next to someone in Ul Qoma. They are side by side, but a whole city, and a whole reality away. Violations of this bizarre boundary are considered Breach, and harshly punished by a mysterious Orwellian law enforcement body who somehow exist independently and above both cities, who possess frighteningly omniscient surveillance powers and apparently limitless punitive ones.

I do not know how helpful either description is, but I think both are intriguing and probably are enough to make most readers curious about Miéville’s book. Most readers who have had their interest piqued by these ideas probably want to know what sort of genre this novel can be called. Miéville seems to designate it as “weird fiction.”  Some bookstores shelve it in the Science Fiction/Urban Fantasy section.  Others just consider it general fiction.  The efforts of pigeon-holing books so fiercely have caused readership to expect novels that are clearly in one genre or another – so that they can also expect what sort of story they will be reading.  Naturally, this can lead to readership being unsurprised by storylines and reading what is really the same story over and over again, except in a vaguely different book cover.  This novel is fiction. It is set in a city that is two cities at once.  The cities are not real, however, the commonly known earth is accepted:  there is America, Canada, France, Turkey, etc.  The cities are probably most like Ruritania. Little references are made to things like The Terminator, iPods, and Windows OS.

Miéville has a distinctive way of writing. I consider it to be similar to writing as how one thinks – sometimes in phrases, sometimes interrupting.  I do not mean to say that the writing is discordant, but it is somewhat jarring upon first meeting it.  Miéville is also a very smooth writer – the reader is brought along through the story without feeling shoved, jolted, bludgeoned, or otherwise abused.  I almost want to praise this novel for all the things that it is not. One of the things it does not have is extraneous, elongated purple-prose that burdens readers of “literary fiction.”    The novel also does not over-explain every detail.  Those readers who love the detailed minutiae of high-tech science fiction or finely examined legal systems might be disappointed.

I love the “setting” of the novel (or, perhaps, the concept of the dual-cities). Throughout the novel, as I read, I was constantly trying to imagine the cities.  Part of the uniqueness of each city is cultural; for example, colors, clothing styles, coffee-drinks, etc. We are not told what the specific details are, but that they are. Also, the way people drive, walk, and interact has subtle physical and psychological aspects that demarcate one citizen from another. I found this part really fascinating. Sometimes, I admit, the lack of details was a little frustrating. I understand having the courage to let the reader fill in the blanks, but a little help here and again would probably have made the story just solid enough. Of course, the novel won most of the big awards, so apparently, the lack of details did not hinder the book’s fame.

The book is divided into three main parts:  Besźel, Ul Qoma, and Breach.  The first section (Besźel) starts off a bit difficult because the reader has not quite gotten into the theme and setting. My advice is simply: keep reading!  The second part (Ul Qoma) is really the section where the action of the plot takes off. This is good stuff – solid writing, good story.  The third section (Breach) is my least favorite section. The first several chapters of this part are cumbersome and a little bit more challenging to get through. Obviously, “Breach” is supposed to be mysterious and shadowy, but sometimes I felt that Miéville let the story get away from him here or there.  Chapters 23-25 are a little bit less good than the rest of the book.

As far as the characters – they are not all that interesting or distinct. There isn’t a lot of character development. I am okay with that – most novels seem to focus only on character personalities and it was nice to read a novel that focuses on setting.  One thing about the main character that did seem a bit “too easy” was that Tyador Borlú does not seem to be an amazing detective, but he constantly manages to get people to do what he wants. Not in an exploitative or ambitious way, but rather that they all seem to just do what he says, capitulating without a whole lot of argument.

This book is quite good. It could have been magnificent and excellent. Instead it is quite good. Certainly, it will not appeal to all reader’s tastes, but those it does appeal to, will rank it highly.

4 stars

Heart of Hush

Detective Comics 846

Detective Comics #846

In Detective Comics #846, writer Paul Dini begins the five-part “Heart of Hush” storyarc.  “Hush” is the name of the villain Thomas Elliot.  Elliot returns to Gotham City after hearing rumors that someone is hunting the Batman. For Hush this is an outrage because he believes it is his destiny to destroy Batman.

