Saturday, December 18, 2010

Flaming Zeppelins: The Adventures of Ned the SealFlaming Zeppelins: The Adventures of Ned the Seal by Joe R. Lansdale

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ever have a six year old tell you a story? ("We got in my fire engine, which was a space ship, and went to the moon and a gorilla fought a dragon and then we had cookies!") Well, these two related novellas seem to have been written with the same principle in mind. In the first one, "Zeppelins West", Buffalo Bill (or rather his disembodied head -- long story) takes his Wild West show to Japan as part of an undercover mission to rescue Frankenstein's monster and ends up on the Island of Doctor Moreau, while in the second, "Flaming London", Mark Twain and Jules Verne find themselves fleeing from an invasion by H.G. Wells' Martians. Oh, yeah, and the connecting character in both pieces is a superintelligent seal. Now I won't deny that these stories have a certain ADD-addled charm, due to their author's insistence on throwing in every steampunk trope he can think of, but at the same time, I'd be hard pressed to say they ultimately added up to much beyond their rather feverish name-checking.

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic CityBoardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Admittedly, I picked this book up because of the tv show, since I was curious to find out just how much of it was based on actual fact. After reading it, I can say that the producers have generally stuck to the spirit, if not the letter, of the historical record, and although they've taken a fair bit of dramatic license with the material, it's not because Atlantic City's history lacks drama. From its early days, when it was planned as an upper-crust health resort (something that went by the boards pretty quickly after speculators realized they could make more money catering to the desires -- legal and otherwise -- of day-tripping blue-collar workers from Philadelphia and New York) to its boom years (roughly from the Gilded Age until the Second World War) as America's Vice Capital to its near death during the 60s to its recent resurgence since the legalization of gambling there in the late 70s, it's not a place that has ever lacked for colorful characters, certainly not as Nelson Johnson tells it (special bonus: Johnson really, really, REALLY doesn't think much of Donald Trump), and while the show's decision to concentrate on the years of Nucky Johnson's (fictionalized as Nucky Thompson in the series) reign as Atlantic City's political and criminal boss in the Roaring 20s makes for some great drama, this book proves that there are plenty more stories here to tell.

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Edible StoriesEdible Stories by Mark Kurlansky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kurlansky is famous for his "micro-histories" like Cod and Salt that take a seemingly mundane subject and expand on it to reveal its pivotal place in human history. Here he attempts the same approach to fiction with somewhat more mixed results. A novel in the form of sixteen separate short stories about a loose collection of people linked by coincidence or consanguinity, it ranges from Anne Beattie-like minimalism to borderline magical realism, held together by a persistent tone of low-key wistfulness, with food -- unsurprisingly, given the author's previous work -- serving as a running focus of or link between its characters (for instance, the bag of "red Hawaiian sea salt" that gets passed from person to person like Stevenson's Bottle Imp). Not bad for what it is, but it made me hungry for more of Kurlansky's nonfiction.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Zero History (Bigend, #3)Zero History by William Gibson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Following up on its immediate predecessors, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, Zero History, once again revolving around the machinations of bleeding-edge marketing guru Hubertus Bigend as he manipulates a motley assortment of oddballs into tracking down what he perceives as the Next Big Thing -- in this case the designer of a line of clothing so exclusive no one knows their identity. Various characters from the previous books reappear, such as former rock singer-turned-journalist Hollis Henry, now ex-junkie translater Milgrim, and someone I can't name without ruining the surprise, but the book is less a sequel than a sort of remix or variation on a theme.

The book has the brisk pace and convoluted plot of a techno-thriller, which may seem like overkill given that it's basically about dungarees -- a decided come-down from the near-apocalyptic stakes of Gibson's earlier novels like Neuromancer, but damn if the guy doesn't pull it off. His gift for language is as strong as ever, with his patented mix of world-weary noirish romanticism and keen eye for the way technology informs and permeates contemporary life (this is a novel about people who interact via iPhones and Twitter as though there's no difference between that and "meatspace" contact") honed to an edge as sharp as one of Molly's razors.

