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Hey kids. Do you remember this!? Ah. Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. I used to love that show. Now maybe you would think I wanted to take after Spider-Man. After all, he is the star. Or how about Iceman? But no, my favourite character was always Firestar. Not because I wanted to be a girl or anything…..let’s start again – fire powers are cool!

So I was always curious about her character. Imagine my surprise when I eventually started to read Marvel comics and discovered not only was she not ‘friends’, with Spider-Man – she did not even exist in comics before the show. Eventually she got shoved into the X-Men almost as an afterthought, but I don’t think my child self ever got over that disillusionment (cos…y’know…fire powers….cool!).

This book is not all about my girl Firestar. In fact it is a ‘non-team’, comic, focusing on several random young superheroes who have all been somewhat forgotten. First off there is Gravity, one of Sean McKeever‘s own creations, a nominally cheerful young hero, who has begun to question the legitimacy of arrested superpowered criminals, as they only just escape to wreck havoc again. Then there’s Araña, recently depowered and so unknown most people call her Spider-Girl. Nomad is a girl from an alternate world where she was a highly trained sidekick to the most famous superhero on her Earth – here she is no one. What’s worse she had a friend on this other Earth named Benito Serrano, who has his own counterpart in her new home. Though he takes the same superhero name, Toro, and has the same abilities, he has no idea who she is. What’s more only Araña is capable of speaking Spanish with him (at one point Gravity mutters regretfully that he took German in school).

What brings these heroes together is a violent gang of young villains, the aptly named Evil Bastards, who torture and kill New Yorkers for fun and then upload the footage online for their ‘fans’. Gravity in particular is horrified by the callousness of the gang and is pushed to the edge, in danger of himself becoming a killer in retaliation. In their first encounter with the Evil Bastards, one of the villains detonates a massive explosion on the site of Ground Zero itself.

McKeever has stated that the theme of this book “was that [the Young Allies are] fighting for the soul of their generation”. In a neat piece of meta-commentary it is made clear that what McKeever is referring to is the morals of comic books themselves. The Evil Bastards (sounds like a Warren Ellis rock band) claim to be the sons and daughters of supervillains themselves. Their contempt for the value of life, to my mind, reflects the persistence of shock tactics and ultraviolence in contemporary comics. As the older villain Electro comments, to violate the sanctity of Ground Zero itself would be unthinkable for him. It is a horrific moment in the book itself, but Gravity’s obsession with finding justice for the victims properly addresses the true horror of this event.

I found myself comparing McKeever’s use of an actual site of tragedy, with what has been revealed in the trailer for the  upcoming X-Men movie. The plot will involve the superheroes in an actual historical event – the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think ultimately McKeever is respectful in his use of 9/11 as a feature of the plot. The Evil Bastards are reminiscent of message board users making horrible jokes about actual tragedies. One of them even describes her crimes as being like playing an MMO. Marvel Comics frequently used nuclear radiation as a plot device and McKeever refers to this again throughout the book. Firestar, for one, suffers from her constant exposure to incredible temperatures and is in fact a cancer survivor. It is a neat reversal of the comic-book science that allowed for characters such as The Hulk, or Spider-Man gaining superpowers from radiation.

This flirting with realistic concerns and comic book absurdity is ably managed by McKeever, who has a great partner in crime in penciller David Baldeon. The art reflects the threatened innocence of the characters. I particularly like his designs for the Evil Bastards themselves, all quite creative in their callbacks to the absent parents they draw inspiration from.

So Young Allies is that rare thing – a quietly ambitious superhero comic with a lot of heart. Recommended for comic book fans looking something less cynical than certain popular titles out there.

Somebody enquires: Are you still a Marxist? Never before has the devastation caused by the pusuit of profit, as defined by capitalism, been more extensive than it is today. Almost everybody knows this. How then is it possible not to heed Marx who prophesied and analyzed the devastation? The answer might be that people, many people, have lost all their political bearings. Mapless, they do not know where they are heading.

A few months before Stephanie and I were married we travelled to Foggy London Town to choose a wedding dress for the big day. While there, we looked up an old friend for lunch. I remember at one point we were discussing our reasons for wanting to move to Australia. We had lived together in Sydney already for a year and so thought it only fair to do the same in Dublin. In addition, we felt it was important for my family to get to know the woman I had chosen to marry. Given the distances between our respective families, the normal routine would not be possible. As it was my parents only met Stephanie’s on the day of the wedding itself.

The course of international romance never runs smoothly.

