Sunday, December 30, 2012

BooksFirst May-December 2012

Books Bought
The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
American Gods 10th Anniversary Edition by Neil Gaiman (Kindle edition)
The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
The Picture of Dorain Gray by Oscar Wilde

Books Read
J Is For Judgment by Sue Grafton
Blackout by Connie Willis
All Clear by Connie Willis

Books Heard
Man Made by Joel Stein
Girl In A Bar by Rachel Dratz
You're Not Doing It Right by Michael Ian Black

Riding out my NaJuReMoNoMo resolution to catch up on my Kinsey Millhone novels, I read the (counting on my fingers) tenth installment J Is For Judgment. In this one, Kinsey is sent to investigate a man who has possibly faked his own death to run off with the proceeds from his rapidly failing real estate investments. This results in a very funny scene with her hopping from balcony to balcony in a Mexican resort hotel. complicating the investigation is the putatively dead man's new mistress and the legal troubles of one of his abandoned sons.

The more interesting story arc in this book is learning of Millhone's long-lost relatives in the area. This gets into some backstory of how she came to be raised by her aunt but never told of the rest of her family. 

Blackout/All Clear is a massive two-part novel which takes part in the award-winning time travel series written by Connie Willis. It is World War II and historians have been sent to Blitz in London, the Dunkirk evacuation, and the D-Day preparations. But then things go Horribly Wrong as they tend to do in time travel stories, particularly when told by Willis.

At over 1400 pages, the combined novel is just an enormous doorstop and basically brought my reading to a standstill for several months. The various narrative threads are very hard to keep track of despite the time stamp at the start of each chapter. Since the historians adopt aliases while working undercover, they go by their real names and their cover names adding even more confusion.

The books are clearly the result of meticulous research border on an almost Michneresque level of detail only without the broad scope. The centerpiece of the story involves an air raid which nearly burns down St. Paul's cathedral but this happens about halfway through the story. It is not until the last 200 hundred pages or so that the various subplots start to tie together. And they do all tie together very well but there are still way too many. This book could and should have been cut by at least a third.

Joel Stein is writer whose journalism, if it can be called that, is something I have laughed at for years. He often self-deprecatingly ridicules his geekiness and lack of masculinity as well as his penchant for pornography. He has rolled all of this up into his book Man Made. In this book-length bit of stunt-journalism he resolves to man-up to be the man he needs to be to father his forthcoming son. To this end, he undergoes basic training, goes hunting, and becomes an ultimate fighter. The book is in parts hilarious but the schtick starts to wear thin soon. There are only so many macho yet sensitive men he can feel inferior to.

And as a piece of stunt-journalism, a genre which has come increasingly popular, it is particularly unfocused. There seems to be no real deadline or goal. The narrative goes on well past the birth of his son and just devolves into random events. Sometimes extremely funny writers have a hard time keeping the laughs going over long pieces and this is one such case.

Rachel Dratch was one of the more overlooked and typecast Saturday Night Live regulars. The most notable point on her post-SNL career is being cut from 30 Rock early in the first season. She dispatches her version of the story very early in Girl Walks Into A Bar... and she seems genuinely unbitter over it. The first half of the book is typical comedian biography (I am becoming a little too familiar with this genre) but then the story picks-up. As a 40-something single woman she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. How she copes with this extremely life changing event is both funny and touching.

I've mentioned before that I prefer comedians read their own books and this one is a great example of why. The way she makes the word "Universe" ring every time she goes into Oprah-esque mysticism adds just the right touch. If you've loved Tina Fey's Bossypants reviewed here), this is the near-perfect companion book.

Another entry in the very crowded field of audiobooks written and read by comedians is You're Not Doing It Right by Michael Ian Black. Like Bill Engvall (reviewed here), the major event in his life seems to be meeting and marrying his wife. Unlike Engvall, this book is a little more idiosyncratic and the self-deprecation (an important common element in all books by comedians) is more honest and revealing. He really is a dick a lot of times.

