Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Beale Street Dynasty

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 Beale Street Dynasty (Norton, 2015).

I really envy Preston Lauterbach's talent. He seems to immerse himself so totally in his research and has a ball sharing stories. The problem with Beale Street Dynasty, inasmuch as there's a problem at all, is that so much of what he has to share this time around just wasn't fun to read. That's not his fault in any way, but man, an awful lot of innocent blood was spilled to make Memphis the city it is today. I wasn't able to read more than forty pages at a stretch without wanting to go back in time with a baseball bat and hit somebody.

This is not a light read. I was expecting something breezy about the blues and barbecue, but Memphis is much heavier and deeper than that. Lauterbach builds the narrative around Robert Church and his son, Robert Jr. After the Civil War, the senior Church moved into the gambling houses and whorehouses and drinkin' houses on Beale Street and outshone all his rivals in the world of vice. He became a millionaire - very probably the first black millionaire in the South - while surviving race riots, assassination attempts, and crooked cops.

The incredible contradictions in Church's life make for an amazing story. He made his money from prostitution and gambling and funneled it into real estate and civic life and the arts. Blues pioneer W.C. Handy benefited from Church's patronage. Handy came to Memphis in 1909 and was quickly commissioned to write an election jingle for the politician E.H. Crump on the eve of his first mayoral race. Handy turned that tune into one of the era's biggest hits, "Memphis Blues," and Church's son, who took over his father's businesses after his death in 1912, spent the rest of his life in a very awkward and uneasy relationship-of-mutual-benefit with Crump, who spent years in charge of the town as its political boss. Church Jr. got black voters around Tennessee's Jim Crow laws by paying poll taxes for hundreds of people and kept Crump, and all of his subordinates, in office for decades.

It's an incredibly interesting story, and often an infuriating one. If you're curious about Memphis, but are also the sort of guilt-ridden sort who gets incredibly aggravated by how aggressively awful, racist, and bloodthirsty our ancestors so frequently were, then you probably need to read some other book to find out about Sun Records, B.B. King, Jim Neely, and that funny pyramid building that used to be the basketball arena. But if you like seeing history come alive and really detailed anecdotes about the lovers and fighters of the day, then Lauterbach's worth digging into, even if you'll want to smack some of these awful people in the face with that shovel before you're finished with it. Recommended to read with some period music on YouTube for a soundtrack.

A 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.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Savage: Grinders

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 Book Nine of Savage: "Grinders" (Rebellion, 2015).

Thirty-eight years ago, writer Pat Mills came up with a fun idea for a gritty comic series set in the not-very-distant future. It was 1977, and Mills posited that in the year 1999, the "Volgan Republic" would invade Great Britain, and that the guerrilla resistance would find a home for a former truck driver named Bill Savage and his shotgun. Over the next six or seven years, Mills would set other stories in the aftermath - some in the centuries-later aftermath - of the Volgan invasion of the UK. Since these were stories in 2000 AD aimed at imaginative eight year-olds, there were many contradictions and plot contrivances between all the tales, but it never really mattered at the time.

Except... in 2004, Mills returned to the character of Bill Savage in a more nuanced and mature take on the invasion, and also began filling in the blanks in the very popular cousin series The ABC Warriors. Stepping back to the canvas after so long away, Mills began to see how he'd flung so very many things at the wall to see what stuck, and that it was now possible to actually draw a spiderweb of connections between all of the events that previous stories had only mentioned.

And so, in recent ABC Warriors stories, Mills and artist Clint Langley have been working backward, addressing old questions about what happened to certain characters. And in Savage, which is wrapping up its ninth and final story, we're seeing the 2010 conclusion of the second Volgan occupation, and, at long last, the explanation of how the unscrupulous defense contractor Howard Quartz, got himself transplanted into a robot body.

The first three Savage stories, set in 2004 and illustrated by Charlie Adlard, were an amazing, real-world take on how this invasion might have played out. Starting with the fourth, Patrick Goddard took over art duties and it's there that the wild sci-fi elements of ABC Warriors and the robot wars that it referenced begins. These tales begin in 2007 and see the rudimentary use of robot soldiers and some wilder-than-reality technology.

The six books of Mills-Goddard Savage, despite all the fun technology, weirdness, and great cast of characters, not to mention that great little sidetrack to recruit the former hippie rock star who'd been researching teleportation, never quite made their way out from the long shadow of the original three stories. (Honestly, not nearly enough has been written praising the climax of book two, which is one of the crowning achievements of Mills' long career and One Of The Damndest Things I've Ever Seen In A Comic, Ever.) But they've still got so much to recommend them, and this latest book caps off a great series.

