REVIEW: THE MURDER OF NELLIE DUFFY

The Murder Of Nellie DuffyThe Murder Of Nellie Duffy by Stephanie Bennett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An intriguing examination of a notorious Northern Queensland murder in the early years of the 20th Century, which picks apart the various personalities at the remote cattle station at which it happened, as well as the gross incompetency of the police and the possible interference on the part of the powerful meat company that owned the property. The insight into the treatment of women and Aborigines of the time is stark, and at times confronting. Narrated as a straight retelling of the known facts, it presents a compelling mosaic of the attitudes and culture of the time.

Bennett’s style is slightly messy, and doesn’t do quite enough to keep all the players on the board, so that when certain names crop up late in the narrative it takes too long to recall how they fit into the story. The book is further weakened by Bennett’s predilection for speculating on motives and reasons, often spinning narrative chains with little more than supposition to go on. The second to last chapter, where she presents her own theory as to the murderer and the reasons for their actions, is gossamer-thin and weakens the book considerably.

Had she avoided the conceit of her own imagination, and simply laid out all the pieces of what is an engrossing mystery in its own right, this would have been a much stronger and more compelling read. As it is, it slips towards the ‘amateur historian’ style of writing, and is merely a good book when it could have been a must-read.

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REVIEW: CHURCHILL’S MINISTRY OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE

Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler's DefeatChurchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat by Giles Milton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Absolutely fascinating insight into the formation, development, and successes of a typically British endeavour: a disparate collection of professional soldiers, backyard garage boffins, Oxbridge Mafia types and gentlemen of ill-repute who were drawn together to create the definite rule book and arsenal of sabotage, assassination, and guerrilla warfare.

Milton draws on multiple sources to provide a comprehensive and seamless narrative, including the campaign of obstruction that was waged against the department by members of the military hierarchy, particularly Air Command. The result is an intricate and compelling account of a hidden war that defied the known rules and brought enormous success to the Allied cause, as well as the complex and unusual personalities who drove it. Fantastic stuff.

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REVIEW: JLA- POWER AND GLORY

Justice League of America: Power & GloryJustice League of America: Power & Glory by Bryan Hitch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Superman is a religiously-gullible rube, The Flash is an idiot, Green Lantern is a morose quitter, and once again the JLA is confronted by an impossible to beat antagonist, only to defeat it by a combination of mysterious, one-time-only outsider assistance and because-the-narrative-requires-it. And yet, Hitch manages to make everything progress so smoothly and at such a pace that it all seems to work, and you find yourself happily swept up in it all. The wheels fall off towards the end, as the narrative begins to creak under the weight of the spiralling absurdity and lack of logic, but it’s still enjoyable, and the kind of slick escapism that is perfect for a lazy afternoon on the sofa.

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REVIEW: JSA- THE GOLDEN AGE

JSA: The Golden AgeJSA: The Golden Age by James Robinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gorgeous artwork, a beautiful balance between superheroic nostalgia and historic paranoia, and plenty of over-the-top revelations that carry the whiff of the best of 1950s B-grade monster movies, all delivered with a straight face and a perfectly balanced respect for, and love of, the various elements. A wonderful volume for the geekiest of JSA fans, those with a memory of the-way-comics-used-to-be, and those who enjoy a finely balanced combination of artwork and narrative.

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REVIEW: WRITERS ON WRITING

Writers on WritingWriters on Writing by James Roberts

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An absorbing and educational collection with writers from the 2000 Adelaide Festival of Arts. The majority of advice within is on-point and sensible, even 17 years after the fact, and most of it is delivered with a refreshing lack of pompousness and self-aggrandizement. A worthy addition to any writer’s shelf, and valuable for simply dropping in and out of or ploughing right through. Inspirational and essential.

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REVIEW: THE WHO’S WHO OF BRITISH CRIME IN THE 20TH CENTURY

The Who's Who of British Crime: In the Twentieth CenturyThe Who’s Who of British Crime: In the Twentieth Century by Jim Morris

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Short entries, as befits a Who’s Who, with length seemingly determined not so much by notoriety or impact as how easily available the source text was. The writing style is variable, indicating a slapdash approach or weak editing of a manuscript collated over an extended period of time, and there are numerous lapses in both language and viewpoint– Morris strays regularly from a factual detail to engage in philosophical moralising of the man-at-the-end-of-the-bar variety.

