Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are one of the most consistent and compelling teams in comics, and Criminal show some of their early promise. I’ve never read any of Brubaker’s superhero books, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of his work with Phillips for Image Comics.
Criminal is one of their earlier collaborations, originally published by Marvel’s creator-owned comics imprint, and recently reprinted in a deluxe edition by Image Comics. Criminal is oftentimes cited as a masterpiece of the genre, but in this first volume, it feels like Brubaker and Phillips aren’t quite stretching their wings.
I get the impression that later volumes of Criminal are a bit more surreal and/or experimental, but the first volume is completely grounded. In fact, it feels downright familiar if you’ve read anything by Richard Stark. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think my enjoyment of this book may have suffered in comparison with their later works, i.e. Fatale and The Fade Out.
Criminal’s first volume tells the story of Leo, a career criminal known both for his strict rules for every job and his uncanny ability to get away clean when the shit hits the fan. When a dirty cop convinces him to arrange a heist targeting a police evidence van, things inevitably go south in a bad way and Leo is left to pick up the pieces.
I feel like I’ve seen the story beats in this volume a million times, but Brubaker’s writing and Phillips’ art help elevate it into something more than generic. Criminal might feel familiar, but the execution is top-notch.
I enjoyed reading this volume, and I’ll definitely pick up the next volume at some point, but it’s definitely not my favorite book by Brubaker and Phillips. So far, Fatale still wins that prize.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
The Fade Out is a tale of bad old Hollywood, when studios covered up all varieties of crime and young actresses faced near-constant sexual assault on the ladder to stardom. It definitely made me wonder how much has changed and how much has stayed the same since the 1940s, when this story takes place.
Charlie Parish is a screenwriter with a few dark secrets who wakes up one morning after a debauched party to discover a promising young actress, Valeria Sommers, strangled in her own home. Charlie decides to get himself the hell out of there – hiding any evidence of his presence before he leaves – but when the movie studio he works for spins the murder as a suicide, Charlie’s guilt and horror only increase.
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips love a good noir. I haven’t read all of their work so far, but The Fade Out is one of their most grounded stories. It’s an unflinching look at the seamy underbelly of classic Hollywood, led by a conflicted non-hero who struggles to figure out what to do. The book also particularly focuses on the ways women were horribly mistreated during that time period, both in and outside the film industry.
Brubaker’s dialogue crackles, Sean Phillips’ character designs are bold and spare, and Elizabeth Breitweiser’s colors are the perfect accent that brings it all home. Charlie views the world through thick round glasses that dwarf his face. His writing partner, Gil, slumps his way through every scene, rumpled and dissolute. Valeria and Maya, her lookalike replacement on the picture, both have fresh, open faces and expressive mouths that make it easy to imagine them as long-lost Hollywood starlets.
Although The Fade Out starts with a murder mystery, it seems content to wander through old Hollywood, introducing a slowly expanding cast of characters without pushing Charlie into his ostensible role as citizen detective. It seems clear Brubaker is playing a long game and enjoying the scenery along the way.
My only criticism is that the third issue features so much female nudity that it verges on the exploitative. It’s clear that Brubaker is criticizing a system that puts women into situations that force them to use their bodies as currency, but the amount of naked flesh on display begins to undermine his point.
Even still, The Fade Out is an excellent slice of noir from creators working at the top of their game. Definitely worth checking out.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
My only exposure to Judge Dredd is the 2012 movie starring Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby, which I understand stays true to the comic while telling a pretty badass little crime story. I only watched it a week or so ago, so it seems appropriate that I finally got around to reading this collection of Dredd stories by Duane Swierczynski. Swierczynski quickly became one of my favorite authors after I tore through his excellent novel Fun and Games. I picked up this volume hoping for more of the same, although I haven’t read any of his other comic book writing.
