Review: Slugfest – Inside the Epic, 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC by Reed Tucker

SlugfestAlthough I am longer a Wednesday Warrior, and visits to my local comic book shop have dwindled to maybe once a month, I remain deeply interested in the industry. Working in a bookshop means focusing on prose rather than comics, and the reality is, nobody ever asks my opinion on the latest issue of Spider-Man, but they do value my thoughts on the latest Bosch novel by Michael Connelly. But comics — specifically DC Comics and Superman — initiated my love of reading as a child.

I lost myself in the convoluted world of Superman in the mid-nineties, when he returned from the dead with a mullet after his devastating battle with Doomsday, broke off his engagement with Lois Lane, then married her, then developed new electric powers… Much of it was nonsensical, all of it was ridiculous, but I loved those comics. My father and grandmother would buy me a comic book from the newsagents every weekend, and every school holidays dad would take me to the comic book shop, where I had a $50 spending limit, and got to indulge my habit. I started reading Batman and Justice League, then discovered Marvel’s stuff, and became a regular reader of Spider-Man. The storytelling was soap-operatic and addictive, and from those superhero comics I moved onto Marvel and DC books starring their flagship characters, which in turn propelled me into reading non-superhero related fiction. It’s a safe bet to say I would not be writing this blog, or be working as a bookseller, if it wasn’t for comic books. And the current state of the industry, in terms of the periodicals themselves rather than the cash-cow films, concerns me greatly. There are so many brilliant writers currently crafting brilliant comics, specifically on the creator-owned scene, and it’s terrifying thinking about the limited readership on offer despite the incredible storytelling on offer.

Reed Tucker’s Slugfest – Inside the Epic, 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC is a succinct blow-by-blow account of the often-bitter rivalry between the comic book industry’s biggest players. It’s riveting, for those interested in the subject matter, but reads more like a primer than a comprehensive delineation of DC and Marvel’s evolution from ‘funny books’ to intellectual property for multinational entertainment behemoths. Much like Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, my favourite sections of Tucker’s book are whenever personnel from the two companies offer their perspective on specific events that transpired; the raw animosity between editorial departments and personnel, their attempts at one-upmanship, and the few times the companies partnered for crossovers. Tucker’s book is impeccably researched and authoritative, but I wanted more.

The book is evenhanded and certainly readable, and for those with even the smallest interest in the industry it’s a great place to start. Those who want more depth and analysis should check out books published by Sequart, who specialise in going deep on everything comics-related.

ISBN: 9780751568974
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 304
Imprint: Sphere
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 5-Oct-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The White City by Karolina Ramqvist

9781611855197.jpgThe White City is a resonant book, each sentence handcrafted with precision, its themes enchantingly explored. While its setup might sound like it has the makings of a crime thriller, Karolina Ramqvist’s English debut is instead an unflinchingly honest examination of a woman’s isolation, and her determination to survive with her daughter in their new reality, stripped of the riches Karin’s boyfriend, John, provided through his criminal activities, and removed from the support network of his acquaintances friends.

Set in the middle of a freezing Scandinavian winter, Karin’s struggles as a single parent are exacerbated by the looming threat of the Swedish Economic Crime Authority who are threatening to take her home, and all of her possessions. Her daughter, Dream, is a typical newborn, simultaneously awed and terrified by the world around her. Ramqvist details every tantrum, spit-up, pooping episode, and every other milestone mothers will have experienced, including cooing and the cuddling. A standard crime thriller would relegate Dream to being merely baggage for Karin; in Ramqvist’s hands, she is a living, breathing child, a genuine physical, oftentimes exhausting presence. Indeed, much of The White City consists of Karin managing her newborn.

Against a backdrop of violence and deceit, Karin’s quest to claim what she feels is rightfully hers — a chunk of John’s kingdom, which would therefore secure Dream’s future — is lytically elucidated. Ramqvist makes us feel for these characters, and even though much of the early tension dissipates, it’s a remarkably enthralling tale.

ISBN: 9781611855197
Format: Paperback (194mm x 128mm x 13mm)
Pages: 176
Imprint: Grove Press / Atlantic Monthly Press
Publisher: Grove Press / Atlantic Monthly Press
Publish Date: 3-Aug-2017
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook

9781925498820Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel Wake in Fright is a lean, mean, memorable tale of suspense and human fallibility. And while its early tension eventually tapers to a fairly pedestrian conclusion, there’s no denying its compulsive page-turnability.

Cook’s novel recounts John Grant’s journey into a living nightmare in the small outback town of Bundanyabba. It’s typically noir, with every choice he makes being the wrong one, every single decision leading to horrendous consequences. It is a seductive tale of one man’s descent into hell and an unflinching examination of what it means to lose control.

