Monday, July 30, 2012

Rasputin's Revenge

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 Rasputin's Revenge (Donald I. Fine, 1987).

It will be very, very difficult to read this book without spoilers: they are plastered over the front and the back covers. See, I tend to do a little more digging and research than my wife does into our hobbies, learning production trivia for the Stargate TV series, or example, and so I knew about John Lescroart's fun character of Auguste Lupa before she did. He is, effectively, Young Nero Wolfe, but never given that name. He's also, following the speculations of William S. Baring-Gould, the man who invented cross-genre fanfic as we know it in the early '60s, the son of Sherlock Holmes and "the woman," Irene Adler.

I had a great time with this story of Wolfe - I mean "Lupa" - working as an agent provacateur in Imperial Russia in late 1916. The story is told from the POV of a friend from France who has arrived in St. Petersburg on a diplomatic mission, to persuade Czar Nicholas not to sue for a separate peace with Germany. But a series of ugly murders of high-ranking officials in the court make it more likely that Nicholas will withdraw from the Great War. Fortunately, intelligence in Montenegro sent Lupa, one of their top agents, into Russia as soon as they heard of the first death. The soon-to-be-great detective is already showing signs of his future genius, but things go very badly for him after he and Giraud are arrested, and Lupa's reconstruction of the killings is foiled when Giraud unwittingly alibis the killer.

Unfortunately, the idiotic spoilers on the back of the book - I stuck post-it notes over them before giving the book to my wife to read - ruined one element of it. I was reminded of watching the late '70s TV movie The New Maverick, seeing Jack Kelly's name in the opening credits, and spending the entire movie wondering when Brother Bart was going to show up on the other end of the swindle. Suffice it to say that a very satisfactory plot twist would have been made much more so had I not known it was coming.

This was actually Lescroart's second book with Lupa. I passed on the first, Son of Holmes, for the pure amusement value of introducing my wife to Lupa without a word of his origins, as she introduced me to Wolfe himself similarly blind, and letting her learn through the text both that this character would eventually become Wolfe and make such claims to his parentage was great fun. Couldn't easily do that in a book that spells it out in the title. It was also Lescroart's final, to date, bit of fun in the sandbox with other people's classic characters. After these two books, he created his own protagonists in lawyer Dismas Hardy and San Francisco cop Abe Glitsky, who have starred in sixteen novels. The author did such a good job capturing Wolfe that I'm intrigued to see what he's done with his own creations, and will probably check those out after I finish some other series that I am working through. Recommended with the plea to avoid Amazon reviews and the book's back cover!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Future of Us

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 Future of Us (Razorbill, 2011).

My daughter picked up this book and curiosity led me to have a read. It's about two high schoolers, Emma and Josh, in 1996. Their dial-up connection and AOL start-up disk hook them up to Facebook in the far-flung future of 2011, and allows them the chance to see their futures. Each time that they react against what they see, a subsequent visit sees their status irrevocably change. Marriages, jobs, children, all flow back and forth, winking in and out of existence as their actions cut off possibilities down the road.

The problem is that the '90s nostalgia (Oasis! Wayne's World on VHS from the rental store!) is written much more warmly than Emma, who is shrill and unbearably moody and downright hostile to her old friend Josh. He, in time-honored fashion, has fallen for his longtime buddy and been shot down. He's licked his wounds, salved his pride and is ready to move on, and very encouraged by what Facebook shows as a fantastic-sounding future. Emma's life, on the other hand, never seems to work out. She's either unemployed fifteen years down the line, or trapped in a loveless marriage, or her relationship status is the confusing "'s complicated."

There are interesting points to be made about how manipulative and jealous somebody could become with all of this foreknowledge, but it doesn't look as though the YA genre is the place to make them. It's written in a very direct and unsubtle style, and high school romance is the most important thing in the entire universe. It genuinely doesn't occur to either character to actually use clues from Facebook to learn about the rest of the world over the next fifteen years, or even to find some short-term financial gain. Instead, both characters are sold on finding their soulmate right this very minute. Certainly, high schoolers are capable of amazing vapidity and selfishness, but it's hard to sympathize with anybody as narrow-minded as Emma, especially when she treats Josh so contemptuously, and actively spoils the future that he finds engaging with her envy.

I understand that allowances must be made for the genre, and that many YA books are written to appeal to middle and high school girls who value their mythical one great transcendant relationship above any and all things. I am discouraged that such a promising premise was wasted with so little thought given to how much more entertaining this book could have been. Not recommended.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Rabbi's Cat 2

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 Rabbi's Cat 2 (Pantheon, 2008).

