Joy in the Morning, by P.G. Wodehouse

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Joy in the Morning

Of course, yesterday’s post doesn’t mean that I won’t indulge in a literary escape or two now and then. I read P.G. Wodehouse’s delightful Joy in the Morning on Saturday in between frantic sessions on Twitter. Wodehouse’s silliness was the perfect antidote to the news.

Originally published in 1946, Joy in the Morning is another breezy Jeeves and Wooster story. There are near-miss engagements, scheming, unlucky coincidences, shouting from elderly relatives, one burned down house, a hockey stick in the night, and lots and lots of witty language. I already knew from the series that everything always turns out well in the end thanks to the assistance of the ever helpful Jeeves. (This is exactly what I needed after a week of politics.)

The novel is somewhat different from the series. In this book, at any rate, Bertie Wooster is not quite as gormless as Hugh Laurie portrayed him. He is a bit daft, but mostly he’s just unlucky. He’s either in the wrong place and the wrong time or he gets caught up in a series of escalating blunders. His track record with trouble often brings even more trouble, as the more serious characters immediately blame him for things that really aren’t his fault. Jeeves, on the other hand, is much as Stephen Fry played him in the series. Jeeves doesn’t say much. He doesn’t need to. Everyone trusts his wisdom and savvy. As they should, because Jeeves always comes through.

What I loved most about Joy in the Morning is the language. The vocabulary is rich, eclectic, and sings across the page. Wodehouse doesn’t belabor jokes, so the humor ranges from slapstick to subtle wordplay. I really, really enjoyed this little novel.

 

Odessa Stories, by Isaac Babel

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Odessa Stories

Russian literature has (deservedly) a reputation for being utterly depressing and heavy—which is why it’s always a delight to find comic writers like Teffi and Isaac Babel. The humor in these authors’ stories and feuilletons is caustic and sharply observed, but still makes me smile and chuckle. This week I read Isaac Babel’s classic collection, Odessa Stories (translated by Boris Dralyuk), about Jewish life in Odessa in the early twentieth century. The collection is night-and-day from his collection Red Cavalry, as one might expect, but it shares similar themes of violence and chaos without being as gutting as Red CavalryOdessa Stories is packed with gangsters, tsarist and communist officials, pigeons, and a lot of slapstick.

Most of the stories in this collection center on Benya Krik—Benya the King—and his extended family. Benya is a gangster. He’s twenty pounds of chutzpah in a ten pound sack and gets away with things that should have gotten him shot on the spot. Over the course of the stories, we see Benya rise and the old order fall as the Bolsheviks take control of the country. We see him face off against police and set up protection rackets on intractable rich men. The stories are almost always told secondhand by someone who claims they were present or heard it from a reliable source. The narrators invariably end up telling the story in a loopy, unfocused manner that mirrors the chaos of Benya and his family members’ lives. So, while the stories are ostensibly about Benya, we end up learning a lot about their friends, enemies, and the Jewish community of Odessa and its suburbs.

Odessa Stories also contains a long pair of semi-autobiographical stories about an unnamed boy who is an awful lot like the young Babel. The stories relate how the boy got caught in a pogrom before finding shelter with a friendly family. This story is a stark reminder of how dangerous life could be for Jewish Russians: most of the time, families got along but things could turn deadly in an instant. The other semi-autobiographical story contains my favorite part of the whole collection. The young narrator has been ingratiating himself with the wealthy son of an important family. They’re good friend, but the boy tells all sorts of lies to disguise his origins. Unfortunately, he gets caught up in his lies when he reciprocates an invitation to tea. The boy sends away his embarrassing uncle and grandfather and is praying that they don’t come back before his guest leaves. So, of course they come back. Hilariously, the narrator recites Marc Antony’s eulogy from Julius Caesar to distract his guest (at increasing volumes) while his uncle crows about an amazing deal he got for a huge piece of furniture and his grandfather tortures a violin outside.

Unlike Teffi’s comic stories, the darkness of Russian life is closer to the surface in Babel’s. A person more cynical than I probably would have laughed more at the characters’ antics. I did laugh, but not too much because I could always see how a lucky escape could have easily turned into an ignoble death.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 November 2016.

