Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Best Book I've Read All Year!

I missed John Hart’s debut novel, but I now have it ordered. That’s because his Edgar Award winning second novel, Down River is – hands down – the best book I’ve read this year. I picked up the paperback edition last night and sat nailed to my chair until I’d followed the protagonist through a mire of mystery and misery, till I’d solved the last puzzle, and until I’d turned the last page.

On the surface, Down River appears to be an unassuming tale with a relatively small cast of characters that even conveys a somewhat familiar tale. Told in first-person, the novel draws the reader into a steely grip that refuses to let go. The world isn’t at risk. Millions of people aren’t going to die. But Hart makes you care so much about young Adam Chase (and maybe even doubt him a little from time to time), that I’m betting no one else can step away from that book any easier than I could.

Five years ago, twenty-three year old Adam got acquitted of a heinous crime. He was accused of murdering a man about his age, though no one really knew why he did it. However, the key to the case was his stepmother’s testimony that she saw him coming home that night covered in blood. He was arrested and charged based on that testimony.

Although Adam protests his innocence, he doesn’t tell the readers everything either. In fact, he turns out to be less likeable and more violence-prone than I figured he would be by the end of Chapter 1. I understood why he did what he did, but I know that he didn’t have to take the action that he did.

At times, I didn’t quite know what to make of young Adam. He claims to have come back home because his lifelong friend Danny Faith called him and asked for help. However, I wasn’t made privy to that conversation, and suspicions started to build because there was a lot of his past – especially the last five years – that Adam doesn’t talk about. Nor does he want to talk to anyone else about it.

I’ve been fooled by first-person characters before, so I resolved to keep a careful eye on Adam. In the novel, he can’t help but keep meeting trouble head-on.

The relationship with his father is incredibly strained because his father had to choose between believing his wife (Adam’s stepmother) or Adam. The choice was made. Even after his acquittal, Adam found no mercy at home. He moved away to New York.

He also left behind a young lover, a woman he was supposed to marry that is now a police detective. She wears her feelings out in the open, the same way she wears her badge. She doesn’t cut Adam any slack, and I couldn’t blame her for it.

Drawn back to his hometown to find Danny, Adam is surprised when no one knows where he is. The mystery deepens and the stakes grow even higher when Adam discovers that investors want to build a nuclear power plant in town. Land prices skyrocket and every poverty-stricken family in the area is certain they’re about the strike it rich.

Except that Adam’s dad is holding up the deal. Not only does he not want to sell the land that the developers want, but he’s got the primary piece the deal hinges on. No one can move forward without his agreement. And he’s not giving it.

With all the pressure from inside the family and inside the community, Adam’s stay in town isn’t pleasant. Part of him came back to help Danny, but there’s another part that admits he’s come back to set the record straight and see if he can return.

I loved all this backstory and setup. It sounds like a lot, but Hart weaves everything together to quickly and effortlessly with simple and elegant prose that readers won’t notice how much information they’re getting until they’re deep inside Adam’s skin. By that time, it’s too late. Hart will have staked out his latest victims.

Hart knows the people of the region he writes about too. The characters are full and natural, with enough individualism that they come to life on the pages. Everyone has their own agenda, and Hart establishes all of that with a few simple brushstrokes as he works on his novelist’s canvas. The dialogue is rich and easy to absorb, and it sounds natural to the mental ear.

His descriptions of the natural world, of the forests and river, and the lifestyles of the characters make everything come to life. Mental movies kept playing through my mind. Yet with all of this, Hart still manages to push his story along on a bored-out V-8 engine that demands careful attention.

Danger lurks on every page, but so do the mysteries and secrets. Adam has to go the distance to figure out everything that’s going on, and Hart plays fairly with the mystery readers: all the clues are there, in plain sight. I figured everything out just ahead of the story’s climax, which is absolutely the best place a mystery reader and put the puzzles together.

I sat engrossed in this novel for hours, and when I was finished, I wished I had another book just like it that I could dive right into. That’s the sign of a great writer and a great story. Now I’m anxiously awaiting The King of Lies and will pre-order his third novel as soon as it lists on Amazon.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Yep, You're Getting Older!

Yesterday was my son Chandler's 11th birthday. I told him he was looking older.

He was also looking a lot like Amerigo Vespucci, for whom America was named. It was also Explorers Day at school.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Supergirl has been one of the hardest characters at DC Comics to script. In the beginning, she was a younger, female edition of Superman. Her story was pretty much the same as Superman’s: rocketed to earth by her parents, adopted by a family (after a stint in an orphanage – due mostly to people pointing out that the Kents could hardly have just kept young Kal-El without explanation, although that would have been easily accepted back in 1938 when the strip originated), joined the Legion of Super Heroes, and ended up with super-pets.

Back in those days, Linda Lee Danvers (Supergirl) pretty much took the place of Superboy. She went through a lot of the same problems with maintaining a secret identity, friendships, and pesky villains.

However, when women’s lib came along in the 1960s and 1970s, the character changed and took on those issues. Her costume changed and became more daring. Unfortunately, the characterization and reader interest pretty much flat-lined.

DC Comics killed the character off in the 1985 Crisis storyline, but she was brought back as a man-made protoplasmic lifeform created by Lex Luthor in a pocket universe. Of course, she was neither Kryptonian nor Superman’s cousin in this incarnation.

