Sunday, August 10, 2014

Whispers Under Ground

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 Whispers Under Ground (Del Rey, 2012).


I saw this book in my wife's to-read pile and asked "Hey! Ben Aaronovitch! You know who he is, right?"

"Never heard of him," she said. "The book sounded promising."

"He wrote a really great Doctor Who serial and another one a year later that was a lot worse. Then he wrote some of the Who novels for Virgin, each of which was better than the previous one. One of those names-to-watch, young talent of the early nineties, who sort of faded from view. I wondered what happened to him." Turns out he wrote some direct-to-CD Blake's 7 audio dramas and not much more in the way of fiction during the 2000s. In early 2011, Gollancz released Rivers of London, the first in a series of urban fantasy novels featuring a young constable, Peter Grant, who gets inducted into a secretive branch of the London police force that investigates magical doings.

Whispers Under Ground is the third in the series and I really enjoyed it. I especially liked that while modern magic plays a big role in PC Grant's life and career and punctuates the plot and characters throughout, it is not the critical element of the actual investigation of the crime, which revolves around a doozy of a locked room mystery. The son of a New York state senator, studying art at a London college, is found dead in a station on the city's underground "Tube" Circle Line, stabbed in the back with a piece of pottery. CCTV shows him emerging from the tunnel, mortally wounded, but there's no indication of him entering the system that day. The transport police know about several service shafts and connections that the general public don't, but there's no indication that he used those, either.

The solution requires going back to the Underground's construction, and the architectural compromises made to accommodate steam engines that ran beneath the surface, and some unscrupulous vegetable sellers, and "nazareth" black markets that constantly shift location to avoid detection. It's a very fun and fascinating story, full of history and research that turn a good story into a great one. I enjoyed this a lot, and hope to read the other books in the series soon. Recommended.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Chop Suey, USA

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 Chop Suey, USA (Columbia University Press, 2014).


You know you're reading a book for academic types when this happens: the author, Yong Chen, who's an associate professor of history at the University of California - Irvine, makes a point that "the development of American Chinese food followed the trajectory of America's evolution as an empire." He then spends the next eight pages defining what the heck he means by "empire." Oh, settle in, readers, because sweet and sour chicken might be comfort food for some of you, but this won't be comfort reading for anybody.

Chop Suey, USA is a dry but fact-stuffed analysis of the socioeconomic rise of inexpensive food made for the masses, cooked with compromises for American tastes and shortcuts for ease of service. Food in Chinese restaurants was, in the days before McDonald's, the least expensive dining-out option, letting people in the early 20th Century have a taste of affordable cooking outside their homes on a regular basis.

So this is a denser read than something that would come with a Food Network logo on the front cover. It required me to reactivate long dormant parts of my brain, the ones that, once upon a time, wrote 65 dense, dense pages about Ezra Pound's embrace of fascism in Italy, to tackle any more than about seven pages of economic theory, class, history, and sociology without falling asleep. Those of you who are used to the academic need to explain and footnote absolutely everything for fear of some peer asking a question they had not already answered in meticulous detail - that's why academic texts are so damn dry, because the writers are anticipating scrutiny that the rest of us, particularly bloggers, don't suffer in quite the same way - will probably find this an interesting little jaunt over the last 150 years.

On the other hand, those of you who are interested in the history of Chinese-American cuisine in a slightly more offhand and anecdotal way will find this, frankly, a longwinded bore. See, for me, Chinese-American food was historically a reasonable compromise to enjoy with friends or family who liked it more than me. I knew that it was not "traditional" or "authentic," but never really knew what was until about the last eighteen months, when I started digging into the menus of some Chinese-owned restaurants along Buford Highway in northeast Atlanta that do not really advertise to Americans, or cater to them with sweet and sour sauce, orange goop, or MSG. I make a distinction between what I term suburban Golden-This-Happy-That joints and the more authentic ones, and I wondered whether that's really fair. This book leads me to think that I'm correct. Chapter 7 goes into this in great detail. Interestingly, chop suey itself has gradually fallen out of favor - I honestly don't think that I've ever had it - and kung pao chicken or shrimp is more frequently seen as the most popular Chinese-American takeout dish. Neither dish is generally known inside China.

