Monday, December 30, 2013

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (Atlantic, 2013).

Dear heaven, what a brick of a book. What a long, ponderous, dreary brick of a book.

This isn't the first very long critical darling of a novel that I've read this year that was desperately in need of some pruning shears before publication, but I'd rather read The Goldfinch another two times than deal with this again. Bob Shacochis apparently set out to map America's loss of identity through the last several decades with his rumbling story about a mysterious woman murdered in Haiti, but all that he did was leave me completely cold.

I had lots of problems with this book, but the central one is that Shaochis writes in a peculiar, incredibly detached manner. It genuinely feels and reads like he could not care less about his players, and the act of transcribing the story is a mammoth task. He even eschews quotation marks around what is sometimes dialogue and what is sometimes a report of what was conveyed, which has the unexpected effect of pushing readers further away from the story. Dialogue draws us in; this doesn't.

I probably would have been happier had I abandoned the book after its first section of about 200 pages. Two of the characters who have been investigating a murder, in what is all too often laborious detail, finally find the culprit, and then Shacochis just stops caring to detail it. Over the course of a few paragraphs, he just sums up what happened next, and how they felt about things months and years later. He might as well have just written "yadda yadda yadda." I felt so cheated. Then the story pops back six decades, as a Nazi collaborator in what will become Czechoslovakia is murdered, beheaded in front of his son. In time, long, long after any reader will ask "why in hell am I reading this," we'll learn that the young boy will one day become the father of the woman killed in Haiti.

Perhaps the book wants to talk big about geopolitics, and make Big Important Points, but sometimes the best way to talk about Big Issues is to actually talk about them, and not around them, and not as badly as is done here. Eventually, loose ends are tied, and surprises sprung, and connections made, but long past the point where I'd stopped caring. Firmly and flatly, this was the biggest waste of my reading time in 2013. Not at all recommended.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow, 2013).

There's a part of me that felt some serious disappointment with Neil Gaiman's most recent novel, because it's just so very Gaimanny. You name the trope, it's in here. Young protagonist, very old magic, trinity of crone / mother / youngster, names having power, tempting from magic circles, mysterious creatures / forces from other realities crossing into ours... this is a story that he's told before, quite honestly.

I'm not sure that he's ever told it so well, however. It's a story remembered by a man in his late forties, who had forgotten most of the events, decades ago, that began with a boarder stealing the family car and killing himself, and ended with a childhood friend moving across the ocean to Australia. But when he revisits the rickety old farm where the girl lived, he remembers a much more vivid story, of some force from another world influencing ours, of a visit to that land in the company of his new friend to try and persuade the force to leave, and of what happened when the creature followed them back to our world.

It is whimsical and interesting, and just long enough to not overstay its welcome, but it mostly follows a very predictable path. Even the fate of his friend - "Australia," indeed - is unsurprising. Gaiman's prose is so darn fine that it mostly didn't matter that this was a story he's told in comics and novels before. The ending, however, does contain a few unexpected revelations and quite heartbreaking gentle little twists. I admire Gaiman's power, but I'm ready for him to blaze a few new trails. Recommended with reservations.

Monday, December 23, 2013

What's the Worst That Could Happen?

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of What's the Worst That Could Happen? (Mysterious Press, 1996).

When I went to Amazon to get the link for the picture above, I was surprised to learn that this book was kind of adapted for a feature film a few years back. I say "kind of" because the main antagonist of the book, an industrialist called Max Fielding, is there, and played by Danny DeVito, but the protagonist isn't. This novel is one of Donald E. Westlake's Dortmunder books, with the hangdog thief stuck in one spiraling, ridiculous situation after another, but John Dortmunder was dumped from the movie and replaced by a wacky thief-with-a-heart-of-gold played by Martin Lawrence. I have absolutely no desire to watch such a thing. I sounds like it makes Robert Altman's bizarre 1970s-set, ending-changed Long Goodbye look like a slavishly faithful adaptation.

The book sees Dortmunder in another mess. On the day that his girlfriend gifts him a cheap ring, he gets caught by a multi-millionaire breaking into one of his homes. The industrialist was absolutely not supposed to be there; he's in the middle of chapter 11 reorganization and the house should have been closed and empty, but he needed a love nest for his affair with a Playboy playmate. Fielding holds Dortmunder at gunpoint and, when the police arrive and cuff our "hero," Fielding decides to claim that the ring is his, just to needle Dortmunder for having the moxie to dare to rob him.

After escaping, this quickly becomes a really sore point for Dortmunder, who doesn't have many resources, and none outside New York City, but it's a matter of pride. He is going to get that ring back from the globetrotting Fielding, and if he causes the big shot undue embarrassment and aggravation along the way, then so be it.

It's a really fun book, mostly quite unpredictable and deeply silly. I enjoyed it thoroughly and happily recommend it.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse: Race to Death Valley

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse: Race to Death Valley (Fantagraphics, 2011).

What a nice surprise! I had no idea this comic strip was so good.

Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks launched a Mickey Mouse newspaper comic in January, 1930. Five months later, Floyd Gottfredson came on board to draw and then script the adventures of our hero, ostensibly as a temporary position, and stayed in charge of the feature until he retired from Disney forty-five years later.

Sure, I'd read many accounts of these being really entertaining adventure-comedies, but my antipathy toward both funny animal stories and Walt Disney left me unwilling to sample them. Two years ago, however, Fantagraphics began releasing a really nice line of hardcover archival reprints. The first volume contains all of the strips from January 13, 1930 to January 9, 1932, along with a whole pile of essays and bonus material, including images from other reprint collections around the world.

The stories are rollicking, odd, and completely unpredictable. Gottfredson's first storyline, "Race to Death Valley," is five wild months in which Mickey and Minnie chase after a crooked lawyer and his giant henchman, after the baddies get the drop on them and steal a treasure map. I didn't laugh out loud all that often, the way that I certainly do reading Fantagraphics' collections of the similar-period Popeye strips, but I was completely captivated and charmed, and left wondering what would happen next.

It's dated stuff, to be sure, and sometimes uncomfortably so. There are occasional blackface gags and "booga-booga" natives, as you see in a lot of juvenile entertainment from the 1930s. At one point, Mickey decides life's not worth living and spends an entire week trying to kill himself! Alongside those, however, there are insults and slang phrases that have fallen so completely out of style that they were quite pleasantly new to me. ("You're as much help to me as the seven-year itch!!") The artwork is really vibrant and exciting, in many senses of the word. Comics of the time were still developing their own visual language, and you can see how Gottfredson was developing what we now call speed-lines and other tricks to indicate movement. He joins a very elite crew - Osamu Tezuka is another - who tricked my eyes into seeing actual motion on the page rather than static images. My hat's off to the man. Recommended.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Goldfinch

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Goldfinch (Little, Brown and Company, 2013).

Dickensian in its sweep, The Goldfinch is Donna Tartt's unbelievably dense third novel, and it was badly in need of an editor. It is 780 pages long, and a full ten percent of them could have been excised had one character, Boris, actually been written to directly answer the questions that the narrator, Theo, asks of him. By the end of the book, Tartt had trained me, once Theo asks him "Where have you been?", to skip ahead a page and a half, past the broken conversations and evasions common to their friendship.

Another twenty percent could have been chopped away had somebody urged Tartt to focus on the plot and quit describing everything. Her prose isn't vivid enough to keep me interested in the characters, and while a story that takes place over the course of a decade isn't likely to have a great structural need to get to the point, I got lost countless times, unable to understand why I was reading it. There's a pretty good 500-page novel here, in other words, though not a great one. I share with the late Roger Ebert a disdain for stories that will end at any point when a character stops lying. This novel could have been a terrific novella, ending on page 144, had Theo just returned the damn painting to his future custodian and business partner James "Hobie" Hobart, actually.

The story begins with Theo, a fifteen year-old Manhattanite, visiting an art museum with his mother on the day that it is bombed. His eye is caught by a gorgeous girl his age, there with a much older guardian. He comes to after the first responders have been ordered to evacuate when a second device is found, leaving him in the eerie, silent ruins with the guardian, who had just - really bad timing - stolen Carel Fabritius's 1654 painting The Goldfinch and had it under his coat. The old man gives the small painting to the wounded Theo, who makes it home in a panic and hides the painting away to await his mother. She never makes it back. She was killed in the blast.