Curioddity, by Paul Jenkins

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Curioddity

Wil Morgan lives a boring, miserable life. His landlady lets cats swarm around her house. His bathroom sink constantly rattles. He’s behind on all his rents. He’s failing at being a private detective and the clock in the building next to his office is slowly driving him insane. At least he no longer blows things up, which makes his father happy. But, on the morning that Paul Jenkins’s Curioddity opens, Wil takes a job that will set his life back on the weird, adventurous path it was always supposed to be on.

When Wil meets Mr. Dinsdale, the curator of the Museum of Curioddity (located on a street that probably doesn’t exist), Mr. Dinsdale is bent in half, busily un-seeing everything around him. Wil does his best to argue why he shouldn’t take the job Dinsdale offers, but his careful reasonableness is no match of Dinsdale’s stubborn illogic. Wil is hopelessly caught up in Dinsdale’s apparent nonsense. But, once Wil learns to un-look at the world around him, he comes fully to life for the first time since his delightfully wacky mother died.

Curriodity‘s plot plays out over one hectic week. To summarize the plot further wouldn’t do justice to it, as the story involves several time paradoxes, compound interest, half-magical devices that shouldn’t work, and a lot of Wil just hoping for the best and winging it. This book was the perfect choice to read while waiting at the mechanic’s, though I did get some odd looks as I chortled aloud at Wil and Dinsdale’s antics.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 30 August 2016.

The Twelve Chairs, by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov

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The Twelve Chairs

Almost ten years after the Russian Revolution, Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobryaninov has put his past as an aristocrat behind him. Unlike most of his class, he as managed to avoid the gulag or execution. He works as a low-level bureaucrat in a provincial town. He doesn’t have much to complain about other than his irritating mother-in-law, who lives with him. Ippolit Mateyevich might have gone on, content, if his mother-in-law hadn’t confessed that she’d hidden her jewels in one of twelve chairs from their pre-Revolutionary house. Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs (translated by John H.C. Richardson) quickly becomes an anarchic tale of a trio of men seeking the chairs, conning everyone in sight as well as each other, and general mayhem.

The star of The Twelve Chairs is not Ippolit Matveyevich. (He thinks rather too much of himself, especially at the beginning of the novel.) Rather, Ostap Bender, a con man, completely steals the show. Vorobryaninov meets Bender early in his quest, while Bender is trying to work out whether he wants to become a career bigamist or art forger. Bender wrangles his way into Ippolit Matveyevich’s mission after convincing the former aristocrat that he needs someone wily to help him get the chairs back. Meanwhile, the mother-in-law also told her priest about the jewels in the chair. The priest’s journey ends up going in a completely different direction, but all three men end up traveling all over the Soviet Union looking for the chairs.

Originally published in Russian in 1927, The Twelve Chairs spends as much time (if not more) lampooning citizens high and low. We are treated to brief sketches of the various owners of the chairs (which were reallocated or sold after 1918) before Vorobryaninov and Bender show up. One of the owners lets his family sponge off funds that were supposed to support female pensioners. Another makes his living selling jokes to magazines. Yet another is a woman who can make herself understood with a vocabulary of about thirty words. Just as soon as we get to know them, Bender and Ippolit Matveyevich swoop in to steal or con the chairs.

The Twelve Chairs is not a story to rush through. Even though the premise of the book has its characters racing after treasure, the authors are leisurely as they set up their sketches. I’m sure there are jokes I missed, either because Ilf and Petrov were mocking people and concepts from Russia in 1927 as they do mocking the general human condition. That said, plenty of the characters and situations are ridiculous enough that I was chuckling through most of the book. But if you try to rush, I think you’ll get impatient with Ilf and Petrov. My advice is to just roll with whatever Ilf, Petrov, and The Twelve Chairs come up with.

