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Alessandra Kelley (Chicago, IL United States)

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Infernal Devices (Angry Robot)
Infernal Devices (Angry Robot)
by K. W. Jeter
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It's Weirder Than That, 9 Jan. 2012
Like many firsts, "Infernal Devices" is not at all typical of the steampunk genre. But it's a fun read, written with sly humor.

K. W. Jeter coined the term "steampunk" to describe his and his friends' postmodern neo-Victoriana writings. "Infernal Devices" is a convoluted mystery with wickedly subtle humor narrated by George Dower, a hapless and rather unlikeable heir to the workshop and clientele of his genius watchmaker father, who taught him nothing and abandoned him at an early age.

Dower is dragged from his quiet, impoverished life into schemes involving absurd secret societies, his father's leftover devices, a plot to destroy the world, a clockwork double, and a hidden race of London-dwelling fish-men. There are outrageous coincidences and a recurrent theme of deceptive appearances.

There are a couple of con artists whose language is so distinctly modern I expected them to be time travelers. But no, in actuality it's weirder and more interesting than that.

Frankly, the motto of this book should be "in actuality it's weirder and more interesting than that," as absurdity piles on top of absurdity and people, events, and devices are shown to be not what they seemed.

A few aspects nagged at me. None of the characters rise above stereotypes, most glaringly the women. The whole book has a winking feel of farce, although the narrator's earnest Victorian voice keeps it amusingly deadpan. It's amusing, but a little distanced.

Also, Angry Robot did a terrible job copy-editing this edition. There are little typographical errors all through the book. If that does not bother you, then this is an amusing read from the dawn of steampunk.

Hark! A Vagrant
Hark! A Vagrant
by Kate Beaton
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Witty Lit & History Crit, 9 Jan. 2012
This review is from: Hark! A Vagrant (Hardcover)
I will confess, I'm a big history wonk. I love wit and humor about history, but I'm hardnosed enough to want it to be accurate.

Which is why I love Kate Beaton's collection of wickedly intelligent cartoons. She flows through history, and some literature, bemusedly underscoring its absurdity. From the joyous calisthenics of Matthew Henson, a black man who was the first to reach the North Pole (Robert E. Peary had badly frostbitten feet, and in her hilarious cartoon is never even unpacked from the sled) to looking at a grubby Robinson Crusoe from a fastidious Friday's perspective to the bitterly funny wish of Dracula's ladies to be able to vote and own property, she flits from one fascinating perspective on history to another.

And she gets her facts and visuals right! The Brontë sisters dress as they would have. Obscure bits of Canadian history are lovingly sent up. Novelists and scientists and mythic figures comment subversively on the current day and their own times.

Beaton's sense of humor is nonstandard. Her comics have a quiet, but biting cadence. As a history and literature fan, I find them really, really funny.

Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec Vol. 2
Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec Vol. 2
by Jacques Tardi
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Witty mad-science adventure in prewar Paris, 2 Jan. 2012
I kept reading this series after a baffling first volume, and I'm glad I did. Jacques Tardi's bizarre supernatural-tinged adventures are more overtly humorous in this volume, if no more comprehensible than his earlier stories of Mlle. Blanc-Sec.

There are still double-crosses, mistaken identities, disguises, and conspiracies. It is still difficult to tell the conspirators apart. But it hardly seems to matter. There is a swirl of treachery and deceit around Mlle. Blanc-Sec, and if one man is a villain and another not, somebody will surely step up to take the necessary rôle in the plot regardless.

There are some artistic changes between this and the earlier volume of Mlle Blanc-Sec's adventures. Mlle Blanc-Sec's expression changes from time to time. She sometimes looks astonished, or even almost cracks a smile. Although many of the men are visually interchangeable, the truly good ones have quite distinct looks; possibly it helps that two of them are not human in the normal sense. There are still remarkable, lovingly detailed renderings of Parisian street scenes and old automobiles.

The plot twists have gotten more absurd since the first volume, and somehow this makes the story hold together better. The characters are more self-conscious of being within a story (when lightning strikes during a snowstorm and a character questions it, another says "It heightens the mood. ... have you never read Mary Shelley?"). Characters sit down and say "Let us recapitulate" before crowded panels of absurd amounts of text exposition. Towards the end Mlle Blanc-Sec actually says "Look: From its very beginning this story hasn't made a jot of sense to me. And I'm fed up to the gills with complicated stories. What the poor readers must think ..."

The color palette is muted, as in the first book, but seems a bit lighter in this volume. There is even a tragically doomed romantic character who wears some bright red, although mostly the bright colors are reserved for blood and violence.

As with the first book, the author, Jacques Tardi, has drawn many lovingly detailed scenes of Paris of about a century ago. The humor almost disguises the tour de force of his artwork, as for example, a running gag involving a gentleman walking past the "utterly uninteresting" equestrian gold statue of Joan of Arc drawn three times from three completely different angles, each time beautifully. The reader could do worse than this volume to get a visual introduction to Paris immediately before World War I.

