Tuesday, December 18, 2007

How to... Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale, by Jenna Jameson with Neil Strauss

(hb; 2004: autobiography)

From the inside flap:

"In the underbelly of Las Vegas, a cesspool of warring biker gangs and seedy strip clubs transformed the gawky, brace-faced Jenna Massouli into the bombshell Jenna Jameson. Today, Jenna Jameson is the biggest star in the history of adult movies, consistently ranked as one of the most beautiful women alive. But behind the glamour and the meteoric rise to fame was a path paved with tragedy and heartbreak. As a teenager drawn into a chaotic world ruled by rape, abuse, and murder, Jenna plunged into a downward spiral of addiction, even as she became one of the most photographed women in adult magazines.

"Determined to overcome this past, Jenna rebounded in the adult-film business, where she encountered sadistic directors, experienced lovers of both sexes, amorous celebrities (from Howard Stern to Marilyn Manson to Tommy Lee), bitter rival starlets, and finally, glory, as she went on to become the biggest porn star the world has ever seen. But her struggle for happiness did not end when the accolades began. For years she wrestled with her resentment at her estranged father, the loneliness of growing up from the age of two without a mother, and her enduring childhood desire to find a man who give her the security and love she never had."

Review:

Jameson's autobiography is an uneven read.

For the most part, it's interesting, particularly when she's talking about: the dos and don'ts of working in "the [adult film] industry"; her encounters with mainstream celebrities (including Nicolas Cage, Jack Nicholson, Pantera, Nikki Sixx, Bruce Willis and David Lee Roth); her struggle to deal with being raped, once by a bunch of high school boys, and later by a creepy German motorcycle gang member (called The Preacher); her father and brother; and her battles with drug addiction.

When Jameson, helped and edited by co-author Strauss, is talking about the above subjects, her narrative is informative, well-written, and engaging. In the middle of the book she has a dialogue with her brother, Tony, about minute bullshit abuses she and Tony had to put up with (from other folks), and her search for the right mate (she found him in a fellow industry worker). It's then that her book bogs down, which almost caused me to put this book down twice. But then an interesting bit would show up, and I'd soldier on.

One thing that was really interesting was how Jameson, who now owns her own production company, refused to condemn the porn business, unlike Traci Elizabeth Lords, who blasted it in her autobio, Underneath it All. In remaining porn-positive, Jameson provides an equally level-headed, if promo-savvy, counterpoint to Lords' negative experiences.

Co-author Strauss did a better job working with Motley Crue on The Dirt. I can only hope he did the same with Marilyn Manson, in Manson's autobio, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell.

Unless you're curious about the workings of "the industry," a die-hard Jameson fan, or wondering which celebrity names get dropped, don't read this.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Man with the Golden Gun, by Ian Fleming

(pb; 1965: thirteenth book in the original 007/James Bond series)

Review:

Caveat: spoilers in this review.

A year after his disappearance -- and publicly presumed death -- at the finish of You Only Live Twice, Bond reappears at Ministry of Defense, requesting an audience with M. (aka, Admiral Sir Miles Messervy, to those who know him intimately).

Bond gets his face-time with M., and tries to assassinate him, nearly succeeding.

Bond has been brainwashed by the KGB.

The Ministry of Defence doctors set about wiping Bond's mind of that insidious Russian influence. They succeed.

M., once again figuring a real challenge will put Bond back on track, or at least allow him an honorable death, orders Bond to kill Francisco (aka, Paco, or "Pistols") Scarmanga. Scarmanga is a legendary free-lance assassin, the titular "Man with the [literally] Golden Gun," who's so bad-ass that he doesn't affect disguises or cover names when he travels.

Bond travels to Kingston, Jamaica, where he accidentally hooks up with his ex-secretary, Mary Goodnight (who was reassigned there when Bond disappeared). With her assistance, he "accidentally" bumps into the thin-skinned, trigger-happy Scarmanga at a local whorehouse, No. Three and a Half Love Lane, where Scarmanga hires Bond (working under the name Mark Hazard) to provide security at Scarmanga's next hotel investment meeting -- in truth an investment scam, and a meet with Scarmanga's KGB contact.