This volume collects several short stories, some of which tie together into a larger case and some of which are one-off side stories that break up the main plotline. The larger thread focuses on malfunctioning robots, but there is also a story about kidnappers threatening clones of famous people and a judge who has the mind of a killer living inside his head. The stories are generally short and to-the-point, but instead of making the book brisk and action-filled, it feels like Swierczynski is always rushing to the next plot point. The result just comes off as shallow and repetitive.
Additionally, there isn’t much characterization to go around. It feels like this is probably appropriate for the universe – Dredd also didn’t have much in the way of characterization – but it doesn’t help that the dialogue is occasionally stilted or campy. Judge Anderson had more depth in the movie, but here she felt like nothing but a handy plot device. I was also regularly distracted by the use of made-up swear-words, which I’m sure fits with the series as a whole, but just felt silly here.
Ultimately, I felt like the episodic structure undermined this volume, and I would have preferred to see a longer, more developed storyline set in the Dredd universe. I might try to track down some of the older Dredd books for comparison’s sake, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of this series.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
Published: February 9th, 2010 Publisher: Brilliance Audio Genre(s): Young Adult, Crime, Thriller Format: Audiobook Length: 6 hrs and 6 mins
First, a confession: I was mostly inspired to pick up this book thanks to an incredible cover re-design done for Maureen Johnson’s #coverflip challenge a few months ago. I’d seen Ally Carter’s books on the shelves before and was vaguely intrigued by the titles and premises, but never enough to actually read them. I try to be open-minded about books that look like they aren’t “meant for me” but it’s all too easy to forget. Heist Society is a good reminder that I oftentimes thoroughly enjoy books that someone in a marketing department decided only a woman would read.
Heist Society is the first in a series of books about Katarina “Kat” Bishop, a teenage girl who comes from a long like of con artists and thieves. The book opens with her getting kicked out of a prestigious boarding school that she’d scammed her way into in the first place. Her motivation? No schemes or plans but her desire to get out of the family business and live a normal life. Unfortunately for her, the family business won’t let her go that easy. When it turns out that her father is in trouble with a very dangerous man who wants his paintings back, Kat assembles a crew and plans a heist to save her father’s life and put things right.
The tone throughout is arch but not snarky, brisk and cool and thoroughly engaging. There’s a bit of romance, even a love triangle by the end of it, and the heist is appropriately convoluted and clever. One of the things I liked most about Heist Society is the way Carter uses real historical details to flesh out the back story and give the heist meaning and weight. I was already enjoying the book, but when Kat learns exactly what kind of paintings she’s dealing with, Carter had me thoroughly hooked for the long haul.
My only criticism of the book relates to a character named Nick. Nick’s appearance late in the story adds a nice bit of romantic tension, but his motivations and back story never make sense. He feels like a slightly too-obvious late addition designed to raise the stakes of the relationship between Kat and her friend Hale.
However, I’d consider that a minor quibble, and it certainly didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of Heist Society. I’ll definitely be picking up the next book in the series.
Lauren Beukes first came to my attention thanks to William Gibson or maybe Cory Doctorow. Some great author who recommended her on Twitter. I picked up her first two books, Moxyland and Zoo City, and read Moxyland a few years ago. I liked it, but it definitely felt like Gibson’s sensibility filtered through a South African setting. On the other hand, The Shining Girls, her third novel and first for Mulholland Books, reads like Beukes striking out on her own and making a name for herself. The result is stunning, harrowing and immensely readable.
The Shining Girls follows the interlocking lives of two characters: Curtis Harper, who discovers a mysterious house that lets him travel in time as long as he murders the “shining girls” mapped out on the bedroom wall, and Kirby Mazrachi, one of Harper’s attempted murder victims who manages to survive and devotes her life to tracking him down. We are also treated to heartbreaking vignettes of the women Harper kills throughout the 20th century; every woman he murders is full of endless potential that he snuffs out by torturing them to death and mutilating their bodies.
