Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Death in the Small Hours

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 Death in the Small Hours (Minotaur, 2012).

I'm honestly not sure how in the world I missed this one. I finished the fifth book (and, then, the most recent) in Charles Finch's series of Victorian-era mysteries back last summer when I was taking a solo road trip through northeast Georgia, to Clemson and back, and I'm sure that I knew then that Finch had another book due for release soon. I just plum forgot about it. I saw this out of the corner of my eye more than a year later and remembered "Hey! One of those books about Detective Lenox, MP!" There's even a seventh book that just came out! I wouldn't have known that had I not popped over to Amazon to get a link for you good readers to follow. Minotaur Books, your PR company needs a kick in the pants.

Charles Finch has settled into a comfortable groove with this series. Lenox pretends like he doesn't miss his days as an amateur sleuth, but he really does. His wife, and longtime best friend, politely smiles from the sidelines, his protégé Lord John Darlington has the old business in good hands when he's not drinking to excess, and all of privileged, aristocracy-era England is just waiting for some television company to buy the adaptation rights to these books.

This time out, Lenox and his family have taken a few weeks' vacation in a village near Bath, staying at the estate of an old family friend who has asked his help in getting to the bottom of a rash of strange vandalism. Lenox thinks this will be a low-key distraction from his duties, which include writing a major, lengthy speech to open the next session of Parliament, but the incidents of vandalism have a curious theme that has everyone in the village on edge, a disagreeable new resident has made enemies of half his neighbors, and then things get really bad when the junior constable is found stabbed to death.

This isn't anything especially challenging, but a satisfying little pleasure, good, comfortable curl-up-on-the-couch on a warm day fiction. I've scoffed a little at "cozy" mysteries from time to time in this blog, but Finch really does do his work better than most of his peers, creating a fun and evolving world with a diverse cast of great characters. Happily recommended, and now I need to order the next novel.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Secret History

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 Secret History (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).

Previously at the Bookshelf, I explained that I have been ordering newly-released novels by whomever gets the lead feature in Entertainment Weekly, and tiding myself with an earlier novel by that author while waiting. To this end, while waiting for Marisha Pessl's Night Film, I read her previous Special Topics in Calamity Physics. More recently, I ordered The Goldfinch, the new release by Donna Tartt, and read The Secret History, her 1992 debut, in the meantime.

I recap this so that you can understand how really, really weird it was to tackle Special Topics first, and then read The Secret History. Had I written the earlier book, I'd have been a little unhappy with Pessl. Of the two, I genuinely enjoyed Special Topics better, but I'm a little less taken with it now. It's awfully, uncomfortably similar.

Both novels feature a young narrator moving into an exclusive school setting for intellectual misfits, and finding themselves fitting awkwardly into a really high-strung clique of young pretentious oddballs with too close a relationship with their instructor. Both novels find the increased tension snapping when somebody dies, and both novels provide a little detail about the death in the prologue, so readers will have the long, agonizing buildup to a character's inevitable end. The clique of young pretentious oddballs in each book contains at least one whom readers would like to thump in the nose.

While there are quite wide differences in the plots of each of these books, they're close enough to have made me a little uncomfortable. Also, The Secret History has at least five male characters that need a thumping. One of these is the victim described in the prologue, whose name is Bunny and who strikes a pose somewhere between Thurston Howell III and Clare Quilty doing an impression of a 1920s toff. He's so ridiculous and mannered that I was ready for him to die before he actually does anything to warrant it.

The more I read of this book, the less that I liked it. I didn't sympathize with the narrator, I didn't like any of his smug, drunk friends, and the entirety of the plot is built around characters telling lies. This story could have ended at any time that somebody picked up the phone to call the police. Somebody badly needed to. I didn't enjoy this book, and I didn't enjoy the feeling of having another book that I liked getting knocked down a rung in my affections. (Not that I was all that affectionate toward it, but I'd have preferred to believe it a more original story than it was.) Bah.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Circle

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 Circle (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).

To be honest, I had never really been considering the question "What if Google and Scientology merged and set out to control the world?", but for anybody who has pondered this troubling possibility, Dave Eggers' new novel is just right for you.

