Thursday, February 27, 2014

What's So Funny?

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of What's So Funny? (Mysterious Press, 2007).

I'm broken-hearted that I will be saying goodbye to John Dortmunder in just a couple of weeks. I had meant to read Donald E. Westlake's Parker novels for years and years, finally got hold of and absorbed about nine of them, and then figured I'd give his other series of caper novels a try since I enjoyed his writing so much. To my considerable surprise, I have enjoyed Dortmunder's crimes and comedy even more than I did Parker's stories. What's So Funny? was the next-to-last in the series of fourteen. Only one more to go! *sob*

There is a sense of formula in the series, and some tropes that come up again and again as it progresses, and one reason that What's So Funny? is so striking is that Westlake really upended the structure and format. In this adventure, Dortmunder has been blackmailed by a former cop, now a PI, into assisting with the theft of a very old family heirloom. In 1917 - bizarrely, the back cover of the UK edition that I read claims it was 1944 - a company of American soldiers heisted a huge, jewel-encrusted chess set from Russia, only to have the sergeant betray his men and keep all the goods for himself. Decades later, the set has found its way into an impregnable high-security vault as the fractured, filthy rich family sues each other over it.

Astonishingly, there's a weird turn of events and, halfway through the book, the wealthy grandfather who has endorsed work to begin on the burglary abruptly calls it off. The blackmail is to stop, Dortmunder, who saw this as an impossible crime not worth trying in the first place, is to go about his own way. Bygones are mostly agreed to be bygones, and everybody goes back to their old ways.

And then, months later, a very curious second chance emerges. Somebody figures out a way to bring that chess set up for inspection. One of those pieces, documentation shows, is a phony. This isn't a case of Westlake writing himself into a corner. He plants seeds all in the beginning of this book that take many, many weeks and months to grow. This isn't among the funniest Dortmunder stories, although an incident with an armored van that was a little larger than planned had me in stitches, but it's among the most clever. The structure of this book is downright amazing. Darn near every word has a payoff elsewhere in the story. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ulysses Sweet: Centred

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 Ulysses Sweet: "Centred" (Rebellion, 2014).

As problems go, then if one must have a problem, the Galaxy's Greatest Comic, 2000 AD doesn't have a bad one. For the umpteenth time in recent memory, one of their strips is flying completely under the radar while something else is picking up all the (justified) hype and acclaim. In this case, everybody is talking about a terrific Judge Dredd storyline by Rob Williams and Henry Flint called "Titan," and nobody is really noticing this incredibly odd and gleefully ridiculous work of the old ultraviolence about a "maniac for hire" named Ulysses Sweet.

Sweet was a throwaway character created by Grant Morrison in 1987. He appeared in two stories over the course of three weeks and was retired. I find it really odd, and, to be honest, slightly eyebrow-raising that 2000 AD decided to resurrect this IP after decades in mothballs, and not long after they finally reprinted the writer's long out-of-print and copyright-controversial Zenith. It feels like, after years of impasse, they finally decided to see who was going to blink. Thus far, Morrison has made no legal challenge to 2000 AD's publisher, Rebellion, revisiting his work. Fingers remain crossed.

I mention this because resurrecting Sweet instead of just creating a new character is something new for Rebellion. 2000 AD has not assigned a new creative team to somebody else's character since the late 1990s, and, then, it was often done almost haphazardly, with mixed results and occasional ill will among writers and artists. As a longtime fan and critic of the comic, I was very apprehensive about this move, but Sweet's new creative team - newcomer Guy Adams and veteran artist Paul Marshall - won me over pretty quickly. Their work is just too fun and too silly to get weighed down in troubles.

In 1987, Ulysses Sweet felt like a parody of Steve Moore's outer space tough guys like Abslom Daak and Axel Pressbutton. Now that Adams has actually given him some backstory, we see that he is typically employed as a blunt-object assassin or thug or anybody who will do when muscle is needed without brains. Somehow, he got the frankly ridiculous assignment to serve as a bodyguard, not for some dangerous supervillain or galactic conqueror, but a pop star who had aspirations of taking some time off at a spiritual healing planet.

