April 24th, 2015
As I ruffled through the stacks of new romance novels on my shelf, still stung by lingering accusations that I unthinkingly favor historicals over other sub-genres, I assembled three new titles that have no historical aspirations at all. These three novels feature iPads, laptops, semi-automatic weapons, and lots and lots of motorcycles, but as I settled in and started reading, I realized they mostly feature something else, too: prequels! You’ll see what I mean:
Give It All by Cara McKenna (Signet Eclipse) – This is the second book in what’s now going to be a series starring the disparate members of the “Desert Dogs” motorcycle club based in the small (and mystery-enshrouded, naturally) Nevada town of Fortuity, and it’s a fairly dauntingly direct sequel to the first book, Lay It Down. McKenna – fine and energetic storyteller that she is – does a lot of unobtrusive work in the book’s first couple of chapters to bring new readers up to speed, but the fact remains that Give It All is only half a book without its predecessor, in which we first meet fiery-tempered Raina Harper, the owner of Benji’s Saloon, Fortuity’s only bar, and in which we also meet Duncan Welch, the legal counsel for Sunnyside Industries. Duncan is a “fixer” for Sunnyside’s “development company,” which technically means he’s supposed to be helping clear the legal ground for Sunnyside to build a shady casino in Fortuity, but which really means he doesn’t have to keep office hours or fill out pay sheets or anything else that might stall him from making, er, headway in using his battered outsider image to seduce Raina, even though he’s, yes, a stranger in town:
Duncan’s image didn’t do him any favors, either. He was corporate. He was overdressed; he was a British expat; he was wealthy. He was cold and clean and calculating. He was wrong here, in every possible way. Wrong for Raina Harper’s bed, as wrong as her ex was right. And yet ex was the operative word, wasn’t it?
Duncan’s an odd hero to put it mildly. Not only is he pushing forty (nearly twice the age of the customary romance anti-hero), but he’s riddled with weaknesses (“At least he’d cut down on the Klonopin, in recent weeks,” we’re gamely told). And the whole time I was reading his latest adventure with Raina and the gang, I was wishing I’d met him just one book earlier.
Fragmented by Stephanie Tyler (Signet Eclipse) – This is the third in Tyler’s “Section 8” (where’s Corporal Klinger when you need him?) novels, following Surrender and Unbreakable, and if Give It All walks you into the middle of an ongoing plot, Fragmented drops you off a steep cliff into the middle of a fireworks display. The main character is Dr. Drea Timmons, who’s abusive boyfriend Danny is a member of yet another motorcycle club, this one nefariously called the Outlaw Angels, has vowed revenge for her involvement with a heroic vigilante group called Section 8, and if that all sounds confusing, it certainly doesn’t get any clearer from Drea’s perspective:
Jem had kidnapped her because he needed a doctor to save Avery, who was dying. Drea had saved her, but spending time with Jem had gotten her in trouble with Danny and the OA. S8 helped her get away from the OA, and she’d gone on the run with them, willingly. And when they had a job to do, one that involved a human trafficker who was after Gunner, she’d gotten involved as a decoy. Unfortunately, from what she’d been told, it’d gone wrong, and she’d been kidnapped.
That “from what she’d been told” is just as bad as it sounds: it turns out Drea has amnesia and so is unhelpfully unclear on why she’s being handed around like a shoplifted tchotchke, although she remembers what she likes (“Danger isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, his kind of danger makes me feel alive”), and that neatly coincides with a smooth-talking badass like Jem. You remember, Jem? The one who kidnapped her? One of the ones who kidnapped her? Or was he … wait a minute …
You Really Got Me by Erika Kelly (Berkley Sensation) – So it’s with an audible sigh of relief that I turned to You Really Got Me by Erika Kelly, since it’s called “A Rock Star Romance,” it’s also proudly billed as “First in a New Series”! I started it happy to know I wouldn’t stumble right out of the starting gate over the baggage let behind by previous books. Instead, I got the story of Emmie Valencia, an aspiring band manager who’s loud, overbearing boss never seems to give her the chance to prove herself. While said boss is out of the country, Emmie goes to Austin, Texas intent on showing that she, too, can be a star-maker.
There she’s introduced to Slater Vaughn, the lead singer for a band that’s not exactly burning up the charts. Emmie has only six weeks to change that, but the first impression she makes on loutish, oversexed Slater isn’t promising:
As Slater approached the table, he watched Derek clear out the groupies. They scattered – all of them except one. Only she didn’t look like a groupie. She looked … well, Slater didn’t know what she looked like, other than maybe a teacher. A kindergarten teacher. She wore her dark hair long and straight – no particular style – and he could actually see her complexion, uncovered as it was by makeup. What was she doing at their table? She glanced up at him and smiled. All sweet and innocent, like he was her date at the movie theater, bringing popcorn and soda.
That meeting happens around page 10, so it was around page 10 that I realized my initial impression was wrong: true, You Really Got Me wasn’t carrying around the baggage of previous books in the series (that’ll be left to its sequel, I Want You To Want Me, due in July) – instead, it was carrying around the baggage of every odd-couple romance novel ever written. Talk about prequels!
