Written by Various
Published by Various

Reviewed by Marc Mason

A few prose books from the major publishers have come through the inbox recently. Let’s take a look at them, shall we?

I’ve long been aware of Alexander McCall Smith’s work, but this was my first encounter with his Isabel Dalhousie series of novels. THE UNCOMMON APPEAL OF CLOUDS (Pantheon) is the ninth to feature the character, and that made me a bit nervous going into the book. However, to my surprise, McCall Smith does a fantastic job of introducing the character for new readers, setting up her life, her supporting cast, and her job in gentle, clear fashion. A philosopher by trade, she dabbles in being an amateur sleuth. In CLOUDS she is approached to help recover a stolen painting, mixing herself into the odd family dynamic of the victim. She also must deal with a number of small personal issues, as well. The prose here is absolutely lovely; McCall Smith has a gift for description that activates the senses and keeps them occupied. But the book is also rather light on actual story or plot. Nothing quite gets resolved as much as you would like it to. Perhaps that’s a nod to the open-endedness of Isabel’s chosen profession of philosopher, and if so that’s clever. That doesn’t make the ending any better or more satisfying, though.

Victoria Roberts is best known for her cartoons, as her work has been appearing in THE NEW YORKER for over twenty years. However, she branches out a bit with the illustrated novel AFTER THE FALL (W.W. Norton). The story is one of whimsy and wit; a family loses its entire fortune overnight, the next morning suddenly finding itself out of its penthouse and instead living scattered throughout Central Park, their belongings and their bodies relocated there overnight. Roberts embraces the absurdity of the instantaneous change in their lives and makes the most of it, weaving in multiple plotlines, crazier characters, and enough strange moments to launch a couple more books along the way. She executes the book in exquisite fashion, her illustrations and her words working together brilliantly, creating a crazy world that the reader can believe in and immediately develop an interest in. There never quite seems to be a point to it all, but suddenly, at the very end, Roberts hits you with the truth of her story and it sinks right down to your heart.

I still don’t quite know what to make of Mark Danielewski’s THE FIFTY YEAR SWORD (Pantheon). A story told by five different speakers, the book executes an unusual form of visual poetry. The plot deals with a mysterious storyteller who explains that he has a “fifty year sword” – a sword whose damage is not apparent until the 50th year of life of the person who has been cut by it. It won’t spoil things to say that the sword gets used and there are unfortunate results. But the tale is almost secondary, really; the star here is the presentation. The illustrations have actually been stitched, not drawn or painted. The tellers are set apart by the quotation marks that have been stitched in various colors. Their lines are intermingled with one another in a way that would do e.e. cummings proud. One of the struggles I had with the book was that the bells and whistles do tend to overwhelm the actual story at its core. It is an impressively ambitious work, no question about it. I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have had it given the reader more opportunity to put focus into it.


Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Del Rey

Reviewed by Marc Mason

One of the growing trends in graphic novels has been taking successful novels and moving their characters and settings into the sequential art realm for prequels, sequels, and in-betweens. Two series that have done so, Kim Harrison’s “Hollows” and Scott Westerfield’s “Uglies” both producing comics versions in the past year. Now both of those graphic novels have sequels on the shelves.

Harrison offers up BLOOD CRIME, which comes on the heels of BLOOD WORK. She is once again aided by artist Gemma Magno, who did part of the first book. This time around, vampire cop Ivy Tamwood and her witch partner Rachel Morgan find themselves both targets and pawns in a power struggle between warring factions in the supernaturally overwhelmed Cincinnati. At the same time, Ivy continues to struggle with her attraction to Rachel and her desire to bite her, drain her, and turn her into a thrall. One of the things that sets this series apart is that these two partners don’t just have issues over who is showing bad hygiene on a stakeout; it’s all about the barely contained sexual tension. The plot itself is sort of secondary; BLOOD CRIME is far more concerned with the underlying issues between the characters. In that, the book succeeds. Magno’s art is okay, but there are a couple of places where the storytelling gets weak, including a moment when Ivy dodges something, but we don’t see what it was, or why it was dangerous until panels later. As I mentioned with the first volume, this stuff isn’t high art, but it’s a passable diversion, and above average for this genre.

Veteran comics scribe Devin Grayson returns to work with Westerfield on UGLIES: CUTTERS, picking up where UGLIES: SHAY’S STORY left off. Artist Steven Cummings also rejoins the mix. After the events of the previous book, rebellion has failed, and everyone in the cast has been turned into a Pretty. This includes some issues with memory lapses, as the ruling class doesn’t quite want the kids to remember their attempts to fight the system. But when Shay bumps into members of her old gang, those memory blocks start to fail, and the entire group once again tries to find itself and to find a new way to rebel against what they perceive as a corrupt society. No matter what has been done to her face and body, something about a life of parties and high fashion, with these kids, it just doesn’t fly. At its heart, CUTTERS is a pretty standard teen romance, but the trappings that the creative team gives it are slick and interesting. In particular, Cummings’ work has a dynamic look to it that infuses the story with energy and excitement, even in the quieter moments. The target audience for this work will devour it with gusto.


