Archive for January, 2013

Review: Alpha

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

I picked up Greg Rucka’s Alpha because Warren Ellis had nice things to say about it and because I’ve enjoyed his comics writing.  In Alpha I found a well executed thriller that didn’t have much ambition beyond that.  Now, I like a potboiler more than the next guy, so a well-executed thriller is nothing to apologize for.  It did throw Gun Machine into sharp relief, though.

Rucka’s action is tautly written and clear to follow.  Even though we’re pretty sure how things will go in the long run, there is plenty of suspense in the individual engagements. It’s always clear who’s doing what to whom and what the stakes are.  Tension builds and the action proceeds at a snappy clip.  The tactics and strategy of heroes and villains are believable and original in an action movie kind of world. The pot boils nicely.

I do wish that I cared about the characters some more.  Everyone is a little too much a variation on a theme from central casting.  I gave up trying to tell members of his anti-terrorist team apart, though they all do have cool code names.  The most interesting variations are a well realized sleeper agent and the protagonist’s deaf teenage daughter. Probably the worst thing about the undercharacterization is that when the protagonist is feeling put upon by his alienated family it’s hard not to see their point.  He is a duty-driven action hero who doesn’t do enough to help people he ostensibly cares about to see his side and that’s what they tell him.

Back at the plot, things are moving quickly and cleanly toward an exciting conclusion.  As long as you keep your eye on that, Alpha is a lot of fun.

Review: Ted Saves The World

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Ted Saves The World is a novella for young adults that intentionally has the feel of a smart TV action drama.  Bryan Cohen, the author, is very up front about his goals and inspirations.  He’s writing in the vein of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Ted was originally intended as a TV pilot.

In terms of those goals, I found Ted to be very well done.  The writing is clear and engaging.  The characters are sharply drawn, and the story moves along well structurally.  Everything in the story serves the narrative and it all meshes well. This is all very promising.

It will be interesting to see if Cohen can go beyond these technical achievements and infuse his work with something unique.  Right now he’s sticking very close to his inspirations in theme, tone, and character, but Buffy already exists. There are good reasons to hope that he can begin mixing in new elements and make something completely original.  This is worth a look and keeping an eye on.


Review: The Law Of Superheroes

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

James Daily and Ryan Davidson have a fun idea in The Law Of Superheroes.  They take situations that arise in the comics and show how current and future US law  would apply.  Extreme hypothetical cases are a good way to understand the ramifications of any set of rules, especially the law, and it’s tough to come up with more extreme hypotheticals that comics.

The execution was a little dry for me.  I felt like too many of the problems had cut-and-dried solutions that would be helpful in getting law students to remember the principles, but that were less thrilling to the layman.  That’s not to say that the book reads like a police blotter.  There are several places where interesting aspects of the law pop out, but I think the book would benefit from a deeper look at the more interesting cases, rather than trying to survey too much of the legal landscape.

Worth a look through, especially if you are a law student or have a strong interest.

Review: Gun Machine

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Warren Ellis has the skills and ambition to take a genre piece and lead it to uncommon places.  Gun Machine is a thriller that boasts a fabulous hook – a cop literally falls into a cathedral of guns each tied to an unsolved murder – but Ellis has more on his mind than just creeping the reader out.  He doesn’t let it get in the way of a propulsive thriller, though.  Gun Machine hits all the police thriller beats, but comes at them all from slightly askew.

So, take the cop/thriller stuff as all there.  In addition, Ellis brings us many views of New York – subjective and objective – each of which is telling part of the story that makes Gun Machine turn. He brings us larger than life characters who still have a soul, and a redemptive arc for his protagonist that is measured in realistically sized steps. Each turn of the story has some whorls that tug at the reader’s interest, but the whole machine never stops moving forward.

It isn’t perfect, of course.  For all the different perspectives that he tries to capture New York from, I did not get the feeling of being there.  Key locations feel photoshopped into place, and the place isn’t quite recognizable as either the New York I’ve visited on occasion or the fictional versions I’ve seen.  The sense of place doesn’t emerge as strongly as I was expecting.

Realistic or not (whatever that means), Ellis’s New York is the scene of a breakneck race where every turn, taken or not, offers a glimpse of fascinating possibilities.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Dear Life

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Dear Life is a collection of short stories from Alice Munro, one of the acknowledged masters of the form.  She is also getting old enough to wonder if each book will be her last.  Dear Life closes with a set of stories somewhere between fiction and autobiography that are closer to the facts than the others.

All of the stories display the craftsmanship and inspiration of a great writer.  Nothing is wasted.  Each story illuminates a character and a time sharply, usually caught in a key conflict. I found them quite beautiful, if a bit cool.  Some distance remains between me and them.  While some of that may be the inevitable gulf between an American man born in the 60’s as compared to Canadian women characters with another ten or twenty years of life, I think that a the tone is intentional.

The more autobiographical stories crackle more with life.  Some of this is because of their younger protagonists, but not all of it.  It’s difficult to put one’s finger on it, but there’s definitely more zip in the last few.  All of them are well worth reading though.


Review: Because I Said So!

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Ken Jennings is rapidly moving into that set of authors that I read and enjoy unconditionally.  He’s informative, interesting, funny, and doesn’t take himself too seriously except when it’s merited. Reading one of his books is like passing time with an old friend, except that he doesn’t laugh at your jokes.

The hook in Because I Said So! is that Jennings takes a list of rules that parents lay down for their children and see how well those rules hold up to objective assessment.  It’s kind of a Snopes for kids.  This is easy to do wrong – too much droning of facts, too much chafing about foolish rules in one’s youth, or not giving parents their due for doing their best and the whole thing would become mean spirited.  Jennings navigates around these pitfalls and produces a book that’s got a warm feel of pleasant memories that also deflates baseless platitudes.  It’s fun to read.

Strongly Recommended.