April 22nd, 2015
DC’s company-wide event “Convergence” continues, in which long-abandoned incarnations of their super-characters are temporarily given current issues again, in a kind of multi-part gift to the company’s older, more nostalgic readers. As a result, today’s trip to Boston’s wonderful Comicopia seemed like a flashback to visiting the same twenty or thirty years ago.
Longer than that, actually, in this case, at least for me – because of course the reason I showed up at the comics shop at all was because among this week’s “Convergence” titles was the first issue of something called “Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes.”
The issue’s set-up is the same as all the other “Convergence” titles: the city of Metropolis – in this case in the 30th century – has been cut off from the outside world for a year by a mysterious dome, and all the super-powered beings inside the dome have been rendered powerless, most certainly including the 30th century’s foremost super-team, the Legion of Super-Heroes. The team’s living inspiration, Superboy, was visiting them from the 20th century when the dome went up and trapped him in the future, and as this issue opens, he’s giving televised pep-talks to the people of Metropolis, but he himself is feeling miserable, missing his home back in time, missing his parents, even, in the issue’s best line (the one that had my comics friends emailing me taunts as soon as they read it) missing his dog.
The team’s resident genius, 12th-level intellect Brainiac 5, has been working feverishly for a year to break through the dome, without success, and the rest of the team is coping as best they can with the loss of their powers – and the loss of their teammate Wildfire, who’s disappeared. As Superboy puts it, “As a being of pure energy, [he] was nothing but powers – so he just dissipated into thin air.”
This kind of thing bugs me, of course, and always has. The reason Wildfire dissipated was because there was no way to separate him from his super-powers, sure – but it always bugs me when writers (in this case, Stuart Moore) ignore the fact that lots of super-heroes are inseparable from their super-powers. Superboy may be powered by Earth’s sun and therefore powerless after a year cut off from it, but plenty of Legionnaires – Shrinking Violet, Triplicate Girl, Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, etc. – are born with their special abilities. There’s no more explanation in this issue as to how the big bad villain of “Convergence” could somehow delete those abilities than there is how he could put a dome over not just every super-hero in the multiverse but every super-hero at every time-period of every multiverse. If a bad guy is that powerful, why bother telling the story at all? And several times in this issue, Brainiac 5 complains about the limitations of his teammates’ lesser intellects – but his super-power IS his 12th-level brain – so shouldn’t it be deleted as well?
But I overlooked such quibbles in order to bask again in reading an adventure of Superboy and the Legion. Not a clone Superboy, not a retro-stupid Legion, but just the real thing – the flight rings, the Legion Clubhouse, the old familiar characters of the team. For some inexplicable reason, issue artist Gus Storms decided to draw many of those characters wearing what looks for all the world like the old Saturday Night Live spoof-product Oops I Crapped My Pants, but Stuart Moore does a fine job capturing what the Legion means to Superboy:
This whole place – the Legion – it used to be like a dream, a fantasy world. I could come here and fly around with kids just like me, then close my eyes and wake up back in Smallville, with Krypto barking at the chickens and the sun coming up, blood red over the haystacks.
And naturally, reading this issue – and considering the fact that when this limited run ends, I’ll likely never read another new comic book featuring Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes – my memory was filled with all the times I’ve read about this team, in all its incarnations, from the first time I encountered them on the spinner-rack at Trow’s Stationary. Those memories made this issue, flaws and all, one big smile for me to read – so I guess I’m one of those nostalgic older DC readers who’s getting regular weekly gifts from “Convergence.” I’ll take them while they last.
April 21st, 2015
Our book today is Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, a thoroughly delightful bookish 2005 memoir written by long-time NPR book critic and Washington Post mystery-novel columnist Maureen Corrigan. The book is sub-titled “Finding and Losing Myself in Books,” and if ever a sub-title was fully earned, this one is. The thing is equal parts autobiography, book recommendations, and well-told raconteur gems, and all its voices are so perfectly balanced that regardless of which register she’s in, you’ll wish she would just go on for pages and pages. Usually, this kind of books-related mish-mash tends to get old real fast, but I doubt any reader of Corrigan’s book will be ready for it to end.
The autobiographical elements range from stories of a Catholic girlhood to some funny anecdotes from the rigors of college:
But I had a price to pay for the self-knowledge I gained in graduate school: the price was being in graduate school. I think of those years as my time served as a character immured in a Gothic novel. To give you a sense of how weird – indeed sometimes even sinister – this world of graduate school was, let’s journey back to the autumn of 1977. It’s four o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and I’m standing in a small cluster of first-year graduate students who’ve been invited to the weekly “Sherry Hour” hosted by Penn’s English Department. The dark lounge in Bennett Hall where the gathering takes place resembles, to my delight, a shabby drawing room out of an Agatha Christie mystery. I’m quietly crowing to myself … Here I am sipping sherry, for heaven’s sake! I don’t like it, but I’ll learn to and … wait a minute. Professor X, who’s holding court at the center of our little group, is saying something. I’ve been assigned to be his teaching assistant, so I’d better listen. Professor X knocks back another glass (what is this, his fourth?), stares over our heads at a spot on the wall, and mutters an oracular verdict: “None of you will ever come close to Ira Einhorn. He was the most brilliant student the department ever had.”