The very ugly talking cat came back for two more stories by Joann Sfar. These were originally published in France in the mid-2000s in the "annual album" format common to Europe. The first is a 48-page story called "Heaven and Earth," and then I believe the series was wrapped up in 2006's double-sized "Africa's Jerusalem." Pantheon collected both stories in a handsome hardcover that matches the first volume.

I really, really enjoy Joann Sfar's work. I love the way that he designs characters who are not at all attractive by the conventional standards of the medium, but who display such evocative body language. I love how he brings to life characters who are really taken with the wild and wonderful world around them, and I love how he deflates their egos through the use of a cynical cat who doesn't quite understand human foibles.

Again, the setting is Algiers in the 1930s, and after following the rabbi's weird, womanizing cousin and his lion around for a while, the cat tries to live a normal life, but the arrival of a comatose Russian in a box complicates things and causes great debate among the community's leaders. After he awakens, the stranger puts some of the locals on the trail of a legendary city deep in Africa that is said to be home to the first, black, Jews. The expedition finds the characters confronting racial attitudes of Europeans and hot-tempered young men who think they know their holy books better than they actually do, and finding true love, bloodshed and... a talkative reporter with funny hair and a little white dog? And all the while, the cat's rabbi finds more things to debate and to argue. One conversation's descent into a debate on the quality of his coffee is a total riot.

It's a wonderful and rich pair of comics, and I like Pantheon's presentation a lot, even if some of the lettering - presumably a close match for the original - challenged my fading vision a little. I was sorry that the rabbi's daughter Zlabaya had less to do in these stories; she was much more fun and enlivened the stories in the first volume. If Sfar ever returns to the characters, I would happily read their stories. Recommended for older readers.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Death of a Kingfisher

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 Death of a Kingfisher (Grand Central, 2012).

Invariably, I end up looking over the reviews at when I copy the code for the link above. The notes for M.C. Beaton's latest novel about Police Constable Hamish Macbeth (the 28th!) surprised me more than I've ever been, doing this blog. More than a quarter of the reviews gave it only one or two stars, comparing it unfavorably, and vehemently, against the earlier novels in the series. Sure, everybody in the creative arts gets the "not as good as they used to be" all the time, but the volume of the shouting here was really something else.

This is interesting, because I was planning to write up a little something telling my readers about how very unusual this book that I discovered was, and the allegations from some members of Beaton's fan base that it's unforgivably gory and violent started my brain ticking. I finished it believing that it was weird enough to warrant looking at some of the other books in the series, but now I find so many people expressing that it's a somewhat atypical entry, and that the other books are much, much better. Hmmmm.

So Macbeth, a quick-witted and careful constable with a small village beat and no real desire for advancement or promotion or city life, is the star of this series of novels that are firmly in the "cozy" genre of detective fiction. He's investigating vandalism at a local tourist attraction, a glen that's on a plot of land being disputed between grouchy members of an unpleasant family. When a murder is reported, Macbeth, following procedure, notifies his superior officer in the nearby larger town, and police and press descend on the glen to find that it's actually a rare and beautiful bird that nests there, poisoned. The very angry detective inspector bawls out Macbeth in front of the cameras for wasting police time and resources, which turns into a PR nightmare as a nation of animal lovers protests his tactlessness. The bird can't even be laid to rest without a public relations catastrophe.

It's all very well and fairly amusing until a human being is killed. I'm rereading Chandler right now, and I can't help but think that his low opinion of British detective fiction would not have been swayed by the unbelievably contrived death of the unlovable, wheelchair-bound rich lady. There's convoluted criminal schemes, and then there's launching somebody via rocket. Look, I'm fine with this blog popping back and forth between detective fiction and comic books, but if I wanted to read Batman, then I would have. You know what works for killing people? Guns.

But this tomfoolery is not comfortable playing within the lines of "cozy" mystery. Among the unpleasant and unhappy family, we meet two sullen, disaffected, malicious teenagers. While the book plays along happily with its witty and goofball domestic squabbles and lighthearted tweaking of police procedure and its remarkably silly death scenes, the children become more and more important to the narrative, and we learn more about their sociopathic behavior. About three-quarters of the way to the end, these two have evolved past the pranking, wicked kids to whom we were introduced and seem like creatures from a much more violent and unhappily realistic world, with organized crime and white slavery and pitiless cruelty that provides none of the "cozy" world's escape from our lives.

There is also a very strange disconnect between their antics and the flow of the novel. For the most part, as novels of the genre go, this piece tells us a single story about a single incident, isolated over the course of a few weeks while the events play out. But as the duo become the central characters of the story, each new event is related as happening several months later. It's almost as though Beaton ran out of interest with the glen and couldn't find a way to wrap up things, so she began reporting what happened to these characters after the incident concluded, and could not stop talking about them. It's a trick that doesn't really satisfy me, but I mention it because it is so incredibly weird. I can't imagine why Beaton wanted to change the focus so firmly, and in such a disjointed way.

I'll give the author credit for doing something so very strange and unique, but it's evident that the approach didn't satisfy her long-time readers at all. I'll definitely sample Beaton again sometime. I was charmed enough by the village of Lochdubh that I planned to return anyway; I'm more intrigued now that I know that it's not always this bizarre.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Poodle Springs

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 Poodle Springs (Putnam, 1989).

When I reread all of Chandler a couple of years ago, I didn't include Poodle Springs in the stack. This was the novel he left really unfinished - seriously, just four chapters - and, about thirty years later, his estate hired Robert B. Parker to complete. Since, three years ago, I didn't know anything about Parker, I passed on it. Now that I'm working my way through all of Parker's books, it became time to read it.

What's really weird, though, is that, having read it, I'm damned if I can remember what it was about it that prompted me to give it a slot in my silly book review blog. I know that I enjoyed it, but, heck, I only finished it about ten days ago. It just so happens that these have been a really incredibly busy and wild ten days in my life, but... the content of this book just slipped away.

What I do remember most clearly is the way that Parker comes back again and again to Marlowe having an ongoing argument with his incredibly rich wife. She doesn't understand why he still needs to work as a detective. It's embarrassing her high-society friends in the desert community of Poodle Springs. He keeps telling her that he wouldn't be true to himself if he stopped. This argument happens about four times, so it's kind of driven home. Seems to me that they should have had this conversation before they got married.

Anyway, as a Chandler pastiche goes, it's really not bad, even if the details eluded me so much that I needed to give it another pass to refresh my memory. Parker did a really good job in recreating the particular structure and style of Chandler, and filling a simple situation into a convoluted, twisting narrative full of family secrets and people who don't admit to Marlowe that they know other, important characters. People end up dead who should have never died, and Marlowe ends up behind bars for being in the wrong place with an unbelievable story. Parker, who clearly had lots of practice with his character Spenser's smart mouth, gives Marlowe an appropriately insolent tone.

It never really stops being fanfic, because Marlowe will never be anybody's character but Chandler's. That didn't stop Parker from writing a second Marlowe novel, Perchance to Dream, that I'll read in time. It is not necessary, and not essential, and worthwhile only as a curiosity for readers familiar already with the authors' existing work. It's certainly not an entry point, anyway.

It did, on the other hand, prompt me to pull all of my Chandler novels off the shelf and back into rotation. The Big Sleep's just magnificent, isn't it?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Burial at Sea

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 Burial at Sea (Minotaur, 2011).

How frustrating! I've finished the fifth of Charles Finch's very fun 1870s-set novels about Mr. Charles Lenox, MP and detective, and that's the last of them so far. I got to the end of this book while having supper in Clemson a few weeks ago and wanted to just growl aloud because I've caught up with the author, and now have to join his many fans in drumming my fingers impatiently waiting for more.

That's not to say that I couldn't quibble a little about this one if I wanted to. While on the one hand, I really have to applaud Finch on the amount of research that he did, I fear that he didn't spend nearly as much time establishing his killer's character. My understanding of sea life in the 1800s is limited to touring the Constitution and reading Chris Schweizer's first Crogan book, but Finch really made this location come to life, and brought home just how bad things could get for somebody who gets on the wrong side of a ship's captain at sea. By sending Lenox overseas on a top secret mission to Egypt for Her Majesty's Government, it looks at first like the amateur detective is going to start a new career as a secret agent, but a gruesome murder sees his expertise needed.

Locked room killings always have the potential for fun in detective fiction, but I've never run across one where the locked room is at sea. (Yes, I'm aware Christie wrote one; I don't like Christie.) It really is unthinkable that a naval lieutenant should be murdered in this way, and the captain, charged with getting Lenox to Egypt, is torn between his duty, his demands, and his disbelief. When somebody in the crew sends a harsh message warning of mutiny and then there is a second killing, the impossibility of the situation is driven home. This would be a mess on dry land in London; at sea, the events couldn't be more grim.

And yet the revelation of the killer and the depiction of his madness completely failed to gel with me. The villain couldn't have been drawn with broader strokes had he been played by the late, great Frank Gorshin, which makes the control that he had exercised prior to his unmasking completely unbelievable. There's also a disappointing reality of just the way this fiction can be expected to behave; when the killer gets away with a solid chunk of pages left to go, then it's obvious from space that the character will reappear while the hero is dealing with his spy mission. Fortunately, I found enough to enjoy with the material in Egypt that it never felt like marking time until the murder mystery was finally resolved.

