Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Brass Sun: The Wheel of Worlds

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 Brass Sun: The Wheel of Worlds (Rebellion, 2014).

I have not been as engaged with 2000 AD in the last couple of years as I had been for a really, really long time. Part of that's because while the comic is, bluntly, the very best comic that money can buy, there's been a certain staleness to the procedural routine of it, and I've become bored, not with the stories, but with the experience of how they're presented. I never wanted to turn into "that fan" who's constantly moaning about how imperfect it is not making special snowflakes like me happy as clams (although I sort of did), so I kind of shut up about things. I just read quietly to myself these days, mainly.

That said, when a series comes along that partially addresses one of my complaints, I feel like I owe it to the comic to brush myself off and tell the world how good it is. It's called Brass Sun and it's very special and often amazing. It's written by Ian Edginton and drawn by INJ Culbard, who's given the pretty thankless chore of redesigning environments and technology several times over the course of the three stories-so-far. Culbard basically has one hell of a tough challenge and meets it beautifully. There are maybe four panels in this entire book (195 pages of story, plus endpapers and backmatter and such) where Culbard's solid and vivid coloring might have benefited from something more subtle. Otherwise, this is a remarkable story that looks amazing.

Brass Sun is set in a clockwork solar system, an orrery with dozens of full-sized planets connected to each other by metal spars. Centuries before, there had been travel and trade between the planets, but most have been cut off for so long that their populations know nothing about anybody else. And the system is slowing down; winters are getting longer. The story begins on one particularly backward planet, the sort of boring place you've seen in stories before and never enjoyed. Strict religious orthodoxy rules, science is outlawed, heretics are burned alive, the religious nutball in charge talks in "Bad Shakespeare" - you know the language; it's when the bad guy uses phrases like "Speak not to me of--" instead of "Don't talk to me about--" - and you, the reader, will want to leave this silly place as quickly as possible.

Happily, the way out is provided by Wren, one of far too few female protagonists to lead a 2000 AD series that doesn't have her origins in some other, male-led, series. Wren's grandfather had retired from the religious order of stereotypes, figured out something close to the truth about their world, and tasked Wren with saving the day. So fortunately, we're only on this boring, albeit beautifully drawn, backwater world for about thirty pages before things get completely wonderful and unpredictable.

I'm not spoiling much to reveal that Brass Sun becomes a travelogue, with Wren visiting other cultures and learning the secrets of the Orrery. If there's any kind of complaint to be made, it's that Wren sometimes becomes a supporting character in other people's stories, and while we accept that her mission and quest will occasionally be delayed while she gets involved with various intrigues, there are occasions where Wren is too much in the background. I do like how everybody else underestimates her, however.

For all the quickly-penned selling words of "steampunk" that some reviewers use, the real influences on Brass Sun are a couple of mid-1980s films by Hayao Miyazaki, specifically Nausicaa and Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Wren herself is very much like Nausicaa: an ordinary and incredibly resourceful young woman given a monumental task, which she tackles with resolve and intelligence. Wren is one of the best, most interesting characters in comics these days, and I hope to see her in action again soon.

Brass Sun is told in 65-page stories, serialized across eleven or twelve weekly issues of 2000 AD. We've had one story a year since 2012; these three have appeared as a six-issue miniseries in American comic size, and now this very nice hardback edition. Edginton, like Pat Mills, seems to get a pass to structure his stories this way, which means they don't always fit very well into 2000 AD's thrillpowered rocket-fuel five page chunks. There, Brass Sun is, frankly, an awkward fit, slow-moving and often confusing. Read in one sitting, as three stories rather than as thirty-odd episodes, it's a deliberately-paced gem, something unlike anything else in comics and very, very fun. I certainly hope the next story is serialized in 2015, and so on, and that we'll get a second hardback collection for Christmas 2017. Highly recommended.

A PDF 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.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


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 Fragrant: the Secret Life of Scent (Riverhead, 2014) that Marie has contributed.

We received a complimentary copy of Fragrant: the Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel for review. Fragrant is a book about an exploration of scent and fragrance, primarily perfumes but secondary of culinary scents, and the love affair the author develops over the course of exploration. It is the opposite of "ignorance is bliss" as the more the author learns, the greater her passion on the subject. And, luckily for the reader, the greater her desire to share what she has found. This is a clearly written journal of a voyage of discovery.

All my life, I have had a complicated relationship with fragrances. On the one hand, on my first encounter with Vietnamese cinnamon, I could not resist going back to the pantry and opening the jar multiple times a day to have a sniff of the wonderful aroma; on the other hand, I was unable to attend high holy days at church as a teen because I reacted very badly to the incense.

On our food blog we try to experience exactly what this book is about: "the appetites that move us, give us pleasure, make us fully alive" although we talk just about the food aspect; however, she also has another thing in common, in that Ms. Aftell reads about the history of scents, and looks for the interesting and unusual. She says "I love the complicated histories of the materials and the complex characters that make the natural perfumer's palette so vibrant." And in the process, she finds points of interest to the cook, such as finding that sugar was used to scrape citrus and make essential-oil-infused sugar for cooking. I, too, love the complicated ways that simple foodstuffs interact to turn into the many things we know and love to eat; it was fascinating to read more details and it really felt like getting a more rounded view of the topic.

The author has five main aromatic compounds which she uses to shape the narrative of the book, and when I saw that cinnamon was one of them it made the book irresistible. The other four are mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine. Each of the five ingredients has a full discussion of where the substance originates, how it's made and its historical place in fragrance and food making. Finally, she talks about the concept of wabi-sabi, the appreciation for the impermanence of objects. When dealing with something as transient as scent, you have to take into account the ability of each component to work together, very much like the ingredients in a recipe; you may love lemon, but if you put in too much the dish is ruined. I see an awful lot of recipes with unnecessarily long ingredient lists. Simplicity calls to me, and I feel that this book shows how simplicity, elegance and beauty intersect. Recommended.

A 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.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Zenith Phase One

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 Zenith Phase One (Rebellion, 2014).

I keep telling myself that I should go back and update my old Reprint This! blog. For about three years, I was very interested in seeing some older, out-of-print comics repackaged, and got a kick out of championing these old properties and introducing new readers to them. Eventually, I let it turn into a chore instead of something to touch upon once in a while, and now I have too many other things to do than go back and update all the entries. Miracleman's back in print. So's Shade the Changing Man, and Black Jack, and Stainless Steel Rat, and Tales from Beyond Science, and lots of other things that were on my old wish list. And now, holy anna, Zenith by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell. (Here's what I had to say about it at Reprint This!.)