The professional elements range from our author earning her way into the publishing world (frequent mention is made of long Village Voice book-reviews that I’d very much like to see collected in a book of their own) to the openly-confessed charge she gets out of working against a tight deadline, sometimes forcing herself to get up before dawn so she can write a review for NPR’s Fresh Air program, going over it on the fly with her producer Phyllis Myers, and hearing it broadcast that same day – a thrillingly compressed version of the usual piece-publishing rigamarole, but one that has potential dangers:
Occasionally, though, this whirlwind pace knocks me flat on my face. Like my mother, I tend to mangle names. I’ve recorded reviews in which I’ve referred to a book, even though a book that I love, by two different titles or I’ve committed dumb grammar mistakes – and the gaffe has slipped through the batlike ears of Phyllis, but not those of the listeners of National Public Radio. The worst on-air mistake I ever made was when I confused my old Jewish literary leftists, referring to Irving Howe when I meant to refer to Alfred Kazin. Oy vey, the listener mail on that one was nasty.
There are also disarmingly personal strands running through the book involving her quest to adopt a Chinese daughter, but for me, the best part of Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading was the way every single page veritably bristles with book-talk, book-reflections, book-recommendations … she loves everything from John Ruskin to Dorothy Sayers, and she writes about it all with the infectious curiosity that characterizes the true bookworm, whether she’s dissecting the common strands in Victorian women’s memoirs or lamenting the lack of post-wedding lives in some of fiction’s most memorable female characters:
Of course, once safely tucked away in their marriages, our heroines, like fireflies trapped in a bottle, flicker and fade into gray domesticity. Austen and company devote, at most, a couple of pages to imagining the postnuptial lives of their lucky brides – and with good reason. Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet spawn children, tend to their peevish husbands (Mr. Rochester probably made even more so by his temporary blindness), and carry on the debilitating round of social visits expected of upper-crust ladies. Nancy Drew fortunately remains frozen at age eighteen; although, as Bobbie Ann Mason observes in her terrific book The Girl Sleuth, even in her chaste late adolescence, Nancy displays incipient tendencies toward becoming another proper Mrs. Bobbsey. Harriet Vane makes a wan postnuptial impression in Busman’s Honeymoon, where she defers to Lord Peter in the detecting department.
The best thing about Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading is that it’s mis-titled; it’s the furthest thing in the world from a banishment. Come Join Me, I’m Reading would’ve been more accurate for the wonderful experience that awaits her fellow reader in these pages.
April 20th, 2015
Our book today is William McIlvanney’s Strange Loyalties (not, as the last couple of “Mystery Mondays” might lead you to believe, Strange Loyalties … of the Dead!), the third murder mystery novels to feature Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw, who stalks the mean streets of 1970s Glasgow and is routinely referred to by his superiors on the force as a “maverick.” Laidlaw first appeared in 1977’s Laidlaw, a nearly-flawless example of the ‘hardboiled’ sub-genre of mysteries, and next in 1983’s superb The Papers of Tony Veitch. Strange Loyalties first appeared 1991, and the good folks at Europa Editions deserve drinks all around for their decision to re-issue the trilogy in these stylish paperbacks as part of their “World Noir” series.
If anybody deserves a place in that series, it’s McIlvanney, who’s won a series of literary awards as long as your arm and is widely credited with inventing the whole realm of gritty Scottish noir that’s treated authors like Ian Rankin so well ever since. One of the main ingredients of that brand of noir is a main character who’s a) well-versed in literature but rusty at recalling it, b) a smart mouth, and c), needless to say, a reflexive, excuse-making, embittered alcoholic (it’s also fairly standard for this main character to have a less interesting and less edgy mother-hen style partner, in this case Laidlaw’s colleague Brian Harkness, whose compared to a worrying old lady in every book – in this one, it first happens on page 23). Laidlaw is a quintessential mixture of these ingredients; he hates every element of the law-and-order system of which he’s a part, from the judges at the top:
Those judges, I thought … Never mind having little understanding of the human heart, they often didn’t have much grasp of the daily machinery of the lives they were presuming to judge. Time and again the voice had quavered querulously down from Mount Olympus, asking the question that stunned: ‘A transistor? What exactly do you mean by that?’ ‘UB40? Is that some kind of scientific formula?’ (‘Not a formula, Your Honour. A form. An unemployment form.’) ‘An unemployment form? And what is that?’
To the lawyers in the middle:
‘A brilliant lawyer’ was a phrase I had often heard. That was all right if all you meant was an ability to play legal games. But what did that mean? Intelligence as a closed circuit. Intelligence should never be a closed circuit. Take them off the stage that is a law court, where the forms are all present, and a lot of them wouldn’t know tears from rain.
To the majority of his fellow cops, many of whom (Brian included) are irritated as Strange Loyalties opens that Laidlaw is obsessing more than usual about what seems on the surface to be a simple car accident in which the drunken victim wandered out into the road and was killed accidentally. The reason for Laidlaw’s obsession is stark: the victim was his brother Scott, a gregarious type with “a head busier than an anthill.” Now that his initial grief has worn off, Laidlaw’s relentless bent for questioning everything has kicked in:
“I know it was an accident … But where did the accident begin? That’s what I want to know. In the middle of the road? At the kerb? In the pub before he went out? In the fact that he drank too much? In the reasons why he drank too much? When did the accident begin? And why? When did my brother’s life give up its purpose? So that it could wander aimlessly for years till it walked into a car? Why? Why did it lose itself until we found it lying in front of that car? I want to know. Why do the best of us go to waste while the worst of us flourish? I want to know.”
It will come as no surprise to police-procedural mystery readers that what seems like an open-and-shut roadway accident turns out to be much more complicated; Laidlaw’s stubborn snooping is soon uncovering all sorts of things about his brother that he’d rather not know but can’t ignore. Likewise readers familiar with McIlvanney’s novels will know to expect proceedings to get more gripping (and often more darkly funny) as the plot picks up steam – and that’s certainly the case with Strange Loyalties. And readers not familiar with the Laidlaw books – well, they’re in for quite a treat. My advice would be to go to Europa’s website and buy all three … trust me, you’re going to want to binge on them.
April 18th, 2015
Our book today is a little gem: the “Golden Regional Guide” A Guide to Everglades National Park and the Nearby Florida Keys (this one is the third printing, from 1962, when Warren Hamilton was the Superintendent of Everglades National Park), written by Herbert Zim and wonderfully illustrated throughout, not only with crisp (albeit tiny) photographs but also with dozens of color drawings by Russ Smiley.
Like all the Golden Guides, this one was very much intended to be tucked into a pocket and brought along outside – in this case, out into the flat vastness of the Everglades. In fact, the last time I was there, one of my travel-companions was carrying a shiny (then) new edition of this very book, and there were times when I could have sworn he was paying more attention to it than to the wilderness all around him.
Fortunately, my other traveling companion on that particular outing (which lasted only two days) was an old, old friend of mine, somebody with whom I’d explored the Everglades and the Florida Keys at much greater length long before that guide-consulting companion had been born (and since he’s now retired and living on bottled air in Phoenix, the rest of you can just assume that all of this happened a long time ago in a galaxy far away). She and I consulted no guidebooks, although she was a good deal more comfortable in her surroundings than I was. Southern Florida in summer is a pestilential hell-hole of heat, humidity, and bugs, a hammock-and-sawgrass nightmare of steam and muck and monsters that were already old when the dinosaurs walked the Earth. I have paddled by canoe all through the waterways of the place, camping inland on the rare humps of dry land and camping on beaches on the Gulf side, and over time and over repeated visits, I reached a grudging but sincere appreciation for the otherworldly beauty of the place.
This Golden Guide takes a typically no-nonsense approach to that otherworldly beauty. It opens with a brief panoramic history of Southern Florida and the Everglades – Lake Okeechobee, the Anhinga Trail, the enormous variety of wildlife, and the outer reaches of the ecosphere, the 200-mile arc of the Florida Keys, stretching from Miami to the Dry Tortugas (I’ve sailed over every inch of those Keys, but I did most of that sailing in the sole company of a brace of beagles – not an experience I’d recommend to the faint of heart). The Guide rightly declares that the 300 species of birds here are the Everglades’ true glory, but even so, it hardly has any choice but to spend a page on the malevolent stars of the wetlands, the American alligator and the American crocodile:
Crocodiles are much rarer than alligators in this region. They live in the salt marshes and mangroves of the Park and Keys, sometimes going out into Florida Bay. They are thinner, with a narrower, pointed snout. Some teeth are exposed when their mouth is closed. Crocodiles are more dangerous than alligators, but are too rare in this country to be the problem they are in Asia and Africa.
My travel companions and I saw a few alligators during our two-day jaunt, and my old friend and I saw many, many more during our various much longer trips – eight-footers, ten-footers, and in one rather harrowing encounter, a monstrous creature much longer than our canoe, a thing probably sixty years old. That brief, glancing mention that crocodiles are more dangerous than alligators is this Golden Guide’s only semi-concession that alligators themselves are dangerous, but you only have to be around them for five seconds to feel five millennia of human civilization just slide away.
Actually, the whole place feels that way. I know of hardly any experiences on Earth more inherently despairful than watching the sun set from a tent deep inside Big Cypress Swamp and feeling the most oppressive darkness in the world closing in, teeming with vigilant aliens.
Foremost among those aliens are the alligators, but right behind them would be the innumerable snakes that infest the area. My old friend insisted during every visit that these creatures were actually beautiful, but she wasn’t bitten by as many of them as I was. The Guide is typically sanguine about that possibility:
Snake bite is more easily prevented than treated. Wear heavy shoes and use care when walking. All snakes bite. The bite of non-poisonous species may show a U-shaped pattern of tooth marks. Treat with an antiseptic. Bites of poisonous snakes often show two large fang punctures and perhaps other teeth marks as well. Learn first aid before you go. Keep the patient quiet; apply a tourniquet; cut and suck the wound. Notify a park ranger or get the victim to a doctor immediately.
There’s actually a somewhat stern tone running through a good part of this Guide – a tell-tale giveaway that despite its rosy, tourist-friendly ultimate purpose it knows perfectly well it’s describing a hellscape that wants nothing more than to consume all these clueless pink-skins tromping around with their cameras hanging around their necks:
There is little danger in the park except for that which people create themselves. Stay on trails and roads. Dress appropriately. Be prepared for mosquitoes in summer. Check charts before boating and fishing. Much of the park is wild country. Do not underestimate it.
I very much doubt I’ll ever be back to the Everglades or the Keys, so it was extra-nice to find this Golden Guide at the Brattle Bookshop the other day. The Brattle’s ecosystem doesn’t bother me at all – I suspect I’ll be back to it, no guidebook needed.
April 16th, 2015
As obvious as obvious gets, and yet I chuckled aloud over my bai sach chrouk:
April 14th, 2015
Our book today is The Civilization of the Renaissance, the brilliant 1860 masterpiece by Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, but it’s not just any edition: I recently found (at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course) a copy of the beautiful oversized edition put out by the Phaidon Press in 1939 for the English-language book market in Vienna – and done up in typical lavish Phaidon style. The text of Burckhardt’s book, here given a great galumphing translation by S. G. C. Middlemore, can easily stand on its own, of course: Burckhardt is an endlessly interesting, passionate, intelligent guide. Every time I revisit this grand book, I’m struck again by how energetically good it is, how quicksilver-intelligent and how massively, almost effortlessly eloquent it all is. Burckhardt looks at the full spectrum of the ideological side of the Renaissance – the revival of letters, the seismic shifts in blind religious faith, the rise of both the state and the individual as new kinds of works of art, the growth of secular festivals and commerce in the cities and towns, all of it – and he moves through it all with such masterful skill as to put virtually all such histories, before or since, in the shade.
And like all great books on such a level, there’s a very pleasingly reassuring proportion of rum summaries and wry opinions. As with the works of Gibbon or Adam Smith, there are plenty of bits to spark arguments, bits that always make me smile for their sheer outlandishness, like this description of that magnificent brute, Pope Julius II, hardly one single detail of which is right:
Whatever may have been the private morals of Julius II, in all essential respects he was the saviour of the Papacy. His familiarity with the course of events since the pontificate of his uncle Sixtus had given him a profound insight into the grounds and conditions o the Papal authority. On these he found his own policy, and devoted to it the whole force and passion of his unshaken soul. He ascended the steps of St. Peter’s chair without simony and amid general applause, and with him ceased, at all events, the undisguised traffic in the highest offices of the Church. Julius had favourites, and among hem were some of reverse of the worthy, but a special fortune put him above the temptation to nepotism.
But such bits are just illicit titterings; the real enjoyment of Burckhardt’s book, its real rolling magnificence, comes from its intensely empathetic descriptions of every aspect of the Renaissance itself – the soldiers for hire, the ordinary people, the kings and doges, the merchants who were suddenly voyaging everywhere in the world, and, in a wonderful passage, the key administrators of the whole Renaissance itself, the new wave of humanists who were embracing and promulgating the new learning. When Burckhardt writes about them, you get the distinct impression he’s feeling a personal connection:
The career of the humanists was, as a rule, of such a kind that only the strongest characters could pass through it unscathed. The first danger came, in some cases, from the parents, who sought to turn a precocious child into a miracle of learning, with an eye to his future position in that class which then was supreme. Youthful prodigies, however, seldom rise above a certain level; or, if they do, are forced to achieve their further progress and development at the cost of the bitterest trials. For an ambitious youth, the fame and the brilliant position of the humanists were a perilous temptation; it seemed to him that he too ‘through inborn pride could no longer regard the low and common things of life.’ He was thus led to plunge into a life of excitement and vicissitude, in which exhausting studies, tutorships, secretaryships, professorships, offices in princely households, mortal enmities and perils, luxury and beggary, boundless admiration and boundless contempt, followed confusedly one upon the other, and in which the most solid worth and learning were often pushed aside by superficial impudence. But the worst of all was, that the position of the humanist was almost incompatible with a fixed home, since it either made frequent changes of dwelling necessary for livelihood, or so affected the mind of the individual that he could never be happy for long in one place.
But in addition to Burckhardt’s great text, this Phaidon edition has a glorious addition: its final hundred pages consist of a huge gallery of absolutely gorgeous high-definition black-and-white photos of paintings, tapestries, portraits, sculptures, building plans, building models, and sketches, all of the assembled and curated by Ludwig Goldscheider, the founder of Phaidon.
It’s an incredibly enjoyable assemblage of images, all in such exquisite detail. We can see a close-up of the heavy-lidded face of vicious condottiere Gattamalata, from the statue made by Donatello; we see Dosso Dossi’s infectiously happy portrait of a laughing jester sharing a close-up with a sheep; we see a cartoon caricature by Annibale Carracci that looks like it could be found in any satirical magazine today, and there are hundreds more such illustrations. Paging through that back portion of the book, I was struck by what a sumptuous way it was to experience Burckhardt’s work. I know I have a normal paperback of The Civilization of the Renaissance somewhere in my library, but I doubt I’ll even bother to look for it now.
April 13th, 2015
Our book today is Stephen Kelley’s The Language of the Dead (the prepositional phrase isn’t explicitly necessary to get your book featured on Mystery Monday, but it obviously doesn’t hurt…), the first in a planned series of murder mysteries taking place in rural England during the Second World War, when food and resources are being rationed, when blackouts are in effect every night as an optimistic precaution against German bombers, and when the backdrop of a world war subtly shifts the very feel of murder on the home front.
