Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers

(hb; 1940)

Review:

Loneliness, racism and the inability to communicate with one’s neighbors dominate this emotional, melancholic landmark novel, which charts a few years in a small American town (ending in 1939). McCullers’s writing is steady and engrossing, though her prose occasionally gets awkward (when describing certain characters’s drunken, entangled thoughts). To McCuller’s credit, though, not many writers could’ve written this novel the way she did, so occasional awkwardness is forgivable – and skimmable.

The characters are wonderfully rendered. The central character is a deaf mute, John Singer, whose mentally sick friend, Spiro Antonapoulos, goes away to a hospital. Shortly after that, Singer finds himself the silent, tolerant, often bewildered depository of his neighbors’s dreams, namely: Mick Kelly, the tomboyish teenage girl who secretly dreams of making music, like the stuff she hears on radio; Biff Brannon, a kindly diner owner whose marriage disintegrated long before his wife’s death; Benedict Mady Copeland, a black doctor whose angry politics are based in race theories, and disappointment in his socially complacent children; Jake Blount, a Marxist alcoholic whose rants favor the labor movement.

Readers seeking an action-oriented, swift-burn-of-a-novel should avoid this; the same goes for those looking for happy escapism, because while there are moments of kindness, unspoken intentions, frustration, poverty and gloom prevail here. That said, I’m glad I read this, because much of what McCullers writes about politics, racism and the “human condition” applies to today’s world.

The ending, consistently melancholic, rambles and disappoints, though McCullers is clearly striving to strike a balancing tone that wraps things up. She fails, but again, it’s a small failing in a novel that has few inked peers.

Effective, if depressing, work.

#

The film, was released stateside on July 31, 1968.

Alan Arkin played John Singer. Sondra Locke played Mick Kelly. Stacy Keach, billed as Stacy Keach Jr., played Jake Blount. Chuck McCann played Spiro Antonapoulos. Percy Rodriguez played Dr. Copeland.

Robert Ellis Miller directed, from a script by Thomas C. Ryan.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Derailed, by James Siegel

(hb; 2003)

From the inside flap:

“Every day Charles Schine rides the 8:43 to do the job he has done for over a decade in a New York advertising agency. With a wife and an ill child who depend on him, charles is not a man who likes changes or takes risks...until he is late for his regular train - and sits down across from the woman of his dreams.

“Her name is Lucinda. Like Charles, she is married. Like Charles, she takes the train every day to work in New York City. Her train is the 9:05, and tomorrow she will be on it again – and so will Charles. For there is something about Lucinda, the flash of thigh beneath her short skirt, the way every man on the train is eyeing her, something about this time of the morning that will make Charles take a chance he shouldn’t take, break a vow he shouldn’t break, and enter a room he should never enter...

“In a matter of days, a flirtation turns to a passion, and Charles and Lucinda are drawn into the dark side of the American Dream. In a matter of weeks, Charles’s life is in shambles. A man is dead. A small fortune is stolen. Charles’s home is violated and everything violently spirals out of control.

“But Charles is about to discover that once you leave the straight and narrow, getting back on track is the most perilous journey of all. And for Charles, that journey– of lies, terror and deception – has just begun...”

Review:

Difficult-to-set-down suspense novel, with many twists and turns – most of them effective, a few of them predictable (especially for noir afficionados). Siegel’s characters read like real people. The plot and action never lags, though, and the twists are often inspired bits of spitefulness and, occasionally, redemption.

This is a tidy thriller with an ending that is realistic, noirish and satisfactory to those readers who want a Hollywood-style finish. In short: a good read.



The film version was released stateside on November 11, 2005.

Clive Owen played Charles Schine. Jennifer Aniston played Lucinda Harris. Vincent Cassel played Phillipe LaRoche; in the novel, this character was named Raul Vasquez.

RZA played Winston Boyko. Melissa George played Deanna Schine.
Xzibit played Dexter. Tom Conti played Eliot Firth.

Mikael Håfström directed the film, from a script by Stuart Beattie.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Diamonds Are Forever, by Ian Fleming

(pb; 1956: fourth book in the original 007/James Bond series)

From the back cover:

“Meet Tiffany Case, a cold, gorgeous, hard-boiled blonde; the kind of girl you could get into a lot of trouble with – if you wanted. She stands between James Bond and the leaders of a diamond-smuggling ring that stretches from Africa via London to the States. Bond uses her to infiltrate the gang, but once in America the hunter becomes the hunted. 007 is in real danger until help comes from an unlikely quarter, the ice maiden herself...”

Review:

Bond goes up against American gangsters – this time, it’s the Spang brothers, Seraffimo and Jack. Bond’s femme fatale is Tiffany Case, who was gang raped at a young age and has hardened accordingly. Lesser villains include Shady Tree (a cruel midget), Wint (a huge thug who sucks his thumb) and Kidd (a pretty boy thug).

There’s less police work and more savagery in the fourth Bond outing. Bond finds himself in some odd situations – being in America and all – but, true to series-form, he has help: the aforementioned Tiffany Case, and Felix Leiter. Leiter, now a Pinkerton detective, has left the CIA. He also has a right steel hook and a noticeable limp – reminders of Leiter’s wounds, received in the second Bond novel, Live And Let Die.

The Spang brothers have their quirks, too. Serrafimo is an Old West afficionado who owns a refurbished ghost town, Spectreville. Jack, also called Rufus B. Saye, and who might be “ABC,” the mysterious leader of the gang, is barely seen, but his cold-blooded nature is distinctive.

One of the things I love about the Bond novels is how Fleming mentions, in passing, certain events from past novels, without slowing the plot or action of the current novel. It gives a stronger sense of continuity to an already well-written series.

Diamonds Are Forever is less intense than its predecessors, but it’s still exciting.

This became a film in 1971. Sean Connery played Bond. Jill St. John played Case. Norman Burton played Leiter.

Seraffimo and Jack Spang were nixed in the film version. The villain of the film version is Ernst Stavro Blofeld (played by Charles Gray), whose character was last seen in the previous Bond film, 1969's On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In On Her Majesty’s... Blofeld was played by Telly Savalas.

Guy Hamilton directed Diamonds Are Forever, from a script by Richard Maibaum.

Diamonds Are Forever, the book, is followed by From Russia With Love.

From Russia With Love, by Ian Fleming

(pb; 1957: fifth book in the original 007/James Bond series)

From the back cover:

“Every major foreign government organization has a file on British secret agent James Bond. Now, Russia’s lethal SMERSH organization has targeted him for elimination. SMERSH has the perfect bait in the irresistable Tatiana Romanova, who lures 007 to Istanbul promising the top-secret Spektor cypher machine. But when Bond walks willingly into the trap, a game of cross and double-cross ensues, with Bond as both the stakes and the prize...”

Review:

It’s been a year since the events of Diamonds Are Forever. Bond is bored with office work and slightly depressed, living “the soft life.” Tiffany Case, his lover from the previous novel, has recently left him for another man.

That’s the least of Bond’s problems. The Russians have put a hit out on him, a hit that would not only end his life, but publicly embarrass the British Secret Service. Enter Donovan “Red” Grant, aka, the “Moon Killer,” a serial-killer-turned-SMERSH-assassin, who’s set to fulfill that fatal contract.

There is also Tatiana Romanova, whose allegiances are questionable...

This has always been one of my favorite Bond novels: it has lots of action (compared to the earlier novels), tons of plot twists (many of them born of well-established character quirks), perverse characters (even for a Bond novel) and an ending that absolutely electrifies.

The plot set-up is different, also (a refreshing change). The first quarter of the novel shows the Russians – military politicians, Grant, Rosa Krebs (a SMERSH torturer with sapphic leanings) and Tatiana – gearing up for Bond’s violent, public death trip. Then the action kicks in, when Bond goes to Turkey to meet Tatiana, where Kerim “Darko” Bey, an outgoing gipsy and Head of the Turkish Secret Service, helps Bond with his mission: transporting Tatiana and the Spektor machine to France, via the Orient Express.

(Side-notes: Rene Mathis, a French government agent in Casino Royale, makes an appearance in From Russia... as the Head of the Deuxieme, the French equivalent of the CIA... Espionage gadgetry, a hallmark of the Bond films, is also in evidence, employed mostly by the Russians.)

Exotic, clever, action-packed and romantic, this is one of the best Bond novels, up there with Live And Let Die.

Followed by Doctor No.

