Monday, July 31, 2006

Hex, by Maggie Estep

(pb; 2003)

From the back cover:

“Having drifted through thirty-three years of life, Ruby Murphy has put down roots in a rootless place: Coney Island. A recovering alcoholic who is fanatical in her love for animals and her misanthropic friends, Ruby lives above a furniture store and works at the Coney Island Museum. One day, Ruby is on the subway heading into Manhattan when the train stalls between stations. An elegant blond woman with a scarred face strikes up a conversation, and a misunderstanding between the two women leads to an offer Ruby decides she can’t refuse. The woman needs her boyfriend followed, and she thinks Ruby is the woman to do it – and do it right.

“Ruby’s life has been flat and painful lately. The Coney Island Museum isn’t doing much business, Ruby’s live-in boyfriend has moved out, and her best friend Oliver is battling cancer. Ruby agrees to follow the woman’s boyfriend, Frank, a man who works at Belmont Racetrack and seems to hang out in odd places with bad company. Ruby soon finds herself pushed head-first into horse-racing’s seamy underbelly. There is a dangerous world where nothing is as it appears, and people and horses seem to have limited life spans. When Ruby finds herself staring down the barrel of a loaded gun, she begins to have second thoughts.”

Review:

Estep’s poetic prose, warm and quirky characters (seven of whom express themselves in first-person narratives, in alternating chapters) and solid pacing made this a downright pleasure to read. For the few hours it took me to read it, I was immersed in this beguiling, often suspenseful work, which transcends the narrow-in-scope mystery genre.

Even if you’re not into mysteries, check this out. It’s that good.

Followed by Gargantuan.

Ride Into Yesterday, by Ed Gorman

(pb; 1992)

From the back cover:

“When Stephen Payne rode into Favor to investigate the death of his younger brother, Art, he figured he’d have his work cut out for him. The rumor spreading through town was that Art had robbed a stagecoach and then hanged himself. Art had a history of trouble , so he might have committed the robbery – but suicide? Stephen had his doubts.

“Favor was a town on the downside of a small silver boom, a town full of secrets. But Stephen owed it to his kid brother to cut through the secrets – and lies – no matter what the cost.”

Review:

Gorman’s prolific output, where his talent is always on display to some degree, can be uneven. Count this as one of his hits.

Everything that makes Gorman such a great writer (when he’s “on”) is here: the flawed but relatable characters (even the bad guys have shades of humanity within them), the stripped-to-the-bone writing and action (born of the characters’ emotions and motives), and a Western-true, twist-punctuated plot.

The ending is one of the best finishes I’ve read to a Gorman book: one of the author’s finer efforts.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Girl Hunters, by Mickey Spillane

(pb; 1962)

Review:

Mike Hammer is yanked from his seven-year, guilt-ridden drunken gutter spiral when a dying man (Richie Cole), shot by a mysterious assailant, requests Hammer's bedside presence. Cole will only talk to Hammer, not the investigating police officers, which, naturally, pisses off the police – with whom Hammer already has an unfavorable history.

What Cole tells Hammer sobers him: a woman (Velda) that Hammer loved, and might've accidentally killed seven years prior, is still alive, and being stalked by a vicious killer known as The Dragon.

With the police, the Feds and thugs dogging his every step, Hammer sets out to rescue her. History, personal and otherwise, and dating back to two world wars, haunts Hammer (and others) as he sifts through secrets, lies and violence. There's a much larger game afoot, one that just may kill Hammer, whose physical condition no longer reflects his hard-guy mentality.

Spillane's tough-guy prose is as uncompromising and exhilarating as ever, with Hammer, again the low-life but noble underdog, slugging it out – mentally and physically – with those who'd see him dead, in bed, or in jail.

The slam-bang, seemingly off-the-cuff finish is as wild as Spillane gets, which is pretty damn wild.

A must-read, if you're looking for no-frills noir action.

The Girl Hunters was released as a film in 1963. Author Mickey Spillane played Mike Hammer. Shirley Eaton played Laura Knapp, Senator Knapp's widow. Scott Peters played Police Captain Pat Chambers, Hammer's estranged friend. Directed by Ray Rowland.

Callander Square, by Anne Perry

(pb; 1980: second book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the back cover:

“Murders just didn't happen in fashionable areas like Callander Square – but these two had. The police were totally baffled. But pretty young Charlotte Ellison Pitt was curious.

“Inspector Pitt's well-bred wife didn't often meddle in her husband's business, but something about this case intrigued her – intrigued her to the point that suddenly, staid Charlotte Pitt was rattling the closets of the very rich, hearing backstairs gossip that would shock a barmaid, and unearthing truths that could push even the most proper aristocrat to murder...”