Comedy series in 2000 AD are often divisive - there are actually people, living, breathing, thinking people, who did not enjoy The Balls Brothers, madly - and reaction to Ulysses Sweet has been very, very mixed. But I thought it was a breath of fresh air. Unlike many of the book's recent inventory of series, this wasn't bogged down with continuity or subplots, and was miles and miles from being serious. This was just a gleefully violent, meanspirited comedy that worked really well for the most part. I think it was perhaps a bit longer than it needed to be, and hopefully, if Adams and Marshall have any more Sweet stories to tell, they'll be shorter and punchier. Flawed, and not for everybody, but a mild recommendation all the same.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Our Picnics in the Sun

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 Our Picnics in the Sun (Delacorte, 2013).

My to-read pile is very nearly unmanageable, and so, for a few months, I've curbed my fun experiment in trying some modern literature sight-unseen. For readers who missed it, I decided to order whatever novel got a featured review in Entertainment Weekly, and read an earlier book by that author while waiting for it, with no background and no idea what to expect. This resulted in some disappointments, but some great times over the last year.

While waiting for Our Picnics in the Sun, I read a previous novel by Morag Joss, Among the Missing. I enjoyed it tremendously, until the rushed and confusing mammoth disappointment of the ending left me wanting to throw the darn thing out the car window. Ahem. So I did not come to Our Picnics in the Sun with a swelling sense of optimism, and it took a very long time for this bleak and depressing story to win me over. Happily, it did.

The story concerns an aging couple, Howard and Deborah, who eke out an existence living off the land and running a barely-ever-open bed and breakfast in the middle of nowhere, Scotland. Howard suffered a stroke not long before our story opens and has made little progress in recovering. They were doing home repairs when it happened, and both fell from a ladder; Deborah's injury to her shoulder has not healed correctly. Their son, in his late twenties, is a high-flying financial whiz and rarely sees them. This is a depressing story, especially as Deborah foolishly convinces herself that Alec is coming home for his birthday, and their annual, pathetic picnic on the moor. No reader will be surprised, after following the back-and-forth email exchange, when he doesn't make it back. Deborah is so desperate to see him again that she doesn't read between the lines well at all.

On the night that their son was expected, two men arrive, demanding a room and board for the night, and everything changes in their sad life. One of the two remains behind, a shadowy figure who is alternately very helpful to Deborah and impatient and cruel to Howard, whose occasional perspective on his difficulty and inability to make himself understood is beautifully written. The narrative voice changes regularly through the book, from Deborah's narration to the emails to two different objective voices, one explaining the world through Howard's eyes and another flashing back to some of their son's previous birthdays.

These flashbacks show Howard and Deborah in such a poor light that, even though the man has had a stroke and is mostly an invalid, I found myself completely losing sympathy for the couple. The man was a lunatic, and when his son ran away, it was just so he could desperately try to enjoy a normal childhood and attend school. When he destroyed his eight year-old son's birthday gift (a "violent" toy from one of those '80s GI Joe knockoffs, MASK), I wanted to reach into the book and punch him. And geez, his idiot belief in the "life" of bread...

So it is a rough read, a depressing situation with parents who are revealed to be downright awful. If you need a sympathetic protagonist, I wouldn't recommend it. But it evolves into a taut psychological suspense study, with their new tenant manipulating the situation and Deborah reacting to his presence in profoundly unpredictable ways. It becomes creepy and chilling and really got under my skin, and I did not see the revelations of the end coming at all. Morag Joss still had a little trouble with the abrupt climax leaving me with a question or two, but, in an absolute work of genius, a fantastic little postscript from some psychology paper drives one nebulous point home with the force of a railroad spike. Overall, I love it, despite the very rough ride getting through the first half-and-more. I can't recommend it without some reservation, but it worked for me in the end.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Murder in the Ball Park

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 Murder in the Ball Park (The Mysterious Press, 2014).

While enjoying a Giants-Dodgers game at Polo Field in 1950, our hero Archie Goodwin and his longtime friend and fellow detective Saul Panzer witness the murder of a state senator. They leave before they get pulled into a police investigation, but after a few days, the widow hires Archie's boss, the grouchy genius Nero Wolfe, to look into the killing. Business as usual at the old brownstone, in other words.

