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A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked in
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked in
by Magnus Mills
Edition: Paperback
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mills Strikes Again, December 27, 2012
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I adore Mills' first two books (The Restraint of Beasts and All Quiet On The Orient Express) and now religiously pick up every new book he writes. I have to say that nothing he's written since (including this book) has hit me as hard as those first two, but he is such a distinctive writer that I'm always glad to have the chance to peek into his world. It's a world like ours, but with a fairy tale or fable style, stripped down and with minimal detail. Even the language is simplified, to the point where a child could quite easily read it. But behind it all is the message of a satirist -- although what that message precisely is, Mills is far too canny to explicitly state.

The story is narrated by an unnamed man who has just been appointed by royal decree to be the Principal Composer to the Imperial Court Greater Fallowfields, never mind that he has no training in music whatsoever. He joins the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Postmaster General, the Astronomer General, the Comptroller for the Admiralty, the Surveyor of Imperial Works, the Pellitory-of-the-Wall, and the Librarian-in-Chief, as the cabinet to the "His Exalted Highness, the Majestic Emperor of the Realms, Dominions, Colonies and Commonwealth of Greater Fallowfields." Unfortunately, his majesty is entirely absent, and in the absence of the emperor, the cabinet must keep Fallowfields running smoothly. However, in the days leading up to the "Twelve-Day Feast," it becomes evident that not all is well in the surrounding realms, as a group of traveling players bring ill rumors, and someone appears to be building a railroad headed straight for the imperial capital. Amidst all this is the usual Millsian oddness -- such as the orchestra of serfs which spends hours each day playing only the national anthem, or the "stipendary" sixpence each cabinet member receives once a week, but which is not accepted at either the candyshop or the tavern, and soforth.

It is exceedingly tempting (and possibly correct) to read the story as a fable about England ("Fallowfields" certainly invokes a kind of nostalgic Albion, a name that would be a good fit in Tolkein's own Shires, and there's a passage about street names that appears to be a thinly veiled allusion to London) resting on its historic laurels and sinking under absurd policy choices while the brutal efficiency of the City of Scoffers (China?) closes in from the east, and from the west a fleet arrives bearing men claiming to be "cousins" of the people of Fallowfields (and who are "earnest" and "swagger" and speak in superlatives, and thus appear to be Americans) offering salvation from the City of Scoffers. However, I'd be hesitant to extend the potential parallels our own world any further than that. For example, the imperial orchestra and its lead violinist play a large role in the book, but I have no idea where they fit into a larger interpretation. Or what is one to make of the schemers who forge imperial decrees for their own comfort? Or the role of the "Player King" and his traveling troupe of actors? Or that the characters all bear the names of various kinds of birds?

Personally, I didn't need answers to all these questions in order to enjoy the book, but I do wish the ending had been a little less abrupt. Unlike the rest of the book, which unwinds at a leisurely pace, it felt like Mills was in a rush to finish. If you like his other books, you'll probably like this, and if you've never read anything by him, it's as good a place as any to start. Just don't expect any answers... I'd be very curious to see what a filmmaker like Wes Anderson might do with one of Mills's books.

Noughties: A Novel
Noughties: A Novel
by Ben Masters
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.24
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Simultaneously Boring, Annoying, and Too Clever By Half, December 27, 2012
This review is from: Noughties: A Novel (Hardcover)
I picked this up because I tend to like contemporary writing by young British writers, and this tale of the last night at Oxford sounded promising. Eliot (our narrator), Jack, Scott, and Sanjay are out for a night of epic drinking (the book's three acts mirror the three watering holes on their crawl: pub --> bar --> club), along with ladies Ella, Abi, and Megan, to celebrate the end of their undergraduate days. Intermingled with the night's events are many flashbacks of Eliot's time at Oxford and before, as well as his recounting odd dreams, and a barrage of texts from his girlfriend back home. Unfortunately, the book manages to be simultaneously boring, annoying, and too clever for it's own good, which is quite a trick. It's boring because there is no plot, the general theme of "wow, I have no idea what to do after uni..." is beyond trite, and Eliot's main dilemma of what to do about the girl he has back home is entirely uninteresting. It's annoying because Eliot is an entirely unsympathetic and uninteresting jackass, and none of the supporting characters have any depth to them whatsoever, and as they get drunker and drunker, this only becomes amplified. It's too clever because it appears to be jam packed with "literary resonances, allusions, quotations" (per the author's note, but I prefer to call them "wink-winks") that presumably are there in order to make sure the reader knows that despite writing a profanity-laden book about a booze-up, complete with vomiting, the author is a well-read dude. I have to confess, by the end of the first part (page 107), I found little reason to read on -- I didn't connect in any way with any of the characters, and I didn't care about their concerns. There was exactly one memorable chunk in these first hundred pages: Eliot's recounting of his admissions interview for Oxford, which was very well told and amusing. But a handful of decent pages out of a hundred just isn't a good enough ratio for me to invest any more time with these characters.