Handy as a quick flick-through book in support of other, meatier texts, but not an essential part of any bookshelf by a long way.

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REVIEW: GREEN LANTERNS, VOL 2: THE PHANTOM LANTERN

Green Lanterns, Volume 2: The Phantom LanternGreen Lanterns, Volume 2: The Phantom Lantern by Sam Humphries

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good, solid Green Lantern story, clearly identifying enemies on two fronts and leavening the action with crisp dialogue and lightly-handled interactions between the main and supporting characters. The character arc of the titular antagonist makes for a potentially worthwhile addition to the Lantern Rogues Gallery, and deals directly– and in a more effective way– with the question that consumes the rookie Green Lanterns Baz and Cruz: what if you give everything you have to the cause, and it still just isn’t good enough?

Two GNs in, and my main quibble with this series remains: I still struggle to see what the point of creating 2 new GNs is, particularly as Baz and Cruz remain little more than an assemblage of tics without any real sense of a character arc. Perhaps they’ll grow into something extraordinary and ground-breaking. Right now, six Green Lanterns seems a couple too far, and the writing and plotting far exceeds the characters themselves.

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REVIEW: THE ROAD TO JONESTOWN- JIM JONES AND PEOPLE TEMPLE

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples TempleThe Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Takes a while to get going, but once it lays the foundations for Jones’ descent into paranoia and madness, the book barrels along at a compelling rate. Guinn’s research is extensive, and taken from multiple– often contradictory– viewpoints, which helps to paint a deep mosaic of the social and personal contexts surrounding Peoples Temple. It leaves the reader drained, and wondering just how far Jones would have gone had his peculiar brand of madness taken over. An excellent book.

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Review: Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper

Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper by Michael Bilton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper

 

Forensically detailed and exhaustive study into the reasons why the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper went so spectacularly wrong, with first-hand accounts from many who were involved in the search, and a compassionate stance towards the victims of his crime. Bilton chooses not to focus on the Ripper himself, in an effort not to afford Sutcliffe any more notoriety than he already has. Instead, he shows us the other side of the mirror– something closer to the truth of life during that period, without the dark glamour that tends to accumulate around the cult of serial killers.

If there is a flaw with the book, it is that her is, perhaps, too lenient on the senior officers who mangled the case so badly, and gives too great an allowance to the pressure and scrutiny they were under as reasons for their errors. But the sheer weight of research and verisimilitude that comes from the page gives the reader the opportunity to believe that this allowance is genuine: it all feels incredibly real, and makes for compulsive reading.

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REVIEW: THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILM BOOK by JONATHAN ROSS

The Incredibly Strange Film BookThe Incredibly Strange Film Book by Jonathan Ross

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Up until now, I’ve only been aware of Jonathan Ross from his work on TV, where he comes across as an overwhelmingly obsequious, arse-kissing lickspittle. So it was a surprise to read that some of his early work was in presenting a show about the sort of obscure cult films that I love to watch. This book is the accompanying text to that show, and while it might present new information to anyone approaching cult movies for the first time, it does little to dispel my previous impression of Ross. The text rarely searches for depth, instead presenting simple narratives that read like the result of the most cursory skimming of other works on the subject; the humour, such as it is, is glib and only pointed towards the easiest of targets (a chapter pretending to outline the stunted career of ‘forgotten’ actor Jack Nicholson is particularly wearisome); and while some of the objects of Ross’ adulation seem designed to establish some sort of alternative film cred, they are presented in exactly the smarmy, grovelling tones that make his talk shows, for example, such an odious chore.

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Review: Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories by China Miéville
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Entertaining set of stories– when they are, at least, stories– offset with just a few too many vignettes that start out as stories and go nowhere. The originality of Mieville’s voice is never in doubt, here: there are some beautiful ideas floating around, such as icebergs reconstituting themselves in mid-air, a cabal of creatures whose bones have been scrimshawed while they are still alive, and secret playing cards that open up a secret world of playing structures to those who play them. But a template to Meiville’s storytelling quickly becomes apparent, which leads to the collection, as a whole, beginning to feel rather samey– again, and again, stories fall into a pattern of “here is an amazing secret, discovered by a character; here is the character trying to ascertain the universal truth of this secret; here am I, the author/narrator/antagonist, confirming that the searched-for universal truth exists; no, I will not explain how or why.”

