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Book/design reviews, Christmas 2010

2011 January 4

Continuing on from yesterday, more comments on loot received from people who really love me (because they gave me stuff, y’know).

Books received by Matt for Christmas, 2010

Me new stuff, click to see a larger image

Right, then. Beginning at top-left: Great Tales From English History, Robert Lacey. This is a single-edition version of three volumes, previously published separately. A year or two ago I grabbed an audiobook version of volume I for one of my road trips and greatly enjoyed it. And I’m also a big fan of Lacey’s The Year 1,000, so I definitely wanted this whole set. Just finished it last night, actually; wonderful stuff. The whole sweep of English history from the stone age to the discovery of DNA, told in the form of brief, engaging and fairly witty essays.

The design is solid. The cover doesn’t wow me, but I deal with these kinds of challenges all the time in my own work, so I realize that sometimes there’s no avoiding it: you’re going to end up creating a layout with some boxes and letting editors, authors and marketing staff haggle out what goes in them. Otherwise the design, particularly the typography, feels very nice; sensitive and polished, inside and out. Each of the chapters is introduced with a little line-art illustration/icon, also, which enhances the book’s already-lively feel. Thoughtful, professional job, here.

To the right of Great Tales, we have two additions to my small-but-growing Sherlock Holmes collection. (About six volumes now, depending on what one counts. Amusingly, perhaps, I don’t actually own any of the original canon yet; as with Lord of the Rings this is a case where I have and want to take advantage of a great range of options, rather than just grabbing anything off the shelf. At present I’m leaning toward the 1994 Book of the Month Club set, but I haven’t really searched in-depth. Any recommendations are welcome.)

I read Son of Holmes, let’s see, last March, and initially thought it was good but not tremendously special. Some time afterward, however, it dawned on me that there’s a bit more to the book if one reads between the lines; without ever spelling it out, Lescroart based his book on, and embellished, a popular theory linking the fictional detectives Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. Which does elevate the book’s novelty a bit.

The cover design is… interesting. It’s striking; simple and even a bit stark, yet it catches the eye, particularly with the strip of red foil. And yet it does seem remarkably… generic. It seems like it could be equally effective as the cover to any number of other stories. Oh well.

Dust and Shadow is, like Son of Holmes, also based on a popular premise for Sherlock “fan fiction,” in this case the fact that London’s great Victorian fictional detective was contemporary with its most infamous real-life mystery: the Whitechapel murders attributed to “Jack the Ripper.” The story is alright; in part I think that fictionalizations of the Whitechapel slayings have probably been “ruined” for my by Alan Moore’s staggeringly rich and complex From Hell, such that anything else is likely to seem disappointing.

There are bits of characterization which did stick with me from Dust and Shadow. Faye’s details of Holmes and his resources, and depiction of his frustration and near-despair at confronting crimes so apparently random and senseless as to entirely nullify reason and deduction. A few such bits did occasionally elevate the work beyond an otherwise rather pedestrian meshing of Sherlock Holmes and the known facts about “Jack the Ripper” and his crimes.

I’m not sure what’s going on with the cover design. Kind of an array of oddly-matched typefaces and ornaments. The interior is interesting because the text is set in some kind of chiseled-looking typeface, resembling Fritz Quadrata, with tall ascenders and short descenders. Most people might not even notice, but to the type-sensitive it creates a bit of an odd feeling. Not bad, just noticeably different.

I’ll move on to the lower-left, now, as The Metatemporal Detective is also loosely-related to Sherlock Holmes, featuring another Baker Street detective who operated around the turn of the century, Sexton Blake. (In these stories, Blake is generally ‘Seaton Begg,’ but no pretence is made that he is other than the same character, and in one of the stories he is even named as Blake, outright.)

As the eye-catching cover appropriately suggests, though, the real attraction for many readers (and probably the more interesting of the stories’ main characters) is “Zenith the Albino,” an adversary from the original stories whom Michael Moorcock interprets herein as an incarnation of his fantasy antihero Elric. If this all sounds complicated, it is, and while the various short stories in this volume are interrelated, they are often internally elliptical as well as impossible to join up in any kind of seamless, logical narrative. But they can still be appreciated on a range of levels, from simple detective-adventure yarns, to political satire, to chapters in a grand fantasy epic.

One may note the interesting fact that this particular edition is an “Uncorrected Advance Reading Copy – Not for Sale.” I own two such books, now, and I like the fact that they add a little novelty, a little uniqueness, to what would otherwise be commodity products. There are typos, as well as some sort of occasional kerning flaw, in this edition, but not really worse than I’ve found in various books which lack the excuse of being “uncorrected proof” copies. Otherwise it looks and feels like a more or less “finished” paperback book; I think the interior pages must have been produced by laser printer or xerox, but the text doesn’t really suffer from it and other than one telltale halftone at the front of the book, it would be difficult to detect at all.

Almost done.

Final entry, The Man Who Invented the Computer, by Jane Smiley. The story of John Vincent Atanasoff, of dear auld Iowa State University, who… well, uh, invented the friggin’ computer. (Maybe you’ve heard of this device?) Haven’t read the book yet; looking forward to it. I love the design. It’s eye-catching, it’s clever, it makes sense while being very different and is still quite clear and readable. This is the kind of cover design that I need in my life, frankly, just to inspire and challenge me to keep trying to come up with some equally great designs of my own, even if they will probably get shot down 99 times out of 100.

In fact let’s do a shout-out to the designer; it’s earned. Michael J. Windsor, you are rockin’ it. Keep up the good work.

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