Monday, September 30, 2013

Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities

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 Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities (Arthur A. Levine, 2012).

I expected this book to be fun and wasn't disappointed. It's a pretty thick little hardback that I noticed at the local library, but as it is written for kids - target age about 8-12 - and peppered with illustrations by Mike Maihack, it's also fairly easy to breeze through in an hour and change. Our hero is a kid named Vincent Wu, the de facto leader of a trio who idolize his city's guardian superhero, Captain Stupendous. That unfortunate name is probably the book's only flaw. You know who would call himself Captain Stupendous? A supporting player in a book for kids aged 8-12, and nobody else.

Anyway, Vincent realizes that the mysterious, kind-hearted, and mighty Captain Stupendous, who's seven feet tall and musclebound and incredibly powerful, is acting kind of weird lately. He's had awful trouble beating up the sort of giant robot that he used to handle in his sleep, and he's not appearing at press conferences to reassure the public after the latest menace to public order has been vanquished. In short order, we learn that the Captain has a new secret identity. Or... wait, how best to explain it? See, the character is basically an amalgam of Captain Marvel, Green Lantern, and Ralph from TV's Greatest American Hero, and while his superhero body always looks the same, somebody else, somebody new, is "piloting" the heroic version. This somebody isn't just a rookie, it's one of Vincent's classmates. Worse still, it's a girl, Polly. A ten year-old girl is Captain Stupendous! Can she use Vincent's incredible knowledge of the hero to learn how to play the part before she gets herself stomped when the giant robot comes back?

As a kid who took things way too damn seriously when I was in the book's target age bracket, I would have grumbled like hell over that name, but loved the story anyway. It's not merely that author Mike Jung has crafted a pretty solid story with lots of gentle twists and turns, and not just that it's peppered throughout with Easter egg names and references to well-known comic creators and characters either. This is a book that's not afraid to appeal, gushingly, to kids, and speak their language. The still-taking-things-way-too-damn-seriously side of me today might tsk a little over the kids in the book constantly SHOUTING TO EACH OTHER IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, but the kid I was would have adored it. The interactions of the children feel real and are very fun. I also like how Jung creates two separate but equally critical problems: defeating Professor Mayhem and his indestructible robot, and dealing with the fact that Polly, understandably, doesn't actually want to have another life as a seven foot tall man.

Fun, breezy, and intelligent, I'd happily recommend this for anybody in the target age, and anybody else who'd like a little nostalgia about how much fun we could have when we were that young.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

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 Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Viking, 2006).

As I mentioned earlier this week, I recently read a couple of novels only knowing exactly one thing about them: they were each written by an author who has a new book out with a feature review in Entertainment Weekly and I'm reading these earlier works while waiting in the library queue for the new one. I knew nothing else whatever about them.

So, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl: boy, howdy, I found this a complex and troubling read. It is a book that does not wish to be embraced. It is cold and prickly and mean and does not answer any of the really troubling questions that it poses. There is an element of detective fiction at the core of its faux memoir template - it is written by a college freshman about the events leading up to a traumatic event one year previously - but it does not play by the rules. I accept, on its own terms, that it is a challenging and difficult story that the fictional memoirist certainly needed to write, but it would have been a more satisfying read had she waited until (a) she had the maturity to not write so damn much like an overeducated, pretentious bore and (b) some of her questions were eventually answered.

Our protagonist is Blue van Meer, who has traveled all around the country with her dad, Professor Gareth van Meer. It's been his habit for almost a decade to take little visiting professorships at small, rinky-dink colleges and universities for just a single semester, challenging the bejesus out of his students while publishing impenetrable studies of civil unrest and geopolitics in obscure journals. He finally agrees to settle for an entire year in a western North Carolina town (it seems to be an amalgam of Asheville and Murphy, smaller than one and larger than the other), allowing Blue to attend St. Galloways School for her senior year.