It's a hell of a great start for a book, and there's an epic element to its globetrotting jaunt as Theo moves from a foster family to Las Vegas and back to New York, leading to an exchange of gunfire in Amsterdam ten years after the theft. There's even an unbelievably terrific twist when Boris, his friend in Vegas and with whom he descended into drugs and delinquency, returns to the story many years later with a quite stunning explanation for his behavior on Theo's last night in Vegas that turns everything on its head. I liked it in spite of my dislike for Theo, who dances past one terrible decision after another for years, and with whom I did not sympathize at all. But I didn't like it very much in the end, and can't really recommend something with so many pages that I ended up breezing past in search of the plot. I know this book's a critical darling right now, but sadly, not recommended.

(The Bookshelf will be taking a couple of weeks off for vacation and return with a new post on the 19th. See you then!)

Monday, December 2, 2013

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Putnam, 2013).

Here's why a good title is important. I like the title of this book so much that I picked it right up when I saw it. A few days later, eyes watering up and a lower lip bravely trembling, I was very glad that I did.

Don't read anything else about this book beyond what I am about to say. The publishers have, sensibly, not given away a very critical plot point - although every Tom, Dick, and Harry on Amazon did so in their user reviews - although they did, shamefully, blow an equally critical one on the inside front of the dust jacket. I generally don't look at either reviews or the publisher's PR until after I have finished the book, but my eyes slipped about a third of the way through Karen Joy Fowler's 300-page novel and got an unwelcome clue about the missing brother of our narrator, a college girl at UC Davis named Rosemary.

Well, I say that she's a college girl, and she is for a time. It's a very interesting structure. Her story is written taking some of her mother's advice. To save time, she starts in the middle of the story, and that's when she meets up with her brother, who ran away from home ten years previously. Her sister has been missing for an additional five. This is a story of a really unhappy family, with two missing siblings, and how Rosemary's really unusual upbringing has messed with her ability to interact with people her age.

There are revelations about Rosemary's sister and her disappearance, and slightly less shocking revelations about her brother, but even more shocking revelations about his choice to disappear, and it builds very sadly and, occasionally, with quite a sweet comic turn. The structure works really, really well. By focusing on the middle of the story, and almost rushing through the end, we don't have the chance for the later revelations to linger too long, but at the same time, the effect is to make the quickly-referenced later material even sadder. This book broke my heart. Strongly recommended.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Death in the Small Hours

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of A Death in the Small Hours (Minotaur, 2012).

I'm honestly not sure how in the world I missed this one. I finished the fifth book (and, then, the most recent) in Charles Finch's series of Victorian-era mysteries back last summer when I was taking a solo road trip through northeast Georgia, to Clemson and back, and I'm sure that I knew then that Finch had another book due for release soon. I just plum forgot about it. I saw this out of the corner of my eye more than a year later and remembered "Hey! One of those books about Detective Lenox, MP!" There's even a seventh book that just came out! I wouldn't have known that had I not popped over to Amazon to get a link for you good readers to follow. Minotaur Books, your PR company needs a kick in the pants.

Charles Finch has settled into a comfortable groove with this series. Lenox pretends like he doesn't miss his days as an amateur sleuth, but he really does. His wife, and longtime best friend, politely smiles from the sidelines, his protégé Lord John Darlington has the old business in good hands when he's not drinking to excess, and all of privileged, aristocracy-era England is just waiting for some television company to buy the adaptation rights to these books.

This time out, Lenox and his family have taken a few weeks' vacation in a village near Bath, staying at the estate of an old family friend who has asked his help in getting to the bottom of a rash of strange vandalism. Lenox thinks this will be a low-key distraction from his duties, which include writing a major, lengthy speech to open the next session of Parliament, but the incidents of vandalism have a curious theme that has everyone in the village on edge, a disagreeable new resident has made enemies of half his neighbors, and then things get really bad when the junior constable is found stabbed to death.

This isn't anything especially challenging, but a satisfying little pleasure, good, comfortable curl-up-on-the-couch on a warm day fiction. I've scoffed a little at "cozy" mysteries from time to time in this blog, but Finch really does do his work better than most of his peers, creating a fun and evolving world with a diverse cast of great characters. Happily recommended, and now I need to order the next novel.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Secret History

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Secret History (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).

Previously at the Bookshelf, I explained that I have been ordering newly-released novels by whomever gets the lead feature in Entertainment Weekly, and tiding myself with an earlier novel by that author while waiting. To this end, while waiting for Marisha Pessl's Night Film, I read her previous Special Topics in Calamity Physics. More recently, I ordered The Goldfinch, the new release by Donna Tartt, and read The Secret History, her 1992 debut, in the meantime.

I recap this so that you can understand how really, really weird it was to tackle Special Topics first, and then read The Secret History. Had I written the earlier book, I'd have been a little unhappy with Pessl. Of the two, I genuinely enjoyed Special Topics better, but I'm a little less taken with it now. It's awfully, uncomfortably similar.

Both novels feature a young narrator moving into an exclusive school setting for intellectual misfits, and finding themselves fitting awkwardly into a really high-strung clique of young pretentious oddballs with too close a relationship with their instructor. Both novels find the increased tension snapping when somebody dies, and both novels provide a little detail about the death in the prologue, so readers will have the long, agonizing buildup to a character's inevitable end. The clique of young pretentious oddballs in each book contains at least one whom readers would like to thump in the nose.

While there are quite wide differences in the plots of each of these books, they're close enough to have made me a little uncomfortable. Also, The Secret History has at least five male characters that need a thumping. One of these is the victim described in the prologue, whose name is Bunny and who strikes a pose somewhere between Thurston Howell III and Clare Quilty doing an impression of a 1920s toff. He's so ridiculous and mannered that I was ready for him to die before he actually does anything to warrant it.

The more I read of this book, the less that I liked it. I didn't sympathize with the narrator, I didn't like any of his smug, drunk friends, and the entirety of the plot is built around characters telling lies. This story could have ended at any time that somebody picked up the phone to call the police. Somebody badly needed to. I didn't enjoy this book, and I didn't enjoy the feeling of having another book that I liked getting knocked down a rung in my affections. (Not that I was all that affectionate toward it, but I'd have preferred to believe it a more original story than it was.) Bah.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Circle

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Circle (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).

To be honest, I had never really been considering the question "What if Google and Scientology merged and set out to control the world?", but for anybody who has pondered this troubling possibility, Dave Eggers' new novel is just right for you.

Having said that, I found this to be a terrific scenario punched in the face by its presentation. Y'all will have to excuse me letting my personal life dip into the reviews here from time to time, but I happen to have a fairly pointy and loud Cult Alarm, which was screaming at me not too long into this narrative. Eggers did an amazing job getting the plaintive, reasonable-sounding questions of cultists dead on target. I often read blogs and advice columns that use cut-tags and other methods to hide potentially upsetting material from sensitive readers, using an expression such as "hidden for triggers." This book needs a trigger warning around page 30 for people who get as grouchy about the subject as I do!

Worsening things exponentially is the problem of the lead character. Her name is Mae, and her college best friend helped her get a position in "customer experience" at The Circle's massive California campus. I should qualify that The Circle is sort of a hodgepodge of search engines and every social media idea, ever. When The Circle tags some old travel photos of Mae's from Portugal and adds her to a "We Like Portugal" group at work but, among the thousands of "zings" and invitations that she receives every workday, she misses one from a co-worker, she hurts his feelings so badly that a work sensitivity session is called. When one of her team leaders, baffled that Mae hadn't updated her social thingummies for about ten hours one Sunday, learns that Mae watched a WNBA game with her ailing dad and later went kayaking by herself, he's offended that she didn't reach out to: Circle WNBA fans, Circle support groups for sick parents, and Circle kayaker updates.

Mae caves. She keeps caving. She wants to fit in.

