Tuesday, February 17, 2009

February's Book

The Bookman's Wake by John Dunning

I had read Dunning's first book about Denver policeman turned bookseller Cliff Janeway some time ago and enjoyed it but never thought too much about it afterward. I was surprised to find that Dunning has actually written a few more books with Janeway so I took the second book out of the library on Thursday and had finished it by Monday night.

Not that I mean to imply that the book isn't worthy of reading but rather that I was swept along with the plot and had to know what would happen next. I don't experience that sort of feeling very often in reading so it was a pleasant surprise.

This mystery begins with Janeway working away in his small book shop when he is visited by an old, and not particularly fond, acquaintance from his police days. Despite his better judgement, Janeway accepts an assignment to pick up a woman who ran off on a Breaking & Entering and Burglery charge to Seattle and bring her back for trial. When Janeway finds the girl, it becomes more than just a job when she turns out to be an excellent bookscout who may have stolen an elusive rare book done by a small press publisher which has skyrocketed in value. What happens after is a whirlwind of books, limited press publishing and murder.

Throughout the book, Dunning had me flush with excitement. His style is short and crisp and, in more than a few spots, evoked feelings of the tough, private-eye style of Spillane or Hammett. The style works for me but I can see where it might be at odds with someone who expected a gentler type of story based on rare book finding and selling. The plot revolves around the famous Grayson Press which Dunning describes with such detail and accuracy that I became half convinced that it had been a real press and I should Google it! Dunning's own personal experience in the rare book trade does him good stead here as it enables him to create not only the aura of the press but the mania of those who collect it.

If I were to find fault with this novel it would mostly be with the difficulty in keeping all of the details and relationships straight. This is compounded by the fact that many of these things happened to people who had been dead for several decades by the time the book takes place and who only appear through stories told by other characters. I found it hard remembering who one woman was as opposed to others mentioned which was not a good thing as that woman turned out to be a crucial part of the solution of the murders.

It is the disparity between the worlds of the policeman and the bookseller that makes Dunning's novels work. The seeming polar opposite lifestyles is immediately intriguing to the reader particularly as Janeway never seems able to leave his cop world behind. Book lovers will enjoy this novel for the intimate recreation of the life of a bookhound including the thrill of the sudden, amazing discovery of unknown material. Action fans will enjoy the thrills as Janeway tries to keep the young runaway from becoming another murder victim.

A solid read and one that makes me wonder why this hasn't become some sort of TV series yet?

January's Book +1

I started out this year reading a book about one of my newer passions: Bowling!

Bowling Across America: 50 States in Rented Shoes by Mike Walsh.

Since starting my bowling obsession about 3.5 years ago, I began to get a wild notion of bowling in every state in America. I'm not sure where I got this idea from, it just seemed to be a great life goal; something to chase.

So I was surprised to see that Mike Walsh had written a book about doing precisely just that! When his father suddenly dies from a heart attack while playing handball, Walsh decides to quit his job and bowl across America as a tribute to him. His father had always wanted to play handball in all 50 states so Walsh adapts the dream to fit his activity albeit one that he hasn't really followed much.

The book is divided into those 50 states and follows Walsh's journey chronologically as he bowls his way across America. As he does so, he meets a number of interesting, unique individuals and finds a way of life, of community, that is rapidly vanishing in this country. Bowling was once incredibly popular in the US with league memberships in the hundreds of thousands. At one time, pro bowlers were among the highest earning sports players. Since then, participation in leagues has shrunk dramatically and pro bowling struggles to find a viewership. What Walsh discovers is that, with this decline, America has also lost one of the most successful community building organizations it has known. This mirrors the decline in membership in such groups as the Masons, Rotary, Grange and others.

But this book is more about the people Walsh meets and the history of the places he visits. It's a tender glimpse at a part of our national heritage that is slowly fading away. Walsh's writing is crisp and moves along at a good pace. Strangely, despite his making this such a personal trip, Walsh rarely lets the reader inside enough, always keeping himself separated. It's that aspect that also colors his depictions of the people and places. We see the surface of them because that's all that Walsh has time to know before he pulls up and heads to another state. The book is part personal diary and part travelogue without enough of either. In particular, photos of the people and places would have helped greatly in bringing a more intimate touch to the story. We hear about them in the same way one hears about a person or place during a 2 minute snippet on the news. They're there and gone without leaving much of a final impression.

