Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Santa Steps Out, by Robert Devereaux

(pb; 1998)


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…”


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)


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)


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..."


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.”


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.”


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.

<em>The Letter, the Witch and the Ring</em> by John Bellairs

(pb; 1976: third book in the Lewis Barnavelt mysteries . Drawings by Richard Egielski .) From the back cover “Rose Rita [Pottinger]...