Let’s check out some of the trades and the two prose books I managed to finish in November!
Years ago, I bought a Tom Holland novel called Lord of the Dead. It was about Byron turning into a vampire, and it was awful. I mean, seriously bad. So why would I get another Tom Holland book? Well, this is non-fiction, for one, so I thought it might be better, and it’s also about the Greco-Persian Wars, which are a time in history that I knew very little about beyond the big names of the day. I had read some of Herodotus, but not all of it, and it’s always better to read interpretations of such old texts anyway, because they’re usually tough to hash out (Herodotus, as far as most scholars can tell, was fairly reliable, but he doesn’t use dates or synthesize other histories, although he does write quite a bit about the rise of Persia, which Holland does as well). Persian Fire delves deeply into the history of Persia, Sparta, and Athens, which makes it a much more balanced view of the years 490-479 BCE than pro-Greek sources or histories. Persia was a marvelous empire, a multicultural conglomeration whose rules – Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, most notably – tended to respect local customs and even rulers as long as they paid sufficient tribute to the King of Kings back in Susa. Holland does point out how important it was for Western history that the Persians didn’t conquer Greece, but he doesn’t oversell it, as a Persian victory wouldn’t have been the total disaster that many propagandists have claimed in the 2500 years since.
Holland writes with an engaging, breezy style – he’s a good popular historian (he writes on various historical topics, which means he’s good at a lot of things but not an expert in this particular field) – and he is able to bring together many different sources, including some archaeological records (popular historians tend to be prejudiced in favor of written sources, which has started to shift over the past 15-20 years, it seems, because archaeological records are often just as, if not more important than written sources), to create a good portrait of the vast world of the fifth century BCE, in which the Greeks played a tiny part. He makes the point very well that Darius’s and Xerxes’s Western expeditions were important to the rulers but did not wreck their empires, and the only reason Xerxes never came back after his defeat at Salamis is because other parts of the empire rose in revolt and he dedicated himself to stamping them out (which he did; the Persian Empire lasted longer than Athenian democracy, after all), so while Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea were important to the Greeks, they weren’t that important to the Persians. It’s an interesting idea that isn’t new to Holland, but it’s still fascinating to read an account that shows the celebrations from the Athenian side, the hallowing of Thermopylae from the Spartan side, and the relative ambivalence from the Persian side. The propaganda of the times claimed that Athens set an example for the rest of the Persian world and the subject peoples rose up against their overlords, but that’s just not true.
Holland does a good job explaining why Sparta turned into SPARTA and why Thermopylae was so important to them, even as he debunks the myth of the “300” (which, again, is not something unique to Holland). He also does a nice job explaining why Athens turned to democracy even though it was completely unprecedented in the history of the world – it wasn’t, as you might expect, some high-minded idealistic experiment, but a cynical way for Cleisthenes to break the power of the family clans who ruled Athens and also to thwart Cleomenes, the Spartan king who was angling to reduce Athens to a client state. Cleisthenes was simply taking Solon’s ideas to their logical extreme, and Holland does a good job showing this and how he was able to succeed. He also does a nice job with how Sparta was uniquely qualified to hold the pass at the Hot Gates while Themistocles was uniquely qualified to block the straits between Euboea and the mainland, an action which had as much to do with checking Xerxes’s advance into Greece as the Spartans’ defense of Thermopylae did (but which doesn’t resonate quite as much because the navy actually managed to survive). The accounts of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea are well done, giving us a large-scale view of the battles while still managing to focus on individual stories, such as that of Aristodemus, who had missed Thermopylae because he had an eye infection and was disgraced because of it. Despite acting “un-Spartan” – charging recklessly into battle at Plataea – he managed to redeem his family name by dying heroically. Holland writes well about a lot of the people involved, and it makes these characters more real, especially given that so many of them, like people today, fell from grace when the fighting was over – Themistocles, most notably, was driven out by the Athenian mob for getting too high on his horse, and died in service to Xerxes’s son and successor, Artaxerxes. It was an odd end for the man who, more than anyone else, preserved the freedom of Greece and democracy.