It's a clever book and a heck of a scam and a heck of a warning, too. But if you're looking for a strong lead character with a bit of backbone, this is so not the book for you. A tepid recommendation, then, with strong caveats.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Good Behavior

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Good Behavior (Mysterious Press, 1985).

Friends and readers, I'm so disappointed. For years and years, in forums and blogs, I have praised an amazing comic series written by John Wagner and Alan Grant for 2000 AD called Robo-Hunter, which is remarkable for the comedic piling-on of problem after problem atop our helpless protagonist. His schemes are beset by one calamitous issue after another, the situation never serious, but always hopeless. Knowing what I like so much about those stories, I'm dismayed, disappointed, and dadgum deflated that nobody ever thought to say to me, "Wow, if you enjoy Sam Slade's misadventures so much, then you really need to read Dortmunder."

Now, of course I'd heard of Donald E. Westlake's character of Parker, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark, and enjoyed the novels in that series that I tracked down. I wasn't entirely sure about a comedy version of that character, but I liked Westlake's work so much that I figured those would be worth a try. Dortmunder is a cynical and pessimistic burglar who has a bad feeling about every potential crime, and with good reason. The stakes are high, the scenarios are absurd, and when things start to go wrong, they start accelerating into spiraling chaos almost immediately. They're unpredictable and completely hilarious.

The one that I've enjoyed the most so far is 1985's Good Behavior, which begins with Dortmunder owing his life and freedom to a convent of vow-of-silence-taking nuns. They've rescued him from certain arrest because a young nun in their order has been abducted by her obscenely wealthy family, sort of Carrington-Ewing types whose patriarch won't accept that his daughter has devoted her life to something as repulsive as charity. Just getting into the stronghouse where she's being kept, and where a cult deprogrammer is attempting to break down her faith, is an over-complicated mess. Add in a crew who includes a twitchy, lecherous old man, favors owed to a pornographer who moonlights as her own model, a civil suit by a fish importer, and, this being the eighties, a battalion of Mack Bolan / Able Force / Baker Company mercenaries who just happen to be in the same place for entirely different reasons, and you've got an upside-down pyramid of problems for poor Dortmunder to juggle.

Suffice it to say that I love this series absolutely. I'm about to start a book called Don't Ask, which sounds like the most appropriate title in the world for a book about this put-upon hero. Gladly recommended.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The 47 Ronin

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The 47 Ronin (Shambhala, 2013).

I once took a course in medieval Japanese history taught by Dr. Karl Friday, the author of Legacies of the Sword and learned that, for any number of reasons, people's imaginations get really fired up by this period. I think it's because we admire the moral strength of the protagonists in the incidents from that time, while simultaneously we are fascinated by a culture so very unlike our own. The tale of 47 soldiers left without a master in the wake of his death, who undertook a two year-long plot to avenge him, has been popular for centuries and has inspired at least six feature films, including a new one with Keanu Reeves that is due for release later this month.

The story goes that in early 1701, a lord named Asano arrived at the estate of a wealthy official in the emperor's court in order to undertake a few weeks' instructions in proper court etiquette for receiving imperial guests and emissaries. The official, named Kira, spent the days being deliberately rude and insulting to both Asano and one of his peers, who quickly sought to tame the problem by arranging for a quiet bribe. But this just made Kira more insulting to Asano, who had no intention of paying a government official to act decently. Asano finally had enough of the insults and broke the court's peace bonds by drawing a sword. Although he didn't murder Kira, he did dole out a whipping. The combined offences of breaking the peace bond and committing assault on the emperor's man earned Asano a death sentence. Asano accepted his punishment - ordered to commit suicide - and the region's governor ordered and warned Asano's soldiers to disband and not attempt to seek revenge.

The soldiers - more than 200 - dispersed as commanded, but almost a quarter of them conspired to avenge him while working various jobs, usually as laborers and builders. One of their number was identified as the obvious ringleader, and so he spent two years posing as a drunkard, eventually convincing the agents spying for Kira and the governor that he was harmless and there was no danger. Once the surveillance ended, the soldiers were able to move, and stormed Kira's estate, taking no casualties as they captured him at last. After they'd killed him, they turned themselves in. The governor showed clemency and, instead of executing them all as criminals, allowed the soldiers the same face-saving suicide that their lord had received, excepting the one who had arranged for their surrender and whose life was spared. The story of the 47 "ronin" - rogue soldiers, without an officer - has passed into legend, with the soldiers seen as heroes for honoring the memory of their lord.

I don't find this story as inspiring as many people seem to, although I certainly find it fascinating from a historical standpoint, and impressed by the intricate planning and long game of the revenge. I admit to being in the minority here, because Asano is seen by many as a hero whose honor was insulted by Kira. It's this code of honor and face and everything that I've always found problematic. So Kira was a boorish jackass who abused his position and authority and expected bribes. Asano's still the criminal who struck first.

Well, my point of view isn't at all the romantic one, and it's not shared by writer Sean Michael Wilson and artist Akiko Shimojima, who've adapted the incident into a 160-page comic. I think that they did a superb job capturing more than just the basics, and fleshing out some of the characters, most notably Ōishi Yoshio, the leader of the gang. The artist has a really thankless job keeping this moving and comprehensible - after all, it involves a huge number of characters who all dress alike, and wear identical haircuts, which is no problem in a film, but it forces Shimojima to avoid the typical comic book shortcuts of using these as distinctive traits - but I was never lost or confused by the flow of the story at all. It is an excellently paced and balanced book.

The part that impressed me most comes when Wilson deviates from the historical narrative and allows two characters to debate the complicated issue. One of the rogues' cover is blown and he has a fireside chat in the woods with somebody, bringing up the ethical problems behind the plot, and the other possible actions that the gang could have taken. I think that Wilson was somewhat constrained by the page count, because there's a lot more like this that could have been explored. I leaned on Wikipedia for some background to this story and learned that some researchers believe that, according to the guidelines of the soldiers' code, called "bushido," neither victory nor defeat were important, only honor. Planning the long game caper ensured Kira could be slain when his guard was dropped, but the guidelines of their social structure actually demanded revenge to be taken as quickly as possible.

I think this contradiction is really interesting, and would have liked to have seen more of this debate between "honor" and "revenge" in the book. Given the page count and the limitations imposed on the story, however, Wilson did an excellent job detailing the historical facts, writing sympathetic characters, and keeping readers unfamiliar with the incident interested in what will happen next. I'd happily recommend this for anybody interested in the period.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Help for the Haunted

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Help for the Haunted (William Morrow, 2013).

Set in 1989, John Searles' Help for the Haunted takes place in the aftermath of the murder of two celebrity ghost-hunters and demon-busters, a couple modeled not very subtly on our world's Ed and Lorraine Warren. They left behind two teenage daughters, the surly and rebellious Rose and the loyal, heartbroken Sylvie, who believes that she saw the killer.

The book is told from Sylvie's point of view, as she struggles with the police investigation, the custody of her older sister, and the town mocking the celebrity and notoriety of her parents. And there's worse: her father left a lot of unfinished work behind in the cellar. Some things that go bump in the night can't be handled by prayer.

I really enjoyed this novel. Searles did a terrific job keeping me guessing, both about what happened to the Mason family and what's going to be happening to Sylvie in the future. Sorry this review's absurdly short, but it's simply a satisfying and unpredictable read. It plays fairly within its premise and structure and answers a lot more questions than I was expecting. Solidly recommended.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Dirty Money Trilogy

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Nobody Runs Forever, Ask the Parrot and Dirty Money (Mysterious Press, 2004 / 2006 / 2008).

Even after I finished reading Richard Stark's 2006 novel Ask the Parrot, I had no idea that it was the middle book in a series. It begins with Stark's (Donald E. Westlake's) famous rock-hard thief, Parker, on the run from a job that went bad, but in one of these novels, that wouldn't be anything new. Capture is all but certain until he runs into a poacher who offers him shelter, and a chance at a new job, turning over a race track. Ask the Parrot is tremendous fun for anybody who enjoys watching the protagonist of a story dig himself out of a deeper and deeper hole, while other people keep shoveling more dirt atop him.

