Tuesday 14 September 2010

Book Reviews

Star Wars – The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance
Sean Williams
Titan Books

Available Now - £17.99 (Hardback)
Review by Brad Harmer

3,500 years in the past (before Episode IV, that is) of the far-away galaxy, when the Jedi and Galactic Republic clashed with the Sith Empire, smuggler Jet Nebula has stumbled across a treasure richer than he ever dreamed. The Hutts want to auction it to the highest bidder, be it the Republic or the Empire, both of whom hope to bolster their chances in the coming conflict. But the Sith are interested too, and they don’t bargain with anyone, the Jedi High Council is sending someone to investigate, a mysterious Mandalorian is chasing something connected to a long-forgotten crime, while a spy plays every side at once. What Jet has unearthed will surprise all of them, and leave none of them unchanged.

I wasn’t a massive fan of Sean Williams’ The Force Unleashed. I felt is was stilted, full of paper thin characters and felt (perhaps obviously) like watching someone play a video game for me. Now that this has arrived, written by Williams and based on a forth-coming video game again...I wasn’t too optimistic. And for the first hundred pages, I found it pretty hard going. There were lots of characters being thrown at me, and none of them seemed to have any real hook...and often had rare species that I found myself looking up on Wookiepedia...which then turned out to be posh words for “human” (Epicanthix, anyone?).

After the first hundred pages or so, however, it was as though Williams had set off a Win Grenade. From that point on it was lovable characters (even the Sith and Mandalorians), Star-Wars-feeling action sequences and great adventure and excitement. Williams shrugged off all the bad parts of The Force Unleashed and kept all of the good, including some great, unbiased Jedi/Sith philosophising.

The only real disadvantage is the lack of context explanation. Newcomers to the Star Wars Expanded Universe may feel a little lost by the new time period, and it would have been nice to have some scene setting. Fans of the Old Republic won’t let this bother them, but if this was an attempt to win a new audience...this part could have been handled a little better.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
The usual Star Wars ship-to-ship combat, lightsabers, laser gun fire, mutilation, crushinating, Force Lightning and awesomeness.
Sex/Nudity: None.
Swearing: “Stang” is very much here to stay, by this looks of it. By my reckoning, this is better than “kriffing” and not as good as “karking”.
Summary: A great Star Wars book. Plenty of action, excitement and lightsabers...if only they were all this good! 8/10
The Burning Wire
Jeffery Deaver
Hodder & Stoughton

Available Now - £18.99 (Hardback)
Review by Kelly Prior

The Burning Wire is self professed to be “the electrifying return of Lincoln Rhyme” and is the latest book from the number one bestselling author of The Bone Collector. A killer is holding Manhattan hostage, turning one of their most loved and most widely used energy sources into something to be feared. This killer’s dangerous weapon is electricity. Harboring the disastrous possibilities of toying with electricity, this killer makes seemingly random attacks on the population of Manhattan, using an ark of lighting that can melt metal and set people aflame. Lincoln Rhyme, a cherished criminal detective for his many successful cases, makes it his business to find this killer and stop him.

With hardly any leads and no forensic evidence, this is one of Rhyme’s most challenging cases. With the help of his partner, Amelia Sachs, and his care giver Thom Reston (Rhyme is a quadriplegic), Rhyme begins to unravel the mysteries of the attacks and slowly begins to build a terrifying but compelling psychological profile of the killer and his motives. Adding to the pressure of this case is the fact that Rhyme’s health is steadily declining, and a deadly assassin who slipped Rhyme’s grip is on the move again.

This new crime thriller is a tense, fast paced read that will have you holding your breath. It’s edgy and charismatic, with some really well written passages. The elusive killer is really terrifying, and you never know where he will strike next. Rhyme’s character is interesting: a disabled, retired detective, who still holds us at his every word and has the ability to hold the attention of a room and get done what has to be done. His relationship with Sachs is loving and respectful, and reminds me of a brother’s love for his sister.

The character of Thom is witty and enjoyable. He seems to be the only character in the whole novel who can tell Rhyme what to do, and sometimes even he can’t. Rhyme has a unique way of working a case, using others as his eyes and ears as he observes and calculates from his home. We can tell he has copious amounts of experience as he knows all the little tricks for an investigation, for example cleaning your hands with a pet hair roller to protect crime scenes from accidental contamination.

Sometimes Rhyme comes across as a bit pedantic and a tad annoying. His constant stubborn refusal to admit to his disability makes him seem somewhat heroic and inspirational in some ways, while also making him come across as a bitter, broken man clinging on to what is left of normality. Deaver really writes a good detective story here. The plot turns and surprises are often shocking and not foreseen, and his knowledge of the detective business is remarkable. A great deal of research has no doubt gone into creating Lincoln Rhyme and his adventures.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Electrocution, murder.
Sex/Nudity: None.
Swearing: None.
Summary: This is a good detective story and an enjoyable journey for someone who is a fan of crime fiction. What others might perceive as “boring” is actually a compelling analysis of modern criminals. If you’re into it, you’ll love it. 7/10
How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian
Stewart Lee
Faber and Faber
Available Now - £12.99 (Paperback)
Review by Rob Wade

In 2001, after over a decade in the business, Stewart Lee quit stand-up, disillusioned and drained, and went off to direct a loss-making opera about Jerry Springer. How I Escaped My Certain Fate details his return to live performance, and his cautious creep towards his position as the most critically acclaimed stand-up in Britain. The book takes the form of three annotated transcripts of his recorded shows from Glasgow and Cardiff, along with transitional accounts detailing the periods between those shows.