The Language of the Dead is set in lovely Hampshire in 1940, and our hero is Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Lamb, a married man and WWI veteran who comes to us in the novel’s opening chapters so snugly packaged in police procedural cliches that meeting him feels more like reminiscing about him. He has strained relations with both his wife Marjorie and his daughter Vera, he takes breath mints to help him with his struggle against his tobacco addiction, he’s carrying around psychological baggage from the Great War (and he shares a surname with a famous writer, for extra points), he’s much more of a plodder than a piercer when it comes to ferreting out crimes, he’s a stickler for procedure except when he’s not, etc. etc.
It’s a heavy load to throw off in the course of only one novel, and it’s to Kelly’s credit that he manages even as much as he does. Things are helped along by the plot (although even there, the ultimate villain is spottable almost from the first pertinent scene, after which you’re just waiting to learn motive, not identity), which is kicked into gear by the discovered of the body of an old loner farmhand named William Blackwell, who’s been gruesomely murdered in the village of Quimby:
Will Blackwell’s arms were flung away from his body, as if in a gesture of ecstatic welcome, and his legs spread wide. The position of the old man’s limbs put Lamb in mind of a child lying in the snow making angels. The leftmost tine of a rusting pitchfork with a worn, weathered handle was thrust into the center of his neck while a scythe with a curved blade of roughly twenty inches long – also partly rusted – protruded from his chest. A copious amount of blood had pooled in the dry grass around the body and the old man’s eye sockets were full of fleshy pulp.
Kelly does a good job juxtaposing the sordid nature of the crime with its frankly idyllic setting, which he evokes in offhand half-paragraphs of memorably unstressed pretty detail:
The twilight air had grown cool and redolent of the fragrances of wildflowers and windblown grasses. Bees and butterflies busied themselves in the meadows and the first bats appeared. Small birds occasionally darted from thickets to alight on sagging fences. The sun had eased its way down to a point just beneath the tops of the highest trees of the wood to their right, slanting shadows across the footpath.
And as more murders occur (and as a helpless and obviously traumatized boy and suspicions of local witchcraft gather around the peripheries), Kelly also does a good job of juxtaposing something else: the subtle ways the tensions of the crimes combine in all the characters with the tensions of the times. As one character says later in the book, “It’s bad enough that the damned Germans are due any day now and our men are being shot out of the sky and slaughtered before they can even get airborne. It’s too much strain for the average person.”
By the time The Language of the Dead is in full swing, Kelly has largely made you forget about the many derivative ways it got started (and, for that matter, about that peskily familiar prepositional phrase in the title), and the last fifty pages or so are genuinely exciting. In the end, the book turns out to be yet another cliché, although this time a good one: it’s a very promising debut.
April 12th, 2015
The latest big crossover event in DC Comics has now well and truly begun, although I’m predictably late getting around to writing about it here at Stevereads. It’s called “Convergence,” and part of the reason I’m late writing about it is that I’m still not entirely clear on what it IS.
DC’s previous really big event was the birth of “The New 52” a few years ago, in which the company underwent a full-spectrum reboot, tearing down decades of continuity and starting all its marquee characters – Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the rest – with brand-new first issues and entirely re-conceived origin stories. I think the company honchos viewed it as a way to clear out lots of tangled and confusing backstory and re-invent these classic characters in order to attract a wider audience of new readers (and if it simultaneously gave a whole bullpen of creators – writers and artists both – a chance to feel really invigorated about their storytelling, so much the better).
I was enormously skeptical about “The New 52,” as probably goes without saying. And my doubts weren’t exactly allayed by the initial roll-out of first issues and the changes they contained. Everything seemed to skewed for attracting new fans alright – provided all of those new fans were horny 13-year-old boys. Male characters were all grimmer and more humorless than ever (personality-wise, they were all Batman); female characters were all huge-breasted anorexics with self-esteem issues; story lines were bigger and louder but also dumber. It’s true that my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes got two ongoing titles and both those titles were very good – but both were among the first New 52 titles to get cancelled, and all of my other favorites faired little better. Wonder Woman became a one-dimensional “What ho, fellow warriors!”-type sword-slinging lunkhead (sort of like a Conan the Barbarian with even bigger boobies); Superman became first a workboot-wearing football team bully-jock and then a levitating, emotionless Visiting Alien in a Nehru collar; the Justice League became a loose collection of preening egomaniacs, none of whom trusted each other. It’s true that Aquaman got one hell of a good reboot, and of course no reconception can really dim the sheer workability of the Batman titles – but for the most part, I thought “The New 52” was a classic example of fixing something that hadn’t been broken.
Things got better. The reboot was an enormous success with fans; the story lines steadily improved; the creative teams started doing some truly excellent work. Even the Superman titles, for which I’d held out little hope, started becoming really good. Titles came and went, but over all there was a feeling of bubbling creativity that I gradually came to like quite a bit.
