Graphic novel review: “Fell, volume 1: Feral City” by Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith

This is the stuff.

A lonely detective, disgraced in some way that’s never revealed, sentenced to working homicide in a part of town that’s just about fallen off the world. Snowtown, the environment of Fell, is like the worst parts of Seventies New York crime films turned up to eleven. It’s a fallen place, and worse, it’s still falling, with no bottom in sight.

Richard Fell is perhaps the only sane person in the city, struggling to get justice in a city that has no particular use for it. He’s not actually a terribly likable figure, in himself – he’s an arrogant smartass with a self-righteous streak a mile wide – but he’s the best that Snowtown has, and better, perhaps, than it deserves.

Ellis’ wit has rarely been sharper, and his writing is crisp and intelligent. It’s also minimalist – Ellis is quite happy to let the art do the talking. And the moody, expressionistic art of Ben Templesmith does just that. Trapped in an intentionally claustrophobic nine panel grid, the characters might want to leave their dirty town, but know that they never will. It’s always dark in Snowtown – daytime is rarely brighter than twilight, and most of the time, it appears to be 3AM on an overcast night. The dark watercolours of his panels leak humidity into the room, and you can almost smell the reeking piles of garbage that haven’t been collected from Snowtown’s alleys in weeks (if not months).

There are eight individual stories in this, linked by a small throughline as we learn about Fell and his supporting cast, but each of the stories is effectively a done in one. You could read any of them singly without needing any other background. The only disappointment in the book is on the cover: those teasing words ‘volume one’. Alas, it’s now been nearly a decade, and volume two is nowhere in sight.

Forget it, Loke. It’s Snowtown.

Graphic novel review: “V for Vendetta” by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

Just to get one thing straight from the front: I am not talking here about the toned down movie version of this story here. I am talking about the original graphic novel, in all its glory and with all its warts.

V for Vendetta may not be Alan Moore’s greatest work, but it would certainly be one of the best of them. It’s worthy to stand alongside Watchmen and Promethea, which damned few things are. And it’s not just the quality of the writing, although as usual, Moore’s dense yet light prose startles with humour, horror and an underpinning of cultural allusions (here perhaps more integral to the tale than in anything else he’s written). Nor it it the plotting, with its peculiar pacing that somehow always feels right.

No, it’s the sheer iconoclasm of the work.
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Book Review: “The House of Rumour” by Jake Arnott

Imagine a secret history of the decades from 1940 to 1980, a web of hidden connections just waiting to be uncovered. Jake Arnott’s latest book by turns reveals and hides just such a web.

Up until now, Arnott’s books have mostly been damned good crime novels, usually set in London’s tumultuous Sixties and Seventies. But The House of Rumour is another animal entirely. It’s still recognizably Arnott writing it, but if all you had was the blurb to go by, you might well think it was a Tim Powers book.

Even if you were familiar with Arnott’s earlier works, this one might throw you. There’s no central narrative – just 22 chapters (one for each of the Tarot’s Major Arcana), each of them more or less a short story, but each of them clearly a part of the larger story that Arnott is half telling, half alluding to.

It’s a fascinating story, and an equally fascinating way to tell a story, with the full impact of the story only emerging as later details are revealed and connections between these superficially disparate events become apparent.

It is the best thing Jake Arnott has ever written – even considering the high standard of his prior works.

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Book Review: “Intrusion” by Ken MacLeod

One of the most comforting thoughts about those who would seek to over-regulate us – at least in the forms of the nanny state and the security state – is that they tend to be separated by the classic political divide of left and right.

Left-leaning parties traditionally support nanny-state ideas, especially when it comes to health and what I can only describe as social engineering issues. Right-leaning parties tend to support security state ideas, especially when it comes to internal security measures that seem more aimed at perpetuating their power than providing actual security.

There are exceptions, of course – the right has no trouble getting involved in nanny-state measures when it comes to abortion; the left often displays an unexpected lack of nanny-statism when it comes to euthanasia. But by and large, these categories are fairly firm.

Ken MacLeod’s latest book is about, among other things, why we’re very lucky indeed that that’s so.
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Book Review: “The Year of Living Biblically” by A.J. Jacobs

The long and the short of the book is this: Jacobs attempts to live by the rules in the Bible as directly and completely as possible. In fact, it’s subtitled “One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible“, and that is a fairly accurate boast. The state of biblical interpretation being what it is, this is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in some time. How many people are willing to up-end their entire life, at least potentially, not what they do believe in, but for what they don’t?

Jacobs, it becomes clear from the earliest pages of the book, is my kind of agnostic. In fact, he’s the kind of agnostic I’d be if I were more inclined to biblically literalist pranks (and considering how inclined in that direction I am, that’s saying something).

His own scepticism prevents him from really committing to the task insofar as having faith is concerned, but that’s what interests me (and him) most: his willingness to test his lack of faith, and how it changes over the course of his year. This is mad scientist experimenting on himself territory. Think of a ‘Super Size Me’ styled experiment conducted on a man’s soul rather than his digestive system, and you’re getting close to the idea.

Kudos are due to Jacobs both how thoroughly he throws himself into this research, how honestly he reports its effects on him, and how good a job he does avoiding the easy cheap shots against fundamentalists of all stripes.

All in all, this is a fascinating book that any agnostic (and anyone else, I would think) should find an interesting and thought-provoking read.

Review: “The Twilight of Atheism” by Alister McGrath

As the title suggests, it doesn’t have a lot to do with agnosticism – although it does treat doubt with more courtesy and respect than Dawkins seems capable of. It’s a fascinating read, too, which again scores it above “The God Delusion” – and it has some interesting ideas about both faith and doubt, and the historical context of both.

But I feel it misses the point of its own arguments.
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