Review:

Thomas and Charlotte Pitt have been married for two years now, since The Cater Street Hangman murders, which accidentally brought them together. The dug-up bodies of two infants – one six months dead, the other two years dead – have the Pitts, as well as Charlotte's socially-respectable sister, Emily Ashworth, poking around the upper-class Callander Square neighborhood, where hypocrisy, sexual and class-related, is de rigeur.

Author Perry once again explores the theme of the rich being shaken out of their collective hauteur by the “lower class” (and symbolically, real life), no less ably than she did in Cater Street. It's not as fresh as the first book, but it is charming and enjoyable, despite its easily-spotted killer. I had a difficult time putting this down, and I can't wait (though I will) to read the next Thomas & Charlotte Pitt mystery, Paragon Walk.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Dune by Frank Herbert


(hb; 1965: first book in the Dune Chronicles)

From the back cover

"Set in the far future amidst a sprawling feudal interstellar empire where planetary dynasties are controlled by noble houses that owe an allegiance to the imperial House Corrino, Dune tells the story of young Paul Atreides (the heir apparent to Duke Leto Atreides and heir of House Atreides) as he and his family accept control of the desert planet Arrakis, the only source of the 'spice' melange, the most important and valuable substance in the cosmos. The story explores the complex, multi-layered interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion as the forces of the empire confront each other for control of Arrakis."


Review

Dune is rich in political intrigue, treachery, oracular mysticism, lust, loyalty, love, jihad and societal upheaval, as well as many interesting, often conflicted characters. What makes Dune great is how it's simultaneously personal and emotional, yet coolly distant in an intellectual way, without compromising either of the elements, tracking the course of an empire over three or so years – Herbert manages this balancing act by focusing on the characters, while making them aware of their importance (or lack thereof) in the struggles and violence that consumes them.

This is one of my all-time favorite books. It has been since I read it as a boy (approximately thirty years ago); I've reread it several times since, and every time I read it, I get something completely new out of it – there are so many levels on which to take this landmark work that I foresee more readings of this personal magnitude in the years to come.

Followed by Dune Messiah.

#

Dune has been filmed twice.

The first film version was released stateside on December 14, 1984.

Kyle MacLachlan played Paul Atreides. Jürgen Prochnow played Duke Leto Atreides.  Francesca Annis played Lady Jessica.  Alicia Witt, billed as Alicia Roanne Witt, played Alia. 

Richard Jordan played Duncan Idaho.  Patrick Stewart played Gurney Halleck.  Linda Hunt played Shadout Mapes.  Freddie Jones played Thufir Hawat.  Dean Stockwell played Doctor Wellington Yueh.  Max von Sydow played Doctor Kynes.  Jack Nance played Nefud.

Sean Young played Chani.  Everett McGill played Stilgar. 

Kenneth McMillan played Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.  Sting played Feyd Rautha.  Brad Dourif played Piter De Vries.  Paul L. Smith, billed as Paul Smith, played The Beast Rabban.

José Ferrer played Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV.  Virginia Madsen played Princess Irulan.

 David Lynch scripted and direct the film.  Lynch also - uncredited - played a "Spice Worker".

If you see this film, make sure you see the three-hour/Director's Cut version, which makes more sense than the initial/studio-cut version of the film.

#

The second version began airing stateside as a three-part television miniseries on December 3, 2000.

Alec Newman played Paul Atreides/Muad'Dib, a role he reprised in the 2003 television miniseries sequel, Children of DuneWilliam Hurt played Duke Leto Atreides.  Saskia Reeves played Lady Jessica Atreides.

P.H. Moriarty played Gurney Halleck.  James Watson played Duncan Idaho.  Karel Dobrỳ played Dr. Pardot Kynes.

Uwe Ochsenknecht played Stilgar.  Barbora Kodetová played Chani.

Ian McNeice played Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.  Matt Keeslar played Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen.  László I. Kish played Glossu Rabban.

Giancarlo Giannini played Padishah - Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV.  Julie Cox played Princess Irulan Corrino. 

John Harrison scripted and directed the miniseries.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Bourne Legacy, by Eric Van Lustbader

(pb; 2004: fourth book in the Jason Bourne series)

Review:

Five years has passed since the events of The Bourne Ultimatum, and David Webb, also known as Jason Bourne, has settled comfortably into his life as a college professor, husband to Marie, and father to his children (Alison, five, and Jamie, ten).