[Note: I would be remiss in not pointing out that the novel's fictional clothing line, "Gabriel Hounds" is taken from the same piece of British folklore as my nom de blog.]

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Man of MeansA Man of Means by P.G. Wodehouse

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An early (1916) effort from The Master; it's only barely a novel, being cobbled together from six related short stories about a hapless schmo who repeatedly lucks into money, is beset by parasites and con artists hoping to separate him from it and by sheer dumb luck emerges from each scrape richer than before. Entertaining in its own right, but worth reading because you can see him working out the plot mechanics that would drive his later works.

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Star IslandStar Island by Carl Hiaasen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've always thought of Carl Hiaasen as the Raymond Chandler to Elmore Leonard's Dashiell Hammett -- while Leonard may have set the template for the breezy Florida-set caper yarn, Hiaasen took it in a more baroque, overtly satirical direction. In addition, his genuine outrage over the various predators and parasites who he sees as destroying his native state's culture and natural beauty grounds his narratives and saves them from being simply exercises in outrageousness for its own sake.

Nevertheless, in this novel, which revolves around the kidnapping of the "undercover stunt double" (read: actress hired to impersonate her whenever she's too wasted to appear in public) of Cherry Pye, a Britney Spears-like trainwreck of a pop singer, one can't help thinking that Hiaasen -- whose novels have previously targeted corrupt politicians, venal developers, and rapacious businessmen -- has gone after some very low-hanging fruit. Especially when one considers that a fondness for classic rock is the one true constant in all of Hiaasen's work: if a guy (and it's almost always a guy) likes, say, Creedence or the Beatles, you know he's unquestionably one of the Good Guys; likewise if a woman too young to have known the glories of Boomer Rock first hand likes it upon being exposed to it, you can bet she's just passed the audition to be the current book's Designated Love Interest. There's much that's eminently mockable about today's tween-pop, but Hiaasen's dislike, which often curdles into sheer contempt, too often has a "get off my lawn" quality to it, which gives the satire a certain tone-deafness, right down the name "Cherry Pye" itself, which would be a tad over-obvious for a second-tier porn actress, let alone a supposed teen idol.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Awww - I bet you say that to all the boys ...

I write like
Raymond Chandler

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

If you're looking for a quick ego boost, follow the link above and plug in a sample of your prose.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Holmes on the RangeHolmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith

My rating: 4 of 5 starsThe first of a series, about Gustav "Old Red" Amlingmeyer, a cowboy in 1890s Montana who decides to take up "deducifyin'" after discovering Sherlock Holmes, told by his brother, Otto (aka "Big Red"), who's drafted into the role of his Watson, partially because he's the only one of the two who can read and write. The brothers get their first shot at cracking a real-life case when folks start turning up dead on the ranch they're working on. The book shows a considerable amount of charm, with well-drawn characters and some nicely-observed period detail. I look forward to reading other novels in this series.
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Monday, May 03, 2010

Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation by Mitch Horowitz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars A highly readable and very interesting, if somewhat scattershot, examination of the esoteric tradition in America, from the Shakers, Quakers, Masons, and the like that played a part in the founding of this country, to the increasingly nutty offshoots that are with us even today as the foundations of the Self-Help movement, Horowitz makes a lively and occasionally compelling case for the idea that America is not so much a Christian nation as so many would claim, but and "occult" one, at least if one defines "occult" as as ragbag of assorted beliefs, ranging from the delusional to the scholarly to the outright fraudulent, with many stops on the road between. View all my reviews >>

Severance Package Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski

My rating: 3 of 5 stars Slick and well-paced, but not exactly deep. It's more like a comic book or a B-movie in novel form than an actual novel, which is hardly surprising, given that the author is a Marvel Comics writer. I'd recently read his most recent novel, EXPIRATION DATE, which struck me as more ambitious overall, so I'm willing to cut this one some slack as being a warm-up exercise for what I hope will be an interesting career. View all my reviews >>