Although time travel is part of the narrative, The Shining Girls feels more like a crime thriller than a scifi story. It helps that the story all takes part in the past – Kirby’s “present day” is the early nineties. The speculative elements exist mostly as plot devices and a way to build tension, and Beukes doesn’t spend much time explaining how Harper is able to do what he does. Beukes has a background in journalism, and it’s clear that a lot of research went into this novel. The women we meet throughout the story span multiple social classes, decades and races, and each one is carefully drawn in the short moments before she dies terribly.
My only criticism of the novel is that it feels like Kirby discovers the truth very late in the story, and after that point everything kicks into high gear until the ending. I would have liked to see a bit more of Kirby exploring the strange world of the house and its dangerous inhabitant. If nothing else, Beukes left me wanting more at the end, which is definitely a positive thing. My hope is that The Shining Girls is just the first of Beukes’ forays into crime/thriller writing. It’s a genre that suits her well.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
Published: April 10th, 2012 (Audio version) Publisher: Harper Audio Genre(s): Crime, Thriller Format: Audiobook Length: 8 hours and 35 minutes
Reading Raylan got me in the mood for more Elmore Leonard, and in fact I’m now on my third Leonard book in a row. The second, Bandits, first published in 1987, tells the story of a convicted thief named Jack Delaney who works at a funeral home with his brother-in-law. Jack doesn’t much like driving a hearse, but he’s trying to make ends meet and stay on the straight and narrow after a stint in prison.
That all changes one day when he goes on a job to a leprosy hospital to pick up a body and discovers that the patient – a girl named Amalita – is still alive. It turns out that Amalita is on the run from a murderous Nicaraguan colonel named Dagoberto (Bertie for short). Aiding her on her journey is a young, beautiful nun named Lucy who immediately fascinates Jack and ends up having a huge impact on his life.
Lucy tells Jack that she isn’t actually a nun any more; among other things, she saw a massacre at the hospital where she worked, and decided it was time to get out of the country. More importantly, she brings Jack a proposal for a different kind of job, one with more serious implications than the thrill of sneaking into a hotel room to steal jewelry while the guests are sleeping. Dagoberto isn’t just in America to hunt down a girl, it seems; he’s also in the States to raise money for the fight against communist Sandinistas in his country. Lucy suggests they steal the money from Dagoberto, and the ball gets rolling. Jack recruits a few friends he knows from prison, and they start planning the heist.
Where Raylan had crisp dialogue but flat characterization, Bandits finds Leonard at the top of his game, firing on all cylinders. The book is full of wonderful, fully drawn characters who practically leap off the page. My favorite by far is one of the colonel’s henchmen, a man named Franklin De Dios who is simultaneously likable and dangerous. Spending time with him and other characters quickly reminded me why I loved Leonard so much in high school.
The other way that Bandits excels is the sexual tension between Jack and Lucy. Leonard draws out their scenes in a way that reminded me of the incredible flirtation scene in North by Northwest. Dialogues between Jack and Lucy are thick with tension and longing, skillfully intercut with descriptions and observations that are stunning in their simplicity. At his peak, Leonard has an economy with words that rivals Hemingway.
My only criticism of the book is that the heist feels a bit anticlimactic. It’s not a big problem, though, because at its heart this book focuses on the characters. I loved Bandits, and especially recommend the audiobook version narrated by the late Frank Muller, who is an ideal choice for Leonard’s style.
Published: January 17th, 2012 Publisher: Harper Audio Genre(s): Crime, Thriller Format: Audiobook Length: 6 hrs and 15 mins
When I was in high school, I watched Out of Sight and Get Shorty and became intrigued by Elmore Leonard, whose books were turned into such crackling crime thrillers. I quickly took it upon myself to familiarize myself with his work. I actually read the first two Raylan Givens novels, Pronto and Riding the Rap, back then, so when my book club suggested we read Raylan, I was curious to see where Leonard would take the character. From what I remembered of the first two books, Raylan wasn’t actually the primary focus; instead, he was a big part of an ensemble cast, and shared equal billing with other characters. Raylan, on the other hand, focuses entirely on the titular marshall’s adventures.
