Ever since I devoured Dana Fredsti’s thrilling zombie novel Plague Town last April, I’ve been anxiously awaiting its sequel Plague Nation. Thankfully I was rewarded with it earlier this month, and got a chance to start it during my morning commute. I found myself on the edge of my seat, literally so absorbed, that I didn’t even realize I had gotten on the wrong train. Now that’s gripping zombie literature!
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Anytime something claims to be the “complete” guide to a subject, I’m immediately skeptical of its “completeness.” Asserting that your piece is the be all and end all resource about a topic is pretty bold, carrying with it an air of arrogance. However that self-assuredness is completely justified in the case of Nicholas Pegg’s 700 plus page tome, The Complete David Bowie, which was recently re-released in an updated and expanded edition by Titan Books.
Pegg’s lengthy introduction celebrates the chameleonic David Bowie for his ability to change appearance, persona, and music to suit changing artistic interests. He comes off as very defensive of Bowie, responding to criticisms that the man lacks attention span and his own unique style. Although Pegg argues quite deftly that Bowie self-identifies more as a performer than a musician, using new types of sound and characters to explore themes of space travel, faith, mental health, and isolation that he’s been grappling with throughout his career. By placing Bowie in this light, Pegg opens a fascinating door to helping you better understand the complicated facets of this enigmatic artist. It’s also the perfect setup for what follows in Pegg’s guide.
Throughout The Complete David Bowie, Pegg uses a shorthand when discussing Bowie’s works, which thankfully he lays out in the beginning of the piece under a section called “How to Use This Book.” Pegg’s volume is as complete as you can possibly get when it comes to Bowie, discussing songs from A-Z, albums, live performances, BBC radio sessions, videos, and Bowie’s work as an actor. There’s a fantastic section called “Dateline” as well, which is literally a 54 page timeline of Bowie’s career covering all aspects of his artistic pursuits.
The two column text format for each page means that this work is jam-packed with juicy details. Everything in Pegg’s book is meticulously researched and written, containing fascinating insight and behind-the-scenes information quelled from multiple sources, including but not limited to interviews with Bowie and his collaborators. For instance in his section on songs, Pegg includes details about different versions of songs, circumstances surrounding their recording, if bootleg copies have surfaced, and even notable covers by other musicians. If that’s not thorough, I don’t know what is.
If you’re a casual Bowie appreciator, beware; you might not have the fortitude to digest a volume of this breadth. However, if you’re a hardcore Bowie fan looking for the Encyclopedia Bowieca, you won’t be disappointed with The Complete David Bowie. The subject matter and its precise presentation will be enough for you to want to read this book cover to cover.
The Complete David Bowie is available in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
Full disclosure: author Daniel M. Kimmel is my friend, and my colleague in The Boston Online Film Critics Association. However I can honestly say that I would have loved his book Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood, and the Bartender’s Guide, regardless of whether I knew him personally. Kimmel’s debut novel is brilliant satire of the film industry, which also happens to be a hilarious, heartwarming science fiction story about unexpected friendship.
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Back in December when I was mailed an Awards Season screener for the animated film Rise of the Guardians, I also received a hefty companion book The Art of Rise of the Guardians by Ramin Zahed. Since it took me a few weeks to watch the screener and I didn’t want read the volume without having seen the film, I’m just finally getting around to sharing my thoughts about it.
My favorite parts of the movie were its character design and its fresh, imaginative approach to popular figures from children’s folklore, so reading a book about the creative process that went into building this story was actually quite fascinating.
The foreword by actor Alec Baldwin who plays North, the Santa Claus character in the movie and the preface by author William Joyce, who wrote the novels which became the basis for the film, don’t add much to this book’s experience. Both passages are mostly self-celebratory pats on the back.
However the remainder of the book provides deep insights into the design of the characters and locations in the film, exploring the rationale for why the artists and animators went in specific creative directions. When you read these passages you’re surprised by the commitment everyone has made to the project, as well as the level of thought that these folks put into every artistic decision. Even the appearance of specific locations was influenced by how the characters would actually interact with the environments if they were real.
The volume features beautiful artwork and concept drawings organized into logical chapters based on each Guardian in the film, the villain, and the world home to regular humans in the story. Full captions for the images are missing which is slightly disappointing, although if you’ve seen the film, they’re relatively self-explanatory.