"The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, Volume 2" is a wryly witty, weird adventure which makes little sense, but is so fun and beautifully drawn that one hardly minds.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 27, 2014 10:48 AM GMT

Shoggoth's Old Peculiar
Shoggoth's Old Peculiar
by Neil Gaiman
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Like Pete and Dud? A funny homage, 1 Jan. 2012
This chapbook by Neil Gaiman is a hilarious satire of H.P. Lovecraft provided you are also familiar with the comedy routines of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

Hapless American Benjamin Lassiter, on a walking tour of the coast of England, discovers that it's not nearly as picturesque as he had been led to believe. He comes to an odd little village and meets two very strange men, Seth and Wilf.

Fans of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's mind-boggling deadpan "Dagenham Dialogues" will instantly recognize the homage.

I think if you are not already familiar with Cook and Moore's humor, this would seem just ... peculiar. But if you are, it is mind-blowing.

I also liked Jouni Koponen's atmospheric illustrations, which are in their own way an homage to the strange, trippy illustrations of the collected book of the "Dagenham Dialogues".

This is one of those books which has a very narrow audience, but that audience will be utterly delighted.

Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, The
Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, The
by Jacques Tardi
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Loved the art, hated the story, 1 Jan. 2012
Murky, confusing, and frustrating, these illustrated adventures are a lovingly detailed tribute to the Paris that used to be.

From the first panoramic view of the dramatically night-lit Jardin des Plantes (and its marvelous museum interior), "The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec" is a beautifully-drawn evocation of 1911 Paris, a jaw-dropping marvel of visual historical research. Author Jacques Tardi has a good intricate pen technique that demonstrates a real affection for the past.

The colors are dark and murky. All the reds are brownish-reds, all the blues grayish, all the yellows mustardy, the greens olive. The only bright color is the red of blood when someone is wounded. This brings across the historical nature of the story, as if we were separated from that time by fading and darkening. Everything about the art supports the time, the place, the atmosphere.

But ... I hate the story. The main character, Adèle Blanc-Sec, is an enigma. Is she a hero? A villain? She is introduced as kidnapping someone, but we don't know who or why. There is a bizarrely convoluted plot involving a hatched pterodactyl, and ... well, I'm not exactly sure what. I can't make it out.

The men are extremely difficult to tell apart from one another. All the people are drawn in a cartoony fashion, and all the men seem to have the same craggy faces, huge noses, and ridiculous black moustaches. It does not help that the plot involves hidden identities, double-crossing, disguise, and betrayal. Important explanations are done in massive word balloons of text filled with names, almost impossible to follow. I suspect it of being nothing more than an absurdist excuse for drawing all those lovely vistas and interiors of old Paris.

Mlle. Blanc-Sec scowls all the time, her expression almost never changing (it was quite astonishing to see publicity photos of a new film based on the books, in which Blanc-Sec never stops smiling). In fact, nobody's expression changes much. The men tend to look either blank or befuddled, but the women all seem furious about something. So far there are three women in the entire series: the ever-scowling Adèle, the ever-frowning Edith Rabatjoie of the pointy nose and little glasses, and the ever-glaring Clara Benhardt, a nefarious actress.

Characters betray each other, steal things, are killed, but it's hard to care. We know almost nothing about any of them.

As an artist, I can't help but admire Tardi's beautiful linework and sensitive, detailed, plausible renderings of Paris of a century ago. As a reader, I am bewildered and annoyed.

NOTE: I found the second volume of this series (comprising the third and fourth story of the original series) to be funnier and less frustrating than this one. I'm glad I kept going.

More Caviar
More Caviar
by Art Buchwald
Edition: Hardcover

2.0 out of 5 stars Kind of mean-spirited humor, 1 Jan. 2012
This review is from: More Caviar (Hardcover)
This 1958 collection of Art Buchwald's humorous essays includes a long one at the beginning about a road trip from Paris to Moscow in 1958, then a series of shorter ones sorted by country.

This is the first Buchwald book I have read. Although I am aware he has a good reputation as a comedian, I found his humor strained and somewhat mean-spirited.

For example, Mr. Buchwald gets in trouble with French customs when he tries to smuggle in an enormous bag of contraband English goods. He lays all the blame squarely on his wife back in Paris, and not in a humorous way. Cooks and maids are paid a pittance because he can get away with it, and it is a personal catastrophe when they leave for jobs with good pay or their dreams of opening restaurants. Postwar Italians make money recycling cigarette butts, ho ho.

Maybe it's a generational thing, that which was considered funny in the 1950s as compared to now. But then again, by contrast I found Robert Benchley's humor of the 1930s easy-flowing and enjoyable. Maybe it's because Benchley is amusedly self-deprecating, whereas Buchwald comes across as resentful and self-important.

The book is funny, but in a sulky way.