The first thing you should know about Raylan is that it apparently covers a lot of the same ground as the TV show. I haven’t watched it yet, so I don’t know for sure how similar the two versions are. Most of the one-star reviews complain that Leonard must be “riding on the coattails” of the show’s success with this book, when I believe the actual story is that they asked him to write another book as a sort of tie-in to the show, and he gave them pages to use as they pleased.
The second thing you should know is that this is a book made to be read aloud. On the page, Leonard’s writing seems affected at first glance. Words and punctuation are missing, and it’s hard to get a sense for the rhythm without hearing it. When I switched to the audiobook, the book immediately came alive for me and was much easier to follow. In fact, Leonard’s writing began seeping into the way I spoke and wrote, which is one of the surest signs you’re dealing with a true master of the craft.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that Leonard’s spare, crisp writing is in full effect throughout, Raylan is clearly one of his minor works. It doesn’t read like a full novel; instead, the story feels episodic, as if several short stories were stitched together to create a novel-length work. The book comes in three loosely defined parts. First, Raylan tangles with weed dealers who steal body parts and sell them back to the victims. Next, he works as a bodyguard for a coal company woman who works in “disagreements”. Finally, he chases down a young female card shark who may be mixed up in a bank robbery scheme.
The first section has the most tension because it feels like Raylan is in the most danger, but even still, he drawls his way through most encounters, always impeccably cool and quick on the draw. If the book had ended there it would have been an excellent novella. The real problem is that it never really feels like the disparate stories add up to much of anything. I also got the impression that the book was relying on the reader’s likely familiarity with the TV show, and the characterization suffered as a result.
It really is a shame that Raylan doesn’t quite deliver, because I enjoyed the book while I was listening to it, loved the rhythms of Leonard’s writing, and was immediately drawn to get back into reading his stuff as soon as I finished. I read the book with my book club and I don’t think any of them had ever read any of his other works, and I have to wonder if they’ll seek them out now, because most of them came away disappointed.
Ultimately, Raylan is a quick read worth checking out, but not the best place to start with Leonard’s work. If nothing else, it reminded me that Leonard is one of my personal heroes. I’m planning on reading more of his work as soon as possible (I’ve already started Bandits), and I’ll have to be careful that I don’t start writing all my stories to sound like him.
Recently while thoroughly frittering away an evening online, I decided to respond to a commenter who was doing a bit of trolling with some admittedly low-hanging fruit. The thread was over at io9, which actually has what I consider the rare comments section worth reading, and it was on their post about essential SF&F reads of 2013 (my own list is in the pipeline!).
The commenter’s complaint was related to the inclusion of a number of young adult books in the list. As they saw it this was clear proof of “a decline in reading comprehension and vocabulary”. Yes, I should know better than to try and respond to that, but I couldn’t help myself. I was of course tempted to point out the irony of complaining about a “dumbed-down” genre on a post (and site) devoted to science fiction and fantasy, but I reserved that bit of snark for Twitter instead.
Unfortunately, this kind of opinion doesn’t just appear in comments sections, it’s also propagated by professional critics, as my friend Kiersi noted in her recent discussion of criticism directed at the “new adult” genre. This particular criticism seems to rely largely on the assumption that young adult writers aren’t doing anything but churning out simplistic hack-job trilogies intended for a quick turnaround as the next summer blockbuster. That just because a book is intended for teens means it can’t or won’t address weighty themes. Or that the writing will be childish and simplistic.
When did simplicity and readability become such a crime? Hemingway would surely disagree. The Catcher in the Rye – possibly the ultimate prototypical young adult novel – stands the test of time because the writing is simple, straightforward and clean. Holden thinks and talks like a teenager of his time, and if that book was published today, it would be marketed as young adult, no question about it.
