Category Archives: Books – 5 stars

Scott McCloud – Understanding Comics

A must-read for anyone who enjoys comics (or graphic novels, if you must), but curiously the book also has tremendous relevance for the Web, and people writing (and developing) for it. One of the fundamental points that McCloud makes is that comics are a medium of transitions. In comics, the space between panels is your mind takes over and fills in the blanks that are not explicitly shown. The web functions in a similar way: you can click on a hyperlink and be transported to the next page in a sequence, or into a completely different scene or context.

The book also features a chapter on mastery, that is equally applicable to to any craft, be it writing and drawing comics, or playing an instrument, or woodworking.

But it is mostly about comics. Three-panel funnies or multi-book series: they all speak a common language. McCloud picks this language apart, and breaks it down into parts that you will immediately recognize, but probably had never thought about before. By closely examining ubiquitious patterns, he shows just how complex and fascinating they are, and what kind of subtle cognitive leaps our minds make when we read comics or view infographics. A must-read if you are interested in visual arts, or even if you just enjoy reading Tintin.

William Gibson – Spook Country

I love Gibson’s style – his writing is sparse and cool, and he never misplaces a single word. Almost every sentence is finely crafted and judged to perfection. Spook Country is not science fiction, but it blurs the line between present and future by means of an avant-garde art form, which eventually has a bearing on the shadowy spy story that is plays out across LA, New York, and Vancouver. It’s subtle and wonderful – savour and enjoy.

Max Brooks – World War Z

Max Brooks’ previous book was The Zombie Survival Guide. It is written in the format of a volume in the “Worst Case Survival Guide” series, and at first glance it looks like a humorous parody of those works. But it is isn’t: the authorial persona lives in a world where zombies have appeared throughout history, but where their incidence is on the rise. He fears that we are on the brink of a global outbreak, that governments are suppressing reports for fear of mass panic, and The Zombie Survival Guide is a very serious look at how to make it through such a situation alive.

In World War Z, the worst has happened. There was a zombie pandemic, and mankind teetered on the brink of extinction. But we fought back, and slowly, and at great cost, reclaimed the planet.

It would be easy to set a zombie thriller in such a world. But Brooks doesn’t take the easy route. The authorial persona here is a researcher who helped compile the United Nations’ Postware Commission Report, but who was disappointed by the Commission’s decision to strip the report to the bare facts and figures. The book’s subtitle is “An Oral History of the Zombie War”, and that’s what it is: a selection of transcribed interviews with people who survived. Some of them are key figures, political and military. Some of them are just ordinary people, who somehow managed to find their way through the horror.

They are not exciting stories about heroic deeds – they are painful memories of people shattered and scarred by a war they initially didn’t understand, and later thought they could not win. The traditional military apparatus does not work, and conventional strategies leave battalions of soldiers open to an enemy that does not care about–or even always react to–being shot or blown up. The tide is eventually turned by people thinking outside the box, often with cold dispassion bordering on cruelty. But what effects do those decisions have on the people who have to make them, and what kind of a world do they leave in their wake?

As well as overflowing with well-rounded characters, the book is also full of details about places and procedures. It feels gritty and factual, stripped clean of cinematic polish and traditional zombie tropes. All you have are real people, facing doom on the deserted streets of the places they called home. But in the end–we win. It’s harrowing and uplifting. And it’s as much of a milestone in the literary horror genre as Shaun of the Dead was in the cinema. A real masterpiece.

Dennis Lehane – Darkness, Take My Hand

Keeping a detective series going for several books requires a lot of very intense cases to come the detective’s way. The lives of real-world PIs are rarely that interesting. I’m usually happy enough to suspend my disbelief for the sake of the thrill, but I tend to balk when it comes to psycho serial killers. It’s like a group of teens in a horror film splitting up when the lights go out. There’s a sadistic lunatic murderer out there and you plan to outwit him…yourself? Without the help of hundreds of police officers? Also, in order to make the case matter to the detective, the psycho has to strike close to home, and that tends to be one coincidence too far for me.

Dennis Lehane does very well with this book, though. He seems to specialise in tales where a group of loosely connected people share a much tighter common past, and an incident that bound them together forever, or else split their bonds completely. The killings that take place around Patrick Kenzie here have little in common, at first glance, other than Kenzie himself. The killer seems to be going out of his way to entangle Kenzie in the whole mess, to threaten him, and to teach him an obscure but deadly lesson.