Taken individually, some of these stories are wonderful. Collected together, they are to similar in narrative structure, and cut through with too many sprinkles of nothingness, to truly astound.

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Review: Blood Stain

Blood Stain
Blood Stain by Peter Lalor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Detailed and descriptive examination of one of the most gruesome murders ever committed in Australia. Author Peter Lalor delves deep into the lives of Katherine Knight, her victim Johnathon Price, and the motley collection of bogans, drunks, losers and utter no-hopers that surrounded them in the dead-end shithole of Aberdeen, New South Wales, painting a compelling picture of the stresses and weaknesses that led this violent, cunning psychopath to stab her lover 37 times, skin and behead him, and cook a meal of his buttocks and head to present to his children. Marred slightly by the occasional confusion in tenses, and by an attempt to speak in the language of the area that comes across as artlessly casual and irreverent, this is still one of the most fascinating books of its type I’ve read in the last couple of years. Recommended for those with a strong stomach.

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Review: The Hollywood Hall of Shame

The Hollywood Hall of Shame
The Hollywood Hall of Shame by Harry Medved

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good clean fun for the most part, this semi-affectionate skewering of some of film history’s most pompous, pampered and deluded film projects makes for delightful reading for the dedicated fan of schadenfreude. With sections devoted to children’s movies, musicals, obsessive tycoons, dictators, and a place of honour for serial turkey Goddess Elizabeth Taylor, there’s something here to tickle the palate of all comers.

The only sour note is struck by the occasional bout of comedy racism of the “so solly” variety, which mars the general tone of popcorn superiority. Get past it, and you’ll thrill to the sound of money being torn up and flushed, over and over again.

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Review: The Bloody White Baron

The Bloody White Baron
The Bloody White Baron by James Palmer

My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Unreadably bad. Palmer is clearly a writer with a passion forMongolia, and a political point to make, but his long asides and diatribes, coupled with footnotes that vary between simple references and long, unsubstantiated opinion pieces, turn this mess of a book into an utter farrago. Ungern-Sternberg is clearly a compelling character, and there’s bound to be a fascinating biography of the man out there somewhere, but this isn’t anywhere near it. Did not finish.

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Review: The Four Just Men

The Four Just Men
The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Written in 1905, this remains a gripping and exciting character piece that examines the effect of political terrorism on a passive populace. While the characters of the police who pursue the titular four are never more than loosely drawn, those of the men themselves are the clearest fascination, and the gaps in their characterisation just encourage the reader to fill them in by himself.

The plot whips along, the tension palpably increases as the annointed hour of the act moves ever closer, and while the climax has a whiff of the deus ex machina, it’s allowable in the realms of what is, clearly, a pulp novel that outstrips its boundaries.

It’s exciting, stirring stuff, with the added benefit of — quite unconsciously– being a fascinating glimpse into the bigotry and superciliousness of the Edwardian Englishman.

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Review: Making Money

Making Money
Making Money by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Written at the start of Pratchett’s decline into formula and repetition, there’s still enough wit and sparkle in this volume to remind the reader that, at his best, there are few turners of phrase in 21st century literature to match him. Funny, insightful, ludicrous and absurd in turn, this is in the upper half of his catalogue without being at the very peak. An enjoyable diversion, and cleanser of the palate before turning to meatier works.

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Review: Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not so much a novel as a series of linked short stories. The progression of former prisoner Socrates Fortlow from social outcast to moral compass of his tiny, impoverished community in the heart of LA is told in a series of short morality plays, each one building on what came before to give a compelling insight into the difficulties faced by the marginalised communities on the fringes of urban America and the redemptive power of a man who regrets the badness in his life. Some of Mosley’s best writing in years: simple, yet brutally powerful

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Review: An Advancement Of Learning

An Advancement Of Learning
An Advancement Of Learning by Reginald Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thoroughly entertaining read, full of acerbic humour and tightly plotted mystery, with well-drawn characters who jump from the page and demand the reader take notice of them. Bawdier and more pointed than the TV series that led me to it, this is an utter delight of a crime novel, and one that has me scurrying back to the library tomorrow to fetch a new volume of Hill’s work.