The best autobiographies, generally, feel like they’re being told to you by the person writing. This book does just that, with Lee writing in the same meandering style that has seen him so popular as a comedian. This book is funny, insightful while at the same time absolutely cutting. If Stewart Lee doesn’t like a comedian, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’ll know of it by the end of the book. Fans of his will be aware of his feelings towards Joe Pasquale and Eddie Izzard (although his ire towards Izzard is purely based on people’s perception that Izzard improvises), but some may be surprised to learn that he also has words to say about Michael McIntyre and The Mighty Boosh.

One of the best things about this book is in fact the transcript element, as along with the transcripts of some fantastic shows both creatively and critically, Lee includes liner notes on jokes and how they came about, what they signify and how they were received by other audiences besides the one he is playing to in the recordings. For those interested in the inner workings behind stand-up comedy, it’s definitely an enlightening read.

That’s not to say by any means that the book is completely without fault. At times, Lee’s explanations of jokes go on for quite a while, to the point that a whole page will be taken up with liner notes without any part of the transcript in place. It’s probably a necessary evil, but ultimately the kind of people who will be buying this already know that Lee is an incredibly intelligent individual, and as such don’t really need to have such things driven home in such detail. The price, too, is a slight point of contention for me, as at £12.99 RRP, the book is quite pricey. All in all, though, this book is a great read for fans of Lee’s works as well as those with any interest in good stand-up comedy.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating
Violence: None whatsoever.
Sex/Nudity: Again, none.
Swearing: Plenty of strong language.
Summary: One of the most entertaining autobiographies I’ve ever read. 8/10
Flash Gordon: Comic Book Archives Volume 1
Paul Norris & Frank Thorne
Dark Horse Comics

Available Now – £37.99 (Hardback)
Review by Brad Harmer

Flash Gordon's classic era in comic books has finally returned in this archive collection from Dark Horse. Once more the “handsome” and “fearless” Flash, his “clever” and “capable” companion Dale Arden, and eccentric scientist Dr. Zarkov face peril and danger in the wild landscapes of the planet Mongo and go head to head with the villainous despot Ming the Merciless!

This collection, is pretty impressive reprinting seven complete comics (that’s a lot of pages in Old Comics Money) originally published from 1947 through 1953.
I usually try and be pretty conservative about re-mastering and clean-up jobs, especially on the DVD/BR review side. I’m aware that I appreciate good fidelity, but I’m not a real obsessive. So, I don’t usually go enthusiastic, as I’m always worried that someone who knows better than I do will call me on being full of shit. Anyway, being conservative:

In terms of cleaning up artwork from old comics and presenting them beautifully, this is the best job I have ever seen.

Seriously, there are modern comics running today that don’t look this sharp. The clean up job is absolutely second to none, and the artwork is as fresh (probably fresher) than it was when it was first published. It’s also a nice touch that they’ve kept not only the covers, but also the little “freebies” like the cut-out-and-fly spaceships that adorned the inside covers.

Unfortunately, the stories and dialogue have not aged as well as the artwork has. In the grand scheme of things, for Golden Age comics, this could be classed as “okay”. It’s fun, pulp-adventure stuff, but it’s very wordy, and frequently hard going at times. Hey, this was what you got when comics were being written by comic writers rather than a bunch of frustrated screenwriters. Naming no names. Bendis.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Slapping, punching, tackling, explosions and ray guns.
Sex/Nudity: Sexism, but no sex.
Swearing: None.
Summary: Fun, but often heavy going, the stories here have not aged well. This is one for collectors of Flash Gordon or Golden Age comics rather than casual readers. If that is your bag, though, this is a great collection. 7/10

In this lavish historical epic - set in the Middle Ages - Arn, the knightly son of a Swedish nobleman, must journey to the Holy Land on horseback as a sentence for falling in love with a forbidden romantic partner, Cecilia, who in turn, is banished to spend the rest of her days in a convent. The harsh voyage carries Arn through the heart of the medieval world and into the core of brutal and bloody Crusades.

Both he and Cecilia must learn to fight to survive, to confront evil and overcome tremendous suffering and misery, guided by the faith that one day they will be reunited. Arn returns home to fight for his love and his life's mission: to unite Sweden into one kingdom.

With an esteemed all-star cast, this epic adventure blends thrilling factual and fictional characters to offer up brave knights, powerful queens and treacherous kings in a tale of war, intrigue, friendship and betrayal.

Thanks to our friends at High Fliers, we've got three copies of Arn: Knight Templar on DVD to give away! For your chance of winning a copy, send in your name and full postal address to arngiveaway@yahoo.co.uk before midday on Tuesday 21st September. The first three names out of the electronic hat will win a free copy each!

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