I’d also argue that some of the best writing I’ve read recently was in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I thought the book had some pacing issues near the end, but Taylor’s prose was so drop-dead gorgeous that I still consider the book a five-star read. In fact, it easily outshone the writing in some of the “adult” books I’ve read recently.
The thing I find strangest about the argument against reading young adult fiction is that its proponents seem to believe there isn’t inherent value in reading just for the sake of it. The only response I received from the comment’s originator was a petulant dismissal of my “‘at least they’re reading something’ argument”. It boggles the mind.
See, I know from personal experience that reading lots of young adult fiction is part of what helped me get back in the habit of reading in general. A few years ago, when I first set a goal to read 52 books in 52 weeks, some of the very first books I read were A Series of Unfortunate Events, which aren’t even young adult books because they’re pitched at children, not teenagers. I also listened to a lot of audiobooks, which I’m sure is another literary no-no (Tim Curry reads the Unfortunate Events books, which are marvelous). However, once I was in the swing of things, I decided it was time to challenge myself, and picked up the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo.
I don’t think I would have been mentally prepared to tackle a 1400+ page classic novel if I hadn’t already reminded myself that reading is fun, and I’m sure my experience isn’t unique. I feel certain that there are people who got back into the habit of reading thanks to Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, or some other YA series, and once they remembered how much fun it was to read, they decided to keep doing it. Maybe they only read YA books now, but who cares? How can reading for fun ever be a bad thing? I don’t care what you’re reading as long as you just keep doing it.
Published: February 8, 2012 Publisher: Hachette Audio Genre(s): Crime, Thriller, Comedy Format: Audiobook Length: 8 hours and 46 minutes
Wild Thing, by author and physician Josh Bazell, is a sequel to his thrilling debut Beat The Reaper, which introduced former mob hitman Pietro Brwna as he tried to make up for his crimes by working as a doctor. Beat The Reaper was essentially Brwna’s origin story, and spent much of its time flashing back over his life up to that point. It was simultaneously an intensely personal story and a breakneck thriller full of black-as-night gallows humor. For example, in one particularly nerve-wracking scene, Brwna uses one of his own bones as a weapon. As soon as I finished reading it, I wanted more, but I also couldn’t quite picture where the story might go next. Beat The Reaper would be a hard act to follow for any author, and I’m glad that Bazell took up the challenge even if I don’t think the results quite hit the mark.
We catch up with Brwna on a cruise ship three years after the events of the first book. Now he is going by the name Lionel Azimuth and pulling rotting teeth for crew members as part of his catchall position as ship’s doctor. Brwna hates life on the boat, so when his old mentor hooks him up with a job working for a reclusive billionaire (referred to only as Rec Bill), he jumps at the chance. At least, he does until he finds out that the job involves going to Minnesota and hunting for a mythological lake monster as part of what may or may not be a scam or criminal operation. Softening the blow is the fact that his companion for the trip will be Violet Hearst, a paleontologist who is both a knockout beauty and a firm believer in the inevitable apocalypse due to ecological catastrophes. Much to Brwna’s surprise, Rec Bill is willing to pony up a steep payment for his cooperation in the trip, and soon enough he gives in despite his misgivings and Violet are on their way.
A lot of Wild Thing’s reviews focus on the fact that the subject matter is so different from the first book that it feels strange that it has the same main character. However, I don’t agree with the argument that this doesn’t feel like a Pietro Brwna book; I think Bazell just does as good a job with Brwna’s voice and sense of humor in Wild Thing, and I couldn’t picture any other character taking the lead. I love the character, and definitely laughed out loud more than once. I also don’t necessarily think that the cryptozoological angle doesn’t fit with a story about Brwna, although I could see how hints of possible fantastic elements might raise the hackles of people who like things to stay “realistic”.