Webb's relatively quiet life is once again shattered when two close friends are murdered, and he becomes the prime suspect in that case. Of course, this is not a simple case of murder, but the off-shoot action of a complex, long-planned terrorist event, led in part by Stepan Spalko, a terrorist fronting as a human-rights CEO, and Hasan Arsenov, an ambitious Chechen freedom fighter. Then there's Khan, a mysterious assassin, who has a personal interest in killing Webb/Bourne.

From the get-go, Lustbader makes it apparent that this fourth entry in the Bourne series is different from the first three books. Webb/Bourne's awkward moral wranglings, which dominated Ludlum's trilogy, are given short shrift, acknowledged via a slick-prosed line or two; major characters from the trilogy are offed (killed) almost immediately, and Webb/Bourne's current family (Marie, Jamie, Alison) are barely mentioned or agonized over, as they were in the first three books. Also, there's a more palpable anti-American, post-9/11 sentiment on the part of many of the players here, not all of them “bad guys.”

Lustbader keeps it exciting and focused, though – that hasn't changed. There's plenty of links to Webb/Bourne's past. Arthur Conklin, Bourne's CIA handler/friend, lives on the Manassas, Virginia estate that one Ultimatum character (now dead) once owned; there's also a church shoot-out, reminiscent of a Bourne/Carlos confrontation in Ultimatum.

Of course, there's the slick, cinematic violence that Ludlum was known for. Lustbader, a master of action sequences, doesn't disappoint in this area, either. The thrills come fresh, hard and fast, while expanding on Webb/Bourne's past, particularly his first family (Dao, his wife; Alyssa, his daughter; Joshua, his son), who were killed in Cambodia, during the Vietnam War.

The ending, once again, ties together the novel's loose ends, while leaving room for future Bourne novels. Hopefully, though, this is the last novel, as Webb/Bourne is in his mid- to late fifties – a fact that Lustbader acknowledges, thereby maintaining the plausibility of the character and the story. To go any further would court implausibility.

Good, action-packed sequel that lives up to its predecessors, followed by The Bourne Betrayal.

Elfquest, by Wendy & Richard Pini

(pb; 1982)

Review:

When a group of elves are burned out of their forest haven by persecuting humans, the elves – numbering seventeen, and led by Cutter, a brave, hot-tempered young warrior – are forced into a desperate sojourn to find a new home in a hostile world.

This a charming adventure, possessing a natural, sublime (and tasteful) sensuality and much gentleness (despite its veracious and brief aggression, and grim situations and themes), as well as memorable characters. The story moves along at a fair clip, but allows for ample development of the characters as they grow as individuals – and a changing tribe.

Elfquest is based on the authors' popular graphic novel series, which I've never read, but probably will in the near future.

Gratifying read, less voluminous than many fantasy works, and worth owning. Check it out.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

West of Dodge by Louis L'Amour


(pb; 1996: story anthology)

Overall review:

Old school, clean-cut Western tales, with stout-hearted heroes and attractive, equally admirable women. Decent work from an stylistically-iconic writer, with a few exceptional stories.


Review, story by story:

Beyond the Chapparal”: A “cow town lawyer” (Jim Rossiter) takes on a bunch of cattle rustlers, whose leader (Lonnie Parker) has also stolen Rossiter's woman's heart. Quintessential Western, sharp and exciting.

A Husband For Janey”: Tandy Meadows, an 18-year old Texas boy, wanders onto a rich gold claim – and into a possible marriage. Light-hearted, romantic story, worth reading.

West of Dodge”: Twist-filled work about a gunfighter (Kilkenny) who becomes an unwilling participant in a town war, which may have roots in his past. Great stuff.

The Passing of Rope Nose”: Decent entry about ten thousand dollars, a Ranger and brick-dumb outlaws.

To Make A Stand”: Hurley, a farmer, flees after shooting a thief (who took his horse) – for he's incurred the vengeful wrath of the thief's four brothers. Gripping, believable tale.

That Man From Bitter Sands”: After being robbed and shot by two thieves, a gold miner tracks them, in a crafty, semi-funny and dangerous fashion. Good, traditional Western, with some dark undertones.

Let The Cards Decide”: Henry Duval, an ex-card sharp and gun for hire, and his friends play to free a woman from a bad marriage. Fun, good-natured and clever.

Riches Beyond Dream”: Predictable but warm-hearted tale about a woman (Kirby Ann) who inherits supposedly worthless property from her great-uncle Tom.

West of Dry Creek”: Decent story about a cowpuncher (Beaure Hatch) who rescues a woman from a villain who means to steal her land. Nothing special, not bad.

