This is a historical-speculative "novel in stories." I was expecting a series of fun modern-day superhero romps. This is FAR more focused on the history (the authors' research shows in every detail of a 1946 fighter jet's attack strategy, or in the options of what there is to eat on the shelves), a little more on the traditional heroics, and almost nothing on making the characters interesting or human. The deadly mistake this series makes--and it's a whole series allegedly about superheroes, so this seems especially odd--is to spend upwards of 50 pages in an opening "chapter" that tells the story of Jet Boy, a 19-year-old fighter pilot with no superpowers, no particularly fierce conflict (except a vague unease about being back in the states now that the war is over), and no characteristics that made him worth reading about. If I could have skipped to the next story, I would have.
But even when the stories are pretty good, as in the second chapter by Roger Zelazny—which, by the way, is 90 MINUTES after the book starts; that's how much Jet Boy history we're subjected to—there doesn't seem to be much fun going on. This series—which I assume takes us to the present day eventually, yes?—is far more concerned with working out the background historical details of this superpowered world (complete with a huge long McCarthyism section) than it is with delivering anything like traditional comic book joy. I'm happy that this crazy idea of superheroic fiction actually took off long enough to spawn upwards of 20 sequels. How it managed to do so with this heavy lead weight at the front of its series is anyone's guess.
It definitely fits into what you might call the "middle-aged suburban comic nightmare" genre of fiction on the lines of Franzen's "The Corrections," Chabon's "Wonder Boys" or Clarke's "An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England." What makes this stand out in the field is that the story is small and controlled (none of the sprawl that often makes books like these wander too far), and absolutely every element pays off in larger meaning. (The fact that the first chapter takes place at a 7-11 becomes a parodic model for references to 9/11 later, and it works smartly.) In short, there is warm intelligence and compassion for ever character on every page, while at the same time Walter creates a tremendously important document about the human costs of the 2008 recession, and of the modern world in general. Just amazing, and well worth the visit. He had me at chapter one.
He has the delivery EXACTLY, as you might expect, so that even parenthetical comments sound perfectly parenthetical and don't stop the forward flow of a sentence. Best of all, and most important, is that he delivers all the jokes perfectly: not only in their timing, but in the voice of the appropriate characters. He's got a good ear for humanity, and it shows in his telling.
This is a collection of stories that Jim Butcher has written in the "Dresden Files" universe, and they not only presume a lot of knowledge about how his world works, but they also presuppose that you're likely to care about characters that will ring a bell only if you've read the other novels. Not that the stories aren't fine—although the fact that this collection OPENS with a story written in college that Butcher himself apologizes for, and he keeps this apology up for number two as well—gives you a sense that this is really designed for the fans who will get all his references, and not for anyone who might be looking for a digest-sized intro into Butcher's work. Nothing against the stories! Butcher delivers good, smart action, and he sets up his premises really cleanly. But if you're not a fan, the otherwise straightforward stories are often cluttered with scenes where characters you may not have heard of talk about other characters you may not have heard of. Added value for the completist, who will no doubt enjoy it; for the newcomer, it's like a quarter of the book is in a foreign language. It is a testament to Butcher's raw skill as a tale-spinner that the stories work anyway; he never demands that you know all this stuff ahead of time, and he always delivers excelllent monster and whiz-bang magic climaxes and wry funny commentary (EXCELLENT work by the reader, who perfect captures the necessary sardonic and hard-bitten tone). Just know that if you haven't read ALL the books, some of these stories might have a somewhat talky learning curve.
Mr. Wyman, thank goodness, is possessed of excellent comic timing, which is the difference between life and death for a book this silly. He can also handle a number of voices without making any of them seem stereotypical, which is essential for a book with this many characters, most of whom you are encouraged to love. This is no mean feat, and he does the job perfectly.
Christopher Moore's work tends to have gangs of lovable misfits menaced by some crazy monster (or in some other bizarre situation) in a way that permits more serious reflection on a few larger issues. (In Lust Lizard, it's the wide prevalence of overprescribed Prozac, and how we deal with sadness in our lives.) His work feels like it's in a direct line of descent from Kurt Vonnegut through Tom Robbins, with a relative of Carl Hiaasen somewhere in the lineage. The magical-realist philosophical caper comedy. If this is your thing, Lust Lizard is a terrific example of the genre. If you're never tried it before, this isn't a bad place to start.
Long and methodical, but Pinker uses that to slowly and surely build his case that violence is on the decline worldwide, and that the world is consistently getting better. The narrator's tendency to hit every word precisely makes it pass a fraction more slowly, but also helps with clarity. WARNING: Because Pinker is talking about man's inhumanity to man, there are sequences that are quite disturbing (such as when he describes torture instruments we used to use and which are now unthinkable). And his argument for why violence spiked in the 1960s and 1970s isn't quite as strong as the rest. But on the whole, it's really amazing and will forever transform the way I look at yesterday's history and today's news.
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