We know from the introduction that a teacher named Hannah will die by hanging and that Blue will find her body. I really enjoy Pessl's use of foreshadowing. The buildup - it's endless - and all the attendant weird mysteries about Hannah's unusual life, and why she rubs her father the wrong way, kept me engrossed so much that when Hannah finally dies, it's almost like a relief. The tension is amazing.

But the tension's not for everybody. As befits somebody who's been educated by a condescending, pretentious perfectionist like Gareth, Blue has learned how to write with no grace whatever. It's not breezy or light at all; her construction is deliberately obtuse and academic on the one hand, while relying on overused, familiar phrases as a teen would on the other. I am impressed by how well Pessl captures Blue's voice, because it can't have been easy, but nor is it easy to read. For all Blue's naivete, she's almost as smug and self-important as her father. I looked at one of my freshman essays not long ago. I wouldn't care to read a second, put it that way.

I'm really torn by how Pessl proceeded from the tragedy. I like how, on the one hand, things get so much worse than Blue led me to believe they were going to be. I enjoyed the feeling of being knocked over when we learn more about Hannah, and about her father. What I didn't enjoy was the lack of resolution. There are things about her death that are not answered, and probably wouldn't be for years to come. That's when Blue should have written her memoir; not simply because she would be a better writer, but because she's unable to dig any further than she did. What she did unearth was tragic, painful, and horrible, but, enjoying as I do the relentless pursuit of capital-T Truth by the heroes of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, I couldn't help but feel that Blue walked away too soon. I don't blame her - this is ugly and she's a kid - but Pessl could have made it go another way. Recommended with reservations.

Monday, September 16, 2013

What Alice Forgot

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 What Alice Forgot (MacMillan, 2009).

I decided to try out some more contemporary fiction, and picked what you might think is an eccentric way to select some. I decided that, with each novel that got the big feature in each issue of Entertainment Weekly, I would join the library's queue for that book and also see whether any other novels by the same author might be available. So in the case of Australian author Liane Moriarty, at some point in late October I might get a new novel that I know little about, beyond briefly scanning a review long enough to conclude "yeah, sure," and that I am familiar with one earlier book by that writer, about which I knew nothing whatever.

I don't like spoilers at all, and don't read blurbs or reviews or even a hint of what I'll find if at all possible. With What Alice Forgot, I stumbled into a situation where it looked as though the protagonist of the piece was losing her memory of a happy vacation while suffering from a bad injury and, horrifically, learning that she must have lost her child, as there was no fetal heartbeat. Thrust into the same very unhappy water as Alice, it looked like she was losing her baby and her memories at the same time.

Ah, but what was really happening was even more frightening. The baby was just fine; in fact, she's ten years old now. The vacation memory, fading by the second, is just about the only thing from the last decade that she remembers at all. What Alice has forgotten is an entire ten years of her life, but what's more stunning is that what Alice has forgotten is that over those last ten years, she has become a horrible person.

There's a subplot about Alice's aunt that never really went anywhere, but otherwise, this was a really entertaining and unpredictable story. Some of Alice's lost past is so controversial among her family that they're loathe to tell her details, forcing both the reader and the hero to put her story back together again, and make mistakes - occasionally amusing ones - along the way. I found this a real pleasure to read, with breezy, clear prose, and happily recommend it.

(Check back on Thursday for a post about another novel I knew nothing of before I opened the cover!)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Eight-Seven

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 Eight-Seven (book club edition of The Mugger, Killer's Choice and Doll, circa 1967).

I have a totally unfair reason for waiting so long to sample Ed McBain. In the early 1990s, Universal was having trouble finding workable, complex scripts for Columbo, but they had the television rights to some of McBain's 87th Precinct series. Now, you'd think, only making two and maybe three TV-movies a season, they could get some writers who'd enjoy working with Columbo's popular formula, but no, not content with mostly abandoning the trope of pitting Peter Falk against a big-name, classy guest star each time, they jerry-rigged a couple of 87th Precinct treatments and stuck the character of Lt. Columbo into these characterless, charmless stories that would have worked equally well as a two-hour episode of any other cop show of the day. "No Time to Die" and "Undercover" are, by some distance, the worst episodes of that series, even worse than the one where they cast the great Rod Steiger in a bit part and gave the villain role to George Wendt.

