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.