Last year, Rebellion dropped a limited edition brick with the entire series in one huge hardback. Just a thousand copies. In a PR world, this was a terrific idea. It got lots of people talking and paved the way for this four-book series, the first volume of which is out in a couple of weeks.

Zenith is a superbrat celebrity. In the world of this comic, the British government experimented with super-powered soldiers during World War Two, and, after the Allies concluded the unpleasantness by dropping an atom bomb on Berlin, began tests on pregnant volunteers. These children grew up to be short-lived celebrities in the 1960s before some of them lost their powers and some vanished and some died. Zenith is the only second generation human with powers. His mom and dad were killed in what was said to have been an accident in France nineteen years before. And their son? Well, in 1987, he thinks he has some musical talent and he thinks all his parents' boring old friends have got on with their lives, and all he cares about are getting his face in the papers and smooching cute starlets. Saving the world isn't part of his game plan, but when the Nazi supervillain Masterman reappears - he was the reason the Yanks bombed Berlin - not having aged a day since '45, he's got to get his act together quickly...

Zenith was Grant Morrison's first ongoing series and, perhaps despite the writer's protests to the contrary, it does clearly show more than a little influence from Alan Moore's Watchmen. Like that earlier story, it is a "real world" or "realistic" superhero adventure set in a universe where some alternative history has banged everything on the head, and, like that earlier story, the events affecting the present-day characters are influenced by a very large cast from the past, many of whom we only hear about in passing. In other words, Morrison had to design a very detailed backstory to make the present-day adventure work, but it works just beautifully.

The story is absolutely wonderful, and, unlike quite a lot of Morrison's later books unfortunately, it's clear and straightforward and still rewards rereads with lots of foreshadowing and hidden double-meanings, and the artwork by Steve Yeowell is just sublime. There were four long-form Zenith stories, along with four "interlude" one-offs, and a one-shot that appeared nine years after 1992's finale. This new hardcover collection includes the first storyline, or "phase," along with the first two interludes and several pages of character sketches by Yeowell and by Brendan McCarthy, who had done some early design work on the series. It's very nice to see this terrific series given such a nice collection at last. It shouldn't be missed. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Lewis Man

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 Lewis Man (Quercus, 2014).

I enjoyed the characterization in this work of detective fiction, but the number of coincidences and dumb decisions by the hero made this, the second novel in a series by Peter May, a disappointment in the end. The protagonist is a retired cop, the former Detective Inspector Fin Macleod, who has lost all of his interest in police work in the wake of his toddler son's death and the end of his marriage. So he retires to his family home on the distant Isle of Lewis, pitches a tent, and looks up an old girlfriend.

So here's what sets everything in motion: a mummified body is found in the peat. Fin is invited to the post-mortem and they learn that the long-dead man is not many hundreds of years dead as thought; he has an amateurish Elvis Presley tattoo from the late 1950s, and he was murdered. DNA matches him as related to Fin's old girlfriend, but her father Tormod, the best chance to help determine who he is, is in the middle stages of senile dementia and cannot communicate to anybody effectively. He has always claimed to be an only child, but this man seems to be his brother.

Through his recollections, for his memories are intact, we learn the old (and lengthy) story of his childhood and his brother, so the reader is given lots of background - though not all of it - while Fin takes on an amateur investigation, hoping to keep the family secrets intact before the state policeman arrives to begin a formal inquiry. Some of the mechanics are fascinating - getting to some of Scotland's remote areas is a very, very lengthy ordeal of ferries and causeways that are underwater during high tide - but as Fin misses out on the obvious identity of a retired actress and makes the almost comically stupid decision to confide in a shady possible source, it feels like May had to bend his story far past the breaking point of the suspension of disbelief. Not recommended.

A 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.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


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 Rooms (Ecco, 2014).

What an unusual book. It is simultaneously unpleasant and compelling. Let me clarify that. Many books can be unpleasant in that they feature unhappy or harsh incidents and situations, but that isn't what I mean here. This book is full of unpleasant, unhappy, wholly unsympathetic people. There's not one who I wished to latch on to in any way; I'd be happier crossing the street to avoid them. And yet I was captivated by what was happening to them. The story is so interesting that I was willing to put up with them.

Events are kicked off by the death of a wealthy grouch named Richard Walker. His estranged family comes to his huge country home to hear about their inheritance. These are his alcoholic ex-wife, his nymphomaniac mid-twenties daughter, and his selfish, pretends-to-be-depressed teenage son. They're sharing the home with two former inhabitants: ghosts who have never left the building since their own unhappy deaths many years before. The judgmental lady who died in the 1950s and the sarcastic woman who joined her about thirty years later are still here, narrating alternating chapters from their first-person perspectives. They are waiting for Richard's ghost to join them while the family continues their bickering. They know everything and see everything, but are surprised when the ghost that actually joins them is actually a teenage girl.

But who the heck is she?

The family stays in the house, the boy contemplating killing herself and the girl taking random delivery employees to her bedroom for a few minutes, tensions escalating, while waiting for the memorial service to finally be over. Secrets are revealed, new mysteries are uncovered, and I was left enraptured, wondering where this book was going and what would need to happen for the plot to be satisfied to such a point where it would make sense to end the book. I couldn't wait for the book to be over so I could be rid of all of these unhappy people, but I stayed with it because I just had to know how such an outre and unusual story was going to resolve.

This is Lauren Oliver's first book for adult readers, but she's actually been writing YA fiction for some time, including the bestselling Delirium trilogy. I enjoyed the conceit that even ghosts can keep secrets, but you know how, when you finish a really good book, you want to spend more time with its players? That does not happen here. A very mild recommendation for its oddball premise and construction.

A 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.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Whispers Under Ground

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Whispers Under Ground (Del Rey, 2012).

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 8, 2014

Chop Suey, USA

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Chop Suey, USA (Columbia University Press, 2014).

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Bloomsbury, 2003).

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Keeper

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Keeper (Atria, 2014).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

This Must Be the Place

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of This Must Be the Place (Henry Holt, 2010).

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

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

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

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin Books, 2014).

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, 2014).

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

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

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

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Visit from the Goon Squad

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 Visit from the Goon Squad (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

It's kind of a novel and kind of a collection of short stories, and A Visit from the Goon Squad is a really clever and entertaining book. The writer, Jennifer Egan, created a timeline of events for two characters. One is a music industry exec, Bernie Salazar, who in the 1990s has a comfortable job at a major record label, and the other is his assistant, Sasha, who struggles with kleptomania. Over the course of about 45 years, their stories cross paths with lots of other people, and, in thirteen chapters, Egan tells stories of these two, or some of the intersecting players in their lives.