At any rate, we were chatting away about our future prospects when I mentioned that one of the reasons we were leaving Ireland was because in Australia we could actually see ourselves having a future. My home was swept up in economic turmoil, wasteful political in-fighting and a general apathy on the part of the public in what was happening to the country, despite the growing mountain of debt. Our friend was greatly surprised at this. Aren’t the Irish rebels, she said, coming from a culture defined by its fight for independence and resistance against the British occupation? Weren’t we taught as children to admire men like Daniel O’Connell, Charles Parnell and Michael Collins?

Well yes and no, came the reply. We talk a good game, but when it comes to politics the Irish turn a blind eye to the decisions that have the biggest impact on public life. There would be a lot of complaining, certainly, but little in the way of grass-roots political action. Those protesters that did persist in Ireland, such as the anti-Shell protests in Corrib, tended to be dismissed as crusty hippies.

So here I am watching the news from home, hearing about how the IMF have begun to assess the economic mismanagement of my country, the refusal of our leaders to accept any responsibility and the rising calls for a change of government. Too late, too late, the writing was on the wall years ago.

This collection of essays by John Berger focuses on the global political inarticulacy of responses to the illegal invasion of Iraq by Western nations and their allies; the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and what it revealed about the poverty ordinary Americans suffered; the encroachment of Israeli forces on Palestinian settlements; and the hypocrisy of Tony Blair’s reaction to the tragic London bombings.

Statesmen pitch the rhetoric while ordinary people across the world separated from us by geography, class and war suffer. What is worse, we all know their stories. There is this sense of impotence or apathy that pervades the coverage of these events, as if nothing is to be done and so we simply change the channel.

Berger’s intermingles poetry and politics, to highlight just how isolated from common feeling the political process has become. The show of sincerity has replaced the need for any statesman to tell the truth. Propaganda has replaced the need for argument. The Twentieth Century has been a time of great opportunity, as well as loss: Our century was one of unprecedented massacres, yet the future it imagined (and sometimes fought for) proposed fraternity. Very few earlier centuries made such a proposal.

Discussions of Paulo Passolini, Emily Dickinson, Francis Bacon and Lars Von Trier are used by Berger to regain that sense of emotion and creativity abandoned by modern politics. Government has become the plaything of corporate interests and as such, has lost any claim on ideals of how we should live.

To take in what is happening, an inter-disciplinary vision is necessary in order to connect the ‘fields’, which are institutionally kept separate. And any such vision is bound to be (in the original sense of the word) political.

This is a powerful collection of essays, strongly recommended.

 

 

‘Ever see the movie 28 Days Later? No? You should. The sequel rocks, too. Anyway, that movie dealt with a virus that stimulated the rage centers in the brain to the point that it was so dominant that all other brain functions were blocked out. The victims existed in total, unending, and ultimately unthinking rage. Very close to what we have here.’

‘What, you think a terrorist with a Ph.D. in chemistry watched a sci-fi flick and thought “Hey, that’s a good way to kill Americans”?’

So it appears someone went and invented a whole new horror sub-genre when I was not looking. Namely books about post 9/11 zombie terrorists. The first book I reviewed for this blog, Feed by Mira Grant did this very successfully I thought. Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth was less so, but thankfully did not take itself too seriously.

Jonathan Maberry’s novel, as the title indicates, is once again concerned with the notion of scientifically plausible zombification. As silly as that sounds, to his credit the author makes a solid attempt at establishing plausible pseudo-science behind the plot.

Which is kicked off thanks to that handy deus ex machina the United States Patriot Act. Joe Ledger is an ex-military serviceman who has worked with the Baltimore Police Department for enough time to realize that if he wants to put his investigative skills to any real use – and make better money – he should become a federal agent. He is well on track to achieving that goal when he is approached by a man known only as Church and recruited to become a member of a secret intelligence agency, the Department of Military Sciences. Their first mission, defeat a plot hatched by Muslim extremists to infect America with a pathogen that reanimates the dead.

Joe’s recruitment is the result of a very special kind of interview. He survives being locked into a room with a zombie. Afterwards he finds himself heading a team of specially chosen grunts and intelligence agents to track down the source of the plague. Meanwhile in the Middle East (don’t you just love that phrase?) a man known as Sebastian Gault has been funding the activities of the terrorist El Mujahid. He will deliver the pathogen created with Gault’s money to the States, but who is manipulating whom? What is more, as the outbreaks of zombie attacks increase, it becomes clear to Joe that someone in the D.M.S., perhaps even a member of his own squad, is feeding information to the enemy.

