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Underground Reading: The Shadowers by Donald Hamilton

Donald HamiltonDonald Hamilton is the author of the long-running Matt Helm series. Matt Helm was a US 'counter-agent' - essentially an assassin targeting foreign spies. Helm featured in twenty seven books (over thirty three years) - beginning in the 1960's. Throughout the series, he's tough, ambiguously-aged, a little bitter, a lot macho and very, very proud.

Matt Helm could beat up Jack Ryan. And, judging by the author photograph, Donald Hamilton could as well.

The Shadowers is a relatively early Matt Helm thriller (#7, from 1964). The book starts in the best 1960's male-agent tradition - that is, the explosive death of a loved one. (Presumably, this wraps up any emotional loose ends from #6.) Helm is distraught for the length of three pages, then places a phone call to his boss. Vacation is over, he needs someone to kill.

Fortunately, victims are close at hand. An evil Communist overlord has begun a program of installing evil Communist assassins on American soil. These assassins are shadowing American citizens IN ALL BRANCHES OF GOV'MINT. At any time, the evil Communist overlord can say code-word 'pravda' (or whatever), and, bamf, most of the US civil service will die.

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Underground Reading: When Michael Calls

When_michael_calls37784_fWhen Michael Calls, by John Farris, is a suspense novel, first published in 1967 (the 1972 Pocket edition is shown and quoted here). It is a quick little thriller, set in a small Midwestern town. The action starts when an antiques dealer is plagued by calls from her (long-dead) nephew.

These disturbing prank calls soon escalate to violence - and a spate of local authority figures are all killed in bizarre and unpredictable ways. Fortunately for all, a homicide-cop-with-a-tragic-past is also local to the area, and is happy to poke around for a solution.

The solution, like the rest of the book, is entirely unpredictable. Of the book's many flaws, the most aggravating is a repeated reliance on completely unannounced surprises. The detective, Doremus, derives his insight from hints and clues that all occur 'off-screen' - making it completely impossible for the reader to keep up. Although this isn't a particularly complicated thriller (there are only five characters), the desperate rationalization of the detective work is an annoying literary device.

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Underground Reading: Limbo Tower

Limbo TowerLimbo Tower, by William Gresham, is a Signet paperback, published in 1951. Set in a private clinic for tuberculosis, Limbo Tower describes three long days in the lives of the hospital patients and staff.

The days (Wednesday through Friday) are meandering - long bouts of ham-fisted philosophy punctuated with the occasional burst of sputum-related death. The patients wrestle with their impending doom, the staff wrestle with one another (or, more accurately, wrestle with wanting to wrestle with one another) and the reader wrestles with the urge to set the book down and go take a nap instead.

Gresham's quest to write a great book prevents him from writing a good one. Although the setting abounds with juicy pulp material (an unseen political boss, a once-seen mistress, a love triangle,...) the characters merely stagger from page to page, woefully describing their perpetual conflict with god/life/love/manhood and death. Especially death.

The characters are all interesting material. An ex-con man, a preacher, a boxer, some buxom nurses and a playboy doctor are all trapped together in the ward, essentially waiting to die. Although Gresham provides the occasionally entertaining glimpse into their spicy histories, the bulk of the character development (that is, "stagnancy") comes across in their endless monologues (internal and external) about waiting for death.

Also, there is poetry.

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Graphic Novel Round-up: All Creatures Great & Small

Irredeemableantmanvolume237369_fFrom the greatest to the smallest, another short bestiary of graphic novels.

The Irredeemable Ant-Man: Small-Minded (Kirkman / Hester): The second (and final) collection of Kirkman's mature Ant-Man retelling does its best to bring the saga of Marvel's most unlikable superhero to a successful conclusion. Without using a single zombie, Kirkman continues to showcase an encyclopedic (the Black Fox!) and tongue-in-cheek approach to the Marvel Universe.

Ant-Man provided a much-needed counterpoint to the oh-so-serious struggles of the mainstream titles, and I'm sorry it is gone. Hester's art wouldn't work in many comics, but here it does a good job complementing the (dark) humor of Kirkman's script. 

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New Releases: The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

The Steel RemainsThanks to my mysterious and carefully-cultivated connections in the publishing industry (*cough* eBay), I managed to get my claws on a copy of The Steel Remains.

Richard Morgan exploded (in many sticky ways) on the science-fiction scene with Altered Carbon in 2002. The book introduced readers to the bad ass-and-world-weary Takeshi Kovacs, and, more importantly, to Morgan's unique voice. Through his three Kovacs novels, two stand-alone novels and two graphic novels, Morgan has carved out a niche of cinematic violence and grim-outlooked protagonists operating on the edge of society. When you're reading Morgan, you know you're going to see shit get blown up, people get laid and whiskey get drunk.

(Full review - and no spoilers! - after the jump)

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Graphic Novel Round-up: Few Men's Ruin, but All Men's Fear

No theme this time - just a grab bag of five graphic novels. Some classic talent in this batch - Stan Lee, Moebius and Kurt Busiek. As well as a few modern stars like Ben Templesmith and Mike Carey.

ThunderboltsThunderbolts (Busiek / Bagley): This feels unbelievably dated. A great concept, but such an artifact of the late 1990's. The costumes, the dialogue, the lack of teeth. Busiek is still clever enough to make it interesting, and the origin story alone is worthwhile. Busiek's talent ("Marvels", "Astro City") is to show how the 'man on the street' reacts to the superhero, and although that's a great fit with the concept, it doesn't feel like enough to keep this fresh. By the end of the fourth issue, things were starting to feel a little contrived. I'm interested enough to keep going - but I'm expecting to see a lot of changes. 

Faker (Carey / Jock): Inexplicably weird but surprisingly strong Vertigo one-off. Difficult to describe (partially because I'm still a bit confused), but Carey does a good job making four utterly reprehensible protagonists into empathetic figures. The strange bio-nano-psycho-technology at the core of the story exists mostly as an excuse for Carey to do what he wants. Although there are a myriad of twists and turns, it is hard to muster a sense of surprise when there's no initial normality Supported by solid, but not great art - really liked the dyamic layouts more than the pictures within them. 

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Graphic Novel Round-up: Slashers, Slayers and Spies

FrayFive graphic novels with female protagonists (needless to say, all are written by men).

Fray (Whedon / Moline): Certainly better than "Buffy: Season 7", Fray captures some of the goofy spirit that made the television show so enjoyable for so long. Despite Whedon's best efforts, it still feels like a toothless attempt at TV series. There are no emotional connections deep enough to surprise or shock the reader, although Whedon tries his best. The art is better than average, and supports the gimmicky future that Whedon has built. 

Queen and Country: Operation Broken Ground (Rucka / Rolston): Once I figured out how to tell the characters apart, this became a much better story. Still something always a bit awkward with a female super-agent ("That's my girl," boasts her boss), written and drawn by men, but this is still better than most. I enjoyed the realistic (I assume) portrayal of the world of espionage - the politics, the bureaucracy and the backstabbing. 

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