It goes south quickly. Fortunately for Bond, his old CIA friend Felix Leiter (from Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Diamonds Are Forever, Goldfinger, and Thunderball) and another CIA agent, Nick Nicholson, are working undercover at Scarmanga's hotel, as well.

Scarmanga, as a villain, isn't one of the more impressive ones. Not coincidentally, he reminded me of the lead villains from Diamonds Are Forever, Jack and Seraphim Spang, who were head of the "Spangled Mob" (whom Scarmanga worked for, years ago). It's Scarmanga's shooting skill, comparable (if not better) than Bond's, that makes him noteworthy, something Bond frequently acknowledges throughout Golden Gun.

Bond's final shoot-out with Scarmanga in a "cobra-infested" swamp is a wonder to read. Like On Her Majesty's Secret Service and You Only Live Twice, the quintessential 007 plot dynamics aren't turned on their collective head, but sideways, with endings that are either cliffhanger-shocking, or disturbingly gelid (like Golden Gun's, which simultaneously fuses the cold-blooded end-line of Casino Royale, Bond's womanizing attitude, and the gentling effect that Bond's dead wife, Tracy, has spiritized him with).

Great wrap-up (novel-wise) to a consistently-good series, this. Followed by a four-story anthology, Octopussy and The Living Daylights.

The Man with the Golden Gun was released stateside as a film on December 20, 1974.

Roger Moore played Bond. Christopher Lee (step-cousin and regular golfing partner of Ian Fleming) played Francisco Scarmanga. Britt Ekland played Mary Goodnight. Maud Adams played Andrea Anders. Herve Villechaize played Nick Nack. Bernard Lee played M.. Lois Maxwell (once again) played Miss Moneypenny. Desmond Llwelyn played Q (whose character, again, doesn't appear in the novel).

Guy Hamilton directed the film, from a script by Tom Mankiewicz and Richard Maibaum.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Farriers' Lane, by Anne Perry

(pb; 1993: thirteenth book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the back cover:

"When Mr. Justice Stafford, a distinguished judge in the court of appeals, falls ill and dies of opium poisoning, his shocking demise resurrects on of the most sensational cases ever to inflame England: the murder five years before of Kingsley Blaine and the crucifixion of his body against a door in Farriers' Lane. Amid the public hysteria for revenge, the police had arrested a Jewish actor, who was soon condemned to hang.

"Police Inspector Thomas Pitt, investigating Stafford's death, is drawn into the Farriers' Lane murder as well, for it appears that Stafford may have been about to reopen the case. He receives curiously little help from his colleagues on the force, but his wife, Charlotte, gleans from her social engagements startling insights into the women in both cases. And slowly both Thomas and Charlotte begin to reach for the same sinister and deeply dangerous truth..."

Review:

The Pitts' current case is crazy-quilted with divergent elements: possible miscarriage(s) of justice, anti-Semitism and good intentions gone awry. So it's especially good that Charlotte's mother, Caroline Ellison (who's enamored with one of the suspects), Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould (Charlotte's great-aunt by marriage), and the Pitts' maid, Gracie (loyal, streetwise and stubborn), are there to lend their help in solving the murders. (Emily and Jack Radley, Charlotte's sister and brother-in-law, and series regulars, are "in the west country away from the social bustle of London," where Emily is close to giving birth to her second child, the Radleys' first one together.)

The murders -- and their motivations -- are particularly ugly this time out. The twists are envy-inducing, the characters (several of whom have clear potential to join the ranks of other series-regular characters in future books) are interesting and worth remembering, the red herrings aren't obvious, and the story-plotting, especially in the last fifty pages, is tension-filled and relevant to our current times.

