Blogs at Amazon

« April 2010 | Main | June 2010 »

May 2010

Graphic Novel Friday: "Blacksad"

Originally published in France and written and illustrated by two Spaniards, Blacksad follows a grimy, smoke-ringed 1950's private investigator, John Blacksad. All the familiar noir mainstays are here: a troubled, elusive P.I., tragic femme fatales, complex-to-the-point-of-collapsing plots, questionable cops on the make, chatty informants, easy-to-hate villains, and that certain dirty but appealing style. The only difference is that Blacksad’s world is populated entirely by walking, talking animals. I never saw this one coming: anthropomorphized noir.

While I’m a fan of crime comics like Criminal, 100 Bullets, and a few of the Vertigo Crime books (I’m embarrassingly behind on my Queen & Country), I’d never heard of Blacksad. Publisher Dark Horse notes that the series is “internationally acclaimed,” and it’s easy to see why: the book is breathtaking. This magazine-formatted hardcover collects three stories, all originally published in France, and one, "Red Soul," is collected here in English for the first time. The attention to detail makes it very easy to wander from the plot or text. When we are given glimpses into Blacksad’s office or apartment, entire panels are devoted solely to the items in the room. We see papers and books haphazardly stacked, a few strays near the waste basket but not committed as trash just yet; bulletin boards that have long since lost any updated Post-Its and are now static fixtures, receding into the background. Blacksad’s desk looks a lot like mine: all to-do lists, staplers, and miscellany crowding what should be the work area. He sits on the only free-space of his desk--the corner. He broods just outside the blinds.


The first story, “Somewhere within the Shadows,” opens with Blacksad, a black cat with muddy green eyes, slinking about a crime scene as a German shepherd cop gives him a hard time. Naturally, Blacksad knew the murder victim, who is splayed lifeless on the bed--a former film starlet (“…The remains of a beautiful dream.”)--and no matter how he is cautioned from going any deeper into the cause of her death, it’s never in question that the whiskered detective will make this case a personal one.

Writer Juan Díaz Canales keeps close to genre staples--Blacksad falls for dangerous women and takes quite a few beatings while dishing them out--but there are great moments of crisp drama, especially in Blacksad’s internal dialogue boxes. At one point, he is trailed by a hired goon--a lizard--who pulls a knife. “I don’t believe a detective exists who likes to see his trenchcoat ruined.”

What follows next is a well-choreographed fight scene, culminating in a head-butt (“And I knew a few dirty tricks…learned in the gutters.”) that deflates the lizard’s snout. As Blacksad hauls the bruised assailant to his feet, he internally quips: “Now, Pretty Face, answer me.” Which one of these creatures is cold-blooded?

Blacksadp2 English translators Anthya Flores and Patricia Rivera retain the thick and brisk menace as well as the softer moments, but the big news is artist Juanjo Guarnido. The research that must have gone into creating and rendering the cast of characters is exhausting. Foxes, ferrets, grizzly and polar bears, deer, rabbits, roosters, Bengal tigers, Dalmations, owls, crows, turtles--each character has his or her own effortlessly expressed personality mixed with the instincts of the animal they possess. These are human emotions as seen through the animal kingdom, but set in the very human 1950s. It shouldn’t work--or, rather, it should be much more difficult to take seriously, but Guarnido’s confidence and skill take command of every panel. Cobblestones are individually detailed while entire cities stretch above them and behind windows when scenes take place indoors. When characters flirt, their eyes fill in the blanks left by sparse, playful dialogue. Guarnido’s ability to convey a spectrum of emotions via facial and body language puts to shame the often dead-eyed superheroes at the top of the charts. 184 pages is not nearly enough of his work.

My favorite stories were the first--an excellent introduction to the main character and his world--and “Red Soul,” which finds Blacksad in the middle of a red scare. It’s big on plot and characters, and the female lead, Alma, is refreshingly not so much fatale as she is her own person. The middle chapter, “Arctic Nation,” takes a heavy-handed approach to racial tension. The results are none too subtle, but it’s full of twists, sex, violence, and--of course--that lavish artwork.

The hardcover releases this July, featuring an introduction by Jim Steranko and praise from Stan Lee and Neal Adams. Blacksad is not to be missed.  


The Necromancer: Who Else is Not Really Dead?

The-necromancer-cover The Necromancer, book four in Michael Scott's "Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel" series, is officially out this week. I want to say this is the best book yet, but of course, when you're into a series, you always think that the last one you read is the best.