Obviously, with a remove of 2500 years and because the Persians didn’t leave as many written records as the Greeks, Holland’s account is peppered with small gaps and leaps of logic, but that’s true of many histories, and nothing Holland speculates about is too ridiculous. He does, weirdly, give credence to the idea that Philippides actually saw Pan while running from Sparta to Athens before Marathon, but that’s only a brief moment in the book, and if Philippides was hallucinating, that’s to be expected, I guess. But Holland does a good job with the story, and Persian Fire is a good read – it never bogs down, it’s well-sourced, and it tells a wider story of the Greco-Persian Wars than you might get from a specifically pro-Western source. Holland might be a lousy novelist, but he’s a pretty good popular historian!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Nailbiter is the lesser of Williamson’s two current Image series – Birthright is more fun and generally better – but this series is still pretty keen, and Williamson’s twisty plot is fun to follow. This volume is generally focused on Warren and Alice, as Warren discovers that Alice is his daughter and Alice discovers some of the more disturbing things about Buckaroo, Oregon, the town of the serial killers. She’s been worried since the beginning of the series about turning into a killer, and this collection is crucial to that fear and what she does about it. Warren continues to be an interesting fellow, as well, as he decides that Alice needs to learn more about the town and why it produces so many killers, even as he tries to deal with his new, unwanted knowledge about Alice’s parentage. Of course, given that this is a horror comic, there are plenty of corpses littering the pages (the book has never really given a good answer to why anyone stays in Buckaroo, and after a massacre in this one, that question becomes more relevant), a fun cameo by Cassie and Vlad of Hack/Slash, and good old-fashioned chases through woods and darkened hallways. As with every volume, we get some answers, some more questions, and Williamson continues to end things on good cliffhangers to keep people coming back. I thought the book was ending soon, so maybe the next volume is the last one? (Now I can’t find anything online about it ending, but I could have sworn I saw it somewhere) Either way, Williamson is revealing stuff about the town, and while it’s a bit too early to tell if it’s a good answer or not, it’s still fairly intriguing.
There are issues with Nailbiter, of course. Williamson keeps the focus on the plot, so the characters are as well-developed as they might be, and the events in Buckaroo don’t seem to have much effect on the townspeople – I mean, a lot of people in this town die, but everyone seems to move forward with no trauma whatsoever. Henderson’s scratchy, rough artwork fits the mood and the setting very well, and he nails the gorier aspects of the book, as he and Guzowski work together to make sure the blood stands out against the drab backgrounds of rainy Oregon. But like a lot of modern comics, Williamson’s plot could easily be condensed into about half the pages, and Henderson’s layouts are expansive and uninspired – he sticks almost exclusively to quadrilateral panels, which we could believe is so when he does break out of it, it has a bigger impact, but it happens so infrequently that the staid layouts begin to overwhelm, and he generally uses simple “camera angles” to show his characters. There’s a full-page splash that doesn’t work at all, but usually, when he goes that route, it’s not bad, except that because he uses so few panels per page, the full-page and double-page splashes don’t have as much impact. This is modern comics storytelling, of course, so it’s hard to blame Williamson and Henderson, but it’s still somewhat frustrating. The story isn’t bad, but it doesn’t feel like it should already have taken 25 issues to tell. If that makes sense. Maybe it doesn’t.
Nailbiter is a good example of why waiting for the trade is a thing. I can’t imagine reading this in single issues, because it feels like it would drag. Williamson’s actual writing is pretty good, and the plot does move along, even if it’s slow. It’s an interesting horror comic that looks pretty good, and I’m invested in it, so I want to know what’s going on. But that doesn’t mean the flaws aren’t there, and while they’re not unique to this comic, this is the comic I’m writing about, isn’t it?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Girl Over Paris: The Cirque American Series by Gwenda Bond (story), Kate Leth (writer), Ming Doyle (artist), Andrew Dalhouse (colorist), Deron Bennett (letterer), and Paul Morrissey (editor). $14.95, 88 pgs, FC, Jet City Comics.
