15 September 2014

Review: In the Days of the Comet by H. G. Wells

Trade paperback, 221 pages
Published 2001 (originally 1905-06)
Acquired October 2013
Read August 2014
In the Days of the Comet
by H. G. Wells

This H. G. Wells novel is hard to like, though he carries it out with his usual attention to detail. We get a protagonist who doesn't see what's important, our man William who scrabbled along. What makes this work as well as it does is its retrospective tone: the world of today seems very strange when viewed from the future, and Wells emphasizes this with the kind of explanations our narrator has to provide. But then a magic gas makes everyone act perfectly rationally from then on, and a new society free of the problems of the old one is born. (There's sort of a subgenre of apocalypses caused by strange gases at the turn of the century: In the Days of the Comet is preceded by M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud, and followed by Arthur Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt. I don't know if there are others.) In terms of providing practical solutions, there's not a lot going on, but I think this book is more about suggesting a way of thinking and seeing that would do all of us some good. Or so Wells thinks; anyone who has read a lot of Wells will be unsurprised to learn that according to the book, free love is the way to go.

12 September 2014

Review: Doctor Who: The Ripper by Tony Lee et al.

Comic PDF eBook, 90 pages
Published 2011 (contents: 2011)
Acquired May 2014
Read August 2014
Doctor Who: The Ripper

Written by Tony Lee
Art by Andrew Currie, Richard Piers Rayner, Horacio Domingues, and Tim Hamilton
Colors by Charlie Kirchoff and Phil Elliott
Lettering by Shawn Lee and Neil Uyetake

Rory is added to the mix in this next installment of IDW's Doctor Who comics, which sees the ubiquitous Tony Lee back on writing duties. The first story here, the one issue "Spam Filtered" (art by Andrew Currie) is good fun, as the TARDIS is overrun by banner ads and spam e-mails when Rory links his smartphone into its systems. Lee captures the voices of the main cast perfectly, and the story is the kind of delightful thing that really shows off what Doctor Who can be in the comic book medium.

Less successful is "Ripper's Curse" (art by Richard Piers Rayner, Horacio Domingues, and Tim Hamilton), which just never engages; it's all a bit too rote. I did like the bit where the Doctor and Rory figure out where the Ripper's next victim is by hopping forward and asking a tour guide, but Doctor Who already has too many boring takes on Jack the Ripper, and this is just one more; I've never gotten the fascination.

10 September 2014

Review: Doctor Who: A Fairytale Life by Matt Sturges, Kelly Yates, & Brian Shearer

Comic trade paperback, 103 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 2011)
Acquired November 2013
Read August 2014
Doctor Who: A Fairytale Life

Written by Matt Struges
Pencils by Kelly Yates & Brian Shearer
Inks by Brian Shearer, Steve Bird, & Rick Ketcham
Colors by Rachelle Rosenberg
Letters by Shawn Lee & Neil Uyetake

This is kind of a neat idea-- the Doctor taking Amy to a fairytale world-- but it doesn't do enough with it to justify the four issues the story takes to tell. Despite the title, there's not much of Grimm-esque fairytale tropes in use here; rather, the story uses some very generic fantasy trappings, feeling more like we're looking at fairytales via Tolkien via Saturday morning cartoons. So the crashing of Doctor Who into fairytale tropes is maybe not as exciting as it could be. Still, Sturges really captures the voice of the eleventh Doctor in particular, and Amy, and the art by Yates and Shearer is clean and economic-- I hope they turn up on the main IDW title at some point.

08 September 2014

Review: Doctor Who: Final Sacrifice by Tony Lee, Matthew Dow Smith, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, 138 pages
Published 2011 (contents: 2010)
Acquired May 2014
Read July 2014
Doctor Who, Volume 3: Final Sacrifice

Story by Tony Lee, Jonathan L. Davis, Matthew Dow Smith, and Al Davison
Art by Matthew Dow Smith, Kelly Yates, and Al Davison
Colors by Charlie Kirchoff, Phil Elliott, and Al Davison
Lettering by Robbie Robbins & Neil Uyetake

I guess if you cared about Lee's original companions, you'd care about this book, but I don't and I don't. The situation here is contrived by a seemingly-omnipotent and poorly-motivated enemy, solely to teach the Doctor some kind of lesson that I don't really understand the purpose of. The end piles on crazy revelation after crazy revelation. Plus Torchwood is in this, which I guess is good for you if you like "The Time Machination" (I didn't) or if you thought what this story needed were a group of pointless characters to stand around.

