Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Think your family is a train wreck? Get a load of the Halls. George, a distant father, husband and colleague, is newly retired and suddenly consumed by his own mortality when he finds a “lesion” on his hip that he is convinced is cancer (it’s hardly that) and begins to come unglued. His wife, Jean, is carrying on with George’s former co-worker, the smoothie David Symmonds. Daughter Katie has already gone through a bad marriage and is now engaged to Ray, a good guy who loves her and her son, Jacob, but the Halls disapprove because they deem him too ordinary for their smarter, French-speaking daughter. She might be marrying Ray and she might not; either way, she’s a mess. Son Jamie is involved with Tony but is self-involved enough that the relationship is really more an on-going play date than a real relationship. While a very different book from his brilliant debut, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime¸ Haddon maintains a similar light touch as this family careens out of control while learning what it means to really love someone else.

The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno

Remember Encyclopedia Brown? Well, let’s take Encyclopedia and bring him to adulthood. Our now-grown boy detective is named Billy Argo. Billy found his calling early in life, after being given a detective set as a birthday gift. Along with kid sister, Caroline as his right hand, and their neighbor, Fenton, along as sidekick, Billy and Co., consistently thwarted the surprisingly considerable criminal element of Gotham City, New Jersey. However, tragedy befalls Caroline and Billy enters a mental institution. And so our story picks up with Billy, released after 15 years in the loony bin, trying to find his way in the world as it is now while still bearing a terrible burden of guilt. He moves to a halfway house only to find his old nemesis, Dr. Von Gollum, is a fellow resident and is still plotting Billy’s demise. (Von Gollum, an aging mad scientist-type, makes lists that say things like “To Do Today: Take bus to the store. Buy poison. Destroy the Boy Detective!”). Billy gets a job at a hilariously bizarre wig factory whose telephone sales team targets the very old and the very ill. He pops Ativan like tic-tacs, befriends a pair of neighbor children, Effie, a brainy, unpopular, remarkably self-aware little girl and her younger brother Gus, the school bully, who has stopped talking and only communicates by writing notes and tries to help them solve a mystery of their own, the only thing Billy really knows how to do. Joe Meno really knocked my socks off with this book. It’s funny, sweet, and sad and comes with a decoder on the back flap that you can use to help Billy.

You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem

More than anything, this book made me angry. Not the righteous indignation of believing in what the author has written about; this made me angry because Lethem is such a better writer than this flimsy little novel. Now I know I can’t expect everything he writes to be Motherless Brooklyn (Lionel Essrog—wherefore art thou, Essrog?) or Fortress of Solitude; that’s too much to ask and it would be unfair. The thing is, if this was a first or second novel by a promising 30 year old Iowa MFA who’d kicked around L.A. in a band for a while and wrote a story based on that, I’d say “Let’s see what this kid has in a couple of years”. My beef is that by the time he was 30, Lethem was already writing promising and highly original work like Gun With Occasional Music and went on to write other really great stuff. I’m completely bummed because I was so looking forward to reading new Lethem. This is more like Lethem-lite and that just won't do.

Babylon's Burning by Clinton Heylin

I’m always a sucker for yet another history of punk rock but at 800+ pages, this is both exhaustive and exhausting. Written in the oral history style that made Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me so entertaining and effective, Heylin can definitely tell the story in great detail. That’s also the problem--I found myself reading (and reading and reading) about bands he gives far too much credit and about whom I could care less. Once I allowed myself to skip the many, many passages about lesser bands like The Only Ones, The Prefects and Throbbing Gristle (honestly!), I was finally able to finish the damn thing. An ambitious and often informative book but perhaps the story has been told to death at this point.

The Dead Father's Club by Matt Haig

This is a pretty clever re-telling of Hamlet through the eyes of an eleven year-old boy in a small English town. After Philip Noble’s father dies in a car accident, his father’s ghost appears to him to tell him that his uncle had him murdered and that if young Philip can’t avenge him, and he has only a short time to do so, he will suffer the Terrors for eternity. The beauty is putting these demands at the feet of a seemingly normal kid. Who’s going to believe him? Is this really happening? How do you kill an adult? Where do you even start? The book is being marketed to both adults and as a YA novel a la Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime so it’ll be interesting to see how this book does and who it reaches. A good read.