Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sherlock Holmes lives!

     While Sherlock Holmes never really went away, he’s enjoying quite a resurgence lately that would have confounded his creator, physician-author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In addition to a major feature film series directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey and Jude Law (“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” opens in December 2011), BBC’s modern-day reinterpretation, “Sherlock” (season 2 is scheduled to premiere in the autumn) and -- more pertinent from this blog’s point of view -- the reissuing of at least a dozen books about the Great Detective as “The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.”
     Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories, collected in nine volumes, about Holmes and Watson, beginning with “A Study in Scarlet,” which was a surprise hit. But despite the money and fame, Doyle never thought much of Holmes -- he thought Homes drew attention from his more important books, which are little read or regarded today – and tried to kill him off at least once. The public outcry – and offers of great heaps of money for new Holmes stories – led to his resurrection. Doyle then tried to retire him at least twice.
     Many more volumes have been published since, some unauthorized, and a countless number of radio shows, comic strips and comic books, advertisements, plays, musicals, television shows and movies.
     “The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” gathers together some of these novels, most out-of-print for years. In them, Holmes encounters other fictional characters (Tarzan in “The Peerless Peer,” the Martians in “The War of the Worlds,” Edward Hyde in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes,” the Phantom of the Opera in “The Angel of the Opera”). Others feature historical people (escape artist Harry Houdini in “The Ectoplasmic Man,” Teddy Roosevelt in “The Stalwart Companions”) or historical events (the Jack the Ripper murders in “The Whitechapel Horror”), Then there are “lost” tales alluded to by Doyle but never written(“The Giant Rat of Sumatra,” described in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” as “a story for which the world is not yet prepared”).
     The books vary in quality but it’s good to have them back in print in uniform trade paperback editions.
     There are many other novels and stories of Sherlock Holmes by other hands, including some where other characters take the lead (Irene Adler, Professor James Moriarty, the son of Sherlock Holmes).  Perhaps some of them will be included in later volumes of “The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.”
     And if you’ve never read the original stories, try “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” or “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes” for the best of the bunch.  Then let me know what you think of them.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

'Fantasy Folklore and Fairy Tales'

     If you like fantasy art, a great source is the children's book section of your local brick-and-mortar bookstore or public library. Especially the picture books. Whether they're new stories or classic fairy tales, traditional or re-interpreted, artists are given free rein to express their imaginations. Some of these artists are designers as well, choosing the type and where to put the text, often integrated into the art itself. There's so much work that's gone into it that it's a shame you can't see the pictures in their original, often larger dimensions, like in an art gallery or museum.
     For a limited time you can, during the “Fantasy, Folklore & Fairy Tales” exhibit at at Edsel & Eleanor Ford House (1100 Lake Shore Road, Grosse Pointe Shores, 313-884-4222). Even if you regularly check out the children's section at the better bookstores -- such as one of my favorites, The Book Beat (20610 Greenfield Road at Lincoln Street, Oak Park) -- some, maybe most of the artists will be unfamiliar to you. The biggest names to me were Kinuko Y. Craft and Barry Moser (look them up on the Web if you don't know them), but others were new to me. Subjects range from fairy tales to myths, folk tales and new, multicultural fables.
     The selection of artists may be determined by the sponsor -- Smith Kramer Fine Art Services -- but since only eight artists are represented, some winnowing process was necessary. In addition to the two already named, the list consists of DEMI, Jane Dyer, Marilee Heyer, Trina Schart Hyman, Jim LaMarche and Susan Paradis.
      (Other artists I would have liked to see represented include Leo & Diane Dillon and Gennady Spirin.)
     The exhibit continues through Sept. 18, in one of the outer buildings on the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House grounds. Admission is free with regular grounds admission of $5 per person. For more information, visit

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

'Snakes and Ladders'

     “We write fine words and think we play the Master Game. And all the time it's only Snakes and Ladders; one wrong throw and down we go …"
                                       – Alan Moore, "Snakes and Ladders - A Diversion for Wet Afternoons”

