The Cocktail Waitress

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Cocktail Waitress
James M. Cain, editor Charles Ardai, 2012

Premise: This is a previously unpublished novel by Cain (1892-1977), drawn together from several finished manuscripts and the author’s notes. Joan Medford’s life was looking up when her husband died. Despite taking on his debt, she was relieved to be free of him. That was until her sister-in-law tried to adopt her son against her will, and the police believed that she had something to do with her husband’s death. She’ll do what she must to survive, despite her heart, if she can figure out what, exactly to do.

This has been described as a noir story from the perspective of the femme fatale, and it is that, in a way. It’s in the first person, so you have to decide whether Joan is telling the truth or not. You could also read it as the straightforward account of a woman in a bad situation who does what she can, what she thinks is right at the time, or maybe isn’t right, but could turn out best. When her plans falter and fall through, she’s as hurt as anyone.

The most interesting question for me, therefore, is whether both can be true. Joan makes the best decisions she can... maybe. And the truth of it is that other people are damaged by their interactions with her, despite her intentions. So if she is a ‘femme fatale’, are women in other noirs who destroy others just pushed by circumstance at the wrong time?

I’ve only read one other Cain novel (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and it’s been a while. This does seem firmly in his wheelhouse, though, all about people making morally dubious decisions because of their dreams and their desires and suffering for it.

I loved reading this, incidentally. It’s painful in a good way. I empathized with Joan’s pain and struggle, even as I saw her trying to decide between two bad paths. She’s trapped, by society, by her situation, and increasingly by her own choices.

The prose is occasionally gorgeous, although it’s no Chandler, much blunter and more earthy.

(Side Note: The end has a heartrending sucker punch that’s easy to miss if you’re under 40. Read the afterword.)

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Superman: Emperor Joker

Monday, March 18, 2013

Superman: Emperor Joker
Jeph Loeb, J.M DeMatteis, Joe Kelly, Ed McGuinness, Doug Mahnke, et. al.
Collection 2007, Issues released 2000

Premise: Something is very wrong in the state of Metropolis. Superman is in prison for murder, Bizarro leads the JLA, Lois Lane is a megalomaniacal business woman, and somewhere, someone is screaming. Mxyzptlk seems to know what’s going on, but something keeps stopping him from reaching Superman.

This is one of the weirder stories I know which sort of counts as an in-continuity Elseworlds story. What if the Joker had the power of Mr. Mxyzptlk? What if Superman was the only person who sensed that Joker’s twisted reshaping of reality was wrong? Well, then you’d have this story.

It’s a little on the gory side (I mean, Joker, duh) and a little long, because there are tangents about the supporting Superman cast. Supergirl’s plot arc is pretty weak until the plot starts to speed up, the same with Steel and Superboy. Batman, naturally, gets some of the most interesting (and disturbing) plot twists, but he doesn’t appear until the second half. Luthor is well used, Lois’s plot-line is very odd, but has nice moments, and Harley’s not on panel much, but when she is, she’s pretty great. Most of the bits about Bizzaro’s evil League and the altered real Leaguers felt like unnecessary padding, though.

I wondered if, when this was originally released in issues, whether it was advertized as “Emperor Joker” or not. The first half of the story is called “Superman: Arkham” in the issues, and Joker as the architect of all the craziness is revealed only at the end of the fourth issue.

Once the plot focused down to just be about Joker, Superman, Lois and Batman, I liked it a lot more.

Overall I think it’s an interesting story, if often unpleasant, and I’m glad I read it. But it’s definitely not for the casual fan.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Fly Into Fire (Extrahumans, Book 2)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Fly Into Fire (Extrahumans, Book 2)
Sarah Jane Bigelow, 2012

Premise: Sequel to Broken. When last we saw Sky Ranger, he had shaken off the manipulations of the oppressive government and was off to exact some unspecified revenge or justice. Or possibly both? This book follows Sky later as he deals with his past supporting the corrupt government and tries his best to protect the few other extrahumans that remain.