My favorite section of this book tackles a specific sequence in the movie, walking through all of the departments that contributed to the finished project and how their individual efforts came together. It’s helpfully mapped out visually with a fold out poster. What’s deceiving about this poster and awkward about it though, is that you can’t remove it from the book. It seems like you should be able to because it’s difficult to fold back in without ripping.
If you really enjoyed Rise of the Guardians, The Art of Rise of the Guardians is worth a read and will make a terrific coffee table book, but if you haven’t seen it you won’t get nearly as much pleasure from its dissection of the movie’s magic.
The Art of Rise of the Guardians is available online and at www.insighteditions.com.
Thankfully I wasn’t a total steampunk noob when I sat down to read James P. Blaylock’s latest novel The Aylesford Skull. I was luckily introduced to steampunk subculture few years ago, by a memorable newspaper article that profiled avid Massachusetts people in the scene. Since then I’ve been fascinated by the movement’s fusion of science fiction and Victorian era clothing, themes, and technology. So when Titan Books offered me a chance to review a steampunk book, I was excited by the concept of an adventure in this imaginative world. Naturally, I also was a bit wary since this would be my first foray into steampunk literature, but I figured if Blaylock is referred to as a “steampunk legend” then I was probably in safe hands. And I’m happy to report that I was.
Probably the most surprising thing about The Aylesford Skull is how subtly it fits into the steampunk genre. Initially I expected overt reminders of this book’s place in the subgenre with all kinds of wacky futuristic contraptions, terminology, and styles of dress. I quickly discovered that the Victorian England inhabited by Blaylock’s protagonist Langdon St. Ives, is not very ostentatious. There are occasional references to goggles, airships, and other advanced technology, but nothing that screams steampunk. In fact, Blaylock’s setting is remarkably similar to the London of another Victorian era hero: Sherlock Holmes.
As a character, Langdon St. Ives is essentially the steampunk Holmes. Both are brave, intelligent men who consistently find themselves wrapped up on complex mysteries fraught with danger and intrigue. Like Holmes, St. Ives has a faithful companion who is almost always by his side, and he has friends from all walks of life that assist him when needed. Hasbro is St. Ives’s equivalent to Watson, and his young friend Finn Conrad seems like he could easily fit in among the young scamps Holmes occasionally employs for assistance. St. Ives even has a nemesis Dr. Narbondo, who’s a dastardly mastermind akin to Professor Moriarty. Their resemblance is clearly intentional since Blaylock features a character who aids St. Ives named Arthur Doyle as a nod to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Scottish author who created Sherlock Holmes.
Despite their common traits, St. Ives is not simply a Holmes carbon copy. He’s a professor and adventurer as opposed to a detective. St. Ives is also a fuller, more sympathetic character because he’s a family man with a wife and children that he cares about. He’s not a manic detective obsessed with his work who goes looking for trouble; St. Ives becomes incidentally embroiled in it. This admirable man is motivated by genuine concern for his loved ones, and he’ll do anything to protect them.
Blaylock’s tale involves supernatural elements, and like Holmes, St. Ives is a man of logic, so he’s reluctant to accept the ideas at first. Unlike one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s yarns however, The Aylesford Skull doesn’t have a rational justification for its fantastic portions. Unfortunately that’s one of the book’s few shortcomings, its murky, slightly confusing exposition on how the titular Aylesford Skull actually works.
Aside from this thin MacGuffin, The Aylesford Skull is a brisk, fun romp that you’ll devour quickly. Throughout the book Blaylock deftly weaves multiple characters and shifting points of view together in a way that effectively maintains momentum and drives the story forward. When the personalities do cross paths, their dialogue has a dry British humor that makes for amusing banter. And while there’s no grand explanation of the mystery from the protagonist in the style of Holmes, Blaylock’s conclusion is action-packed enough to make up for it. If this is what steampunk literature is supposed to be like, count me in for more outings.
The Aylesford Skull is available in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
I’m not the target audience for Mark Salisbury’s book Dark Shadows: The Visual Companion. That’s because I never saw the 1970s soap that inspired Tim Burton’s film “Dark Shadows,” and I didn’t find the movie particularly entertaining. I thought it was better than Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but not one of his all-time best. However, I am a sucker for coffee table books, especially ones about movies, which is why I decided to check out Dark Shadows: The Visual Companion. I knew it would be a quick, easy read with lots of big glossy photos and fascinating behind the scenes stories. And it didn’t disappoint!
Dark Shadows: The Visual Companion features a foreword by Johnny Depp, the movie’s lead actor and frequent Burton collaborator, as well as an introduction by Burton himself. Neither of these statements are very long, although Depp’s foreword is especially entertaining. Even if it was ghostwritten, the section captures his unique voice perfectly with statements like “The character of Barnabas Collins possessed a sense of elegance that bewitched me.”
Following these opening statements is a section on the history of how the project came to be, which annoyingly repeats some of the same sentiments expressed in Depp and Burton’s intros. After that, the book delves into original material again, taking a logical approach to organizing itself: Chapter 1 (Cast), Chapter 2 (The Sets), Chapter 3 (Costume, Hair & Makeup, Prosthetics), Chapter 4 (Cinematography, Stunts, Special Effects), and Chapter 5 (Visual Effects, Editing, Scoring).
Each chapter contains a pleasing mixture of behind the scenes photos, concept art, and anecdotes from the cast and crew. Frustratingly though, captions are not placed next to images. Instead there is a single page in the back which has them, forcing you to flip back if you want to know who or what is featured on a specific page. The most hilarious interview snippets come from Depp of course, who is the only person in the book who requires censoring. He drops an f-bomb, which is politely altered so as not to offend readers.
My favorite discoveries mainly involved how the filmmakers created the costumes, sets, and effects for this supernatural flick. I loved hearing about how movie magic was used to create this quirky world. Although it was also intriguing to learn that Michelle Pfeiffer who plays the Collins family matriarch, was a huge fan of the “Dark Shadows” television show and practically begged Burton for a role in the movie.
Perhaps the most bittersweet part of Dark Shadows: The Visual Companion, is its afterword by the late producer Richard D. Zanuck, to whom the book is dedicated. Zanuck had an extremely long and successful career working on many iconic films, so it’s surprising to hear him describe this cast and his crew as one of his all-time favorites. I wonder how much of his statements were derived from truth, and whether he was putting on a kind face for publicity’s sake. Unfortunately we’ll never get the chance to ask him.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the film “Dark Shadows” I still dug Mark Salisbury’s book, so if you’re a huge fan of Burton, Depp, the movie, or the television show, you’ll probably have just as much fun with this book.
Dark Shadows: The Visual Companion is available in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
Let’s not pull any punches. Silhouettes are boring, stuffy pieces of artwork. The only places you can usually find them are in the homes of older affluent folks, or those trying desperately to project the air of wealth. However, once you discover Silhouettes from Popular Culture by artist Olly Moss, you’ll never look at the medium the same way again. That’s because Moss’s debut hardcover is a game-changer for this type of art.
Instead of featuring nameless subjects or dry historical figures, Moss mines our favorite movies, television shows, and yes even video games from the last 50 years for silhouette fodder. To reveal who he gives the treatment to would spoil the thrill of seeing it yourself, although pop culture gurus should be delighted by the variety offered up in this book. Moss doesn’t hesitate to get obscure with his references, something that only adds to the hilarity of his concept.
What makes this hardcover unique isn’t just that Moss borrows characters from popular culture; it’s the way he playfully arranges them by using both pages to tell a story. Sometimes the silhouettes on opposing pages are characters from the same piece, other times they are different ones played by a single actor, and in select instances they can be different versions of the same character portrayed by different actors. These characters can be interacting directly or indirectly based on their placement. At certain points they’re facing one another, in others they’re facing away, and in a few spots, they are lined up going the same direction.
When necessary to create context, Moss adds his own clever design flourishes to the silhouettes like small splashes of color. There’s plenty of range to entertain you and a very sleek old-time look and feel to the book. The cover is made of a blue textured fabric, with gold etching for the title, and a raised silhouette that feels like it was hand-cut and pasted on.
Silhouettes from Popular Culture is brimming with cool pictures to keep you engaged, but it’s much more than just a typical coffee table book. Moss combines old-fashioned aesthetics with a postmodern sense of humor to create an experience that’s incredibly fun and interactive.
His book is a mind puzzle like a Rubik’s Cube, except infinitely less frustrating and easier for friends to play with at the same time. Even if you’re well-versed in pop culture it’s still tough to guess every single silhouette right. When you find ones that you don’t know immediately, it’s actually more stimulating because it gets you to use your powers of your imagination in order to figure out who it is.
The only slightly annoying thing about Silhouettes from Popular Culture is that there’s no answer key. But understandably, Moss is hoping for re-read value. He knows you’ll keep coming back after you absorb new movies, television, and video games to try to fill in the blanks. He definitely has me hooked.
Silhouettes from Popular Culture is available in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
Back in May, Kim Newman’s novel Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron, hooked me with its engaging blend of real life figures and fictional characters, as well as its fast-paced espionage and intrigue. Based on that, I was excited to read his follow-up book, Dracula Cha Cha Cha, because I anticipated another exhilarating adventure in his alternate reality where humans and vampires coexist. Unfortunately for me and my expectations, Cha Cha Cha fails to measure up to the high standards set by its predecessor.
Dracula Cha Cha Cha takes place roughly 40 years after the events of The Bloody Red Baron. Following World War II in this universe, Count Dracula slipped into relative obscurity, secluding himself in a castle near Rome. Now in 1959, Dracula plots to marry Moldavian princess to return himself to a seat of power as Lord of the Undead. Meanwhile, journalist Kate Reed arrives in Rome to visit her ailing friend Charles Beauregard, a retired spy who lives with his vampire companion Geneviève. Along with the undead British secret agent Hamish Bond, Kate and Geneviève become wrapped up in a whodunit involving the Crimson Executioner, a serial killer brutally murdering vampire elders in the city.
At first, the murders perpetrated by the Crimson Executioner seem to be straightforward crimes, however as Kate begins to uncover more information, she discovers bizarre supernatural forces running the show. These powers manipulating the Crimson Executioner are interesting, although they are not well-explained, which is disappointing. Another source of annoyance is the abundance of Italian words and phrases featured in the book. Since the tale is set in Rome, Newman incorporates a lot of Italian into the vernacular of his characters. He logically uses it as an opportunity to enrich his story, however it creates disconnect with the readers who aren’t familiar with the language.
As you might expect, Hamish Bond is an unimaginative vampire version of James Bond, but Newman at least has other amusing characters in Dracula Cha Cha Cha. A personal favorite is his use of actor Orson Welles as someone who dabbles in magic and mysticism. Welles serves as an information source and has a particularly humorous rendezvous with Kate and Geneviève. Speaking of Geneviève, it’s nice to get to know her better since she was only mentioned in passing during The Bloody Red Baron. She was featured in the novella included with that book, Vampire Romance, though she didn’t have long to connect with the reader.
Like The Bloody Red Baron, the latest edition of Dracula Cha Cha Cha also contains a novella by Newman, set after the events of the primary story. This tale, Aquarius, takes place in the swinging 60s and features Kate Reed again. In London, two party girls are discovered dead and drained of all their blood. As Kate investigates, she goes head-to-head with an old foe. This investigation is ultimately more engaging than the one in Cha Cha Cha, but isn’t as fun as Vampire Romance.
Dracula Cha Cha Cha and Aquarius are mildly entertaining supernatural murder mysteries, but unfortunately they don’t possess the same swiftly moving narrative as their predecessors. Despite their shorter length, they aren’t nearly as gripping because the characters have much more depressing inner monologue. The vampires often reflect on old age and mortality, philosophically questioning the concepts. This doesn’t make for as compelling of a story, since it hits too close to real life to be the escapism you want.
Dracula Cha Cha Cha is available now in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
Anderson’s mashup of historical and science fiction operates under the premise that the famous H.G. Wells tale of interplanetary conflict, didn’t just spring from the author’s imagination; it was inspired by his actual contact with a hostile Martian race. Using a combination of real individuals like Wells, T.H. Huxley, and Percival Lowell, as well as fictional ones like Wells character Dr. Moreau, Anderson crafts a thrilling old-fashioned science fiction adventure.
To convince you of the alternate reality that he has crafted, Anderson heavily borrows biographical details from the lives of Wells, Huxley, and Lowell to flesh out their characters. Wells especially, tends to be very introspective, often reflecting on his low income upbringing, his failed first marriage to his cousin, and reasons for the success of his relationship with former student Jane. Huxley is characterized by Wells for his firm support of Darwin, his intense passion for science, and his youthful curiosity. Lowell’s obsession with astronomy, wealthy background, and intense drive are viewed through the lens of vivisectionist Dr. Moreau, who describes his adventures with the Boston industrialist.