I've been trying to figure out why I enjoy this series so much. Part of the fun, for sure, is imagining that Machiavelli is riding around in a Town Car, that Shakespeare is still writing plays, that Billy the Kid is still an outlaw. For kids (and grown-ups) who love history, this is a treat. What it really comes down to, I think, is that I'm a big learning nerd. I love books that want me to seek out other books. Even if I never have the time to read stacks of additional books about Scott's immortals and beasts, or to go back and piece together the set-up for what happened in this book, or what may happen in Book 5, I know I probably could.

When Scott talked to us last year about the series, he went into some detail about how he writes the books, which gives a clue to why they're so much fun: I’ve read that you visit and thoroughly research all of the real places in your books (in Ojai, San Francisco, Paris, London) where Flamel, Sophie, and Josh’s adventures take place. Do the scenes come to life for you while you’re in the place, or do you have an idea, like, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a battle scene at Notre Dame,” and then you travel there? Can you give us a hint of some of the places we might get to see in future books?

M.S.: It is a combination of both. I first create a very detailed outline of the series, and then individual outlines of each book. So I know in advance what I see to see and where I need to go. However, once I’m there, scenes and situations will suggest themselves. For example, the battle scene at Notre Dame was always there as were the Catacombs under Paris. However, although I knew Ojai was going to be part of the story, it was only when I stayed there that I realized that Libbey Park was perfect for the finale.

Similarly, I knew I wanted to use Alcatraz, but I had to visit the island five or six times to properly map out where all the action would take place. Often this information is not included in the text, but I need to see it clearly to be able to write about it. And of course I photograph everything so I have a enormous visual record of all the places I’ve been to.

Coming up next... well, book 4 brings up back to the west coast of America and San Francisco. And then we head south towards LA, (but if I tell you any more I’ll reveal a couple of big surprises!).

There are many surprises in Book 4 (Scott hints at just a few on the book's Amazon page), including a shift for Dr. John Dee, who finds out early on that he's on the outs with the Dark Elders he's served for so long. Changes also look to be on the horizon for Josh, who may yet emerge as more than the daffy, less powerful twin of Sophie.

I'm happy to have this series to come back to every year, although I am a little jealous of people who can read all four books back-to-back this summer. Here's an excerpt from my review:

Time is running out for the Flamels; it's now been six days since their foe Dr. John Dee (another immortal) ran off with the Codex, the book of Abraham the Mage that keeps them young, and they are aging fast. The twins, who have been traveling around the world learning Elemental Magics, are worried about getting into trouble for basically disappearing for days, so they check in with their guardian, Aunt Agnes. But Scott doesn't let them settle in for long. True to the break-neck pace of this series, they are quickly pulled back into the action when Sophie is kidnapped by a redheaded vampire who bears an eerie resemblance to one of their recent allies, Scathach, who disappeared with Joan of Arc in the last book. The Necromancer introduces readers to even more infamous immortals, while keeping up with favorites from past books. The characters accumulate, and so do the opportunities for hair-raising fights and insane reveals. As they hurtle toward a conflict that could bring about the end of the world, we can't wait to see where they'll go, what they'll learn, and who they'll meet next.

BookExpo: New York Outside the Show

FSG_wallToday was the conference day of BookExpo, but I didn't make it close to the Javits Center, thanks to visits with Oliver Sacks and Stieg Larsson's editors, which you'll be able to see the fruits of when I get back home to my editing software. And my first visit to the offices of my long-time publishing crush, Farrar Straus Giroux. No, not their old Dickensian cold-water offices, as described in Talk of the Town a few years back, but the newish ones. I got the full tour, which included an impromptu identification quiz of the many author photos lining the walls (which seem to include a Nobel Prize winner in every few frames). I'm happy to report I did pretty well (I've been studying for that quiz for the last 20 years!), but there were a few stumpers I kicked myself about when the answer was revealed. Here's one to the right I couldn't get on first glance. Can you, despite the handicaps of my fuzzy Hipstamatic phone photo and the strange blue rectangle reflected in the glass, identify this young writer? (Hint: he has a new book coming out this fall.)

And for extra credit: can you also ID, just on the basis of the right half of her portrait, the novelist to his left? --Tom

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award: Announcing the Finalists

Earlier this morning, we announced the six finalists vying for the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. A few weeks ago, I mentioned that this year's contest has an exciting new element: a Young Adult Fiction prize, in addition to the General Fiction prize. Editors at Penguin have selected the six finalists--three in General Fiction, three in Young Adult Fiction--and now the fun part starts. We need your help deciding which entries should win.

Visit the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award page to read excerpts from the finalists, check out reviews from our expert panelists (including outstanding feedback from Tana French, Sarah Dessen, and Nancy Werlin), then vote for your favorite in General Fiction and Young Adult Fiction. Voting ends June 2.

The General Fiction finalists are:

And the Young Adult Fiction finalists are: The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award winners will each receive a publishing contract with Penguin, which includes a $15,000 advance. We'll be announcing the winners on June 14, so check back to see if your favorite finalists made the cut!

