Saturday, October 25, 2014

Dark Corners edited by CT McNeely, Emily McNeely and Steve Gallagher


(pb; pulp fiction magazine/anthology: Fall 2014, Vol. 1 Issue 1)

Overall review:

Excellent two hundred and fifty-nine-page anthology that got published as a pulp magazine - it's got a bit of everything for lovers of this genre: stories, novella segments, book reviews and author interviews. While not all of the thirty-seven pieces struck me as wonderful - there were a few, disappointments I chalk up to my personal preferences - I could see why the McNeelys and Gallagher published them. If future issues of this magazine-anthology are this exceptional and gut-punch effective, this will be a read-every-issue publication.


Standout works:

1.)  "Company Man" - Tom Pitts:  A hit man (Jerry) offers to show a new-to-crime associate (Rico) an imaginative way to do a job.  Well-written, effective finish.


2.)  "Short and Choppy" - Will Viharo:  Grisly, sexually explicit and brutal story about a dwarf (Cameron) whose hatred for his writing teacher (Sean) and lust for Sean's wife (Sabrina) leads Cameron toward some fantastically violent actions.  Excellent, black-hearted and noirish laugh-out-loud tale.



3.)  "Domestic Tableau" - Warren Moore:  An adolescent's life of crime and drug addiction place him and his family in desperate and dangerous situations.  There are some nice twists at the end, with a clever, theme-appropriate mention of the band Queensrÿche as a story-layer element (for those familiar with their early-to-mid-career music).
 



4.)  "The Husband Killers" - Deborah Lacy: During the live taping of a popular morning show, a man dies on camera, the apparent victim of poisoning.  Detective Jocelyn Reed, at the scene of the crime, has to weed out the killer or killers from a large group of people - most of whom have sufficient motives to want the man dead.  This is a good, attention-holding read.


5.)  "Adele" - Vito Racanelli: Immediately involving tale about a cop (Sommers) who stabs his cleaver-slashing wife (Adele) in self-defense while the only witness - her latest lover, a junkie - escapes. Now, Sommers must track down the junkie before Sommers gets sent to prison. There aren't a lot of surprises in "Adele," but it's well-written. 


6.)  "Next to Nothing" - Sam Wiebe: A private investigator (John Wakeland) tries to talk down an old acquaintance (Mr. Jacks) after Jacks - grieving for his dead son, Wakeland's friend - gets violent with sharp objects in his motel room.

Excellent, memorable, horrific and humane (if bleak) work, one that sensitive animal lovers might want to skip.


7.)  "The Natanhala Kidnapping" - Gary L. Robbe:  Disturbing, effective story about old friends who resurrect an outdated ritual of kidnapping each other on their honeymoons - only this time, the ritual goes south in an irrevocable way. 


8.)  "Off, Park and Up" - Martin Zeigler:  An OCD-addled, cineaste encounters agitating delays on his all-important "Movie Day." Laugh out loud funny (in a dark way, of course), tone-effective work.


9.)  "Will Viharo: Unsung Hero of the Pulps" (article) - CT McNeely:  Excellent, succinct overview of, and appreciation for, Viharo's work and his in-the-flesh contributions to the pulp and cinematic genres. A man of many talents, Viharo deserves to be recognized for what he's done and this is a worthy salute to the man.


10.)  "John D. MacDonald's The Executioners" (book review) - Reviewed by Dyer Wilk:  MacDonald's 1957 novel, which brought into being two films, both titled Cape Fear (one in 1962, the other - a remake - in 1991) gets its worthwhile due once again.  Good, smart review.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Lemons Never Lie by Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald E. Westlake)


(pb; 1971, 2006: fourth novel in the Alan Grofeld series)

From the back cover:

"When he's not pulling heists with his friend Parker, Alan Grofeld runs a small theater in Indiana.  But putting on shows costs money and jobs have been thin, which is why Grofeld agrees to listen to Andrew Myers' plan to knock over a brewery.  Unfortunately, Myers' plan is insane - so Grofeld walks out on him.  And you don't walk out on Myers."


Review:

Lemons is a distinctive - and, along with The Blackbird, one of the best books - in the Alan Grofeld series. What sets Lemons apart from the three previous Grofeld entries is that it also shows Grofeld interacting with his supportive and easygoing wife, Mary (last seen in the Parker novel The Score). When he's with Mary, he's not nearly as caustic or wise-cracking as he is when he's working as a heistman; this shift in personality makes him even more likeable. Even when a murderous amateur (Andrew Myers) forces Grofeld into a tiresome endeavor - getting revenge on Myers, and hopefully some much-needed cash while doing so - Grofeld is tender and loving with his wife, in a way he isn't with his occasional, extramarital women or those he encounters in his criminal works.