The story is mainly told from the perspective of Thomas Elliot.  Elliot, with completely bandaged face has purchased a “hospital” and has staffed it with unwilling nurses.  He tells us:  “Recently I began hearing whispers of The Black Glove, a mysterious entity that seeks Batman’s extinction. Those rumors only hastened my return. For only Hush has the right to execute you for the crimes you inflicted on me when I was first a boy and then a man.”   In flashback we are told the grim, twisted story of Thomas’ youth from his perspective.  He blamed his parents (Roger and Maria Elliot) for his troubles.  When he was ten years old he tampered with the brakes on their limousine and his father died. His mother survived, though both his parents were treated by Dr. Thomas Wayne. Maria Elliot would constantly quote famous thinkers and authors to her son.  Her praise for Bruce Wayne (and the Wayne family in general) made Thomas Elliot bitter, jealous, and angry.

Elliot’s rage issues developed as a youth and he fostered them as he grew older. When Bruce’s parents were killed, Elliot felt that it was an act of cosmic justice. Nevertheless, he eventually figured out Bruce Wayne had become Batman. Elliot then spent much of his life studying his “rival.”  In Detective Comics #847, in the present time, Elliot keeps a close eye on Zatanna and Selina Kyle.

Issue #848 of Detective Comics starts off with some excitement as Elliot sneaks into Selina Kyle’s home. They battle, but Selina is caught off guard when she rips Elliot’s bandages off and sees Bruce Wayne’s face.  We next see Kyle prepped for surgery in Elliot’s creepy hospital.  After several pages of flashbacks detailing more of Elliot’s past hatred for Bruce’s success, Barbara Gordon contacts Batman and tells him that an ambulance dropped a patient off at Gotham General – Selina Kyle.  Kyle’s heart had been cut out of her body.  The last page of this issue is a full-page frame of Batman standing over Kyle in a hospital room. Kyle is only alive because of a variety of machines keeping her alive.

Detective Comics 850

Detective Comics #850 cover

Finally, in issue #850 all of Elliot’s diabolical plans come to a head. Elliot escapes Batman at the corrupt hospital and attempts to gain access to the Wayne mansion by sneaking past Alfred – who is not fooled.  Batman finds Selina’s heart preserved cryogenically and he contacts Mr. Teriffic to ask for help.  Batman crashes into Wayne Manor, surprising Elliot. The battle continues down into the Batcave whereat Elliot’s jealousy is fueled when he sees the extravagance of technology in the cave.  During the fight, Elliot’s bandages get caught in the Whirlbat’s blades. It crashes into the cave walls over the water and Nightwing and Robin search for the body:  “I think he’s really gone this time. Only thing left was a blood-soaked bandage.”

The issue ends with Selina Kyle, fully recovered two months later, leaving a message for Elliot. She admits she doesn’t know if Elliot survived, but that she has taken revenge on him.  She decided that money is what is most important to Elliot and in the message she relates that she vowed to separate Elliot from all of his money – much like he separated her from her heart.

This five-issue storyarc is really well done, albeit dark and twisted. At first, I did not like it, but then after rereading it, I began to appreciate all the subtle psychological and criminal aspects.  I had not been familiar with Hush/Elliot previous to this storyarc, so I really enjoyed the flashback information.  Elliot is a twisted individual driven by jealous and rage.  However, what makes him a fascinating enemy for Batman is that he is meticulous, patient, and intelligent.  While the Joker is Batman’s ultimate foe, and Ra’s Al Ghul is a real menace to Batman, I have to say that Elliot is one of the most apropos villains. Elliot, like Batman, has no super powers.  He grew up alongside Bruce and therefore knows Bruce differently than, say, the Penguin or Ra’s Al Ghul.  Further, Elliot is patient and intelligent, carefully crafting his revenge.  I think Elliot is extremely disturbed and frightening, however, as an adversary, I think he’s excellent. Although the story moves somewhat slowly and ponderously through these five issues, there are a lot of reasons to like the storyarc.  The exploration of Selina and Bruce’s relationship is one example.