Domestic Manners of the Americans (Penguin Classics)
Domestic Manners of the Americans (Penguin Classics)
by Fanny Trollope
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting perspective on early days of the U.S., 1 Jan. 2012
This cheerfully impertinent book is a travel diary of Frances Trollope, mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope, during her travels in the United States in the late 1820s. While tart and condescending, it is also an interesting document about the early republic, filled with descriptions of towns, customs, manners, and politics.

Mrs. Trollope had no love for America and its rough, democratic citizens, although she made some shrewd observations. She was repulsed by the institution of slavery, and her story of comforting an ill young slave to the disgust of a little white Virginian girl of the same age rings true.

On the whole her disdain for Americans was that they were not English, nor seemed to wish to be. Mrs. Trollope gave her highest praise to the Canadian children who came to the shore when she travelled by boat up the Saint Lawrence River to give deep bows and curtsies, something she considered far more proper than American handshakes.

Mrs. Trollope is witty and observant, and if her perspective is skewed by her birth and circumstances, it is a refreshing antidote to purely American perspectives which saw only the good and glossed over the troubling.

Vintage Clothing, 1880-1980: Identification and Value Guide
Vintage Clothing, 1880-1980: Identification and Value Guide
by Maryanne Dolan
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not useful, 1 Jan. 2012
I have two large bookcases of garment and textile history books, and this is one of the few I found not worth keeping. This is an amateurish book written by someone with a passion. It is not well organized or helpful.

Despite its title, this book focuses greatly on the earliest years and has little of any use from after the 1930s.

There are almost no photographs of actual garments such as the collector might run across. Most of the illustrations are old black-and-white catalogue drawings with all the distortion and idealization that old advertising images are prone to. They are not sorted or labeled in any helpful manner, nor is there anything to connect them with real, surviving garments and all the wear and tear that they would have endured. They are not even helpful for those who like old advertising art, as the reproductions are dark, murky, and muddied.

Along with all the old catalogue images are a few photographs of old garments worn by modern people posing as if for historical portraits and a few display photos from auction houses of extremely rare and valuable couture garments, not at all like what the typical collector could possibly find. Quite a large proportion of the photos of actual garments are publicity shots of modern costumes from the modern pattern company Folkwear.

The values given for the garments are very optimistic, even today, and especially when the book came out. The prices for the auction houses' Worth garments may be based on actual sales (but not of much use to the typical collector), but much of the rest of them seem to be based on wishful thinking.

There is no discussion of condition or rarity, care or documentation. It reads like a personal scrapbook of someone dazzled by the charm of imagined perfect old clothes. There are so many better books out there for the vintage collector, for the costume historian, even for the scrapbooker; best to avoid this one.

The Art of Steampunk: Extraordinary Devices and Ingenious Contraptions from the Leading Artists of the Steampunk Movement
The Art of Steampunk: Extraordinary Devices and Ingenious Contraptions from the Leading Artists of the Steampunk Movement
by Art Donovan
Edition: Paperback

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Beautiful Steampunk Exhibit Catalogue, 23 Oct. 2011
This book is a catalogue for an art exhibit, called simply "Steampunk," at Oxford University's Museum of the History of Science from October 2009 through February 2010. Seventeen artists and the curator, Art Donovan, exhibited various devices, contraptions, and works of art. The director of the museum charmingly talks of how the exhibit gave visitors new appreciation for actual Victorian scientific devices in the collections.

The catalogue lists the eighteen artists and gives each one several full-color pages showing his or her artworks. The photography is lovingly done. It is less like a standard exhibition catalogue, which would have very straightforward photographs of the artworks and highly detailed descriptions, and more like a showcase. This is a catalogue to admire the artworks rather than fully comprehend them. There is not a lot of text.

The art is detailed and carefully crafted, ranging from lace jewellery to brass and wood computers and leather bird-shaped gas-masks. It is quite lovely, and shows both the range and the common themes of the steampunk subculture.

Unfortunately, this exhibit conforms to a regrettable statistic common in the arts world. Of eighteen artists (counting Mr. Donovan), only two, Amanda Scrivener and Molly Friedrich, are women. It can't be because there aren't women steampunk artists. It's disappointing. But that's really the only disappointment in this handsome little guide.

The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature
The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature
by S. J. Chambers
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.88

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Marvelous, Fun Almanac of Info, 26 July 2011
This book is exactly what it says it is, a beautifully laid-out, densely packed, well-illustrated almanac of information, and at a reasonable price to boot. It introduces the idea, the history, and the philosophy of the steampunk movement, then gives encyclopedic explanations of a broad range of steampunk aspects, including music, literature, clothing, artmaking, and entertainment. There are numerous essays by major figures in the steampunk subculture. It even has a little craft project, etching your own designs on tin boxes.

I was glad to see attention given to multiethnic steampunk artists and fans in this book.

The physical book is just fun to hold and read. Its cover is a marvelous pastiche of overwrought gilded Victorian book covers, and the well-chosen illustrations enhance the experience. Kudos to the book's designer, Galen Smith, who did a magnificent job making this book gorgeous and satisfying.

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