I’ve never heard of Gwenda Bond, but apparently she writes young adult fantasy novels, so good for her! (I know a woman who blogs about YA books, and I wondered if she had heard of Gwenda Bond. Turns out she has. I see this woman every so often – her kids attend the same school as one of my daughters – and the last time I saw her, I told her that I would probably never read the books she reviews, but that her blog is AMAZING. And it is, too, if you check it out a bit. But let’s not get too far off track!) So the fact that her novels provide the backdrop for this trade paperback didn’t have much effect on me. As usual, I tend to look at the creative team first when I determine if I’m going to get a comic, so I was intrigued by Kate Leth and Ming Doyle, especially Doyle, who I first saw drawing The Loneliest Astronauts for Kevin Church, for crying out loud, and of whom I’ve been a fan since. Then I checked out the description, and while Bond’s name didn’t do anything for me, the fact that this is a strange ghost story seemed pretty cool. Don’t you love it when I tell you how I choose comics to read? It’s gripping stuff, I’m sure!
Jules Maroni, the star of Bond’s novels, is the star of this comic, too, as she heads to Paris for a show – she’s a high-wire walker – after some strange events, which I assume happened in one of the novels (there are two in this particular series so far). Leth doesn’t make too big a deal about it except for one moment when her boyfriend doesn’t believe her about seeing a ghost, and she reminds him that they’ve already been through some weird stuff. That’s always a nice point in fiction – people see all kinds of weird stuff but then refuse to believe in other weird stuff, and Remy – Jules’s boyfriend, and yes, we have to suffer through four issues of someone named “Remy”* – should know better, but it doesn’t come up other than that. Leth gives us just enough for us to understand that something bad happened to Jules, and then she moves on to the main plot.
* Sorry, but Remy is just such a dumb name. I mean, yes, it reminds me of Gambit, quite possibly the worst major character in Marvel/DC history, but that’s not the only reason it’s stupid. It just is, okay?!?!?
The main plot, unfortunately, isn’t that great, and I don’t know if it’s because Bond and Leth really couldn’t change the status quo too much because the “real” story takes place in the novels or if they just didn’t have a great plot to begin with. The idea of a carnival ghost haunting a carnival is a pretty good one – there’s a definite “Phantom of the Opera” vibe going on in this book, which has to be deliberate, I think, given the Paris location – but Leth doesn’t do too much with it. Sure, it’s a YA comic, but that doesn’t mean it has to be as toothless as this comic is. The ghost isn’t really that much of a threat, and while his motivations are fine, he seems more pathetic than anything else. He threatens people but doesn’t seem to have much backing him up, and he’s defeated with remarkable ease and not much logic. Leth’s saving grace is that the characters are pretty well done – the yearning of Remy’s sister for the exotic French chick is beautifully done partly because it’s fairly subtle yet still obvious, and while it doesn’t end sadly, it’s still bittersweet. So it’s still not a bad read, even if the villain – such as he is – is kind of weak sauce.
Doyle’s art is great to see, as well. She still has some issues with action, as the figures are still a bit too stiff and the final dramatic scene is staged a bit oddly, but that’s not too big a deal. Her characters are wonderful, real-looking and full of life, so that the anger that Jules feels when Remy begins to doubt her is palpable, and the way Dita turns into a blushing schoolgirl when the object of her crush appears is terrific. Doyle, it seems (I could be wrong), uses slightly lighter inks than she has in the past, which suits the lighter tone of the book, and Dalhouse, who’s a good colorist, uses flats and rendered colors very well to add richness to the Parisian setting, good gloominess to the underground scenes, and eeriness to the ghost (who Doyle inks a bit more roughly, perhaps to show his more ragged nature). Doyle is a fine artist, and her and Dalhouse’s work on the book is a big reason to get it.
