Monday, September 11, 2006

20, 21, 22, 23. English novels read while in B.C.

[I read four english novels while I was in B.C. for a family wedding and then 2 weeks of work on the Excelsior Club in Golden. I had a 10-hour bus ride and really had no access to french comics.]

20. Slam the Big Door by John D. MacDonald
John D. Macdonald (along with Patricia Highsmith, who you'll see next) have become my two favorite cheap paperback authors. You can always find their books in a used book store for cheap and both were prolific (especially MacDonald). Slam the Big Door is a non-Travis McGee, but still contains all the classic elements: decadent establishment types in the height of the sexual revolution, spoiled, sour marriages, drinking, levels of toughness. This one was entertaining but meandered a bit at the end, not sure of where it was going and thus not totally delivering.

21. The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith.
She really was a disturbing genius. Her books look with depth and detail at the lives of normal people, people with weaknesses, and what happens to them when things start to go wrong. In this one, a recently divorced man who moves out to upstate NY accidently comes between a nice but quirky girl and her petty resentful boyfriend. The protagonist is really the good guy, but he's just slightly off, a little weird and this dooms him. He meets the girl by sneaking up to her house and watching her through her window. But he's not a pervert. He's sad and lonely and watching her quietly and happily living her life makes him happy. He didn't even want to meet her, but he does and she starts to like him. He is constantly trying to hide from the rest of the town that he was looking through her window (she caught him and didn't mind; that's how they met) and when the shit hits the fan (the jealous boyfriend tries to kill him and then disappears, putting the suspicion on him) this one weird thing starts to make everybody suspicious of him. It's a dark book and fascinating. Very hard to put down because of the narrative and the character study. Good stuff.

22. A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
A funny and complex look at the relationship between british and indian society as the Jewel in the Crown starts to lose its shine at the beginning of the twentieth century. It's much more about the characters than the politics (unlike the movie). It made me extremely interested in the history of India and how it was colonized in the first place. An excellent book and I won't say more about it here because it's all been said by smarter people.

23. A Long Finish by Michael Dibdin
Dibdin is one of the better current mystery writers. His Aurelio Zen books portray a hyper-cliched, but rich enough to probably be realistic Italy and they do it well. The protagonist is very likable, with an excellent toughness of style. He's no big fighter but he knows how to play the game of politics and culture and it makes him very cool. This one is about the murder of a local vintner and has a lot of stuff about regional wine politics and truffle hunters. Great side characters and great locations. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

19. Aquablue by Cailleteau et Vatine

Aquablue cover pictureWritten by Thierry Cailleteau drawn by Olivier Vatine

French comics are sold in albums. If you've seen a Tintin or an Asterix, you know what I mean. Hard-covered, large format and fairly expensive. They tend to have 64 pages. If a series does well, it is usually collected into what is called an intégrale. These can be from 3-6 albums. I try to look for those because there is a limit to how many BDs you are allowed out at a time (10 at the local branch, but only 3 at the Bibliotheque Nationale) so you get way more reading for your borrow and are ensured to read the whole series (or cycle, as a complete story within a given character line is called).

I explain this to give you some sense of how I am picking out comics. I have found some authors that I like and I have slowly gotten some recommendations, from people and reading online reviews. But there is just so much material out there (I weep for joy) that sometimes you just have to go for a shotgun approach. So I will just grab any intégrales I see (they are easy to spot by their thicker spine) and check if the art and story interests me.

The cover of Aquablue looked interesting, but I didn't groove immediately on the art. It has that slightly cartoony '70s feel and a bit more than usual of the perfect bodies (check out the blue babe). But I was feeling like some real sci-fi after all the contemporary comics I'd been reading, so I picked it up.

It turned out to be a good find and I'm glad to know there are two more cycles to come after this one. It's a very cool concept, with a strong environmental and anti-colonialist theme. It's about a planet that is almost entirely covered in water. There is one small continent and several small islands. The people are peaceful and highly adapted to the water, though they are land-living. An earth-based company discovers that the ocean's energy can be tapped and sent back to the greedy, consumerist home planet.

The lynchpin is a human, a child whose rescue shuttle crashed on Aquablue and raised by the natives. He looks like a surfer and, though not as genetically comfortable in the water as his adopted people, he is still a marine ass-kicker. He becomes a cause célèbre on earth. There is a lot more going on, including a military contingency that is sent at first to protect earth's corporate interests but then starts to question its role, space pirates, mysterious and enormous sea creatures and the deserted remains of an underwater civilization. It all comes together into an exciting and moving story. Again, the french don't pull their punches. Their is some brutal stuff in Aquablue as the natives are rounded up into slave teams and experimented on by a psychotic chemist towards eradicating the entire race.

Another enjoyable read.

Monday, September 04, 2006

18. Tramp by Kraehn and Jusseaume

Tramp 1 cover pictureWritten by Jean-Charles Kraehn drawn by Patrick Jusseaume

Tramp is a 4-album dark and sombre noir/adventure taking place in the shipyards, ports and seas of post WWII Atlantic Ocean. It's about a ship owner in financial trouble, with a dying daughter, who plans an immoral and desperate scheme to buy a barely serviceable cargo ship and blow it up for the insurance. He hires a young, competent captain who is having trouble getting any work because of a scandal during the war. The captain doesn't know about the plan and is grateful for the opportunity, though due to his experiences, naturally wary.

Tramp 1 cover picture

Before leaving, he begins seeing the ship owner's secretary and they fall in love. She accidently discovers the plan but gets found out and is brutally raped and tortured by the tough and rotten first mate (first mates are often tough and rotten, aren't they? How about Allen, Captain Haddock's old nemesis?). The young captain leaves with the ship anyways, suspicious and heartbroken, but not realizing his new love's death was connected in any way to him or the ship he is piloting. There are of course plenty of clues and machinations in motion to get him involved and this is what drives the majority of the story.

Tramp 1 cover picture

The art is great, really capturing the grey sea and sky, the rusted metal and wet wood of industrial ports, the desperate, hard nature of the people who survive off the economy around them. Though it is very noir in tone and design, ultimately, like many french BDs, it is an adventure. There is a lot of action and the ending is particularily spectacular. The protagonist gets into some serious shit! There are also a great cast of secondary characters: sleazy south american guides/middlemen, wealthy arms dealers, ex-nazi submarine crews, east african prostitutes. It's very similar in many ways to a Desmond Bagley novel.

This is what I really love about the BDs. They are arty and self-conscious, but they really like to tell a good story and they like cool, badass stuff. But they do it intelligently and beautifully and they don't pull their punches. It makes for a gritty, gripping and very satisfying read. Very cool. Strongly recommended. I wish they would translate these things so everyone could read them.

Tramp 1 cover picture