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.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Burgess Boys

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 Burgess Boys (Random House, 2013).

There is so much travel between Brooklyn and Maine in this novel, and the characters are so warm and appealing, that I found myself wanting to check in with Jim Burgess, the dashing and reckless big brother of the family, to make sure he got home safely. You know that you've read a special book when you're worried about the characters doing something as dangerous as, you know, going home.

Elizabeth Strout, who won the Pulitzer in 2009 for a short story collection, wrote this novel that seems to be set in the same universe as the world of that book, Olive Kitteridge. There are clues in the prologue, including a blink-and-you'll-miss-it confirmation of what you'll hope will become of the town's disorganized minister, that it's the same people, I think.

This time, our barely-glimpsed narrator is telling the story of the disintegrating, unfortunate Burgess family. Jim is a hotshot attorney hitting the wall of a midlife crisis, younger brother Bob is a kind legal aid attorney who puts up with Jim's awfulness way more than he should, and Bob's twin sister Susan stayed home in a small Maine community, Shirley Falls, to raise a lonely teenage son by herself. The family is upended when the son plays a stupid prank against some of the town's Muslim immigrants, several dozen refugees from Somalia. The legal stakes escalate as the government wants the new population to feel safe, and it looks like the poor, dumb kid is going to be made an example of...

I did have some initial confusion, since there are quite a few characters introduced in a short period, but that passed. I loved that sense that something is not quite right with Jim and Helen's marriage but not being able to pinpoint it. I really liked bighearted Bob - I pictured Beau Bridges in the role - who just struck me as an incredibly decent person trying to rein in way too much of the sadness, the worry, and the slow grind of the legal system. It's a book where the plot is nowhere as important as the character development, and these characters develop in ways you will never expect. Recommended.

Saturday, March 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 Joyland (Titan / Hard Case Crime, 2013).

A funny thing happened - well, I think it's funny - that led me to pick up this recent short novel by Stephen King. It's really short, by King standards, under 300 pages. See, I'd read that he had written a work of pure detective fiction, without any supernatural or paranormal elements. He has, only it's not out yet. It's called Mr. Mercedes and will be released in a couple of months. I misunderstood and thought that the book had already been released, figured Joyland was the only recent suspect, and then got aggravated when people at an aging amusement park in eastern North Carolina started talking about a ghost.

The hero of this book is a young college student who doesn't see the signs that he's about to get dumped until it's too late. It's the early 1970s, and he's staying in a boarding house while working an offbeat summer job at an old, somewhat seedy amusement park, sweating buckets inside the costume of a great big shaggy dog mascot. (Incidentally, I can believe every word that King uses in his hilariously detailed and vivid descriptions of the workout one gets wearing one of those fursuits in the summer heat. My kids and I were at Six Flags Over Georgia once when Speedy Gonzales collapsed from the heat and was carted off in a wheelchair.)

While working, Devin learns about a recent mystery that's captured the attention of the locals. A young lady was brutally murdered while visiting the park a couple of seasons ago. Some of the longtime employees believe that the park is haunted. Maybe if Devin and his friends do a little investigating of their own, they can solve the mystery and let the spirit rest in peace?

Yeah, I know. It's the early '70s and some twentysomething kids are solving a ghost story at an amusement park. But while this could have been a pastiche of Scooby Doo - right down to "Fred" and "Daphne" stand-ins hooking up! - this proves to be a very clever coming-of-age memoir, more concerned about researching the path of a serial killer than being light-hearted and jokey. I was really impressed by how well King captured everything from the look of the park to the utter misery of first heartbreak. I have not read King in many years; if his recent material is anywhere as good as this, then there are quite a few books that I need to sample. Recommended.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

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 Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Quirk, 2012).

I could be wrong, but color me a little skeptical about Ransom Riggs and the backstory behind his two adventures of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children. The notion here is that Riggs and his friends have collected many hundreds of old photographs, found some which are inexplicable and odd, and written a story around them. Some of the peculiar children in the old pictures have become the Peculiar Children - think the X-Men, only not as powerful, and stuck in a time loop in the 1940s - and they're the heroes in a long and difficult adventure.

I'm just a little skeptical, that's all. I fell for Mark Helfrich's Naked Pictures of My Ex-Girlfriends a dozen years ago and I'm just a little cynical when it comes to old photographs.

On the other hand, the contortions necessary to build a story around some of these oddball pictures almost - almost - sway me, because nobody would willingly create such difficulties and contortions for themselves, would they? But on the other hand, the story itself probably would have been very contorted even without any pictures. To its credit, the baffling questions sparked by the death of our hero's grandfather, and his old, secret life, keep the story sparkling with mysteries and puzzles. I enjoyed the first half of the book tremendously, but the explanations really did weigh everything down. This is a problem with many of today's YA novels, especially those with a little Harry Potter in their DNA. These books with very large casts and a bunch of distinct groups - Gryffindor, Erudite, District 12, Volturi - get really wrapped up in the rules of their world-building. This, with all of its structure about loops, ymbrynes, and hollowgasts, is quite amazingly tedious.

The book recovers from its rule-stumble, but never really takes off. Unsurprisingly, our human protagonist turns out to be Peculiar as well, and he meets the rest of the cast right before they get into a big battle with powerful enemies, having a massive crisis that could change history. It starts as something odd and new and unpredictable, but it doesn't end up telling a story all that radically different from anything else in its genre. It does what it does pretty well, it's just that what it does is something that many other authors have already done. Recommended with reservations.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The End of the City

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 End of the City (Pink Fish, 2013).