So it's far more than just thirteen short stories about two characters. It's a low-key epic that won 2010's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the way it tells incredibly interesting stories that have a deep but subtle link in the passage of time and aging. I found myself starting each new chapter very excited about who would lead the story: somebody we've met, somebody we've heard about in passing, or somebody brand new, their connection to Bernie or Sasha, or one of the other leads of a previous story, not yet apparent.

The only fumble is a pretty minor one. Egan set the final story a few years in the future, before Apple's iPhone and its autocorrect put an end to all that awful "l33t"-type of the 2000s. She gave the communication technology of this story an even further devolved use of abbreviations and random capitalization. Well, she loses a point for predictions, but she had plenty to spare in this heart-filled, sad, knowing, and very clever book. Happily recommended.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


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 Freedom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

If you're in the market for a great big book about a modern, unhappy, midwestern marriage, boy, have I got the book for you! - said nobody, ever, probably. But that's okay, because Freedom is really terrific. I enjoyed this novel tremendously, but I can certainly understand why people have problems with it. At Amazon, the number of one-star reviews is almost equal to the number of five-star ones. Polarizing, you might say.

Patty and Walter met in college in the late 1970s. She was a basketball star with a stalker of a friend, and he was... well, kind of a nobody, really, but his best friend and roommate was the singer in a punk act who would go on to some notoriety and, eventually, success. After her career is ended with injury and he wins her over through nice-guy loyalty (one of those many problems people have with it), they finally hook up. By the late 2000s, their marriage has fallen apart, and life has taken them and their children in bizarre and unplanned directions.

The writer, Jonathan Franzen, was evidently attempting a modern take on one of Tolstoy's gigantic, decades-spanning stories of love, life, and disintegration. I confess that I find it really difficult to summarize, even in a quick way, what all goes on in this story, because it all does get a little outlandish, but I admire Franzen's moxie in tackling everything from the music world to arms profiteering with equal intensity and making it all believable.

It's a great story, equally sad and funny, and I absolutely loved Franzen's trick of writing a book-within-a-book from a different character's POV, and then introducing that book as an element in the plot, especially when he introduces it like a hand grenade. That's a bit of a spoiler - watch what you write about other people! - but it sure is fun. Recommended.

Friday, June 27, 2014

You Should Have Known

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 You Should Have Known (Grand Central, 2014).

This, however, is one of those books that can't be discussed without spoilers, so be aware.

Jean Hanff Korelitz's new novel, You Should Have Known, came with a warning that there was a twist coming. And for the first hundred pages, it seemed evident what that twist would be. Our protagonist is Grace Reinhart Sachs, a therapist whose first book, also entitled You Should Have Known, is just about to be released. Her premise is that women ignore the danger signs that spark that first instinct to not give a fellow a try. Forget about trying to "fix" them, just forget them entirely. Most men can't be fixed. And since Grace has a husband who works, selfessly, as a pediatric oncologist, and a dream marriage that includes a violin-playing son and her fellow socialite Manhattan moms at the private school, everything is set up splendidly for the inevitable betrayal. I even had the other woman pegged from her first appearance.

Korelitz's prose is good enough that I didn't mind reading what seemed to feel like something not entirely unique. I wasn't completely taken with Grace's character, well-drawn as it is, but the construction of everything just in time for it to collapse around the publication of a book about failed relationships was just too good to stop reading. Oh, what egg will be on our heroine's face when the world finds out about the other woman.

Then the other woman turns up dead. And the husband can't be found. That's how Grace learns. Well, now.

Detective fiction typically leaves a lot of supporting characters in the wake, wondering what in the hell just happened. You Should Have Known flips its premise and turns into the story of a player in somebody else's drama. Some other book entirely could be written about the murder, starring the two detectives who are investigating her death and are convinced that the wife of their suspect is just playing dumb and shielding him.

I've never run into a book like this, and I enjoyed the daylights out of it. I hit the hundred-pages-in-twist about the time of day when I needed to stop reading and leave it 'til the next day, and conspired to make time for it whenever I could, staying up quite late and through several more game-changing punches to the gut to finish it. It's a genuinely terrific novel and happily recommended.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Judge Dredd: The XXX Files

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 Judge Dredd: The XXX Files (Rebellion / Simon & Schuster, 2014).

I wasn't completely sure I believed that a book like this would work, or read well. As part of their co-publishing strategy with Simon & Schuster, 2000 AD's publisher has assembled a really strange collection of Judge Dredd episodes. They basically identified either every story with a bare butt or breasts in it, along with a few others that deal with sex in the 22nd Century, and gave them this very fun and very neat presentation. It's a very nice and expansive 224 pages, and it doesn't drag in quite the way that I thought it might.

By that I mean, sure, there have been longer collections of Dredd before, but they're either linked by continuity, in which you get a long run of episodes from the same time period, or by artist, where you've still got a strong visual link. This book is just barely linked by anything. It has episodes from here and there across a quarter century stretch, with supporting players who were major points of interest for a few years making a single, somewhat strange appearance outside of their context.

The obvious example here is Judge Jura Edgar, the sinister head of Mega-City One's "Public Surveillance Unit," which turned out to be an ominous prediction of our own NSA. Edgar shows up in the triumphantly cool noir story "Sleaze," which was originally published during a curious time in 2000 AD's sister book Judge Dredd Megazine's life. Fleetway, then the publisher, was set to cancel that title for low sales in the wake of that boom that they expected in '95 and the movie with Sylvester Stallone that tanked. In a desperate move to cut costs and make it profitable, for a couple of years, there was only a single, 17-page Dredd episode in each issue, and reprints of "mature readers" comics, principally Vertigo's Preacher, bulking it up. So on the one hand, the creators - this one's written by John Wagner and painted by John Burns - had more freedom to explore darker and more mature stories, and on the other, there was a much greater public interest in government conspiracies at that time. Most of this book is silly, fun, and occasionally a little bawdy, but "Sleaze" is about the judges holding onto evidence of corruption and vice in order to keep the citizen councils under their thumbs. It really sticks out, and I really love that. It should remind readers that Judge Dredd is not a series that can be pigeonholed as an action strip or a comedy or a parody or a procedural. It evolves and changes all the time.

As for most of the book, it's very silly and fun. Most of it is written by Wagner, who has a ball dropping Dredd into situations where human lust and foolishness leads them to make bad decisions. The first three episodes are the three installments of "Love Story," drawn by Ian Gibson and published over a twenty-year stretch. Bella Bagley is an unfortunate, mentally ill woman who believes that Dredd is her boyfriend. Her desperation leads her into becoming increasingly unhinged and violent. I got the feeling that the brilliantly talented Gibson really loved working on these stories and gave them far more than his usual level of great detail, to the point that when Bella meets her inevitable end, he couldn't bear to draw the details of the bullet wounds.