The Gentleman, by Forrest Leo

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The Gentleman

Lionel Savage married for the worst reason: money. He was out of funds and, in order to continue his decadent lifestyle of reading and writing poetry, he needed a wife. After he found and married a lovely woman, Vivien, he suddenly lost the ability to write. Still, as Lionel tells his story in Forrest Leo’s hilariously madcap novel, The Gentlemanone feels anything but sorry for the man. After all, he’s the one who declares that he sold his wife to the Devil.

The Gentleman takes the form of Lionel retrospectively telling us the story of how he lost his wife, edited and with helpful (and snarky) comments from his cousin-in-law. We meet Lionel six months after his marriage. He thinks his wife is vapid and boring. He still can’t talk to her. The next morning, after one more masked ball, Vivien is gone. Lionel believe that she was taken by a strange man he met that night, a man who stopped by to thank Lionel for defending him to a stranger. The troubling thing is that the only person Lionel defended was the Devil, who a parson had cursed. In Lionel’s feverish mind, this means that he accidentally sold his wife to the Adversary.

None of this summary hints at how funny this novel is. The plot is hectic and silly, the characters more so. Over the course of the next week (or so), Lionel discovers he loves his wife, is browbeaten into a quest to Hell to rescue her, challenged to two duels, makes friends with a mad scientist, and has to deal with his sister’s attempts to demolish social propriety. It’s a wonder he doesn’t crack under the strain.

I had so much fun reading The Gentleman that the book was over far too quickly. It had the kind of loopy, Anglophilic absurdism that I just can’t get enough of. Even though Lionel is a complete twerp and everything that happens to him is entirely his own fault, I had too much fun laughing at him to be annoyed.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 16 August 2016. 

Three short epilogues by Jesse Baruffi

After I read (and gushed about) Otto von Trapezoid and the Empress of Thieves by Jesse Baruffi, the published sent me copies of the three epilogues that follow the novel and wrap up a some loose ends. While they don’t directly feature the lead, they give us another taste of the bonkers world of villains and dastardly plots and twine that Baruffi created.

Requiem for a Twine
Requiem for a Twine

Requiem for a Twine: The destruction of the world’s largest ball of twine (created from the previous largest balls of twine) was Otto von Trapezoid’s first salvo in his recent attempt to take over the world. Now the owners of that ball of twine are hosting Twine Aid, to raise money to rebuilt their tourist attraction. Everything is going according to plan until the current owner decides to abscond with the takings. Then everything gets weird. Really weird.

The Talking Skull of Teddy Roosevelt: This epilogue is written in the style of old sponsored adventure stories. The narrative—featuring the actual talking skull of Teddy Roosevelt versus the Mummified Arm of Joseph Stalin—is frequently interrupted to encourage readers to send in cereal box tops and their financial information. This epilogue is pure silliness.

Marooned: This is the longest of the three epilogues and shows us what happened to Otto’s old poker “buddies” after they tried to turn in Otto and Esmerelda for the reward. They’re on their way to a distant planet with no hope of escape. Only the arrival of the ghost of Halloween Girl breaks up the monotony of playing poker for extra rations.

I finished Otto von Trapezoid and the Empress of Thieves with a strong desire for more. The epilogues help (a bit) with that. Write faster, Baruffi.

I received a free copy of these short stories from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Otto von Trapezoid and the Empress of Thieves, by Jesse Baruffi

Otto von Trapezoid and the Empress of Thieves
Otto von Trapezoid and the Empress of Thieves

After the emotional pummeling I took from Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, I needed something light and funny. Otto von Trapezoid and the Empress of Thieves, by Jesse Baruffi, was just what the bibliotherapist would have ordered. This supervillain romance has: sentient and not-so-sentient robots, an indestructible super spy, poison, airships, family snark, thefts of entire museums, and much, much more! And, unlike most superhero/villain satires, the one has emotional depth enough to keep the whole lot from collapsing under its own silly weight.

Otto von Trapezoid, who attempts to take over the world from his orbital station the Quadrilateral of Doom, is a socially maladjusted genius who has just met his match. Esmerelda Santa Monica is the eponymous Empress of Thieves. On the day she steals the entire Louvre, Otto has perfected his doomsday weapon. They both hack into the UN’s announcement system to reveal their plans for the world. At the same time. Their squabbling ruins their plans and they each swear revenge on each other. Funny enough, they each independently hatch the same plan to kill the other. Esmerelda plans to seduce Otto and then kill him. Otto dusts off an old dating advice book from the 1930s and pomades his hair to seduce Esmerelda before killing her.