By the time you get to the 50th state (Hawaii), you feel that Walsh is rushing both himself and the reader through the experience. It's become a marathon that he is compelled to complete despite the fact that he seems to have lost interest several states earlier.

Bowling Across America: 50 States in Rented Shoes is a good and fast read, much like a literary equivalent of a fast food hamburger. And, much like that hamburger, you may forget you read it in an hour or two.

From Hell: The Scripts by Alan Moore

I consider From Hell by Alan Moore to be the masterpiece of any fiction involving Jack the Ripper. Moore took his time to do an astounding amount of research and it shows in the story he weaves. Since it's initial publication and then later collection as a graphic novel, From Hell by Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

So I was naturally thrilled to find a reprinting of Moore's scripts for the first 5 installments of the story! Moore is infamous for his tightly packed scripts that sometimes can reach near novel length. What else could I learn from this? Would Moore's thought process shine through?

Alas, no. The scripts are dense, that is sure, but lacking in anything revelatory. Much of the same information was included in the "Notes" section that followed every chapter. We don't learn anything further about what Moore thought about the case or the characters that isn't in the work itself.

What IS interesting is the amount of descriptive detail Moore gives for each panel. Moore often goes on for paragraphs describing the scene he is trying to convey. He has it all in his mind's eye and carves out on the paper how it should look... then he tells Campbell to just draw it "whichever way seems best to you". It's an astonishing amount of information to give an artist just to then turn around and tell them that they can discard it if they like. Moore shows complete confidence in Campbell's art and design by allowing him the freedom to reinterpret the directions.

This leads to the book's only real fault and that is by not including reprints from the graphic novel. I am not sure if it was for legal or space reasons but I found myself often wishing I could see how Campbell interpreted a panel or page design that Moore had detailed.

In the end, From Hell: The Scripts only awards the major fans of Moore's work or those devotees to the Ripper case. As I belong to both groups, it was a way of looking at a familiar work through Moore's eyes. For others, though, it may prove too difficult and unrewarding to slough through.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Time for another go!

Here it is 2009 already! My goodness, the time does fly when you have your cranium stuck up your posterior, doesn't it?

Well, as usual, one of my New Year's Resolutions is to read more. This year, I am pledged to read at least 12 books. Real books, too. Not just graphic novels. So that boils down to about 1 per month. Also, I'm going to try and not have them be TOO similar to what I generally read. I'd like to branch out a bit if I can.

And I'll still be reading graphic novels as well so I'll be posting reviews of them when I finish.

Let's see how far we get this year, hey?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Victorian strangeness

I came on this book in the local Border's and, I admit, the cover caught my attention. After reading the inside cover flap, I knew that this was a book that I had to read.

In his first novel, Jonathan Barnes has created an all new turn of the century London. Blending some steam-punk, some Holmes, some horror, Barnes has something altogether new here and very exciting!

The plot involves Edward Moon, a once popular magician who has since fallen out of vogue. Together with his stage partner, the mysterious Somnabulist, Moon has filled the part of a Holmes to a London Inspector and helped solve strange, unusual crimes. Moon has come to the conclusion that not only has his show gone out of style but so has his methods of deduction when he is presented with a case involving weird and perplexing murders. As he tries to solve the crimes, he becomes involved in a larger conspiracy by a group with designs to change the very fabric of London herself! Along the way, Moon meets many strange and unusual characters such as Cribb who claims to be living backwards in time, Mr. Skimpole the albino co-head of the mysterious government organization known only as the Directorate and the two men simply called "The Prefects" who have a taste for carnage and murder.

From the first page, it is clear that the reader is in for a rollicking ride through London at the turn of the 20th century. Barnes captures the feeling of the old century giving away to the new as Moon himself feels himself fading into the past. The style of the novel can be puzzling as it is narrated by a character that we do not meet until 3/4 of the way through the book and, as a narrator, he does not always play fair. It is true that we do not get inside Moon's head but it is not necessary to do so. Moon is a pawn in this play and is well aware of it himself. Even though the ending is more fantastic than the reader has been led to expect, it fits into the context of the overall plot and makes for a satisfying close.

When I first saw this book, I assumed that it was the first in a series with Moon but I find that it was a false assumption. Moon's story does not need to go further beyond this story and, in truth, this book would be cheapened if it did.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about this book is simply this, "I wish I had written it."

On a scale of 1-10, THE SOMNABULIST rates a solid 9! It rarely gets much better than this.

"I hear dead people..."

DEXTER IN THE DARK is the third book in the wildly popular 'Dexter' series by Jeff Lindsay.