Lots of other really terrific artists contribute to the book. Apart from Gibson and Burns, who does sterling work, Carlos Ezquerra, Greg Staples, Cliff Robinson, and Vince Locke are all here and they all have great stories. Ezquerra's "The Girlfriend" has always been a favorite, and Gibson gets to draw the blazes out of a hilarious story where Dredd is arresting people behind the scenes of a TV dating game. Lots of the stories here are really funny. Sex tends to be. That's the right attitude. I'd say recommended for everybody, but only if you're understanding that boys will be boys, and some of them are going to want to rush their new acquisition upstairs as soon as they get home. For older readers, then.

A PDF 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.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Red Death

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 Red Death (Thorndike, 1991).

Stepping back in time a bit, I've recently been rereading Walter Mosley's novels, and catching a few that I had missed previously. The second in the series is A Red Death, and it's set in 1953. Our hero, Easy Rawlins, has used the big payout from an earlier job to quietly buy a couple of apartment buildings off the books and avoid any scrutiny by keeping the ownership records very secret. He hires a manager and acts as that man's employee, spending his days doing janitor work in the buildings and just trying to stay off the radar and out of trouble.

Unfortunately for Easy, somebody leaks his ownership to the IRS, and a jerk of an agent wants to come down on him hard. Even more unfortunately, this puts him on the FBI's radar, as they could use a man on the ground to break up a union problem. Seems somebody's agitating labor at the aircraft plant where Easy used to work, somebody with possible communist leanings. The FBI agent suggests that he could make Easy's tax problems go away, but there's no guarantee he'll be rewarded for his off-the-book work. And even more unfortunately still, Easy's about to have troubles with his deeply violent friend Mouse, whose woman has come to town looking for Easy's company.

I've never read a book by Mosley that I didn't enjoy. I think that Easy is such a terrific character, and, while wincing, I love watching him always try to do the right thing but get shafted and stymied by the system, by people he trusts, by the city, and by the police. His troubles get worse when one of his tenants hangs herself and the cops seem, arbitrarily, to decide to treat it like a murder just to push Easy around - that's what you get for phoning in a body - and worse still when the trail of the leftist organizer takes Easy to a church, where more bodies get found. Happily recommended for anybody who enjoys hard-boiled detective fiction.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


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 Solo (Jonathan Cape, 2013).

I have to say that I don't quite understand the Ian Fleming estate's strategy with James Bond novels. Over the last six years, there have been three new ones, written by three authors, which are set in entirely different times and don't have anything to do with each other. It's almost like the way Toho keeps making Godzilla movies which pretend the only other Godzilla movie that ever happened was the very first one, or the way the Rolling Stones play three new songs and all the old, old hits, but studiously avoid playing any songs that were written after 1982.

This time out, William Boyd was selected to write a Bond book, and Solo is set in 1969. Bond, now 45, is sent to the west African nation of Zanzarim, where a rebel leader, Solomon Adeka, is carrying out a brutal civil war. Adeka is getting assistance from a billionaire who's running guns into the country and from a handful of mercenaries. Strangely, the arms and military supplies are coming in on airplanes bearing the logo of the charity that's supposed to helping the displaced children of the region.

Bond doesn't have to assassinate Adeka; he is in the final stages of terminal cancer when he finally makes it behind the lines under cover as a journalist and dies soon after he arrives, letting the civil war crumble. But he's betrayed all the same and, recuperating in Scotland, he concludes that he's going to have to follow the money back to America to find out who has hijacked the charity and track down that "philanthropist" without MI6 support...

It's a really fun book. I think that Boyd captured James Bond very well, and placed him in a believable world with a very unusual and interesting mission. He brought out Bond's brutality better than some writers wish to acknowledge, with one stunning example near the climax really surprising me. I was very satisfied with it, but I'm also left very curious about what would be happening next to the modern day Bond seen in 2011's Carte Blanche by Jeffrey Deaver. Why are we skipping around? What next, Fleming Estate? A Bond-at-Studio-54 novel by another new author for the 2015 title? Recommended.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Still Life With Bread Crumbs

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 Still Life With Bread Crumbs (Random House, 2014).

Last year I made one of the best reading decisions that I've ever made: to just pay attention to contemporary fiction via the Books section of Entertainment Weekly. It's far from a perfect system and it reflects that magazine's editors' biases, but instead of waiting around for new fiction that fits my own biases and preconceived notions, I'm simply reading far more than I have in years. I've read authors I've found to be wearying and overrated (Donna Tartt), frustrating but promising (Marisha Pessl), and "where have they been my whole life" amazing (Meg Wollitzer) that I never would have experienced had I just confined myself to waiting for something new by Walter Mosley or some Ross MacDonald book I hadn't read before. (Or some Walter Mosley that I hadn't read before, about which, more in seven days.)

Anna Quindlen isn't quite in the top Wollitzer bracket, but Still Life With Bread Crumbs, her seventh novel, released earlier this year by Random House, was still an incredibly entertaining book and I'm so glad that I tried it. Actually, my skim reading of the review or "hot list" note just sang out "Your wife might like this one" and I insisted that she give it a try first. (She owed me that for giving up on Gone Girl, the introductory book in my experiment, before the first of the twists, just because she didn't like the husband. "You're not meant to" didn't sink in.) Happily, my wife loved it and wants to read more Quindlen. So do I.

This book is centered around a 60 year-old photographer named Rebecca Winter, who lived happily for years off the royalties from some of her work, but the money has dried up when she needs it most. To save some cash, she leases out her pony Manhattan apartment and takes a very cheap fixer-upper far in the countryside. She makes friends of some of the residents, and confides in a tea shop owner who seems just a little familiar. If this book had been written ten years ago, then a film adaptation would have cast Melissa McCarthy in the role, because she is totally Sookie from Gilmore Girls.

Rebecca is a beautifully young sixty. She still has all the energy and enthusiasm that I hope to have at her age, and she's still making artistic discoveries. She finds some strange little memorials in the huge forest around her house and begins photographing them. Then she realizes that the memorials never last very long; not only can she not discern who is leaving them and what they commemorate, she can't determine who is removing them. After she fires her grouchy agent over an argument about a photo of a dog that she sold in the tea shop, her new agent sees a tremendous opportunity for a new series and arranges a major gallery launch. Rebecca is reinventing herself after her ex-husband's betrayal, her son's bizarre romantic attachments, and the aging of her parents. Maybe a gallery show is exactly what she needs to kickstart her next act...