Don't get me wrong - this is a good book and an enlightening one. The conclusion and the afterword, "Why Study Food?," are fascinating essays on their own, but I found myself craving a lighter touch, more anecdotes, and more studies of modern subcultures where authentic Chinese cooking may be available for locals to find, instead of pages and pages of old economic theories. Recommended, mildly, with a cup of coffee by your side.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

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 Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Bloomsbury, 2003).


This could well be my very favorite fantasy novel... not that there's a whole mess of competition, as I generally don't care much for the genre. I reread it recently, and it took a little while. My edition is more than 1000 pages long; it took several days to finish. I didn't mind at all. It's an epic story that takes place over the course of more than a decade. It shouldn't be read in a single sitting.

The novel is an alternate history that suggests sometime in the 15th Century, magic was somewhat common to England, but it fell into disuse, neglect, and not a little embarrassment, after the "Raven King," John Uskglass, abdicated his strange claim to a throne of sorts, incorporating the north of England and some of the kingdoms of Fairie. Centuries later, in the early 1800s, a recluse called Mr Norrell decides it is time for English magic to return, but only on his terms.

Not long after Norrell sets himself up in London society and finds ways of getting in good with the government, he takes on a brash pupil, the talented and slightly arrogant Jonathan Strange. He, in turn, is asked by the government to go to Spain and assist the Duke of Wellington in the war against Napoleon. Unbeknownst to both men, an earlier act of magic by Norrell has had amazing and tragic consequences. The wife of Sir Walter Pole lives half her day in our world, exhausted and entranced, and the other half in Fairie, where a thistle-haired gentleman slowly - very slowly - plots to restore magic to Earth in his own way...

The story itself is absolutely fantastic and huge fun, and I can't wait until the TV adaptation (January of next year, they say...?), but the way that this book is written is part of the joy of the story. It's full of archaic spelling and sentence construction, and punctuated throughout with lengthy footnotes. Some readers have been seen to complain about them, missing the simplicity behind them. Many are effectively short stories set in the same world. Highly recommended for readers with a couple of weeks free.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Keeper

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 Keeper (Atria, 2014).

Can't help but spoil this one a little, friends. It's a doozy.


John Lescroart writes the very best legal mysteries in the business. His characters - a great family of friends centered around attorney Dismas Hardy and retired cop Abe Glitzky - shine like none others in the world of series fiction. I love the way that anybody from the group can take the lead role in an adventure. This time out, it's Abe's turn.

In The Keeper, a deputy at the San Francisco County jail comes to Dismas after five days of his wife being missing. Even though she has not been found, Abe's former colleagues at homicide have come around to begin the interview process, suspecting foul play. Abe has been stagnating since his enforced retirement in an earlier novel, so Dismas hires him to help find the wife and, if indeed she has been murdered, find the actual killer.

You wouldn't be surprised, after twenty-five years writing these characters - who age in real time! - if Lescroart started to rest a little bit and let the trappings of the cozies creep into his stories, like pretty much all his peers in the genre do. But he's constantly surprising readers with new left-field changes in the characters' lives, and still coming up with really terrific plot twists.

Take this one. Indeed, the wife has been murdered, and her death is connected to several others. We know that two characters, call 'em BAD GUYS X and Y, are behind it. The book is fifty pages from its conclusion when BAD GUY X is found dead in a car, victim of a self-inflicted gunshot. So the protagonists start looking into the probability that BAD GUY Y shot his partner and staged a suicide. Round about page 272, I suddenly got a tingle in the spine. I knew BAD GUY Y didn't do it. There were just enough tantalizing clues to make the readers see that FEMALE SUPPORTING PLAYER A did it. I didn't want it to be her. Twelve pages crept by like glaciers. Surely it was me misreading things. Thirteen. Nope. Couldn't have been BAD GUY Y. He has an alibi for the first killing. Had to be the lady. I winced the whole time, and exclaimed aloud. I never do that.

So Abe goes to talk to the lady. And IT IS NOT HER EITHER. It's an absolutely. completely brilliant bit of misdirection and I loved it to pieces. Have you ever seen the Mission: Impossible episode "The Mind of Stefan Miklos," I wonder? It's hailed as one of the best episodes of TV drama ever. In it, the team has to very subtly put clues together so that their target thinks he's put a puzzle together. They have to make him think that he has cleverly uncovered something which does not actually exist. It's unbearably complex and complicated - it makes absolutely no sense in a cut-up syndication copy because there's not thirty seconds of footage not critical to the plot - but anyway, what makes this so darn fun in The Keeper is that Lescroart is simultaneously bluffing the detectives in the narrative and bluffing the reader with asides and clues that they don't have. Double misdirection! I loved it to pieces.