What I do think is that Bazell actually wrote himself into a corner with Beat The Reaper. How do you write another book about the same character when you’ve a) revealed his entire backstory and b) established that he can’t keep working in a big public hospital? Any kind of follow-up would have to shake things up. I think the real reason people say that Wild Thing doesn’t feel like a Pietro Brwna book is that it isn’t actually about him as a person. Beat The Reaper was entirely focused on Brwna’s fall and redemption. All of the action and tension in the first book originated from events in his life both past and present, which meant that the stakes were exceedingly high and very personal.
In Wild Thing, the personal connections are more tenuous, although they are still present to some degree. Brwna has a fear of open water and sharks because the only woman he ever loved was killed in a shark tank, and he also has a fear of intimacy for much the same reason. Naturally, being in close quarters with a beautiful woman as they search for a lake monster means that some of his issues are going to come to the forefront. However, the stakes never feel very high in Wild Thing – either they find the lake monster or they don’t, and Brwna can probably get on with his life either way. Maybe he goes back to the cruise ship, maybe he makes enough money to take care of his problem with mobsters trying to kill him. Compare that to Beat The Reaper, where Brwna is fighting for his life and for personal redemption all while trying to save patient’s lives and barely sleeping, and it just doesn’t sound quite as compelling.
However, my biggest problem with Wild Thing is that the plot basically unravels near the end of the book. A lot of time is spent building up to the camping trip and search for the monster, but when it finally gets to that point, everything is over and done with in no time flat, and it feels very anticlimactic. It doesn’t help that the camping trip feels vague and unmotivated once the characters are actually in the middle of the wilderness; after so much time spent discussing the length and dangers of the trip, very little time is spent on the actual trip itself.
There are also several characters introduced early on that never end up amounting to anything. A fundamentalist couple arrives at the camping lodge for the trip only to have a one-sided argument about religion with Violet Hearst and storm off-stage, never to return in any meaningful fashion. A Las Vegas magician is mentioned and then subsequently forgotten about until the end of the book, when he is used as an offhand explanation for a plot point. Bazell misses a great opportunity to have these characters interact with each other and Brwna on the trip, and it’s a damn shame.
It’s frustrating that the book ends up basically trailing off at the end, because until that point I was definitely enjoying it. I actually liked it more when I first finished it than I did after thinking about it for a few minutes, which is always particularly disappointing. To me it’s a sign of a great writer who perhaps bit off more than he could chew; once I was no longer distracted by his fantastic main character, the holes in the plot were far too easy to see.
However, the end of the book very clearly sets up a sequel that could end up bringing the focus back to Brwna’s life; rather than continuing to live in hiding, Brwna decides to go on the offensive and strike back against the mob and his former employer. I’m definitely looking forward to it despite my misgivings about this book. Everything I liked about Wild Thing tells me that Bazell is a great author to watch. The problems I had may just be the symptoms of the dreaded sophomore slump that seems to affect so many great artists.
Just got back from a trip to BookPeople and wanted to share these striking covers for the “Bad Day” books by Sophie Littlefield.
I love these designs. They’re eye-catching but minimal, and tell you everything you need to know about the book’s premise. You can guess that the main character is feminine but still dangerous with a weapon. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition to see a woman in a summery dress holding a handgun or a baseball bat. You can tell from her stance that she means business. The second book’s design immediately made me pick it up and read the synopsis.
Interestingly enough, the third book’s cover changes up the formula a bit:
Instead of a woman standing facing us with her feet planted, she’s turned around with her hip cocked, holding a more traditionally “female” weapon, a frying pan. Where the first two covers seem to hint at an intensity and violence at odds with the heroine’s dress, this one seems to be playing up her sex appeal and implying that this story will be more lighthearted than the first two.
The setting also appears to be slightly less country and more suburban than the first. Instead of a backdrop of peeling paint, we see a beautiful house off in the distance. In my mind, the first two covers clearly say “crime novel with a female protagonist”, whereas the third seems to imply that the story might be more like Desperate Housewives.
It’s really fascinating how they’ve used the same basic elements in the third book’s cover to market the book to slightly different audience. I wonder how the author feels about the shift in design?