So Girl Over Paris isn’t great. It’s not bad, but it could certainly be better. I haven’t read a ton by Leth, but what I have I’ve enjoyed, so I’m not sure if this was a misstep or if Bond didn’t want to mess with her own characters too much, or what. But it’s a pleasant enough comic, with some nice parts to it that don’t add up to a whole lot. Oh well.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Johnny Red: The Hurricane by Garth Ennis (writer), Keith Burns (artist), Jason Wordie (colorist), Rob Steen (letterer), and Steve White (editor). $19.99, 179 pgs, FC, Titan Comics. Johnny Red created by Tom Tully and Joe Colquhoun.
Garth Ennis has always written great war stories, so it’s not surprising that he’s written another one with Johnny Red, which is a revival of a character from the late 1970s. For those of us who didn’t grow up in England in the late 1970s, Johnny Red is an interesting character – he’s English, obviously, but he ended up in Russia, fighting alongside the Soviets at Stalingrad, among other places. One of his creators, Tully, came up with the idea because the Russian front was underused in World War II fiction in the West, so he was able to highlight battles that many kids probably hadn’t heard of or known much about. Ennis, naturally, does the character proud. He begins in the present, as an internet billionaire, Tony Iverson, found the Hurricane that Johnny Red flew during the war and is getting it fixed up so it can fly again. He finds the plane’s chief mechanic, still alive in Moscow, and visits him to get the story of the plane. The mechanic, Rodimitz, tells Iverson about Johnny Red and the plane. It’s a clever way to bring the story into the present and allow Ennis to express his feelings about the way veterans are treated after wars, which he does in the most heartfelt page in the book, and we also get a more personal narrative than if it were just presented with an omniscient third-person point of view. We know Rodimitz lives, and he knows who doesn’t, but we don’t, so the tension is heightened just a bit more than if it were told another way.
So we get a gripping World War II story that takes place in the shadow of Stalingrad, as the Nazis are about to launch their attack. We get intrigue, as Soviet secret police arrive to “recruit” pilots for a secret mission and freeze Johnny out because he’s not Russian, but of course he gets involved anyway. We get the Night Witches, the female Russian pilots, because of course we do, and of course Johnny is in love with one of them. We get the German nemesis who isn’t quite as evil as your garden-variety Nazi – he’s not sympathetic as some Germans in former Ennis war stories, but he’s certainly not irredeemably evil. There’s a good deal of double-crossing, a surprise cameo, and a plot that could change the course of the war. Ennis does a great job with the story, giving us nice character beats for his main actors and making sure the tension is always high. He’s very good at that trope where we think something is over but it turns out there are a few more twists left. Everything in the book fits together nicely, so when new surprises come up, it’s very much within the realm of believability rather than sheer coincidence. It’s a gripping adventure, which, given that it’s Ennis, isn’t shocking.
Burns’s art makes the book even better, which is nice. Burns’s art, for those who’ve never seen it, is vaguely like Sean Murphy’s (although I suppose there are people who haven’t seen Murphy’s art, either!), with beautiful scratchy lines that give it a lot of aggressive, kinetic energy. His action scenes are amazing – he uses rough, thick inks throughout, and when he inks the planes, he turns them into ragged flying masterpieces of ingenuity, while the way he choreographs the fights make them almost three-dimensional. He uses a lot of panoramic pages, laying the page out so the panels stretch over two pages, which allows the action scenes to breathe a bit more and gives us a sense of speedy motion, and he never scrimps on the violence, as he shows how devastating air fighting – which is often considered “romantic” – could be. Burns shows the dire conditions that the Russians had to fight in, as well – it’s winter, of course, but even more than that, the Russians were ill-equipped to take on the Nazis, and Burns (and Ennis) are able to imply what a miracle it really was that they stood their ground at Stalingrad. It’s a terrific-looking book, and it makes the excellent story soar even more.