Having said that, I found this to be a terrific scenario punched in the face by its presentation. Y'all will have to excuse me letting my personal life dip into the reviews here from time to time, but I happen to have a fairly pointy and loud Cult Alarm, which was screaming at me not too long into this narrative. Eggers did an amazing job getting the plaintive, reasonable-sounding questions of cultists dead on target. I often read blogs and advice columns that use cut-tags and other methods to hide potentially upsetting material from sensitive readers, using an expression such as "hidden for triggers." This book needs a trigger warning around page 30 for people who get as grouchy about the subject as I do!

Worsening things exponentially is the problem of the lead character. Her name is Mae, and her college best friend helped her get a position in "customer experience" at The Circle's massive California campus. I should qualify that The Circle is sort of a hodgepodge of search engines and every social media idea, ever. When The Circle tags some old travel photos of Mae's from Portugal and adds her to a "We Like Portugal" group at work but, among the thousands of "zings" and invitations that she receives every workday, she misses one from a co-worker, she hurts his feelings so badly that a work sensitivity session is called. When one of her team leaders, baffled that Mae hadn't updated her social thingummies for about ten hours one Sunday, learns that Mae watched a WNBA game with her ailing dad and later went kayaking by herself, he's offended that she didn't reach out to: Circle WNBA fans, Circle support groups for sick parents, and Circle kayaker updates.

Mae caves. She keeps caving. She wants to fit in.

It's a clever book and a heck of a scam and a heck of a warning, too. But if you're looking for a strong lead character with a bit of backbone, this is so not the book for you. A tepid recommendation, then, with strong caveats.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Good Behavior

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 Good Behavior (Mysterious Press, 1985).

Friends and readers, I'm so disappointed. For years and years, in forums and blogs, I have praised an amazing comic series written by John Wagner and Alan Grant for 2000 AD called Robo-Hunter, which is remarkable for the comedic piling-on of problem after problem atop our helpless protagonist. His schemes are beset by one calamitous issue after another, the situation never serious, but always hopeless. Knowing what I like so much about those stories, I'm dismayed, disappointed, and dadgum deflated that nobody ever thought to say to me, "Wow, if you enjoy Sam Slade's misadventures so much, then you really need to read Dortmunder."

Now, of course I'd heard of Donald E. Westlake's character of Parker, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark, and enjoyed the novels in that series that I tracked down. I wasn't entirely sure about a comedy version of that character, but I liked Westlake's work so much that I figured those would be worth a try. Dortmunder is a cynical and pessimistic burglar who has a bad feeling about every potential crime, and with good reason. The stakes are high, the scenarios are absurd, and when things start to go wrong, they start accelerating into spiraling chaos almost immediately. They're unpredictable and completely hilarious.

The one that I've enjoyed the most so far is 1985's Good Behavior, which begins with Dortmunder owing his life and freedom to a convent of vow-of-silence-taking nuns. They've rescued him from certain arrest because a young nun in their order has been abducted by her obscenely wealthy family, sort of Carrington-Ewing types whose patriarch won't accept that his daughter has devoted her life to something as repulsive as charity. Just getting into the stronghouse where she's being kept, and where a cult deprogrammer is attempting to break down her faith, is an over-complicated mess. Add in a crew who includes a twitchy, lecherous old man, favors owed to a pornographer who moonlights as her own model, a civil suit by a fish importer, and, this being the eighties, a battalion of Mack Bolan / Able Force / Baker Company mercenaries who just happen to be in the same place for entirely different reasons, and you've got an upside-down pyramid of problems for poor Dortmunder to juggle.

Suffice it to say that I love this series absolutely. I'm about to start a book called Don't Ask, which sounds like the most appropriate title in the world for a book about this put-upon hero. Gladly recommended.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The 47 Ronin

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 47 Ronin (Shambhala, 2013).

I once took a course in medieval Japanese history taught by Dr. Karl Friday, the author of Legacies of the Sword and learned that, for any number of reasons, people's imaginations get really fired up by this period. I think it's because we admire the moral strength of the protagonists in the incidents from that time, while simultaneously we are fascinated by a culture so very unlike our own. The tale of 47 soldiers left without a master in the wake of his death, who undertook a two year-long plot to avenge him, has been popular for centuries and has inspired at least six feature films, including a new one with Keanu Reeves that is due for release later this month.

