TWISTED MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM: SHAKESPEARE FOR SQUIRRELS

Christopher Moore, the author of Shakespeare for Squirrels, can be really funny.  His earlier books, especially Lamb and The Stupidest Angel, are the kinds of books that just keep you giggling throughout.  He can also be a little weird, as in Noir, which combines your classic noir detective storyline with aliens, but that’s part of his charm.  Sometimes his ideas don’t completely work; in Fool, he tried to do a funny take on King Lear, and frankly, that’s a really hard sell.  Even if your main character, Pocket, is a wise guy fool who’s always on the lookout for trouble and who finds himself in the most ridiculous situations, putting him in a major tragedy like Lear really reduces your chances for laughs. 

In this outing, however, the Shakespeare play Moore takes on is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that works a lot better.  Starting out with a comedy gives Pocket more room for ridiculous behavior and doesn’t require quite so much messing around with the plot, although Moore manages a twist that turns the original around a bit: for complicated reasons, Pocket has to find out who killed Puck, the fairy who’s responsible for most of the plot of Midsummer Night’s Dream.  In the original, of course, Puck is very much alive and well, but in this version he’s been killed and many of the different characters have an interest in finding out who was responsible, or keeping Pocket from finding out. 

Along the way, he encounters the lovers who are hiding out in the forest, Hermia and Helena, Demetrius and Lysander, a number of very charming fairies, the Rude Mechanicals (including Bottom who’s got a donkey’s head instead of his own) practicing their own play (which Pocket manipulates for his own purposes).  The Shakespearean characters are all recognizable if you’re familiar with the original, but they’re all a little twisted and altered here.  The story comes to a riotous conclusion (in more ways than one) as Pocket, running out of time, manages to reveal exactly what happened to Puck and why, along the way illuminating the relationships of many of the other characters as well.

The book is fast paced and funny.  Pocket is an entertaining narrator, with a 21st century cynicism and attitude that stands him in good stead with all the ridiculous characters around him.  The relationships among the various characters in their subplots are a little confusing (there are several storylines going on at the same time), but eventually they all come together and make sense (trust me, they will all make sense by the end).  Moore does his best job with characters who aren’t really developed in Shakespeare: the individual fairies, for instance, who are basically just walk-ons in the original, come to life as real characters here, and Moore actually makes it easy to tell the difference between Helena and Hermia (which in my experience is almost impossible to do when reading Shakespeare’s version).  Drool, Pocket’s giant apprentice, and his monkey, Jeff, make their appearances, but for the most part this is Pocket’s show and he does a great job.

Do you need to be familiar with A Midsummer Night’s Dream to enjoy this book?  You could probably follow it even if you’d never read or seen the play, but it would undoubtedly be easier to keep track of what’s going on if you have some familiarity with the original (fortunately it’s one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, so odds are you’ve seen it somewhere at some time).

If you’re wondering about the title, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it.  Suffice it to say it does make sense in the context of the book.

If you’re in the mood for a lighthearted and even slightly raunchy take on a classic, let Christopher Moore take you to Shakespeare for Squirrels.

A BIZARRE DETECTIVE, A BIZARRE CASE, LOTS OF FUN

I knew I liked Edgar Cantero ever since I read his Meddling Kids, but I also knew, from that book, that (a) for him, nothing is sacred, and (b) what he writes is going to be a little off the wall (or a lot off the wall).  So I was eager, but prepared, for his latest book, This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us.

This is apparently a good year for parodies of the hard boiled detective novel; earlier we had Noir, by Christopher Moore, and a funny, warped book that was, and now we have Cantero’s contribution.  As a strict parody, using all or most of the elements of the genre, Noir is a better bet, but for sheer wackiness and a willingness to really go off the wall, the edge goes to This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us, if only because of the absolutely unique private detective who’s the protagonist of the book.  Or should I say, private detectives who are the protagonists of the book, because AZ Kimrean, our private eye, is actually two people in the same body, a left-brained male named Adrian, and a right brained female named Zoe.  

The explanation for how these two beings exist in one body is kind of sketchy, but you have to just suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride.  Adrian is the Sherlock Holmes type character, all intellect, no heart, brilliant but limited in his dealings with human beings. Zoe, by contrast, drinks and chases men and women, is intuitive and good with people though a bit disorganized. They’ve spent a certain amount of time in various mental institutions (it took a while before someone finally figured out that Adrian wasn’t just arguing with hallucinations, for instance), and they don’t really work together all that well, but half the fun of the book is watching the two of them apply their own unique abilities and perspectives to the case before them.

The plot is complicated, but basically it involves a California crime family whose members are being killed off, possibly by members of another cartel or possibly by someone else.  There’s an undercover FBI officer who calls in Kimrean for help, and there are all kinds of twists and turns and oddities, including Ursula, the young daughter of the leader of the crime family (one of my favorite characters, actually; at one point I seriously thought she might be the murderer, too), a ninja assassin, the question of whether a particular flower is a rose or a chrysanthemum and the like.

From time to time, Adrian knocks out Zoe so he can manage to concentrate on the issues before him without her distracting presence, and I have to say I was pleased when she finally turned the tables on him, though her method of solving the case was hair-raising and incredibly dangerous to all concerned.