Detective Comics 852

Detective Comics #852 cover

But the story does not end there…. In Detective Comics #852, we learn that Elliot survived. Attempting suicide, Elliot was saved from the river by sailors who believed him to be Bruce Wayne.  Capitalizing on this fortune, Elliot decides he will impersonate Bruce and siphon Bruce’s fortune away from him.  Elliot knows he needs to stay low-key, so he travels to various foreign countries where Wayne Enterprises has holdings.  Since Bruce is currently MIA, there is less of a chance of people noticing Bruce Wayne in two different places at one time.  Elliot swindles Connie Winters at the Peregrinator’s Club, Russell Corey (President of Ularoo Media) in Australia, and attempts a scheme in Vietnam at a rainforest resort owned by Wayne Enterprises.  Although there are minor altercations that Elliot evades, in Vietnam things go wrong.  He ditches his plans and commandeers a jungle jeep.  The jeep is eventually waylaid by jungle poachers in the employ of none other than Selina Kyle, who takes Elliot as her prisoner.

This is a really good issue because it makes the reader rather aggravated with the Elliot character.  After all of the mayhem in the “Heart of Hush” storyarc, the fact that Elliot lives is exasperating.  The fact that he, again, is saved from death because of luck (the sailors finding him) is a real stab.  The best thing about this issue is how Paul Dini manages to make the reader hate Elliot so much.  There is something inherently unjust and unfair in Elliot’s assuming Bruce’s identity and being able to so easily use it to swindle and steal from Bruce.  With nothing more than $60 in his pocket, Elliot goes from drowning in a river to gaining at least three million dollars of Wayne Enterprises funds.  Though we hate the villain, this is very good storytelling. The cover for the issue shows Elliot wearing his mother’s amulet.

Batman 685

Batman #685 cover

In issue #685 of Batman, we are told the rest of the story.  It turns out Catwoman (Selina Kyle) is in Vietnam because of the poaching of animals that is taking place there. She captures Elliot and, after torturing him for a bit, shares her story with him. She is swindling the poachers in Vietnam while pretending to work with them.  Since they believe that Elliot is Bruce Wayne, they think he is more valuable than the exotic, endangered animals they are selling on the black market. Selina intends to use Elliot as a diversion – while “allowing” him to escape and alerting the poachers to his running, she will let loose the animals and make her own escape.  Catwoman says that two personal aides, Quan and Bao, will lead Elliot to the river where a boat is waiting for him.

The plan works well, but when the escapees reach the river, it turns out Quan and Bao are none other than Nightwing and Robin. Elliot is surprised.  I was practically cheering at this turn of events.  I was surprised, but I suppose some readers might not have been.  Nevertheless, Elliot is defeated and taken prisoner.  He is put in a penthouse-jail on top of Wayne Tower. The penthouse is rigged in a variety of ways to keep Elliot inside. The issue ends with Elliot smugly telling himself that one day they will let their guard down and he will be ready.

I loved this issue. It provides the catharsis necessity after the issue of Detective Comics wherein Elliot scams his way back to wealth.  The surprise of Nightwing and Robin was fun.  Also, the ever-cool and calculating skills of Catwoman add a nice touch to the issue.  It was also interesting to be outside of Gotham City and in such an under-used location such as Vietnam.  I did not love the interior art by Dustin Nguyen, though his covers for the “Heart of Hush” storyarc were striking.  The cover for this issue was done by Alex Ross, who’s skills as a cover artist are awesome.  I do not really like Nguyen’s interior art because it always seems very angular and sharp to me. I do think he has excellent skill at perspective and making the art work with the story, yet the pencils just are not the easiest on my eye.

I thought that the end of “Heart of Hush” was the end of Elliot for awhile – at least of appearances from him.  To see him alive so soon was interesting. I was pleased with how the story was continued a couple issues later when we get this “epilogue of sorts,” and how it transferred from Detective Comics to Batman smoothly. I was intrigued to see how well done the issues were without their lead character, Batman. Needless to say, Paul Dini’s depiction of Elliot is impressive and gripping.