The story goes that in early 1701, a lord named Asano arrived at the estate of a wealthy official in the emperor's court in order to undertake a few weeks' instructions in proper court etiquette for receiving imperial guests and emissaries. The official, named Kira, spent the days being deliberately rude and insulting to both Asano and one of his peers, who quickly sought to tame the problem by arranging for a quiet bribe. But this just made Kira more insulting to Asano, who had no intention of paying a government official to act decently. Asano finally had enough of the insults and broke the court's peace bonds by drawing a sword. Although he didn't murder Kira, he did dole out a whipping. The combined offences of breaking the peace bond and committing assault on the emperor's man earned Asano a death sentence. Asano accepted his punishment - ordered to commit suicide - and the region's governor ordered and warned Asano's soldiers to disband and not attempt to seek revenge.

The soldiers - more than 200 - dispersed as commanded, but almost a quarter of them conspired to avenge him while working various jobs, usually as laborers and builders. One of their number was identified as the obvious ringleader, and so he spent two years posing as a drunkard, eventually convincing the agents spying for Kira and the governor that he was harmless and there was no danger. Once the surveillance ended, the soldiers were able to move, and stormed Kira's estate, taking no casualties as they captured him at last. After they'd killed him, they turned themselves in. The governor showed clemency and, instead of executing them all as criminals, allowed the soldiers the same face-saving suicide that their lord had received, excepting the one who had arranged for their surrender and whose life was spared. The story of the 47 "ronin" - rogue soldiers, without an officer - has passed into legend, with the soldiers seen as heroes for honoring the memory of their lord.

I don't find this story as inspiring as many people seem to, although I certainly find it fascinating from a historical standpoint, and impressed by the intricate planning and long game of the revenge. I admit to being in the minority here, because Asano is seen by many as a hero whose honor was insulted by Kira. It's this code of honor and face and everything that I've always found problematic. So Kira was a boorish jackass who abused his position and authority and expected bribes. Asano's still the criminal who struck first.

Well, my point of view isn't at all the romantic one, and it's not shared by writer Sean Michael Wilson and artist Akiko Shimojima, who've adapted the incident into a 160-page comic. I think that they did a superb job capturing more than just the basics, and fleshing out some of the characters, most notably Ōishi Yoshio, the leader of the gang. The artist has a really thankless job keeping this moving and comprehensible - after all, it involves a huge number of characters who all dress alike, and wear identical haircuts, which is no problem in a film, but it forces Shimojima to avoid the typical comic book shortcuts of using these as distinctive traits - but I was never lost or confused by the flow of the story at all. It is an excellently paced and balanced book.

The part that impressed me most comes when Wilson deviates from the historical narrative and allows two characters to debate the complicated issue. One of the rogues' cover is blown and he has a fireside chat in the woods with somebody, bringing up the ethical problems behind the plot, and the other possible actions that the gang could have taken. I think that Wilson was somewhat constrained by the page count, because there's a lot more like this that could have been explored. I leaned on Wikipedia for some background to this story and learned that some researchers believe that, according to the guidelines of the soldiers' code, called "bushido," neither victory nor defeat were important, only honor. Planning the long game caper ensured Kira could be slain when his guard was dropped, but the guidelines of their social structure actually demanded revenge to be taken as quickly as possible.

I think this contradiction is really interesting, and would have liked to have seen more of this debate between "honor" and "revenge" in the book. Given the page count and the limitations imposed on the story, however, Wilson did an excellent job detailing the historical facts, writing sympathetic characters, and keeping readers unfamiliar with the incident interested in what will happen next. I'd happily recommend this for anybody interested in the period.

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.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Help for the Haunted

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 Help for the Haunted (William Morrow, 2013).

Set in 1989, John Searles' Help for the Haunted takes place in the aftermath of the murder of two celebrity ghost-hunters and demon-busters, a couple modeled not very subtly on our world's Ed and Lorraine Warren. They left behind two teenage daughters, the surly and rebellious Rose and the loyal, heartbroken Sylvie, who believes that she saw the killer.

The book is told from Sylvie's point of view, as she struggles with the police investigation, the custody of her older sister, and the town mocking the celebrity and notoriety of her parents. And there's worse: her father left a lot of unfinished work behind in the cellar. Some things that go bump in the night can't be handled by prayer.