There are some short stories in the back, which are decent: some are better in concept than execution, but I like the art in all three (and in the main story, too, actually; Matthew Dow Smith is great at capturing likeness but keeping it stylized). There's a lovely moment where the tenth Doctor dreams of the eleventh.

05 September 2014

Review: The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

Trade paperback, 129 pages
Published 2001 (originally 1890)
Acquired July 2014
Read August 2014
The Sign of Four
by Arthur Conan Doyle

Though it has its inescapably Sherlockian moments (the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes's various disguises, and so on), this is definitely duller than most of the short stories I've read, nor is it even as strong as A Study in Scarlet. Doyle will go on to perfect the formula, but he's not quite there yet, and the "romance" feels completely tacked on. I hate those chapters which are just characters explaining backstory to each other.

03 September 2014

Review: Zenith Lives!: Tales of M.Zenith, the Albino edited by Stuart Douglas

Trade paperback, 161 pages
Published 2012

Acquired May 2012
Read August 2014
The Obverse Quarterly, Book Four: Zenith Lives!: Tales of M.Zenith, the Albino
edited by Stuart Douglas

The last volume of the first year of Obverse Quarterly gives us a selection of stories about Monsieur Zenith, a supervillain who is apparently the archnemesis of Sexton Blake, a detective character I'd never heard of before, but was apparently continuously published from 1893 to 1978. Unfortunately, whatever appeal exists in the character of Monsieur Zenith is not really brought out by this collection, which mostly seems to depend on one's preexisting interest, I think.

"The Blood of Our Land" by Mark Hodder is the best of these, showing Zenith executing a heist that gets very complicated, very quickly-- though there are time it's a little rough, it displays why one might be interested in Zenith and his exploits. Michael Moorcock's "Curaré" is all right, but it's not really a Zenith story and more a story in which Zenith happens to appear; the focus is on the improbably named Seaton Begg and his delightful associate Yvette.

Weirdly, there are two stories that most serve to introduce a new nemesis for Zenith, George Mann's "The Albino's Shadow" and Stuart Douglas's "Zenith's End!" both end with Zenith getting a new lease on life by having a new good guy to fight. This makes neither particularly interesting as standalone pieces, especially as Mann's is a very weak story: basically Zenith threatens the Prime Minister, the protagonist asks people about him, the protagonist follows Zenith's henchman, Zenith decides that such skills will make him a delightful opponent. Skills? What skills?

There's also Paul Magrs's "All the Many Rooms," which again is not a Zenith story, but just a story Zenith is in, but even worse, is a complete jumble and total nonsense.

01 September 2014

Review: The Works of Christina Rossetti

Trade paperback, 450 pages
Published 1995 (contents: 1848-96)
Acquired June 2011
Read July 2014
The Works of Christina Rossetti

I'm not sure if this contains all of Christina Rossetti's poems (the apparatus of my "Wordsworth Poetry Library" edition is terrible), but it certainly contains a lot. Previously, my Rossetti experience was limited to selections contained in things like the Norton and Longman anthologies of Victorian literature, so it was enlightening to read a (seemingly) uncurated group of her poetry; I spent the first couple months of summer reading this in chunks.

We all know her now for "Goblin Market," of course, and justly so, but it's an oddity in her œuvre, by far the longest and not Christian. Not that all of poems are overtly Christian, but certainly a great deal of them are. On the whole, her work is less... well... sexy than the editors of college-level period anthologies had led me to believe, and more pious. Perhaps the nadir of this is one poem that simply has all of creation praising God, one by one, and to my atheist eyes looks more like rampaging egotism on the part of the Creator. But that's not to say they there isn't good stuff here. Other than "Goblin Market," I quite enjoyed her other sustained narrative poem, the fairy tale "The Prince's Progress." I marked each page with a poem that I particularly enjoyed, and beyond those two, ended up with over twenty-five such poems.