The situation in this rural community gets worse with every hour. Parker and the poacher, who had been fired from the track years previously and dreams of revenge, but is too much of a coward to work without major help, concoct a believable cover about how Parker's an old friend who will be staying with him for a few days, and are almost immediately asked to join a posse looking for Parker and a fellow robber, who's still on the loose. Then one of the men in Parker's party shoots and kills some tramp in the woods. Then two dumb meth-heads figure out who Parker is. It's a hugely entertaining cascade of one problem after another.

So a week or so later, I started reading Dirty Money, and while the case in the book I'd just finished was settled and Parker was on his way home, it turns out that there are still unresolved issues from the job that had originally gone bad, and two million dollars in marked money left in hiding in western Massachusetts. Worse, the third man on that job is back on the run after killing an FBI agent and escaping custody. The money still needs to be found, and something done about that criminal, and about finding a reliable buyer who will give them ten cents on the dollar and move the marked cash out of the country. And then there's a bounty hunter, and... heck, I missed a book, didn't I? Let me go back...

Each of the three books in this series can stand alone, but together they form a loose trilogy about a high-risk and high-reward job that gets fouled up and must be salvaged at any cost. Rollercoaster isn't an unfair description. This thing is all over the map, with more and uglier parties involving themselves in the search and rescue of the two million. Dirty Money doesn't really conclude so much as finally get to a point where there isn't actually anybody left to pose a challenge, and no more loose ends beyond the few that the author wants the reader to use imagination to resolve. It's a terrific cap to a very fun series, and while I've only read the 1997-2008 Parker books and haven't yet had the pleasure of sampling the original run from 1962-74, I believe these three books did the character justice with a fitting and satisfying sendoff. Recommended.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Night Film

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Night Film (Random House, 2013).

I really find Marisha Pessl a fascinating and promising author, even though this is the second of her books that has left me juggling a cold and prickly thing instead of embracing something warm and wonderful. Her plotting and structure are masterful, but Night Film remains flawed and, in the end, unlovable and mean. It almost pulls it out in the end before taking an unwelcome detour the likes of which I don't often see in fiction, but while I have to reluctantly conclude that the experiment is a failure, it's nevertheless a really interesting one.

I bet this book is really extra-fun on a tablet. After a short prologue, written in prose, the next twenty pages are "screen captures" of web pages that explain the suicide of a piano prodigy, some catty and weird comments on a discussion thread, and a HuffPo-like "slideshow" about the life of Ashley Cordova, and, more intriguingly, her reclusive father Stanislas. This fellow is a film director, something of a cross between Kubrick and Argento, whose fifteen macabre and ugly films are divided about halfway through his career between major studio works, including a mid-70s feature that won him an Oscar, and barely-distributed-at-all weird creations that are typically screened in underground, invitation-only affairs. It's explained that in the late 1980s, a sicko murdered a kid, echoing the grisly fate of a character in a Cordova movie, and the family began a crusade to bury even the studio works of the director, who has steadfastly avoided publicity for decades.

Pessl has huge problems with this alternate history. To her credit, she absolutely nails the smug and cultish attitudes of Cordova fandom, a bunch of sycophants and online bullies who protect their secret information like the Vatican in a Dan Brown novel. (About whom, more momentarily.) But while I adore the conceit of using "found footage" from internet pages throughout the novel - again, I bet the e-Book is really neat - to immerse readers in Cordova's world, the world just seems boring. We have to take Pessl's word for it that Cordova's movies are amazing, but she never convinces. We'll occasionally hear a character tell us what a genius Cordova is, and go really over the top, suggesting that just being in the presence of a super-genius artist changed their life forever. I have clearly never been in the orbit of such people before, because I can't even imagine what that's like. I met Patti Smith once and got a little tongue-tied, but that's about it.

Worse, though, Cordova's movies just seem dull. From her descriptions, it seems like she used all of her imagination to build this novel's high-rise structure and didn't leave anything behind to persuade me that I'm missing anything by not living in a world with Cordova in it. Remember when Garth Brooks made that "greatest hits" album by an alter ego, Chris Gaines, and how nobody on the planet even once said "Wow, I wish I could listen to the original Chris Gaines records from the early 80s!" It's about like that.

So, with that in mind, we learn from the "slideshow" that the book's narrator is a disgraced journalist who ran his mouth off and slandered Cordova on television before confirming the veracity of his source, who vanished, leaving him holding a lawsuit that destroyed his marriage and his career. The death of Cordova's daughter gets him interested in following up on that source again, who'd left him with a tantalizing belief that, on his expansive and secluded estate in upstate New York, Cordova has been involved in ugliness that rivals the horrors of his films. There are hints of child abductions and murders and strange medical equipment shipped to the wrong address. Our hero thinks that learning why Ashley has killed herself will let him into this ugly and isolated world through a back door...

What I do like about the book comes down to how clever it is. Cordova's commercial peak came in the 1970s, when the horror industry was specifically concerned, not with "demons" or "possession," but Satan himself. This is echoed in the book, as layer after layer of the story is slowly slipped away, and information provided by a host of new sources whose clashing information reveals there's a lot more darkness going on than our hero had planned for. I also like the iconography, which is very playful and rewarding for Kubrick obsessives. The estate itself will certainly remind you of The Overlook in The Shining, and there is a private party and a "this was much more mundane than you thought it was" explanation (but can it be trusted?) that come from Eyes Wide Shut.

I hate to spoil anything or make suggestions of it, but this explanation/conversation, akin to the scene between Sydney Pollack and Tom Cruise in that last film of Kubrick's, leads to a perfectly satisfying climax. I would have preferred to leave it there, but Pessl has a little more to say and a little more to dig, and it's not done with any satisfaction whatever. It's telegraphed pretty far in advance - at least one of Cordova's films is said to have a deliberately ambiguous conclusion - and so any intelligent reader will see the probability that this story will have multiple, conflicting resolutions. But coming after the similarly unresolved climax of Pessl's previous book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, it's unfortunate that she decided once more against settling things for readers.

Night Film compares poorly to Calamity in another regard, and that's the dialogue. The earlier book was a memoir written by a college freshman - an extremely intelligent and a very well-educated one, but a naive and immature young woman all the same - and so its deliberately overwrought narration and dialogue was natural for the narrator. There's no excuse for journalist Scott McGrath, who speaks, as do his friends, in constant italics and a tin ear very like Dan Brown. The dialogue is often stilted and descriptions leaden at the best of times. On the extreme end, there's a long, long conversation with a drug abusing alcoholic former actress who sobers up instantly to talk at simply absurd length, the clarity and depth of her account flatly unbelievable in light of what we've seen of the woman.

The problem with a case with so many layers is that it requires a source to recount each of them, and a great contrivance to get each of these characters into a situation where they are willing to explain their side of things. In the end, despite some exciting detours and some developments that are certain to make readers feel for our hero, there are just two and probably three too many contrived twists, If the book had its climax in the nursing home, with McGrath silently understanding the sad truth about things, it would have been a book that I could still recommend with some reservations. Unfortunately, I fear that this will only be a book that I could recommend to people who hope to watch Pessl develop and continue a promising career, and will look back on this project as her only stumble of note. I sincerely hope that her next project is as amazing as I had hoped this was going to be.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Garment of Shadows

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Garment of Shadows (Bantam, 2012).

After the last time that I wrote about Laurie R. King's series about Russell and Holmes, I was baffled to learn that the two-volume "God of the Hive" stories had not really gone over very well with the author's fans, a loud number of whom decried what they thought was padding and the cliffhanger ending to the first of the books. This loud number of people is as wrong as wrong could be, those books are terrific. I also got a delightful note from the ageless "Mary Russell" herself on Twitter, informing me that I should not have trusted the biographer William S. Baring-Gould in anything that he claimed about Holmes's son; after all, said biographer made the mad claim that the immortal Holmes had died at some point. Fair point. If our daring duo don't wish to die, I can get behind that.

But not as much as I can get behind a novel in which Mary Russell visits her stepson Nero Wolfe in Manhattan one day. I just cannot get behind Damian at all. I'm allowed to be stubborn. I'm also allowed to breathe a heavy sigh of discontent whenever Russell and Holmes' friends Ali and Mahmoud show up in one of King's chronicles. And the author is allowed to write a book so good that I have little choice but to admit that she mostly beat up my prejudices against these characters. Neat trick.

Garment of Shadows opens with Holmes in Morocco, looking for his wife. Mary Russell was last seen here in the lighthearted novel Pirate King, but she's obtained a head injury and has lost her memory. With the country at a critical point, breaking away from the control of colonial France and Spain and fighting between rival tribes for independence, this is not a good time for our heroine to be at anything other than peak condition. Holmes deduces that Ali and Mahmoud are also in the region, all of our heroes the pawns of Mycroft, as ever manipulating events for the benefit of British interests.

It's an interesting tactic, keeping the reader and the lead character completely in the dark, and, as understanding slowly dawns, it's into a time and place that's probably not very familiar to readers. We may have an idea of which direction Morocco moved in the modern era, but who's to say the political upheavals after World War Two through the 1960s wouldn't have completely changed the direction that Morocco was heading in 1924? For that matter, who's to say that British interests are in anybody else's?

There were moments where I was skeptical, and moments where I had to step back and reread some of the descriptions so that I could get a better visual sense of what was going on - it's an awful habit I have, being so caught up in dialogue that I miss vital scenery and staging - but this was certainly a pleasure to read and kept me guessing throughout. Recommended.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

House of Leaves

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of House of Leaves (Pantheon, 2000).

The first time that I read House of Leaves, it scared me senseless. I had every light in the house on, desperate to dispel the darkness.

Seven years and a couple of rereads later, it's not as suffocating anymore, but it retains its remarkable power to get under my skin. Have you heard of this book? It's the living definition of unnerving, but man alive, is it ever fun. It's a collaboration between at least four very unreliable narrators, each telling a story one on top of another. One told it in a documentary film, and one wrote a quasi-academic, detail-packed paper about the film, and one found the paper and annotated it and told his own story in the footnotes, and one seems to have the name Mark Z. Danielewski and functions as "the editors." They're all liars. That's important. The devil's in the details and some of them are throwaway details. If your attempt to analyze the events doesn't come to crashing halt when the original character, several layers of narrative away from you, pulls out the very book that you're reading, House of Leaves, and sets fire to it, one page at a time, then you may not have been paying attention.

I love the clash of the narrators. At one point, Johnny Truant, who claims to have found the lengthy paper, points out a geographic flaw in it, and at other points, he admits that he tells lies and can't be trusted. All of these layers collide, and here's how it plays out for me: the original event was unsettling enough, and might have made a chilling and deeply weird ghost story on its own. By forcing readers to dig through the bizarre and original way that Danielewski has told this story, it becomes much more effective. The logical side of your brain will be working so hard to follow the competing and clashing narratives that the creepiness has a much easier path into your head.

The book even tells contradictory stories about how the documentary film ends. Within each layer, it contradicts itself. These narrators are not merely unreliable, they're out to get you.

House of Leaves has had such an impact that, if you go to YouTube, you'll see several amateur attempts to recreate the strange "found footage" short films that are described in the academic paper. Reading this book, three layers removed from the documentary movie (actually four levels, if you count all the magazine pieces, late night TV discussions, and academic journal stories that followed the release of the movie and informed the text of the paper as a level of their own), you'll be desperate to actually watch this documentary on your own. But doing so would spoil the effect of the book's presentation, and I'm not just talking about Danielewski's celebrated fun with the layout, the footnotes, the reverse text, the use of the color blue whenever the word house appears. At one point, the paper presents excerpts from a decaying centuries-old journal that tells the story of a lost trio of colonists in the Virginia wilderness where the house at the center of this story would later be built. See, there is just so darn much going on in this story that I completely forgot about the three-page digression into these characters' story. The book is so precisely laid out that readers will turn the page to read the final, five-word entry from their journal. My blood ran cold and I had to put the book down.

House of Leaves is full of tricks like that. Sure, it functions as a horror story and a love story and it's a playful yet mean-spirited game that satirizes the conventions of academic writing, but it's just so darn fun. What's it about? Well, it depends on which of the levels you're reading at the moment. It could be about academia, or it could be about a sex-charged apprentice at a tattoo parlor having his life turned upside down and losing his grip on reality, or it could be about a photographer's badly damaged relationship with his girlfriend and their children, or it could be about a house that grows extra rooms and corridors, from which people vanish, never to be seen again.

One request, though, and it's an unusual one... while I do recommend this book very highly, I recommend that you resist that unconscious temptation to thumb ahead in the book to count pages or whatever it is that compels us to just glance forward a little at the text yet to come. Maybe you're not even aware that you do this. Maybe mentioning it will make you hyper-cognizant that you might do it and create an irresistible urge to do something you'd never normally do, but seriously, don't do it. Start with page one. Don't look ahead. That way lies minotaurs.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Husband's Secret

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Husband's Secret (Putnam, 2013).

Last month, I explained how I started to read a featured review in Entertainment Weekly, had a brainstorm, and decided to order the book without finishing the review, and picked up another of the author's titles while I waited. The author was Liane Moriarty, and while I have to say that I enjoyed her previous novel, What Alice Forgot, a little more, this year's The Husband's Secret was still quite entertaining and a much meaner read than I had been expecting.

To be fair, Moriarty does contrive a whole passel of coincidences to put all the players in this drama together in Sydney at the same time and then keep things moving. As such, the fairly obvious nature of the husband's secret - revealed in a letter written many years ago and hidden in the family attic - is pretty predictable from all of the clues and people around the characters. I found myself hoping that there would be a great twist in this, but instead the revelation hits the players like an iceberg, a little more than a third of the way through the book.

Things proceed with an entertaining, if curious inevitability from there, as though the central horror that brought so many of these people together - the unsolved murder of a teenager in the mid-1980s - had never been spoken of before all three splintered families and their children and grandchildren have been assembled in the attendance of a suburban Catholic school. While the character study is very entertaining, I fear that the book's climax, while at last containing a quite remarkable plot twist, really is contrived beyond belief. It requires the aging mother of the dead girl, now in her sixties, to just happen to stumble upon an old VHS tape with some footage of her daughter on the last week of her life, driving her decades-long belief in one man's guilt into what's, for her if not the police, indisputable proof. I don't doubt that this would have happened, but for it to happen within a couple of days of all this other thunderous drama really is pushing credibility.

The book is severely flawed, in other words, but it's almost completely redeemed by a daring, knife-twisting epilogue. I was already pleased by the stunning climactic plot twist and the downbeat aftermath of that, but reading the omniscient narration that caps the story and provides hints at what the characters never knew was almost gleefully mean-spirited. I do have some reservations about recommending it since it's certain to push the limits of your suspension of disbelief, but when it's good, it's criminally good.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

This Book Is Full of Spiders

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of This Book Is Full of Spiders (Thomas Dunne, 2012).

I love unreliable narrators. "David Wong," the hero of This Book Is Full of Spiders and the earlier John Dies at the End (which I've not yet read) is as unreliable as they come. He cops to it at the end, finishing up an incredibly long and subtle joke about the hyper-efficiency of one of the characters, and I punched the air. Considering that I'd honestly - yes, me, honestly - choked back a tear or twelve over the death of a character about four pages previously, I'd call that a win.

This book is a horror novel as designed by Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, which mostly plays by the rules it designs, but has some incredibly fun cheats. It's set in a Hellmouth-sorta town, with shrunken soldiers and teleportation tunnels, and only our heroes and a couple of friends know about all the weirdness. So they're uniquely equipped to save the world from an invasion of otherdimensional spiders that manifest, grotesquely, inside your head. They even have access to a substance that freezes time, allowing you to cover great distances while everything else is locked in the moment. But you can't cover the distances too quickly; a moth that is in your path and cannot be budged hurts like the blazes when you run into it at full speed.