I really enjoyed this novel. Searles did a terrific job keeping me guessing, both about what happened to the Mason family and what's going to be happening to Sylvie in the future. Sorry this review's absurdly short, but it's simply a satisfying and unpredictable read. It plays fairly within its premise and structure and answers a lot more questions than I was expecting. Solidly recommended.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Dirty Money Trilogy

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 Nobody Runs Forever, Ask the Parrot and Dirty Money (Mysterious Press, 2004 / 2006 / 2008).

Even after I finished reading Richard Stark's 2006 novel Ask the Parrot, I had no idea that it was the middle book in a series. It begins with Stark's (Donald E. Westlake's) famous rock-hard thief, Parker, on the run from a job that went bad, but in one of these novels, that wouldn't be anything new. Capture is all but certain until he runs into a poacher who offers him shelter, and a chance at a new job, turning over a race track. Ask the Parrot is tremendous fun for anybody who enjoys watching the protagonist of a story dig himself out of a deeper and deeper hole, while other people keep shoveling more dirt atop him.

The situation in this rural community gets worse with every hour. Parker and the poacher, who had been fired from the track years previously and dreams of revenge, but is too much of a coward to work without major help, concoct a believable cover about how Parker's an old friend who will be staying with him for a few days, and are almost immediately asked to join a posse looking for Parker and a fellow robber, who's still on the loose. Then one of the men in Parker's party shoots and kills some tramp in the woods. Then two dumb meth-heads figure out who Parker is. It's a hugely entertaining cascade of one problem after another.

So a week or so later, I started reading Dirty Money, and while the case in the book I'd just finished was settled and Parker was on his way home, it turns out that there are still unresolved issues from the job that had originally gone bad, and two million dollars in marked money left in hiding in western Massachusetts. Worse, the third man on that job is back on the run after killing an FBI agent and escaping custody. The money still needs to be found, and something done about that criminal, and about finding a reliable buyer who will give them ten cents on the dollar and move the marked cash out of the country. And then there's a bounty hunter, and... heck, I missed a book, didn't I? Let me go back...

Each of the three books in this series can stand alone, but together they form a loose trilogy about a high-risk and high-reward job that gets fouled up and must be salvaged at any cost. Rollercoaster isn't an unfair description. This thing is all over the map, with more and uglier parties involving themselves in the search and rescue of the two million. Dirty Money doesn't really conclude so much as finally get to a point where there isn't actually anybody left to pose a challenge, and no more loose ends beyond the few that the author wants the reader to use imagination to resolve. It's a terrific cap to a very fun series, and while I've only read the 1997-2008 Parker books and haven't yet had the pleasure of sampling the original run from 1962-74, I believe these three books did the character justice with a fitting and satisfying sendoff. Recommended.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Night Film

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 Night Film (Random House, 2013).

I really find Marisha Pessl a fascinating and promising author, even though this is the second of her books that has left me juggling a cold and prickly thing instead of embracing something warm and wonderful. Her plotting and structure are masterful, but Night Film remains flawed and, in the end, unlovable and mean. It almost pulls it out in the end before taking an unwelcome detour the likes of which I don't often see in fiction, but while I have to reluctantly conclude that the experiment is a failure, it's nevertheless a really interesting one.

I bet this book is really extra-fun on a tablet. After a short prologue, written in prose, the next twenty pages are "screen captures" of web pages that explain the suicide of a piano prodigy, some catty and weird comments on a discussion thread, and a HuffPo-like "slideshow" about the life of Ashley Cordova, and, more intriguingly, her reclusive father Stanislas. This fellow is a film director, something of a cross between Kubrick and Argento, whose fifteen macabre and ugly films are divided about halfway through his career between major studio works, including a mid-70s feature that won him an Oscar, and barely-distributed-at-all weird creations that are typically screened in underground, invitation-only affairs. It's explained that in the late 1980s, a sicko murdered a kid, echoing the grisly fate of a character in a Cordova movie, and the family began a crusade to bury even the studio works of the director, who has steadfastly avoided publicity for decades.