When they actually meet, the realize they have more in common than they realized. Their first date is accompanied by explosions, floods, and a mechanical T-Rex. Otto’s sincerity appeals to Esmerelda’s jaded sensibility. Her emotional savvy is just the thing Otto has been missing in his life. Together, they are the perfect team, if only they can keep Jake Indestructible at bay.

Baruffi pulls out every superhero/villain trope from the playbook and manages to make them all work in this book. I would have marveled, but I was too busy laughing at the antics of Otto, Esmerelda, and their various allies and enemies. I really hope there are sequels.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. 

Secondhand Souls, by Christopher Moore

Secondhand Souls
Secondhand Souls

Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job introduced us to Charlie Asher, a reluctant Death Merchant, widower, and beta male. Shortly after his wife’s death, Charlie receives a copy of the Great Big Book of Death informing him that his new job is to collect objects that serve as vessels for their owners souls once the owner is done with them. Charlie’s screw ups lead to the near takeover of the forces of darkness in San Francisco (the Morrigan and Orcus). Secondhand Souls picks up one year after the dramatic conclusion of A Dirty Job. Charlie’s soul is stuck, temporarily he hopes, in a meat puppet created by his Buddhist girlfriend. His daughter is being raised by Charlie’s sister and her wife. Life has carried on in San Francisco. So has death. Minty Fresh continues to collect soul vessels. Inspector Rivera has not, even though he knows he’s one of the city’s new Death Merchants. Rivera’s mistake means that the forces of darkness are once again on the rise and it’s up to the motley crew of fuck ups, goths, ghosts, Buddhist nuns, and the rest to make it right.

While A Dirty Job focused almost solely (no pun intended) on Charlie, Secondhand Souls is an ensemble book. We spend time with Minty Fresh and Rivera as they try to work out what’s going on with the city’s souls and the forces of darkness. We spend time with Charlie’s girlfriend, Audrey, as they try to work out a way to get Charlie’s soul back in a human body. We also get to spend time with Lily, one of my favorite characters in all of Moore’s books. She is a foul-mouthed goth who has far too much personality for her persona. There are new characters joining the cast. Lemon Fresh is Minty’s cousin, villainous and smoothly pragmatic by turns. Mike Sullivan is one of the paint crew for the Golden Gate Bridge who has just made the acquaintance of the ghosts that haunt the bridge.

Secondhand Souls‘ plots move in a lot of different directions. If I didn’t trust Moore to tie them all up at the end, I might have been frustrated trying to work out how the ghost play into the Death Merchants’ quest and who Lemon actually is and how Audrey’s going to move some souls around. I’d sum up the plot here like I normally do, but I’ve learned not to do that with Moore’s books. I’d be sectioned in a heartbeat. Suffice it to say, I was highly entertained by this chaotic, hilarious, ribald, soulful (pun intended) novel.

There are two things that make me love Moore’s novels. The first is the silly, whipsmart humor in every single one of his books. Moore’s books always make me laugh to the point making embarrassing noises. Lily makes me howl. Charlie makes me chuckle and want to smack him upside the head. The other thing that keeps me coming back for more is the heart that is each book. Every book I’ve read (more so in the more recent books) contains a poignant question about grief or loyalty or the nature of death or love or connection at its heart. Under all the layers of wisecrackery and anarchy, Moore addresses these questions in such a way that I feel comforted after contemplating the book for a while. Moore’s novel Lamb is one of the few books that can make me laugh and actually cry.

I received a free advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher while I was at the American Library Association Annual Conference. It will be released 25 August 2015.

The Serpent of Venice, by Christopher Moore

I actually finished reading this book on Tuesday, but I had to wait for my book high to dissipate before I could actually write a review of it. I’d just gush otherwise.

