Archive for May, 2013

Review: Gulp

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

Mary Roach is a really brilliant science writer.  She picks a topic that 12-year-olds would be excited about, like what happens to the food we eat.  Then she goes off and finds out a ton about it and writes it up  in a way that speaks to the reader’s inner 12-year-old and more mature side.  The result is great books like Stiff, Packing For Mars, and today’s topic, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.

Gulp is a good choice for Roach. Her inner 12-year-old gets to talk about all kinds of icky things like spit and poop and make actual fart jokes while her inner science nerd gets to learn about one of the most interesting things people do: turn food into energy.  And poop. It’s glorious for her and the reader.  Her footnotes on the ironic names of researchers are worth the price alone.

This is great, clear science writing with a sense of fun.

Strongly recommended.


Review: The Burn Palace

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

Stephen Dobyns really impressed me with  The Church of Dead Girls a few years ago.  It’s the kind of book that makes you read anything you see an author put out after it to see how powerful his work can be.  The followup, Boy in The Water also had its pleasures. The Burn Palace is another thriller that ripples out from an eerie initial murder.

I enjoyed many aspects of The Burn Palace.  The plot is lean and propulsive and the characters are all well drawn and interesting.  The setting is well realized and the writing is powerful.  It is diverting in every way.

What it doesn’t have is the haunting initial image and mounting dread of Girls or the meditation on evil present in Boy. This seems like a good thriller without any other agenda. It is enjoyable but not nearly so memorable as some of Dobyns’s best work.

It’s no sin for a thriller to be unfavorably compared to The Church of Dead Girls. Burn Palace is a great way to spend a flight or a few days of reading, but it won’t haunt you.


Review: The Six-Gun Tarot

Saturday, May 25th, 2013

What can I say: I like western mashups.  I enjoyed the original Vertigo Comics Jonah Hex horror/western mashups, and I enjoyed The Six-GunTarot.  The premise is a little Buffy meets Bonanza, and as with most high-concept titles, that can go either way.  John Landis says “What’s important and essential is the execution of the idea.” Rod Belcher has executed.

In some sense this is all from the Vertigo (or Buffy) handbook.  There’s a mythical menace tied to this town in the West that draws a quirky set of powerful defenders to the area who must learn to work together to defeat the big bad.  Along the way lessons will be learned, bonds will be forged, etcetera.  In a World Where…

So, execution matters.  And Belcher delivers.  He’s thoroughly competent at the action parts. He writes a heart-pounding fight scene and the tension building damages your cuticles.  All the thrills are delivered well.

What I liked more was the low-key moseying pace of his characters.  Make no mistake – the action is moving fast, but the characters use their time more for the wry aside or the polite discussion than for the ironic one-liner.  In Six-Gun, the Hellmouth has opened below Lake Woebegon.  It’s a winning tone, and makes the all the blockbuster stuff that much more enjoyable.

There’s no literary pretension here.  This is an engaging adventure story.  And it’s very engaging and adventurous, with a side of small town charm.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls

Saturday, May 25th, 2013

David Sedaris doesn’t change much.  That’s to be expected from a man who has written compellingly about his OCD, but it leaves a reviewer in a difficult place.

Owls marks his return to the short personal essay after  Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk‘s side trip into fable.  I liked Chipmunk, but I’m not sure it was as well received as his essays.  It’s unfair to start by saying that the man doesn’t change when stepping slightly outside his comfort zone gets him zapped.  Still, if you picked up any of his other works, the content and format of Owls is no surprise.

I quite enjoyed Owls. Sedaris writes charmingly about himself, his quirky world, and our quirky world.  Spending a few hours in his literary company is entertaining and rewarding.  Owls is written by Sedaris the established writer, and it is a little sad that it is not as thrilling and unexpected as Naked, but it is every bit as enjoyable.

This is good fun if you like Sedaris’s writing.  If you have disliked his work in the past, this isn’t going to win you over.

Review: When Captain Flint Was Still A Good Man

Saturday, May 25th, 2013

Nick Dybek’s When Captain Flint Was Still A Good Man is a solid literary work.  He takes a claustrophobic hide-bound town and the strained relationships inside it and makes it something both mythic and small.  It’s a story of place and time more than character, but the place and time are worth a look.

His characters are solid, but not stunningly original.  They are creatures of his small fishing town and more personify parts of it than exist on their own.  He has passages where the narrator looks back from where he gets to later, but one sees clearly that he’s a different person than the one experiencing the events in the novel. The time and place are the stars.

The time is the time when a young person decides who he’s going to be – to the extent that he has a say in that decision.  His protagonist is reactive, as most are then, but introspective enough to make the transformation interesting.  Similarly the setting is condensed enough to make nearly every action symbolic.

Fortunately, Dybek has an even hand and an ear for dialog, so that the symbolism stays clear but not hackneyed.  The larger meanings are never hidden, but never overwhelm the story’s rhythm.  The story is a good yarn with some grand gestures.