Another charming, read-worthy entry in the Pitt series, followed by The Hyde Park Headsman.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

20th Century Ghosts, by Joe Hill

(hb; 2005, 2007: story anthology)

Overall review:

This is one of the best short story anthologies I've read in a long while. It's up there, excellence-wise, with Clive Barker's three-volume Books of Blood, Richard Christian Matheson's Dystopia: Collected Stories, Stephen King's Night Shift and Ray Bradbury's The October Country -- favorites of mine.

Hill is a master storyteller, with a flair for clever sublime end-lines (reminiscent of another writer I admire, Robert Bloch). If you love short stories, you should be reading this sixteen-story anthology. Not a literary stinker in this bunch.

Review, story by story:

"Best New Horror" - A falling-apart-at-the-seams horror editor (Eddie Carroll) is turned on to an exciting, elusive writer whose disturbing stories drive Carroll to seek him out, with a result both expected and terrifingly wrong. Hill's able writing and effective foreshadowing makes this tale work -- in lesser hands, it wouldn't have.

"20th Century Ghost" - Gentle, sweet-natured tale about a woman (Imogen Gilchrist) whose of love of cinema defies Death. Memorable, classic piece.

"Pop Art" - Cleverly titled first-person account of an asocial boy who befriends an inflatable sixth-grade classmate, Arthur Roth. Funny, original, melancholic and ultimately inspiring. One of my favorite stories in this collection.

"You Will Hear the Locusts Sing" - An adolescent boy wakes up transformed into a locust -- and is delighted. Excellent thematic flip-flop of Kafka's "Metamorphosis".

"Abraham's Boys" - The Van Helsing brothers, sons of the famous vampire-executioner, discover their legacy. Well-written, ironic.

"Better Than Home" - An anxiety-ridden boy (and son of a Major League baseball player) talks about his boyhood, even as it happens. Pleasant, solid.

"The Black Phone" - Stunning, clever piece about a kidnapped boy (John) who's thrown into a basement with a supposedly-disconnected phone. One of my favorite entries in this anthology.

"In the Rundown" - A socially-inept store clerk encounters a roadside murder scene. Solid, this.

"The Cape" - A resentful ne'er-do-well accidentally finds a childhood blanket-turned-cape that allows him to fly. Excellent, with a sneaks-up-on-the-reader denouement.

"Last Breath" - Delightfully Bradbury-esque macabre tale about a retired doctor whose "museum of silence" contains the final exhalations of the now-dead. One of my favorite stories in this collection.

"Dead-Wood" - Trees with the ability to haunt: this uber-short piece is an interesting, confident and effective contrast to the other pieces in this anthology.

"The Widow's Breakfast" - Warm, sad tale about a rail-jumper who gets fed by a widow. Spine-freezing, sad end-line to this one.

"Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead" - 1978. During the shooting of Dawn of the Dead, a made-up zombified extra (Conroy) runs into an old high school sweetheart -- who's married, with a six-year old kid. Bittersweet, nostalgic - on multiple levels. One of my favorite stories here.

"My Father's Mask" - Unsettling, at-times surrealistic take on the family-on-the-lam story, as told by a pubescent boy. Strange, solid work.

"Voluntary Committal" - Twilight Zone-esque entry about a schizophrenic, maze-building boy who sets out to save his brother. Melancholic, effective, runs a bit long.

"Scheherazade's Typewriter" - "Hidden" charming story in the author's Acknowledgements section, about a haunted Selectric typewriter. One of my favorite stories in this collection.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke

(pb; 2003: first book in the Inkheart trilogy. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell)

From the back cover:

"One cruel night, Meggie's father reads aloud from Inkheart, and an evil ruler named Capricorn escapes the boundaries of fiction and lands in their living room. Suddenly, Meggie is smack in the middle of the kind of adventure she has only read about in books. Somehow, Meggie must learn to harness the magic that has conjured this nightmare. Only she can change the course of the story that has changed her life forever."


Review:

The first book of the Inkheart trilogy is heartfelt, frisky (it has numerous lightly sarcastic moments), family friendly and near-impossible to put down. Funke never lets up on the action, and the characters (from plucky twelve-year old Meggie Folchart to the knife-wielding Basta). 