Wake in Fright is a story of high tension, which dissipates as its momentum sputters towards its conclusion when Grant is allowed time to mellow and meditate on the decisions that bring him to a particular moment. Reflection is all well and good — necessary, even — but in this instance, it curtails everything that so riveting about the novel’s beginning. Rather than being nuanced, or massaged into the well-oiled plot, it’s bluntly spelled out.

That said, Wake in Fright is a novel you’ll smash through in a few hours, utterly enthralled by this everyman’s downfall. Cook reminds us how susceptible we are to our base desires, and how destructive they can be if we let them lead us.

ISBN: 9781921922169
Format: Paperback (199mm x 129mm x 15mm)
Pages: 224
Imprint: The Text Publishing Company
Publisher: Text Publishing Co
Publish Date: 26-Apr-2012
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

9780718187446 (1)With The Chalk Man, C.J. Tudor has crafted a slick, razor-sharp novel of psychological suspense, which dangles the possibility of a supernatural influence on events sparingly enough to keep the story rooted in reality. This is a tense, cleverly-constructed thriller, and debut author Tudor deftly unspools the harsh realities of stale, childhood friendships, humankind’s capacity for debauchery, and the pain of confronting the past, even as she unravels her tautly-plotted mystery. The Chalk Man is book that will appeal as much to readers of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train as it will Stephen King enthusiasts looking for something to rival Misery, and provides some not-so-subtle winks at the grand-master’s It.

It opens in 1986, when Eddie Adams, a seemingly average twelve-year-old, who hangs out with his mates (using chalk messages as secret codes), does his best to outrun local bullies, and stay out of the lives of his parents (his mother is an abortion provider, and her father is a struggling freelance writer) finds the decapitated and dismembered body of a local girl. In the current day, 2016, Eddie is now an insular school teacher, who is contacted by someone from his past claiming he knows who really killed the girl. This alone might not be enough to instigate a personal crusade, but when chalk, and chalk symbols, start appearing around the quiet village Eddie has never moved away from, it’s clear someone has an agenda.

The Chalk Man flits between events in these timelines, exposing how Eddie’s various relationships have changed, painting a portrait of a man with secrets of his own, even as he seeks the the truth about what happened two decades ago. These chapters — short and sharp, which always end on cliffhangers — build momentum, and a propulsive page-turnability veteran suspense writers will envy. Readers will question the motives — even the sanity — of every character who appears in these pages, and that includes Eddie. Vitally, Tudor doesn’t attempt too many genre hijinks or red-herrings to bolster her narrative; her vision is clear, her storytelling is crystalline. The Chalk Man is tour de force, a blistering novel of psychological terror and menace.

ISBN: 9780718187446
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: Michael Joseph Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 11-Jan-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Origin by Dan Brown

Origin - Dan Brown.jpgFollowing the execution of renown futurist Edmond Kirsch at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao prior to an announcement that, he claimed, would challenge the fundamentals of human existence and thereby replace religion with science, Harvard Symbology professor Robert Langdon is embroiled in a plot to locate a cryptic password that will unlock Kirsch’s secret, while targeted by a mysterious enemy who always seems one step ahead. And while the early chapters are promising, Origin lacks the thrills and smarts of  Langdon’s earlier capers, with author Dan Brown delivering a formulaic, vaguely compelling romp.

In trademark fashion, ideologies clash in Brown’s latest thriller. Religious leaders incandescent about the ramifications of Kirsch’s findings are potential suspects in his murder, but that drama is diminished by the telegraphing of the story’s overarching villain very early on in the piece. Much of the plot’s momentum is built on Kirsch’s revelations, but readers are made to wait so long for those details, you’ll fear there’s no way it’ll live up the hype, and of course, it doesn’t. Kirsch’s proclamations are the stuff science fiction authors have been hypothesising for ages, and while Brown is certainly entitled to explore this theme too, it lands with a whimper.

The lacklustre punchline mightn’t matter if the lead-up ever moved out of first gear. Origin is insufferably plodding and formulaic, the latter of which can be overcome if the plot, and the prose, had even a fragment of gusto. Richard Stark’s Parker novels retained the same blueprint, but were always exciting, because the stories were told briskly and enthusiastically, replete with interesting characters. Brown’s tale is populated by colourless characters, many of whom are allowed too many pages for mundane internalised monologues. It says something when your post interesting character is an A.I. named Winston. There is just so little bravado in this tale; there’s no velocity. Every thirty or forty pages I would pause and reflect on how another author might streamline certain chapters and scenes; how it could be made pacier.