Peter David came along years later and revamped the character, making her a composite of the lifeform and a human girl, which added further complexity to Supergirl. I enjoyed those books for a while, especially Ed Benes’s sexy rendition of Supergirl.

Then Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee brought Supergirl back in the Superman/Batman series. Her popularity quickly manifested into an ongoing series. But, despite linking her to the Legion of Super Heroes, the strip once again began to languish.

Now, finally, there’s a breath of fresh air in the series. Beginning with issue #34, Sterling Gates takes over the reins of the strip as the writer, and he’s bringing a ton of Superman lore, new villains, new plotlines, a new secret identity, and an honest teen girl perspective to Supergirl.

I read through the issue and fell in love with the character all over again. Then I read it again, picking out the nuances and the bits of lore Gates brings to the strip.

Kara Zor-EL is a genuine teen girl who doesn’t fit into our world. One of the most powerful beings on the planet, Gates shows readers how vulnerable Supergirl is. Despite the fact that bullets bounce off her and lasers might provide a tickle, public condemnation cuts into her deeply.

The opening splash page bares everything Gates wants to tackle with his take on the strip. The newspaper headline screams “WHY THE WORLD DOESN’T NEED SUPERGIRL.” And it’s written by Cat Grant, a longtime Superman character that’s going to take prominence in the series – at least for a while.

Cat Grant doesn’t like Supergirl, and she’s going out of her way to discredit the young heroine in The Daily Planet. Personally, I think this is going to shape up as a battle of epic proportions (especially after the note Supergirl leaves Cat on her desk later in the issue), and I’m looking forward to it.

Cat’s conversation with Lois and Clark quickly brings readers up to date with other points Gates plans on addressing in his take on the series. Supergirl is not infallible. She makes mistakes. In an earlier issue, she promises to save a young cancer victim (not from his disease, but from a villain – though the family thinks she means from the disease) and can’t. There’s going to be fallout from that.

Then Gates shifts into high gear with action against the Silver Banshee and things get even worse. The battle ends up trashing the Metropolis Monarchs baseball field and ticks off the fans. Instead of getting accolades for risking her life, Supergirl gets a drink thrown into her face.

Then she discovers that story that Cat Grant has released into the world.

I felt the pain that Supergirl going through. For any teen, male or female, harsh words hurt. But for a girl who’s trying to step out into the public and be someone (a singer, a cheerleader, an actress), any kind of negativity totally undermines confidence and trust in the world. Gates shows this in Supergirl’s behavior and discussion with Superman.

But this is where Jamal Igle’s art really shines as well. Jamal’s renderings of the characters are dead-on, and his action sequences truly rock, but he really delivers the subtlety of emotions that thread through Supergirl and shake her to her core. The pages and breakdowns are a dream. Inker Keith Champagne and colorist Nei Ruffino make Jamal’s art pop with a vibrancy that draws the eye back again and again.

The mistake Supergirl makes when thinking about Superman’s advice to her is endearing. As a father, I’ve seen my teenage kids take my advice wrong, interpret it in ways I didn’t mean, and I sometimes wasn’t quick enough or alert enough to catch that mistake. Superman told her she had the ability to disguise herself, to become someone else and dodge the bullet on Cat Grant’s smear campaign. He meant it in the kindest way, wanting to shield her, but his idea clearly goes against the grain of Supergirl’s view of herself. She likes being who she is, and she’s not going to give that up without a fight.

I enjoyed the limited tour through the DC Universe as Supergirl seeks an answer to her dilemma. She talks to the Teen Titans, and Robin gives her the first piece of her answer by giving her something from Superboy (Kon-El). Her conversation with Wonder Woman during a battle further cements the answer to the problem.

But it’s the appearance of Lana Lang, Clark’s teen crush, that really seals the deal. Gates obviously has far-reaching plans for the character since he’s set her up as an opponent to Lex Luthor (potentially marked for death?) and because he’s bringing Lana back to The Daily Planet.

Not only that, but Gates acknowledges the L. L. initials of the women in Superman’s life in a way that blew me away.

Currently, Gates is part of the triumvirate that’s holding down the Kryptonian franchise in DC Comics that’s going to put the super back in superhero. James Robinson is scripting Superman and Geoff Johns is scripting Action Comics.

The three have already written an overlapping epic involving the Bottle City of Kandor (a longtime part of Superman’s mythos), and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do.

If you haven’t picked up an issue of Supergirl in a long time, now is the time to do so. I suspect Gates’s run on the series will last, and these early issues are going to turn out to be hard-to-find collectible editions. He’s going to give us a Supergirl we haven’t seen, a slew of new Supergirl-centric villains, and storylines that flip back and forth between heroics and humanity. (I’ve even heard that Streaky the Super Cat is coming back in a fashion like Krypto that will be both palatable and endearing!)

Welcome to your first series, Sterling Gates. I look forward to being even further engaged in the new Supergirl myth you’re weaving.

If you haven't been reading Janica's Ravings, here's a clear reason you should be. Enjoy.

Great Western Movie!

Shiloh and I just went to this adaptation of Robert B. Parker's novel of the same name. We're both Parker fans, Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen fans, and love good tough guy movies. Appaloosa hits on all cylinders and maintains a plot that moves at a steady gallop.

I'll have a review up at CinemaHound.com soon.