I think one reason that Savage works so well is that, certainly after the first three, 2004-set stories, Mills let the character evolve into something close to Parker, from the Richard Stark/Donald Westlake novels. He's lethally dangerous and frightening, but he keeps his emotions in check and can think his way out of any problem before he needs to pull his gun. Plus, Mills never, ever makes it easy for him. Savage's enemies are not stupid, and keeping the hero one step ahead of them is a remarkable balancing act. When his enemies do make slips - and Quartz makes a big one in this story - Savage is able to quietly step in and change the narrative. There's a brief bit in this story involving a mute button, and one of the rules of comic book foreshadowing tells us that we're going to see this plot point again a few chapters later. When we do, even knowing there was more to come, I still punched the air. It's cold, brutal, and completely wonderful.

A case might be made - though I certainly won't make it - that the surprise return of Bill's brother Jack is one coincidence too far. It's terrific. Readers learn early on in the story something that Bill, for all his cool planning and insight, misses: that Jack cannot be trusted. It builds to an amazing confrontation involving insurgents called "grinders" who've taken on cyborg enhancements in order to override the American combat robots, and Bill losing his temper for the first time in a very long time, and possibly the last time.

"Grinders" is an excellent story, and runs for thirteen episodes. You can get it in serial form from 2000 AD's online shop by purchasing progs 2015 and 1912-23. The smart money's on it being included as a collected edition with books seven and eight, but that's not yet been announced; maybe next year? But yes, this is certainly recommended however you purchase it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Fifth Heart

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 Fifth Heart (Little, Brown and Company, 2015).

I'm such a dingbat that I don't know the difference between Stephen Dobyns and Dan Simmons. Seriously. I enjoyed the former's Church of Dead Girls, which came with a glowing quote from Stephen King, many years ago, and when I saw the gigantic uncorrected proof of this month's Fifth Heart, also sporting a glowing quote from Stephen King, I thought it was the same guy. I got the initials right, anyway. Just... reversed.

ANYWAY, The Fifth Heart is actually written by Dan Simmons, the fellow who has carved out a niche with great big historical fiction, mixing densely-researched reality with just a little bit of twinkling implausibility. His best-known novels, Drood and The Terror, showcase his talent for creepy and disturbing mysteries, letting just the traces, the shadows, of dark modern fantasy loose on the nineteenth century.

I was interested in this novel because I do love a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche. This one's set in 1893, and features Holmes and at least the third iteration of his-son-by-Irene that I've come across. Sadly, it's not Auguste Lupa / Nero Wolfe, but Super Assassin Son o' Holmes. That's okay, I'm always up for something new. Part of me feels that I might be spoiling a revelation by introducing this, because the information is revealed in two separate chunks, but on the other hand, this novel joins a very full collection of Holmes pastiches to introduce a son to the story. By this time, the real surprise would be introducing a son of Irene Adler whom Holmes did not father. (You know, like Marko Vukčić. *grin* )

But I'm also up for something a little tighter than this. The Fifth Heart swells with bloat, badly needing an editor to crack to the core of things. It's set over the course of several weeks, starting in Paris and moving to DC and finally Chicago more than a month later, as Lucan Adler plots the assassination of President Cleveland, and Holmes, allied with the writer Henry James, investigates the years-old death of James' old friend Clover Adams, whose widower Henry Adams is at the center of the political turmoil.

It's not possible for me to read any writer's take on Holmes without hearing Jeremy Brett exclaim "Patience! All will be revealed!" And, to be sure, lots of writers have had lots of fun leaving Holmes three steps ahead of his associates in the story while they seethe, furiously, waiting for some explanations. If you enjoy this take on the character, then what Holmes puts poor Henry James through in this book is certain to entertain you. Simmons lets us see Holmes orchestrate a beatdown of a local drug gang, arrange an early meeting of what will evolve into the contemporary Secret Service, and take a lengthy side trip to one of Samuel Clemens's homes to have a look at a particular typewriter. It is amusing watching Simmons throw the investigation and drama into all these side streets - one of them involving chimney sweeps! - and wonder how in the world he's going to tie it all together. Then Henry James gets his own investigation going, wondering what's up with Holmes's enemy Moriarty, giving him yet another thing to juggle.

Honestly, there's a good story here, and possibly a very good one, but as with a few other writers' takes on Holmes at his most inscrutable - Laurie King's The Game comes to mind - I really did feel a bit too much for the unfortunate sidekick. No protagonist has ever deserved a bloody nose and a demand for answers quite as much as this Holmes does. In part, that's because the narrative really does get too bloated. The visit with Clemens goes on for pages and pages of cigars on the veranda and nostalgic reflection and thoughts on the subject of whether Holmes is actually a fictional character (and, if so, what that would mean for everybody else), and a good thirty more pages could have been chopped out by making Henry Adams not so damn stubborn and simply agreeing to the demands of the plot.

