Saturday, April 12, 2014

You're Not You

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 You're Not You (Thomas Dunne, 2006).

I was thinking, as I read Michelle Wildgen's debut novel You're Not You, that any movie version simply couldn't quite have the same power as the novel, because one of the principal characters can only speak in a whisper. She's in her late thirties, wheelchair-bound and nearly paralyzed from ALS, and barely able to talk anymore. I bet lots of actors would relish such a challenge, but doubted any production company would want to have a major part in a movie for somebody who couldn't move and who the other characters would have to translate for other players in all her scenes. Then I finished the book and read that a film adaptation has already wrapped, with Hilary Swank, no stranger to really challenging roles, as the doomed Kate. Well, never mind me. Good casting, that.

Emmy Rossum has been cast as the other lead, a junior at the University of Wisconsin who's been drifting through life and beer and an ill-advised affair with a married man, and takes a job as a part-time caretaker for Kate. She sort of knows going in that this job won't last for very long, and even if she's brilliant with her work, it will likely close within a couple of years with Kate's death. But just because Kate hasn't much time left doesn't mean that her life won't be full of upheavals and heartbreak and cooking. Lots of cooking. This book will make you very hungry.

The sensory experience of this book can be overwhelming. Wildgen, whose new novel Bread & Butter is on my to-read list, just packs in the smells and the tastes and the touches of everything. It's very frank and honest about Kate's desire for the flavors of food and for sex and for company and for trips to the farmers' market. It's also frank about Bec's paycheck-to-paycheck existence and her fun with friends. I was left more than a little cold by Bec's parents, who seem too by-the-plot antagonistic to be real people, but the rest of the book was warm and welcoming and every inevitable, telegraphed plot beat, from the theft of Bec's car stereo to Kate's death, still hurt like the devil when they came. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Blood Will Out

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 Blood Will Out (Liveright, 2014).

Friends and co-workers are often asking me what I'm reading. This book, everybody, close to a dozen people, replied something like "Oh, THAT! Yes, I've heard about that!" The case was so weird that it has captured lots of people's imaginations.

It's the story of a fellow born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in Germany, but who decided he'd rather be The Sociopathic Mister Ripley, basically. When our hero, novelist and crime writer Walter Kern, met him in the late '90s, he was in the early days of his lengthy cover identity of "Clark Rockerfeller," paying what turned out to be a princely $500 for Kern to transport an incontinent, wheelchair-bound dog halfway across the country to him. Kern thought the guy was fascinating and odd enough to stick around, reasoning that inspiration for novels is a good reason for keeping eccentrics in your orbit. But over time, he figured out that there's not a very thick line between "eccentric oddball" and "honkin' great liar."

As the years went on and their friendship deepened, "Clark Rockerfeller" and his story started developing holes, and previously-believed long-dead relations got resurrected for new, casual anecdotes, his phony life of art treasures, social clubs, and celebrity pals started falling apart. In the end, Clark got himself on the news when he attempted to abduct his daughter from his estranged wife and spirit her off to South America, leading a spokesperson for the Rockerfeller family to flatly deny any link between this fellow on the news and any actual Rockerfellers.

Then it turns out he's wanted in connection with a grisly murder in California in the mid-80s...

I hugely enjoyed reading this book. It's a well-crafted, intricate study of lies and identity, of creating illusions and maintaining them. Since I didn't know much about the case and the trial of "Rockerfeller," I was surprised by each new revelation - Hitchcock and Star Trek come into the story more than I was expecting - but even if I had followed it on the tabloid news, there would have been so much here I couldn't have guessed about. It's a really fascinating, weird, and compelling story, and comes highly recommended.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Damned Busters

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 Damned Busters (Angry Robot, 2011).

Here's a book that's just downright odd. I certainly enjoyed it, but it surprised me at every turn with its playfulness, and its inventiveness. As the cute illustration on the front cover reveals, it's about a fellow who gains super powers through a deal with the devil, and sets off to save his city with the help of a cigar-chomping demon. But getting to that point is a really fun ride.