Some of the stories are just hilarious. He and his wife getting stoned in a Amsterdam coffee shop is pants-splittingly funny. Unfortunately, a lot of his stories follow a fairly defined formula. He says "I would never do {blank}." And then a few sentences later he says "I did {blank}." It's funny the first several times but then it gets tiresome. And like the memoir by Mindy Kaling (reviewed here), he never seems to have encountered any real career setbacks to speak of.

There is a very serious section about how he deals with depression which is just raw. He gets a lot of credit for honesty but the execution is just a little weak.

BooksFirst February-April 2012

Books Bought  
Hammerhead Ranch by Tim Dorsey
Orange Crush by Tim Dorsey

Books Read 
 Hammerhead Ranch Motel by Tim Dorsey
Too Close To Miss by John Perich
Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck
Books Heard 
Just A Guy by Bob Engvall


 Tim Dorsey continues his satirical look at the dark underbelly of Florida in Hammerhead Ranch Motel, the second book of his series without a real title. And by 'satirical', I mean 'totally realistic'. The scary part about such a rambling over-the-top mess is how little is really fictional. Sure, Dorsey changes the name of Bubba The Lovesponge to Boris the Hateful Piece Of Shit ( a not very subtle dig), but it's enough of the same person to be libelous if not true. In this installment, the macguffin from Florida Roadkill is now in the greater Tampa area and a oddball assortment of sociopaths, drug dealers, gangsters, and other Florida fauna are chasing after it.

I read this book while on vacation at Rocky Point and the geography of the Pinellas County and greater Tampa is stunning accurate. Most of the action in the book takes place in and around the titular motel which is haven to a scam artist drug dealer and several itinerant parties involved in what loosely could be described as a plot. Coherent narratives do not seem to be the strong suit of Dorsey but the characters are fresh and memorable.

John Perich is a contributing editor to the Overthinking It website and podcast. In addition to his duties on that site, he has written Too Close To Miss, a thriller novel set in his adopted town of Boston. Now Boston is no stranger to mystery writers with both Robert Parker and Dennis Lehane walking that side of the street already. To compete in a crowded thinking space, Perich has attempted to subvert a few cliches of the genre. For one, the heroine is the mistress. When a prominent politician's wife is brutally murdered, newspaper photographer Mara Cunningham becomes the prime suspect and she has to clear her name.

I'm fond of mysteries with a little intellectual heft behind them, the books by John D. MacDonald and Sue Grafton come to mind, and this book fits well in that niche. It's not too spoilery to say that there are suspicious land deals involved, a staple of the Travis McGee series. Like all thriller heroes, Mara is just perhaps a little too hyper-competent. For one, she teaches martial arts on the side, a skill that comes in handy when the baddies start stalking her.

What is perhaps notable about this book is that Perich has decided to self-publish in as a Kindle-only format. And despite the sketchiness of the self-published novel, this book stands as a peer with anything published by a major house.

I first read anything by John Steinbeck when my son read The Pearl in high school. To close this major blindspot I decided to give Travels With Charley a try. This an atypical book from Steinbeck in that it is a travelogue rather than a novel with the titular co-travel being his aging poodle. The two take off in a pick-up truck and do a lap of the United States. It does seem to take them an inordinate amount of time to get out of New England.

It surprised me that the book was written in the early 1960s as I tend to associate Steinbeck with the Great Depression. This becomes a factor when he makes his way to segregation era Texas and the Deep South. At that point the story becomes a little more reportorial as he spends a good time discussing the opposition to school integration in a small town. As with the rest of the book, he lets the people he meets talk without a lot of authorial editorial, but the people encounters here don't always show their best side.

I greatly appreciated the nuance and charm that Steinbeck brought to the book. It's nostalgic without being maudlin, introspective without being navel-gazing.

My go-to choice for audio books to listen to on road trips has become books written and read by comedians. There is something about having it read in their own voice that brings an immediacy to the story. Bob Engvall is one of the Blue Collar Comics, not as funny as John Foxworthy, but not nearly as cringingly bad as Larry The Cable Guy.

Presumably the book title Just A Guy is one of his catch phrases which he repeats a few times in the book but not to the point of annoyance. Mostly the book is about his early days as a stand-up comedian and the wooing of his wife Gail. Based on his self-deprecating stories, she is a saint for putting up with him, a judgment I could concur with. Towards the end of the book the schmaltz gets amped up to ten but that is a minor annoyance.