This being a Stark novel, there's no wasted words, the action is swift and smart, the characters' core personalities are deftly sketched out and the ending is edgy and memorable - this time with an added amiability, as this is a Grofeld story.

Excellent, hard-to-put-down conclusion to a standout series. Worth owning, these books.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Beautiful You by Chuck Palahniuk


(hb; 2014)

From the inside flap:

"Penny Harrigan is a low-level assistant in a big Manhattan law firm who has an apartment in Queens and no love life at all. So it comes as a great shock when she finds herself invited to dinner by one C. Linus Maxwell, a.k.a. 'Climax-Well,' a software megabillionaire and lover of the most gorgeous and accomplished women on earth. After taking her to dinner at Manhattan's most exclusive restaurant, he whisks Penny off to a hotel suite in Paris, where he proceeds, notebook in hand, to bring her to previously undreamed-of heights of orgasmic pleasure for days on end. What's not to like?

"This: Penny discovers she is a test subject for the final development of a line of sex toys to be marketed in a nationwide chain of boutiques called Beautiful You. So potent and effective are these devices that women by the millions line up outside stores on opening day and then lock themselves in their rooms with them and stop coming out. Except for batteries. Maxwell's plan for the erotically enabled world domination must be stopped. But how?"


Review:

Beautiful is an excellent, bleakly hilarious satire - a fictional reality that reads like real life in an exaggerated way.  Its journalistic tone is analytical, almost chilling, with touches of perverse, risible humor in the first quarter of the novel (a trademark of Palahniuk's work); after that, as all the plot-puzzle pieces begin to fall into place at the right time (for reader like myself), it's a warmer-in-tone rollercoaster ride for Penny - Beautiful's determined but frazzled protagonist - who is trying to gather information with which to defeat her ever-present and seemingly unstoppable ex-sexmate (to call Maxwell her lover would be tonally incorrect).

Readers who are familiar with Palahniuk's writing will likely spot some of his well-foreshadowed, necessary and theme-centric twists.  (This is not a criticism, of course.)  These twists, along with the ones that surprise and further delight, make Beautiful an effective work that amuses, otherwise entertains and rips into mindless pop culture and its resulting mindset with savage aplomb.  Worth owning, this.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Dead Skip by Joe Gores


(pb; 1972: first novel in the DKA File series.  Loosely linked crossover novel with Richard Stark's novel Plunder Squad.)

From the back cover:

"Ballard had 72 hours to find out who attacked his partner, Bart Heslip. Bart was no help.  He was in the hospital, in a coma; his woman was doing a slow burn by his side. Now Ballard was racing around in the frayed edges of Oakland and San Francisco tracing down deadbeats.  A lush stripper, an embezzler and an ex-con all had repo'd cars in common.  Did they also share a murder? With the clock ticking away like Bart Heslip's heartbeat, Ballard was up against a dead skip, a blank wall. Then Ballard's boss, Dan Kearny, jumped into the hunt, loving every minute of it - and hurtling them both toward the pointed barrel of a gun."


Review:

Dead is a fun, fast-moving and P.I.-gritty novel that features the East Bay and San Francisco area, written with feels-like-you're-there detailed effectiveness.  Good book for a lazy autumn afternoon read, worth owning.  Followed by Final Notice.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Plunder Squad by Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald E. Westlake)


(pb; 1972, 2010: fifteenth novel in the Parker series.  Introduction by Charles Ardai.  Loosely linked crossover novel with Joe Gores' novel Dead Skip.)


From the back cover:

" 'Hearing the click behind him, Parker threw his glass straight back over his right shoulder, and dove off his chair to the left.' When a job looks like amateur hour, Parker walks away. But even a squad of seasoned professionals can't guarantee against human error in a high-risk scam. Can an art dealer with issues unload a truck of paintings with Parker's aid? Or will the heist end up too much of a human interest story, as luck runs out before Parker can get in on the score?"


Review:

Plunder is another favorite-for-this-reader entry in Stark's Parker series.  It not only varies up the usual Parker storyline in a taut and thrilling way, it brings together familiar faces from previous novels in this series: Ed Mackey, one of Parker's cheerful semi-regular heistmates; Dan Kearny*, a P.I. who crossed paths with Parker prior to the main storyline of The Hunter; George Uhl, a murderous thug Parker encountered in The Sour Lemon Score; Stan Devers, whose work with Parker in The Green Eagle Score led to Devers' expulsion from the ROTC and his subsequent life of crime; and, of course, Handy McKay, a ex-Parker-heistmate-now-diner-owner in Presque, Maine who serves as Parker's "contact man" for jobs.

Plunder, like the preceding Parker novels, is an excellent read, one worth owning.

Followed by Butcher's Moon.


[*Dan Kearny is the main character in Joe Gores' DKA Files series.]

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Blackbird by Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald E. Westlake)


(pb; 1969, 2012: third novel in the Alan Grofeld series. Foreword by Sarah Weinman.)