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Review: The First Book of Lankhmar

The First Book of Lankhmar
The First Book of Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Immensely fun romp through the bedrock of modern fantasy with two engaging and enjoyable characters, until the constant overwriting and simmering misogyny begins to chafe just a little too often and a little too constantly for comfort. Cut the reading experience into thirds, along the dotted lines described by the volumes that make up the book, and refresh your palate in between them, and this remains a thoroughly fun experience. It just requires the reader to be understanding of its real world cultural roots, otherwise you’ll finish the book relieved that it’s all over, which is less than these seminal stories deserve.

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Review: Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Desperately dated and old-fashioned how-to that shows its age. While there are still nuggets of relevance o be picked out on the matters of narrative construction and motivation, there’s nothing here that can’t be found in more contemporary guides by current authors, and the out-of-date personal comments and prevailing attitude of the book are best left in the era in which the book was first written.

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Review: Lost

Lost
Lost by Michael Robotham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Strong, muscular crime story that begins with intertwined mysteries– who shot the narrator and left him to die in the Thames, and what has happened to his memory?– and weaves them throughout a narrative of a cop at the end of his time, slowly coming to terms with the knowledge that his methods and obsessions are being sent irrevocably into obsolescence.

Robotham’s tight, controlled style never gives the reader time to draw back and see the greater narrative, and his masterful control of details and verisimilitude paint detailed vignettes that give spice to the constant action. Threats abound, tension is high, and the book rockets along at a frantic pace as time runs out for the protagonist, DI Ruiz, on a number of fronts.

Top notch storytelling.

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Review: Marvel Masterworks: Daredevil – Volume 3

Marvel Masterworks: Daredevil - Volume 3
Marvel Masterworks: Daredevil – Volume 3 by Stan Lee

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The very definition of a curate’s egg. One of my favourite Marvel characters, who has developed unbelievable shades and intonations over the years, and the beginnings of his complexity are in evidence throughout this volume of early stories. The art by Gene Colan is superb: clear, active, with unexpected depth and elegance.

But, oh Gods, Stan Lee is an abysmal hack. The writing is embarrassing, and the z-grade line-up of villians– including El Matador, whose powers involve being a matador and having a skeezy Spanish accent; the Masked Marauder, who, well, has a mask that’s basically a welding helmet with a mauve hanky hanging off the bottom, and arguably the worst villain Marvel have ever devised (and we’re talking the company who gave us Razorback and Rocket Racer…) Leapfrog, with springs on his scuba flippers and a frog costume, whose power involves being able to jump high on his springs (I shit thee not!)– should have been enough to kill the book dead, dead, dead. The dialogue is leaden, the misogyny oozes from each page, the majority of characters are two-dimensional at best, and some of Lee’s plot devices wouldn’t pass grade in a Perils of Pauline script meeting. A supposed ‘bonus’ feature, wherein page are devoted to a supposed meeting between Lee and Colan to work on the scripts, showing what swell and quirky fellas they are, is just teeth-grindingly awful.

The Cult of Lee has been built, over the years, on his personality and bullet-proof self-belief and love for what he does. If it had anything to do with his writing skills, he’d be long-forgotten.

Three stars for Colan’s artwork, which deserves– and, thankfully, regularly received– a better forum. Thank God Horn-head went on to better things than this tripe.

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Review: Gallery of Horror

Gallery of Horror
Gallery of Horror by Charles L. Grant

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Collection of very mixed quality, of which only ‘Nunc Dimittis by Tanith Lee and ‘The Chair’ by Dennis Etchison’ are of the highest quality, stretching through ordinary efforts by Stephen King, Robert Bloch and other horror luminaries to substandard efforts by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Theodore Sturgeon and T.E.D. Klein. The low-light, as seems to be the case with any anthology in which you find him, is ‘Death to the Easter Bunny’ by the execrable Alan Ryan. Solid, unexciting efforts by Ramsey Campbell, Gardner Dozois & Jack Dann, and Steve Rasnic Tem keep you turning the pages, hoping for something better to really knock your socks off, but it never really arrives. Readers without any previous exposure to the horror genre will find much to enjoy.

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