Honestly, there might be a thing or twelve too many going on in this book for me to have been completely satisfied with it on a single read. The subplots about shadowy men and secret councils of bad guys never really gelled for me, even as they were important to the climax. But I admire the author's moxie in concocting a really awful scenario and playing it through, writing himself into corner after corner and finding honest ways out of the messes that he's made. It's a story where humanity's survival comes down to two drunk rednecks, a dog, and an out-of-town girlfriend, and somehow - somehow - they conspire to save the day. If you can stomach the awful and gory body count between the first infection and salvation, then I can recommend this, but only for the not-too-squeamish.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Ophelia Cut

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Ophelia Cut (Atria, 2013).

This was a very nice treat. A few weeks ago, I treated myself to the first novel in John Lescroart's series of detective / legal thrillers featuring Dismas Hardy, written back in 1989. In it, Dismas's future wife, Frannie, was pregnant with a baby, later to be named Rebecca and take the nickname "the Beck." Since the books move in nearly-real time, the Beck is in her mid-twenties in Lescroart's newest novel, and first for a new publisher, The Ophelia Cut. She's in law school and attempting to be the conscience for her wild and crazy cousin.

Knowing all the family trees of Lescroart's sprawling cast isn't necessary to enjoy this latest book in the series, because the crime at the center of this one is a universal fear. The Beck's cousin attracts a stalker, and wakes up date-raped at his hands. Her father - Dismas's brother-in-law - had already beaten up the jerk, and so when the guy is found dead two mornings after the assault, it's natural that the police will want to ask him a few questions.

This being a Lescroart novel, there's far, far more than that going on. With all the elegant balancing of a warehouse floor full of dominoes, one little tip results in a spectacular cascade of interrelated drama. There's the jerk's boss - a city supervisor - and there's bribery, and massage parlors, and a fellow in witness protection working in the brother-in-law's bar. There's an accusation of police cover-up, and another shocking surprise in the career of Dismas's cop best friend, Lt. Abe Glitsky. And of course there are the usual darts and ridiculous T-shirts and cast iron skillets and the specials at Lou the Greek's.

But at the end of this one, honestly, things aren't going to be the same. There's a shakeup at the conclusion of this book that will change everything in the weird and wonderful "family tree" of all of Hardy's friends and associates in the biggest way since Abe and Treya had a couple more kids. It's a stunning reminder that the other side of the books aging in real time means that the lead characters are middle-aged now.

It's a huge shame that more people don't know these characters! Some of the books in the series are a little denser than others - another Lescroart hallmark is the extreme attention to detail, even in avenues that will prove less vital to the resolution than their inclusion suggested - and some required a little more patience than others, but overall, I'm extremely pleased to have found Lescroart, and think this is a very welcome addition to the canon. I'm looking forward to the next one, as soon as the author can deliver!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Red Handed

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes (First Second, 2013).

I enjoyed one of Matt Kindt's previous comics, Super Spy, with some qualifications and quibbles. The labyrinthine story was great fun, but while I enjoyed Kindt's artistic style and flair, I had trouble differentiating the many characters. Very different people looked so similar that reading it was occasionally really frustrating.

That's not a problem with Red Handed, released earlier this year by First Second. While Kindt's style is as eclectic and original as ever, he's successfully made every one of the dozens of characters and bit players very distinctive. A case might be made that there are just too darn many of them, but I won't make it. The story is a huge and wonderfully constructed creation that needs them all.

The book is a sly tribute to detective fiction of ages past, specifically recalling both Dick Tracy (in the name of the lead character, Detective Gould) and Encyclopedia Brown. Our hero is a powerhouse of police detection, and no crime in the town of Red Wheel Barrow goes unsolved for long. Lately, however, Gould has been delayed - not at all stumped - by some really outre cases of either petty theft writ large or just the sort of criminal derring-do really outside Gould's usual caseload.

As with Super Spy, of course, all of these fractured, episodic cases are incredibly interconnected. There's a huge amount going on beneath the surface, and visual clues that absolutely nobody will spot on the first or even second pass. In fact, the book is so episodic, with each little story punctuated with as full a stop as can be imagined, that I had to remind myself that I was reading Kindt and that there would surely be a payoff in time.

Gould soon realizes that there's a pattern to these outre crimes, but he doesn't realize it in time. He's on the receiving end of a massive crime himself, and is forced to take outre action to put an end to it. His action really surprised me, and not only does the book end without an easy answer, it ends demanding readers start again fresh to watch everything unfold with a better understanding of what has happened. Gloriously good stuff, and highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

It's All About the Guest

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of It's All About the Guest (Lyons, 2013).

There's a restaurant here in Atlanta called The Vortex which is every bit as well-known for its amazing burgers as it is for its hilarious book of rules. This is a restaurant that flatly does not believe that the customer is always right, that this is their house and they'll do things their own way, and won't suffer fools at all. You, the customer, are perfectly able to be propelled through the same door that you entered. The owners have a less well-known sister restaurant, Bone Garden Cantina, where their similar rules are repeated on the menu. My parents took me there for a birthday once, and while my late father laughed all the way through the list, my mother was horrified by it. "Well, let me ask you this, Mom," I said. "Were we planning to camp at this table long after we'd paid the check, and stiff the server with a crummy tip?" She conceded that we certainly weren't, but it was just the very idea of a business owner putting in print what common etiquette has long suggested that got her aggravated.

I wonder what Steve DiFillippo of Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse would make of The Vortex and Bone Garden Cantina's policy about the customer not necessarily being right. He's built a very successful chain of high-end restaurants and a packaged food line around the policy that both his customers and his employees should never be referred to as anything other than "guests." Davio's is a restaurant where the guest comes first, period. For him, it's a policy that has been working extremely well.

Davio's is one of those rare businesses that traces its history only as far back as the present ownership. In my other blog, Marie, Let's Eat!, which I co-write with my wife, we have a special fondness for very old restaurants. Ideally, these are passed down to family members, but often sold several times. Dub and Darlene Walters, the present owners of Twin Oaks Drive-In BBQ in Brunswick, Georgia, have only had the place a few years, but happily carry on a seventy-year tradition. DiFillippo bought Davio's in Boston, which was a popular place with staffing troubles which everybody knew had peaked, in the 1980s, and anything that happened before then was consigned to the file cabinet. The Davio's story effectively starts with his purchase of it, and the last couple of entertaining decades are covered in his new memoir, It's All About the Guest, newly released this month.

I'm not a high-maintenance guest, myself. I like to order food the way it's offered without special requests, and I like to have attentive service from people who know the company they're working for and can answer my questions. We lack the funds to be regular diners at Davio's - those advertisements on the sides of your screen when you read blogs? They're there for a reason, folks - but our limited experiences here have shown us that this is a restaurant that has got it right. Their Atlanta location is in a pretty soulless shopping mall one floor underneath an amusement park for kiddies, but the food is unbelievably good, the service just about the best around, and their general manager almost certainly the finest in the business. It's a terrific restaurant, and so I have been naturally curious to read DiFillippo's gloves-off account of how he's made it that way.

One thing that I appreciate is his honesty. DiFillippo has made some mistakes along the way, and put his trust where he shouldn't have, and suffered some losses. But they've been worth it because he has a really good team and a really good product, and his hands-on approach has clearly worked very well for him. His memoir is written in a breezy, fun style full of great anecdotes. Some of these will be familiar to people who've read his occasional columns at The Huffington Post. (Happily, the great one about the server who kept recommending veal parmesan, which has never been on any Davio's menu, is included.) And while very few of us have had the fortune or opportunity to run a business so large and so well-known that we find ourselves driving last-minute deliveries out to NFL stars like Tom Brady, anybody in the customer service industry can learn a lot from DiFillippo's suggestions and rules for running a business right and treating your guests with value and respect.