From the back cover:

"Both Parker and his sometimes associate, Alan Grofeld, are pros when it comes to stealing loot and staging heists.  But where Parker is cold and calculating, Grofeld is slick, funny and flirtatious - a criminal Casanova.  The Blackbird shares its first chapter with the Parker novel Slayground: after a traumatic car crash, Parker eludes the police, but Grofeld gets caught. Lying injured in the hospital, Grofeld is visited by G-Men who offer him an alternative to jail, and he finds himself forced into a deadly situation involving international criminals and a political conspiracy."


Review:

Blackbird is my favorite Grofeld novel thus far - not only is it humorous, action-packed, James Bond-esque and tightly written, it also ties other elements (including some of their more intriguing characters) from previous Grofeld books into this fast-moving tie-together story, which is attention-getting from its first word to its last.  Like every Stark work I've read this is worth owning.

Followed by Lemons Never Lie.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn


(hb; 2012)

From the inside flap

"On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary.  Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick's clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River.  Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn't doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife's head, but passages from Amy's diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and media - as well as Amy's fiercely doting parents - the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior.  Nick is oddly evasive, and he's definitely bitter - but is he really a killer?

"As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one they love.  With his twin sister, Margo, at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn't do it, where is that beautiful wife?  And what is in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?"


Review:

I loved parts of this book and hated other parts of it - and by "hate," a word I rarely use in writing book reviews, it's not because the author (in this case Flynn) did her job right.  It is not because she made me form attachments with her characters before she started doing horrible things to them; it is because her writing sports some serious mistakes.

The cons of Gone.

The first hundred or a hundred and fifty pages of this four hundred and five-page novel are unnecessary and ultra-chatty, like a Ritalin-addled schoolgirl prattling on about things of little importance (it should be noted that Flynn cuts between Amy's diary and Nick's point of view in this section, but the result is the same: a better writer would have established true-to-the-characters voice variation and important detailed plot points - which do pop up, on occasion - in fifty or twenty-five pages).

I normally give a novelist twenty-five to fifty pages to impress me with their writing.  The writing can be flawed, but there has to be something to keep me turning their pages.  In this case, I only stuck with Gone for a hundred or so pages because an acquaintance - an excellent writer himself - suggested that I do so.  The end-twist, he proclaimed, was memorable in a great way.  (More on that later.)

There's a few I'm-so-clever-gotcha moments in these initial pages that were telegraphed in clumsy, voice-true fashion, but again, a better writer would have not made them read like hackwork.  So: points to Flynn for the voice-veracity element, but her gotcha-hackery. . . no.  Not good.

The ending fits the black-as-a-pulp-noir tone of Gone, but Nick - whose character has matured in the course of the excellent middle section of the novel - suddenly reverts to plot-convenient lazy-noirish stupidity, making a decision that he more likely would have made in the beginning of the novel not the end.  Nick's key stroke-forced, unlikely actions near the finish don't ring true, given all that Nick has gone through prior to the novel's denouement. 

The pros of Gone.

It is clear that Flynn worked out the twist 'n' turn OCD details of Gone.  Once Flynn has passes the awkward and overly long set-up of the first hundred or so pages, the middle section is explosive with pitch black, effective pulp-noir.  The writing gets tighter and the chapters shorter, and the book becomes difficult to set down, taking Gone into intriguing, if still-familiar territory.  Not only that, but Flynn does role-reversals well in this stretch, made me like a character I normally would, as she puts it, would like to "punch in the face."

Overall review

Check Gone out from the library or buy it used, at an ultra-cheap price.  Flynn is a writer with great promise - that middle section is proof of that - but the overly chatty hackery she evidences in with Gone shows that she has a ways to go before she could be called a great, or even a good, writer.  Or don't read Gone at all, and watch the film version, which hit stateside movie screens on October 3, 2014.

David Fincher directed the film from Gillian Flynn's screenplay. 

Ben Affleck played Nick Dunne. Rosamund Pike played Amy Dunne. Neil Patrick Harris played Desi Collings. Tyler Perry played Tanner Bolt. Carrie Coon played Margo "Go" Dunne. Kim Dickens played Rhonda Boney. Patrick Fugit played Officer Jim Gilpin. 

David Clennon played Rand Elliot.  Lisa Banes played Marybeth Elliot. Missy Pyle played Ellen Abbott. Emily Ratajkowski played Andie Hardy. Casey Wilson played Noelle Hawthorne. Sela Ward played Sharon Schieber.  Scoot McNairy played Tommy O'Hara.
Steve Isaak has published two hundred stories and poems, and is the author of three anthologies: Behind the wheel: selected poems, Shinjuku sex cheese holocaust: poems and the forthcoming Horrorsex County: stories (which are, or will be, available at Lulu and Amazon).