February 2022 Books …

WHEW! February blew by with a series of storms and not as much reading as I’d like, but at least one of the book-books (as opposed to graphic novels I read) was a really dense 500-pager. Here’s what I read in this stormy, wintery month …

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

I watched the Masterpiece six-part series of this back in December on PBS and really enjoed it. It was during a time when it seemed like everything I watched starred Lesley Manville (including Sherwood and The Crown) and I was loving it, but when I decided to tackle the book, I pretty much already knew this story. It concerns the adventures of fictional detective Atticus Pünd, a Hercule Poirot-like character set in the 1950s and in his ninth novel, and the “real-life” story of his author, Alan Conroy, who died by suicide … or did he? Either way, he’s taking Pünd with him, much to his book publisher’s chagrin. Susan Ryeland, Conroy’s editor, gets involved when Conroy’s last Pünd book turns up missing its final chapters, and she plays detective herself. It’s a long book for a mystery (500 pages in the Kindle version I read), and I found myself enjoying the present day, “real” section with Ryeland more than the Pünd novel within a novel, which takes up mainly the first half of the book, plus the missing chapters later. All the characters are very well defined, and the ones in the novel all have modern day counterparts. I think the TV series—also written by Horowitz—did a better job of moving back and forth between the two worlds presented in the book and using that dual-character trick, but I still really enjoyed this and I’m looking forward to the sequel, Moonflower Murders, which will also be made into a TV series starring Manville.

Once & Future Vol. 5: The Wasteland by Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora

To be honest, I have long lost the urge to read this series, but after reading the first four volumes, I had to see how the story finished. Sadly its so convoluted at this point, and my knowledge of British legend and history is so sparse that I honestly didn’t know who was who or WTF was going on. bookI love the art by Dan Mora and the color work by Tamra Bonvillain, and although I do like the characters of Gran, Duncan, et al, and the dysfunctional family dynamic between them (and Duncan’s mom, whatever her name is), this book has probably overstayed its welcome by at least five issues. I have yet to read anything by Kieron Gillen that makes me want to read more from him, but the art is amazing and worth the price of admission alone … and I’ve never seen a comics color palette as vibrant as Bonvillain’s in this series.

The Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 3: Hobgoblin by Zeb Wells and John Romita Jr. et al

This paperback collects issues 9 through 14 of Spidey’s main title and when it’s by Wells and JRJR, this book literally sings. While Romita Jr.’s faces are still kind of awkward and the proportions of head to body are sometimes a bit off-kilter, his superhero figure-work and dynamic storytelling is up there with his dad’s best work and even approaches Kirby. And Scott Hanna is the perfect inker for him, too. Unfortunately, only three issues of this collection—in other words, half—are by Wells and JRJR; the remaining issues are part of two Marvel Events (are they really “events” when they happen every freakin’ month?), one featuring the ramifications of “A.X.E.” (I think that’s some giant Avengers/X-Men/Eternals crossover) and one setting up a Spidey-oriented event called “Dark Web.” And both of those things are fairly awful, even though they’re written by Wells. Also the Dark Web storyline features Ben Reilly (I could never buy into the infamous “Clone Saga” and all the garbage that came with it) and a supernatural villain, which I hate for Spidey. He’s best when he’s more grounded in reality … or as real as a twenty-something normal guy with powers given to him by a radioactive spider can be. Read this one for the three Hobgoblin issues, the namesake of this volume.

Daredevil & Elektra: The Red Fist Saga Vol. 1 by Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checchetto, et al

I was very disappointed in this yet another restart for the Daredevil saga, which pulls him out of New York City (an important character in any DD story), and marries him off to Elektra as they form a new secret organization called The Fist to combat the evil secret organization called The Hand that spawned both of them. Yuck. Throw in a new villain called “Goldy,” who is basically The Purple Man with the same powers of suggestion only a different color scheme (and who, it’s now revealed, may have been manipulating DD’s life for YEARS), an overly religious tone, disappointing artwork (I normally love Checchetto’s work, but he only does two of the five issues compiled here and they seem lackluster at best), and I find myself on the fence about continuing with the next trade collection a few months down the road. It’s a shame … I’ve really enjoyed Zdarsky’s take on this character, but maybe the umpteenth Marvel event, Devil’s Reign, should have been his swan song. I fear it’s time for someone else to tackle the Man Without Fear for Marvel.

Hulk Grand Design by Jim Rugg

This is the third Grand Design series collected into a Marvel Treasury Edition. The first two were X-Men Grand Design by Ed Piskor (which was three volumes), and Fantastic Four Grand Design by Tom Scioli. Of the three, I think this latest one featuring the Incredible Hulk by Jim Rugg is the most visually pleasing. The concept of the Grand Design format is retelling the arc of a title and its characters in each of these artist’s signature styles. It’s reminiscent—to me at least—of the Strange Tales mini-series from a decade or so ago by Marvel, where alternative comics artists drew Marvel characters, except this time they’re not looking for laughs but retelling the Marvel Comics canon. I think both Piskor and Scioli’s books got too caught up in trying to ape the look of old comics; FFGD is hard for me to read because of the muddiness of the art on the paper, which is made to look like an old comic book. (Also, if you’re an old fart like me—or maybe even a young fart—don’t try to read these books in their original comic book printings; wait for the Treasury editions that collect the issues into one over-sized book; it’s how the artists meant them to be read.) I love the way Rugg designed this book, which to me, at least, is more readable, with less panels per page (Scioli’s FFGD has a five-tier panel grid as its main format). I also love that Rugg incorporated various Hulk art from the actual comics (the “next issue” blurbs page is my favorite, along with the Hulk artists spread that Steranko designed for the Marvel fanzine, FOOM); it feels like a more complete history of the Hulk to me with this kind of visual elements included. Re-creating the Hulk’s story arc like this breaks it down to basic story beats, almost like bullet points, but Rugg’s art style is very pleasing; it reminds me of what you might get if an underground cartoonist drew a fill-in issue of the Incredible Hulk back in the mid-1970s. Bonus points for the Pittsburgh provenance of all three Grand Design creators!

Lying Beside You by Michael Robotham

This is book three in the Cyrus Haven series of books by author Michael Robotham. Haven is a forensic psychologist working with the Nottingham police in England. He lives with a young woman, Evie Cormac, who has an extremely checkered past, and acts as kind of her guardian, even though she’s now 21 years old. This book—which is, as the Brits say, “cracking”—has two separate plotlines, which of course converge at the end to maximum effect. The first one concerns Cyrus’s big brother, Elias, who killed his and Cyrus’s twin sisters and parents many years ago. He’s served his sentence and is deemed “cured,” with his schizophrenia controlled by medication, and he is coming to stay with Cyrus and Evie. The second plotline involves a serial killer who preys on young women, drugging their drinks and cutting off all their hair before killing them. But is it really a random set of murders or something else? I’ve read all three of the Cyrus Haven books and enjoyed them all, but I think this might be the best, a thought I didn’t have until more than halfway through it. Not a lot of authors can write good, cinematic, action sequences, the kind that conjure up a movie in your head, but Robotham does an amazing job with the conclusion of this book, providing one of the best action-packed and satisfying endings of any mystery/thriller book that I’ve read in the past year. More Cyrus and Evie, please!

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