Going back to Nero Wolfe, you'll recall that in almost all of his tales, writer Rex Stout would have Wolfe remind everybody that things would go along much quicker if he could proceed without interruption, and, in the most wearying of them, probably Please Pass the Guilt, every blasted member of the supporting cast insists upon interrupting him, almost as though they're padding out the story until we hit an arbitrary page number? A lot of The Fifth Heart feels like that. The plot is already complex and nuanced; it would have been an easier and less frustrating read with fewer roadblocks and detours in the way. Simmons does not appear to be a snappy writer - much of his success appears to come from the feeling of complete immersion into the past - but I finished the book badly wishing for a snappier story. A mild recommendation with that in mind, wishing that I would have enjoyed it more, but I also finished this curious to read Drood sometime soon, so it was perhaps more successful than I first thought.

A 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.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Doctor's Lives and Times

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 Doctor's Lives and Times (Harper, 2014).

I loved this book completely and enormously! The Doctor's Lives and Times is a ridiculously fun book of found objects from another world - objects from the fictional universe of Doctor Who. Its breezy, photo-filled format makes it a great gift for readers of all ages; younger readers will be captivated by all the illustrations, and even the nerdiest of us will thrill to all the connections between stories.

James Goss and Steve Tribe have created a collection that includes an example of the "Karkus" comic strip that Zoe Herriot mentioned in 1968's "The Mind Robber," conspiracy buffs debunking some "cheap" 8mm color film footage of the Loch Ness Monster the same way that people in our world debunk the Patterson–Gimlin Bigfoot film from '67, blog posts from Mickey complaining about Rose going off into space with that Doctor, K-9 obliviously breaking Sarah Jane's heart by telling her about the companions that the Doctor took on board after her, and dozens and dozens of other things.

Each Doctor gets a chapter of fiction, followed by a few pages and photos of production information about their era, informed entirely by quotes from actors, writers, and producers. The authors intrude so little that their own opinions are not seen at all, which is a really novel approach to a Doctor Who book these days. The approach is one of tribute to the whole program and its narrative, not picking favorites or torching anything. It's a sweet and loving 50th anniversary book. Happily recommended for anybody with an interest in the show, of any age.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cassette From My Ex

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 Cassette From My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves (St. Martin's Griffin, 2009).

I had a really good feeling that I'd like this book. Jason Bitner used to run - or perhaps "curate" is a better word - a blog at cassettefrommyex.com, but it's been down for quite some time now. There, he got submissions from all over the map from people who'd held onto old mix tapes from old flames, and sent in photos and stories about them.

I wish that I had seen the blog before it vanished, but happily, the project did net Bitner a book deal. While the hardcover collection is out of print, it's easily obtained and definitely worth a look. It's just so fun, touching on all of these wonderful shared experiences with other people from the 1980s and 1990s who somehow knew all the same "rules" for making mixtapes as I did.

The last time I made a mix tape was the last day of 1999. It was kind of bitter. I made a second copy for myself and rediscovered it this past summer, cleaning out the basement of my childhood home. I have no way to play it any longer, which is probably for the best, because that is one mean, hurtful, heartbroken, dagger of a tape. They were always more than the sum of their parts, weren't they?

The book is full of essays and track lists, with lots of photos of the surviving tapes, track lists that double as love notes, and all sorts of heartbreak and blissful memories. Most of the writers were not known to me, but Claudia Gonson of the Magnetic Fields contributed a great story, as did - kind of unsurprisingly - Rob Sheffield, who's probably more responsible than anybody else for keeping memories of mix tapes alive all these years after we quit making them.

It's very fun, although probably not a book that you can expect to read in one sitting. It's fun to linger over, a couple of stories a night, while reading something a little heavier on the side. Recommended for readers who made these.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Country of Ice Cream Star

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, my wife Marie contributes a brief review of The Country of Ice Cream Star (Ecco, 2015).

The Country of Ice Cream Star is only superficially described as "post-apocalyptic." Most post-apocalypse books talk about either the survivors in the immediate aftermath or shortly thereafter, and there are people with living memories of the event. This book is set in the new normal that has emerged multiple generations after the event...but it's only eight decades after, because 21 is an advanced age in those who survived.

This book reminds me strongly of the description of The Princess Bride as presented in the narrative; it is terribly tempting to say "...Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion..." But that only works once. Besides, there are differences - this book has child soldiers
instead of pirates, and a living saint instead of a princess. Nevertheless, this book shares the essential lesson that life is beautiful and painful, full of adventure and fighting and love, and also deeply and painfully unfair, and scattered in among the tragedy and beauty, there are some really good funny bits.