David J. Williams' The Machinery of Light

THE MACHINERY OF LIGHT trailer from Claire Haskell on Vimeo.

The release today of David J. Williams' The Machinery of Light completes the science fiction trilogy that began with 2008's The Mirrored Heavens and last year's The Burning Skies, both of which were covered on Omnivoracious as examples of intelligent, exciting near-future SF.

Set in a 22nd century divided by a Second Cold War into two rival superpowers, Williams' new novel tells the story of the Rain's ignition of total war across the Earth-Moon system between the United States and the Eurasian Coalition, and the desperate scramble by a motley crew of agents and hackers to uncover the final secret of the mastermind behind the Rain's creation. Previous novels chronicled the Rain's downing of a space elevator and their attack on an O'Neill cylinder, and focus on the fate of Claire Haskell, a rogue cyborg/supercomputer whose altered memory may hold the key to defeating the Rain.

Williams' hybrid military SF/cyberpunk/espionage trilogy has drawn praise from The Seattle Times ("wild and relentless"), Lost Fleet author Jack Campbell ("a 21st century Neuromancer"), and Philip K. Dick award winner Stephen Baxter, who declared that Williams has "hacked into the future." Futurist Jamais Cascio, named by Foreign Policy magazine as one of their top 100 global thinkers, recently told io9 on Twitter that the Autumn Rain series constitutes one of the outstanding examples of posthuman science fiction.

Williams previously worked as a writer on Vancouver, BC-based Relic Entertainment's Homeworld video game franchise, receiving story concept for the first game and contributing writer credits on the second. He maintains an extensive website that features art, maps and hardware specs relating to the Autumn Rain trilogy.

Matthew Reinhart Makes It Pop

Before we go talk to a long list of authors at BookExpo this week, here's a bit of an author visit we enjoyed recently. Matthew Reinhart, half of the Reinhart/Sabuda team that has revolutionized the pop-up book for kids and adults with modern classics like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Pop-Up Book of Phobias, Star Wars: The Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy, and the Encyclopedia Prehistorica and Encyclopedia Mythologica series. Their latest book is Gods & Heroes, the second in the Encyclopedia Mythologica series (the first is Fairies and Magical Creatures, and the third, still in production, will be Dragons & Monsters). And coming this fall is DC Super Heroes: The Ultimate Pop-Up Book.

A few of us here had the pleasure of lunch with Matthew Reinhart earlier this month, and beforehand, we asked him to demonstrate some of his pop-up magic. And here are some of the highlights.

First, a tour of the new book, from ancient Egypt to the legends of the Americas (my favorite is Thor):

And then, with an aplomb that didn't quite surprise us (I'm guessing we're not the first to ask him) but still wowed us, he demonstrated how to turn a scrap piece of paper (sorry, H.A. Rey!), a pair of scissors, and a Sharpie into a living, breathing monster:

Thanks, Matthew! --Tom (and Lauren)

P.S. For more about what goes into making their pop-ups, check out this excellent interview Matthew did with Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, featuring lots of behind-the-scenes photos.

Omni Goes to New York

Hello Omnivores: just a short note to let you know that many of us here will be in New York all week at BookExpo America, the big annual book convention, and related events. That means some of our regular features, like Old Media Monday and Omni Daily News, will be on hiatus this week. But it also means that, whenever we can squeeze it in, we'll be making a few blog posts, and Twitter updates, from NYC during the week. And we're doing a few dozen author interviews while we're there (with a remarkable list of authors that I still can't quite believe we get to talk to), which you'll be seeing the fruits of throughout the summer and fall. --Tom

Omni Daily News

Trailer Failures (and Wins): Melville House announces the winners (and losers) of their Best & Worst Book Trailers Awards. Winners include Going West by Maurice Gee (which made the blogging rounds a few months ago) and the quietly charming i am in the air right now by Kathryn Regina. Less impressive trailers include "Biggest Waste of Conglomerate Money" and "Most Annoying Performance by an Author."

Books vs. Bands: Jeffrey Wasserstrom points out the parallels between author tours and rock concerts, admitting, though, "There aren't quite enough overlaps to compile a top ten list of book tour/band tour parallels, but here's a top five one." [Via The Huffington Post].

HeLa on TV: Rebecca Skloot's bestselling The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks just achieved another level of infamy, apparently inspiring a recent episode of Law & Order. The plot? "Nathan died in 1959, but his cells, known as NaRo, were the first to stay alive in culture. The immortal NaRo cells are sold to research centers around the world by Hema Labs, whose founder took the cells from Nathan Robinson without his permission." [Via GalleyCat]

Moving & Shaking: Yesterday's announcement of a November release date for Jeff Kinney's fifth Wimpy Kid book sends it shooting up our Movers & Shakers list this morning.

