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.