I enjoyed this tremendously. I loved the story and the characters, and I love Quindlen's breezy style. She has a fantastic, fun narrative voice, happily interjecting that details will come later, and using as-long-as-they-need-to-be parenthetical diversions to clarify minutiae on the story's sidelines. The result is a narration that feels like a comfortable storyteller settling in for a detailed and sometimes unstructured account of our heroine. She even tosses in some transcriptions of magazine articles and critical reviews for additional "understanding," in a knowing, cheeky way. It's a simple, upbeat, curious and gently mysterious story about growing up when you're old enough to count as a grown-up already. Tremendous fun, and happily recommended.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

All That Is

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 All That Is (Knopf, 2013).

Wow. I'd never heard of writer James Salter - evidently, that's true for many readers - until the paperback release of this stunner of a novel from last year. His fans liken him to Updike and Mailer - a big American "man of letters" who tells sweeping stories that span decades, and tells them amazingly well.

There's not a lot of plot to this book, but there's not meant to be. It's a book that you'll occasionally put down, breathless from Salter's mastery of language. There are writers who craft good stories, and there are writers who construct astonishing sentences, and Salter is in that camp. Whatever the hell All That Is ended up being about, I'd have read it, thrilled. He's a "writer's writer," which means that anybody who wishes they had the talent and discipline to write fiction is going to be pleased with how well Salter uses words.

His protagonist is Philip Bowman, and the novel follows him through three decades. He returns home from World War Two, thinks about becoming a journalist, finds himself in New York City and takes a job as a reader for a publishing house. The business suits him very well, and he looks for a wife. Genuine love eludes him, and we simply follow many of his days as he makes mistakes and finds some happiness and people get older and friendships fade and new people enter his life. It's just the story of an adult looking for contentment, brilliantly told.

I love the way that Salter chooses his anecdotes, because that's what all of these and the side stories are, just anecdotes. They could end with a character understanding something they'd miss, or they could lead into the next important phase of life, or they could end in a horrific death, and you won't know why until the episodes reach their climax. Somebody expecting an A, B, and C plot is certain to consider this frustrating, as the story just jumps to the next time and place. It's linear, but there are gaps. We're not meant to know everything.

Salter's prose is so powerful that when Bowman is badly betrayed at one point, I was so furious that I slammed the book shut and left it alone for an hour. Pretty rare for a novel to get that kind of reaction from me. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Weight of Blood

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 Weight of Blood (Spiegel & Grau, 2014).

Debut novels just don't come better than this. Man alive, this is a creepy book. Coming as it did, for me, right after Swamplandia!, I spent several days fighting down the mild nausea of horrible worry about what is going to happen to a young female protagonist in a very isolated and very unfriendly rural environment. Sometimes, I wish my reading pile would magically know how to sort these things out for me.

Laura McHugh's The Weight of Blood begins with the discovery of a missing teen's dismembered body. The grisly discovery of Cheri's body, a year after she vanished, brings media attention to a small Missouri town, but a lack of leads and a lack of local interest in the very poor community means that life goes on quite quickly. Cheri's only friend was a high school girl named Lucy, and her story began more than ten years earlier, when her mother vanished without a trace. Haunted by those memories, Lucy sets out to learn what happened to each of them. It should go without saying that things get very, very bad before they get better.

I really enjoyed the structure of the book, although once again my half-assed inattention to these things resulted in me missing what was happening for several pages. The story is told in alternating first-person narratives, one chapter by Lucy in the present day, the next by her mother several years previously, as her life brought her to Missouri. The story unfolds with a cool and deliberate pace, sparing little as Lucy is forced to make awful choices about who to trust, and whether to overlook or forgive her family and her community. As a narrator, she is as honest as she can be, but there's a lot that she does not know that her mother once did. Recommended with the caveat that this genuinely does get really unpleasant in places, and with my genuine praise that a first novel can be so powerful.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Ro-Busters: The Disaster Squad of Distinction

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 Ro-Busters: The Disaster Squad of Distinction (Rebellion / Simon & Schuster, 2014).

Back in the mid-1980s, when all of the various series within 2000 AD were licensed for collected editions by Titan, one of the must-have books was the first of two volumes of Ro-Busters. This was a terrific series written by Pat Mills and featured the exploits of some squabbling working-class robots used as disposable fodder for very dangerous rescue missions. Two of them - an unruly and cantakerous sewage-shoveling droid called Ro-Jaws and a full-of-himself army surplus sergeant called Hammerstein - were the leads. They worked for an unscrupulous cyborg super-capitalist called Howard Quartz who genuinely didn't care whether any of his property lived or died, because Ro-Busters was just one of hundreds of robot-staffed operations that he had going.

That original 80-page Titan collection of Ro-Busters has been out of print for many years, but Rebellion has reissued it in a new, expanded edition in conjunction with its American publishing partner, Simon & Schuster. Now 112 pages, it reprints the same stories as that original book - mostly illustrated by Dave Gibbons, with a few pages by Kevin O'Neill and by Mike Dorey - but bookends them with some interesting additions. Ro-Busters actually began in a different comic, 2000 AD's short-lived sister title Starlord, and this book has the first four episodes from that comic. These are drawn by Carlos Pino and by Gibbons. In the back of the book are a couple of neat curiosities - two of the three one-off Ro-Busters episodes that were written by Alan Moore rather than by Mills, with art by Steve Dillon and Bryan Talbot.

As far as I'm concerned, any book to feature that much artistic talent - seriously, Dillon, Gibbons, O'Neill, and Talbot under one set of covers?! - could be written by anybody and still be worth buying. Gibbons' epic "The Terra-Meks," in particular, features page after page of giant robots pummeling each other. The third part of that story is just a tour de force. I can't think of too many other artists in comics that have ever drawn a scene of giant robot combat as brilliant as that. It's masterful.

As for the stories, they're just remarkably fun. Perhaps through the new eyes of a jaded adult, these might appear clunky and dated, but they're kids' comics which nevertheless resonate. Ro-Jaws is such a fun character, vulgar, to the point, and totally lacking any circuits of discretion or tact. Hammerstein is such a straight man that Mills would, in much later stories, go a little too far in showing him up as a chump and had to scale things back to make him a hero again. These characters have lasted long beyond the very brief original run of Ro-Busters, actually. The series proper ended in 1979, with Alan Moore's bonus episodes appearing in the old harback Christmas 2000 AD Annuals in the mid-80s, but the characters have resurfaced in the very long-running spinoff ABC Warriors, which still shows up with a dozen or so new episodes every couple of years.

Ro-Busters is simply a great, inventive, and very fun series, suitable for all ages. Buy two copies of this book: one for yourself to keep in mint condition on the shelf and one for a nine year-old of your acquaintance to read until it falls apart. Any nine year-old who isn't wowed by this, there's something wrong with that child. Highly recommended.