I haven’t read all of Ennis’s war comics, but I’ve read a fair number, and this is one of the best. It’s eight issues long, but Ennis uses every page effectively, so it never feels padded like some mini-series can. It’s intriguing, exciting, tragic, and even heartfelt. If you’ve never happened to read an Ennis war comic before, you should do yourself a favor and check this book out!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Speaking of war comics, probably the second-best writer of war comics, Chuck Dixon, has a new volume of his Civil War stories, which he produces independently with Gary Kwapisz and then they get collected by Dover. Dixon is one of the few conservative writers in comics, and his war stories often reflect that – they’re the slightest bit less heartfelt than Ennis’s, but not by much, as Dixon still respects the bonds of soldiers and how those closest to you can get you through a war or die horribly at any moment. So his stories are also violent, but they also show the human face of war very well. He doesn’t write all of the stories – Kwapisz writes a few, and Villagran draws a story about John Mosby, while Polls draws a tale about rival snipers. A few of the stories are longer than the rest – there’s a gripping tale about the campaign in West Virginia in early 1862, with several Confederates getting caught behind enemy lines and trying to get back to their unit; and one about the Union using black soldiers and the racism they faced from the North’s officers, who believed the former slaves were naturally cowardly and would run the instant the fighting started. As well as those two, there are several shorter stories illuminating various aspects of the war. Kwapisz, Villagran, and Polls are all old-school kind of artists, very solid draughtsmen without a lot of flash, and their work in black and white is stellar – Villagran’s style is slightly more cartoony than Kwapisz’s, but not by much, and all three artists fit together very well. There’s not much to say about this comic – it’s entertaining and educational, and it looks very cool. If you’re a fan of reading about war, especially the Civil War (of course, as that’s what the book is about), you should check this out. If you aren’t a fan of war comics, well, then don’t check it out!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl volume 4: I Kissed a Squirrel and I Liked It by Ryan North (writer), Erica Henderson (artist/colorist), Jacob Chabot (artist), Tom Fowler (inker), Andy Hirsch (artist), David Malki (artist), Kyle Starks (artist), Rico Renzi (colorist), Travis Lanham (letterer), and Jennifer Grünwald (collection editor). $15.99, 104 pgs, FC, Marvel. Squirrel Girl created by Will Murray and Steve Ditko, and she’s the only one I’m listing creator credits for because this book has a LOT of guest stars!
According to my comics shoppe, the “new” Marvel isn’t selling very well. The comics that have adopted a cheekier tone and more cartoony art are driving away the long-time readers, and the store doesn’t get many of the “target” audience, meaning younger people, especially girls. I’m very curious about Marvel sales these days, because it seems that DC, on the back of “Rebirth,” has jumped ahead of Marvel for now, and we’ll see how long that lasts. I’m interested in this because I think it’s great that Marvel is trying new things, and I want it to work out (for the same reason, I’m hoping that the Hanna-Barbera comics, Young Animal, and now WildStorm comics do well for DC … but that’s a post for another day!). However … I’m not in love with a lot of the books they’re putting out. I didn’t love Howard the Duck, and I didn’t love Patsy Walker. I did like Charles Soule’s She-Hulk, but that died a fairly quick death. So I’m not sure if the books aren’t selling at my store because the old-time readers don’t want to read new things, or if the books just aren’t that great. But the sales of the “new” Marvel still fascinate me.