Challenging and welcoming at the same time, David Bendernagl's debut novel, The End of the City, was honestly not an easy read for me at first. It took me several chapters to embrace it, but around the time that a lead character, a high school senior named Ben Moor, crosses paths with a gorgeous face from his past, I was completely absorbed in the dense descriptions, the use of popular culture to define everything in terms that the characters will understand, and the very odd alternating chapters about a super-assassin with a dangerous mission and powerful obstacles.

It has the opportunity to indulge and show off such remarkably vivid detail because it's so darn dense. It took me about forty pages to get caught up with the writer's style, because the alternating chapters really did a number on my expectations and notions. The strange story of the criminal assassin - seeming, early on, as a harmless fantasy into which Ben regularly drifts - is very heavy on plot and character-building by way of a tough-guy monologue. But while quite a lot happens there, very little, by comparison, seems to take place in Ben's high school in the DC suburbs. But it is told so beautifully, and with such color and description, that it sucked me in completely. Then, as the walls between the two stories begin to crumble, I was very alert to what would happen next.

I'm almost certain that I missed the first occurrence of this, but the walls in this novel don't just crumble in one direction. I am not as close a reader as I should be, which occasionally means that repeat readings can reveal brilliant surprises. I'm two-thirds of the way through Special Topics in Calamity Physics for the second time and smiling ear to ear at all the foreshadowing that I missed. But anyway, there's a great surprise when the super-assassin lets on that this isn't simply a story about a teen fantasizing about a more interesting life. If that doesn't make you sit up and pay attention, you must not enjoy reading very much.

I found myself wondering about the truth of the narrative, waiting for a floor-level collapse along with the walls. How much should we / Ben trust this girl from his past? Is her name - shared with a member of the X-Men - a coincidence, does it play into the pop culture-heavy story, or is it a prediction? It's great fun, and this comes happily recommended for people interested in denser reads that don't follow convention.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Turn Around Bright Eyes

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 Turn Around Bright Eyes (It, 2013).

I really enjoyed one of Rob Sheffield's earlier books, Love is a Mix Tape. I like the style of his books, which blend memoir drenched in music with biographical essays about the business. Somehow he turns the very disparate parts into a cohesive story that makes sense, encourages you to laugh, and occasionally breaks your heart. From time to time, his taste in tunes makes me raise an eyebrow, but he always delivers the payoff.

So, if you've been following Sheffield's stories through magazines and articles, or from his previous books, you'll deduce that this story will be set a few years after his first wife's tragic, early death. So, now a widower in New York City, he starts looking for a social life again, and finds that karaoke, of all things, makes him happier than just about anything else, and gives him a great experience to share when he eventually falls in love again. My own experience with karaoke is all wrapped around a girl as well. The difference is that I never really enjoyed it all that much, have an even worse singing voice than Sheffield, and quit doing it after we split up. I might have done a mean version of "The Look of Love" by ABC before the end, mind.

Other topics in the book include a story about a rock 'n roll fantasy camp, featuring a cameo appearance by Micky Dolenz or somebody, and the stranger-than-you-think career of Rod Stewart. I admire the way that Sheffield makes these magazine stories (unpublished, in the case of the camp) seem like part of the narrative of his love story. It's a heck of a good tale, and it keeps me wanting to read more and more from him as we await some new memoir down the line. The happiness and optimism that fills this book keeps it from being the heartbreaker that Mix Tape was, but I like shiny, happy songs as well. Recommended.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Bojeffries Saga

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 Bojeffries Saga (Top Shelf, 2014).

If you'd like some evidence why some of us who love the comic medium have the greatest respect for Alan Moore, then Top Shelf has just the book for you. It's a collection of The Bojeffries Saga, a deeply oddball little comic that he wrote and which was illustrated by the downright brilliant Steve Parkhouse. Scattered here and there in these comedy stories are some of the best, funniest, most downright clever one-two punches in the business.

Take "A Quiet Christmas with the Family," which was originally published in the anthology magazine A1 in 1990. It looks for all the world like Moore just found a great throwaway gag for a single panel while the rest of the story chugged along. The family son gets a Christmas present which nobody would want and finds unexpected joy and pleasure in it. The ridiculous gift, and his reaction, are very funny. I've read this I-don't-know-how-many times and always got a huge smile, it's so silly. And then, two pages later, bam!, the gag gets a second, totally unexpected bonus punch line in an additional throwaway panel. Moore does this frequently - in a masterful short story called "Chronocops" that appeared in 2000 AD, he did it something like thirteen times in five pages - but he camouflages his structure so well that even when I've read a story repeatedly, I still don't see it coming and laugh like a hyena.

The Bojeffries Saga has always surprised readers who see that title and find something different. This "saga" isn't a twelve-book epic, some lost magnum opus by our man from Northampton. It's a collection of nine short stories, coming to under one hundred pages, about the misadventures of a really weird family who have lived for decades in a council estate. There's a quiet mad scientist, his two teenage kids, a werewolf uncle and a vampire uncle, a grandfather who is a violent blob of protoplasm, and a radiation-emitting baby. Their house has time and space warps scattered around the place, and none of the Bojeffries clan really has much understanding of any kind of social sense, or, as the violent and hideous Ginda demonstrates as she looks for a mate one evening, biological sense.

It's howlingly funny, every bit as clever and downright wonderful as some of Moore's other comedy series like D.R. & Quinch and Jack B. Quick, neither of which have particularly deep page counts either. Top Shelf's new edition reprints all of the previous stories along with a sparkling, brand new 24-page tale, the first new Bojeffries escapade in twenty years. The reproduction is flawless and it's priced just right, which is lovely since a previous edition from the early nineties regularly goes for three figures these days. If you enjoy comics, and if you enjoy laughing, then you need this book. Highly recommended.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.