Pessl has huge problems with this alternate history. To her credit, she absolutely nails the smug and cultish attitudes of Cordova fandom, a bunch of sycophants and online bullies who protect their secret information like the Vatican in a Dan Brown novel. (About whom, more momentarily.) But while I adore the conceit of using "found footage" from internet pages throughout the novel - again, I bet the e-Book is really neat - to immerse readers in Cordova's world, the world just seems boring. We have to take Pessl's word for it that Cordova's movies are amazing, but she never convinces. We'll occasionally hear a character tell us what a genius Cordova is, and go really over the top, suggesting that just being in the presence of a super-genius artist changed their life forever. I have clearly never been in the orbit of such people before, because I can't even imagine what that's like. I met Patti Smith once and got a little tongue-tied, but that's about it.

Worse, though, Cordova's movies just seem dull. From her descriptions, it seems like she used all of her imagination to build this novel's high-rise structure and didn't leave anything behind to persuade me that I'm missing anything by not living in a world with Cordova in it. Remember when Garth Brooks made that "greatest hits" album by an alter ego, Chris Gaines, and how nobody on the planet even once said "Wow, I wish I could listen to the original Chris Gaines records from the early 80s!" It's about like that.

So, with that in mind, we learn from the "slideshow" that the book's narrator is a disgraced journalist who ran his mouth off and slandered Cordova on television before confirming the veracity of his source, who vanished, leaving him holding a lawsuit that destroyed his marriage and his career. The death of Cordova's daughter gets him interested in following up on that source again, who'd left him with a tantalizing belief that, on his expansive and secluded estate in upstate New York, Cordova has been involved in ugliness that rivals the horrors of his films. There are hints of child abductions and murders and strange medical equipment shipped to the wrong address. Our hero thinks that learning why Ashley has killed herself will let him into this ugly and isolated world through a back door...

What I do like about the book comes down to how clever it is. Cordova's commercial peak came in the 1970s, when the horror industry was specifically concerned, not with "demons" or "possession," but Satan himself. This is echoed in the book, as layer after layer of the story is slowly slipped away, and information provided by a host of new sources whose clashing information reveals there's a lot more darkness going on than our hero had planned for. I also like the iconography, which is very playful and rewarding for Kubrick obsessives. The estate itself will certainly remind you of The Overlook in The Shining, and there is a private party and a "this was much more mundane than you thought it was" explanation (but can it be trusted?) that come from Eyes Wide Shut.

I hate to spoil anything or make suggestions of it, but this explanation/conversation, akin to the scene between Sydney Pollack and Tom Cruise in that last film of Kubrick's, leads to a perfectly satisfying climax. I would have preferred to leave it there, but Pessl has a little more to say and a little more to dig, and it's not done with any satisfaction whatever. It's telegraphed pretty far in advance - at least one of Cordova's films is said to have a deliberately ambiguous conclusion - and so any intelligent reader will see the probability that this story will have multiple, conflicting resolutions. But coming after the similarly unresolved climax of Pessl's previous book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, it's unfortunate that she decided once more against settling things for readers.

Night Film compares poorly to Calamity in another regard, and that's the dialogue. The earlier book was a memoir written by a college freshman - an extremely intelligent and a very well-educated one, but a naive and immature young woman all the same - and so its deliberately overwrought narration and dialogue was natural for the narrator. There's no excuse for journalist Scott McGrath, who speaks, as do his friends, in constant italics and a tin ear very like Dan Brown. The dialogue is often stilted and descriptions leaden at the best of times. On the extreme end, there's a long, long conversation with a drug abusing alcoholic former actress who sobers up instantly to talk at simply absurd length, the clarity and depth of her account flatly unbelievable in light of what we've seen of the woman.

The problem with a case with so many layers is that it requires a source to recount each of them, and a great contrivance to get each of these characters into a situation where they are willing to explain their side of things. In the end, despite some exciting detours and some developments that are certain to make readers feel for our hero, there are just two and probably three too many contrived twists, If the book had its climax in the nursing home, with McGrath silently understanding the sad truth about things, it would have been a book that I could still recommend with some reservations. Unfortunately, I fear that this will only be a book that I could recommend to people who hope to watch Pessl develop and continue a promising career, and will look back on this project as her only stumble of note. I sincerely hope that her next project is as amazing as I had hoped this was going to be.