Graphic Novel Friday: "Sweet Tooth: Out of the Woods"

Sweet Tooth: Out of the Woods, the first volume in artist and writer Jeff Lemire’s latest series, starts quietly enough: a young boy, Gus, awakens to find that his sickly father has passed away. Having never strayed from the farm where he grew up, the now-orphaned Gus must cope with his loss, solitude, and…the antlers sprouting from his head. Also, the outside world has plunged into post-apocalyptic mayhem, but Gus is more concerned with satisfying his appetite for sweets.

Using this doe-eyed approach to well-tread, it's-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it territory, Lemire teases the hows and whys of the apocalypse and Gus’ strange appearance. We know something big and bad happened called the “Affliction,” and once it was over, all babies were born as animal/human “hybrids.” Yet, Gus is a little older than the other disfigured children, which doesn’t quite fit in the known timeline of the Affliction's fallout. Trailing every scrap of information is another question or loose end. 

Gus quickly leaves his farm with Jepperd, an enigmatic maniac who promises safe haven at “The Preserve.” As they journey, this first volume feels very much like a “road book,” with long stretches of cement and storytelling underfoot, punctuated by harshly lit dream sequences that hint at answers just before Gus awakes. Their prophetic nature only raises more questions—are they a result of Gus’ mutation, or is there a religious connection at work?

Lemire used color sparingly in The Nobody, and Essex County was black and white, but colorist Jose Villarrubia (Promethea, X-Factor) adds a welcome palette to Sweet Tooth. In Gus’ dreams, a pack of dogs hunts him; their eyes pits of red with a glare extending beyond the sockets. Later, when Gus and Jepperd start a fire, its hue recalls a sunset, casting shadows to fill the deep lines that Lemire favors in his characters’ faces.

Readers familiar with Lemire’s work will note the blunt noses and etched designs, but what surprised me were the choreographed moments of action. When Sweet Tooth cuts loose—this is the post-apocalypse, after all—it is effectively, shockingly violent. In one scene, Jepperd uses the butt of his rifle to dispatch a villain.  Lemire captures Jepperd frozen in a pose with his elbows cocked, the rifle lifted near his head. Five frames outline the path of the butt of the rifle as it travels the length of the page to the victim, and are placed so that the weapon could be beginning its descent or finishing its ascent; or, the layout could also suggest a repeated motion. This is the state of violence in Sweet Tooth: highlighted so that readers do not forget it lurks at the turn of every page--this isn't gratuitous, it's orchestrated.

Given Gus’ naiveté, readers will suspect the way this arc ends, but the fun is all in the pacing and greater plot twists.  The second volume doesn't release until December, making Out of the Woods one to savor.

Omni Daily News

Never a Late Fee:  Maybe George Washington couldn't tell a lie, but he did forget to return a library book, and the overdue fees have racked up over the past 221 years. Back in 1789, the first president borrowed a copy of The Law of Nations by Emer de Vattel from the New York Society Library, but he never returned it.  At Mount Vernon, the first president's former home, the staff realized it had another copy of the book and generously decided to settle accounts by giving its copy to the library.  In today's dollars, the library fine would have amounted to $300,000.  [Reported on both sides of the Atlantic by The Guardian and Reuters]

Tanks for the Books:   Argentinian artist and peace activist, Raul Lemesoff is traveling his native country in an old tank which he has transformed into a mobile library.  Check out photographs and a video of the book tank, which Lemesoff calls a "weapon of mass instruction."  [The Huffington Post]

Pendulum on the Dance Floor: The great mystery underlying the French scientist Leon Foucault's pendulum might remain unsolved since the giant brass instrument was irreparably damaged at the Musee des Arts et Metiers (Museum of Arts and Industry) in Paris. The scientific instrument, which was used to demonstrate that the Earth revolves on it's own axis became the subject of author Umberto Eco's bestselling novel, Foulcault's Pendulum. The events which caused the accident are clouded in mystery as well.  According to an article in Times Higher Education

"The museum regularly hosts cocktail parties in the chapel that houses the pendulum, and [museum curator] Mr Lalande admitted that several alarming incidents had occurred over the past year. In May 2009, for example, a partygoer grabbed the 28kg instrument and swung it into a security barrier."

Upon seeing the news, one reader commented that "Mythbusters could totally fix that." 

Specialize to Survive:  According to optimistic zoologist and author Matt Ridley, we humans are in it for the long haul thanks to some unique behaviors (no, it wasn't our big brains that got us this far).  The New York Times reports on Ridley's surprising theory, elaborated in his new book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves