2013 Book Reviews
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.