Start with Dead Irish, if you haven't already. Highly, highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

This Must Be the Place

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 Must Be the Place (Henry Holt, 2010).

I was reading Kate Racculia's debut novel, This Must Be the Place, and a co-worker asked me what it was about, and I said "a boarding house." And that is a million miles from either helpful or accurate, but for years to come, I'm going to remember this novel, which I did not enjoy as much as I had hoped, as being "that one at the boarding house."

The reason that I didn't enjoy it is that so much of the plot is dependent on characters keeping secrets from each other. It's just one of my bugbears. The story is driven by the accidental death of Amy, a special effects technician in her early thirties. Her husband finds a pink shoe box full of mementos from her past and drives across the country to meet her high school best friend, but he doesn't tell her what he's doing in her boarding house for ages. And the best friend is keeping other secrets from her daughter, Oneida, and Oneida's new boyfriend is keeping secrets from her... basically the entire plot is constructed on secrets and lies.

That said, it's amazingly well-written. Oneida's story is just tremendous fun, with suitors throwing punches at each other as they deduce what the other has in mind, and her heart is stolen, against her initial judgement, by the fellow who acts like a tough-guy weirdo. I love her prose, and her dead-on-point depiction of overpowering teenage lust. I would have enjoyed a book about Oneida with very few reservations. Unfortunately, dead Amy haunts everything, and some tomfool notions of loving Amy being like loving a tornado or some other force of nature never rang true. Whenever Oneida and Eugene's story found room to breathe, I enjoyed the book, but other times, it was a burden. Very mild recommendation.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

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 Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin Books, 2014).


If you enjoy books, then you have to read this book. What Gabrielle Nevin did here is so perfectly crafted and lovable that it would be churlish to complain about her strategy. She probably sat down to create Island Books, on a small Massachusetts tourist island, and deliberately crafted the place to appeal to bookstore lovers so much that they want it in their own community. I was all set to drive to Massachusetts and figure out the ferry schedule before remembering that it isn't real. I'll have to "settle" for someplace wonderful in the real world instead.

A.J. Fikry is a young and recent widower, and when we meet him, he's still mourning the loss of his wife Nicole, who had handled all the store's events and activities. He has a meet cute with a new publisher's rep, and, over the course of a few years, softens and actually reads the book that she first recommended when they met, a memoir written by a widower in his late eighties. By that time, Fikry's life has run around some bizarre curves already: he's suffered the theft of a very valuable antique, on which he had hoped to retire, and he's found a one year-old abandoned in his store with a note to look after her.

Well, this isn't a very deep book, and it's not challenging, and its mysteries are not going to confound anybody looking for very intricate puzzles. In point of fact, if anything here surprises anybody, then they probably don't really love books as much as they think that they do. But it is so well-written and so vivid that the author can get away with being predictable and a little cozy. It's a love letter to bookstores, and, with all due deference to the fact that I do sort of like it when people click the Amazon link in the image, buy something, and give me a tiny commission or discount, it really should be purchased in a real, live bookstore. You should visit one today - TODAY! - and take this home with you with my smiling recommendation.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

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 Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, 2014).


My father's gone, my mother just had back surgery and is looking for a smaller house, and Roz Chast's Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? scared the heebie-jeebies out of me.

I haven't read any new Chast in a little while now, and came to this new book - which is an absolutely gorgeous hardback, all purple and beautiful - expecting her usual light whimsy. Now, don't get me wrong. This book is terrific and funny and lovely, but it also accomplishes something that Chast has not done before. It left me sobered and worried and troubled. Her parents lived into their nineties in a very small apartment home with few friends and contacts and hit a massive, downhill deterioration. They refused to consider their futures, leading to a lot of poor decisions and a huge financial burden on her family.

This memoir of their final years is really amusing in places, and heartfelt and warm throughout, even when she's detailing her loudmouthed mother's "blasts from Chast" or her father's decline into dementia and amnesia. I can't recommend it strongly enough, but it also reminds me of how very much I'd prefer to talk about something more pleasant myself. So if you'll excuse me, I'll go write about barbecue somewhere else now.