Friday, June 9, 2017

Review: Blood on the Tracks

Blood on the Tracks Blood on the Tracks by Barbara Nickless
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one starts out as an impressive reimagining of the procedural. Our narrator is the intriguing Sidney Rose Parnell, a traumatized Iraq war marine who’s joined up stateside with the railroad police in the Denver of her childhood. Sidney carries the horrors of her war with her, seeing the ghosts of the men and women she dealt with in her work in the morgue, and taking advice from her dead sergeant and dead lover. The one good thing she’s brought back is her traumatized service dog, Clyde, who’s pledged his loyalty to her after the death of his first handler, her boyfriend.

For most of the first half, it’s less a question of whodunit than of how Sidney will uncover everything. For all the trauma she faces, she remains a good detective, and it’s rewarding to see her puzzling through piles of evidence at the same time as she deflects the too common sexism that comes her way. She’s a strong character, and you know you’re in good hands from the start.

Toward the end, this is still pretty solid, but it deteriorates into more of a conventional thriller. It’s nice that it’s a woman detective coming to the rescue of a decent but generally helpless man, but there’s a lot of been-there, done-that to it. The climax is surprisingly bloody, and there’s a lot less of the nuance we get from the beginning. From the original straw-man bad-guy of “the burned man,” a disfigured Iraq War vet, we end up with entirely unsympathetic skin-head bad guys out of central casting.

Things move well even at the end, and Nickless can certainly deliver the goods, so I did enjoy it.

I gather this is the first in a series, and I can imagine subsequent ones will continue to mine what it means for Sidney to carry so many of her ghosts back with her. I can even imagine a series that culminates in a big disclosure around the serious crimes she was peripheral to in Iraq.

As all that plays out here, though, it feels as if much of the best material gets held back. As with the Burned Man, we get some misdirection. The Iraq crimes come to us as a tantalizing story, but, per the logic of a series, they get deferred.

This is a bit better than conventional, but it’s not quite the powerhouse it gives promise of being.


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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review: Jar of Fools

Jar of Fools Jar of Fools by Jason Lutes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the great things about reading graphic novels these days is that, mature as the genre is becoming, we can still see its origins. If you’re my age – ahem, comfortably middle-aged – you remember when Maus (and maybe even Contract with God) came out. With few exceptions, the founding examples of the form are still around, still almost current.

I can’t say I’d heard of this one before I found a nice two-volume edition for sale at my local comic book store (shout out to Comics on the Green in Scranton, PA) but it looked intriguing and I gave it a shot. It’s from 1994, still the dark ages of graphic novels, but it’s new to me.

The story here is compelling: Ernie was a top stage magician, but he’s haunted by the death of his brother Eddie in an escape stunt gone bad. Their old mentor, Al, is on the lam from a retirement home, and Ernie’s old girlfriend – who’s also haunted by Eddie’s death – can’t start the new life she thinks she wants. Throw in a con-man living out of his car with his 10 year old daughter. And you have a full cast of characters.

It’s hard to paraphrase what happens in the story because, like a lot of the best narrative art, it grows out of the urges and needs of the characters. Each of these is surprisingly well realized, and I found myself curious about everyone we get to spend much time with. I loved the first part and simply raced into the second. I think the second wraps up a bit too quickly, forcing a few changes in character that come without a great deal of explanation. But that’s a quibble next to the general inspiration of the whole.

The art is understatedly beautiful. Maybe because it was originally serialized in a Seattle weekly or maybe because Lutes hadn’t yet seen some of the box-breaking experiments other artists got into, the drawings are all small, reminiscent of newspaper comic strips. But each box is unusually eloquent. Lutes has a gift for giving quick dashes of character so that even background characters come to feel like people we recognize.

Over time, I felt as if the characters here were actually separate actors, each giving a solid performance in a moving story of broken people finding one another.