Honestly, we eat out a lot, and at a lot more different places than most people. Bad service, in our considerable experience (more than 900 different restaurants in four years) is really uncommon, so much so that it's memorable when you get it. Davio's strives for the other side, to have an experience so good that it stands out. The stories of this book might honestly not apply at every single restaurant - I can't imagine either The Vortex or another Atlanta institution, Ann's Snack Bar, having much use for it - but unless you're in that very small subset of businesses that find pleasure and profit in the infamy afforded by attitude, this is a book that you need to read. It's very fun and very enlightening, and just as soon as we've tried one or two of the Davio's recipes within, I'm going to lend it around my civilian identity workplace for my co-workers to read.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities (Arthur A. Levine, 2012).

I expected this book to be fun and wasn't disappointed. It's a pretty thick little hardback that I noticed at the local library, but as it is written for kids - target age about 8-12 - and peppered with illustrations by Mike Maihack, it's also fairly easy to breeze through in an hour and change. Our hero is a kid named Vincent Wu, the de facto leader of a trio who idolize his city's guardian superhero, Captain Stupendous. That unfortunate name is probably the book's only flaw. You know who would call himself Captain Stupendous? A supporting player in a book for kids aged 8-12, and nobody else.

Anyway, Vincent realizes that the mysterious, kind-hearted, and mighty Captain Stupendous, who's seven feet tall and musclebound and incredibly powerful, is acting kind of weird lately. He's had awful trouble beating up the sort of giant robot that he used to handle in his sleep, and he's not appearing at press conferences to reassure the public after the latest menace to public order has been vanquished. In short order, we learn that the Captain has a new secret identity. Or... wait, how best to explain it? See, the character is basically an amalgam of Captain Marvel, Green Lantern, and Ralph from TV's Greatest American Hero, and while his superhero body always looks the same, somebody else, somebody new, is "piloting" the heroic version. This somebody isn't just a rookie, it's one of Vincent's classmates. Worse still, it's a girl, Polly. A ten year-old girl is Captain Stupendous! Can she use Vincent's incredible knowledge of the hero to learn how to play the part before she gets herself stomped when the giant robot comes back?

As a kid who took things way too damn seriously when I was in the book's target age bracket, I would have grumbled like hell over that name, but loved the story anyway. It's not merely that author Mike Jung has crafted a pretty solid story with lots of gentle twists and turns, and not just that it's peppered throughout with Easter egg names and references to well-known comic creators and characters either. This is a book that's not afraid to appeal, gushingly, to kids, and speak their language. The still-taking-things-way-too-damn-seriously side of me today might tsk a little over the kids in the book constantly SHOUTING TO EACH OTHER IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, but the kid I was would have adored it. The interactions of the children feel real and are very fun. I also like how Jung creates two separate but equally critical problems: defeating Professor Mayhem and his indestructible robot, and dealing with the fact that Polly, understandably, doesn't actually want to have another life as a seven foot tall man.

Fun, breezy, and intelligent, I'd happily recommend this for anybody in the target age, and anybody else who'd like a little nostalgia about how much fun we could have when we were that young.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Viking, 2006).

As I mentioned earlier this week, I recently read a couple of novels only knowing exactly one thing about them: they were each written by an author who has a new book out with a feature review in Entertainment Weekly and I'm reading these earlier works while waiting in the library queue for the new one. I knew nothing else whatever about them.

So, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl: boy, howdy, I found this a complex and troubling read. It is a book that does not wish to be embraced. It is cold and prickly and mean and does not answer any of the really troubling questions that it poses. There is an element of detective fiction at the core of its faux memoir template - it is written by a college freshman about the events leading up to a traumatic event one year previously - but it does not play by the rules. I accept, on its own terms, that it is a challenging and difficult story that the fictional memoirist certainly needed to write, but it would have been a more satisfying read had she waited until (a) she had the maturity to not write so damn much like an overeducated, pretentious bore and (b) some of her questions were eventually answered.

Our protagonist is Blue van Meer, who has traveled all around the country with her dad, Professor Gareth van Meer. It's been his habit for almost a decade to take little visiting professorships at small, rinky-dink colleges and universities for just a single semester, challenging the bejesus out of his students while publishing impenetrable studies of civil unrest and geopolitics in obscure journals. He finally agrees to settle for an entire year in a western North Carolina town (it seems to be an amalgam of Asheville and Murphy, smaller than one and larger than the other), allowing Blue to attend St. Galloways School for her senior year.

We know from the introduction that a teacher named Hannah will die by hanging and that Blue will find her body. I really enjoy Pessl's use of foreshadowing. The buildup - it's endless - and all the attendant weird mysteries about Hannah's unusual life, and why she rubs her father the wrong way, kept me engrossed so much that when Hannah finally dies, it's almost like a relief. The tension is amazing.

But the tension's not for everybody. As befits somebody who's been educated by a condescending, pretentious perfectionist like Gareth, Blue has learned how to write with no grace whatever. It's not breezy or light at all; her construction is deliberately obtuse and academic on the one hand, while relying on overused, familiar phrases as a teen would on the other. I am impressed by how well Pessl captures Blue's voice, because it can't have been easy, but nor is it easy to read. For all Blue's naivete, she's almost as smug and self-important as her father. I looked at one of my freshman essays not long ago. I wouldn't care to read a second, put it that way.

I'm really torn by how Pessl proceeded from the tragedy. I like how, on the one hand, things get so much worse than Blue led me to believe they were going to be. I enjoyed the feeling of being knocked over when we learn more about Hannah, and about her father. What I didn't enjoy was the lack of resolution. There are things about her death that are not answered, and probably wouldn't be for years to come. That's when Blue should have written her memoir; not simply because she would be a better writer, but because she's unable to dig any further than she did. What she did unearth was tragic, painful, and horrible, but, enjoying as I do the relentless pursuit of capital-T Truth by the heroes of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, I couldn't help but feel that Blue walked away too soon. I don't blame her - this is ugly and she's a kid - but Pessl could have made it go another way. Recommended with reservations.

Monday, September 16, 2013

What Alice Forgot

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of What Alice Forgot (MacMillan, 2009).

I decided to try out some more contemporary fiction, and picked what you might think is an eccentric way to select some. I decided that, with each novel that got the big feature in each issue of Entertainment Weekly, I would join the library's queue for that book and also see whether any other novels by the same author might be available. So in the case of Australian author Liane Moriarty, at some point in late October I might get a new novel that I know little about, beyond briefly scanning a review long enough to conclude "yeah, sure," and that I am familiar with one earlier book by that writer, about which I knew nothing whatever.

I don't like spoilers at all, and don't read blurbs or reviews or even a hint of what I'll find if at all possible. With What Alice Forgot, I stumbled into a situation where it looked as though the protagonist of the piece was losing her memory of a happy vacation while suffering from a bad injury and, horrifically, learning that she must have lost her child, as there was no fetal heartbeat. Thrust into the same very unhappy water as Alice, it looked like she was losing her baby and her memories at the same time.

Ah, but what was really happening was even more frightening. The baby was just fine; in fact, she's ten years old now. The vacation memory, fading by the second, is just about the only thing from the last decade that she remembers at all. What Alice has forgotten is an entire ten years of her life, but what's more stunning is that what Alice has forgotten is that over those last ten years, she has become a horrible person.

There's a subplot about Alice's aunt that never really went anywhere, but otherwise, this was a really entertaining and unpredictable story. Some of Alice's lost past is so controversial among her family that they're loathe to tell her details, forcing both the reader and the hero to put her story back together again, and make mistakes - occasionally amusing ones - along the way. I found this a real pleasure to read, with breezy, clear prose, and happily recommend it.

(Check back on Thursday for a post about another novel I knew nothing of before I opened the cover!)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Eight-Seven

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Eight-Seven (book club edition of The Mugger, Killer's Choice and Doll, circa 1967).

I have a totally unfair reason for waiting so long to sample Ed McBain. In the early 1990s, Universal was having trouble finding workable, complex scripts for Columbo, but they had the television rights to some of McBain's 87th Precinct series. Now, you'd think, only making two and maybe three TV-movies a season, they could get some writers who'd enjoy working with Columbo's popular formula, but no, not content with mostly abandoning the trope of pitting Peter Falk against a big-name, classy guest star each time, they jerry-rigged a couple of 87th Precinct treatments and stuck the character of Lt. Columbo into these characterless, charmless stories that would have worked equally well as a two-hour episode of any other cop show of the day. "No Time to Die" and "Undercover" are, by some distance, the worst episodes of that series, even worse than the one where they cast the great Rod Steiger in a bit part and gave the villain role to George Wendt.