A little time, distance, and objectivity eventually led me to acknowledge that very little of what was wrong with Columbo after 1992 was Ed McBain's fault.

The 87th Precinct series - there are 54 of the darn things - stretched from 1956 to the death of McBain (real name Evan Hunter) in 2005. If these three books are any indication, it was a terrific series, and while they've not been very popular or commented upon in some time, they're really solid police procedurals that reflect their times very well. I was amused by a couple of references to Dragnet putting an unbreakable image of police work in civilian minds, and also to somebody being dismissed as a naïve youngster because he looks like Elvis Presley.

Most of the time, when you find these old book club omnibus editions, they seem to have been assembled at random. This collection reprints the second, fifth, and nineteenth(!) in the 87th Precinct series, but it forms a character arc for Detective Bert Kling. He's introduced in The Mugger as a patrolman, established in Killer's Choice as a rookie detective, and fumbling so awfully in the wake of his girl friend's death in Doll that his lieutenant has concluded that promoting him had been a mistake. Incidentally, I love the two-word spelling of "girl friend." As with "goodby" or "good-by" in John D. MacDonald novels of the period, it's a reminder that language is always evolving.

These are pretty breezy reads, despite the taut and narrow focus of each novel. I enjoyed the very detailed look at procedure in the 1950s and 1960s, and occasional neat and experimental prose that's used really effectively. The Mugger even uses second-person narration for a section to get things started. The first two books just sing with the tone of the 1950s, while Doll's realistic use of hallucinogenic drugs feels appropriately grounded in the 1960s. I love finding fiction from a period that reinforce our contemporary view of that period and being able to say "Yes. This is why we think the 1950s had this feel. It's because books like these were produced then, and contributed to the zeitgeist, and are still accessible both as artifacts and as reminders."

This isn't a series that I'll be able to completely collect immediately, owing to cost and availability, but I will definitely keep my eyes open for more of them. McBain / Hunter was a fantastic talent, and worth waiting to discover.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Dead Irish

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 Dead Irish (Donald I. Fine, 1989).

When I first started reading John Lescroart's novels a couple of years ago, I wasn't able to find the first of the now 21 books about Dismas Hardy and his friends and associates, nor a couple of others that I'm saving for a rainy day. It's a really fun series, mostly legal thrillers but incorporating detective fiction and melodrama along the way, in which any of the characters can either take the lead role or just make a cameo appearance. Hardy, formerly both a cop and an ADA, had dropped out of life entirely after the accidental death of his infant son and, when I first met him in the second book, 1990's The Vig, he was working as a bartender. In time, he'd put his life back together and go back into private law practice, often putting him at odds with his best friend and former beat partner, homicide detective Abe Glitsky.

In Dead Irish, Lescroart is a long way from the standard tropes of his series, and I found myself glad that I ended up saving it for later. Hardy is still paralyzed by guilt and grief over his son's death and while some of his character quirks are there, including his cast-iron skillet and his talent with darts, he's just a mess of a man with a hollow existence. Proving that much growth was to come in later books, however, this one not only features Abe, who is later known to disapprove strongly of profanity, with an uncommonly foul mouth, and it ends on the optimistic note of Dismas on the verge of reconciling with his ex-wife, mother of his late son. This, fans know, will not be successful.

This story is the first instance of Dismas Hardy acting as an amateur investigator. His boss at the bar offers him an ownership stake for looking into the death of his sister's husband, Eddie Cochran. The coroner has ruled it as "suicide, equivocal," with no strong evidence one way or the other, and the police are in no hurry to add another homicide to their duties. Since an insurance payout rests on the verdict, and since Dismas used to be a cop, maybe he could make certain everything's being done correctly?

Dismas finds a really strange series of events revolving around the community newspaper distributors where Cochran had worked, and a very intense family life, with a longtime friend of the Cochrans, a priest, staying very close to the family. Eddie's widow, Frannie, has told nobody that she is pregnant, and the deceased left a teenage brother who is spectacularly troubled. Then there's a definite murder and huge theft at one of the papers, but nobody's certain it has anything to do with Eddie's death...