I’m writing this because, of all of the “new” Marvel books (“new” as in style, not that they are early in their runs, because once a Marvel book hits double-digit issue numbers, it’s instantly rebooted), Squirrel Girl continues to be absolutely delightful. It’s probably the funniest book right now from the Big Two, which is nice, and North packs every issue with not only jokes but nice insightful comments about being a superhero and especially being a superhero in the Marvel Universe. I count the Twitter-esque recaps at the beginning of each issue as part of the page count in this collection because they’re hilarious (and Tony Stark on Twitter is brilliant). North does the “blah blah blah blah and also blah” style of joke quite a bit, which could be annoying if the humor didn’t land so well. Issue #7, the first one in this collection, is the famous (?) “Choose Your Own Adventure” story (which isn’t called that for copyright reasons, I assume), and North nails it, with bizarre endings to some choices (Doreen forgets to eat and dies!), hilarious resolutions to others (Swarm becomes president), and just impressive storytelling all around (North did this before with Romeo and/or Juliet and To Be or Not To Be, so he obviously knows what he’s doing). Plus, Swarm shows up, and Swarm is always fun (although I guess we’re downplaying his Nazi-ness these days, because it just wouldn’t fit in this comic). As I am much more interested in superhero comics when the superheroes don’t actually fight, issue #8 might be my favorite, as Doreen decides to try on-line dating, and it goes about as well as you think – her friends write sample profiles for her, which are amazing, she goes on dates with horrible people (including a Sentinel), and she has the first date from Hell with Brad, who is the Sensational Character Find of 2016, if you ask me. He’s a total bro, and he’s a superhero truther, and I would read the Adventures of Brad every damned day and twice on Sundays. He’s truly amazing. Then Mole Man shows up and decides he’s in love with Doreen, and chaos ensues when he won’t take “no” for an answer. The three-part story is pretty good, but it’s elevated by the presence of Brad. The final issue in the collection is drawn by Jacob Chabot and takes places inside Doreen’s dreams, and it’s weirdly educational – Doreen spends three pages teaching Count Nafaria how to count using binary. It’s a pretty good story, but it’s sadly lacking Brad.
Henderson does her usual top-notch work on the book, as she gives us a New York full of weird characters and interesting people. She’s still not great at action, but she makes up for by drawing all kinds of strange things perfectly, from Quoggoth to the Mole Man’s monsters. She adds so much personality to Doreen and the people around her that the jokes land better – they’re funny enough on their own, but Henderson’s use of body language makes the words come alive in your head, because you can imagine the characters reacting exactly the way they do. It’s why the dating issue works so well – Doreen’s reactions to her friends’ suggestions are wonderful, and the two pages where she goes on dates are terrific, too, mainly because Henderson repeats a joke with variations, making it funny each time. Henderson gets to draw one of the grossest panels in Marvel history, too, so there’s that. Chabot’s art is very nice, too, and it’s clever that he was the guest artist on an issue that takes place outside the “real” world, because his difference in style can be chalked up to this being Doreen’s unconscious. I don’t know if they planned it that way, but it was pretty clever.
Unbeatable Squirrel Girl might have bad names for the collections (I don’t mind the puns, but I do mind that the collection titles have absolutely nothing to do with the contents!), but it’s still a fantastic comic. As I noted, I don’t have any idea how this style of comic is selling for Marvel, but I do hope that North and Henderson keep working on Squirrel Girl, because it’s pretty danged keen!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Bedlam is a strange novel, one that has a lot on its mind but never quite comes together. It’s based loosely on the true story of James Tilly Matthews, who was incarcerated at Bethlem and other places from 1796 until his death in 1815 (in the novel, he’s still living in 1818), and his relationship with John Haslam, the apothecary at the hospital. Matthews has been diagnosed, back through the centuries, with paranoid schizophrenia, and his life has been mined by writers for a while, as he believed that a gang of criminals was using what he called an “air loom” to manipulate his thoughts. Naturally, this is great stuff for fiction, so Matthews has had a small cottage industry rise around him (someone even built an Air Loom!). Hollingshead tells the story using three different first-person narrators – Matthews’s wife, Margaret (it’s not clear if she existed or not), Matthews himself, and Haslam, who take turns at different periods over twenty years explaining what’s going on. Matthews is in the asylum because, he claims, he’s a political liability to high members of the government, and Haslam comes to believe him, but one of the weaknesses of the book is that Hollingshead is far too coy with that entire thread. He’s not just writing a political thriller, of course, so it’s not too important, but Matthews teases Haslam for years about why he’s being held, and Haslam’s reaction to the answer seems ridiculously melodramatic, and I’m not even sure if we got the entire reason. I get that Dickens, for instance, wrote obliquely often to avoid embarrassing people who were still alive, but Hollingshead is under no such restrictions, but he seems to write that way. It’s a frustrating chunk of the book.