Packaging religion, science and art, alongside cryptic puzzles and last-minute escapes-from-dire-peril into a cohesive, page-turning potboiler is Dan Brown’s speciality. It was done with aplomb  in Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, and less successfully with its successors. Origin isn’t anywhere near to the author’s best. The hunt for Kirsch’s answers to the questions that have perennially plagued mankind — Where do we come from? Where are we going? — tugs on your curiosity, but its pedestrian unravelling will repress your need to know. 

ISBN: 9780593078754
Format: Hardback (240mm x 156mm x mm)
Pages: 544
Imprint: Bantam Press
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Publish Date: 3-Oct-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom 



Review: Time to Murder and Create by Lawrence Block


A couple of weeks back I read A Drop of the Hard Stuff, which reminded me how much I enjoy Lawrence Block, and in particular his Matthew Scudder novels. So I went back and re-read the first book in the series, The Sins of the Father, which lived up to the pedestal my memory had elevated it to, and immediately tore through the second book, Time to Murder and Create. And wouldn’t you know it, I’m now reading the third, and highly anticipating the seminal fifth book in the series.

Time to Murder and Create has a tantalising premise: a small-time crook hires Scudder to guard a package, and only open it if he meets an untimely demise.

Obviously he does. C’mon, now. What did you expect?

Scudder discovers the package contains four envelopes, three of which hold blackmail evidence for three different people — all of which is potentially worthy of murder — and the fourth envelope contains cash for Scudder’s investigatory services. The dead crook wants Scudder to unravel the mystery of his death, and so our unlicensed private investigator visits each of the blackmail victims, probing them, determined to uncover the identity of the killer.

This isn’t top tier Block, but it’s a taut page-turner, and readers will enjoy this pulpy, bite-sized mystery. It’s very workmanlike, like Block’s on autopilot, going through the motions as he weaves his tale. Still highly readable and enjoyable, full of colourful characters and perfect dialogue and descriptions; just missing that special something. More than anything, Time to Murder and Create adds layers to the character of Matthew Scudder, which makes the payoff in the fifth book in the series, Eight Million Ways to Die, all the more resonant.

ISBN: 9780752827490
Format: Paperback (179mm x 145mm x 14mm)
Pages: 176
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 1-Sep-1999
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben

9781780894249.jpgHarlan Coben’s propensity for writing thrillers that keep you turning the pages hours after you meant to turn out the light continues with Don’t Let Go, a standalone novel set in the world of fan-favourite protagonist Myron Bolitar.

Nobody’s ever been able to explain what Leo Dumas and his girlfriend, Diana Styles, were doing on the railroad tracks the night they were killed by a train, or why Maura Wells, girlfriend of Leo’s twin, Napoleon, “Nap,” disappeared that night. They’re questions that have haunted Nap for more than a decade, and have shaped the way he has lived his life: isolated, an avenging angel of a cop who isn’t afraid to break (or bend) the rules of law to enact his interpretation of justice. Indeed, Don’t Let Go is told almost entirely from his perspective, Nap relaying events to his dead brother, as though he’s listening. It’s clear from the very beginning: Nap hasn’t forgotten what happened that night, and it’s still affecting him today. He is determined to find the truth, to uncover what truly happened that night, and understand how those events connect.

When Maura’s fingerprints are discovered in a car driven by a murdered Pennsylvania cop, sergeant Rex Canton — also one of Nap’s high school classmates — Nap immediately inserts himself into the investigation. When Hank, another classmate, is also found murdered, Nap realises the connection between everyone: at school they were members of the Conspiracy Club, who spent much of their time sussing out the true purpose of the secret military installation in town. Obvious conclusion: they uncovered something, learned something they shouldn’t, and now they’re being hunted down. But if that’s the case, why wait fifteen years between murdering Leo and Diana to now target the others? Nap knows he’s missing a vital piece of the puzzle, and to find the answer means delving back into his painful past.

One of the great thriller writers of our age, Harlan Coben’s clever, fast-moving and multi-faceted yarns always demand to be read in one sitting. Don’t Let Go is no different. This is an exhilarating and unputdownable novel that asks whether the truth can really set you free, and whether some secrets are better left buried. More impressively, it’s a pacy thriller with a romantic heart, never once threatening to become overly sentimental. Coben’s gift is his ability to handle all the elements of a great thriller — a thrumming, zig-zagging  plot, sharp dialogue, empathetic characters — with inimitable brio. Don’t Let Go is the work of a consummate storyteller.

ISBN: 9781780894249
Format: Paperback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Century
Publisher: Cornerstone
Publish Date: 26-Sep-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom