Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Santa Steps Out, by Robert Devereaux

(pb; 1998)

Review:

Santa Claus is corrupted by the wily and pernicious Tooth Fairy while making another toy delivery. This “accident” reawakens memories of what Santa was in an earlier age, before Xians boosted and sanitized pagan myths to their suiting – the seething, angry-at-God fairy points this out early in the book, thereby irrevocably altering everything that Santa, and those around him, knows or remembers.

The first part of this blasphemous fairy tale is filled with laugh-out-loud descriptions of pornographic sex and general nastiness. Nobody is innocent in this explicit tale, not even the elves and reindeers.

The second half lives up to the book’s "horror" label. Mutilation and necrophilia ensue, and other dark desires are borne out.

If you can deal with the above elements, seek this novel out. Most horror novels quiver in comparison, in terms of skewering precious childhood memories and our perceptions of why Christmas is, um, white.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Farewell Summer, by Ray Bradbury

(hb; 2006; sequel to Dandelion Wine)


From the inside flap:

“In a summer that refuses to end, in the deceiving warmth of earliest October, civil war has come to Green Town, Illinois. It is the age-old conflict: the young against the elderly, for control fo the clock that ticks their lives ever forward. The first cap-shot heard ‘round the town is dead accurate, felling an old man in his tracks, compelling town elder and school board despot Mr. Calvin C. Quartermain to marshal his graying forces and declare total war on the assassin, thirteen-year old Douglas Spaulding, and his downy-cheeked cohorts. Doug and his cronies, however, are most worthy adversaries who should not be underestimated, as they plan and execute daring campaigns – matching old Quartermain’s experience and cunning with their youthful enthusiasm and devil-may-care determination to hold on forever to childhood’s summer. Yet time must ultimately be the victor, with valuable revelations for those on both sides of the conflict. And life waits in ambush to assail Doug Spaulding with its powerful mysteries – the irresistible ascent of manhood, the sweet surrender to a first kiss…”



Review:

A year has passed since Douglas and Tom’s summer in Dandelion Wine. The Ravine is still the home of the Lonely One (aka, Death), but its mysterious threat is considerably lessened, and autumn, with its crisp chilliness, is creeping into Green Town.

Smaller in scope (i.e., more focused) and less rambly-episodic than its predecessor, Farewell Summer maintains the humor, warmth, magic and awe of Dandelion Wine, while advancing its characters and themes (Death, Time, growing up), with an equally wondrous denouement.

Great work, check it out.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury

(hb; 1957: prequel to Farewell Summer)


Review:

Summer 1928 – Green Town, Illinois. Twelve-year old Douglas Spaulding and his brother, ten-year old Tom, are excited as summer begins. They live in an idyllic town where the elderly are Time Machines, their tongues the levers which reveal eras passed; where “dandelion wine,” the intangible essence of the aestival season, can be bottled and swilled at any time; where a scandalous romance between a young man and an old woman is sweetly ventured; where the town tinkerer, Leo Auffman, sets out to build a different kind of Time Machine (and succeeds).

Threatening this charming idyll is the Lonely One – aka, Death – who is rumored to lurk in the Ravine that physically splits the town in half. The Lonely One isn’t the only enemy on the lurk, for another, encroached in the swing of clock arms, is on the prowl, as well…

Readers familiar with Bradbury’s oeuvre will likely recognize the author’s trademark thematic interplay of childhood innocence and skulking darkness, which bore fuller, more tightly-plotted fruit in his later novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Dandelion Wine is a gentle, episodic work, more cobbled together than written organically. Still, between Bradbury’s prose-poetic writing, and his enchanting moral lessons, this is a wondrous, classic work.

Followed by Farewell Summer.

Mötley Crüe: The Dirt, by Mötley Crüe & Neil Strauss

(pb; 2001: non-fiction)

Review:

Mötley Crűe – made up of bassist Nikki Sixx, drummer Tommy Lee, guitarist Mick Mars, and vocalist Vince Neil – were one of the raunchiest high-profile heavy metal bands in the 1980s, pursuing sex, drugs and other dehumanizing debaucheries without restraint for the better part of fifteen years. This book spans twenty-one years, from 1980 (when the band formed) to 2001, the band’s story told by the band members (and those who worked with them) in author-alternated chapters.

It should go without saying that this is not for anyone who’s easily offended. The Dirt is sordid, raw, cruel (especially when it comes to the band members’ past deeds), and often shockingly funny; throughout it all, however, one fact shines through – all the band members, f*cked-up and impenitent as they were/are, have a deep, genuine love for making music, which rarely wavered, drug addictions and drama aside.

A necessary, not-off-putting tone of psychoanalysis creeps into the book near the middle of it, as the band members, who come off as distinctive personalities, talk about why they were such sh*ts to everyone around them – the one exception would seem to be Mick Mars, who, while not an innocent, was less indulgent than Sixx, Lee or Neil.

This is not pretty reading. But it is painfully honest and brave, and oftentimes, funnier than a tortoise wearing a tortoise-sized black leather prom dress: highly-recommended for anyone who’s a metal fan, or anybody with a dark seedy sense of humor.

Also worth checking out: The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star, by Nikki Sixx and Ian Gittins.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Rutland Place, by Anne Perry

(pb; 1983: fifth book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the back cover:

"London's most unusual sleuthing team, Inspector Thomas Pitt and his wife, Charlotte, could not stay away from trouble.

"When Charlotte learned of her mother's distress in losing a locket with a compromising picture, she did not know it was the beginning of several bizarre events that would end in sudden death. For hidden behind the sumptuous elegance of Rutland Place were terrible secrets. Secrets so horrifying that only murder could conceal them.

"But the dangerous persistence of Charlotte and the quiet patience of Inspector Pitt made it possible to unwind this most macabre and chilling mystery..."

Review:

The fifth Charlotte and Thomas Pitt mystery takes place shortly after the events of Resurrection Row. Jemima Pitt, Charlotte and Thomas’s daughter, is now eighteen months old; the Pitts are expecting another child in six months.

This mystery is initially lighter than previous Pitt entries, but no less enjoyable or clever. Fresh darkness is introduced to the series near the end of the book, but it isn’t jarring, and sharp-eyed readers will probably see it coming. Aside from that, the pseudo-twists and possible red herrings aren’t so easy to spot, and the characters, as always, are interesting. (One of my favorite characters from Paragon Walk, Paul Alaric, a charming sensitive Frenchman, makes an appearance, which made me like Rutland Place even more).

Excellent, difficult to put down, and followed by Bluegate Fields.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser

(pb; 2004: non-fiction)

From the back cover:

“Fast food has hastened the malling of our landscape, widened the chasm between rich and poor, fueled an epidemic of obesity, and propelled American cultural imperialism abroad. That’s a lengthy list of charges, but Eric Schlosser makes them stick with an artful mix of first-rate reportage, wry wit, and careful reasoning.

“Schlosser’s myth-shattering survey stretches from California subdivisions, where the business was born, to the industrial corridor along the New Jersey Turnpike, where many of fast food’s flavors are concocted. Along the way, he unearths a trove of fascinating, unsettling truths – from the unholy alliance between fast food and Hollywood to the seismic changes the industry has wrought in food production, popular culture, and even real estate.”

