Sunday, August 22, 2010

August Book Review Roundup

First things, first. Let's get this review ragout off on the right foot with the fabulously leggy cover from Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald E. Westlake:

This was a tremendously fun crime novel written in 1969 by Donald Westlake. New York cab driver Chet Conway is trying to collect on a big win from his bookie, but instead ends up mired hip-deep in gangsters and corpses. Er, make that gangsters, corpses, and a leggy blonde. Fun Stuff!

Stardance and Starseed by Spider & Jeanne Robinson -- After my disappointment with Very Hard Choices, I decided to go back and read a bit of prime Spider, just to reassure myself that indeed he used to deliver the goods consistently. And since I'd never read these two novels that continued the story of the Nebula- and Hugo-award-winning novella "Stardance," these two novels co-written with his wife Jeanne seemed a good bet for a good read.

And indeed, they delivered the goods. The thing that I always felt separates Spider Robinson from a lot of other sci-fi storytellers is the genuine optimism for the future that permeates his best work. That optimism permeates these books for the good. I could also see in here some of the seeds of the things that go awry when Spider isn't on top of his game, but these books are so crisply written and willing to deal with big ideas and big hopes that they're much more forgivable here. If you've never read a Spider Robinson book before, these two (which you might fine apart, or collected together in a currently in-print paperback titled The Star Dancers) are a good place to start.

(BTW, the prose felt very much like classic Spider, so I'd assume that Jeanne was more involved in the plotting and the technical dance information than the word-by-word prose. However, since these books rely so heavily on their dance background, that's no small contribution.)

The Book of Genesis illustrated by R. Crumb -- Here's one that really deserves an in-depth review of its own, and I hope to do one at some point. So for now let me post a link to Arsen Darnay's brief review from his Ghulf Genes blog, Book Recommendation, and pass along my own very strong recommendation for this book. I suppose this isn't a book for those who don't like to acknowledge all the sex and violence in the Old Testament. But I found Crumb's illustrations to be a remarkable interpretation of the text. His earthy illustration style serves to really bring home the remarkable human story of the first book of the Bible. This is a great example of how artwork can truly make you see a familiar text in an entirely new light.

Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1: The Ronin by Stan Sakai -- The first volume of Stan Sakai's remarkable Usagi Yojimbo saga, a series of graphic novels that collect more than 20 years of Usagi Yojimbo comics. Usagi is a travelling ronin -- a samurai without a master -- travelling in a medieval Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals. (Usagi himself is a rabbit.) That may not sound as if it would hang together but it's all remarkable well researched, well plotted, well written, and well drawn. There's a genuine good spirit at work in these books, and once you've started reading them you'll likely find yourself hooked.

Lost at Sea and Scott Pilgrim, Vols. 1-4, all by Bryan Lee O'Malley -- Speaking of addictive graphic novels, I've found myself astonishingly hooked on Bryan Lee O'Malley's very fun Scott Pilgrim series. I blame my sister-in-law Michelle, who dangled Volume 1 (Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life) in front of my addiction-prone nose like the neighborhood pusher handing out free samples. Of course, since I was the one who took her, my niece Stella, and my nephews Henry and Malcolm down to my local comic-book store where they first came across the big Scott Pilgrim display -- in honor of the release of the Scott Pilgrim movie this month -- there's plenty of blame to go around. (Maybe we can place the blame on a gateway book -- O'Malley's first graphic novel, Lost at Sea -- which is a tale more melancholy in tone that tells the story of a teenage girl on a road trip with some friends, but with much of the same multi-layered storytelling that makes the Scott Pilgrim books so much fun.)

You may notice at this point, gentle reader, that this review is remarkably short on any real explanation of what the Scott Pilgrim books are about. That's because ... well, they're really sort of hard to describe. They're a bit of an amalgamation of graphic novel and manga, with lots of video game and music industry references. At some level they tell the story of Scott Pilgrim and his friends, mostly 20-something slackers in Toronto. Oh, and Scott has to fight each the seven evil ex-boyfriends of his new girlfriend Ramona to the death. Don't worry. That makes sense in the books. Or not. Anyway, it's a fun ride. After ripping through the first book I thoroughly enjoyed the next three volumes (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness, Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together) I look forward eagerly to reading Volumes 5 and 6 (Scott Pilgrim vs. The Universe, Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour) and then assume that I'll be distraught that I have to wait for future volumes to be written. Go ahead, try Volume 1. I'll bet you can't read just one.

Marvel Visionaries: Stan Lee by Stan Lee and a cast of all-time-great comic artists, including Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and John Buscema -- This was a lovely find in the bargain rack at my local comic shop, a hardcover collection of 20 classic comics written by Stan Lee. For any comics readers of the younger generation who wonder how Stan Lee got to be such a big name in comics, this book should serve as a fine explanation. This is the writer who created the Marvel Universe and this volume -- which starts with a couple of pre-World-War-II Captain America tales that Stan wrote as a teenager -- also contains great early stories from The Fantastic Four, Thor, Spider-Man, Daredevil, and the Silver Surfer. If you come across this collection somewhere, it's well worth your time.

The Stainless Steel Rat Returns by Harry Harrison -- Ahhh, the book I'd been looking forward to all Summer, and it was worth the wait. Slippery Jim diGriz gets called out of retirement by his country cousins and a spaceship full of porcuswine. Can The Stainless Steel Rat -- with a cocktail in hand and the expert help of his deadly wife Angelina and their sons James and Bolivar -- overcome a corrupt starship captains and a couple planets of evildoers to deliver his kin to a rural porcuswine-farming paradise?

Of course he can! Although ... there is one very dangerous moment in which the ship's computer archive introduces him to an ancient drink known as A Very Dry Martini.

This one's a bit more like several Stainless Steel Rat novellas with a plot wrapped around them than a fully plotted single novel. But it's great fun to once again see the galaxy's greatest con-man back in action righting wrongs while turning a dishonest profit along the way. Anybody new to the series would do well to start at the beginning, but for longtime fans of the Rat, this is a welcome addition to the series.

And that's about it for this batch of reviews. As you can see, there was a decidedly "Summertime Fun" slant to most of my reading selections in August. Worry not, those of you who fear that my brain is turning entirely to mush. Coming soon: a review of This Time Is Different by Carmen M. Reinhart & Kenneth S. Rogoff, an in-depth economics history that examines financial collapses over the past eight centuries.

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