Dark Matter : Tim Lebbon – “Dawn of the Jedi : Into the Void”

I rarely dive into the world of media tie-ins: they’re often written perfunctorily, either with the obvious boredom of the competent author exhibited in every trite plot-line, or with the deluded glee of the fan-fictioner gleaming through every broken sentence. But the compelling force of nostalgia led me to read Tim Lebbon’s “Dawn of the Jedi : Into the Void,” which falls in the former category. Recently and decently written, with no obvious howlers, this is a “Star Wars” novel that happens chronologically early (some guides will say it’s the earliest) in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. It’s set before the establishment of the Galactic Republic, 26,000 years before “A New Hope.”

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For the uninitiated, all this means is that Jedi is spelled as Je’daii, and instead of light sabers there are regular, unlit sabers. The rest is business as usual in the eternally open cantina of the mind. For the initiated, it means that this is tied in to a Dark Horse comic-book series, “Dawn of the Jedi,” which means that after Disney / Marvel Comics acquired the Star Wars license, the events became “Legends” because they are non-canonical, which in turn means that almost 40 years of Star Wars novelizations and graphic novels are now rendered unimportant, as the history of the Galatic expansion can’t really be referenced anymore. (For the extra- initiated: LIFE is a constantly fluctuating fiction. Nothing is canon, all is subjective perspective.)

So ANYWAY. Lanoree Brock is a bad-ass Je’daii who is learning about the Force in the planet Tython, where the Order was founded. Her brat brother Dal is not very attuned to the Force, though, preferring brutal force. Cut some years ahead, and the brother is now a madman bent on using dark matter and Gree technology to basically allow galactic travel to expand. (The Je’daii are in opposition to what looks like a very good idea and seem kinda regressive here.) Lanoree is sent on a mission to stop him. The novel alternates back and forth between the childish sibling rivalry and the adult-(ish) procedural pursuit, but it feels like a set-up to a future that won’t happen anyway, because, again, this has all been retconned.

So is it worth my time or yours to read “Star Wars” Expanded Universe Novels? They’ve all been retconned into irrelevance? Were they relevant in the first place? Is ANYTHING relevant anyway?

Eh, I probably will read a few more of these things.

In space, no one can hear you sigh.


Have Gun, Will Travel : Georges Simenon – “A Crime in Holland”, “The Man from London”, “Maigret in New York”.

Mystery-novel detectives aren’t overly concerned with investigative jurisdiction: ask Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Heck, even Miss Marple was known to pack it up and head for the Caribbean every now and then. Georges Simenon’s Maigret is no exception, which is why, when all the murders are solved in France, Maigret grabs his suitcase and moves on. Like “The Murderer”, “A Crime in Holland” is set on the land of dikes and canals, of windmills and clogs and legalized tulips. Simenon clearly had affection for the place; he wrote the first Maigret novel there, in the town of Delfjzil. What better way to repay the inspiration than to drop a fictional corpse in there?

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of “A Crime in Holland” isn’t the picturesque locale, but the challenge it poses for Maigret: he doesn’t speak Dutch, and most of the people he has to interrogate speak little or no French. However, the seeming barrier proves to be illusory: since the denizens of Delfzjil can’t hide behind the civilizing, deceitful curtain of language, their petty human passions are left exposed in an above-average “parlor scene.”

The detective travelled even farther in “Maigret in New York.” The recently retired Maigret, now in his late 50s and grown even more corpulent than before, crosses the Atlantic to inquire into the state of a mind of an American businessman with a hazy past. Once in New York, he has some problems finding good cognac, less problems finding properly made poulet, and no apparent problems meeting people who speak French fluently, including a certain Detective O’Brien. Aside from Simenon’s uneasy amazement at the “melting-potness” of the Jewish/Italian/Irish neighborhoods, there’s very little sense  here of a New York glimpsed beyond a short vacation. But few will mind the small jarring details, like when Simenon refers to a New York rookie officer as a “Constable” in the British style. That title has never, to my knowledge, been used in that context in Brooklyn.

Sometimes the foreign travelers intrude upon us. “The Man from London” has the titular fellow (name of Mr. Brown) arrive at the French coastal town of Dieppe carrying a mysterious suitcase. Monsieur Maloin, a frustrated sad-sack railway worker, witnesses the arrival, as well as a violent altercation between the Brit and an accomplice, and then finds himself in possession of the suitcase and several thousand pounds. Subsequent events, as in many of Simenon’s roman durs, capture our interest less by virtue of their suspense than by the fascination of their fatality. While I wasn’t fully convinced by the psychology behind a  late-game twist, this is a fog-shrouded nightmare of a thriller, maybe the best Simenon I’ve read so far.  Hungarian slow-pace auteurist Bela Tarr directed a (slow)-motion picture based on the novel.

RATING: COOL! particularly “The Man from London.”