18089900After his adventures in Fool, Pocket has moved on to Venice to stop a crusade on orders from his beloved Queen Cordelia. Fool was a retelling of King Lear, but Christopher Moore’s The Serpent of Venice reads more like a mashup of Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and “The Cask of Amontillado.” As Pocket tries to avert a war, he gives marital advice to Othello and tries to thwart Shylock’s enemies. Oh, and he pisses off a man named Montressor a few too many times as well.

The timeline of The Serpent of Venice zips back and forth as Pocket receives his orders from Cordelia, arrives in Venice, and makes friends and enemies. At the very beginning of the book, Moore drops us in the thick of the action as Pocket the Fool is about to be bricked up behind a wall by Montressor. He only manages to escape with the assistance of a horny sea serpent*. Once free, Pocket finds that having his enemies think that he’s dead gives him a lot of freedom to act. Shylock gives Pocket a job as a servant and soon Pocket is not only trying to get revenge on Montressor and Iago, he’s also trying to help Shylock get his pound of flesh from Antonio**.

Just like I was bothered by Lear, there were things about Othello and The Merchant of Venice that deeply annoyed me. If only Othello had been less jealous and more trusting of poor Desdemona. If only Shakespeare had been bold enough to not make Merchant anti-Semitic. At times, The Serpent of Venice reads like an attempt to fix the characters’ many problems. Pocket is always in just the right spot or causes an interruption at crucial moments to outfox Iago and Antonio. I cheered when I saw the moments when Othello might go into a rage or when Portia would twist the law to get Shylock exiled averted—and always in the most hilarious way possible***.

Moore was always a skilled, entertaining writer, but I think he’s outdone himself with The Serpent of Venice. I was awed by the way he managed to weave his plot into Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe. I could not put this book down. There’s one dog ear on page 50, but I finished the rest of the book in one go. I ate with one hand while I read. I drank with my eyes peering over the top of my glass so that I could keep reading. Sure, it’s a cliché, but it’s true.


* This may be Shakespeare, but it’s also Christopher Moore, so there are a lot of dick jokes. There were many passages in this book that had me snickering with glee like a twelve-year-old boy.

** Not actually a metaphor, according to the original play.

*** One such moment involves a nun costume and did I mention the dick jokes?

The Other Tree, by D.K. Mok

I received a free copy of this book to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. 

17314951Imagine if The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons had been written by an author with a sense of humor. That’s The Other Tree, by Australian writer D.K. Mok. Mok weaves together religious history, geology, botany, and art history with a healthy (more than healthy) dose of sarcasm and wit to create this highly entertaining quest for that other tree mentioned in the Book of Genesis: the Tree of Life.

Chris Arlin is working as a struggling cryptobotanist in a struggling university. Her father is dying of lung cancer and her mother died while on an expedition funded by SinaCorp to find the Tree of Life. The CEO of SinaCorp is on a quest to find immortality at any cost and when a representative of the company approaches Chris about joining another expedition, Chris tells them to drop dead. With the help of a priest who’s losing his faith, Chris races to find the Garden of Eden before SinaCorp does. The trip takes them to Italy, Romania, Australia, and deep into the Iraqi desert. As Chris and Luke (the priest) piece together the millennia old clues that lead to the Garden, they have to contend with attacks from SinaCorp and a mysterious third party that doesn’t want anyone to find the Garden.

I realize that this summary of The Other Tree makes the story sound just like those religious thrillers. That’s what the book would be if it weren’t for the fact that Mok doesn’t take anything seriously. There are snarky similes and absurd allusions all over the place to keep the tone light for all but the very end of the book, when the race between Chris and SinaCorp comes to its final confrontation. There is no chance of taking things seriously in this book. There are times when you actually want Mok to ease off the witticisms a bit because they are everywhere. Mok doesn’t have the (seemingly) effortless humor of Terry Pratchett or Tom Holt, but she’s not too far off the mark.

I had a great time reading The Other Tree. It reminded me a lot of Christopher Moore’s more comic novels. Those books and The Other Tree have strong characters and a strong enough plot to support a lot of hilarity.