     Fans of the graphic novels and comics of Alan Moore – upon which the films “From Hell,” “Watchmen,” “V for Vendetta” and “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” were based – might also like some of his other, noncomic book art.
     Top Shelf, a comics publisher, has for years offered CDs of multimedia stage shows written by and  narrated by Alan Moore, with music by Tim Perkins. Eddie Campbell (who illustrated “From Hell”) has even turned a couple of them into comic books (handy if you find Moore’s accent a bit hard to understand at times).
     “Snakes and Ladders” is currently available as a CD and comic. What’s it about? Well, it’s about Oliver Cromwell, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the dawn of time and the information explosion, magic , the DNA double helix, and author Arthur Machen’s breakdown after the death of his wife, all in or around the Red Lion Square area of London.
     Snakes and Ladders is a board game, here usually called Chutes and Ladders, where you can advance if you land on a ladder, or fall back if you land on a snake/chute. Moore uses the game as a metaphor for how life can be random. He also explores snakes in creation myths and as a metaphor for DNA.
     It’s not for everybody, and you may have to listen to it several times to follow and enjoy, but if you have  an appreciation of Alan Moore’s language and an interest in sometimes obscure English history, give it a try.


Thoughts on Harry Potter

     If, as I’ve written here before, you can only fully understand events after they have past, then now is the proper time to understand the Harry Potter phenomenon. The last book came out several years ago, and the last film opened two weeks ago. They will endure, perhaps, much like classics such as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Peter Pan,” with new generations discovering them anew.
     I’ve read and enjoyed, for the most part, all of the books, but I’m still not sure what set them apart from all the series that came before it and after it. C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” are also perennial favorites in print, though the films have been not nearly as successful as Harry Potter. Tolkien’s ”The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is also incredibly popular, but despite being filled with elves, orcs, hobbits and other fantasy creatures, it has always been more for adults than children (although “The Hobbit,” a sort of prequel, is a children’s book).
     I think part of the reason for the success has been that Rowling clearly had a plan for the series before she started writing: seven books, each mostly correlating to one year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And as the cast grows older, they actually mature. They even turn into surly teens. They face real-world problems, such as grades and bureaucracy. The grownups are sometimes wise and caring, sometimes mean and dictatorial, sometimes incompetent and clueless. And the good can die as easily (more easily, actually) than the evil. Even evil is shown not to be absolute; there are gradations. And sometimes who your parents are or were partly or largely determines how you turn out.
     I do have a few problems with the series. Keeping in mind that it is a series intended for children, occasionally the names of the characters give too much away. Especially galling to me is the name of Remus Lupin, as it reveals a key plot point to anyone who knows the legend of Romulus and Remus and/or the meaning of the adjective “lupine.”(If you don’t know them, look them up.) Since the key plot point wasn’t known to his parents, presumably, it seems quite a coincidence.
     The first half of the book version of “The Deathly Hallows” also mostly bored me to death, in which Harry, Hermione and, sometimes, Ron are essentially on an extended camping trip. Oddly enough, I liked the film version better.
     And while it’s not J.K. Rowling’s fault, I was also irritated that the first book’s title, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was changed to “… Sorcerer’s Stone” in the U.S. (presumably in case the word philosopher might scare some readers away), because the Philosopher’s stone is a term from alchemy with a rich history and a specific meaning behind it; a sorcerer’s stone could mean anything.
     I’m sure Rowling could name her own price for an eighth Harry Potter book, and Scholastic or any other publisher would gladly pay it. But I don’t think she will. Rowling respects her fans, and to do that would be a betrayal of sorts.
     Any non-Harry Potter book that she does write will have to face unrealistic expectations however, and that money and acclaim will be tempting. Anne Rice wrote one vampire book, “Interview with the Vampire,” and then wrote other, less successful types of novels, with no vampires or other supernatural entities, before writing “The Vampire Lestat.” More vampire novels followed, plus some witches, a mummy and other miscellaneous creatures.
     But Harry Potter has ensured that Rowling need never write for money again, so I doubt she’ll go that route. She may put out her Harry Potter Encyclopedia, may release deleted scenes or her original outlines or notes, may allow graphic novel adaptations, stage plays or musicals or do more, ancillary books such as "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," "Quidditch Through the Ages" and "The Tales of Beedle the Bard." She might even retell some of the stories from another character’s point of view.  But the saga of Harry Potter has probably ended, on J.K. Rowling’s terms and as she intended. And that’s an accomplishment.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Who killed Borders Books?