Hollingshead isn’t just writing a plot-driven story, though, so there’s a lot of other stuff in the book, as well. Mostly it concerns the nature of madness, the effects of imprisonment, and the limits of power. It can be fascinating, as Hollingshead gives us three interesting and different main characters. Margaret, naturally, is the practical one – she doesn’t care about Matthews’s gang or Haslam’s attempts to figure out what’s going on in Matthews’s head, she just wants her husband back. She lives in Jamaica for several years in fear of the government, and Hollingshead does a good job introducing the notion of slavery and its similar effects to imprisonment of the insane. He also delves into the actual idea of insanity and what the best way to handle it is – Haslam comes to understand that Matthews isn’t a threat to anyone, but he can’t release him, not only because of what he knows, but because Matthews is, in fact, not able to live in the outside world without a great deal of attention. Of course, the king at the time – George III – had his problems, as well, and the fact that the government is behind Matthews’s incarceration brings up the idea of the powerful being immune to the injustices those without power are forced to suffer. Haslam struggles to figure out a way to make the insane more comfortable, because he knows he can’t cure them, while other forces are pushing for a new kind of asylum, one that is more lenient in the treatment but, according to Haslam, doesn’t make any progress in trying to get them able to face the world. He is a strangely sympathetic figure, even though he’s cast as the “villain” of the book, because he knows that Matthews doesn’t belong in Bethlem, but he doesn’t try hard enough to get him out, and Matthews suggests it’s because he wants to use Matthews to further his own fame. It’s a conundrum for Haslam, one he never quite solves.
Hollingshead’s prose is thick and meaty – it feels like it could have been written 200 years ago, as he uses a lot of allusions and ellipses to obscure the meaning, even though it’s not a particularly difficult book to, you know, read. It’s a weird book, because of Matthews’s delusions – Haslam often treats them as real, and Matthews’s visions of members of the gang possessing people in the asylum is creepy, even though we know it’s all in his head. Hollingshead shifts easily from this odd fantasy world to the more mundane, which makes the book feel odder than it is. By using three narrators, Hollingshead elides some information, which is a strange trick that never quite works – Haslam’s wife is sick, for instance, but remains in the background, while his relationship with his children and theirs – especially his daughter’s – with Matthews (nothing creepy, I assure you) is almost passed over without comment. The time gaps in the story don’t necessarily hurt it, but it means that Haslam, speaking in 1816, has to catch us up quite a bit on the previous several years (the narrations jumps from 1809 to 1816), and it’s an odd way to tell the story. The book kind of lurches along, and while it’s mostly interesting, it feels like it does meander occasionally.
Still, it’s an interesting topic, and Hollingshead does get the paranoia of the revolutionary/Napoleonic era down, especially in an England that was terrified of the populace doing to their royal family what the French had done to theirs. It’s not a great book, but it is a pretty decent one. I don’t mind that!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Well, that’s all I have for this month. I actually bought more trades than these, but some I didn’t feel like reviewing and others I just didn’t have time to do. And, of course, today was Wednesday, and I bought a shit-ton of big collections, to the tune of slightly over $300 (seriously – I bought 16 trades or graphic novels today). So I’ll probably review a few of those for the December post. We shall see.
I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving if they celebrate Thanksgiving, and let’s all finish 2016 – which, yes, has been an unusually shitty year – strong!