4 stars

Green Lantern #1

Green Lantern #1

Green Lantern #1 cover (2011)

Continuing on in DC Comics’ “New 52” reboot, I was very excited to get Green Lantern.  I have never gotten a Green Lantern comic book the week it was released – much less a Green Lantern #1 issue. (I do own #1’s from the 1990 and the 2005 volumes).  I think the Green Lantern title was the title that longtime DC Comics fans were most wary and tentative regarding.  Since 2009 and Blackest Night, the Green Lantern section of the DC Universe has been a driving force for the rest. It has been busily active with several widely-sweeping events, changes, developments, and storylines.  Of course, most of the credit for bringing the recent fame and fortune to Green Lantern goes to Geoff Johns.  (So much so that in 2011, DC released the live-action Green Lantern movie following two animated direct-to-DVD movies.)

However, as part of the “New 52” reboot, DC is restarting their titles.  Green Lantern, however is one of those titles that DC is giving a “soft” reboot to.  It is a wise decision by DC, since the recent years have involved a lot of heavy continuity for Green Lantern.  I guess the Green Lantern title is not starting from scratch or rebooting in the same fashion as some of the other titles. While I am woefully behind on my Green Lantern continuity reading, I am approaching all of the “New 52” titles with a generally clear state of mind – letting myself read the comic as if I am relatively new to the DC universe as a whole.

This issue was written by Geoff Johns with artwork by Doug Mahnke.  The cover was done by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado.  Reis has done a lot of artwork for Green Lantern in recent years, and it seems like his artwork has supplanted others’ as the “standard” for the characters, locations, and styles. The close up image of Sinestro on the cover is definitely eye-catching.  Especially Sinestro wearing a green ring and the Green Lantern costume.  The surrounding green-light and purple background offset the reddish face of Sinestro very well. I look at this cover and am excited for the story inside. It is not a very creative cover (Sinestro and Green Lantern symbols made of light), but it is striking.

In Justice League #1, we learn that five years ago from the present, Hal Jordan met Batman and Jordan was, at that time, a member of the Green Lanterns.  We are told, through a dialogue between Hal Jordan and Carol Ferris, that Hal Jordan is no longer Green Lantern.  Apparently, Jordan is also impoverished, jobless, and still very anxious about what is going on with the Guardians, Sinestro, and the Green Lantern Corps.  Ferris offers Jordan some advice, but true to form, Jordan ends up really vexing Ferris.  As a new reader, I can’t help but feel some of Jordan’s frustration – still, it seems he’s brought this all on himself, whatever “this” is.

Off in space sector 1417, at the planet Korugar, we see Sinestro observing the chaos on the planet. He is suddenly attacked by yellow-lantern wielding creatures who accuse him of betraying the Yellow Light. Sinestro kills this creature and the next frames we see of Sinestro are on earth as he tells Jordan that if Jordan wants the ring back, he will have to obey Sinestro.

Obviously, this storyarc is going to take its time to unfold. While the issue is accessible to new readers, it is quite apparent that there is a lot of history, terminology, and character development that the reader is missing out on.  This issue is very in media res and one cannot help but have questions about almost everything that is shown.  What is the Yellow Light? Is Sinestro good or bad?  Why isn’t Jordan a Lantern?  Hopefully, some of these things will be answered in upcoming issues or “new readers” are going to keep on being lost.

It is definitely a worthy idea to start off the series with Sinestro on the cover as a Green Lantern and the first frames of the issue showing us Sinestro repeating the Lantern Oath.  This is good stuff – and regardless of any questions or frustrations that new/old readers might have, I think just Sinestro alone is enough to have them come back for several more issues.  There is another frame that I won’t discuss here (it would be a bit of a spoiler) that involves the Guardian named Ganthet.  That frame is also interesting and drives some curiosity for the next issue.

The artwork inside is solid.  It seems Mahnke can handle drawing scenes both in deep space and on earth in mundane places. The character’s faces are expressive and adhere to general standards, but there is something…. unnatural about their mouths. It is a subtle thing, and perhaps I am just seeing the art incorrectly, but their mouths seem a bit static and straight for all the words and excitement in the frames. Nothing too major to complain about, though.