Cientifico! : Various – “Ciencia Ficcion Bruguera”

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During the 70s, Spanish publishing giant Bruguera put out some 40 volumes in the “Ciencia Ficcion Bruguera” collection. The stories are, for the most part, translated reprints of the novelets in what was then known as “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction,” now more colloquially known as “F & SF.” The quality of the stories varies, as is typical of this type of grab-bag, but in the three volumes I’ve read so far, plenty of room is made for all-time greats like Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Leguin, Robert Heinlein, and Thomas M. Disch.

RATING: Depends.

The Casual Vacancy : Anthony Trollope – “Barchester Towers” (Chronicles of Barsetshire #2) (Re-read)

Anthony Trollope’s lengthy “Chronicles of Barsetshire,” demand, and reward, patience. They also seem best suited for people with the luxury of sunny afternoons lounging on Victorian settees; privileged people, would go the modern accusation. Maybe that’s not fair: they’re not entirely escapist entertainment. In its time, a novel like “Barchester Towers” must have had some gentle venom in its satire of internecine warfare between the nearly-Papist pageantry of old-school High Churchers and the fashionable febrility of then-new-school Evangelicals. But if the above sentence left you nonplussed don’t feel bad: it just means you were born sometime after the 1880s, and your upbringing took place in a location that didn’t end with the suffix of -Shire or -Hampton.It’s not that a novel like “Barchester Towers” is hopelessly old-fashioned, or unentertaining: it’s that it’s hard to picture anyone entering its parochial world of low-stakes gossip unbidden, unless they’re period nostalgists (it’s fine: as long as the BBC  exports Anglophilia, there will be plenty of us.)

When Death comes for the Bishop of Barchester , a vacancy is opened, and mild impoliteness rages between the candidates: presumptive heir Archdeacon Grantly  and out-of-towner Bishop Proudie. Bishop Proudie’s testicles are being squeezed and tugged (in different directions) by the odious Mrs. Proudie and the unctuous Obadiah Slope. Slope, the book’s best character, is plotting to marry (a.k.a. acquire the fortune of) the unwitting, recently widowed Eleanor Bold, Grantly’s sister-in-law. Then things get (very mildly) complicated when Prebendary Stanhope arrives in town with a dissolute son, Bertie, and a daughter, Madeline Neroni (the book’s second best character) whose licentious, scandalous past involves marriage to an abusive Continental Eyetalian AND, if you were doubting as to the deformity of her character, she also LIMPS. Slope begins to flirt with Neroni, Bertie flirts with Eleanor. Will Eleanor fall for sloppy Slope or burn-our Bertie? We might have wondered for three volumes, except that Trollope’s intrusive narrator comes in, in a suspense-killing moment of proto-post-modernism, to let us known Eleanor’s much too pure to see herself compromised this way and none of these things will happen.

Alan Rickman, it should be mentioned, played the conniving Mr. Slope in a BBC adaptation of “The Warden” and “Barchester Towers”; perioxploitation mastermind Julian “Downton Abbey” Fellowes is working on a TV version of “Doctor Thorne,” book 3 in the “Barsetshire Chronicles.”

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ABOVE: If I were a Rickman, ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum


Dangerous Woman : Junji Ito – “Tomie”

Junji Ito is one of the more popular horror mangaka, a torch-bearer for eroguro in the tradition of Suehiro Maruo and Hideshi Hino, (less surreal than the former, more elegant than the latter.) His world is one in which angelic beauty is only the condition preliminary to a demonic tumor, unless, of course, he’s writing sweet stories about his mischievous cats.

ABOVE: Tomie, can you hear me?


“Tomie,” which was collected as Volumes 1 and 2 of “Junji Ito’s Museum of Horror,” is a series of disturbing vignettes loosely linked by the idea of the titular girl, a ghostly being who compels men to murderous madness in a variety of settings. I put no  big emphasis on the link because the Tomie in one story may have only a Platonic relation to the Tomie in another story: the girl’s design remains consistent, a mole under one eye, but the details of her origin story, abilities, and motivations shift. In this, she’s no different than the Jasons and Freddies of the world.

ABOVE: Two heads are infinitely more horrifying than one.

The way in which Ito feigns an interest in continuity only to abandon it at the drop of a severed head actually adds to the unsettling, disorienting atmosphere. As a matter of fact, the Tomie stories falter whenever the mangaka attempts to give them any kind of journalistic believability: then they’re exposed as childishly incoherent tales that need deep shadows and crackling flames to seem anything other than stupid. The flames and the shadows come courtesy of Ito’s masterful drawings. THE MAN CAN DRAW SCARY. This is no small talent: horror is usually based on a grotesque deformation of reality, but cartoons are already deformations of reality, so it takes a real artist to make sure that the drawing of a skeleton registers as disturbing and not just decorative, or worse, funny.

ABOVE: Why does this remind me of “Houses of the Holy”?

There’s something like 8 movies in the “Tomie” series to date, which you may have missed in the torrent of Japanese horror that hit video in the 2000s.

ABOVE: Don’t hold a GRUDGE, Tomie!

RATING: COOL! for the drawings, GOOD ENOUGH for the story.