It turns out that our hero - a not very-social actuary named Chesney Ansruther - had no intention of summoning nether forces, and no intention of entering into a contract with any of them. His intransigence causes a growing labor movement in the bowels of Hell to flex its muscles, and Hell goes on strike. Soon, Satan himself is sitting down at the bargaining table with a TV preacher to negotiate terms for wickedness to thrive once again.

Honestly, while the whole book was entertaining, it was the first quarter - the first hundred pages - that tickled me the most. All the business of Hell's labor problems really is funny, and while writer Matthew Hughes finds a good angle for the superhero stuff - a battle against the rules of a very generous contract with the underworld - it's not quite as imaginative or silly as the long setup. Eventually, the story is revealed to be much more about good and evil and angels and devils than costumed shenanigans - the whole book is a setup for two more in a trilogy - and it closes satisfying, if not completely thrilling. A mild recommendation.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Burgess Boys

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 Burgess Boys (Random House, 2013).

There is so much travel between Brooklyn and Maine in this novel, and the characters are so warm and appealing, that I found myself wanting to check in with Jim Burgess, the dashing and reckless big brother of the family, to make sure he got home safely. You know that you've read a special book when you're worried about the characters doing something as dangerous as, you know, going home.

Elizabeth Strout, who won the Pulitzer in 2009 for a short story collection, wrote this novel that seems to be set in the same universe as the world of that book, Olive Kitteridge. There are clues in the prologue, including a blink-and-you'll-miss-it confirmation of what you'll hope will become of the town's disorganized minister, that it's the same people, I think.

This time, our barely-glimpsed narrator is telling the story of the disintegrating, unfortunate Burgess family. Jim is a hotshot attorney hitting the wall of a midlife crisis, younger brother Bob is a kind legal aid attorney who puts up with Jim's awfulness way more than he should, and Bob's twin sister Susan stayed home in a small Maine community, Shirley Falls, to raise a lonely teenage son by herself. The family is upended when the son plays a stupid prank against some of the town's Muslim immigrants, several dozen refugees from Somalia. The legal stakes escalate as the government wants the new population to feel safe, and it looks like the poor, dumb kid is going to be made an example of...

I did have some initial confusion, since there are quite a few characters introduced in a short period, but that passed. I loved that sense that something is not quite right with Jim and Helen's marriage but not being able to pinpoint it. I really liked bighearted Bob - I pictured Beau Bridges in the role - who just struck me as an incredibly decent person trying to rein in way too much of the sadness, the worry, and the slow grind of the legal system. It's a book where the plot is nowhere as important as the character development, and these characters develop in ways you will never expect. Recommended.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


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 Joyland (Titan / Hard Case Crime, 2013).

A funny thing happened - well, I think it's funny - that led me to pick up this recent short novel by Stephen King. It's really short, by King standards, under 300 pages. See, I'd read that he had written a work of pure detective fiction, without any supernatural or paranormal elements. He has, only it's not out yet. It's called Mr. Mercedes and will be released in a couple of months. I misunderstood and thought that the book had already been released, figured Joyland was the only recent suspect, and then got aggravated when people at an aging amusement park in eastern North Carolina started talking about a ghost.

The hero of this book is a young college student who doesn't see the signs that he's about to get dumped until it's too late. It's the early 1970s, and he's staying in a boarding house while working an offbeat summer job at an old, somewhat seedy amusement park, sweating buckets inside the costume of a great big shaggy dog mascot. (Incidentally, I can believe every word that King uses in his hilariously detailed and vivid descriptions of the workout one gets wearing one of those fursuits in the summer heat. My kids and I were at Six Flags Over Georgia once when Speedy Gonzales collapsed from the heat and was carted off in a wheelchair.)

While working, Devin learns about a recent mystery that's captured the attention of the locals. A young lady was brutally murdered while visiting the park a couple of seasons ago. Some of the longtime employees believe that the park is haunted. Maybe if Devin and his friends do a little investigating of their own, they can solve the mystery and let the spirit rest in peace?

Yeah, I know. It's the early '70s and some twentysomething kids are solving a ghost story at an amusement park. But while this could have been a pastiche of Scooby Doo - right down to "Fred" and "Daphne" stand-ins hooking up! - this proves to be a very clever coming-of-age memoir, more concerned about researching the path of a serial killer than being light-hearted and jokey. I was really impressed by how well King captured everything from the look of the park to the utter misery of first heartbreak. I have not read King in many years; if his recent material is anywhere as good as this, then there are quite a few books that I need to sample. Recommended.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

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 Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Quirk, 2012).

I could be wrong, but color me a little skeptical about Ransom Riggs and the backstory behind his two adventures of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children. The notion here is that Riggs and his friends have collected many hundreds of old photographs, found some which are inexplicable and odd, and written a story around them. Some of the peculiar children in the old pictures have become the Peculiar Children - think the X-Men, only not as powerful, and stuck in a time loop in the 1940s - and they're the heroes in a long and difficult adventure.

I'm just a little skeptical, that's all. I fell for Mark Helfrich's Naked Pictures of My Ex-Girlfriends a dozen years ago and I'm just a little cynical when it comes to old photographs.

On the other hand, the contortions necessary to build a story around some of these oddball pictures almost - almost - sway me, because nobody would willingly create such difficulties and contortions for themselves, would they? But on the other hand, the story itself probably would have been very contorted even without any pictures. To its credit, the baffling questions sparked by the death of our hero's grandfather, and his old, secret life, keep the story sparkling with mysteries and puzzles. I enjoyed the first half of the book tremendously, but the explanations really did weigh everything down. This is a problem with many of today's YA novels, especially those with a little Harry Potter in their DNA. These books with very large casts and a bunch of distinct groups - Gryffindor, Erudite, District 12, Volturi - get really wrapped up in the rules of their world-building. This, with all of its structure about loops, ymbrynes, and hollowgasts, is quite amazingly tedious.

The book recovers from its rule-stumble, but never really takes off. Unsurprisingly, our human protagonist turns out to be Peculiar as well, and he meets the rest of the cast right before they get into a big battle with powerful enemies, having a massive crisis that could change history. It starts as something odd and new and unpredictable, but it doesn't end up telling a story all that radically different from anything else in its genre. It does what it does pretty well, it's just that what it does is something that many other authors have already done. Recommended with reservations.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The End of the City

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 End of the City (Pink Fish, 2013).

Challenging and welcoming at the same time, David Bendernagl's debut novel, The End of the City, was honestly not an easy read for me at first. It took me several chapters to embrace it, but around the time that a lead character, a high school senior named Ben Moor, crosses paths with a gorgeous face from his past, I was completely absorbed in the dense descriptions, the use of popular culture to define everything in terms that the characters will understand, and the very odd alternating chapters about a super-assassin with a dangerous mission and powerful obstacles.

It has the opportunity to indulge and show off such remarkably vivid detail because it's so darn dense. It took me about forty pages to get caught up with the writer's style, because the alternating chapters really did a number on my expectations and notions. The strange story of the criminal assassin - seeming, early on, as a harmless fantasy into which Ben regularly drifts - is very heavy on plot and character-building by way of a tough-guy monologue. But while quite a lot happens there, very little, by comparison, seems to take place in Ben's high school in the DC suburbs. But it is told so beautifully, and with such color and description, that it sucked me in completely. Then, as the walls between the two stories begin to crumble, I was very alert to what would happen next.

I'm almost certain that I missed the first occurrence of this, but the walls in this novel don't just crumble in one direction. I am not as close a reader as I should be, which occasionally means that repeat readings can reveal brilliant surprises. I'm two-thirds of the way through Special Topics in Calamity Physics for the second time and smiling ear to ear at all the foreshadowing that I missed. But anyway, there's a great surprise when the super-assassin lets on that this isn't simply a story about a teen fantasizing about a more interesting life. If that doesn't make you sit up and pay attention, you must not enjoy reading very much.

I found myself wondering about the truth of the narrative, waiting for a floor-level collapse along with the walls. How much should we / Ben trust this girl from his past? Is her name - shared with a member of the X-Men - a coincidence, does it play into the pop culture-heavy story, or is it a prediction? It's great fun, and this comes happily recommended for people interested in denser reads that don't follow convention.