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.

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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.