Review:

This is one of the most horrifying books I’ve read in recent years. This is as nauseating as Jack Ketchum’s excellent Stranglehold (which featured the non-gratuitous but graphic sexual torture of women and a boy) and Rudolf Hoess’s autobiography Commandant of Auschwitz.

Schlosser tells how the fast food industry (which began in the 1930s) originated, expanded and dominated all facets of American, now global, life, causing widespread economic, social and geological havoc. I knew fast food corporations were ruthless and that fast food was unhealthy, but I hadn’t taken into account the scope of its corporate influence – which tells the American government what to do, not the other way around. A good portion of the aforementioned economic, social and geologic havoc stems from the oligopsonic agribusinesses that largely employ uneducated and uninsured immigrants, pushing them to work in highly dangerous factories (the chapter about the meatpacking plants is especially repugnant).

Schlosser ends this entertaining (if often sickening), fact-filled unmasking of corporate greed on a note of cautious hope, with reasonable suggestions on how to affect major changes.

Anybody who’s ever set foot in a fast food restaurant needs to read this; after doing so, you may never want to eat fast food again (though you probably will anyway, because it's convenient).

The fictionalized film version was released stateside on November 17, 2006. Bruce Willis played Harry Rydell. Greg Kinnear played Don Anderson. Luis Guzman played Benny. Patricia Arquette played Cindy.

Richard Linklater directed, from a script he co-wrote with book author Eric Schlosser.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

(pb; 1999: YA novel)

From the inside flap:

“Melinda Sordino busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so her old friends won’t talk to her, and people she doesn’t know hate her from a distance. It’s no use explaining to her parents: they’ve never known what her life is really like. The safest place for Melinda to be is alone, inside her own head. But even that’s not safe. Because there’s something she’s trying not to think about, something about the night of the party that, if she admitted it and let it in, would blow her carefully constructed disguise to smithereens. And then she would have no choice. Melinda would have to speak the truth.”

Review:

Alternately acerbic, vulnerable and moody, Melinda’s first-person account of traversing the minefield known as adolescence is amusing and relatable; Anderson’s writing, pace and tone consistently rings true, grabbing the reader from the opening page. The fact that Melinda has been raped is evident early on, and while Anderson layers her novel like an onion, revealing salient facts over time, she doesn’t pretend that the rape is a revelation; rather, she's showing how Melinda is processing the rape-event in her head. Speak is a sensitive, wow-worthy novel, surpassing any Afterschool Special cheesiness that it might’ve possessed, given its subject matter, and because of that, it’s important.



This became a television film in 2004.

Kristen Stewart played Melinda. Elizabeth Perkins played Joyce Sordino. D.B. Sweeney played Jack Sordino. Steve Zahn played Mr. Freeman.

Jessica Sharzer directed and co-scripted the film. Annie Young Frisbie also co-scripted.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Spiderwick Chronicles, by Tony Di Terlizzi & Holly Black

(hb; 2003, 2004)

Overall review:

This five-book kids’ series is lightweight, and probably won’t be remembered as a landmark work, but it is fun and straightforward. It’s a quick read, as each book is approximately a hundred pages long, packaged like Lemony Snicket’s An Unfortunate Series of Events series.


Review, book by book:

The Spiderwick Chronicles, Book 1: The Field Guide – Nine year-old twins Simon and Jared Grace, and their thirteen year-old sister (Mallory) move into their institutionalized aunt’s abandoned house with their mother. When things start missing, and malicious pranks are pulled, the children (who have nothing to do with these events) realize that someone – or something – else is also living in the house.

The story is brisk, the characters deftly-fleshed (Simon loves animals; Mallory is a fencer; Jared is plucky), and the fun never lets up. 


The Seeing Stone (Book 2): When their cat goes missing, the Grace children search for it in the backwoods, and encounter more nasty magical beings. The suspense and mystery deepens.


Lucinda’s Secret (Book 3): The Grace children, desperate to escape prank-persecution from Thimbletack (a house boggart), visit their great-aunt Lucinda in a local asylum, discover a magical map, as well as the possible fate of their great great-uncle Arthur.


The Ironwood Tree (Book 4): When Jared espies a blond girl, and later, his evil doppelganger, riffling through Mallory’s bag at a fencing meet (which Mallory is participating in), and Mallory is kidnapped, Jared and Simon embark on a trek to save Mallory from the rock quarry dwarves who took her. Semi-grim finish, compared to the previous three books.


The Wrath of Mulgarath (Book 5): With help from Byron (a griffin they found in The Seeing Stone) and Hogsqueal (a hobgoblin, also befriended in The Seeing Stone), the Grace children rescue their mother (Helen) from a shape-changing Mulgarath, goblin leader of the dwarves, forest goblins and dragons. Satisfying, amusing conclusion: memorable.

#

The resulting film is set for release on February 15, 2008. The authors, along with John Sayles and a few others, are set to co-script. Mark Waters is set to direct.

Freddie Highmore plays "Jared/Simon Grace". Sarah Bolger plays Mallory Grace. Mary-Louise Parker plays Helen Grace. Andrew McCarthy plays Richard Grace. David Strathairn plays Arthur Spiderwick. Joan Plowright plays Aunt Lucinda Spiderwick.

Nick Nolte plays Mulgarath. Seth Rogan voices Hogsqueal. Martin Short voices Thimbletack.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Eldest, by Christopher Paolini

(hb; 2005: second book in The Inheritance series)

Review:

Paolini picks up where Eragon left off, continuing to write in the “Star Wars meets The Lord of the Rings” vein. Befittingly, the plot structure of the second Inheritance tale is not unlike that of The Empire Strikes Back. The reader can almost hear the insectile hum and electric hissing of battle-crossed lightsabers as Eragon, training with Oromis (an elvish Rider, playing Yoda to Eragon’s Luke Skywalker), matures, as a Rider and a man. Meanwhile, Roran, Eragon’s cousin, leads his (and Eragon’s) Empire-besieged village to safety.

Paolini has also matured in his writing. Sure, there are plenty of predictable twists, but there is also plenty of great (and unexpected) subplots, great character development (especially among the secondary characters), riveting action, and the ending leaves the reader wishing that the third Inheritance novel (Brisingr) was already published.

Earnest and engrossing (if somewhat derivative and familiar) novel, worth your time.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

(hb; 2006)

From the inside flap:

"A father and son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don't know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands taht stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food -- and each other."

Review:

McCarthy writes in a stark, often monochromatic way, forsaking apostrophes (can't = "cant") and quotation marks. Aside from a drawn-out, Hollyweird-convenient denouement, this masculine-toned and touching novel hooked me. It has an addictive rhythm to it: you won't soon forget this stripped to the core, quickfire read.

The film version, scheduled for a November 25, 2009 stateside release, stars Viggo Mortensen as "The Man". Charlize Theron plays "The Wife". Guy Pearce plays "The Veteran". Robert Duvall plays "Old Man". Molly Parker plays "Veteran's Wife".

John Hillcoat directs, from a script by Joe Penhall.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Frozen, by Lindsay Jayne Ashford

(hb; 2003: first book in the Megan Rhys Mystery series)

From the inside flap:

"Forensic psychologist Megan Rhys has been asked to advise the police on the murders of two young prostitutes. Seemingly, the women are victims of two killers working together. But there is something wrong with the information the police are giving her. Someone is trying to manipulate her. Or are her own prejudices coloring her judgment?

"As the killings add up, Megan is being pushed harder and harder toward one solution -- and someone is getting into her house. Is the killer closer than she realizes? Is a member of her own family betraying her?"

Review:

Written with analytical precision, Frozen is a brisk-paced, keeps-you-guessing profiler thriller featuring a protagonist (Megan Rhys) whose toughness is rooted in her feminine and professional insights. Exemplary, exciting, this: fans of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series might groove on this, as well.

Followed by Strange Blood.

God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert

(pb; 1981: fourth book in the Dune Chronicles)

From the inside flap

"More than three thousand years have passed since the first events recorded in Dune. Only one link survives with those tumultuous times: the grotesque figure of Leto Atreides, son of the prophet Paul Muad'Dib, and now the virtually immortal God Emperor of Dune. He alone understands the future, and he knows with a terrible certainty that the evolution of his race is at an end unless he can breed new qualities into his species. But to achieve his final victory, Leto Atreides must also bring about his own downfall."


Review

The plot of the fourth Dune book is the simplest thus far, with less major characters than the first three novels. This is not a disappointment, as it allows for the possibility of a leaner, more action-intense novel.

Unfortunately, Herbert lets Leto II ruminate too often. The seemingly contradictory and meant-to-be-meaningful platitude-riddles that were rousing in the first three books come off as hokum here. Herbert has opted for style over substance, and it's a shame, considering that this could've been a spectacular tale.

So-so book, recommended only for die-hard Dune fans.

Followed by Heretics of Dune.

Friday, November 03, 2006

One Train Later, by Andy Summers

(hb; 2006: memoir)

"...world-renown guitarist Andy Summers provides a revealing and passionate account of a life dedicated to music. From his first guitar at age thirteen and his early days on the English music scene to the ascendancy of his band, the Police, Summers recounts his relationships and encounters with the Big Roll Band, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, the Animals, John Belushi, and others, all the while proving himself a master of telling detail and dramatic anecdote.

"But, of course, the early work is only part of the story, and Summer's account of his role as the guitarist for the Police -- a gig that was only confirmed by a chance encounter with drummer Stewart Copeland on a London train -- has been long-awaited by music fans worldwide. The heights of fame that the Police achieved have rarely been duplicated, and the band's triumphs were rivaled only by the personal chaos that such success brought about, an insight never lost on Summers in the telling."

Review:

Engaging and possessing a quirky, journal-veracious immediacy, this is a fast read. Summers cuts to the chase, with nary a boring passage in this often-funny, always classy read. Even when summers talks about his hippie-era, chemical- and music-fueled past (he gigged with some of the most famous of the Sixties rockers prior to the Police), he never loses his amiable air of respectability. (Anybody can write about drugs and squalor; an accomplished writer can take it to the next level, make it about something more.)

Any readers looking for dirt on Sting or Stewart Copeland (his Police bandmates) or anybody else will be disappointed. Summers is direct but polite in a mildly earthy way -- as he comments a few times, it must be his British upbringing -- and he's more prone to admit to his own failings (with humorous self-deprecation) than he is to point out others'.

As precise as the Police's music (which distilled reggae, jazz and post-punk into a distinctive pop package), Summers has written a wonderful memoir that charms the reader -- this reader, anyway -- and shows that Summers, whether he's making music, taking photographs or writing, is a force to admire.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Smonk, by Tom Franklin

(hb; 2006)

From the inside flap:

"It's 1911 and the secluded southwestern Alabama town of Old Texas has been besieged by by a scabrous and malevolent character called E.O. Smonk. Syphilitic, consumptive, gouty and goitered, Smonk is also an expert with explosives and knives. He abhors horses, goats and the Irish. Every Saturday night for a year he's been riding his mule into Old Texas, destroying property, killing livestock, seducing women, cheating and beating men -- all from behind the twin barrels of his Winchester 45-70 caliber over and under rifle. At last the desperate citizens of the town, themselves harboring a terrible secret, put Smonk on trial, with disastrous and shocking results.

"Smonk is also the story of Evavangeline, a fifteen-year old prostitute quick to pull the trigger or a cork. A case of mistaken identity plunges her into the wild sugarcane country between the Alabama and the Tombigree rivers, land suffering from the worst drought in a hundred years and plagued by rabies. Pursued by a posse of unlikely vigilantes, Evavangeline boats upriver and then wends through the dust and ruined crops, forced along the way to confront her own clouded past. She eventually stumbles into Old Texas, where she is fated to E.O. Smonk and the townspeople in a way she could never imagine..."

Review:

Smonk is a perverse, bleak-humored, and violently bloody romp through the Old South where few are virtuous, even children. Its structure, tone, plot and characters are iconclastic, shattering whatever noble stereotypes Western readers have been weaned on, and I enjoyed every filthy minute of the novel, given the sleazy cleverness that Franklin has laid out before his readers.

Too bad director Sam Peckinpah died in 1984, because I saw this as the perfect vehicle for his cinematic pathos: ballistic, raw and tender as he could be. I also imagined Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Sizemore being cast in this dream-film, and a few other actors who specialize in playing f***ed-up characters. (Appropriately enough, there's a scene that pays homage to Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, revolving around the question of whether or not to bury someone.)

If you're a fan of Westerns -- particularly the cable show Deadwood -- you should pick this sucker up. It's inspiring (in a strange way), damn near impossible to put down, and not easily forgotten.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Deep in the Darkness, by Michael Laimo

(pb; 2004)

From the back cover:

“Dr. Michael Cayle wanted the best for his wife and young daughter. That's why he moved the family from Manhattan to accept a private practice in the small New England town of Ashborough. Everything there seemed so quaint and peaceful – at first. But Ashborough is a town with secrets...

“Many of the townspeople are strangely nervous, and some speak quietly of the legends that no sane person could believe. But what Michael discovers in the woods, drenched in blood, makes him wonder. Could the legends possibly be true after all? Soon he will be forced to believe, when he learns the terrifying identity of the golden eyes that peer at him balefully from deep in the darkness.”

Review:

Narrated in the chatty first-person POV of Michael Cayle, this novel has a promising start. The set-up's solid, if familiar, and Laimo's writing has a kitschy, sometimes quirky-gory flair.

That flair, however, becomes irrelevant when the narrator, Cayle, gets a serious case of Horror Story Stupidity (HSS), a quarter-way into Deep: several neighbors wind up dead and mutilated, and despite being told – in explicit terms – how to surcease the mounting body count, Cayle runs around like an idiot, doing everything but that. That's frustrating enough, but author Laimo worsens the situation by managing, for the next two-quarters of the novel, to sink the story further with avoidable clichés.

Laimo almost redeems himself in the last quarter, with some kitschy-great scenes and action, only to end the story in a pat, predictable manner. His narrator (Cayle) is supposed to be smart, but he's really a dumb-ass, and that's regrettable, because I wanted to like the novel, given Laimo's occasionally effervescent narrative passages.

Hack work from a promising writer -- avoid this novel.

Set to be released as a film in 2008, Deep in the Darkness hasn't been cast yet. Greg Stechman has signed on as the film's director and screenwriter.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Suicide Hill, by James Ellroy

(hb; 1986: Book Three of the L.A. Noir trilogy)

Review:

Det Sgt Lloyd Hopkins is suspended, on the verge of losing his badge (something about perjury and evidence he planted) when he's brought back to bust a three-man kidnap/ransom team. Interoffice politics, betrayal, uncontrolled violence, and corpses – much of it brought about by the cops investigating the crimes, not the criminals themselves – results.

Ellroy keeps the interweaving, often complex, plot focused and sharp. While Suicide Hill carries the same urgent raw tone of the two previous books, it's different from them, mainly because certain roles have been reversed – this time, it's Hopkins who's more restrained (he's learned to control his “p***y hound” tendencies), and everyone else who's out of control. “Crazy Lloyd,” as he's called, is still a “hotdog cop,” but he's trying to get his wife and daughters to return, and that means keeping cool, even when the past – not just his own – threatens to explode the present.

Like the previous books (Blood on the Moon, Because the Night), Suicide Hill ends on a note of edgy grace. This is a bang-up capping novel for the Lloyd Hopkins trilogy, another worthwhile read from Ellroy.

Eragon, by Christopher Paolini

(pb; 2002: first book in The Inheritance series)

From the back cover:

“When Eragon finds a polished blue stone in the forest, he thinks it is the lucky discovery of a poor farm boy; perhaps it will buy his family meat for the winter. But when the stone brings a dragon hatchling, Eragon soon realizes that he has stumbled upon a legacy nearly as old as the Empire itself.

“Overnight his simple life is shattered, and he is thrust into a perilous new world of destiny, magic, and power. With only an ancient sword and the advice of an old storyteller for guidance, Eragon and the fledgling dragon must navigate the dangerous terrain and dark enemies of an Empire ruled by a king whose evil knows no bounds...”


Review:

Star Wars meets J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Plenty of rousing action, danger, humor, humanity and drama ensues. What Paolini has written is familiar – anyone who's read a few fantasy novels should see that – but it's a capably written blast, and the characters are worth cheering on, or hissing at.

Eragon is followed by Eldest.

#

Eragon, the film, is scheduled for set a December 15, 2006 release. Edward Speleers plays Eragon. Jeremy Irons plays Brom. Sienna Guillory plays Arya. Djimon Hounsou plays Ajihad. John Malkovich plays King Galbatorix. Robert Carlyle plays Durza. Joss Stone plays Angela.

Stefen Fangmeier is set to direct, from a script by Peter Buchman.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Beast Who Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, by Harlan Ellison

(hb; 1969: story anthology)

Overall review: Landmark science fiction anthology, with every story distinctive from the others.

Review, story by story:

The Beast Who Shouted Love at the Heart of the World”: All-over-the-place, untempered (some might say unfocused) take on the odd, violent forms “love” takes. Interesting, different.

Along the Scenic Route”: The Road Warrior (1982) mated with Death Race 2000 (1975), with hints of Duel (1971). Excellent, memorable, neat li'l end-twist. Twilight Zone-ish.


Phoenix”: A four-man party embarks on a dangerous desert trek to prove a scientific theory (“chronoleakage... time has weight”) and to find a legendary place. Science fiction at its finest, with a cool play on a familiar theme.

Asleep: With Still Hands”: Two groups of psychically-joined people, bored with futuristic peace, battle for the privilege of snuffing out the omniscient man-machine (the Sleeper) who prevents mankind from wiping itself out. Good, if overlong, story.

Santa Claus Versus S.P.I.D.E.R.”: James Bond meets a not-so-Jolly St. Nick. Hoot of a 007 parody, this, with brain-washing alien symbiotes, LSD-ingesting procreating reindeers, zombies, semi-dated political jabs, and Santa getting it on. Ellison clearly had fun with this, as well you might, if you're into Ian Fleming's pop-iconic spy.

Try a Dull Knife”: Psychic vampires stalk an empath. Horrific, misanthropic, all-too-relatable. Fantabulous, and, again, worthy of a Twilight Zone episode.

The Pitll Pawob Division”: Neological, nifty bit about an alien, and the irritating, complaining creatures around him.

The Place With No Name”: While fleeing the law, a pimp (or “Entertainment Liaison Agent”) happens upon refuge in an surprising location. Good story.

White on White”: A lonely gigolo stumbles into love. Succinct, funnily romantic.

Run for the Stars”: A dream-dust junkie and human-bomb pawn for the human Resistance (Benno Tallant) fends off a Kyben (golden-fleshed alien) invasion, becoming somebody, something, else in the process. Action-loaded story, great end-twist.

Are You Listening?": A middle-aged man (Albert Winsocki) wakes up one morning and discovers that he's invisible to, and unheard by, those in the material world. Decent work.

S.R.O.”: When beautiful aliens appear in Times Square, a producer (Bart Chester) sees money in the making. Fitting finish, with a wonderful exit line.

Worlds to Kill”: Ironic, intriguing tale about a planet-crushing mercenary and his death machine.

Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”: H.P. Lovecraft, filtered through a psychedelic lens, this. A soldier returns from duty to 'The Hill,' a hippie crash pad, to get his girl back – but he gets more than he bargained for. Vivid, memorable read.

A Boy and His Dog”: 2034. Vic (a “solo,” a single man) and Blood (a “rover,” a mutt) who share a psychic link – as do all solo/rover pairs – find themselves in worlds of trouble when Vic falls in lust with a too-good-to-be-true woman (Quilla June). Classic, black-humored finish. One of the best stories in the collection.

The resulting film was released in America in November 1975. Don Johnson played Vic. Susanne Benton played Quilla June Holmes. Jason Robards played Lou Craddock. Tim McIntire voiced Blood. L.Q. Jones, who co-scripted the film, also co-produced, directed and played a porn actor within the film.

A remake of the film is scheduled for release in 2012. David Lee Miller, who's co-scripting the film with Harlan Ellison and original film director L.Q. Jones' input, is set to direct it.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Sacrament, by Clive Barker

(hb; 1996)

From the inside flap:

“... Will Rabjohns, perhaps the most famous wildlife photographer in the world, has made his reputation chronicling the fates of endangered species. Including his own. For even as Will rises to the pinnacle of his career, he is witnessing his own world – the close-knit San Francisco community that has nurtured and liberated him – ravaged by AIDS.

“Then an almost mystical encounter with a bear in the Artic leaves Will all but dead. In the depths of his coma, he revisits the wilderness of his youth in England and relives the terrifying encounter that created him, both as an artist and a man.

“Befriended by a mysterious couple, Rosa McGee and Jacob Steep, the young Will is granted the love he has been denied by his own family. But with that love comes a grim education. For while Rosa shows him the cruelties of passion, Jacob teaches him the purities of death – seducing him with the possibility that he might one day slaughter the last of a species and thus change the world forever.

“When Will stirs from his long sleep, he realizes that this dark dream, which he thought he had put behind him, is still very much a part of who he is. Haunted by its echoes and driven by the certainty that he must face Rosa and Jacob one final time, he sets out on a journey of self-discovery – a journey that will lead him from the familiar streets of San Francisco, back from the Yorkshire moors, and on to the stark beauty of Scotland's Western Isles. There he will penetrate the ultimate mystery – The Domus Mundi – and finally discover the secret that links his destiny to that of the innumerable creatures with whom we share our planet.”

Review:

An elegiac tone suffuses Sacrament, a gentler offering than Barker's earlier, bloodier writings (The Books of Blood; The Hellbound Heart – which later became the first Hellraiser film; The Damnation Game, etc.). Like those earlier works, though, Barker has sacrificed none of the poetic sublimity that graced them.

The theme of nature conservation also predominates (appropriate, given our global dilemmas), as well as beauty – some of the most beautiful scenes in this book are also the most basic: lovers, exchanging knowing heart-wise glances; a wintry field, stark beneath sudden sunlight, and deep quiet. Sensuality, humor and gore is very much present, often fused with spiritual and mortal moods.

One of Barker's best works, up there with Imajica and Galilee.

Because the Night, by James Ellroy

(hb; 1985: Book Two of the L.A. Noir trilogy)

From the inside flap:

“Jacob Herzog, hero cop, has disappeared. A multiple murder committed with a pre-Civil War revolver remains unsolved. Are the cases linked? As Det. Sgt. Lloyd Hopkins pieces the puzzle together, he uncovers a startling trail of arcane secrets and madness – all leading to one psychotic mastermind.”

Review:

Hopkins pits himself against a manipulative sadistic psychiatrist (John Havilland, aka “Dr. John the Night Tripper”) who drives his patients to murder, cold seduction and other cruelties. Hopkins is still an on-the-edge cop, but he's more likeable than he was in Blood on the Moon.

As intense and brutal as its predecessor, Because the Night has the same themes, many of them not for the faint of heart, but they're seen through a more humane lens.

Fast, gripping read, can't wait to read the next (and final) sequel, Suicide Hill.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

(pb; 1976: third book in the Dune Chronicles)

From the back cover

"The desert planet of Arrakis has begun to grow green and lush. The life-giving spice is abundant. The nine-year-old royal twins, possesing their father's supernatural powers, are being groomed as Messiahs.

"But there are those who think the Imperium does not need messiahs."



Review

Children, like the first two Dune books, is complex, with its interweaving characters and plots -- this makes for an heady, intellectual experience. Sad, cruel ironies continue to be a theme, as do other human frailties and desires (which keeps the Dune books, thus far, from becoming too emotionally-detached to be involving).

Less revelatory than DuneChildren is an estimable read. (Think of Dune like the Big Bang Theory: if Dune was the life-bringing explosion, any sequel that follows it can be defined, at best, as a sorting-out and refining of the initial explosive elements.)

Check it out.

Followed by God Emperor of Dune.

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Children of Dune began airing stateside as a television miniseries on March 16, 2003 - its plot also incorporated elements from the second Dune novel, Dune Messiah.

Alec Newman reprised his role of Paul Atreides/Muad'dib (he played Paul in the 2000 mini-series, Dune). Julie Cox reprised her role of Irulan Corrino-Atreides. Daniela Amavia played Alia Atreides. Alice Krige played Lady Jessica Atreides.

James McAvoy played Leto Atreides II.  Jessica Brooks played Ghamina Atreides. 

P.H. Moriarty reprised his role of Gurney Halleck.  Edward Atterton played Duncan Idaho.  Susan Sarandon played Princess Wensicia Corrino.  Steven Berkoff played Stilgar.

Ian McNeice reprised his role as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.  Jonathan Bruun played Farad'n Corrino.

Karel Dobrý, who played Dr. Pardot Kynes in the original miniseries, played a different character in this miniseries - this time, his character's name was Korba.

Greg Yaitanes directed the miniseries, from a script by John Harrison (who scripted and helmed the original miniseries).

Flamethrower, by Maggie Estep

(pb; 2006)

From the back cover:

“In the newest Ruby Murphy mystery, New York's inadvertent sleuth discovers more about her shrink than she could have ever imagined as the doctor turns the tables, enlisting her help in the hunt for a one-legged man who's been kidnapped and hidden in the Rockaways. Life gets stranger when Ruby is inexplicably fired from her job at the Coney Island Museum, her friend Violet's best racehorse is suddenly put up for sale, and a blue Honda begins shadowing Ruby's every move as she journeys into the wilds of Pennsylvania in search of the woman she always thought had all the answers.

“Between her apartment that is spitting distance from the Cyclone roller-coaster, the barn deep in no-man's land where she stables her horse, and the racetrack that is consuming her boyfriend, Ruby already knows her share of eccentric New York misfits. But in Flamethrower she may have finally met her match.”

Review:

Ruby, traumatized by the murder of her ex, Attila Johnson, eighteen months prior (in Gargantuan), discovers a severed human foot jutting out of her psychiatrist's fish tank. Turns out, the foot belongs to the husband of Ruby's psychiatrist (Dr. Jody Ray), who tells Ruby that her moody husband is probably pulling another kidnapping scam to get money out of her.

More than that is going on, however, forcing Ruby into yet another mystery (which reads less like a mystery than an sassy, quirky episode of Ruby's life). Estep has abandoned the first-person, alternating-characters narrative: this time out, it's all Ruby, in the first person. Estep has also streamlined the narrative, giving less time to character descriptions (which are often delectable doozies), and upping the action ante, without sacrificing the light, amiable tone of the first two books.

The only nit I have with this smile-soliciting work is that Ruby's mid-book tiff with her current beau, Ed, feels forced – Ed, in the two previous books, was never this petty, so why now? It's not enough to make me not want to own Flamethrower, but it is incongruent with Ed's previous behavior.

That said, this is my favorite entry in the series (thus far). Worth checking out.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Anonymous Rex, by Eric Garcia

(hb; 2000)

From the inside flap:

“Vincent Rubio, a Los Angeles private investigator, is down on his luck: He's out of work. His car's been repossessed. His partner has died under mysterious circumstances. And his tail just won't stay put. Vincent is a dinosaur – a Veliciraptor, to be precise. It seems the dinosaurs faked their extinction 65 million years ago and still roam the earth, disguised in convincing latex costumes that help them blend perfectly into human society. A heightened sense of smell allows the dinos to detect one another – Vincent's got an odor like a tasty Cuban cigar.

“When Vincent is called to investigate a two-bit case of arson at a hip dino nightclub, he discovers something much more sinister, which lures him back to New York City – the scene of his partner's death and a dangerous nexus of dinosaur and human intermingling.

“Will Vincent solve the mystery of his partner's death? Will a gorgeous blond chanteuse discover his true identity, jeopardizing both of their lives? Will Vincent be able to conquer his dangerous addiction to basil, or will he wind up in Herbaholics Anonymous? Will he find true love, or resort to crumpled issues of Stegolicious?”

Review:

This is a rolling-on-the-floor-funny novel, exhibiting one of the more originative neo-noir plots I've read. Vincent Rubio, the laid-back narrator, is familiar enough that I instantly warmed to him, and different enough that he's memorable. The wack-like-life wacky situations that Rubio and the other characters encounter further their -- and the storyline's -- rib-tickling memorability.

Fresh blast of a book.

In 2004, a film bearing the same name was aired. It's actually based on the second/follow-up Vincent Rubio novel, Casual Rex, according to imdb.com.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Jumper, by Steven C. Gould

(hb; 1992: first book in the Jumper trilogy)

From the inside flap:

“Davy can teleport. He first discovers his talent during a savage beating delivered by his abusive father, when Davy jumps instantaneously to the safest place he knows, his small-town public library. As his mother did so many years before, Davy vows never to go home again. Instead, he sets off, young and inexperienced, for New York City.

“Davy gradually learns to use and control his powers, first for sheer survival in an environment more violent and complex than he ever imagined. But mere survival is not enough for Davy. He wants to know if there are other people like him. He needs to know if his mother disappeared so completely from his life because she, too, could Jump. As as he searches for a trace of anyone else with powers like his own, he learns to use his abilities for more than escape and theft.

“A young man with nothing to lose, and the ability to go anywhere he wants, can help a lot of people. But he can also make a lot of trouble, and sooner or later trouble is going to come looking for him. The one way Davy can think of to locate other who can Jump is to make himself visible to them, but if he does, the police will surely find him, too...”

Review:

Dark undertides (domestic abuse, terrorism, non-graphic violent death, alcoholism) add reader-intriguing anxieties to Davy's first-person coming-of-age narrative, an expeditious narrative that becomes darker as it progresses. More than mere teleportation-clichéd frippery, this is a quality, not quite classic, read: worth your time, this.

Jumper, the novel, has two book sequels - Reflex, and Jumper: Griffin's Story (which is set for an August 21, 2007 release).

#

The resulting film is set for a February 15, 2008 stateside release.

Doug Liman directed the film, from a script by David S. Goyer, Jim Uhls and Simon Kinberg.

Hayden Christiansen played Davey. Samuel L. Jackson played Cox. Diane Lane played Mary Rice. Michael Rooker played William Rice. Tom Hulce played Mr. Bowker. Kristen Stewart played Sophie. Barbara Garrick played Ellen.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Blood on the Moon, by James Ellroy

(hb; 1984: Book One of the L.A. Noir trilogy)

From the inside flap:

“Twenty random killings of women remain unconnected in police files. But Det. Sgt. Lloyd Hopkins sees a pattern. In a shattering climax, cold, icy intelligence and white-heated madness are pitted against each other...”

Review:

Lloyd Hopkins, a womanizing, high-strung supercop who's turned his traumas into an unhinged and noble quest to “protect innocence,” stumbles onto the bloody work of a rhyme-minded mass murderer. The victims are almost always women; the killings are definitely sexual, reflecting, in a warped doppelgänger-ish way, Lloyd's obsessive notions about -- you guessed it -- women.

Racism, sacrifice, murder, redemption, rape and bad poetry abound here, theme- and otherwise. This politically-incorrect novel is excellent, memorable and often coarse. Author Ellroy isn't trying to sell us prettiness; he's showing us blunt, surly veracities.

Followed by Because the Night.


A film version of Blood on the Moon, retitled Cop, was released stateside in March 1988.

James Woods played Lloyd Hopkins. Lesley Ann Warren played Kathleen McCarthy. Charles Durning played Arthur “Dutch” Peltz. Charles Haid played Delbert “Whitey” Haines.

James B. Harris scripted and directed the film.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Dry Salvages, by Caitlín R. Kiernan

(hb; 2004)


From the inside flap:

“Three centuries in the future, though much of Earth has been crippled by war, pollution, and catastrophic climactic change, man has at last traveled to the stars and even found evidence of at leat one extraterrestrial civilization. In a bleak and frozen Paris, at the dawn of the 24th Century, an old woman is forced to confront the consequences of her part in these discoveries and the ghosts that have haunted her for almost fifty years. The last surviving member of the crew of the starship Montelius, exopaleontologist Dr. Audrey Cather struggles to remember what she's spent so long trying to forget – the nightmare she once faced almost ninety trillion miles from Earth.”


Review:

The set-up's familiar, but author Kiernan deftly avoids clichés by using sublime, sometimes poetic language, while utilizing a “hard” (fact-based) science fiction feel. It also helps that while she uses those set-ups, she doesn't belabor them. An element of 1950s-ish/Lovecraftian horror - understated and fleeting - also flavors this interesting read.

Worthwhile read, structured and toned with Kiernan's distinctive writing style (which blends classic literature, art-based elements, an edgy directness while playing with - then creatively gutting - clichés).

Check it out.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Shivers IV edited by Richard Chizmar

(pb; 2006: horror anthology - sequel anthology to Shivers III)

Overall review

Shivers IV is an uneven anthology, with a handful of decent tales and a few excellent ones. The other entries in this twenty-story anthology are generic. Save your money for more worthwhile books.


Review, story by story

1.) “Prohibited” – Kealan Patrick Burke: A smoker ignores a “No Smoking” sign at a bus stop and finds himself targeted for nightmarish, widespread persecution. Not only did it make me think of Stephen King's “Quitters, Inc.” (for its subject matter), but this also sports the feel of one of King's Night Shift-era tales. Fun and a bit over-the-top.


2.) “Last Exit for the Lost” – Tim Lebbon: Strange entry about a middle-aged alcoholic who receives three paintings in the mail. Interesting, quirky.


3.) “The Screamers at the Window” – T.M. Wright: A spiral-structured story about a writer (Daniel), his one-eyed terrier (Magnificence) and his perky spouse (Maureen). Colorful characters, but the story doesn't go anywhere.


4.) “The Man in the Palace Theater” – Ray Garton: A homeless man, staying in an abandoned movie theater, converses with cinematic iconic ghosts. Heartwarming, sad homage to classic (pre-1960s) films, with a weak ending.


5.) “Pumpkin Witch” – Tim Curran: An abused, pumpkin-happy wife dishes out grisly payback on her husband and his crone of a mother. This would make a wonderful giallo film (preferably directed by Dario Argento or Michele Soavi), given its long-on-Halloween-mood, short-on-logic structure. It is okay, if you read this with that mindset.


6.) “LZ-116: Das Fliegenschloss” – Stephen Mark Rainey: I have no idea what this story is about. While the writing (on a technical level) was decent, it bored me immediately.


7.) “Something to be Said for the Waiting” – Brian Freeman: Too-predictable, cliched story about a man who may have murdered his family. Mercifully, this story is brief.


8.) “Jack-Knife” – Gemma Files: Mostly gripping script-form take on Jack the Ripper. Runs too long, but it has some striking scenes (especially when Jack and Mary Kelly, one of his victims, interact).


9.) “The Spook” – Randy Chandler: Chilling, analogous offering about a soldier who finds himself in the middle of an unexpected war. One of the best stories in this collection, with a great ending.


10.) “Ever After” – John R. Little: Stunning, heartbreak of a tale. An unaging man finds himself at familiar crossroads. Excellent, this.


11.) “The Bittersweet Deafening Sound of Nothing At All” – Robert Morrish: Two investors check out an abandoned haunted SoCal business campus. Good story, predictable, but otherwise engaging.


12.) “Up in the Boneyard” – Keith Minnion: Brooklyn. A pilot (Anthony Spangler) confronts a hellish white-boned horror twenty-seven floors high, once in 1913 in an aeroplane, and later, in 1986, in a condo in the same spot. Off-beat, memorable work.


13.) “Mom and Dad At Home” – Ed Gorman: Economical, predictable entry about a boy, his stay-at-home mom, and his traveling salesman dad. Anybody who's seen the 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt will recognize the set-up right away. Despite that glaring predictability, this is an okay story, saved by Gorman's consistent sense of style.


14.) “Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot” – Bill Walker: Clever, appropriately-titled piece. A man discovers that the neighborhood bully of his childhood now works with him, more than twenty years later. The end-twist, effective as it could've been, doesn't work, though, because the author didn't foreshadow properly. Could've been good; is merely disingenuous.


15.) “In the Best Stories...” – Norman Prentiss: A man reads a questionable bedtime story to his nine-year old daughter. Author Prentiss seems to be trying for a subtler brand of horror – not boogeymen, but real life – and that's admirable. However, the story ultimately fails because the ending is too subtle, not developed enough.


16.) “Poetic Justice” – William F. Nolan: A teenage girl (Amber) talks her friend (Michelle) into murdering an “a**hole” classmate of theirs, Mike Rickard – then crazy complications ensue. This tale doesn't work because it feels rushed, largely because the three principles (Michelle, Amber, Mike) read like cardboard cut-out characters. This would be fine if this were a Grade-B slasher flick, but since it's not... Technically solid, but otherwise generic.


17.) “Dust” – Brian Keene: Post-9/11 piece about a woman grieving for her dead spouse. Different, worthwhile.


18.) “The Deer of St. Bart's” – Bev Vincent: Good story about what happens after a dean at a private school dies unexpectedly.


19.) “The Man in the Other Car” – Al Sarrantonio: A bizarre, semi-predictable, sort-of-makes-sense-but-doesn't denouement mars this could have been Twilight-Zone-worthy piece. Strange, at best.


20.) “Liturgical Music for Nihilists” – Brian Hodge: Lengthy tale about what happens when a man's corpse remains unspoiled, causing his friends to react in curious ways. Memories, messianic oddness, and dark family secrets form this work, which wasn't bad, wasn't great.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

California Demon, by Julie Kenner

(pb; 2006)

From the back cover:

“What's a mother to do, when there are only so many hours in the day, and the fate of the world is in her hands?

“Kate Connor was a retired demon hunter. Now, after fourteen years of busting her tail as a suburban housewife, raising two kids, and supporting her husband's political ambitions, she's rejoined the workforce – and except for a few minions of evil, no one has a clue. She tries hard to keep her home and work lives separate – a good idea when your job involves random slaughter.

“Between fending off demon attacks, trying to figure out why the mysterious new teacher at the high school seems so strangely familiar, and keeping a watchful eye on her daughter's growing infatuation with a surfer dude, Kate is the busiest – and most dangerous – soccer mom on the block...”

Review:

Goramesh, a High Demon who escaped from Tartarus (Hell's worst pit-prison), is still around and stirring up trouble for the citizens of San Diablo, California. A few months have passed since Carpe Demon, and Kate has resumed her job as Demon Hunter, while keeping her Hunter activities a secret from her increasingly suspicious family.

Goramesh and his minions want an ancient tome (called the Malevolenaumachia Demonica) that Kate discovered while battling a supernatural nasty. The important-sounding Latin title translates into Demon's Malicious Struggle, and lets demons on this mortal plain free other demons, imprisoned in Tartarus. Of course, Kate, aided by select friends, must stop them.

As in Carpe Demon, many – this time, not all – of the plot twists are predictable, the quips are amusing, and the action and the plot fly fast. Also, there's plenty of minor relationship complications and warm fuzziness to offset the mild gore and Kate's (literally) hellacious encounters.

Entertaining, breeze-through read. Again, it's well-rendered fluff, which will undoubtedly spawn another sequel, given the series's financial success, and the plot and character elements contained therein.

A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick

(pb; 1977)

From the back cover:

“Cops and criminals have always had been interdependent, but no novel has explored that perverse symbiosis more powerfully than A Scanner Darkly. Bob Arctor is a dealer of the lethally addictive drug called Substance D. Fred is the police agent assigned to tail and eventually him. To do so, he has taken on the identity of a drug dealer named Bob Arctor. And since Substance D – which Arctor takes in mammoth doses – gradually splits the user's brain into two distinct, combative entities, Fred doesn't realize that he is narcing on himself...”

Review:

The paranoid stoner (and bleakly hilarious) loop-logic that forms the first half of A Scanner Darkly turns insidious in the second half, as author Dick explores one of his more full-blown literary hallucinations. The tangents, for all their loopiness, are restrained, dope- and character-true, flip-flopping out of the characters' realities (which are constantly shifting, often on the turn of a word).

Add to this controlled madness the fascinating characters who may or may not be what and who they seem to be: there's Jim Barris, a creepy malicious junkie-roommate of Bob's, who's setting Bob up for a fall – or is Jim trying to save Bob from himself? There's also Donna, Bob's sort-of “girl,” who plays middlewoman in some of Bob's deals, deals that reveal her compassionate personality.

About the last sixty pages or so, Dick's narcotized narrative turns more rambly – there's a major shift in the plot: it's irritating, but okay, because of the subversive line that closes the novel.

Well worth your time, if you can deal with Dick's freak outs. Recommended to fans of Williams S. Burroughs (whose own literary vision were often chemically crazed) and Hunter S. Thompson's more “gonzo” writing.

The animated film was released stateside on July 28, 2006. Keanu Reeves played Bob Arctor. Robert Downey Jr. played James Barris. Woody Harrelson played Ernie Luckman. Winona Ryder played Donna. Rory Cochrane played Charles Freck.

Richard Linklater directed and scripted the film.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Which Brings Me to You, by Steve Almond & Julianna Baggott

(hb; 2006)

From the inside flap:

“Two rambunctious, romantic flameouts. One boring wedding. One heated romp in a deserted coatroom.

“John and Jane's lusty encounter isn't really the beginning of anything with any weight to it; even they know that. When they manage to pull back, it occurs to them that they might try start this whole thing over, properly. They might try getting to know each other first, through letters, telling each other everything, aiming for honesty over seduction. And they might end up actually liking each other. More to the point, they might end up actually knowing each other.

“What follows is a series of traded confessions – of their messy histories, their mistakes, their big loves, their flaws, and their passions. The people they've hurt; the ones still bruised. The ones who bruised them. Each letter, each love affair, reveals the ways in which they've grown and changed (or not changed) over the years.

“Where all of this soul-baring will take them is the burning question behind every letter – one that can only be answered when John and Jane meet again, finally, in the flesh.”

Review:

Which Brings Me to You, a witty and occasionally salacious novel, has a moving depth to it, its jack rabbit-quick pseudo-philosophical insights linked to the sorrows, joys and personalities of John and Jane, and those they love(d). The writing rarely lags – except near the end, when Jane is talking about her two-week fiance, Mark. The section with Mark has merit; it merely runs too long.

My only other notable issue is the repeated joke-comments about John's d**k. Once or twice, it was okay, bearably cute. After that, it was annoying; fortunately, the authors ditch the d**k jokes about midway through.

Decent beach read, with some cool commentaries on the human condition, if one can forgive the predictable (but probably crowd-pleasing) ending, which could've been way worse.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White

(hb; 1952)

From the inside flap:

“This is the story of a little girl who loved a pig named Wilbur – and of Wilbur's dear friend Charlotte A. Cavatica, a beautiful large grey spider who lived with Wilbur in the barn. With the help of Templeton, the rat who never did anything for anybody else unless there was something in it for him, and by a wonderfully clever plan of her own, Charlotte saved the life of Wilbur, who by this time had grown up to quite a pig...”

Review:

Charming, knowing – author White peppers many of the animals' observations with an adult awareness – and warm, this is one of my favorite kid's books. The plot, life-wise, clever and kind, races along, it has great characters (I confess that I love Templeton's character the most), and the happy ending's promising feistiness (especially Joy's, Aranea's and Nellie's) completes the enchantment.

Classic work, for and with a reason.

#

Three films have directly resulted from the book.

The animated 1973 version touts the voice talents of Debbie Reynolds (as Charlotte A. Cavatica); Paul Lynde (as Templeton); Henry Gibson (as Wilbur); Pamela Ferdin (as Avery Arable); Danny Bonaduce (as Avery Arable); Agnes Moorehead (as The Goose).

#

A direct-to-video animated sequel, Charlotte's Web 2: Wilbur's Great Adventure, appeared in 2003. Julia Duffy voices Charlotte; David Beron, Wilbur; Amanda Bynes, Nellie. Anndi McAfee and Maria Bamford voice Aranea, at different stages of her life (I'd guess, anyway). Brenda Vaccaro voices Mrs. Hirsch.

#

A live-action version is set to be released on December 15, 2006. Gary Winick directs the film, from a script by Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick.

Sam Shepard narrates the film.

Dakota Fanning plays Fern. Julia Roberts voices Charlotte A. Cavatica. Oprah Winfrey voices Gussy. Steve Buscemi voices Templeton. Kathy Bates voices Bitsy. John Cleese voices Samuel. Robert Redford voices Ike. Cedric the Entertainer voices Golly the Goose. Beau Bridges plays Dr. Dorian.

Zodiac Unmasked, by Robert Graysmith

(pb; 2002: non-fiction)

From the back cover

“In the 'provocative' (San Francisco Chronicle) true-crime classic, Zodiac, Robert Graysmith tracked the violent path of a sadistic sex killer whose true identity was shrouded in mystery. Now, after twenty-five years, Graysmith unmasks the killer...

“Between December 1968 and October 1969 a hooded serial killer called Zodiac terrorized San Francisco. He claimed responsibility for thirty-seven murders. His actual death toll may have reached fifty. All the while, he manipulated the media with depraved cunning, inundating the San Francisco Chronicle with warnings, dares, and tantalizing cryptograms that baffled the brightest FBI code-breakers. But as suddenly as the murders began, they stopped. Zodiac disappeared into the Bay Area fog forever and was never brought to justice.

“Now, through painstaking research and exclusive interviews, Robert Graysmith closes the last chapter on America's greatest unsolved mystery. Accumulating overwhelming evidence, Graysmith, who was on the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle when Zodiac's first letter arrived, finally exposes the elusive killer's true identity, reveals the twisted private life that led to the crimes, and provides startling theories as to why they stopped.

“With never-before-published photos, a complete reproduction of Zodiac's letters, incriminating envelopes, confidential notes, secret messages, and puzzles, Zodiac Unmasked is an important and fascinating coda to one of the most notorious crime sprees of the twentieth century.”


Review

Author Graysmith concludes the real-life Zodiac drama in his follow-up to Zodiac.

Robert (“Bob”) Hall Starr, not the man's real name, had been named as the prime suspect in the Zodiac killings near the end of Zodiac. Many cops “liked” him for the murders, but there was that can't-match-his-handwriting-with-Zodiac's snag they couldn't get around.

Graysmith, armed with a plethora of new leads, proves that Starr, whose real name was Arthur Leigh Allen, was the killer. It was a teenage boy who led the authorities (and Graysmith) to Allen in 1987.

Everything matches. The dates of Zodiac “inactivity” (the lapse in murders and letters) stem from a prison stint Allen was serving for molesting two prepubescent boys (1974-1978); the murders declined about the same time that Allen started encountering health problems; Allen was a cineaste, particularly obsessed by the movies A Game of Death (1945) and Run for the Sun (1956), as well as the story that spawned those movies, Richard Connell's “The Most Dangerous Game.”

Also, Allen's hobbies coincided with the Zodiac's: skin-diving (explaining why Zodiac utilized the Zodiac SeaWolf watch logo as his own); Allen hated women, especially his mother, and was a pedophile; like many serial killers, Allen had applied to a police academy, only to be rebuffed, therefore fueling his hatred of cops; like his father, Allen had been in the Navy (Zodiac displayed Navy knowledge and references in his techniques and cryptograms); Allen was hyperthymic (highly emotional), as was Zodiac in his letters; Allen was a mechanic (Zodiac, in trying to lure his victims to him, had tinkered with their cars); Allen knew a hippie named Robert Emmett Rodifer, which linked him to the “ROBERT EMMETT THE HIPPIE” cryptogram in one of Zodiac's early media letters; Allen intentionally misspelled words in letters to friends, many of the misspellings similar to Zodiac's (e.g., eggs = “aigs”); Allen's birthday (December 18) coincides with Zodiac's, as well as one of the Zodiac's victims, S.F. cabbie Paul Stine (who was shot in the back of the head).

As for the handwriting snag, Allen's handwriting, both real and altered (he was ambidextrous), was also matched to the Zodiac's, as was his DNA (though the DNA evidence was kind of sketchy).

Before the cops and Graysmith could prove Allen's guilt, Allen died of a heart attack on August 26, 1992.

Zodiac, along with Jack the Ripper, has the distinction of spawning stylistic, stated copycats.

In 1990 (and later in 1994), Zodiac II (as he was called by the press) appeared in New York, shooting people with a zip gun. Heriberto “Eddie” Seda, whom the cops had also dubbed “The Vampire,” was arrested on June 18, 1996, after a shoot-out with New York's finest, and subsequently revealed to be Zodiac II via Seda's confession, and numerous Zodiac II-consistent weapons in his apartment.

Zodiac III (as he was called the press) struck in Kobe, Japan in March 1997, beheading a retarded neighborhood boy. On June 28, 1997, a fifteen-year old boy was arrested and convicted of attacking five kids, two of whom died.

This teenager, Zodiac III, had been emulating a murder he'd seen in the 1990 film, The Exorcist III, which was based on William Peter Blatty's 1983 novel, Legion (book sequel to Blatty's novel, The Exorcist). In one of his 1972 media letters, the original Zodiac had found the (1973 wide-release) film to be “the best saterical comidy that I have ever seen.” [misspellings intentional]. Eleven years later, in a nod at Zodiac's mention of the film version of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty modeled his Gemini (originally called Zodiac) killer in Legion after the original, real-life Zodiac.

Author Graysmith ends his two-book serial-killer odyssey in dovetail fashion by mentioning new evidence linking Allen to the first stated Zodiac casualty, Darlene Ferrin. (Zodiac had killed two people before Ferrin, but only later took credit for their deaths.) It's a fitting finish, bringing the real-life drama back to the Ferrin murder, which began the first book, Zodiac.

As necessary as its predecessor, this is as perfect a close as one could hope for. Definitely worth reading.

#

Zodiac Unmasked, along with Zodiac, is the basis the film Zodiac. Released stateside on March 2, 2007, it was directed by David Fincher. James Vanderbilt wrote the screenplay.

Jake Gyllenhall played reporter/author Robert Graysmith. Robert Downey Jr. played Paul Avery. Mark Ruffalo played Dave Toschi. Anthony Edwards played Bill Armstrong. Brian Cox played Melvin Belli. Clea DuVall played Linda Ferrin. Donal Logue played Ken Narlow. Dermot Mulroney played Captain Lee. Chloë Sevigny played Melanie.

Other films inspired by the Zodiac murders include: The Zodiac (2005); Dirty Harry (1971); Zodiac Killer (2005 – most reviews I've read about this film have said this film was horrible, as in badly-made).



<em>Phantom</em> by Jo Nesbø

(hb;  2011, 2012: ninth novel in the Inspector Harry Hole series. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett .) From the back cover...