When next I teach Rossetti, I will have my own curated selection of poems to hand out, and a much stronger conception of her work as a whole. Though it was hard to read 450 pages of pure poetry, it was well worth it! I was surprised to realize that she could be political sometimes, such as depicting a revolution in "A Royal Princess" or even war in "The German-French Campaign, 1870-1871."

I was struck by the number of poems about death, many of them quite morose, especially in the way the dead are remembered: in "At Home," a dead person stops to hear their friends while remaining unseen, to find they talk of other things entirely ("I all-forgotten shivered, sad / To stay and yet to part how loth..."), while in "The Poor Ghost," someone does remember a dead friend, causing their ghost to complain ("'But why did your tears soak through the clay, / And why did your sobs wake me where I lay?'").

This one is echoed by "Remember: Sonnet," told by a dead narrator who wants to be forgotten ("Better by far you should forget and smile / Than that you should remember and be sad."); the same thing happens in one of her many poems called "Song" ("Plant thou no roses at my head"). Or there's "After Death: Sonnet," where someone is only remembered once they are dead ("He did not love me living; but once dead / He pitied me..."). They're very haunting, and some of her best work, well evoking the pain and emptiness of death in unusual ways.

Already in my conception of Rossetti (because they are commonly anthologized) were the poems of spurned love, such as "Noble Sisters," where one sister drives away the other's only potential suitor ("'I have none other love but him, / Nor will have till I die.'"), reminding one of the way female community trumps all in "Goblin Market." Or there's "Love Lies Bleeding," where (I think) a woman encounters a man she was once involved with who knows her not anymore. I liked "Freaks of Fashion," too, where birds consider that what is fashionable does not make one beautiful; it reminded me of one of L. Frank Baum's Animal Fairy Tales, though from quite a different angle!

It's disheartening to realize that today's male entitlement problems have deep roots as per "'No, Thank You, John'" ("Don't call me false, who owed not to be true"). Though I suppose Rossetti's concern with that kind of thing should be no surprise to anyone who'd read "Goblin Market" (when I taught that to my undergrads, some were quick to bring up "rape culture"). And I really liked the conceit of the "Monna Innominata: A Sonnet of Sonnets," where she imagines how those muses of the great Italian poets might have thought themselves, giving them the interior life that they lack as depicted by male poets ("you construed me / And loved me for what might or might not be--" or "Many in aftertimes will say of you / 'He loved here'-- while of me what will they say?").

Some of the poems are just evocative in their imagery, like "A Ballad of Boding," about the dangerous mission of three glorious ships, or "Hollow-Sounding and Mysterious," which really conjures the sound of wind. And I don't quite get the metaphor in "The Queen of Hearts" (indeed, you might say it "baffles me to puzzle out the clue"), but I like the imagery it conjures.

And, of course, a number of her Christian-themed poems can still appeal to the non-Christian reader; I always forget that she wrote "A Christmas Carol," better known as the lyrics to "In the Bleak Midwinter," one of my top five Christmas carols (I like Katherine Jenkins's version best). "Despised and Rejected," the story of one who accidentally rejected Christ is haunting ("Others were dear, / Others forsook me: what art thou indeed / That I should heed / Thy lamentable need?"). "De Profundis" conjures how far heaven always seems ("I would not care to reach the moon, / One round monotonous of change; / Yet even she repeats her tune / Beyond my range"). And you don't need to be a Christian to appreciate the "Weary in Well-Doing" ("Now I would rest; God bids me work") or the despair of "Why?" ("If all my heart loves Thee, what need the amaze, / Struggle and dimness of an agony?"). Would it be that I could always be so weary.

Some are still just bleak in their very conception of humanity, like "The World: Sonnet," about how the beautiful-seeming world reveals its true self at night ("A very monster void of love and prayer"), or "A Testimony," which concerns how all is vanity ("Our treasures moth and rust corrupt"). Slightly more optimistic is "Pastime," which postulates that there is meaning but it might come at a terrible cost ("Better a wrecked life than a life so aimless").

But even in the end, there is hope, as the last poem in the book, "'Love Is Strong as Death,'" tells us: "'Now the Everlasting Arms surround thee,-- / Through death's darkness I look and see / And clasp thee to Me.'"