3 stars

The Big Bang Theory: Season 4

The Big Bang Season 4 dvd
The Big Bang season 4 DVD

This was one of my most anticipated releases on DVD. (I do not watch “live” television, all the series I watch are on DVD.) So when it was released, I bought it as soon as possible. I watched it as soon as possible. And was disappointed. . . .

I absolutely love seasons 1 – 3, I have watched each over 5 times apiece.  I can practically quote each episode.  But a lot of the elements that make The Big Bang Theory a great show were absent in season four.  Okay, and I am guessing that this is the end of the series. All good things come to an end, I suppose. I am just sad that this show deteriorated much sooner than other series. The difference in goodness between season three and season four is downright remarkable. I don’t know the reasons – did the writers lose their head? did the actors screw it up?

A lot of critics and TV watchers relegated The Big Bang Theory to some substandard of TV.  It was dubbed “geeky” and therefore did not interest those fans of shows like Mad Men, Dexter, and Supernatural.  It was a light-hearted comedy full of science fiction references and puns that are lost on much of society. Comics? Gaming? What?! However, to the segments of society that are in tune with that pulse, this show was tremendous. It was a fun, silly comedy that worked because it did not take itself too seriously and also appealed to those people who were bored with typical domestic-setting comedies.

Season 4 has problems, some of which I have managed to isolate. In previous seasons, the bantering and bickering between characters was generally good-natured and charming.  During much of this season, the sniping seems almost vindictive or cruel.  It’s difficult to watch characters that I know and love be treated so miserably.  The characters have moved from being a gang of friends to disparate, snarky, self-absorbed jerks.

Another problem is the amount of sex.  Each and every episode seems to truly revolve around sex, sexual innuendos, sex-humor, sexual issues, etc.  What made The Big Bang Theory a great series is that it did not dip into the sex-laden humor that most comedies seem to consist in.  Sex humor can be funny, used properly – in other words: well-timed, witty, and between particular characters.  Sex as a driving force for a whole series becomes tedious, foolish, and slutty.

Yet another issue that I had with season four was the lack of science. Part of what made The Big Bang Theory so flabbergastingly fantastic was that it contained science. Goofy, intelligent, witty science. I am not saying that it was a boring physics class – but the characters had zany projects, they were depicted using their science-skills in every day life in a variety of interesting and madcap ways.  This season is almost devoid of any of that.  It was replaced by sour-sounding language and the appearance of people who are not geeky, but just droll.

Again, the addition of so many new characters at once (I say “new” to mean new regular characters), may have had something to do with the misery that is season four.  The series moved away from just the two apartments and the university, and started to focus on other characters.  Frankly, the goodness of The Big Bang Theory was in the original cast and the newer cast members aren’t the reason fans loved the show.  The new characters are novel to a certain point, but they quickly become irritating and I would count the minutes until one of my favorite characters would come on screen.

All in all, I am disappointed. Season four just isn’t very good. There are some episodes, dare I say it, that are actually bad. Some that I did not laugh at, some I actually disliked. I maintain my hope for season five, but I fear (deep in my heart) that the greatness has left the science room.

3 stars

House M.D.: Season 2

House season 2

House MD season 2 DVD

 This past week I rewatched season 2 of House MD because I bought season 7 of House MD.  That probably does not seem to make a whole lot of sense, I admit.  I am rewatching all of the House MD seasons, but I just did not want to watch season 1 again.  I love season 1, but I have seen it at least four times and so I started the rewatch with season 2.  It was the second time I saw the second season. (Wow, so far I feel like this paragraph is an effort in writing a tongue-twister.)

Season 2 consists of 24 episodes that began airing in 2005.  I feel that I need to explain some of my feelings toward television drama.  I am a strong believer in dramas being dramatic, fictional, and multi-faceted.  Following the history all the way back to the Dionysia events of ancient Greece, we cannot deny that tragedy and comedy upon the stage are almost necessary conditions of Western human culture. So, if we enumerate “theatre-men” like Euripides, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Alfred Hitchcock, and Martin Scorsese, we can see that throughout history, theatre was never dull, disengaging, or forgettable.  While in the contemporary era television seems to be a distraction or a hobby, there is a definite core of cultural necessity tied within it.  Sure, a lot of television programming is frivolous and pointless – I would never write an apology for its intellectual vitality.  Nevertheless, there is something very natural and deeply-rooted about television shows that are dramatic, amusing, and entertaining.  House MD is usually all three.

I know that when I watch House MD, I am watching fiction. I know that I am watching theatre. I know that I may have to willingly suspend some disbelief. These are all normal elements of theatre. I feel like House MD would do very well if judged by ancient Greeks.  So, sacrifice the bull and ready the goat….

I could not remember when House’s ex-wife shows up. Apparently, its at the end of season 1.  The first episode of season 2 is called “Acceptance” and the title has a lot to do with House and his ex-wife, who (as a lawyer) has taken a position at the Hospital.  It also has to do with the patient House and his team are treating:  a death row inmate.  The inmate is played by none other than LL Cool J.  There are interesting dynamics between House, Cuddy, Stacy, and Wilson that run through the first part of the season.  While the individual characters are being developed and their relationships explored, there are a variety of unique, interesting, and complex medical cases hanging in the balance.

Starting a season off with a death row inmate can seem hack, but of course it raises the predictable issues. Is the death penalty just? Should doctors give equal treatment to a death row inmate and any other patient? These ethical “situations” continue throughout the season. In the sixth episode of the season, “Spin,” ethical issues surrounding performance-enhancing drugs in sports are raised.  In “The Mistake,” we learn of Chase’s father’s death and about a mistake made by Chase that led to the death of a patient.  A disciplinary committee investigates the actions and decisions made by Chase and House.  In “House vs. God,” the territory of faith healing and science is explored when a religious teenager is admitted.

In other episodes we meet House’s parents, meet an ex-bandmate of House, battle a case of life-threatening insomnia, and treat a patient who cannot communicate using spoken words.  All of these are interesting (albeit, probably not very plausible) cases. It’s good television – good theatre.  But the best episodes of the season are the two-part “Euphoria” episodes in which Foreman is on the verge of death and the last episode, “No Reason,” wherein House is shot in his office. We also get some zingers such as learning that Cuddy is considering in vitro fertilization.

House is as obnoxious, witty, and caustic as ever.  The script writers give us several great quotes per episode, however, I think the episode “Forever” has the best ones. A couple of these become “classic” in the show, and Hugh Laurie delivers them perfectly:

  • Ideas are not soda cans. Recycling sucks. Give me something new and shiny.
  • I ask you, is almost dying any excuse for not being fun?
  • Idiots are fun – no wonder every village wants one.

Overall, each episode provides solid theatrical performances that entertain the audience. The show is consistent, relatively intellectually engaging, and fun. Season 2 of House MD wins the goat at the Dionysia.

5 stars

Batman #675

Batman 675

Batman #675 cover

 Batman #655 started writer Grant Morrison’s “run” on the title Batman.  Issues from #655 until this issue (#675) have run the gamut from unique, bizarre, bad, and awesome.  Material has been pulled from older Batman stories, new characters have entered the panels, and Batman has had all sorts of trouble to deal with.  I liked Morrison’s “Batman & Son” storyarc. I wanted to adore the “Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul” storyarc, but instead I just sort of muddled through it.  Issues #672 – 674 were…. odd and not altogether pleasant.  However, this issue here seems to have taken most of the threads that Morrison was developing and it sort of brings together some of the mess. On the other hand, if you’re a critic, you could say that Morrison is dragging out these threads beyond their expiration date. I think to make a judgment you have to read beyond this issue and see where Morrison is going with this stuff.

This issue brings us the return of a thread we first met in issue #656, Jezebel Jet.  She’s Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend and she is having supper with Bruce.  She begins to express her frustration at Bruce’s disappearances and evasive personality. Suddenly, she flips out and starts hollering at him. To his credit, Bruce just sits there and patiently takes her emotive outburst. Jet wonders what Bruce is hiding and even accuses him of “being into S&M.”  The panel that shows Bruce’s face when she says this is priceless – well done!  It made me laugh out loud.  Bruce cancels the tempura course of the meal.

I like the art throughout the issue. Its good dark, angular stuff. It does not impede the story and none of it is confusing or jumbled. However, something was bugging me as I read along. I thought it was the “art,” but I could not assert that because I actually liked the art. Then it dawned on me: its the inking.  I really dislike the inking in this issue. It was done by Saleem Crawford.  I haven’t really noticed his work before, but I really didn’t like the way he inked Bruce in this issue. There are other panels, too, that bugged me. It took away from the quality of Ryan Benjamin’s frames. I have to say that I rarely have much to say about inking – good or bad, so it was surprising to find that I disliked it this much.

Anyway, the background “narration” is given to us via Nightwing and Robin – who are conversing about Batman’s mental state and recent events while they chase down baddies.  Its a fun aspect of Batman comics to witness serious conversations taking place during acrobatic aerial chases. I am glad Morrison and Benjamin give us this element. I never really know what to make of Nightwing and Robin, but I am developing a better familiarity of these characters as I read along.

Elsewhere, Talia is complaining about Bruce and Jezebel Jet’s relationship. Her tone is mocking but also contains hints of genuine sincere emotion. She has a few lines that amused me; for example “Why is he always so obvious? All these ridiculous women he woos and discards, along with their Bond Girl names.”  Witty line, Morrison.  Anyway, one might be led to believe that it is Talia’s men who interrupt Bruce and Jezebel’s supper – but its someone else, not following Talia’s orders. Damian, conversing with Talia, once again comes across as a wise adept young man when he says: “Someone is out to get my father.”   Of course, Bruce fights the men who attempted to kidnap Jezebel. Finally, after beating the lead-criminal in the kitchen of the restaurant, he turns on Jezebel.  Bruce snarls at her, displaying all the frustration and anger that he had previously succeeded in hiding and controlling.  Seeing all of this, Jezebel “sees the light.”  The last page of the issue is obviously one of those “this will change Batman comics” pages.  Jezebel makes the connection:  Bruce Wayne is Batman.

Finally, this, I feel, is the Grant Morrison greatness that a lot of readers are praising.  In this issue, Morrison’s writing is witty, emotive, and storybuilding. He’s carrying several threads from previous arcs, giving us an enjoyable issue, and delving into the characters’ relationships.

The cover is one of those very good covers that at once shouldn’t surprise anyone and yet has that timeless, classic Batman-feel to it. Dark, raining, scowling image. With the smallest drop of blood on Batman’s knee. It’s a pin-up cover – one that if you see it in the store makes you want to buy the comic to find out what’s inside.

5 stars

Justice League #1

Justice League 1

Justice League #1

There is probably not another item that has been more talked about in the world of geek this week than this issue of Justice League.  And rightly so.  If you do not know the significance of this issue and the changes to the DC Universe…. I suspect you’ve been off-planet. Since there are dozens and dozens and dozens of reviews to sort through online regarding this issue, I imagine readers will get tired of reading.  After all, its a thin comic book, but yet the commentary and opinions regarding it could fill huge tomes. I feel almost too obvious by writing a review of this issue, but I would be remiss if I did not.  I avoided all the reviews/talk/spoilers for this issue prior to my own reading of it.

I was so excited to read this issue that I had to force myself not to read it right away. I waited a few hours before I trusted myself to peel open the cover.  I wanted to make certain that I was going to be in the right state of mind to read this comic – no interruptions, not being rushed, not hungry or tired or having to use the bathroom. I wanted no distractions or outside influences.