From Russia With Love was released stateside as a film on May 27, 1964.

Sean Connery played Bond. Daniela Bianchi played Tatiana. Robert Shaw played Donald “Red” Grant. Lotte Lenya played Rosa Klebb.

Bernard Lee played M. Lois Maxwell played Miss Moneypenny.

Terence Young directed the film, from a script by Richard Maibaum, which was adapted from the novel by Johanna Harwood.

San Francisco Noir, edited by Peter Maravelis

(pb; 2005: story anthology)

From the back cover:

San Francisco Noir lashes out with original hard-biting tales exploring the shadowy nether regions of scenic ‘Baghdad by the Bay.’ Desperation, transgression, and madness fuel these tales celebrating San Francisco’s criminal heritage.

“Brand new stories by: Dominic Stansberry, Barry Gifford, Eddie Muller, Robert Mailer Anderson, Michelle Tea, Peter Plate, Kate Braverman, David Corbett, Alejandro Murguia, Sin Soracco, Alvin Lu, Will Christopher Baer, Jim Nisbet, Jon Longhi, and David Henry Sterry.”

Overall review:

Good anthology, with a few overly long entries.

Review, story by story:

The Prison” – Dominic Stansberry: 1946. Prisoners are rioting on Alcatraz. On the mainland, Jojo, a bitter war vet, has returned to the North Beach area, where his family’s past is also a prison. Well-written, with an abrupt, didn’t-see-it-coming ending.

It Can Happen” – David Corbett: A wealthy paraplegic (Pilgrim) discovers that his ex-wife (Lorene) is pissing away his fortune, by allowing a con artist to live with her. Pilgrim’s financial punishment of Lorene sparks a cycle of greed and murder that neither of them could’ve foreseen. Deftly-plotted gem, with a great finish-twist.

Double Espresso” – Sin Soracco: Boring, rambling tale about a homeless woman in the Mission district. I got halfway through this before ditching it for the next story.

After Hours At La Chinita” – Barry Gifford: Quasi-philosophical time-shifting take on domestic abuse, the afterlife, sex, life and spirituality. Amusing read.

The Neutral Zone” – Kate Braverman: Two intermittent female friends meet at a Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant, a “neutral zone” for them, where their longtime (and troubled) histories are less hurtful. Past and present circumstances haunt their guarded, often unspoken communications. Okay story, that runs a bit longer than it should.

Le Rouge Et Le Noir” – Alvin Lu: Initially-meandering tale about two young men who mix friendship and politics in Chinatown in 1971. One of these men, Michael, winds up going to China on a money-smuggling run. The satisfactory ending, an overly long time coming (and spanning twelve years), makes up for the web of political theories and intrigue that dominate the first half of the tale. Complex, drawn-out work, worthwhile if you’re patient.

Larry’s Place” – Michelle Tea: A prostitute, a resident in a Bernal Heights ghetto apartment complex, discovers that her psychotic ex-girlfriend, Jenny, has vandalized her apartment; not only that, but her slumlord who lives upstairs has died – and nobody but her knows... yet. Chatty, engaging tale, with Tea’s trademark antsy verbiage, and abrupt-yet-satisfying finish making this one of the best entries in this collection.

The Other Barrio” – Alejandro Murguia: While investigating a suspicious hotel fire in the Mission District, Roberto Morales finds himself at odds with local thugs and a rich, “connected” bitch; predictably, this puts him – and those he cares about – in mortal danger. Thrilling, well-crafted noir, with some modern day touches. Excellent, this.

Genesis To Revelation” – Peter Plate: Three days out of San Quentin prison, Slatts Calhoun robs a Market Street marijuana shop, setting into motion a series of events he could not have never foreseen. Shorter than most of the stories in this collection, this one hits fast and hard, with some great lines (e.g., “His voice was colder than his mother’s pussy”).

Deception of the Thrush” – Will Christopher Baer: A Lolita-like pickpocket sets a trap for a sexual predator, and discovers that she might be the prey, not the predator. Adrenalized prose, gripping plot: great story.

Weight Less Than Shadow” – Jim Nisbet: The city authorities build a gellatinous, invisible force shield around the Golden Gate Bridge to prevent the many suicides that it seems to inspire. Science fiction, human nature, politics and dark quirky humor are seamlessly blended in this light-hearted, romantic and Kevorkian-minded take on mortality. Definitely worth a read, and a hearty chuckle.

Fixed” – Jon Longhi: The last days of a Haight-Ashbury drug dealer, Hal Satan, are vividly described, in sometimes melancholy, often bleak-hilarious, detail. From busting up poetry readings with poems like ‘Manifesto: Why I Have the Moral Right to Rape Whoever I Choose’ to riding atop speeding cars naked (while waving an axe) to falling victim to heroin, he’s someone to admire (in a darkly funny way) and to pity. Wonderful story that, like the previous story (“Weight Less Than Shadow”), fully captures the “feel” of San Francisco – or, at least, two of its distinctive neighborhoods. Highly recommended, this.

Briley Boy” – Robert Mailer Anderson: A physically-abusive criminal reflects on his life, while his whore wife beats him to death. Unpleasant, but well-written (in a tough, Mickey Spillane way) and thankfully brief.

Kid’s Last Fight” – Eddie Muller: The lives of a septuagenarian ex-boxer, a wealthy young woman and an Asian boy-thug intersect in the SoMa (South of Market) district. Enjoyable, not particularly memorable, slice-of-life tale.

Confessions of a Sex Maniac” – David Henry Sterry: An ethical “problematic hypersexualist” bagman finds himself hooked on Snow Leopard, a pistol-packing, nymphomaniacal beauty who may very well be the death of him. Strong, descriptive story that gives the reader a full “feel” of the Polk Gulch, and San Francisco in general. The ending’s easy to foresee, but the ride’s fun.

Grand Central Winter: Stories From The Street , by Lee Stringer

(pb; 1998: non-fiction)

From the back cover:

“In the underground tunnels below Grand Central Terminal, Lee Stringer – homeless and drug-addicted over the course of eleven years – found a pencil to run through his crack pipe.

“One day he used it to write. Soon, writing became a habit that won out over drugs...

“With humane wisdom and biting wit, Lee Stringer chronicles the unraveling of his seemingly secure existence as a marketing executive, and his odyssey of survival on the streets of New York City...”

Review:

Stringer’s prose is unflinching, unsentimental and stripped-down, not quite noir-lean, but close. In his downward spiral from being a not-quite-happy marketing executive to homeless crack addict-writer (brought about by his brother’s shocking death in 1984), he details, in often-moving specificity, his life until 1994.

While living on the streets, Stringer encountered people with notably different experiences: a marketing executive he used to know from his executive days; Emerald, a prostitute from South America; Blue, Emerald’s junkie well-meaning boyfriend; Geraldo Rivera (well-known media prostitute, on whose talk-show Stringer once appeared); a kind-hearted street-guy who strikes it rich, only to squander his wealth on a selfish junkie slut, and her adorable baby; a con man posing as a preacher; various drug-addicts and down-and-outers (whose stories aren’t always what the reader might expect).

All of these people are memorable in their struggles and aspirations (or lack thereof), largely because of Stringer’s succinct, effective character sketches, and his depictions of unexpected tenderness.

Of course, Stringer, who’s honest about his own shortcomings, is an advocate for the homeless causes. His experiences are peppered with opinion, but not so much that it bogs down the narrative flow.

This make for a smooth, curiously upbeat read, despite its often-sad subject matter. Well worth your time, this.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Mistmantle Chronicles, Book One: Urchin of the Riding Stars, by M.I. McAllister

(hb; 2005)

From the inside flap:

“On a night of riding stars, a tiny squirrel is found abandoned and close to death on a distant beach. Adopted and raised by a kindly squirrel, Urchin has no idea of his powerful destiny or of the way he will influence the island of Mistmantle.

“The rule of the good King Brushen and Queen Spindle is threatened by an evil plot from within the court. When their young son is found murdered, the isle is thrown into turmoil. Behind the scenes, the wicked Lord Husk and Lady Aspen are determined to take control. But to underestimate the power of the islanders and the ancient prophecies is a mistake...”

Review:

Rousing, swift-moving adventure, this, with hiss-worthy villains (especially the eugenics-minded Lord Husk and Lady Aspen), cheer-worthy heroes, tragedy, romance, medieval fantasy and humor as its defining attributes.