The only real complaint that I have about Finch's universe is that Lenox seemed much happier when he was not torn between his loyalties to Parliament and his family and his desire to investigate. I appreciate the honest depiction that this would be the reality for a man in Lenox's position, caught between duty and devotion, but it's left him, despite the assurances that his marriage is a happy and strong one, simply feeling adrift and torn. I hope that the author can give his character's conflict some closure in the sixth book, A Death in the Small Hours, which is due to be published this November. Otherwise, give the man's protege John Dallington the lead time; he threatened to be more interesting than Lenox in the second and fourth books anyway and could certainly carry a novel of his own. Recommended with minor reservations.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Underwater Welder

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 Underwater Welder (Top Shelf, available from August 2012).

Excuse me while I get a little nebulous for a minute. When I was a little kid, I mostly read DC Comics. Every time it seemed that I picked up a Marvel, I was coming in during the middle of a story, and I never saw anything begin or end. Whenever I did find the first part of a new adventure, it was loaded down with references to other stories. There were other, simpler, elementary school-age complaints - how Dr. Octopus or the Mole Man managed to be a concern for more than one panel, why Thor talked so funny - but the overall problem with Marvel books is that I could not understand them.

This got really bad when, around age eleven, I somehow acquired a huge stack of early '70s C-list Marvel titles, and probably some of those weird Atlas books from around the same time. Stubbornly, I insisted on reading and absorbing everything, even if I couldn't grasp what the heck was going on. These days, what I think was going on in that Bullpen was barrels of weed, but I'd try to read some story which was supposed to be about Morbius the Living Vampire and it would end up being about book burners on a college campus. I swear, I read enough iterations on this one weird plot about ordinary suburbanites gaining paranormal superpowers and losing their minds that I eventually thought every Marvel Comic was like that. Maybe Steve Gerber wrote all of them and the great man just had that many issues? I stumbled across one as a reprint in the Essentials omnibus that reprints a pile of what otherwise might have been Man-Thing episodes. I'm sure this rings a bell. The failed clown with the sudden powers of God makes all the other players sit and watch while he has an out-of-body weirdo experience and makes them all witness phantasmagorical recreations of all the crummy things that he went through with his old man*?

Did Jeff Lemire read some of these same weird comics as a kid? His new book from Top Shelf, The Underwater Welder, somehow evokes my hazy memories of those old Marvel books. Sure, we never see the Son of Satan in a tutu or Howard the Duck getting beat up by Ace Frehley, but Lemire is talented enough to get to the point without using surreal superhero imagery along the way.

I'm not familiar with Lemire's work, actually. I've certainly seen praise for his trilogy of graphic novels, Essex County, but have not read them despite the stacks of awards. They are available in a single 512-page collection from Top Shelf that I'd quite like to read now that I've seen his work here. I'm also aware that Lemire has been doing the rounds making superhero comics for DC these days. Somehow, despite writing something like four books a month, he has also found time to write and illustrate The Underwater Welder, a 200-something page story about a dad-to-be who works a dangerous job on the seabed, and who has a whole boatload of daddy issues, and who comes up against a very strange and unnatural occurrence that throws his entire life upside down.

Lemire's art style helped him throw me for a complete loop a couple of times in this story. He works in a very loose way, with a very thin and sketchy line, taking few opportunities to shade or darken the pages. Some of the undersea panels have a grey wash added to them, but these are otherwise quite bright pages, and they lulled me into a false sense of security. When blackness happens, it happens abruptly, and it works wonderfully. There are other very neat visual tricks throughout the story. I like how indistinct Jack's father appears in his memory, and how we're introduced to him as though waking from a dream.

I mentioned to somebody once, leading up to something related, that I didn't know how long it takes to get over the death of a father. Probably never, but Jack's a really, really long way from that point, if it exists. He's moved his wife Susie back to a coastal town in Nova Scotia he could have left behind forever, and taken a dangerous seabed job, killing himself over the loss of his father and obsessed over a secret mystery that only he insists is out there. When something weird happens underwater, it's left unclear whether there's something paranormal at work or whether he's finally cracking from the guilt of becoming a father himself without his own still around. Susie is supportive to a point, but there's only so much that she can give as she approaches her due date and Jack has an accident out on the oil rig...

The book is preceded by a foreword by Damon Lindelof in which he compares the story to a never-produced episode of The Twilight Zone. I can definitely get behind that. Is something genuinely weird happening to two likeable people who don't deserve this kind of torment, or is Jack's psychological upheaval long overdue? Can we sympathize with Jack's actions to exorcise his past, or is he being selfish? I like the way that Lemire kept me guessing, and certainly recommend this to my readers. It's available in stores in August; tell your thrill-merchant to reserve your copy today!

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

*It's in Man-Thing issue # 6, true believers! Excelsior!