Sunday, July 01, 2012

Read in June

With 2012 now halfway done, it's time for me to concede defeat by my read-and-unreviewed pile. I clearly cannot manage to write separate posts for every book I read while still doing everything else I do (the other blog, family stuff, and the actual bill-paying Day Job), and so I think I'm going to drop back to the methodology I tried to implement just before the last bout of Book-a-Day: the end-of-month roundup is the time to write something about what I read, before I forget it entirely.

(I'm still not sure how I'll deal with the backlog -- perhaps some summer vacation time will be eaten up by plugging through some capsule reviews. I really wish I had more time for reviews, and I live in hope that someone will one day want to pay me to review stuff again -- actual money is a powerful motivator, and I never missed a deadline for my paying gigs.)

So here's what I read this month, with either links or a quick take. It's not what I would want in a perfect world -- but who ever said this was a perfect world?
  • Matthew Stover, Caine's Law (6/6)
    I've been an unabashed Stover booster since the days of his first two novels from Roc, Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon, and I bought everything he published for the SFBC when I still worked there. And his "Caine" novels -- Heroes Die, Blade of Tyshalle, Caine Black Knife, and now this one -- are the books he clearly cares the most about, and pours the mot of himself into. (I've reviewed a couple of Stover's books here -- a Star Wars novel with an improbably long title, and Caine Black Knife -- and I'd recommend that second link for a longer explanation/advocacy of what the Caine novels are and why you should read them.) Caine's Law is officially the second half of the duology that Caine Black Knife began, but it's less specifically tied to Black Knife and more deeply enmeshed in the whole series than that would imply. I wouldn't start here, though -- this is the fourth novel about a complex character in a complex world, told in an even more complex way that the prior novels, and a new reader will miss a lot of nuance jumping in here. Luckily, since I last complained about Stover's unavailability, all of the earlier books have come out in electronic form, so just plop down your $7.99 (cheap!) for Heroes Die and start there. Trust me -- if you like tough, bloody, morally complicated fantasy of the George R.R. Martin/Steven Erikson style, you will eat up the Caine novels.
  • John Scalzi, Redshirts (6/12)
    An actual, standalone review of this novel is really, really coming -- honestly, it's more than half done already, and it may even post today -- in my last-ditch attempt to remain relevant as an actual reviewer of recent books. Watch this space for a link to that review once it appears.
  • Donald E. Westlake, The Comedy Is Finished (6/14)
    In the late '70s, Westlake began writing a novel -- using his serious tone, like Kahawa or High Adventure -- about a middle-aged TV host (somewhere in the territory between Dean Martin and Bob Hope) who is kidnapped by a group of leftover '60s radicals. It was still unpublished -- though apparently finished -- when Martin Scorcese's 1983 movie The King of Comedy, with a somewhat similar premise, was released, and so Westlake shelved the book and it was forgotten until a photocopy turned up after his death in the basement of a friend and fellow writer. Thirty years later, The Comedy Is Finished slots in well with the tougher Westlake books of that era -- it's psychologically smart (though stuck in the idiom of the time, of necessity), full of cracking dialogue and some dark, sly humor, and strongly plotted with some excellent scenes. It's not right up at the top of Westlake's work, but it's close -- this isn't the typical trunk novel, just a book that missed its best window and then got forgotten for too long.
  • Frank Miller, Holy Terror (6/16)
    I am very sorry to report that Frank Miller is Not Kidding here -- or, if he is, he's buried it so deep as to make no difference. This -- as reported, and derided, widely when originally published in 2011 -- is the story of not-Batman and not-Catwoman defeating the ridiculously over-the-top and entirely silly plot of not-al-Quaeda to randomly destroy stuff in not-Gotham City. Not-al-Qaeda does this because they are Evil, in the way that all Muslims (or possibly everyone not Frank Miller; this part isn't entirely clear) are. The art is full Late Miller -- big slabs of black relieved by small pops of color and what appears to have been a small troop of infantry walking over the completed pages in not-quite-clean boots. So that's dynamic, though often silly -- it's worth looking at, at least. The story, though, is a complete mess: a loud, incoherent rant about the necessity of ultraviolence in the service of one's cause -- which, with only minor tweaks, could as easily serve as an advertisement for al-Quaeda. It's always sad to see an artist who used to be at least moderately intelligent -- if never what one would call moderate in anything else -- turn so fully into a frothing parody of himself, but if this is what Miller wants to do, it's our duty to point and laugh as loudly as possible, in hopes that it will eventually penetrate.
  • Jean Shepherd, In God We Trust -- All Others Pay Cash (6/18)
    This was the first of the five books collecting Shepherd's occasional magazine pieces, shoehorned into a fix-up to make them look like a single narrative. It's also entirely focused on Shepherd's childhood -- or rather the lightly fictionalized childhood of "Ralph Parker" of Hohman, Indiana -- during the Great Depression, unlike some of the later collections, which ranged more widely through Shepherd's work. (I reviewed The Ferrari in the Bedroom here, some years back.) The fix-up frame is a very light one; Ralph has returned to Hohman and landed in the bar run by his childhood buddy Flick, and each of the (very short) interstitial chapters basically sees Ralph and Flick say "hey, remember that thing?" before the next chapter goes into detail on that thing. Several of those chapters will be familiar to fans of the movie A Christmas Story, which was scripted by Shepherd based on stories of his childhood from this book and others. (The movie focuses on Ralph at about the age of ten, though, while the book ranges more widely, including several exploits from his teen years.) The whole thing is entertaining Americana, with only a minor undertone of cornpone -- Shepherd and his stand-in Ralph were fancy-pants New York writers revisiting the scenes of their unlikely childhoods, which led to the usual nostalgia, but even more a sense of "hey, remember that great story." Shepherd, luckily, was more interested in rolling out a great yarn -- he's a storyteller in the great 19th century American tradition of Twain -- than in polishing the image of his childhood. This isn't a great book, but it's a decent humorous look at How We Lived Then and a nice line extension for folks who only know Shepherd from A Christmas Story. Also: this is the book with the story about the Red Ryder air rifle (with a compass and sundial in the stock), which formed the spine of that movie.

Yes, that's pretty pitiful. I had three trips this month -- two for work, one to chaperone Thing 1's class trip to Washington, DC -- and also read essentially no comics/graphic novels/manga, but that's still a lousy showing. We'll see if I can do better next month.

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