I liked this sequel quite a bit. I liked getting more about Sky Ranger, he’s an interesting character. I liked the new characters as they were introduced, with all of their own troubles, and the return of some of the characters from the first book.

The mix of superheroes and sci-fi dystopia continues; there’s more emphasis on the space travel and sci-fi aspects in this one. There were some scenes of torture that I found really unpleasant, but necessarily so.

The book basically opens with a crash landing, Sky Ranger and a group of other refugees fleeing Earth crash on a mostly-desert planet and have to survive there. I really loved Sky Ranger’s relationships with Renna and Dee, two young women from the crash. The plot twists more than a few times, and actually does read like a comic, in that it’s more several short plotlines strung together than one long arc. That’s fine by me.

Action, adventure and heroes, sounds like a good read.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

A History of the World in 6 Glasses

Friday, March 8, 2013

A History of the World in 6 Glasses
Tom Standage, 2009

Premise: Exactly what it sounds like. The book traces the movement of history through the popular beverages of each era: Beer, Wine, Spirits, Coffee, Tea and Coke.

This book is just pop history, but it’s well written and entertaining.

I knew most all of the big points being made here, but all of the supporting details were interesting. I liked reading about the origins (mythological and otherwise) of all the beverages, and the connections between the spread of certain drinks and the spread of certain cultures.

The 6 drinks in question have more in common than they have differences, but the exact relationship between people and each one is worth exploring. Some examples: I liked the specific reasons why people would drink each instead of water, and the way many drinks started out as “medicine” before becoming recreational. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the spread of coffeehouses, the ties between the tea trade and the opium trade, and how closely tied Coke used to be to the American military.

This was a great book to read on my commute; lightly educational without being a strain on my brain.

3 Stars - A Good Book

The Invincible Iron Man: Books 1-3

Monday, March 4, 2013

This write-up has been sitting in queue for a while. I read these books from the library a few months ago, but have been collecting my own copies since that time. Yesterday I finally picked up a shiny new copy of the first one at Emerald City Comic Con, and got it signed by Matt Fraction! Woo!

The Invincible Iron Man: The Five Nightmares, 2008
The Invincible Iron Man: World's Most Wanted Book 1, 2009
The Invincible Iron Man: World's Most Wanted Book 2, 2010
Matt Fraction, Salvador Larroca,

Premise: Tony Stark is down but not out. First, in the aftermath of Civil War, he faces his worst nightmare: someone running around making new weapons out of his tech. Then, after Norman Osborn takes over SHIELD, Stark and company go on the run to protect the very information that caused him to fight his fellow Avengers. Before the end, he'll take "self-destructive" right to the limit, even while proving that the one thing he does best is create. These three graphic novels compile the first 19 issues of Matt Fraction's run writing Iron Man.

These were downright awesome. Just awesome.

Sure, there are a few plot moments that on second thought had me scratching my head and saying, wait, how did that happen? Sure, there was a panel here and there where the art gets awkward or just oddly skewed, although overall the art is really strong. Also, a big heads-up, a giant crossover event happens in the Marvel Universe between Issues 8 and 9 (between the story arcs). So when you pick up the second book you're starting with a major shift in the status quo. Read the intro page, you'll be fine. Stand-alone stories are for wussies.

Anyhow. AWESOME: Still the bottom line here.

The first arc may be slightly more coherent, and the use of narration is much better there. The second arc, though, has tons of really satisfying moments. Also there's some seriously amazing ladies in these books. It's like a way-more-badass Charlie's Angels, with Pepper, Maria Hill and Black Widow all running (or striding confidently) into danger.

Pepper Potts. I love you. I thought I loved you before, but now I really love you. I love your loyalty and your fierce determination, I love your iron sense of right and wrong, and I just think you're swell. And I may have laughed aloud in maniacal joy whenever you got to be badass.

The third collection ends the story arc, but definitely lands in a dark place. I want to hug this book and tell it that it's going to be okay, in comics everyone will be okay, eventually.

In short: loved these books. Huzzah!

5 Stars all around.