This book unfortunately contains a number of things that I loathe in horror fiction, in particular the portentous punctuation of doom, otherwise illustrated as ‘…’

On the other hand, Maberry has done an admirable amount of research to justify his far-fetched plot. He also makes a number of nods to pop culture to indicate that this is meant to be above all fun. Characters mention 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead and The Evil Dead. Then there is ‘Doctor Hu’, whose name gets a startled reaction from Joe (who in turn appears to take his name from a Marvel superhero, as Hu points out).

Enough character detail is given to flesh to the plot. As a modern man Joe prefers therapy to the confession box. His friend Rudy likes to debate the finer points of Blue State/Red State political divisions with him. What is more Maberry addresses that the activities of the D.M.S. are unconstitutional. Of course modern terrorism does not respect privacy laws, or the Geneva Convention, so in order to defend America they must fight fire with fire.

Which leads to uncomfortable undertones of fascism. This is a macho fantasy and unashamedly so, but I fail to understand why 9/11, an actual historical event, is being employed to underscore fantastical horror (as already stated in my review of Farnsworth’s book). On that same note this book features a very ugly portrayal of Islam. A character dismisses the criticism that there is no way an Al Qaeda cell hiding in mountainous wilderness could successfully engineer a deadly pathogen in the required lab conditions, by stating that such an argument is racist. Regardless of that handwaving, it does introduce a note of implausibility into the plot. Also the villains of the piece are Muslims and decadent, bisexual Europeans.

Finally, it is not scary. That is something of a deal breaker for me. Think Tom Clancy, but with zombies.

“I am a vampire and a murderer. Whatever else I do in this world, nothing will change that. I can fight on the side of the angels until doomsday, but I’m still damned.”

Some months ago I spotted this book on the shelves of a bookstore in Wollongong. I knew I had to read it, for the title alone. However, I was not prepared to pay thirty dollars for the dubious pleasure. I am a bad taste nut. Two of my favourite shows are Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place. I have my limits though. So it was with great relief that I spotted this book in my local library.

Nathaniel Cade was a sailor on a whaling vessel in 1867. Upon reaching America, he was found in the ship’s hold feeding on the bodies of two other crewmen. He was arrested and sentenced to death, only to be pardoned by the then President of the United States Andrew Johnson. Cade was committed to an asylum for the rest of his days. This, believe it or not, is a story not too dissimilar from actual events.

However, in this universe, that was only the official tale. Cade was instead pledged to serve the office of the President and defend the country itself from threats both internal and from ‘out there’. He has acted in this capacity for over a century and his existence is highly classified.

Now Cade’s services are being called on to protect America from a new threat, an army of unstoppable soldiers created by a conspiracy between Muslim extremists and a familiar foe from the days of the Third Reich. His new partner, Zach Barrows, is a brash and overconfident White House staffer with a lot to learn. The cocky young man has been drafted in to replace Agent Griffin, the vampire’s liaison with the White House for over thirty years and his only friend. Griff has been diagnosed with cancer, leaving Cade to break in his new handler while also looking to prevent the greatest terrorist attack on the United States since 9/11.

This is a very silly book, but also a readable one. Partly this is due to Christopher Farnsworth dropping various easter eggs for fans. Zach comments that Cade’s lair resembles the Batcave;  the two carry recognizable aliases such as Agent Cushing and Agent Lee (although for the joke to really work, the names should have been reversed); there is an enemy operative named G. Morrison; and the evil Nazi scientist at the centre of the plot is a pastiche of Victor Frankenstein and Herbert West.

Also, in fairness to Farnsworth, the plot does race along at a steady pace, retaining the reader’s interest until the climactic finale. By then several problems have already sprung up though.

Firstly I find the post-9/11 references somewhat offensive. The Muslim extremists behind the plot to attack America are not just Islamofascists – they are Satanists also. Cade berates himself for not stopping 9/11 from happening, as he was delayed by an opponent with a flaming sword. This is nonsensical, as the attacks on the Two Towers were due mainly to a failure to properly monitor intelligence on the activities of Osama bin Laden. Implying that an otherworldly force of some kind was acting in concert with the terrorists both excuses the failures of that administration, as well as offers up the basic fantasy that America’s other war, here named the War on Horror, supersedes the current conflict in the Middle East. The mixing of fantasy with this very real tragedy is, to my mind, inexcusable.

Sadly toe-curling chauvenism is evident with the female characters that appear. There is also the issue that this is derivative of other franchises, such as Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Farnsworth’s epilogue to Blood Oath sets up a number of plot-threads for a sequel, but a movie is apparently also in the works. This is somewhat unfortunate, as the Zach character’s role is identical to that of Agent John Myers in Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of Hellboy.

I would have preferred it if Griff had been the main character and narrator of the story. He vanishes for large sections of the book and his relationship with Cade struck me as a more interesting one.

To sum up this is a perfect book to read on a plane journey. Keep your expectations low and your brain on silent.

You see, most people, once they’ve passed, they’re not really interested in talking to this side. The effort’s too much for them. Even if they wanted to do it, they haven’t got the concentration span. You say they give trivial messages, but that’s because they’re trivial people. You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead. You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy.

When Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall won the 2009 Booker Prize it raised quite a few eye-brows. Not least because apparently there was a suspicious flurry of betting on the title before the announcement was made. As I had never read anything by Mantel before, I thought I would check out what all the fuss was about. Following this novel about death, palmistry and the tricks of memory, I am fairly confident Wolf Hall is not another bodice-ripper. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Alison Hart is a palm reader and fortune teller who appears to have a genuine ability to speak to the dead. Overweight and matronly in appearance, with bangles and jewellery for effect, pretending to an Irish ancestry for performance purposes, she expertly juggles the sympathy of her audience, with her gift for insight into their lives. Initially suspicious, Colette becomes convinced of Ali’s gift for speaking with individuals who have passed over ‘spiritside’.

When we first meet Colette she has become an assistant and recorder of Ali’s experiences as a medium. Having escaped a cold marriage to the shallow Gavin, and a career dependent on upskilling her knowledge of office software packages, she embarks on unravelling the mysterious past of her ‘partner’. She discovers that Ali is accompanied by not only an initially mischievous spirit guide named Morris, but the souls of several other increasingly threatening men. All of them figured prominently in her childhood, trapped in a house sitting on a barren English wasteland, where her mother entertained groups of men at a time. Ali never came to know her father and her mother’s grip on sanity began to wither while she was still quite young. When she began to see and hear the dead, she suspected she too was losing her mind.

As Colette spends more time with the bewildering older woman, she begins to wonder if perhaps she has. We follow the developing relationship between the two women during major events such as the death of Princess Diana and the September 11 tragedy. Ali and her community of fellow psychics respond in a very peculiar way to these occurrences, with Di in particular mocked mercilessly by the aging coven of women. Just as Ali’s mother sold her body to an endless number of servicemen, she finds herself selling her body and sanity for the use of irascible spirits haunting their descendents.

At times this book reminded me of Will Self’s How The Dead Live (itself a parody of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake). It lacks the scatological humour of these two books, instead mining a quiet form of personal tragedy. Colette is at a remove from her guru into the ways of the dead courtesy of more than her psychic abilities. She understands divination and palmistry only as a money-making opportunity (which earns the respect of her feckless husband Gavin). To her Ali’s distressing past is only content for a future book on the subject of a genuine psychic, who happens to also be quite the entertainer. Occasionally we are privy to the discussions between Morris and fellow souls spiritside, who linger on the border of this world, waiting for the likes of Ali to give them access to the physical world. They cannot acknowledge that time has marched on and their memories of their lives bear no relationship to the spectacle of psychics on cable television and phone sex lines.

Mantel plays with how we divorce ourselves from being with others by relating only to voices, either the table-tapping of the paranormal set, or a breathy voice echoing out of a phone handset. This is a quiet and unsettling novel about modern lives stranded by a fear of the future and a refusal to acknowledge the past.

It was not a bang, it was a rumble, not overloud, but it thudded into all corners of the morning like a great door slammed in the deepest hollows of the sea. Beside me a heavy wire stay unexpectedly quivered like a cello string for a moment, then stopped.

Now, standing up unsteadily from the sea, was the famous Mushroom.

‘Where were you when it happened?’ Isn’t that the refrain after any major event, or historical signpost erected in hindsight? ‘What were you thinking when you heard the news?’ Historical accounts give a narrative to the events that overtake us throughout our lives, establishing a meaning, or telos as the philosophy lecturers say, out of the reports and findings that are pored over. The twentieth century still defines us, that is to say our understanding of the past one hundred years define us, our ideas of nationality, culture, who we are as peoples. The danger lies in being too selective in what we remember and what we ignore.

Robert Fox’s book is a collection of different writings on the twentieth century. It features easily digestible extracts from personal journals, biographies, reports and, as the twenty-first century approaches, web-blogs. There are even selections from the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, folk songs from Woody Guthrie and gonzo ramblings from Hunter S. Thompson. The book begins with the age of discovery and ends with the century’s extended epilogue that followed the events of September 11 2001. A ‘clash of civilizations’, along religious lines on a scale not seen since the Second World War.