Robert Goldsborough has been writing Nero Wolfe adventures off and on since the mid-1980s. This is the ninth, and the second since a long hiatus. Like its predecessor, which let me down greatly with its tame adherence to the structure of the books, it's a period piece. This is the first time that any of Goldsborough's books have been set within the long timeline of Rex Stout's original series - all the others were set after or prior to Stout's corpus. You could probably place it not long after Wolfe's final confrontation with his recurring enemy Arnold Zeck.

2012's Archie Meets Nero Wolfe failed for me because I wished to see the characters outside of both the confines of the traditional Wolfe narrative, and of the ironclad rules of Wolfe's precisely-maintained household routine. Setting this story when Goldsborough did deflates those desires. A book set around the time of Prisoner's Base should absolutely feel like a book written around that time, and Goldsborough does his usual expected research and brings the period and the tone to life quite well.

The story is familiar and the beats are predictable, but that's perfectly fine for what this book is. It's revisiting old friends in a comfortable setting. After a stumble in the opening chapter - Saul and Archie, noticing the senator in attendance at the game, discuss without subtlety the man, his relationships, and a controversial road project as if to assure the readers that the man is about to be killed and to stay tuned for other important clues to come - the author captures the voices of the regular characters really flawlessly, adding several amusing new players for Archie to bounce off. The mystery is fun, confusing, and pleasantly satisfying. Not without its flaws, but not without considerable charm, either. Recommended with a smile.

(After some years out of print, The Mysterious Press has obtained the rights to Goldsborough's first seven Wolfe novels and reissued them in dress to match their two new books. Kudos to them for a job well done. They look superb.)

An advance NetGalley copy of this book was provided by the publicist 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, February 6, 2014

The Golem and the Jinni

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 Golem and the Jinni (Harper, 2013).

While it's admittedly a little flawed - there's an awfully convenient revelation about the antagonist that let me down - Helene Wecker's first novel, The Golem and the Jinni, is a wonderful read. It's a book full of magic and life and surprises. I only dip into the fantasy genre rarely and with skepticism, but this book won me over completely.

It is set in New York City in 1899-1900, and two supernatural beings have been brought to the city. A golem, created to be the curious wife of a wealthy merchant, is awakened en route to America by her master and husband, who does not survive the voyage. A jinni, given human form and imprisoned centuries before, is released from his bottle. They are confused and overwhelmed by their new surroundings, but each finds a sympathetic friend - in the nameless golem's case, a kind, aging rabbi who names her Chava - and begins to become used to their new life. Eventually, they have a meet cute and learn that their destinies are intertwined.

I loved this book to pieces. Wecker completely succeeded in building a vibrant and exciting world around her characters, and a detailed cast of great supporting players. It helped a little that I'd just finished a novel by Steve Stern that is partially set around this time and place (see the previous post), but I was completely caught up in the setting and the characters. I enjoyed this almost completely, and recommend it with a smile.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Frozen Rabbi

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 Frozen Rabbi (Algonquin, 2010).

I saw this novel by Steve Stern on the shelf and knew that I had to give it a try. It's not a breezy read, and it seems oddly dense in places, so it took me a little longer than usual to finish. I enjoyed it, mostly, until its bizarre and unpleasant finale.

In a novel that kept a more serious tone, the risible conclusion would have really stung, but Stern's story is so much of a weird, good-natured romp that it doesn't come off as shocking as it might. It's the century-plus long saga of Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr, who, somewhere back in the old country in the 1890s, slid down a hill, unconscious, while enjoying an out-of-body experience (as you do), drowned, and was frozen in a lake. When he's later chiseled into a big block by industrious lads carving ice for food storage, he becomes a nearly-sacred relic, and the valuable property of a family who pass the burden along down the generations for protection and good fortune and loyalty.

I really enjoyed Stern's popping back and forth between the late nineties, when the rabbi gets thawed out, comes back to life, and finds his way into a nascent career as a highly successful Yiddish version of a Bakker/Falwell-televangelist, only drawing the ire of most of his peers in the modern community by trumpeting the pleasures of the flesh, and the long and bizarre journey of his keepers from eastern Europe to the slums of New York to Memphis, where he spent the last several years in a big deep freezer underneath stocks of beef liver and turkey. It's a romp, although not a particularly playful one, and while it's occasionally charming and silly, it's often dark and sad as well. The balancing act doesn't always work, and I really hated the ending. Recommended with big reservations.