Written by Steve Alten
Published by Variance Publishing

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Patrick Shepherd had it all: career as a professional athlete, loving wife, beautiful daughter… but he gave it all up to serve his country and came home a broken man. If he had his choice, he would live out his life in self-pity and despair. But that choice is about to be taken away. An insane scientist has just unleashed a genetically altered form of the Bubonic plague upon Manhattan, and thousands are dying. Aided by his shrink, Virgil, Patrick descends into the Hell that the city has become and faces his own version of Dante’s Inferno as he crosses the island, the only vaccine in his possession, in a desperate attempt to find his wife and child and save them (and himself) from the military’s “final solution”- perhaps the only way to truly save the world and prevent mankind from being eradicated permanently.

I’m a sucker for apocalyptic thrillers- the scarier the scenario, the better, and as far as that goes, GRIM REAPER is one of the most terrifying books I’ve read in quite some time. Alten’s premise is frightening in its simplicity- a psychotically devout American scientist decides to try and force The Rapture by unleashing the plague she’s been working on in her lab, and doing so with alterations that render the regular antidote useless. She makes her way to a vulnerable spot in the city, injects herself, and sets about spreading death.

It doesn’t take long.

Of course, to really engage the reader in even the grimly interesting scenario, you need characters that you can relate to and care about, and Alten provides those in solid amounts. Shepherd is a man we see every day deplaning from a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan- or anyone returning from a battlefield of any kind, really. He has questions and regrets about his actions and about whether or not the divine truly exists. Not just muscle, he is a walking existentialist nightmare. His journey, to find the only thing left he cares about, is something the reader can relate to. I think most of us would risk ourselves in the same way. That makes the book work.

Some readers may be put off by the overt spirituality of the book, and I was, on occasion, one of them. Alten wants to make his point and wrap it in theology, which I understand, but I think he loses balance on occasion and the book becomes polemic. When he backs off and lets the plot get rolling again, though, things fall right back into place and it becomes completely gripping. As far as the way he takes the final third of the book and turns it into a modern version of Dante, I think it mostly works. Alten’s observation of human behavior is strong and his comparisons are generally right on target.

This is potentially the first of a trilogy of books, but the author wisely gives the reader a strong ending, not leaving you hanging on important plot points. If you’re a fan of this genre, GRIM REAPER should have a lot of appeal for you, and it’s easy to recommend- it just simply works.


Written by Marty Kam
Published by MKO Press

Mary Shumak and the seven boarders living in her house have a pretty stress-free existence. Even when Mary’s ne’er-do-well brother Bert is around, life is pretty easy. But corrupt developer Victor Masters wants to put an end to it all. Mrs. Shumak’s house occupies land that Masters wants to use to build a new casino, and he’s willing to use every dirty trick in the book to use it. Bribed officials, mobster heavies, and house inspections the place can’t possibly pass… he’ll stop at nothing to get his hands on the Shumak land. But Mary, Bert, and the boarders have a few tricks up their sleeves and refuse to give up. Now they just have to hope that one of their long shot, odd ideas will pay off and save the home they so desperately love.

BOARDING HOUSE is Marty Kam’s first novel, and it’s a pretty breezy, lighthearted affair. There’s no sense of true malice in any of the events that happen throughout the book, more of a feeling of the storm before the charm. Indeed, the characters living in the house are so broadly amusing and interesting that your rooting interest never wavers, and you never feel that Kam will err and give you anything but a positive resolution for them. Yet while in some books that would be a flaw in the writing, here it is essential. A good comedy, written or filmed, really only has one target to hit: your smile reflex. Kam knows it, and he aims squarely at the target, chapter after chapter. You only need to get to the climax, which switches back and forth between a TV quiz show and a blundered attempt by the mob to lean on the good guys, to see that the author really has a perfect sense of timing in telling a joke. Even a long one… and that’s a gift you can’t teach.

Kam himself has run a boarding house, and many of the characters in the novel are composites or tributes to the people whose lives he touched during that period of his life. Every creative writing teacher in the world tells their students to write what they know, and Marty certainly has done so. MRS. SHUMAK’S BOARDING HOUSE isn’t the great American novel, but it is a very good first effort.

Marc Mason