This is not the sort of mystery where you can see all the clues and try to outsmart the private eyes, because while Cantero plays fair (mostly), the focus isn’t on the actual way the mystery is solved but on how the characters interact (or don’t).  That said, I was surprised (but not annoyed, as I would be if the solution came completely out of left field) at the identity of the assassin and the reason for the murders, and the ending was quite satisfying, too (a hard thing to achieve these days, as far as I can see).

So if you don’t mind a certain amount of weirdness and violence (not Jo Nesbo level, but there are murders and attempted murders and a lot of people getting punched and knocked out and the like), and you have a taste for a very different take on the classic private eye novel, check out This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us.

TOUGH GUYS, MYSTERIOUS DAMES . . .AND ALIENS: NOIR

If you’ve never read Christopher Moore, you don’t know what you’ve been missing.  His books are hard to explain, funny but kind of warped at the same time (for instance, Lamb, a version of the Gospels narrated by Jesus’ childhood pal, Biff, or The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, or Fluke, or I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings, or — a personal favorite of mine — The Stupidest Angel, a Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror).  His latest book, Noir, reads like a Raymond Chandler novel as seen through the lens of Bugs Bunny.  It’s set in 1947 San Francisco, and is populated by bartenders with dark secrets, corrupt police officers, generals trying to get into the exclusive Bohemian Grove, wisecracking beautiful women with secrets of their own, mysterious agents of some kind dressed in black suits and wearing sunglasses all the time, black mamba snakes and, of course, aliens.

If some of these things don’t sound as if they belong in a mystery novel, especially a noir mystery novel, that’s just because you don’t have the imagination Christopher Moore does. Trust me, when you read the book, everything works together in strange and bizarre, but ultimately pretty funny, ways.

The book starts with Sammy, a bartender in a seedy bar, also known as Sammy Two-Toes, who’s got a secret past his boss is holding over his head, discovering said boss dead in a back room of the bar, having been bitten by a black mamba snake that happened to be there because of Sammy.  Oops. And then we go back to the beginning of the story, when Stilton, a gorgeous blonde, strolls into the bar and steals Sammy’s heart (as dames do in this kind of story), and a U.S. Air Force general enters the bar, looking for Sammy’s boss, to see if he can get some wholesome looking women to go to the Bohemian Grove with him, and of course his boss delegates this to Sammy.  

Add in Sammy’s friend, Eddie Moo Shoo (not his real name, of course), and his uncle in Chinatown, add the corrupt cop, Pookie O’Hara, who’s looking for trouble and finds it, add in Myrtle,  a friend of Stilton’s (a/k/a The Cheese), and Myrtle’s special cross-dressing girlfriend, and a slew of other strange and quirky characters, one narrator who’s not human, and an alien, and you have the makings of a very complicated and funny story.

Between money-making schemes involving venomous snakes, racist police officers getting what they have coming to them, flying saucers seen over the Pacific coast, bizarre rituals at retreats for the rich and powerful, and cross-country chases with an alien in tow, the plot twists and turns, the cast of characters increases and becomes increasingly odd, but Moore keeps all the balls in the air surprisingly well, and fills the book with wisecracks and atmosphere, leading to a satisfying ending (with an epilogue explaining how much of the book is based on actual facts).

For an entertaining jaunt through post war San Francisco with a somewhat warped point of view, check out Noir.  Trench coat is optional.

 

YOUR TIME IS NOT YOUR OWN: A MAN OF SHADOWS

It’s really tempting to call Jeff Noon’s new book, A Man of Shadows, a time travel book (and we all know how much I love time travel books), but that’s a misleading description of this extremely quirky and strange new science fiction book, which has been described by some reviewers as “new weird.”

Imagine a noir detective story, the hard-bitten, world-weary, possibly alcoholic private eye battling his own demons in a world that’s inherently corrupt and untrustworthy, setting out to investigate something that seems reasonably simple at first but turns out to reveal levels of corruption and damage throughout the society.  That’s one way you can describe this book: Nyquist, the protagonist, is a private eye who’s been hired by the head of one of the major corporations of his world to find a runaway young woman.

But the way this world is set up is what makes the book unique.  There’s the Dayzone, where there is never darkness, because there are electric lights turned on everywhere, and you can’t see the sky to determine whether it’s actually day or night.  Then there’s Nocturna, which is the opposite: eternal night, no lights to speak of other than the few nearly burned out bulbs that serve as constellations.  In between the two zones is Dusk, a scary place which is neither day nor night but fog and confusion.  

How’s this a time travel novel, or like a time travel novel?  Well, when you have no natural night or day, time becomes very fluid, and in this world, time zones change with the drop of a hat.  You can choose what time you have, purchasing your own time zone from one of the large corporations that control these things, and then you have to adjust your idea of what time it is with those of the people around you.  As you can imagine, this can get quite confusing.

Throw in a serial killer operating in the brilliant and eternal light of the Dayzone whom no one seems to be able to see, let alone catch, and add the possibility that this killer, known only as Quicksilver, might have something to do with the young woman’s disappearance, and the dawning possibility that this woman might have a more crucial role in the maintenance of the world than Nyquist first imagined, and you have a truly original, extremely mind bending, speculative fiction/noir detective/weird book.  Not for the faint of heart, A Man of Shadows will have you looking at the differences in time between different clocks in your home with growing suspicion.