This book also describes the evolution of how we account for our history, the changes in the language employed to describe momentous events. Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium is an adventure that equals the race to the Antarctic between Scott and Amundsen. Britain’s Edwardian Age is seen as the last gasp of the Empire, with the fallout from the tragic expedition to the South Pole a presentiment of the dark days ahead. We refer to the First World War, placing it in sequence. To the peoples of Europe it was known as the Great War, which spread from the mainland to Africa and felled the Russian Tsarist regime. Fox presents John Reed’s ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’, once more, reporting the spontaneous cry ‘Revolutionary discipline! Property of the People..’ during the attempted sack of the Winter Palace. We have an account from the son of a Turkish soldier, whose father was left to die by his fellow troops somewhere on the side of a road. Then there is the Easter Rising in Dublin, seizing the opportunity to try and fight a beleaguered British occupation.

The cracks that followed a ‘peace that brings more victims tomorrow(a quote from a Serbian General from an article published in 1993) inevitably pulls Europe towards a second conflagration. The Spanish Civil War becoming a testing ground for German Blitzkrieg; the new form of journalism that evolves on the hoof courtesy of writers such as George Orwell soon coming to define the style of war reporting; the burning of the Reichstag; the grim doom levelled on European Jews by an insensible madman; and the centrifugal force of the conflict sucking in armies from America, Japan and Australia. Finally the testing of the atomic bomb at the Bikini Atoll, a death-warrant for the whole of humanity prematurely signed with the swirl of a mushroom cloud.

Fox darts and weaves between enemy lines to give a broader appreciation to the conflicts he covers. The story of a British POW escapee’s encounter with a sympathetic German lepidopterist in Occupied Italy was a favourite of mine, as well as the suspicion Robert Graves receives for carrying a copy of Nietzsche’s poems, portrayed in the press as ‘the sinister figure behind the Kaiser’. Then there’s Evelyn Waugh’s contribution to travel writing:I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the tops and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have even seen in art or nature was quite so revolting.’

Fox’s selections are both intimate and revealing. I wonder if we even now realize how soon history will leave us behind.

In the men’s room, he finally took the trouble to examine the money and was encouraged to see the face of Ulysses S. Grant engraved on the front of each bill. That proved to him that this America, this other America, which hasn’t lived through September 11 or the war in Iraq, nevertheless has strong historical links to the America he knows. The question is: at what point did the two stories being to diverge?

First off apologies for the late posting. I was miles away from my trusty Asus this afternoon. While this is being published still within the borders of the prerequisite ‘day’, it is late and I hope you were not waiting in vain. Auster’s novel is a traumatized reaction to the events of September 11 and the invasion of Iraq. I found myself comparing it critically to a number of other writers, yet at the same time Man in the Dark is a statement confronting the failures of American liberalism in the wake of these horrific events in recent history.

August Brill is a man trying to hide from his past. Mourning the death of his wife, he lives with his daughter Miriam and granddaughter Katya. Further tragedies haunt this family, but they retreat into silence, or obsessions to escape the necessary catharsis.

Twinned to this narrative is the story of Owen Brick, a man transported to another America, torn apart by civil war. Several states have followed the example of New York and seceded from the United States. Brick finds himself an unwilling military recruit, ordered to assassinate the man responsible for the horrors being visited on the American people. He protests that he is only a magician and cannot bring himself to kill. The men who have chosen him threaten the lives of his loved ones back in the ‘real world’, if he does not comply. The target for assassination? A writer named August Brill.

I picked up this book as it describes the imaginings of a chronic insomniac. If you ever wondered how I have managed to read 46 titles in as many days, well now you know. Auster also refers to Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno as an explanation for his ‘many worlds’, premise. I took issue with his conclusion that Bruno was executed for the thesis of the plurality of worlds. I always understood the Vatican having ordered his death as his belief in Christian magick fell out of favour with the new pontiff Pope Clement VIII. There is an excellent book by Frances Yates on the subject if anyone is curious.

The world of Owen Brick is quickly established to be a fiction. I was strongly reminded of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark throughout, despite Auster employing the shadow of 9/11. The difference is that for Gray the fantasy world is just as ‘real’, as ours. Philip K. Dick would also do this on occasion, refusing to clarify which perspective of reality is the ‘true’ one. Auster instead describes this alternate America as a distraction from grief, with the endless film viewing of Katya and August fulfilling a similar function. Their shared tragedies must be evaded at all costs.

It is a slim book, perhaps I expected more meat on the bone. I have never read Auster before and I have heard nothing but good things. If anyone can recommend another title by him, I would love to try him out again.

Tomorrow – Scott Pilgrim!

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