Now all of that is up for grabs again; “Convergence” is specifically designed to shake things up, and like I said, I’m not exactly sure why. One veteran comics-watcher snidely pointed out to me that the company can’t exactly go on calling something “new” that’s now a few years old, but that can’t have been much of a reason, since it would sure be easier to simply remove “The New 52” logo from all DC’s issue-covers than to scrap their entire publishing line for two months and foist “Convergence” and all its spin-offs on their readers.
Whatever the reason, after an initial “Issue 0” last week, the whole megilla kicked off officially this week with “Convergence” #1 and a smattering of spinoff issues. The premise, as outline in that first issue, is disarmingly simple: a super-being named Telos has plucked cities from dozens of different eras and continuity-lines in DC’s long publishing history and installed them on a barren planet Telos totally controls. He deprived the super-beings of those worlds of their superpowers that whole time (no explanation as to how he does any of this, of course), but now he wants to try something different: he’ll restore their super-powers and make them fight it out. The victorious reality will get to live, and all the others will be wiped out.
Disarmingly simple, like I said, and also droolingly dumb. Not only do a great many DC superheroes have superpowers you couldn’t just switch off without killing them, but also, if you’ve got a bad guy who’s so powerful he can at any moment idly play games with all of the good guys, what’s the point of telling superhero stories at all? The various DC continuities include wizards, aliens, immortals, and at least one agent of the Christian God Himself – the fact that “Convergence” doesn’t explain how any of these beings, let alone all of them, could become simple playthings for some random super-bad guy is certainly a big, distracting mark against it.
This #1 issue has all kinds of other marks against it. It’s written by Jeff King and Scott Lobdell (and drawn by Carlo Pagulayan), and AS a first issue, it stinks. The action opens in mid-scene, almost in mid-sentence, on some alternate Earth in the middle of some plot that quite obviously culminated in some other comic book. Alternate-world versions of Batman, the Flash, Superman and others are facing off against yet a different version of Superman, this one obviously evil. There’s not so much as a paragraph of exposition to explain any of this, not so much as a sentence of synopsis about whatever the hell preceded this opening page – instead, newcomers are I guess expected to just sink or swim.
There’s a volcanic eruption, a giant stone hand, a red-haired woman who jumps out of the ground (where apparently she’d been eavesdropping without needing to breathe?) and kisses somebody – none of it makes any sense to the newcomer, and then our heroes (at least I think they’re our heroes) are rudely transported to the world Telos has set up in order to pit all his various captured cities against each other. Our heroes are told they won’t be allowed to make common cause with any of the other heroes – instead, it’ll be a multi-part fight-to-the-death, with all of reality as the prize. What you see on the cover of the issue – our heroes preparing to fight Telos – never even comes close to happening inside.
DC put out a few spin-off comics this same week, all of them set in various alternate timelines and continuities, and with a great deal of trepidation, I bought “Convergence: Superman” #1 – mainly on the strength of the cover, which shows Superman kissing Lois Lane as the four-color comics gods intended (not Wonder Woman, his “New 52” love interest, although they don’t seem to know or like each other at all in regular New 52 comics).
The issue is firmly set in the world of “Convergence.” The pre-New 52 Superman (with enormous restraint, I’ll refrain from calling him the real Superman) has been trapped in Gotham City, of all places, with a very pregnant Lois Lane (a nod to the idea that time hasn’t been standing still in any of these continuities while we’ve all been reading the one featured in “The New 52”). His superpowers are gone, but his nature is still the same, so he’s been going out to fight crime dressed in head-to-toe black, with Lois offering commentary via an earpiece. As the issue begins, Clark is trying to foil a drug-running operation when two things happen: first, everybody hears a booming, disembodied voice (it’s Telos, announcing his tournament), and second, one of the bad guys blasts Clark with a flamethrower. Lois, not knowing that Telos’s announcement means he’s magically restored everybody’s powers, is momentarily terrified that her only-human husband has been burned to a crisp.
And when the flames clear, I got a panel I’ve been waiting years for, waiting for ever since “The New 52” began: Superman, the pre-reboot Superman, standing there with his spitcurl and his smile and his bright circus-acrobat costume.
He takes care of the criminals in short order and returns to Lois, and before he heads out to investigate the mysterious booming voice, he and Lois indulge in a little gentle, teasing chat, and it’s exactly the kind of lovely little moment that virtually never happens in “The New 52”:
The issue is written by Dan Jurgens and drawn by a favorite of mine, Lee Weeks, and it ends of a cliffhanger, so I know I get at least one more adventure of this Superman. And a glance at some of the upcoming “Convergence” titles gives me hope that there’ll be other gems I can savor before the whole thing comes to whatever its conclusion will be.
I’m still unclear on the nature of that conclusion, but I think I can tell two things for sure: a) the continuity that results from this event won’t in fact be one single winner of the contest Telos has set up but a blending of elements from several of them, and therefore b) no matter how I might have irrationally hoped for it once upon a time, that new continuity won’t simply be a return to what I consider “normal.” And it took the prospect of seeing all these different continuities jumbling together to make me realize I maybe don’t even hope for that anymore. Against my own expectations, I enjoyed a lot of what “The New 52” offered me. I’m willing to bet I’ll enjoy a lot of whatever arises from “Convergence” as well. I’ll read a bunch next week with that hope in mind.