The Martian War is successfully split into two alternating narratives. The first is the diary of Dr. Moreau, which recounts how the doctor partnered with Percival Lowell to attract Martian visitors to Earth and to study them once they arrived. This journal describes the trials and tribulations that the pair experience once they get their wish and encounter extraterrestrial life. The second story follows Wells, Jane, and Huxley on a wild ride that carries them from Earth to the Moon and then to Mars itself, where they must stop with the Martians from invading our planet.
Both narratives are weaved together quite effectively, but Anderson really hits his stride toward the middle of the book, after Wells, Jane, and Huxley acquire Moreau’s diary. They take breaks to read the book, transporting you back in time and placing you in Moreau’s shoes. For them and for us as the readers, the journal helps provide valuable information on the physical properties, as well as the motives of these alien life forms. Wells, Jane, and Huxley are able to use this intelligence to their advantage when dealing with their foes.
The pacing and the flow of Anderson’s novel are spot on, although where the author truly excels in this piece, is his recreation of the late 1890s historical era in his style of writing. Anderson effortlessly mimics the colorful imagination of science fiction novelists like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne through his descriptions of alien species. He also forms vivid depictions of turn-of-the-century technology that sound believable for the time. As a result, his tale comes off as very convincing.
If you’re a big fan of Anderson as a writer, or if you just like old school sci-fi books in the vein of Wells and Verne, then you should definitely read The Martian War.
The Martian War is currently available in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
Do you expect me to talk?
No Mr. Bond, I expect you to read!
I’m not a hardcore fan by any means, but I’m very familiar with British secret agent James Bond. I love movies and video games featuring the titular character for the same reasons most people do: they have exotic locations, expensive cars, cool gadgets, sexy women, maniacal villains, and plenty of action. Despite their formulaic nature, these tales still manage to please us because they unapologetically embrace these dependable staples. Fortunately Jim Lawrence and Yaroslav Horak’s Bond comics in The James Bond Omnibus 004 operate the exact same way. They work within the established formula to create entertaining Bond adventures that feel right at home in the hero’s mythology.
Somehow I had never heard of Lawrence and Horak’s Bond 1970s comic series until Titan Books recently sent me a copy of Omnibus 004. I wish I had discovered the comics sooner though, because Lawrence’s writing and Horak’s artwork work very effectively together to tell engrossing, Bond stories.
Similar to the Bond films, these missions have droll names such as “Trouble Spot,” “Die with My Boots On,” “The Girl Machine,” and “The Phoenix Project.” Bond travels to interesting places and gets himself into dangerous situations, but in classic fashion, he always beats the bad guy, usually right after the villain stupidly spills all of his plans for world domination. Then Bond gets the girl.
Lawrence writes Bond in the vein of Sean Connery’s version of the character. Bond is a misogynist who patronizingly refers to all women as “luv” and frequently asks them to stay out of the way. It’s a good thing they don’t listen, since they often end up saving him from danger. He might not acknowledge it, but the women in these operations are very much equal partners in trying to accomplish the endgame. Whether it’s intended or not there are definite feminist undertones in the series.
In addition to being a chick magnet Lawrence’s Bond also has the trademark Bond sense of humor. He makes puns after killing henchmen, like a moment after he forces some off a cliff, and has a comment about them “taking the plunge.” His female counterpart is exasperated by his morbid joke, though not for very long. Bond also uses an alias to be sneaky, something I don’t remember him doing before. In several of the comics he refers to himself as Mark Hazard, a phony name that the bad guys see through very quickly. Then it’s back to “Bond, James Bond.”
One of the most fascinating parts about these comics is Bond’s partnership with black allies. These characters may have silly stereotypical names like Crystal Kelly and Smoky Turpin, but don’t be fooled. These black characters, like the female ones, are equals with Bond in helping to take out the bad guys, something that would have been pretty progressive at the time these comics were being written.
Lawrence isn’t the only one worthy of praise, Horak deserves kudos too for his distinct artwork. Strangely Bond looks the most like George Lazenby, who only played the character once. Though Horak’s version an impressive medley of Connery and all the Bonds after aside from Daniel Craig. Horak’s black and white drawings prevent the violence in these Bond tales from becoming overwhelming and allow him to show more skin than the films do. His visual style bears a retro flair that looks dated but feels like classic Bond.
If you love all things James Bond, you should check out The James Bond Omnibus 004. Even if you’re not familiar with the character though, you can still have fun if you dig comics. Inside this volume you’ll find a collection of enjoyable, easy-to-read comics which fit appropriately into Bond canon.
The James Bond Omnibus 004 is available now in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.