     By now you no doubt know, if you care at least, that Borders is closing its bookstores. There will be perhaps a few last going-out-of-business sales at the remaining Borders locations (a Borders Express on Gratiot , several not-too-distant Oakland County stores, including Birmingham, Beverly Hills and Rochester) and then the rest is silence.
     People who bought Kobo Book readers are being told to change their account and smartphone app from Borders to Kobo and to transfer their eLibraries.
     It’s too late to save the chain. More worrying is that some think this will hurt the book publishing and retailing business. That is, most analysts don’t predict Borders customers will simply move to Barnes and Noble or online services such as Amazon, but will stop reading and buying books altogether in favor of eBooks. And some say even eBook sales will decline without a Borders for eBook users to browse ("mooch") for new titles (
     Why did it happen? While the rise of online bookstore Amazon and eBooks are often cited, that hasn’t put Barnes and Noble or some independent bookstores out of business. One of the writers at our sister paper, The Oakland Press, blames Kmart’s bad management and corporate culture (
     I’d like to believe that, but I suspect Borders was just run by people who love books and weren’t interested in eBooks. They loved the bookstore experience and didn’t want to shop online, and didn’t think very many other people would either.
     Since apparently a lot of eBook readers went to Borders to browse, find books they like and then order electronic editions from Amazon, if brick and mortar stores don't sell eBooks IN their stores, they should seriously consider it.
     Personally, I would browse Amazon to find titles I’m interested in, then look for them at Borders. If I found them, I’d look them over. If I liked them, I bought them with a coupon (as I mentioned in an earlier blog post, Borders Rewards card members  -- a free perk -- would usually receive two coupons a week, good for between 20 and 40 percent off the price of a book). Sometimes it was a better price with a coupon than Amazon, sometimes less, but I had the book immediately and I supported a bookstore that I enjoyed going to.
     Now I guess I’ll have to go to Barnes and Noble (who occasionally send me a 15 percent off coupon; to get  better discounts, I’d have to pay an annual fee) and other brick and mortar stores and either pay more for the books or “mooch” like the eBook readers and order online from Amazon. Eventually I may have no choice but to buy an eBook device. But I’ll not go gentle into that good night.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Judging a publisher by its cover

     I've finished and can recommend "Midnight Riot" by Ben Aaronovitch, but I've got something else on my mind besides the book's content: the book's cover.
     In my previous post about the book, I commented that the U.S. cover and title seemed vastly inferior to me than the British ones ("The Rivers of London"), but I withheld comment on another aspect of the cover: possible racism or pandering to the perceived racism of the marketplace. I didn't mention it because I wasn't sure that was the intent.
     The hero/protagonist of the book is a U.K. citizen of mixed racial identity, a fact that has some bearing on the character and the book, but this fact was obscured by his depiction on the cover as a silhouette. In fact, I wasn't even sure at first it was meant to be him. The menacing stance, leather jacket and gun in his hand could mean it was a bad guy. I guess they wanted to make the book look hard and gritty. (For the record, the hero is more bookish than badass, and I don't recall that he even carries a gun in the novel.)
     The cover of the British version, which as I said I prefer, didn't even show the protagonist, but I wouldn't automatically accuse the British publisher of racism on that account. A lot of decisions, artistic and editorial, go into choosing an image to represent a novel. So while I suspected racism (or something similar) by the American publisher, I didn't want to throw out the charge based solely on the published cover.
     Then, on Aaronovitch's blog, I saw an unpublished version of the cover, an earlier version exactly the same except for one thing: the man was less blurred and clearly of African descent.
     So while NOT showing that the character is black may not necessarily be racist, to alter the illustration to disguise the fact that the man IS black seems awfully suspicious.
     A sequel is also out, "Moon Over Soho," and two versions of that cover also exist, one black, one silhouette. Guess which one has been published?
     I'd say the burden of proof is now on the publisher, Del Rey.
     If you'd like to judge for yourself, here are links to the cover images:

      "Moon Over Soho (original)":
      "Moon Over Soho (altered)":