We’ll have to see how the full history of the graphic novel genre gets written, and I am sure that a lot of what we take now as exemplars of the form will fade or seem dated. These black and white drawings in their small boxes may not make the eventual cut, but there’s a poignant and broken magic to them. The form may have taken a different direction than this one suggested, but it’s a real gem, and I urge you to check it out if it comes your way.


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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Review: Dodgers

Dodgers Dodgers by Bill Beverly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a pretty good crime novel. It’s got a great perspective since our point-of-view is East, a “watcher” at an L.A. crack house. He takes in everything he sees, always alert to threats and always committed to the “safe” way. There’s a lot of money in the business, so he’s got no reason to try anything freelance.

As all the reviews and blurbs recount, East and a small crew have to drive from L.A. to Wisconsin to kill a potential witness against a key player in the larger gang. So this turns into a road trip story with characters who have little experience of the places they’re headed. East is responsible in ways the others aren’t, and he tries to keep them on task despite distractions.

The tension here comes from our young protagonist growing into a sense of his own capacity. He isn’t ready for a mission this fraught at the start, but he’s someone older, more able at the end. We don’t know until the last moment whether they’ll be able to pull the hit off, and we don’t know for a good bit longer than that whether it was a crime worth committing.

If this is really just a crime novel, though, the ending is unsatisfying. [SPOILER] East, stranded in the Midwest, finds a new life for himself, helping operate a paintball factory in a decaying Ohio town. He’s back to watching, and he feels pretty good about himself. Then he discovers that someone he thought he thought was dead has returned, and he has a choice: go back to his old life or try for something new. That’s intriguing (and I’ve undersold it) but it isn’t quite ‘crime’ anymore.

So, while this is a good crime novel, it’s even better as something more, as an exploration of what it means to grow up in this 21st century America.

For starters, Beverly can flat out write. He has a peculiar, wonderful rhythm. It’s almost as if his sentences lope in that tough-guy performed way. It’s almost like reggae without the underlying hope and celebration. I took down these gems. “You think it’s the same out there? But you don’t know. It ain’t. Them police don’t budget on you. That’s their country. They love a little Negro boy.”

Or “Talking to Ty, you ended up knowing less than you started with. He took a pleasure in sharing nothing, enjoying nothing, a scrawny boy who’d almost starved as a baby, didn’t eat, didn’t play – failure to thrive, the relief doctor said. Smart but didn’t like school, fast but didn’t like running. Never cried as a baby, never asked questions. Never loved anything but guns.”

Beverly puts all of that prose in the service of telling his crime story, but also in the service of his more ambitious project. These are kids – and they really are kids, still in their early teens – who’ve inherited a world that offers them almost nothing.

It took me a while to figure out what’s so evocative in East’s name – purportedly short for Easton – and it finally hit me. Like Gatsby this is a story of the American dispossessed venturing, not West, but East. Our hero here is defined as someone trying to reverse the history of the country. His final conundrum is almost a literal take on American history: he can return West, return to the ‘boxes’ he’s always known, or he can try to venture further back into the coastal East, a world that represents the original promise of our culture.

L.A. may be home to East, but there’s something empty about it. Some of that is the violence he knows – he watches an innocent girl get shot in the early pages of the book – but some of that is an even more profound emptiness. His brother Ty, who experienced a “failure to thrive” as an infant, is perfectly suited to the place. But East, who longs for the chance to be loyal to something worthy of him, can’t find what he needs.

The ending that somewhat disappoints as part of a crime novel is compelling in this other context. Once Ty tracks him down at the end, the “center” (i.e. the Midwest of Ohio) cannot hold. East has to choose the L.A. he has always known, or the “East” for which he was inadvertently named. It’s a choice between an everyday despair that’s taught others to murder without qualm and an uncertain future that smacks of the American promise to reinvent ourselves.

There’s a lot to chew on at the end of this and, as much as I admire it, I think there’s a calculated sloppiness, almost a “lope” to the rhythm of the narrative. It’s compelling, and I enjoy it, but I’ll be curious to see what Beverly goes on to do. As many others have said, this is a spectacular debut in itself – and it’s been on my list since I first heard the reviews almost a year ago – one that seems to announce the start of an impressive career. Sign me up for Beverly’s next one, and certainly give this one a consideration.


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Friday, June 2, 2017

Review: The Other Woman

The Other Woman The Other Woman by Ellen Lesser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Again, I read this with a bias since I am readying to work with Ellen at the end of the summer, but, still, it’s pretty good. I read the first part of it with admiration, paying attention to the narrative choices she was making and trying to trace the way she brought her character(s) into focus. Then, I read the second half with enjoyment, genuinely wondering how Jennifer would resolve her situation.

The story here is deeply clever. Jennifer is in love with Richard, a married man, and things open as she prepares for his son’s first visit to her home. She’s been drafted as a quasi-mother, someone expected to nurture a near stranger, and she isn’t ready for it. That’s a striking perspective on the “affair” story, and there’s real poignancy in it.

The part I most admire here is the way Lesser carefully excavates the backstory without slowing the momentum of her present tense recounting. This is a short and quick novel – one that feels always to be moving – but it gets a lot done in that space. This is all of Jennifer’s life in her time in Vermont, and we come gradually to see how circumscribed her relationship with Richard has made it.

The voice is always good. We get a sense of Jennifer unpacking her circumstance at every turn. She makes me mistakes, she tries to learn from them, and she tries very hard to grow. I quibble with the reviewer who claims this is a story of Jennifer’s growth. I think, in the end, this is more a story of how she works backwards, of how she needs several months with Richard’s broken family to realize the extent of her mistakes. She needs all that time to discover her mother’s trite lesson: work to make your own family. Love the people who are given to you wholly rather than those who commit only partway and then demand more from you.

I admire the lower-case f feminism of the work. Jennifer may have made questionable choices, but Lesser gives her full opportunity to be human. Her story matters because it is hers, and that’s a deep commitment to an equality of experience.

If I have a ‘wish for more’ with this one, it’s that I’d like more on Richard. On the one hand he’s such a consistent ass that I don’t see what attracts Jennifer to him. On the other, I’d like a little more insight into how he’s feeling as his ex-wife effectively manipulates him.

Still, as I say, good stuff, and all the more fuel for my anticipation of working with Ellen later.


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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Review: The Wake

The Wake The Wake by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one feels like the kind of album a good band puts out after it breaks up and gets back together again. A couple of the “songs” sound familiar, reminding you of what you liked about the band in the first place. (That would be the first couple episodes, the ones that Gaiman tells us in the afterword were colored by the memorial service for the great Roger Zelazny, who died around that time and whose Amber chronicles are, for me, one of the great fantasy accomplishments.) One is a real hit – “Sunday Mourning” – and others take the comeback too far.

For me, “Sunday Mourning” is Gaiman doing what he does best: exploring the human contradictions within the mythology he has established. Robert Gadling has lived almost forever. We’ve seen him as Morpheus’s friend throughout, and they had a once-a-century appointment. He’s a fairly ordinary man with an extraordinary gift, and here he confronts a metaphysics changed by Morpheus’s death. It’s interesting at a human level – will he want to continue living if yet another of the consistencies of his life has vanished – and it’s interesting as an allegory. He is Everyman, and Morpheus has been his guide in many things. Morpheus’s death means he has to find his own way more dramatically than ever before.

We readers are, of course, Everyman and Everywoman ourselves. If something ancient of Dream has shifted, we too have to confront new classes of dreaming. It’s frightening but exhilarating, and that’s how Gadling comes to see it.

And, throughout, Gaiman is funny, something he sometimes misses the mark on.