Marshall of Canyon Gap”: A marshal with a potentially deadly secret is forced to confront his past and his immediate future when a stranger rides into town. Excellent, classic story.

Home Is The Hunter”: Bill Tanneman, an emotionally-reserved gunfighter, sets out to restore a child's home – and justice – after a cowardly land baron has her father killed. Another excellent, involving story.

Rain on the Halfmoon”: A quick-draw cowboy (Jim Thorne) saves his wife from kidnappers. Solid entry.

Stage To Willowspring”: Romance, treachery, gabbed-out rumors and reputations highlight this stagecoach story with a cool twist. Good tale.

To Hang Me High”: Ryan Tyler, a young man, defends the reputation of a woman he loves (Rosa Killeen), and finds himself a hunted man because of it. Worthwhile story, with a predictable twist.

For another review of West of Dodge, check out The Louis L'Amour Project.

Raising Hell, by Ronin Ro

(hb; 2005: biography)

From the inside flap:

“The year is 1978. Saturday Night Fever is breaking box office records. All over America kids are racing home to watch Dance Fever, Michael Jackson is poised to become the next major pop star, and in Hollis, Queens, fourteen-year old Darryl McDaniels – who will one day go by the name D.M.C. -- busts his first rhyme: 'Apple to the peach, cherry to the plum. Don't stop rocking till you all get some.' Darryl's friend Joseph Simmons – now known as Reverend Run – thinks Darryl's rhyme is pretty good, and he becomes inspired. Soon the two join forces with a DJ – Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizzell – and form Run-D.M.C. Managed by Run's brother, Russell Simmons, the trio, donning leather suits, Adidas sneakers, and gold chains, become the defiant creators of the world's most celebrated and enduring hip-hop albums – and in the process, drag rap music from urban streets into the corporate boardroom, profoundly changing everything about popular culture and American race relations.

“Through candid, original interviews and exclusive details about the group's extraordinary rise to the top – and its mortal end brought on by the tragic murder in 2002 of Jam Master Jay – Raising Hell tells of Run-D.M.C's epic story including rivalries with jealous peers, their mentoring of such legendary artists as the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, and the battles with producers, record executives, and one another...”

Review:

Well-written biography of the landmark hip-hop band that started as out street-true (they were all about the “beats”), but got stymied by label-negotiations (which quickly escalated into legal battles). As a result, most of the later discs they recorded – anything after King of Rock, the third of their seven discs – were “dropped” (released) long after they were recorded, and received by a public that was being thrilled by new rappers, starting with Beastie Boys (who were friends with Run D.M.C.) and Public Enemy (also friends with Run D.M.C., and whose 1988 disc, It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, radically altered the musical landscape).

This is a quick read, less in-depth than other musical biographies I've read, but no less enjoyable because of it. It's also a mostly-pleasant trip down memory lane for this book reviewer, who was coming of musical age about the time that Run D.M.C. (too briefly) ruled the airwaves.

Ro is a wonderful writer with a light but meaningful touch, but that's only fitting: Run-D.M.C., when it was leading the musical pack, was the same way.

Good read, great band.

Outlaw School, by Rebecca Ore

(pb; 2000)

From the back cover:

“In a gray, industro-technological future of protective shackles and slowed ideas, Jayne wants to be respectable and conform. But conformity means accepting a limited destiny and the hollow entertainments that are brutally enforced as 'news.' And to be respectable, she must gain back her virginity and give up an eye. Jayne's life is out of her control – her reality has teeth and educational drugs and binding tools – and the only cures for her growing dissatisfaction with a bleak, repressive status quo seem to be madness or legal suicide. Or rebellion. Jayne cannot, will not, be rehabilitated. So instead, she will live her life between the lines, illegally encouraging the otherness of the lowly, the renegades, the crazies, the virtual whores, as she dedicates herself to the dangerous cause of outlaw education. There are many pitfalls built into the road Jayne has chosen to walk: failure, futility, betrayal, terror, arrest, cyberia. But her courage and determination could be the catalysts for a new future.”

Review:

Addictive novel, spiritized with an piquant (if distopian) narrative, mordant smartness, and a low-key subversiveness. A societal wet dream for a Bushite extremist (that is, extreme even for a Bushite) this is – at least initially – and a nightmare for those like myself, who might see this as a too-real reflection of where our society seems to be headed.

Less moody and violent than Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep? and less tone-chilly than Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, this is as groundbreaking (in a femininely sublime way) as the aforementioned classics, a work that gracefully transcends the usual “distopian-edge” tropes that drag so many other sci-fi works into clichés.

Worth picking up, this.