The Fire Baby

In Jim Kelly’s THE FIRE BABY, Maggie Beck makes a deathbed confession about an incident from 20 years earlier: a fiery plane crash in which the only two survivors were Maggie and a baby whose parents were killed in the impact. But it’s to whom Maggie confesses her secret that drives the novel: a woman named Laura, just awakening from a coma following her own horrific accident.

Laura’s husband Philip Dryden is a reporter who has to uncover the clues of this confession, since his wife can only speak with the aid of a computer setup, which she controls with her eyes. To go into the confession — part of which is revealed rather quickly — would be giving away a major spoiler. I would just feel awful to give away a key component to such a puzzle of a mystery.

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Supernatural: Origins

If the idea behind the SUPERNATURAL TV series turns you on, but its hipper-than-thou stars turn you off, WildStorm’s comics prequel SUPERNATURAL: ORIGINS is for you. The pilot episode of the show began with a prologue that showed a wife and mother of two suddenly and inexplicably burning to death on the ceiling, while her husband watched helplessly. Then it flashed forward about two decades to tell the tale of the ghost-busting brothers.

But the six-chapter ORIGINS, scripted by Peter Johnson and illustrated by Matthew Dow Smith, fills in the blanks and focuses on their father, John Winchester. Understandably troubled at becoming a widower so young, the troubled new Mr. Mom vows to find who — or what — killed his wife.

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QUICKGASM >> 6.30.08

The talented MariNaomi kisses and tells (and does a lot more) in the sixth issue of her self-published ESTRUS COMICS. Don’t be put off by its hand-stamped, do-it-yourself cover, because this San Francisco artist’s stories justify the $5 price. These confessional comics document her flirtations and copulations from boyfriends and assorted flings past, including the car-radio thief who immersed himself in role-playing games (“… and the other day when we were making love, I was imagining we were in one of my maps and you were an elfin princess”). Her cartooning style is deceptively simple — its clean lines and ink-black backgrounds really allow you to focus on the characters’ emotions, which are real and raw. That makes MariNaomi’s work honest, brave and sometimes awfully funny.

In the “visual novel” MR. FOOSTER TRAVELING ON A WHIM, the key word is “whim,” as in “whimsy.” Tom Corwin’s loosey-goosey story follows the fair Mr. Fooster as he walks with no intended direction, thinking about arcane mysteries of the universe (like why no word rhymes with “orange”), encountering various insects and reptiles, and blowing soap bubbles that turn into objects like cars. There’s a point, eventually, to its 100 pages, which enchants, but one can’t help but think Corwin — like Fooster — took a longer route than need be. Craig Frazier provides detailed illustrations on every spread. It’ll take you all of 10 minutes to read, but its message sticks with you a little longer. And if it doesn’t, you need to read it again.

PARACINEMA may look and sound like a zine, but its writing and presentation places it much higher than your average publication devoted to B-movies and cult classics. Despite an unwieldy subtitle I’m not retyping, it’s also shorn of the usual fanboy panting, instead taking a more essay-driven route. Less-than-serious movies, after all, do deserve serious discussion. Issue #3 contains a piece of understanding the “Droogs” language in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, complete with a glossary; an appreciation of director Jim Wynorski; interviews with CREATURE OF THE BLACK LAGOON‘s Ricou Browning and splatter pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis; and much more. It’s all in full color, on slick paper and — avoiding the death knell of most indie movie mags — nicely designed.

Included as a freebie with select unrated DVDs of ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM is Dark Horse Comics’ one-shot ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: DEADSPACE. It’s a short and simple little tale of two astronauts floating through space who come across some acid-spewing queen Aliens, who then are hunted down by some laser-shooting Predators. The end. It would be neat as part of an overall anthology of several stories set in this franchise-meshed world, but on its own, what’s the point? There’s not much to Mike Kennedy’s script, but Francisco Ruiz Velasco’s art is nice to look at. Random pinup pages pad the page count. Glad it was free (too bad the rotten movie wasn’t). —Rod Lott

Buy it at Amazon.

Fer-De-Lance / The League of Frightened Men

I’ve long been intrigued by Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, especially with comparisons that place the detective character alongside Sherlock Holmes or Perry Mason. With Bantam now reissuing the mysteries in affordable two-in-one trade paperbacks, starting with FER-DE-LANCE / THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN, I was able to see what the fuss was all about.

I’m no longer intrigued. Now I’m just perplexed. There may be dozens upon dozens of Wolfe novels out there, but I honestly can’t see how he became so popular. Let’s face it: The guy’s an absolute asshole. There, I said it.