There are two main stumbling blocks that I see for the reader in maintaining suspension of disbelief, rooted in difficulties of our culture rather than any flaw in the writing, and they are well worth getting over. First, the author, Sandra Newman, has given each group in the book a distinctive voice and dialect, especially the main character's, and that requires some getting used to. Second, our culture does not permit children of the ages in this story the power, agency, and capability that they show; but without what we would consider adults this world works and makes sense. Even so, the practice of using "every child" instead of "everybody" and "my children" instead of "my people" draws an emphasis to the essential youth of all the actors that the characters are all blind to. This is especially marked when an actual adult is dropped into the action as the event that breaks the initial equanimity, and the main character calls him, too, a child.

In fact, that particular factor is one of the most admirable part of the storytelling, how the author does such a good job of showing things that the main character does not see, at least at first. She does not talk down to the audience, either. Even minor characters have depth and humanity. There are few clear-cut bad guys, even when individuals are in conflict and even when they do evil things to one another. People have motives for what they do that make sense and conflicts arise from those motives. The main character is permitted to make poor decisions, learn from them, and feel guilt which changes her priorities. And there are some horrific things done in this book; it is not a light read for a lazy day at the beach. The characters learn and grow, quickly (perforce) but with natural arcs that allow initial imperfection either to become a hard-won positive or to grow into a deeper flaw - it is refreshing to see both options available.

Also, as is typical in real life, alliances change, sometime rapidly, as circumstances change, Today's enemy is yesterday's friend, with all the grief and rage that comes from that. And when yesterday's enemy is today's friend, earlier conflicts are not allowed to disappear either just because the alliance is needed.

Love is not a simple thing either. In this way the story differs from The Princess Bride. Although characters love each other deeply, there is no uncomplicated feeling. While people do heroic and horrible things because of it, love is still only one emotion and motivation among many.

The cast is large, but so well introduced and so well marked by the language, names and behaviors that it is easy to keep track of them. Sandra Newman has written a truly remarkable, compelling and vivid story. It is highly recommended.

A 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.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Judge Dredd: Dark Justice

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 Judge Dredd: Dark Justice (Rebellion, 2014-15).

John Wagner did not make this easy on himself. In the 1980s, the supernatural Dark Judges were recurring, albeit overused foes in the Judge Dredd strip, culminating in the epic, gruesome 1990 serial "Necropolis." That really should have been the end for the characters, but they spent the 1990s showing up way too frequently, their horror sidelined for broad black comedy. They've only appeared very sporadically since, played straight and played horrific, but the malady lingered on, you know? I mean, did the world really need another Judge Death story?

Well, Death and his gang have returned in an eleven-part story that began last month and is about at the halfway point now, and it's amazing. The art, very old school fully-painted, is by Greg Staples, and it's just gorgeous. This story was announced in 2013 and some of us - like me - started grousing about the time it took to appear, but this was really worth the wait. It's exceptional work across the board.

The story picks up some dangling plot threads and, halfway through, has just barely addressed them, leaving me hungry for more backstory. Judge Death himself was last seen nuked into another dimension, but a brief flashback showed him back in Mega-City One, looking for his trapped brothers. There's a world of intrigue behind that that I could go into but won't; briefly, he pilfers their spirit forms and takes off on a colony ship bound for a distant world.

Judges Dredd and Anderson are about two weeks behind, unable to stop the carnage when Death and his gang all resurrect themselves with their bizarre superpowers and start mass slaughter. At about the halfway point, our heroes finally catch up to them, but too late to save the colonists, and are trapped on board the spaceship, cut off from resources and help, surrounded by the dead...

It's not all doom and gloom, but in this story, Wagner very sensibly let the humor arise from the colony ship and their foibles, keeping reader attention and sparking some smiles before things go straight to hell, and it's been a mean and ugly action-adventure thriller ever since the third episode. As things get bad, there are still dozens of questions to be addressed, including the whereabouts of another one of Dredd's old enemies, who I'd have guessed would have appeared in this story by now, and what the Dark Judges were thinking, engineering a ssssssituation where everybody's trapped on the stranded colony ship. I have the ugly feeling that this is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

"Dark Justice" is appearing weekly in 2000 AD, beginning in Prog 2015 and continuing through progs 1912-1921. Click the image above to visit the comic's online shop and order your thrillpower!!

This story is written in memory of my pal, longtime squaxx dek Thargo Mike Horne of Boston, who passed away last weekend after suffering a stroke in November. Mike wasn't able to read any of this story, which is a damn shame. We'll miss you, Mike.

PDFs of these issues were 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.