A PDF 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.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Indigo Prime: Perfect Day

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 Indigo Prime: Perfect Day (Rebellion, 2014).

Every once in an agonizingly long while, we get a new appearance from one of my favorite comic series. It's a very weird mindblower of a concept called Indigo Prime, written by John Smith and appearing in the pages of the Galaxy's Greatest Comic, 2000 AD. The sci-fi weirdness concerns a busy bunch of interdimensional troubleshooters protecting the multiverse from existential and bizarre threats while punching the clock, processing work orders, and watching walls of television with millions of channels across the whole of time and space.

After a 1991 curtain call, the series returned in 2008 and again in 2011 (stories collected in 2013's book version, Anthropocalypse), leaving the faithful and the frustrated anxiously waiting for more. Happily, they're back in action right now in the pages of 2000 AD, a couple of weeks in to what I believe is an eight-part story. It's called "Perfect Day" and it's illustrated by Lee Carter, and it's every bit as wonderful and unpredictable as we'd hoped.

Carter, who had designed the series' current lead characters for what everybody thought was a different series entirely - that's one of Indigo Prime's tricks, popping in and out of different titles altogether - has a tough job in following Edmund Bagwell, the artist who made the 2011 stories so beautiful. Bagwell is a hard act to follow, but Carter, who gets better and better with every new art job, seems up to the task. As was expected, Smith has been throwing a lot of deliciously weird imagery at Carter to realize - time tunnels, taxidermist-stuffed monarchs, Roman legions, that aforementioned wall of television monitors - and, two weeks in, Carter has been nailing it and throwing in some unusual Easter eggs. The 2011 stories showed that there was a strange and malicious force called The Nilhist hiding behind the walls of the agents' reality. We're getting hints here and there that it might be slowly breaking through. Meanwhile, agents Redman and Dak have been escorting a very old Nazi superscientist from his dimension to Prime's base of operations at the center of time. They're probably right not to trust him one teeny bit...

As I've said before, Indigo Prime would definitely benefit, going forward, from more one-offs and short tales letting us know more about the players before things get too weird and ragnarok starts thundering down again. It's interesting that Danny Redman and Unthur Dak have become the series' leads over the characters who were more established in the original run. Those few that have turned up, like the popular Max Winwood and Ishmael Cord, have been relegated to supporting players, suggesting just how very busy this agency is. I imagine that Basalt, Foundation, Fervent, Lobe, and all those other characters from the late '80s are still working cases, just not ones that we're seeing presently.

While I'm glad that the series is back for a couple of months, I genuinely wish that it hadn't been two and a half totally dry years. With a cast as large as any in comics, surely we could have had an occasional one-shot featuring one of the series' minor players or old stars in place of a Future Shock, or a short story in place of one of these often tedious three-week Tharg's 3rillers. Five pages in the annual December 100-page issue isn't too much to ask, surely? "Perfect Day" is great and promising, but Smith and 2000 AD's editor should definitely agree that, where this series is concerned, more is definitely much, much more. Highly recommended with the hopes of extra weirdness and character development to come.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Monster of Florence

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 Monster of Florence (Grand Central, 2008).

In the unlikely event that I decide to kill anybody, I think that I should do it in Italy. I read The Monster of Florence, which is an account by two journalists about a serial killer who claimed between twelve and sixteen victims, in pairs, between 1968 and 1985. The first two incidents might not have been by the man who orchestrated the later six, although it's very probable that they are. Plenty of people have been arrested for these crimes. Some have been charged, and some convicted, only to be overturned. The common link is not the heinous murders. It's the staggering incompetence of the police.

I'm not kidding. You know how, on Criminal Minds, they'll occasionally pepper one of their bizarre villains' methodology with comparisons to some real-life monster? If Reed hasn't made a link to the Monster of Florence, and how the police investigating that mess made such a screw-up over it, it's only a matter of time. The journalists who collaborated on this book - American Douglas Preston and Italian Mario Spezi - both ended up getting arrested or targeted by the Italian police, almost certainly as payback for mocking their incompetence and/or corruption. At one point, Preston starts correspondence with some conspiracy theorist nutball whom the lead cop takes way too seriously. Honestly, the same force that doesn't even switch on a computer for years, not trusting it, suddenly starts attributing the crimes to a Satanic cult on the advice of some hair-brained lady with a radio talk show, sort of an Italian blend of Lyndon LaRouche and Alex Jones.

About fifteen years after the last confirmed killing, the lead prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, took a crazed dislike to Preston and Spezi sniffing around his fumbling investigation. He decided to claim that Spezi was planting false evidence to incriminate Spezi's most wanted suspect, and arranged for his car, computer, and phone lines to be bugged. Stupid interrogations, time-wasting jail terms, massive violations of the freedom of the press... honestly, serial killer stories don't intrigue me like they once did, but watching the writers of this story become players while the police stupidity escalates so wildly really makes for a striking and bizarre story.

It's said that the writer Thomas Harris attended at least one of the fumbled Monster trials, and chose to move his character Hannibal Lecter to Florence in one of his novels based on what he saw. He might have been inspired by Florence's art and culture, by the Monster's depravity, or by the whole "feeding to pigs" bit, which actually happened to some criminal on the far periphery of this case. No, he moved Lecter to Italy because the character could kill with impunity, so dumb are the local cops. Recommended as a curiosity.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

March: Book One

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 March: Book One (Top Shelf, 2013).

Wow. What an excellent heartpunch of a book this is. Georgia Congressman John Lewis has teamed up with co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell (whose Swallow Me Whole I have been intending to read for years) to tell his story of the civil rights movement in comic form. I have certainly read of Lewis's role among many sitting down at lunch counters in Nashville department stores, suffering taunting and abuse while awaiting service. I've read about the beatings he received a few years later on the Selma-Montgomery March. I've never taken the time to read his own words before, despite his authoring at least two memoirs prior to this. Should've done that.

The first book of March - three are planned - takes Lewis's story from his childhood in rural southeast Alabama into his college days at Fisk University. Lewis became the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, inspired by hearing Dr. King on the radio. This first segment of the story ends on the promising note of Nashville's mayor making a public statement in support of desegregation, but readers are aware all through the book that this story is far from over, and it's going to get really ugly before it gets better.

Powell, it must be said, draws the absolute hell out of this book. I had no idea that I would like this artist's work so much. It's just a beautiful grayscale wash, dense with detail. Powell and Aydin have paced this story astonishingly well. It's just a masterclass in using the form effectively. Lewis's story is already both painful and incredibly inspiring; seeing the faces of the uncaring, unthinking thugs who stood in the way of social progress fifty years ago gives the narrative an almost impossible-to-bear extra weight. It's honestly and simply such a remarkable telling of the tale that it left me in tears. Anxiously awaiting the second volume, this is highly recommended.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Banzai Battalion: Just Another Bug Hunt!