Another great hallmark of Lescroart here is that the text is incredibly dense, with very minor supporting characters fleshed out completely and given as much life as the stars, and incidents that end up not directly relating to the course of the mystery are also full of detail and color. The result is a story where everything and everybody in a large cast and not strictly a chain or a series, but an assortment of events is all given equal billing and focus. This can result in an occasionally tough read - I have been known, with Lescroart, to occasionally wish he'd compact episodes a little more and move things along faster - but it's a remarkably vivid one. I was completely fascinated to see the author's own style so established and certain, even while the characters had a great deal more growing to do before they inhabit the versions that are more familiar to me from the later books. Recommended.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword

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 Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (Abrams, 2010).

I walked past the display of "graphic novels" for kids and young readers at our local library - we have a genuinely terrific children's librarian, by the way - and did a double-take at the sight of this thin hardcover promising the tale of "yet another troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl." Boy, am I ever tired of that old trope. (Kidding!)

Oh, heavens, how I enjoyed this book. Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword is the first of two books by Barry Deutsch that has its beginnings in a webcomic he had drawn. It is set in a curiously insular Orthodox community - so isolated, wherever it is, that the residents have no idea what a pig looks like - and the star of our story is an eleven year-old who really looks forward to owning a sword so that she can get started on her big life plan to be a hero and slay dragons. But first, she has to get out of the house and away from the arguments posed by her stepmother Fruma.

And when she does get out of the house, she takes a wrong turn in the woods, sees a strange woman floating in the air, and that sets in motion a confrontation with a homework-destroying pig. That talks.

This is completely terrific fun for readers eight and up. It's unpredictable, intelligent, and I love the designs, the pacing, and the artwork. Deutsch has created a great little universe here, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of Mirka and her family. Happily recommended.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Bright Orange for the Shroud

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 Bright Orange for the Shroud (Fawcett, 1965).

I understand that John D. MacDonald's fans believe that the adventures of his character Travis McGee should be read in sequence, as McGee was one of the few American series leads to grow and mature as the series progressed over a 21-year period. Unfortunately for me, I didn't start from the beginning, but with the sixth novel, 1965's Bright Orange for the Shroud. Apparently, MacDonald's publisher had him working on the first several books together, and did not even publish the first until the fifth was ready, and then released a new book every three or four months. Imagine a publisher doing that today: Scholastic with JK Rowling, for instance.

The book impressed me so much that I have three more McGee stories already waiting for me. The character isn't quite a private detective in the classic hard-boiled PI tradition, but rather a freelance operative who recovers money or assets in return for a percentage. There's something about him and his methods that reminds me of TV's Banacek, which makes sense. While MacDonald and McGee have faded in popularity over the years, they were extremely well known in 1972, when that series was made, and continue to influence the work of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiassen, among others. The cynical eye on south Florida is also a hallmark of the more recent TV series Burn Notice. The more that I thought about Bright Orange for the Shroud, the more I saw its influence.

I was already very impressed by MacDonald's excellent prose and descriptions before we met the villain of the piece, and it's MacDonald's treatment of him that sold me completely on following this series. This book deals with McGee helping out a hapless friend who's been taken completely to the cleaners in a quasi-legal real estate scam. The con artists have scattered and the chump's new bride is long gone, but McGee agrees to help him recover what can be found. His hunt brings up criminals who really want nothing to do with each other anymore, and with good reason: one of them is a completely unpredictable and really scary guy.

I really appreciate it when writers give their protagonists really complex and intelligent villains. Boone Waxwell does not appear to be either, but he banks on people underestimating him and he really, really gives McGee an enormous challenge. I knew going in that fifteen novels followed this one, and yet I was really concerned about McGee. Waxwell is that frightening. I love a villain who forces our hero to keep improvising and changing tactics, and I love a writer who is up to the challenge and refuses to make things easy for his lead character. Highly recommended.