April 10th, 2015
Our books today are three new romances hot off the presses, and they quite accidentally nagged at a small corner of my guilty conscience when it comes to my foremost guilty pleasure. In the past, veteran romance readers have accused me of disproportionately favoring historical romances over all other kinds, and although I initially bridled at the thought, the more I thought about it the more I realized it was true. It’s understandable – after all, I make no secret of my love for historical fiction (and in fact make it my sole editorial preoccupation in my other web-lit home, the Historical Novel Review) – but it isn’t exactly fair to or representative of the huge remainder of the romance field, where sizzling-hot quasi-erotica set in the present day easily outsells the bodice-rippers that were once the genre’s mainstay.
The imbalance struck me as I read my way through some of this month’s new romances from the good folks at Berkley, so I moved a few contemporaries to the top of the pile for this little round-up, starting with:
Below the Belt by Jeanette Murray – This one stars athletic trainer Marianne Cook, who has the curious job of training the male members of the Marine Corps boxing team into a well-oiled professional unit. Marianne is pert and sexy, of course, and so she’s invariably the object of unwanted attention from all of those very young and nearly brainless Marines. The book opens with a fun scene in which she’s saved from one such encounter by the book’s hero, First Lieutenant Brad Costa, who Marianne spots right away as a member of the Corps himself:
“Marine? What gave it away?” The taller, older one smiled easily, but his grip on the young man never loosened. Like his younger friend, he wore the same distinctive military markers – medium brown hair in a high and tight, polo tucked into jeans without any designer rips or holes – but it wasn’t so much a definition of who he was as it was just something he wore comfortably. He was probably in his late twenties, early thirties tops, she’d guess. Not old. But old enough to flip a switch from thinking What a silly little infant over to Oh, boy, that’s good to look at.
That pointed mention of Brad Costa’s age is the twinkle in the book’s eye throughout. He’s a bit older than the usual mid-twenties, and nobody in the book mocks that idea more thoroughly than Costa himself. The book is a light-hearted affair, certainly, although nowhere near as fluffy as our next book:
Love After All by Jaci Burton – This author will be familiar to romance readers for, among other things, her “Play-by-Play” novels (in two of which, Melting the Ice and Taking a Shot, she advances the charming idea that professional hockey players are actually a form of humans), and her “Hope” novels ( Hope Flames, Hope Ignites, Hope Burns), of which this is the latest one. It tells the story of high school math teacher Chelsea Gardner (who could “weed out a decent man from a loser in the first fifteen minutes of a date”), who’s worked out a perfect list of the qualities she’s determined to find in her ideal man. He’s got to work a 9 to 5 job; he’s got to be a natty dresser; he’s got to have a great big manly dog; he’s got to have no relationship baggage, and so on. The one person she’s certain doesn’t qualify is Sebastian “Bash” Palmer, the owner of the No Hope at All bar:
Bash was the perfect example of the wrong type of guy. She mentally ticked off all the items on her list that he didn’t fit.
He was divorced. He was a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy. And while he might look super hot in said jeans and T-shirt, it still counted against him.
The list starts getting whittled away in the book’s opening pages, when one of his ex-girlfriends storms into the bar and hands Bash a terrified little dog she claims she only adopted to impress him. Little Lulu almost immediately becomes the cement that bonds Chelsea and Bash together, and the novel that follows is a happy, air-light thing, a perfect diversion for a snowy, sleety Boston April.
But much to my chagrin – and my pleasure – the book I enjoyed most this time around was, you guessed it, a historical novel:
This Gun for Hire by Jo Goodman – I wasn’t very familiar with Goodman’s books until I read her 2013 novel True to the Law, which was very satisfyingly substantial and mighty good. So I went into her new book This Gun for Hire with high hopes, and I wasn’t disappointed. The book is set in 1888, the story of former army cavalryman Quill McKenna, who’s the bodyguard of Ramsey Stonechurch, the main power broker and mine owner of Stonechurch, Colorado. When the Stonechurch family receives threats, Quill hires scout Calico Nash to protect Ramsey’s daughter from danger – and Quill begins to find himself attracted to her. Calico is a superb gunman, but after an unexpected demonstration, he’s willing to cede top honors to Quill:
Quill fell silent, thinking. After a few moments, he said, “Well, my father called it a preternatural bent. It was not a compliment. He didn’t trust that my talent wasn’t the devil’s doing, and he was certain I would come to grief for having it.”
“And your brother? Does Israel have the same bent?”
“No, but he’s done his best to prove that you can come to grief without it.” He smiled wryly. “If my father ever saw the irony there, he’s never said as much.”
Calico walked up to him, raised herself slightly on her toes, and kissed him on the mouth. “I appreciate the irony, and I am in awe of your gift. If I thought for a moment that I could be the shot you are, I might be envious, but what you can do is something extraordinary.”
“It’s probably a little important that I’m good at it, Calico, but it’s still only shooting.”
There’s very much more going on in this book than “only shooting – the action sequences are wonderfully done, the characters are sharply drawn (with a very refreshing minimum of anachronisms), and there’s a snarky note of narrative sub-commentary running alongside the story that ended up being my favorite aspect of the book.
The book – a historical novel! Dammit! I’ll try better in next month’s Romance Roundup!