The Hard Bounce
The Hard Bounce
by Todd Robinson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.21
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Punch-Packing Pulp Debut, December 27, 2012
This review is from: The Hard Bounce (Paperback)
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There are a bunch of non-fiction books about bouncers (The Bouncer's Bible, Bouncers and Bodyguards, Bouncer's Guide to Barroom Brawling, etc.), but this is the first novel I've come across to feature a a bouncer as protagonist. Tough guy "Boo" Malone and his tough guy partner "Junior" run a small security company in Boston, providing doormen and other low-end security personnel to a range of bars and nightclubs. One day, a cute petite in classy clothes woman walks in to the Kenmore Square dive they are based out of and offers them a job they can't refuse -- that is to say, a job that pays way more than they can earn in a month of working doors. The DA, who is considering a run for mayor, seems to have lost track of his teenage girl, and needs her found and returned home quietly before the media find out. Boo and Junior are straight muscle, not private detectives, but the money is way to good to pass up, so they muddle ahead. What follows is a fairly rough trip that leads them into the world of child pornography, the Irish mob, and more -- this is not a book for the faint of heart. There were a few times I had to pause and consider whether I really wanted to keep reading it at that particular moment. What makes the book rise above the average pulp thriller is Boo and Junior, who met and became fast friends while in an orphanage, and who emerge as engaging and amusing characters. They are rough guys, but have their own code of ethics. Moreover, they are men of action who don't necessarily plan things out so well, but end up improvising on the fly with both good, bad, and ugly results. They also have an engaging network of helpers, including a heroin-addict vice cop, a hungry street kid, a hacker helpmate from the orphanage, and loose canon psycho pal also from the orphanage. The story ends up taking one twist too many at the end for my taste, and I never quite understood why they got hired in the first place, but it's a reckless good ride for those who like action-packed crime fiction.

When Johnny Came Marching Home
When Johnny Came Marching Home
by William Heffernan
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.36
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4.0 out of 5 stars Strong Historical Murder Mystery, December 6, 2012
I had never heard of the author, but as a sucker for Civil War-set mysteries (like the Abel Jones series, or Sweetsmoke, to name the first that pop into my head), I picked this up. Cutting back and forth between three time periods, it tells the story of four Vermont playmates as they grow up to become teenagers in the years leading up to the Civil War, their time as Union soldiers, and immediately after. This kind of time-shifting can be cumbersome or confusing in the wrong hands, but Heffernan weaves back and forth with a minimum of fuss and no loss of narrative pace.

The hero is Jubal, who enlists in the Union Army with his friends, and returns home minus an arm. His father is the town constable and takes him on as his assistant while he tries to come to terms with his injury and the loss of his closest friend, Abel. Jubal is also in love with Abel's little sister, but his guilt at Abel's death and his own injury are holding him back from pursuing her. Meanwhile, their somewhat cruel friend Johnny went off to war and returned to the town as a monster. When he is murdered soon after his return, Jubal tries to untangle which of the many people who disliked Johnny might have done it.

The book does an excellent job at portraying an idyllic small-town childhood, the horrors of war, and the effect the war had on everyone. Scenes are vivid and fully realized, and the murder mystery is well conceived and developed. The battle scenes at places like Antietam and Gettysburg have an immediacy and realism to them, as does the depiction of Union Army life. There are a few minor missteps here and there, for example an unnecessary teary cameo by Lincoln, and the love story that gets a little too schmaltzy, but on the whole, it's a strong historical murder mystery..

After finishing the book, I poked around and learned that Heffernan won three Pulitzers for investigative journalism, wrote a series of police procedurals including an Edgar-winner, and has had books on the NYT bestseller list, so it's no wonder that one feels like they're in the hands of a pro while reading this book. I'd definitely like to see another Jubal book.

Make Room! Make Room!
Make Room! Make Room!
by Harry Harrison
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.82
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat Tepid Dystopian Eco-Noir, December 6, 2012
This review is from: Make Room! Make Room! (Paperback)
I picked this up because I love genre mixtures such as this book's blend of crime with speculative fiction, and also because I was curious to see what relation it bore to the film (Soylent Green), which is based on it. The book is a very direct representation of the concerns of its time -- namely overpopulation and environmental degradation. It's set in Manhattan (and one portion in Brooklyn) thirty years into the future, during the summer and winter of 1999. The city is home to some 35 million people (a figure currently surpassed by the Tokyo-Yokohama metro area), everything from water to food to clothing is strictly rationed, and those with any wealth must travel with bodyguards. And while alcohol is certainly at a premium, proteins such as meat are even more so -- hence, "meateasies" as opposed to "speakeasies."