First, the cover. This was done by Jim Lee, Alex Sinclair, and Scott Williams.  For the “New 52” (which I am pretty sick of reading or typing), DC “adjusted” many of their characters. Some people have been using the words “rebooted” or “redesigned,” however I think these words are not accurate to explain DC’s intentions in messing with their traditional characterizations.  The characters are not entirely different – there don’t seem to be (on the face of it) wild and shocking fundamental changes. Therefore, I say “adjusted” because the characters are younger and their uniforms and costumes are updated.  On the cover, we can see seven members of the Justice League, including the big three of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. I think the youthfulness of the characters is most present in Superman and Wonder Woman. The teaser images for this cover show a blue background, so when I found out the background was actually the gold color I was somewhat taken aback. I don’t like the background. I understand why gold was the choice – based on a palette and the surrounding colors, however I really don’t like the gold background.

The Justice League of America (2006 volume) first issue cover was done by Ed Benes and (again) Alex Sinclair. Neither first issue cover is something that I love. 2011’s is full of action while the 2006 cover is static. Either way, these are not covers to drool over. When DC released images of the second printing cover, I have to say I prefer the second printing and wish it had been the first printing release.

Jim Lee is the interior artist – one of the comic industry’s big names. He’s drawing for Geoff Johns on this, DC’s self-proclaimed flagship title.  The two of these creators together is something of a superhero team-up for comic readers, so I think the expectations for this title are high.  Since its a “new universe,” I threw out all that I knew about Jim Lee and Geoff Johns and Green Lantern and Batman and Superman and all the rest. I just opened the cover and prepared myself to enjoy a great comic.  That being said, I swept the slate clean and “pretended” that I had never seen Lee’s art before. On several reviews I read the adjective “cinematic” used to describe his artwork in this issue and after some reflection, I think that is a very accurate description.  Of course, what the heck does cinematic mean in terms of comics?  Well, I will go further than those other reviews:  it means action shots with camera-angles from all around.  The characters are jumping off of the page and the scenes are widescreen, high fidelity, panoramics. I think these elements are very clear with the three panels on the first page. It’s a close up, a pseudo-bird’s eye view, and a pseudo-worm’s eye view close up. The entire page oozes action and movement and in your face artwork.

Because the issue is spewing action all over the place, some of the dialogue seems a bit stilted. Not bad, not incorrect, just a bit stilted. I love the banter betwixt Batman and Green Lantern  – there are some insta-classic frames on these pages.  However, a lot of these pages seem like they’re coming directly at the reader, no pausing for breath, no setup. Truly, there are pages here that translate perfectly to the movie screen. The dialogue is good on its own, but its context seems slightly jarring.  Still, it is entirely enjoyable. Johns does not seem to fill the frames with words, being (in this issue) a wee bit minimalist and letting the art do the work.

The pages involving Vic have a slightly smushed feeling to them. I feel that they are rather sandwiched between action-packed pages that do not connect well with the interlude that is Vic on the phone.  But, back to Green Lantern and Batman and Metropolis now. Guess who we meet on the last page? And Superman makes a (to be expected) action-packed entrance.  I feel in the past, Superman became a bit tame and lost and dopey. Here is an “adjustment” to character; previously, I feel Superman would have gracefully landed on the ground and shook hands in a dignified manner with Batman and Green Lantern. Oh, not so in this issue! And its like a fresh breath of air – exciting and new, precisely what DC intended. However, my problem with Superman is that he looks very young. I know the intention was to youth-en the major characters, but Superman looks like he’s a kid. He’s not as block-headed looking as some artists have drawn him. I spent some good minutes looking at Batman and Superman and comparing the two:  Batman has the very satisfying square jaw and brooding look while this youthful Superman has a very playful and almost truculent look to him. At first I did not really like Superman’s look, but it grew on me.

Most of my critiques and observations are almost picayune. Overall, this issue is a perfect starting point for new readers.  It also succeeds because it does not alienate the dedicated hardcore fans.  Anxious die-hards can breathe a sigh of relief because the beloved characters are treated with love and respect. Part of me wonders what it would be like if this was the first issue of Justice League ever. You know, as if this was everyone’s introduction….. what would readers think of it?

In fact, the entire issue got better on the second read. By the fourth read, I was thinking that I might need to get another copy because I will be wearing this one out. The worst part of this issue was that it did not come with issue #2 straightaway.  I need issue #2. Hurry!

5 stars