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 Banzai Battalion: Just Another Bug Hunt! (Rebellion / Simon & Schuster, 2014).

I haven't checked in with the world of 2000 AD in far too long a time. I'm glad to see that the venerable comic's association with American publisher Simon & Schuster is still going strong, and that they're releasing good collections aimed at this market. One of the most recent is the 160-page complete collection of John Wagner's Banzai Battalion. This reprints every one of the characters' appearances, along with a few somewhat similar Judge Dredd episodes - similar in that they also feature robots - by many of the same creators.

The cover of this collection, originally used for their second story in March of 2000, features a wonderfully old-fashioned composition by Cliff Robinson which evokes any number of 1980s IPC comics. The little gunmen are the action figure-sized heroes of Banzai Battalion, who had two run-ins with Judge Dredd. They are actually semi-sentient pest control droids who keep finding themselves thrown into situations where human criminals become the pests they need to stamp out

A strip like Dredd requires an astonishing number of new concepts and new scenarios thrown at it every week, and every so often the new supporting players take on a life of their own. Wagner and Henry Flint crafted the Battalion's first appearance in 1999, giving the little robots the over-the-top personalities of older war comic heroes. Captain Bug Stomper - "He's a legend in pest control!," people keep telling us - tries to do things by the book, until his men persuade him to charge into glory for the greater good.

A year later, they returned in another Dredd story, this time drawn by the amazing Cam Kennedy. Since their human owners died during one of the Dredd world's occasional catastrophes, and since they keep making themselves useful, the droids are sent by Dredd to join Justice Department in some capacity, but when they reappeared in their own series in 2001, they had to take the initiative to strike out on their own.

Now drawn, brilliantly, by Ian Gibson, the resulting story is a very silly, over-the-top homage to old war comics, with the blustery, true-blue Captain Bug Stomper leading his troops on an expedition through Mega-City One that leads them to a wonderful new garden in which to fight insects. The garden, introduced more than fifteen years previously in a memorable Dredd adventure, becomes the battleground for rival teams of robots and a cute parody of another old comic character, IPC's General Jumbo. As leads, Stomper and the team were kind of limited, and their appearances run to a total of only 19 episodes, but they're clever and hilarious. The artwork is consistently first-rate, and I love the masterful way that Wagner mixes both knowing parodies and old continuity. Neither is essential for following the adventures, but they are mind-blowing little Easter eggs for old fans.

There are many things to love about the Judge Dredd universe, and one of them is the way that the series can wear different hats and be an action strip one week, a grim drama the next, and detective fiction the next. For readers who enjoy the bonkers, oddball comedy of the future, then this is a terrific book, certain to leave you laughing aloud and very impressed with Wagner's skill at making this weird, wild world work. Highly recommended.

A PDF 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.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


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 Swamplandia! (Knopf, 2011).

Damn and blast, I wanted to love this book. It just stabbed me in the back, though. It really hurt.

In her debut novel, Karen Russell introduced us to the Bigtree family, the stars of a dingy amusement park called Swamplandia!, somewhere in murky southwest Florida. It's a relic of old tourist traps, a family whose father styles himself as a stereotypical '60s Indian - headdress, "Chief," heap big gift shop for the mainlanders to buy postcards and T-shirts - and whose mother wrestles alligators in a swimming pool twice daily. Then mom dies of cancer and grandpa needs to move to a nursing home and the crowds stop coming and a new attraction with a great big slide and wave pool opens up. The bills are coming due and so the Chief heads to the mainland on a "business trip," leaving his three kids to fend for themselves.

The son, Kiwi, beats a path to the competing theme park to get a job there and help pay the family debt. Unfortunately, with so little interaction with other teens, he's a target for teasing and abuse, and lacks an understanding of how money really works. Middle sister Osceola falls in love with what she explains is the ghost of young man who died while working for a dredge ship about seventy years ago and vanishes, set to marry him. Eleven year-old Ava, the heroine of the story, who narrates alternating chapters, sets out for the Underworld to rescue her. She leaves in the company of a Bird Man, an oddball itinerant who seems to be able to convince buzzards to leave various places and then demands payment.

I've said that I love Flannery O'Connor, and I do, but there was a dark and horrible undercurrent to many of her stories. Somehow, I'm able to skim the eccentric and silly surface of things and overlook what I don't like. Swamplandia! sparked controversy that just won't end, not just for the child rape, but that the rape is unreported and unpunished. Worse still was the growing, sickening feeling, for pages and pages, that you know what's coming and are hoping for some way around it. It genuinely left me nauseated, and I finished the book searching for retribution that never came. All the eccentricity and fun in the world couldn't overcome my compulsion to vomit. Not at all recommended.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Pogo: Prisoner of Love

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 Pogo: Prisoner of Love (Simon & Schuster, 1969).

I've always liked the fact that a comic strip as beautiful as Pogo existed more than I liked reading it. Take a look at the funny pages today. Not one of them is as well-drawn as Pogo. Nobody is able to match Walt Kelly's beautiful linework. Even if newspaper designers were giving strips the space today that they did fifty years ago, you wouldn't see such gorgeous art.

We found a first printing of this 1969 collection for a quarter recently. You haven't bought anything this good for a quarter since you were five years old. I think that it reprints a nearly complete set of daily strips from late January through August, 1968. A few panels were truncated for space reasons, and the Sundays, which I believe told a different continuity, are not included. Fantagraphics has been releasing nice annual hardback archives of the strip, each of which compile about two years of story. So I guess that in 2021 or so, we'll be able to compare the two and see how much was excised.

Having said that, I've honestly never before enjoyed Pogo as much as I did reading this. No matter how much I love Kelly's art, and no matter how much the wordplay and the puns make me chuckle, every time I've tried to read some of this stuff, I've been put off by the characters. I just can't tell any of them apart. There seems to be about fifteen innocent, kindhearted good guys who get a little confused over the modern world's complexities, and about fifteen mischievous ne'er-do-wells who take advantage of them. None are distinctive enough for me to embrace; the alligator and the hound dog could have swapped places in the story and I wouldn't have noticed.

The rambling storyline hangs together on gossamer-thin lines, but it's so darn cute, and punctuated by so much sweet silliness, that I smiled all the way through it. Some of the swamp's residents decide that the Okeefenokee should secede from the country, or at least suppose in innocent agreement to other characters' more rascally suggestions that it's an idea worth considering. The mole, the bobcat, and the muskrat engineer some of this before getting distracted on a search for hidden treasure, leaving the other characters to debate positions in their new government and the tone of a new national anthem. Pogo is propped up as the least objectionable president - and, by the baddies, the easiest to manipulate - which leaves the swamp's ladyfolk in a lengthy tussle as to who will become the First Lady. In the end, the lovely and innocent flirting between Pogo and the skunk, Ma'm'selle Hepzibah, has an incredibly sweet little hands-holding payoff. If you can read it without a big, dumb grin, then something is downright wrong with you.