The police and the FBI do get involved in the case, and they are instrumental in taking the killer down eventually, but the book is about much more than just solving a series of murders. In the course of the story, it brings the characters face to face with the most shocking evil and violence and forces them to answer the question: what would you do? How far would you go to save your family and friends if they were threatened? It’s a fascinating and scary look into the dark depths of human capabilities. Gripping right to the very end.

Robert Crais – The Last Detective

After L.A. Requiem my hopes were running high for this follow-up. How could Crais possibly crank it up another notch? But he does. And just as with L.A. Requiem, I cried at the end. Bear in mind that Elvis Cole is one of my favourite fictional characters, and that I’m a romantic at heart. But even so, it’s an amazing novel, with terrific plot, pace, and depth of character. Crime fiction gets no better than this.

Michael Marshall Smith – What You Make It

Michael Marshall Smith is the author of three books, Only Forward, Spares and One of Us, which have assured him–in Britain, at least–the status of Hot New Author. This status is quite rightly deserved. Only Forward is a true masterpiece of modern fiction, weaving a unique blend of science fiction, psychological horror, fantasy, dark humour, and genuine literary charm. Smith has an engaging narrative voice that draws you into his books like a snake charmer hypnotising a cobra. You’re led into a world that you know is strange, but because his characters are so convincing and sufficiently comfortable with their own reality, you go along with it, thinking, yeah, this is cool, this is interesting, and then suddenly–snap. The trapdoor shuts behind you and you can’t get out. The protagonist is on a nightmare ride, and you’re right there with him.

What You Make It is Smith’s first story collection, and it brings together eighteen pieces from 1988 to 1998. The stories range from humorous (“Diet Hell”) to downright disturbing (“More Tomorrow”), with several excursions into tender and deeply touching (“The Man Who Drew Cats”, and “Always”). What they all have in common, though, is Smith’s confident narrative. Whether his protagonists are witty and urbane bachelors bemoaning their lot in life, or old men sipping their beers in their favourite bar and swapping tales of old times, they are always believable. You know these people. You see them every day. You live and go to work with them.

This is exactly what makes you uncomfortable when the world in these stories suddenly takes a turn for the worse (which it does in most cases). Rather than choosing the option of supernatural horror (although in “A Place To Stay” he does his own take on vampires), Smith stays firmly with the psychological. Inside the human mind lie terrors far more upsetting than the worst creature from the dark dimensions.

One of his recurring themes is the continual questioning of reality: has the world gone mad, or have I? As in his novels, Smith explores the possibilities of this question in several of these stories. “The Owner” and “The Fracture” follow the protagonists through their descent into insanity. In “Foreign Bodies”, like in all three of his novels, he examines his characters’ reaction to the revelation of truths so hideous they’ve kept them hidden from themselves.

Another common thread running through the stories is that of (romantic) relationships gone awry. Many of his characters have been through a psychological wringer, involving painful break-ups and the inability to find or keep hold of love. Smith’s sharp wit is at its finest when he lets his twenty-something single males rant about women, work and life in general; his tenderness and compassion shines through most when he talks about love. Here is a writer with a lot to say, and I have a lot of time to listen.

If this all seems a bit heavy and deep, well, it is. This isn’t an easy read. In places it is profoundly unsettling. The first story, “More tomorrow” built up a feeling of genuine dread in my stomach, and left me feeling shocked at its end. “Always”, the second-last story, produced a lump in my throat. It took me about a week to read through the whole collection, because I had to give some stories time to sink in before I was ready to read the next. Like strong drink, it doesn’t take much to intoxicate. Take too much too quickly, and you’ll feel like you’ve been kicked in the head.

There are inevitably a few weaker stories here as well. “Sorted” is blunt, and covers the same ground as “More Bitter Than Death” but with much less flair. “The Dark Land”, one of the earlier stories, is fairly perfunctory in terms of its plot, but is interesting in that it seems to lay a lot of the foundation upon which Only Forward is built.

On balance, though, the good stories outnumber the bad, and the excellent outnumber the merely good. I can’t give the book anything other than a top rating, but I should warn that it will not be to everybody’s taste. To draw a somewhat inaccurate analogy, in terms of the experience it provides it is far more Blair Witch than Scream: deep discomfort rather than slash ‘n splatter. Read it and be impressed.