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Dungeon Monstres 1: The Crying Giant

DUNGEON, a graphic series spoof of fantasy-horror by Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar, popular in their native France, is slowly being issued in this country by comics publisher NBM. But this particular volume — DUNGEON MONSTRES 1: THE CRYING GIANT — is not the best introduction to the series.

By its own admission the MONSTRES sub-series features the secondary characters. The cover is also misleading, as the book actually contains two stories. “John-John the Terrible,” the unlisted first story, follows a group of oddball creatures as they make their way to Dungeon, a castle where, they hear, they can live peacefully while seeking adventure.

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Jan Brett: Wizard?

Absolutely no offense or malice toward children’s book author/illustrator extraordinaire Jan Brett, who’s an extremely nice and talented lady, but her new publicity photo for her upcoming GINGERBREAD FRIENDS cracked me up, because it looks like she’s a cunning sorceress, casting a spell on this little cookie guy — perhaps even one that might affect you, like you’d take a bite of this treat and instead of tasting the expected cinnamon spice and vanilla icing, you’d taste pickles. I mean, the clock’s pointing to the witching hour and everything!

Heck, it begs for a caption contest, doesn’t it? Use the comments section to offer up your best. The one that makes me laugh the hardest wins a paperback from the BOOKGASM Prize Vault (which is actually a cardboard box in my garage) — your choice from among several available titles. I’ll give you through the weekend to come up with something crafty. Go!

Kill Whitey

You can’t ever discount the value of a good title. When Brian Keene’s KILL WHITEY hit my radar, I was a bit ambivalent. Keene’s work represents that great unknown that you find a lot of in the books reviewed here: genre titles that often transcend genre. 

So now from Cemetery Dance, we have KILL WHITEY: snazzy title, evocative of a ’70s blaxploitation movie. Even the back of the book had me wondering. That was my mistake. With Keene, you just got to trust him. He always delivers on making his evil interesting and his situations twisted.
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The problem with mystery series — at least for me — is that too many of them go on past their prime. Part of this is because readers don’t seem to notice the fall off that begins with adventure number 31 and continues all the way through adventure number78. The writer is on autopilot and so is the reader. The whole thing becomes a ritual, like mass.

You’ll note that I said “for me.” I’m in the minority in the mystery world where series are concerned. But that said, I’ve read all the Nero Wolfes twice over and I’m perfectly willing to read them through again. Happily there are exceptions, like Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective series, of which FEVER is the latest.

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NEWSGASM >> 6.26.08

newsgasmAll the news that’s fit to capsulize!

To promote Nancy Kress’ upcoming sci-fi novel DOGS, Tachyon Publications is holding a contest, seeking photos of readers with their beloved canines. Three lucky owners will be picked to win a gift pack, including a signed copy of the book and special treats for the pup. Pics may be submitted by July 31 via Flickr or e-mail.

• If you’re pathetic enough to have a PC instead of a Mac, at least you can take solace in your misery by reading at work, thanks to a nifty website from the New Zealand Book Council that disguises novels and short stories into a faux Windows desktop. Genius! Eat that, The Man!
• God bless Cory Doctorow for releasing his IDW sci-fi comic series CORY DOCTOROW’S FUTURISTIC TALES OF THE HERE AND NOW as a free downloadable e-book.
• Self-explanatory, sacrilegious and side-splitting: the top 10 Amazon reviews of The Bible.
• Random House Children’s Books has launched Vronegard Academy, an immersive online game tied to the September release of Christopher Paolini’s newest fantasy novel BRISINGR.
• Athena’s Bookshelf wonders, “What makes a writer ‘gifted’?” Discuss.
• Mystery Readers International has spoken, and its nominees for the 2008 Macavity Awards are …

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The Monster of Florence

When I first heard about Douglas Preston’s Italian journalist pal Mario Spezi being imprisoned for their investigation into a serial killer, I’ll admit I thought I smelled a hoax — an effort to build buzz for what would be a forthcoming thriller. THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE is that novel, only it’s not a novel at all. Oh, it may read like one, but its contents are remarkably, sadly, startlingly true.

Primarily in the ’80s, Florence was terrified by the gruesome killing spree of the so-called “Monster of Florence,” who slew only couples making love in their cars under the fragrant Tuscan night. The male half of the quotient was removed immediately, so that the criminal could concentrate on his female victim — not raping her, but killing her certainly, and sometimes taking off with a prize, such as her left breast or vaginal canal.

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