Against this backdrop we meet NYPD detective Andy Rusch, whose job is largely futile, and whose personal life consists of a shared apartment with an spirited elderly man named Sol. We also meet street kid Billy Chang, whose ill-advised attempt at burglary leads to murder -- a murder that Rusch gets assigned to investigate. The dead man is some kind of mob-connected bigwig, and the politicians who are in bed with the mob want some clarity as to whether it was a hit from a rival gang or not. The corruption is left more or less implied, and it's kind of nice that it's left mainly as background context, while Rusch attempts to pound the pavement in his almost soleless shoes to find an answer. What he does find is the murdered man's arm candy, Shirl, who is a beautiful young woman tying to survive using her looks.

The story kind of follows familiar noir themes thereafter, and you know nothing is going to turn out well for anyone. It's a textbook example of a writer using genre as framework for a larger message. The crime story is completely incidental -- the real meat of the book is overpopulation, lack of birth control, lack of research in environmental consequences of consumption, etc. Unfortunately, a lot of this comes in the form of direct rants from Sol, which are fairly clumsy info/editorial dumps and not even all that necessary. The depiction of the desperation in the streets, water riots, and such, all paint a vivid enough picture that the reader is well able to make the connections on their own, without the in-your-face monologues.

On the whole, it's kind of interesting, but a bit tepid. The plot of the film is somewhat different, and the book doesn't turn people into food.

No Title Available

1.0 out of 5 stars Major Miscalculation, December 6, 2012
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I hesitate to say this, since I am loving the amount of translated fiction that Amazon is bringing to the US, but this book is a disaster. Although it is listed fairly clearly as the first in a seven-book series, it is completely unlike any crime/thriller series book I've ever read because it is in no way a self-contained story. At the end of the brief (2 hours max) read, you have nothing to show for it. You have met a few characters, passed back and forth across twelve years of their lives, and spied on some intriguing scenes -- but that's it. Much is hinted at but very little is revealed, and nothing is resolved in any way. I don't know what the release schedule is for the other six volumes, but I can't imagine why anyone would pick this up in chunks rather than waiting for a version that collects them into a single volume. I gather the book was originally published as an e-book in Germany, and perhaps that format lent itself more naturally to this kind of serial format, but to try and publish it as seven separate slim paperbacks is a major miscalculation. Wait for the completed series and then you'll have enough to be able to decide if the characters are people you want to spend time with and the storytelling is strong enough.

Richard Stark's Parker, Vol. 1: The Hunter
Richard Stark's Parker, Vol. 1: The Hunter
by Darwyn Cooke
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.69
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5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant Visual Adaptation, December 5, 2012
I've never read any of Richard Stark's (aka Donald Westlake) 24-book Parker series, but I have seen a few of the films based on the character (including Point Blank and Payback, both based on this first in the series), so I was familiar with the plot before I cracked its pages. The novel was published in 1962 and this version is faithful to time, both in story and style. Cooke's two-tone black and gunmetal blue palette combine perfectly with his retro-cool illustration style which has the flexibility to denote the full spectrum, from realism to cartoon action, and of course, Parker's square jaw, the huge cars, and long legs of various dames all look great here.

The story opens with a 10-page montage showing someone (we never see his face) making his way to Manhattan and forging a new identity. Then-- Bam! -- a full page panel of a disheveled and furious man glaring into the mirror. After another mostly wordless ten pages of him forging checks and getting properly attired, we finally get to the story. A beautiful woman, some kind of betrayal, and a man named Mal (not exactly subtle with the naming here) who Parker very much would like to catch up with. Finally, on page 46, we get a flashback to the job that went wrong and the betrayal. This is handled nicely visually, using a moire filter to create a kind of haze on the artwork for the 15-page flashback. With all the setup complete, the second half of the book picks up steam as Parker tracks down those involved in his betrayal and metes out his own brutal revenge. It's a perfect marriage of art and story, and it's easy to see why this adaptation is the only one (film or otherwise) in which Stark/Westlake allowed the main character to use the Parker name. I'll definitely seek out Cooke's other Parker adaptations, The Outfit and The Score.

The Lying Year
The Lying Year
by Marian Schwartz
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.99
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Meandering Russian Mood Piece, December 5, 2012
This review is from: The Lying Year (Paperback)
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With the benefit of 10-20 years of distance, it's unarguable that the decade following the dissolution of the USSR was more or less a disaster for the average Russian. Treated to a series of bewildering economic and political reforms that rendered state services completely unreliable, their savings more or less worthless, the rule of law shaky at best, and funneled wealth and power into the hands of a select band of oligarchs/mafia, it's hardly surprising that the effects continue to resonate across Russian society today. This novel from one of Russia's more well-regarded writers revisits those uncertain times with a story set the months leading up to the 1998 Russian fiscal crisis (aka the "Ruble crisis").