Like many things, I came to this series late and primarily due to the Showtime TV show. The concept of a serial killer who only preys on bad people intrigued me and I was happy to see that the show delivered on that promise. I quickly read the second volume and just recently finished reading this one.

First off, there are some differences between the book and the show as there should be. I won't go into the plot differences (so as not to 'spoil' the books for anyone who hasn't read them yet) but the stylistic difference is quite major. Like the show, the books are written from Dexter's viewpoint as he goes about his life, killing bad guys and basically trying not to get caught. The narrative in the first two is basic first person and we see the world and the stories through Dexter's eyes. This changes in the third book.

A new narrator is brought in for sections of the book as Dexter becomes hunted by something that could be more than just another serial killer. While building tension, this becomes quite bothersome as Dexter is the star of the book and I disliked any time the attention was not on him. In addition, we are given a bit more information as to the nature of Dexter's "Dark Passenger" who we are told is the part of Dexter that truly commits the murders. I disliked the fact that the Dark Passenger is not featured much in this third book and that the explanation for it tends to absolve Dexter of his part in the killings. To me, this was a mistake and serves to make Dexter more like other serial killers and less unique. In a sense, it excuses Dexter of responsability for his actions. As the plot is intricately tied into this concept, I found it to be less compelling than the other novels. Even though the killer(s) are supposed to be far more primal, I felt them to be far less interesting than the Ice Truck Killer and the insane Doctor from the last two books.

Lindsay's writing is light and breezy. Maybe too much so as the book goes by very quickly (except for the sections that are not narrated by Dexter; those are tedious and plodding) and the dialogue is fast paced and cinematic. I almost wonder if Lindsay wrote this book with the third TV season of Dexter in mind.

In terms of the series, this has been my least favorite Dexter book so far but I am still interested enough that I would read a 4th one should Lindsay write it. But, if that one also disappointed, I would seriously consider not bothering with any more in the series.

On a scale of 1-10 (one being lowest, ten being highest), DEXTER IN THE DARK rates a 6.5 It wasn't great but it wasn't the worst thing I've read.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A new game is afoot!


For purely selfish reasons, I am always interested when someone comes out with a new mystery novel set in London around 1888. Basically, I'm curious as to what worked for them and what didn't and, of course, if they do it better than I am!

This is the first in a series of books by Will Thomas starring his 'enquiry agent' Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn. Much of this first book is taken up by the introduction of both Llewelyn and Barker as well as their setting and Barker's many eccentricities. Llewelyn, poor and on the verge of throwing himself into the Thames, answers an ad for an assistant and, after several trials of mind and body, is hired to replace a previous assistant now, unfortunately, deceased.

As expected, a case quickly comes Barker's way when a young Jewish man is found crucified in an street in London's East End. Barker is hired by the Chief Rabbi and sets out to find if the murdered man had died for personal reasons or if he was the first victim of a new Pogrom against the Jews. Along the way, much danger happens and Lewelyn wonders if he was smart in accepting his new job.

With the first book of a series, one expects the writer to take some time to set up the characters and setting. The problem is that this part is actually more interesting than the mystery! I wanted to learn more about Barker's life and adventures than their current case. Thomas' writing is nice and crisp and moves along at a fast pace. Perhaps too quickly as many of the incidental characters tend to merge into each other and it sometimes becomes difficult to remember who is whom. The scenes involving the Jewish people are well-written and knowledgeable and Thomas manages to convey some of the pervading anti-semitism of 1880's East End London.

The characters of Barker and Llewelyn are well drawn and, as to be expected, stand out. The only failing of Barker is that he has a Sherlock Holmesian/super-human quality about him. It seems that there is nothing this man cannot do, a language or culture he is not intimately familiar with or any target he cannot shoot! Hopefully Barker becomes more human in later stories and loses some of his super-powers. Llewelyn is the most realistic of the lot and is a fine choice as narrator of the story.

If there's a failing of this book, it's that the ending came much faster than I expected it to. After so much of a build-up, I thought that the climax would last longer. It certainly was exciting, though, despite the fact that it causes us to lose one of the cast at the end (not Llewelyn!) that I had grown rather fond of.

Overall, this was a good tale and one that would make a good episode of the old PBS show, MYSTERY! I recommend it for fans of Sherlock Holmes or Victorian 'pulp fiction.

One a scale of one to ten (one being lowest, ten being highest), I give SOME DANGER INVOLVED a solid SEVEN and look forward to reading the other books in the series.