Despite my own stumbles and bellyaching, Pogo was a terrific strip, and whenever you find one of these books, you should snatch it up. I probably should start getting those Fantagraphics collections of the 1950s stuff, shouldn't I? The one with the Joe McCarthy character is coming out in August. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


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 Steelheart (Delacorte, 2013).

What a dreary book this is. Yet another in the endless line of barely different dystopian fantasy novels for middle and high school students, this one's about a sixteen year-old who has to save the planet from the supervillains, here termed "Epics," who have destroyed America.

Things were looking bad for the tiny blue planet a decade ago, and then things got worse. Our hero's father succeeded in wounding one of the most powerful villains, an otherwise indestructible thug called Steelheart, and he retaliated by killing anybody who might have witnessed it before going on to wipe out the government and install himself as the emperor of what used to be Chicago. Steelheart didn't know that the then six year-old son was there and escaped the carnage; he's spent the last ten years learning everything he can about the small army of villains, hoping to meet the guerrilla force of rebels who've had limited success killing the low-powered members of their number.

It's bleak but it's also remarkably boring. More than half could have been carved out with no ill effects on this book, though I concede that publishers really only seem to want these things in threes, at least, and so it's possible that much of the long game leading up to a final confrontation with Steelheart might be setting up events for David and the supporting cast in subsequent stories. What is here, however, is just plain dull, a longwinded take on a premise that was done better in The Ten-Seconders for 2000 AD. To be honest, I got a little fed up with that as well. Not recommended.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

You're Not You

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 You're Not You (Thomas Dunne, 2006).

I was thinking, as I read Michelle Wildgen's debut novel You're Not You, that any movie version simply couldn't quite have the same power as the novel, because one of the principal characters can only speak in a whisper. She's in her late thirties, wheelchair-bound and nearly paralyzed from ALS, and barely able to talk anymore. I bet lots of actors would relish such a challenge, but doubted any production company would want to have a major part in a movie for somebody who couldn't move and who the other characters would have to translate for other players in all her scenes. Then I finished the book and read that a film adaptation has already wrapped, with Hilary Swank, no stranger to really challenging roles, as the doomed Kate. Well, never mind me. Good casting, that.

Emmy Rossum has been cast as the other lead, a junior at the University of Wisconsin who's been drifting through life and beer and an ill-advised affair with a married man, and takes a job as a part-time caretaker for Kate. She sort of knows going in that this job won't last for very long, and even if she's brilliant with her work, it will likely close within a couple of years with Kate's death. But just because Kate hasn't much time left doesn't mean that her life won't be full of upheavals and heartbreak and cooking. Lots of cooking. This book will make you very hungry.

The sensory experience of this book can be overwhelming. Wildgen, whose new novel Bread & Butter is on my to-read list, just packs in the smells and the tastes and the touches of everything. It's very frank and honest about Kate's desire for the flavors of food and for sex and for company and for trips to the farmers' market. It's also frank about Bec's paycheck-to-paycheck existence and her fun with friends. I was left more than a little cold by Bec's parents, who seem too by-the-plot antagonistic to be real people, but the rest of the book was warm and welcoming and every inevitable, telegraphed plot beat, from the theft of Bec's car stereo to Kate's death, still hurt like the devil when they came. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Blood Will Out

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 Blood Will Out (Liveright, 2014).

Friends and co-workers are often asking me what I'm reading. This book, everybody, close to a dozen people, replied something like "Oh, THAT! Yes, I've heard about that!" The case was so weird that it has captured lots of people's imaginations.

It's the story of a fellow born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in Germany, but who decided he'd rather be The Sociopathic Mister Ripley, basically. When our hero, novelist and crime writer Walter Kern, met him in the late '90s, he was in the early days of his lengthy cover identity of "Clark Rockerfeller," paying what turned out to be a princely $500 for Kern to transport an incontinent, wheelchair-bound dog halfway across the country to him. Kern thought the guy was fascinating and odd enough to stick around, reasoning that inspiration for novels is a good reason for keeping eccentrics in your orbit. But over time, he figured out that there's not a very thick line between "eccentric oddball" and "honkin' great liar."

As the years went on and their friendship deepened, "Clark Rockerfeller" and his story started developing holes, and previously-believed long-dead relations got resurrected for new, casual anecdotes, his phony life of art treasures, social clubs, and celebrity pals started falling apart. In the end, Clark got himself on the news when he attempted to abduct his daughter from his estranged wife and spirit her off to South America, leading a spokesperson for the Rockerfeller family to flatly deny any link between this fellow on the news and any actual Rockerfellers.

Then it turns out he's wanted in connection with a grisly murder in California in the mid-80s...

I hugely enjoyed reading this book. It's a well-crafted, intricate study of lies and identity, of creating illusions and maintaining them. Since I didn't know much about the case and the trial of "Rockerfeller," I was surprised by each new revelation - Hitchcock and Star Trek come into the story more than I was expecting - but even if I had followed it on the tabloid news, there would have been so much here I couldn't have guessed about. It's a really fascinating, weird, and compelling story, and comes highly recommended.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Damned Busters

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 Damned Busters (Angry Robot, 2011).

Here's a book that's just downright odd. I certainly enjoyed it, but it surprised me at every turn with its playfulness, and its inventiveness. As the cute illustration on the front cover reveals, it's about a fellow who gains super powers through a deal with the devil, and sets off to save his city with the help of a cigar-chomping demon. But getting to that point is a really fun ride.

It turns out that our hero - a not very-social actuary named Chesney Ansruther - had no intention of summoning nether forces, and no intention of entering into a contract with any of them. His intransigence causes a growing labor movement in the bowels of Hell to flex its muscles, and Hell goes on strike. Soon, Satan himself is sitting down at the bargaining table with a TV preacher to negotiate terms for wickedness to thrive once again.

Honestly, while the whole book was entertaining, it was the first quarter - the first hundred pages - that tickled me the most. All the business of Hell's labor problems really is funny, and while writer Matthew Hughes finds a good angle for the superhero stuff - a battle against the rules of a very generous contract with the underworld - it's not quite as imaginative or silly as the long setup. Eventually, the story is revealed to be much more about good and evil and angels and devils than costumed shenanigans - the whole book is a setup for two more in a trilogy - and it closes satisfying, if not completely thrilling. A mild recommendation.