Mikhail Vorobyov is a twenty-something screwup/slacker who's recently been fired from his job at a large industrial firm in Moscow for boozing on the job. To his astonishment, he is summoned to the boss's office, where he is made an offer he can't refuse. The boss (a budding oligarch) is concerned that his teenage son is some kind of deviant or sissy, as he spends all day in his room on his computer. The boss wants Mikhail to teach him to be a man, take him out on the town, introduce him to vodka and women -- for which he will be paid a very handsome salary and given the use of a shiny new Land Rover. Naturally, Mikhail jumps at the offer and wacky hi-jinks ensure. Or rather, somewhat wacky hi-jinks sometimes ensue.

After this promising setup, the book never picks up a head of steam, instead meandering all over the place with little urgency or focus. It turns out the teenager has a secret lover, but his father has pledged him to the daughter of an Italian concrete magnate, so that's one thread. Mikhail turns out to be attracted to the kid's lover, so that's another thread. There's plenty of deception (hence the title), plenty of intragenerational issues, plenty of "New Russia" problems (like a gangster who takes over a market stall), some comic set pieces, some gunplay, some diary excerpts, some other voices -- but none of it really adds up to anything really compelling. It's more a series of vignettes or impressions or moods, as opposed to a compelling story. Those who need their fiction to be plot-driven will likely be frustrated, while those who feed on character will find a little more to chew on -- a little, not a lot. Worth trying if you've got some connection to Russia or Russian fiction, otherwise I can't recommend it. It's never a good sign when I'm able to put a book down for a few days and completely forget about it, and that happened several times with this book.

The Dead of Mametz: The First Thomas Oscendale Novel
The Dead of Mametz: The First Thomas Oscendale Novel
by Jonathan Phillip Hicks
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.16
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Murder on the Western Front, October 30, 2012
The Somme battlefield forms the backdrop for this WWI-set thriller, the first in what might well turn into a series featuring Thomas Oscendale. He's a civilian police detective who's been made a Military Foot Police Captain in the British Army, and as such, is generally greeted with scorn and hostility by regular troops. The murder of a Frenchwoman and the suicide of a Welsh solider near the Western Front in July 1916 provide him with two unrelated cases to investigate, which naturally end up dovetailing as he digs deeper and deeper. The key to the crimes lies somewhere in the heavily-defended German-held Mametz Woods, which Welsh regiments are preparing to assault. The book does a good job of describing the trenches, horror of both battle and daily life on the front, as well as the dynamics of those in towns behind the lines and even back home. It's a fine mix of genre with WWI history, and the Welsh focus is likely to appeal to those of that background (Mametz was the bloodiest battle for Welsh units in the war). The mystery itself isn't that intriguing, but worth checking out by readers with an interest in mysteries set amidst warfare. I'll definitely keep an eye out for the next in the series if it comes.
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Care of Wooden Floors
Care of Wooden Floors
by Will Wiles
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $6.00
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and Fun, October 30, 2012
This review is from: Care of Wooden Floors (Hardcover)
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Debut novelist Wiles has managed to pull off a neat trick -- a thriller in which the antagonist is a wooden floor. The protagnoist is a nameless freelance writer living a drab London life, cranking out pamphlets about recycling for local councils. When his old college dormmate Oskar asks him to flatsit for him in an unnamed Eastern European city, he leaps at the opportunity to do some proper, distraction-free writing. Oskar is a fastidious fussbudget, so it comes as little surprise when the writer arrives to find a pristinely modern apartment with precise furnishings, clinical stainless-steel kitchen, and a museum-quality hardwood floor. What does come a surprise are the many handwritten instructions that he uncovers throughout the apartment, including inside books and CDs!

What ensues is an existential struggle of man vs. himself, order vs. disorder, and narrator vs. wooden floor. This sounds rather high-minded and abstract, but it's all done with a sharp and dark wit, as well as some wonderful language. Other ingredients include two cats, a stash of porn, a stern housecleaner, a wild night on the town with one of Oskar's friends, and several catalytic bottles of red wine. To enjoy the proceedings, the reader has to accept the narrator as a bit of a flawed shlub, not a bad person, but an everyman who has made (and continues to make) decisions that aren't the best. Similarly, one has to accept Oskar as a full human being (he appears in a few flashback scenes), rather than the robotic prig he might seem to be. Like a lot of blackly comic stories, there is a certain degree of farce to some of the moments, but I loved it all -- including the twist ending. This would make a great film in the hands of a director with the right sensibilities.

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