One might be tempted to pick Urchin of the Riding Stars apart for elements culled from the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, the Redwall series, et cetera, but to do so would be to deny oneself the pleasure of reading an exuberant children’s book, full of classic heroics, flashy swordplay and memorable, often endearing, characters.

The denouement, true to fantasy-series form, is open-ended with not-so-subtle hints of things to come (especially in regards to Urchin), while providing a finish suitable for a stand-alone novel.

A highly gratifying read. Can’t wait to read the next book (thus far untitled), whenever it comes out.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Final Scream, by Lisa Jackson

(pb; 2005)

From the back cover:

“As white-hot flames sear the dark night, a killer waits in the trees, watching the mill burn, listening for the screams – the only proof that justice has finally begun for the sins of long ago.

“For journalist Cassidy Buchanan, this inferno is a living nightmare: a reminder of the horrible, mysterious fire that destroyed her wealthy family seventeen years ago – and of Brig McKenzie, the handsome hellraiser accused of setting the blaze. That tragic crime has never been solved, and already the whispers have begun in Prosperity, Oregon: Another fire, more deaths, and one common denominator – Cassidy herself.

“Cassidy came home to Prosperity to put the past behind her, but it seems the past isn’t finished with Cassidy. Someone doesn’t want her to uncover the chilling truth... someone who has killed before and will kill again...”

Review:

Peyton Place meets a Harlequin romance with a firebug-killer in the mix. That’s what Jackson’s Final Scream (originally titled Intimacies) amounts to.

Fortunately, Jackson is a skilled, descriptive writer who keeps the sex, the town secrets/scandals and the sometimes-effective twists bubbling at a steady rate, in this reader-hooking potboiler.

Many readers might see many of the “secrets” and twists coming long before Jackson reveals them, but this is still entertaining, in a junk-food-for-the-mind kind of way: it’s perfect for a lazy, hot chocolate-sipping afternoon.

Ultimately this a romantic read, with malicious undercurrents. Worth your time, if you don’t expect literary greatness.

Live And Let Die, by Ian Fleming


(pb; 1954: second book in the original 007/James Bond series)

From the back cover:

“James Bond vows to crush Mr. Big, the master criminal whose network of terror is reaping rich profits for the Kremlin. He enlists the help of a dangerous French beauty, and they seek out their quarry on a mysterious yacht off the island of Jamaica – a yacht guarded by savage sharks and blood-maddened barracuda... where voodoo drums beat out a rhythm of death.”

Review:

Bond goes up against Mr. Big, who’s smuggling thought-to-be-lost, seventeenth-century coins from Jamaica to Harlem. While that’s a major concern, there’s something larger to be concerned about: Mr. Big is a member of SMERSH, who employs voodoo (specifically the spectre of Baron Samedi, the loa of sex and death) to control his minions.

Helping Bond is Solitaire (aka Simone Latrelle), Mr. Big’s psychic ex-fiancee; also helping Bond is Felix Leiter, Bond’s friend and CIA agent (who appeared in Casino Royale), as well as Quarrel, a Jamaican boatman, who later appears in the sixth Bond novel, Dr. No.

The follow-up to Casino Royale is swiftly-plotted, with Bond visiting New York, where he’s immediately targeted for death at the hands of Mr. Big’s underlings. It’s not long before Bond, Solitaire and Leiter head to Jamaica, where Mr. Big’s voodoo power-base is more awesome – and more pervasive – to behold.

This is a blast of a read, especially when Bond, seeking to stop Mr. Big (and rescue Solitaire, who’s been kidnapped), must enter Big’s fortress by swimming through Shark Bay, which is patrolled by gunboats, and vicious, specially-trained barracudas and sharks: the tension in that section so well-rendered, it may be one of my favorite sections of any Bond novel, thus far.

There’s some effective twists and turns in this, ones that make this one of my favorite Bond novels. This is a superb first sequel in the Bond series, followed by Moonraker.

Filmed in 1973, Live And Let Die starred Roger Moore as Bond. Yaphet Kotto played Mr. Big; Jane Seymour played Solitaire; David Hedison played Felix Leiter; Roy Stewart played Quarrel Jr.

Moonraker, by Ian Fleming


(pb; 1955: third book in the original 007/James Bond series)

From the back cover:

“Moonraker, Britain’s new ICBM-based national defense system, is ready for testing, but something’s not quite right. At M’s request, Bond begins his investigation into Sir Hugo Drax, the leading card cheat at M’s club, who is also the head of the Moonraker project. But once Bond delves deeper into the goings-on at the Moonraker base, he discovers that both the project and its leader are something other than they appear to be...”

Review:

The third Bond novel, a follow-up to Live and Let Die, is more of a mystery-sleuth novel than an action novel. Bond spends most of his time hunting for clues to figure out why a preceding Secret Service agent disappeared, and wonders: what exactly is the brilliant but socially inept Drax is up to in regards to his Moonraker rocket?

Helping Bond is the attractive and clever Gala Brand, whose expertise in technological devices saves Bond on more than one occasion. Brand is Bond’s match in all things, especially near the end.

Fleming’s prose, as usual, is precise – he describes the surroundings of his characters too much, at times – but the author’s clarity lends credence to the novel’s plot and, later, action.

By now, Fleming has settled into a comfortable plot-series set-up: Bond investigates bad guy, Bond gets caught (often with female love interest) and briefly tortured by bad guy(s), Bond breaks free and kicks bad guy’s ass (with female love interest’s help).

One of the would-be torturers in Moonraker is the rail-thin Krebs, who’s handy with a blowtorch. Truly a nasty character – ouch!

Another highly enjoyable read from Fleming, less raw than the preceding
novels.

#

The book is considerably different than the movie, made in 1979. Characters were changed – Gala Brand became Dr. Holly Goodhead; Krebs became the steel-toothed Jaws, a carry-over villain from the previous Bond film, 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me. Also, the film has Bond going into outer space; the book has Bond staying in England – a series anomaly, as Bond usually travels in his adventures.

And yet again, the book-version Bond is not the slut that the film-version Bond is. He is, for the most part, notably different.

Roger Moore played Bond in the film. Lois Chiles played Goodhead. Michael Lonsdale played Drax. Richard Kiel reprised his role of Jaws.

Lewis Gilbert directed the film.

Moonraker, the book, was followed by Diamonds Are Forever.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Tart Noir, edited by Stella Duffy & Lauren Henderson

(pb; 2002: story anthology)

From the back cover:

“These are the bad girls [who] are tough enough to take on thugs, tender enough to be moved to tears. Half Phillip Marlowe, half femme fatale, they’ve got questionable morals and their attitudes need adjustment. They’re tarts. And they’re the heroines of this collection of twenty wickedly edgy new stories of hot passion and cold calculation, written by twenty of the most exciting female voices on the British and American crime scene today...”


OVERALL REVIEW:

Solid anthology, with a few clunkers, but mostly good stories.


REVIEW, STORY BY STORY:


1.) “Revenge Is The Best Revenge” – Chris Niles: Exemplary tale about a newswoman who metes out (and darkly funny) vengeance on the executive bitch who fired her. Lots of twists, cynical humor (much of it at the expense of corporate media); marred by a lackluster finish – great lead-up, though.


2.) “Metamorphosis” – Val McDermid: A married Manchester barrister becomes embroiled in an intense lesbian affair, one that threatens to become obsessive. Heavy on sapphic sex, it’s well-written in the first-person POV, with a solid finish.


3.) “Stormy, Mon Amour” – Vicki Hendrix: One of the most unique noir tales I’ve ever read. A young woman has an affair with a dolphin (Stormy) and has his baby, a mermaid named Mineaux – much to the consternation of her abusive redneck husband. Original, great, memorable.


4.) “No Parachutes” – Karen Moline: Rambling pointless tale about a woman who has a one-night fling with a Robert Redford look-alike after an in-flight stabbing. There’s a few funny one-liners in this, but the plot fizzles into nothing early on.


5.) “Enough Was Enough” – Martina Cole: Solid tale that builds towards a dark, if not unexpected, twist. Good, tone-balancing finish.


6.) “Queen Of Mean” – Liza Cody: Okay, overly-long story about a woman who decides to change her life. The writing’s decent, but the ending’s long in coming, and flat.


7.) “What He Needed” – Laura Lippman: A woman briefly agonizes over whether or not to leave her clingy husband. Well-written, this builds to a cool twist and stunning end-line.


8.) “Alice Opens The Box” – Denise Mina: Sad, creepy tale about an emotionally-unbalanced woman who killed her children. Solid, depressing, with a pathetic protagonist.


9.) “The Convenience Boy” – Sujata Massey: A twenty-something Japanese woman sets out to find out who her mysterious, late-night lover is. Initially implausible – Miho’s acceptance of her lover’s intrusions are disturbing – it’s a decent story, improved by the author’s strong use of Japanese culture. Sharp-eyed readers will spot the end-twist long before it comes, but the ending is good.


10.) “The Wrong Train” – Jenny Colgan: A woman (Frankie) boards a train, and turns her world upside down. Okay, but overly-long; tighter writing would’ve served this story better.


11.) “The Man” – Katy Munger: A male gold-digger meets the woman of his dreams... but is she for real? Most reader will probably figure out the ending long before it comes, but it’s a fun ride anyway, with an end-line that echoes the final line of the film Angel Heart.


12.) “I Do Like To Be Beside the Seaside” – Jessica Adams: A constable (Peter Warlow) visits a sexy psychic (Madame Romodo) to wrap up a murder investigation. There’s not much suspense, nor are there any surprises in this conversation-dominated tale, but it’s enjoyable.


13.) “Tragic Heroines Tell All” – Lauren Henderson: Medea, Phaedra and Lady MacBeth appear on a tabloid daytime talk show. Hilarious, inspired (with some well-timed jabs at talk shows) and great. The ending’s weak, compared to the rest of the story, but this is still one of my favorite stories in this collection.


14.) “Necessary Women” – Karin Slaughter: Gripping, cliche-busting tale a young woman, her unhappy (now dead) mother, and her trucker father. Superb, this. Wish I’d written it.


15.) “Africa” – Jenny Siler: Concise tale about a woman (Neely) who avenges her lover’s murder. No surprises in this, but well-written.


16.) “Take, for Example, Meatpie” – Jen Banbury: A thirty-five year old woman seduces a sixteen-year old “loser” (according to his peers), part of her mysterious mobile mission. Promising start to this, but it loses focus, petering out into a lame ending. Good idea, lukewarm delivery.


17.) “Labia Lobelia” – Lisa Jewell: Lobelia, a large unconventionally beautiful woman, gets hilarious gross revenge on her rude male neighbors, with help from the ghosts of Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis (unconventional beauties themselves, by today’s standards). Judy Garland makes a brief appearance, too. Fresh, pseudo-nostalgic, sometimes crass (in a suitable, funny way) work; one of the best tales in this collection.


18.) “Pussy Galore” – Liz Evans: A PI (Grace Smith), trapped in a conversation with a bag lady in the London Underground, becomes caught up in a strange and unexpected mystery. Twisty, multilayered tale that comes together in a semi-disturbing, but satisfying fashion.


19.) “Martha Grace” – Stella Duffy: An older fat woman takes an arrogant young man as her lover. Sad, emotionally-involving work, with a good, if predictable, finish.


20.) “The Diary of Sue Peaner, Marooned! Contestant” – Sparkle Hayter: Fun, breezy reality-television tale, with a solid, not entirely unexpected, ending. Nothing special, but amusing.

The Ghost’s Grave, by Peg Kehret

(hb; 2005)

From the inside flap:

“What Josh thought would be the dullest summer of his life, spent with his eccentric aunt, turns chilling when he meets the ghost of a coal miner killed in a mine explosion. Willie has been waiting for years for some kind soul to dig up his leg and rebury it with the rest of him – only then will he be at peace.

“Josh agrees to do the grisly deed, but when he digs in the old cemetery, he finds more than Willie’s leg bones. Who buried the box of cash in the grave, and why? How far will that person go to get the money back?”

Review:

Straightforward, charming children’s book aimed at tweens (children between the ages of eight and twelve).

Wilbur (“Willie”) Martin requests that twelve-year old Josh McDowell dig up his errant leg bone, and Josh’s life takes on some strange – later dangerous – situations, including: foiling a gun-wielding thief, and getting to know his Aunt Ethel, who shoots at bats, and who believes that her sister Florence has been reincarnated as a screaming peacock.

This is a light, interesting read, with a few non-preachy life lessons and subtle shades of morbidity thrown into the mix.

Glad I read it.