Much like Engvall himself, this book is good middle-of-the-road entertainment with few major revelations but a couple of clever insights.

BooksFirst - January 2012 (NaJuReMoNoMo)

Books Bought
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Kindle)

Books Read
F is For Fugitive by Sue Grafton  
H Is For Homocide by Sue Grafton
I Is For Innocent by Sue Grafton  
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins


I'm a collector of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone novels. Sadly, I buy many more than I read, so as part of National Just Read More Novels Month, I resolved to careen through the backlog. As you can see by the Books Read list, I fell woefully short. This does nor reflect poorly on Ms. Grafton, quite the contrary. Her books are well-crafted and require a fair amount of attention to be paid. I know for a fact that I have read the first four of her novels but my memory on the fifth was a bit hazy so I decided to jump to the sixth, F is For Fugitive, just for safe measure. The titular fugitive is a guy who was convicted of a murder and then escapes from prison only to go on the lam again. His relatives hire Kinsey to clear his name but things go awry when new crimes go haywire. For this book, Milhone decamps from her native Santa Teresa to Floral Beach, a small beach town with a lot of dark secrets. Within this Peyton Place-ish enclave there is a lot of history some people would just prefer stayed hidden. Part of the strength of this book and Grafton's novels in general is that all the characters are interesting and complex. They all interact in ways that tie the history of the town together but still make finding the final culprit a challenge and a surprise.

 More linear is H Is For Homocide where Kinsey goes undercover to get the goods on the sociopathic ringleader of an insurance fraud ring. She spends most of the novel just trying to keep from being discovered as she walks a narrow path between keeping her cover and protecting her life. More action oriented than some of the other mysteries, it also seems more prone to random set-ups. Kinsey gets involved when a meeting with a fraud suspect also involves an old school friend and the evening ends in a shoot-out. For there things go even further off the rails. There is also at least one unjustified final twist. I don't know whether it was meant to set up future storylines, but it just seems random.

 For a writer, a series character can be quite restrictive so a little playing with the form is good, but in this case it doesn't really pay-off. In I Is For Innocent, Kinsey is back on her home turf of Santa Teresa investigating an acquitted murder suspect trying to get his dead wife's money. As usually happens there is more than meets the eye and the private investigator Milhone is following up on died under mysterious circumstances as well. The word 'innocent' is used rather ironically because the cast of characters is a little more blue-blooded than usual but still rather despicable. Normally I find the scenes about Kinsey's neighbors and her home life to be boring filler, but this one had a good subplot. Her friend and octogenarian landlord's brother shows up only to start carrying on with the Hungarian diner owner. It's funny and endearing.

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is the latest phenomenon. I've been seeing it and its sequels in bookstores for years and have been dismissing it as some sort of cousin to the sexy vampire genre. Needing a quick read on my Kindle for a plane trip, I bit and bought it. It turned out to be many things that were not tropes in the Twilight-ish world I dreaded. It was fast paced. The romance was underplayed, indeed subverted. And the heroine was genuinely an agent of her own destiny.

It was far from flawless though. There are huge plot holes and tons of inconsistencies. The one item which just nagged at me was a nitpick I have with a lot of dystopian fiction and science fiction in general aimed at teenage readers and even older readers. That is that the economics of the post-apocalyptic world make no sense whatsoever. The Capital is this huge post-modern marvel with mind-boggling technology. But its all based on what seems to be a very small base of the outer districts. District 12 doesn't seem like it would support a decent suburb's energy needs let alone an entire country. And what are they doing still mining coal anyways?

There is also way too much lead-up to the Games themselves. It's well over half the book before kids start killing each other. Oddly, the premise of teenagers battling each other to the death is one of the least of my problems. As a plot device and a metaphor I think it works very well. I am totally unfamiliar with the sources people claim it resembles such as The Running Man and Battle Royale, but this sort of set-up goes at least as far back as The Biggest Game and Lord Of The Flies, so there is plenty of prior art to lean on.

I understand that the sequels delve deeper into the politics of the world and I'm a little hesitant to continue on since this was what I found least satisfying.