A little time, distance, and objectivity eventually led me to acknowledge that very little of what was wrong with Columbo after 1992 was Ed McBain's fault.

The 87th Precinct series - there are 54 of the darn things - stretched from 1956 to the death of McBain (real name Evan Hunter) in 2005. If these three books are any indication, it was a terrific series, and while they've not been very popular or commented upon in some time, they're really solid police procedurals that reflect their times very well. I was amused by a couple of references to Dragnet putting an unbreakable image of police work in civilian minds, and also to somebody being dismissed as a naïve youngster because he looks like Elvis Presley.

Most of the time, when you find these old book club omnibus editions, they seem to have been assembled at random. This collection reprints the second, fifth, and nineteenth(!) in the 87th Precinct series, but it forms a character arc for Detective Bert Kling. He's introduced in The Mugger as a patrolman, established in Killer's Choice as a rookie detective, and fumbling so awfully in the wake of his girl friend's death in Doll that his lieutenant has concluded that promoting him had been a mistake. Incidentally, I love the two-word spelling of "girl friend." As with "goodby" or "good-by" in John D. MacDonald novels of the period, it's a reminder that language is always evolving.

These are pretty breezy reads, despite the taut and narrow focus of each novel. I enjoyed the very detailed look at procedure in the 1950s and 1960s, and occasional neat and experimental prose that's used really effectively. The Mugger even uses second-person narration for a section to get things started. The first two books just sing with the tone of the 1950s, while Doll's realistic use of hallucinogenic drugs feels appropriately grounded in the 1960s. I love finding fiction from a period that reinforce our contemporary view of that period and being able to say "Yes. This is why we think the 1950s had this feel. It's because books like these were produced then, and contributed to the zeitgeist, and are still accessible both as artifacts and as reminders."

This isn't a series that I'll be able to completely collect immediately, owing to cost and availability, but I will definitely keep my eyes open for more of them. McBain / Hunter was a fantastic talent, and worth waiting to discover.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Dead Irish

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Dead Irish (Donald I. Fine, 1989).

When I first started reading John Lescroart's novels a couple of years ago, I wasn't able to find the first of the now 21 books about Dismas Hardy and his friends and associates, nor a couple of others that I'm saving for a rainy day. It's a really fun series, mostly legal thrillers but incorporating detective fiction and melodrama along the way, in which any of the characters can either take the lead role or just make a cameo appearance. Hardy, formerly both a cop and an ADA, had dropped out of life entirely after the accidental death of his infant son and, when I first met him in the second book, 1990's The Vig, he was working as a bartender. In time, he'd put his life back together and go back into private law practice, often putting him at odds with his best friend and former beat partner, homicide detective Abe Glitsky.

In Dead Irish, Lescroart is a long way from the standard tropes of his series, and I found myself glad that I ended up saving it for later. Hardy is still paralyzed by guilt and grief over his son's death and while some of his character quirks are there, including his cast-iron skillet and his talent with darts, he's just a mess of a man with a hollow existence. Proving that much growth was to come in later books, however, this one not only features Abe, who is later known to disapprove strongly of profanity, with an uncommonly foul mouth, and it ends on the optimistic note of Dismas on the verge of reconciling with his ex-wife, mother of his late son. This, fans know, will not be successful.

This story is the first instance of Dismas Hardy acting as an amateur investigator. His boss at the bar offers him an ownership stake for looking into the death of his sister's husband, Eddie Cochran. The coroner has ruled it as "suicide, equivocal," with no strong evidence one way or the other, and the police are in no hurry to add another homicide to their duties. Since an insurance payout rests on the verdict, and since Dismas used to be a cop, maybe he could make certain everything's being done correctly?

Dismas finds a really strange series of events revolving around the community newspaper distributors where Cochran had worked, and a very intense family life, with a longtime friend of the Cochrans, a priest, staying very close to the family. Eddie's widow, Frannie, has told nobody that she is pregnant, and the deceased left a teenage brother who is spectacularly troubled. Then there's a definite murder and huge theft at one of the papers, but nobody's certain it has anything to do with Eddie's death...

Another great hallmark of Lescroart here is that the text is incredibly dense, with very minor supporting characters fleshed out completely and given as much life as the stars, and incidents that end up not directly relating to the course of the mystery are also full of detail and color. The result is a story where everything and everybody in a large cast and not strictly a chain or a series, but an assortment of events is all given equal billing and focus. This can result in an occasionally tough read - I have been known, with Lescroart, to occasionally wish he'd compact episodes a little more and move things along faster - but it's a remarkably vivid one. I was completely fascinated to see the author's own style so established and certain, even while the characters had a great deal more growing to do before they inhabit the versions that are more familiar to me from the later books. Recommended.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (Abrams, 2010).

I walked past the display of "graphic novels" for kids and young readers at our local library - we have a genuinely terrific children's librarian, by the way - and did a double-take at the sight of this thin hardcover promising the tale of "yet another troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl." Boy, am I ever tired of that old trope. (Kidding!)

Oh, heavens, how I enjoyed this book. Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword is the first of two books by Barry Deutsch that has its beginnings in a webcomic he had drawn. It is set in a curiously insular Orthodox community - so isolated, wherever it is, that the residents have no idea what a pig looks like - and the star of our story is an eleven year-old who really looks forward to owning a sword so that she can get started on her big life plan to be a hero and slay dragons. But first, she has to get out of the house and away from the arguments posed by her stepmother Fruma.

And when she does get out of the house, she takes a wrong turn in the woods, sees a strange woman floating in the air, and that sets in motion a confrontation with a homework-destroying pig. That talks.

This is completely terrific fun for readers eight and up. It's unpredictable, intelligent, and I love the designs, the pacing, and the artwork. Deutsch has created a great little universe here, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of Mirka and her family. Happily recommended.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Bright Orange for the Shroud

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Bright Orange for the Shroud (Fawcett, 1965).

I understand that John D. MacDonald's fans believe that the adventures of his character Travis McGee should be read in sequence, as McGee was one of the few American series leads to grow and mature as the series progressed over a 21-year period. Unfortunately for me, I didn't start from the beginning, but with the sixth novel, 1965's Bright Orange for the Shroud. Apparently, MacDonald's publisher had him working on the first several books together, and did not even publish the first until the fifth was ready, and then released a new book every three or four months. Imagine a publisher doing that today: Scholastic with JK Rowling, for instance.

The book impressed me so much that I have three more McGee stories already waiting for me. The character isn't quite a private detective in the classic hard-boiled PI tradition, but rather a freelance operative who recovers money or assets in return for a percentage. There's something about him and his methods that reminds me of TV's Banacek, which makes sense. While MacDonald and McGee have faded in popularity over the years, they were extremely well known in 1972, when that series was made, and continue to influence the work of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiassen, among others. The cynical eye on south Florida is also a hallmark of the more recent TV series Burn Notice. The more that I thought about Bright Orange for the Shroud, the more I saw its influence.

I was already very impressed by MacDonald's excellent prose and descriptions before we met the villain of the piece, and it's MacDonald's treatment of him that sold me completely on following this series. This book deals with McGee helping out a hapless friend who's been taken completely to the cleaners in a quasi-legal real estate scam. The con artists have scattered and the chump's new bride is long gone, but McGee agrees to help him recover what can be found. His hunt brings up criminals who really want nothing to do with each other anymore, and with good reason: one of them is a completely unpredictable and really scary guy.

I really appreciate it when writers give their protagonists really complex and intelligent villains. Boone Waxwell does not appear to be either, but he banks on people underestimating him and he really, really gives McGee an enormous challenge. I knew going in that fifteen novels followed this one, and yet I was really concerned about McGee. Waxwell is that frightening. I love a villain who forces our hero to keep improvising and changing tactics, and I love a writer who is up to the challenge and refuses to make things easy for his lead character. Highly recommended.