At the other extreme, I don’t have much patience for the final episode, “The Tempest.” Gaiman tells us in the afterword that he thinks the series has always been about the nature of writing – and I’ll buy that at some point – but I find the whole Morpheus/Shakespeare collaboration overdone. I didn’t like it volumes ago when Morpheus essentially commissioned A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I don’t like it here. If you don’t know The Tempest, I assume it’s frustrating. If you know it fairly well (and I suppose I do, having studied it in grad school and read it many times) then there isn’t much new.

Instead, the gambit works for people who sort of know the play, who, for generally admirable reasons, want to know it better. It feels good to be able to acknowledge one of Gaiman’s references to the play or to Shakespeare’s life and friends, but the bottom-line question is whether Shakespeare saw himself as Prospero breaking his staff. With the answer implicitly yes, there’s the deep awkwardness of Gaiman very publicly breaking his own “staff” – the franchise that is The Sandman.

Look, this is good stuff, but it’s embarrassing to ask to have it measured against the best of Shakespeare. This isn’t that at all, and the very good one-hit “Exiles,” in which the new Daniel/Dream intervenes in the life of a strikingly drawn Chinese vizier, would have been a far more compelling wrap-up.

Otherwise, this one is solid Sandman, which means it’s better than most graphic story work you’ll find. Still, with it getting uneven toward the end, it feels as if it was time for Gaiman’s band to break up for good and move on to its solo careers. I’ve gotten through all the albums now, and I may go back to hear some favorite cuts, but I’m ready to move on.


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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review: Silent Hall

Silent Hall Silent Hall by N.S. Dolkart
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I found my way to this book because I very much enjoyed Noah Beit-Aharon’s essay at Prosen People about how he came to write it as an experiment in what Jewish fantasy literature might look like. That’s an articulate essay, and it asks some of my own questions from some of my own premises. Yes as Dolkart (aka Beit-Aharon) puts it, there is a strong tradition of Jewish fantasy – think of I.B. Singer or Cynthia Ozick or Steve Stern – but there is less of a tradition of Jewish “high fantasy.” As Tolkien gave that to us, there is a Christian topos woven into the DNA. So, nu, is it possible to do it Jewish style?

(As an aside, I think there are some who have tried, most successfully Lev Grossman, whose Magicians series strikes me as an attitudinally perfect Jewish teenager’s response to the saccharine Christianity of the Narnia books.)

(As a further aside, I think there are a lot of “high fantasy” forebears – like Fritz Lieber and E.R. Eddison – who give us models of the genre without the powerful Tolkien effect. I also think that the current ‘dungeon master’ of the genre, George R.R. Martin, does a fine job of altering the Christian dualism of the form. Still, the question is a good one and worth pursuing.)

And yet, as much as I wanted to like this, I can’t. I’m afraid I can’t even finish it.

Beit-Aharon seems a fine nonfiction stylist, but I’m afraid this simply doesn’t work. The prose here is just too choppy, too awkward in its structure and tone to conduct the experiment with anything like the competence it demands.

I’ll begin with my concerns about the chapters themselves. Each of these is strikingly short – we get 8-9 pages to introduce a character, then we move onto the next. I get that this is a coming together, an origin story for our merry band, but there isn’t enough character development. It’s quantity standing in for quality.

Then, he handles the change in perspective badly. It does make sense that, say, Bandu would lack the vocabulary to name something the others know at a glance, but before long it gets clumsy. We’re moving quickly through the story, but slowly through the exposition. We too often see the same instant through different eyes. In the end, without the depth we need from fully characters, they’re all coming from the same place anyway.

And, finally, there’s a deep problem with tone. For a novel with this sort of ambition, it’s awfully fairy-tale like in its voice. We get broad strokes and dependence on an implicit sense of childhood’s mystery and danger. I can see something like that working for a novel that merely suggests the dark elements it confronts, but then it gets complicated by the devastation described: an entire island’s population dies of a god’s curse, an old woman falls overboard and drowns, men get torn to pieces by a wild boar, and bodies rot in the hot sun. Even more clumsy, we get theological/magical speculation, but it comes to us like something taught to fifth-graders.

In other words, the technique just isn’t here. I suspect I’d enjoy meeting this author very much, and I’d love to trade notes on something we both want to accomplish. This feels too much like something he wrote as a young man, though, or even as an adolescent, to be anything like the success we’d both want to see.

It pains me to say it, but I can’t recommend this at all.


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Review: The Kindly Ones

The Kindly Ones The Kindly Ones by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, this one brings it all together. I know there’s a final volume (I’ve even begun it) but this is clearly the payoff, the coming together of the whole mythology and tone. We see the high and the low, the siblings and creations of Morpheus as our Sandman slowly disintegrates.

Parts of this are stunning. At a conceptual level, I like the idea that [SPOILER] Baby Daniel becomes our new Sandman. He has the same powers but, as someone explains toward the end, he is a new perspective on things. The Morpheus we knew is gone forever. The distant human elements of him no longer exist, and the dreaming alters with his passing. Since the dreaming is different for each of us every time we enter it, we humans may not see all that that implies, but we see enough. I’m a believer that the modern dream is the ancient dream but different. You can’t spend your life seeing images on a TV screen without having that affect the kinds of dreams that come to you in your sleep.

The sweeping quality of this is nice as well. We have an ingathering of major and minor figures that feels a bit like the end of a beloved TV series with guest appearances from all the actors we saw in earlier seasons. That did make me regret yet again that there’s been no consistent artist; it’s hard to welcome someone back when, in effect, it’s a different actor portraying him or her, but I’ll let that pass for now. The illustrations here are superior to the earliest volumes, and there’s a strong visual element. Our new Dream, clad all in white, makes an effective contrast to the old one, and he promises a new range of potential stories.

So, in the end, I find this has most of the virtues of the best of the series, but that it retains some of what kept this from being as magnificent as its reputation holds. The biggest problem for me is the way Gaiman seems to know the effect he wants and therefore twists things to produce them. We’ve seen Morpheus with more power than any other than his siblings, and then we’ve seen him bested by a two-bit British antiquarian. We’ve seen him rise above all emotion, and we’ve seen him fall deeply in love. With all that, you get the classic Superman problem: how do you invent effective adversaries for someone who can beat anyone you throw his way? You do it by creating a handful of characters who are so strong that they require rewriting the rules of the universe.

And we hear a lot about “the rules” here. That seems the catch-all excuse Gaiman throws out when someone asks, with common sense, “Why did you do that if you knew it would kill you?” I don’t remember Morpheus worrying over what it would mean to kill his son Orpheus way back when, but that’s the crime he’s on the hook for. (Wouldn’t someone of Morpheus’s omniscience have a sense of what that would mean from the Furies? Maybe it’s there, but I don’t remember. And I don’t see why the Furies would then take so many volumes to get around to doing their thing.) And, sure, he promised Nuala he would grant her a boon, but couldn’t he explain that leaving the Dreaming would make him killable?

A lot of people admire Gaiman for the vastness of his mythos, but I’d prefer a tighter cast of characters, one that more clearly held to both the narrative and the tone he’s telling. Others, like the author of the introduction here, talk about when Gaiman ‘found his voice’ for the series. I’m not sure he ever does. I think he’s perpetually retrofitting what he recounts.

But, again, I’m inclined to forgive all that. If I hadn’t heard so often that this is one of the great graphic novels – the equivalent of The Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, or even Maus! – I’m sure I’d have enjoyed it even more. It isn’t at the level of those, in large part because (despite my impression from the first volume) it isn’t a graphic novel. It’s a comic book series comprised of different volumes that try different experiments. It’s full of episodes I imagine Gaiman would not redo, and it takes a while to find its full story.

This is the climax of that full story, and it clearly contains some of the best of Gaiman’s most ambitious material for the series.


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