Inkheart's ending, like the rest of the book, is smart and fleet-footed, with a few predictable (but sequel-necessary) elements. Not quite a cliff-hanger, it made me want to read the next book, Inkspell.

This is a worthy read for fans of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series.

#

Inkheart graced the silver screen on January 23, 2009. Iain Softley directed the film from a script by David Lindsay-Abaire.

Brendan Fraser played Mo "Silvertongue" Folchart. Andy Serkis played Capricorn. Eliza Bennett played Meggie Folchart. Paul Bettany played Dustfinger. Jim Broadbent played Fenoglio. Helen Mirren played Elinor Loredan.

Jamie Foreman played Basta. Leslie Sharp played Mortola (aka, "the Magpie"). Rafi Gavron played Farid. Marnix Van Den Broeke played The Shadow.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

You Only Live Twice, by Ian Fleming

(pb; 1964: twelfth book in the original 007/James Bond series)

Review:

Caveat: spoilers in this review.

It's been nine months since Ernesto Stavro Blofeld and Fraulein Irma Bunt gunned down Tracy di Vincenzo, Bond's bride of a few hours, on their honeymoon. Bond is an emotional and professional wreck.

M., concerned about one of his best agents, figures 007 needs a real challenge to kick him out of his doldrums. So M. sends Bond to Japan to get additional intel on the Russian drug trade from Tiger Tanaka, the samurai-hearted head of the Japanese Secret Service.

Tanaka agrees to give Bond unofficial access to the Russian files (dubbed "MAGIC 44"), if Bond will do him a big favor -- also off the record.

The favor: kill Doctor Guntram Shatterhand, a Swiss multimillionaire and amateur botanist, whose remote island castle in Kyushu houses a "garden of death," where five hundred or more Japanese people have gone to commit culturally-approved suicide. This garden is full of rare poisonous plants and animals; one wrong move there means instantaneous, painful expiration.

Tanaka considers Shatterhand, as well as Shatterhand's wife, the ugly Emmy, a mass murderer. And he sees no end to these "honorable" killings, so the only way to stop them is by killing the Shatterhands. Since Tanaka would face repercussions for such actions, it falls to Bond to do the deeds.

Bond accepts the secret assignment: the intel is too important. Also, more importantly, Bond is startled when he recognizes the Shatterhands from their photos -- they're Ernesto Stavro Blofeld and Fraulein Irma Bunt, who killed Tracy at the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Helped by Kissy Suzuki, a one-time Hollywood film star and Ama awabi shell diver, Bond infiltrates Blofeld's private garden. Once inside the garden, Bond confronts Blofeld and Bunt, once and for all...

Structurally, You Only Live Twice is a template replica of Doctor No, but Twice's location -- Japan, with its distinctive social mores -- renders that (possible) complaint moot. Not only that, but Bond's attitude is different; he's resumed his womanizing ways, but he's less cool in how he handles his women: his dead bride has humanized him a bit more.

You Only Live Twice is not as radical, tone-wise, as On Her Majesty's is, nor is the cliffhanger ending as shocking, but it is a stand-out entry in a consistently-pleasing series.

Followed by The Man with the Golden Gun.

#

You Only Live Twice was released stateside as a film on June 13,1967.

Sean Connery played Bond. Mie Hama played Kissy Suzuki. Tetsuro Tamba played Tiger Tanaka. Donald Pleasence played Ernesto Stavro Blofeld. Charles Gray (who later played Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever) played Dikko Henderson.

Bernard Lee played M.. Lois Maxwell played Moneypenny. Desmond Llewelyn played Q (whose character is not in the novel). Burt Kwouk played "SPECTRE #3".

Roald Dahl wrote the screenplay.

Lewis Gilbert (who also lensed The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) directed.

(Side-note: Fleming gives a shout-out to David Niven, who would later play one of the James Bonds in the 1967 version of Casino Royale, when Kissy Suzuki, talking about her Hollywood experiences, tells Bond: "They were all disgusting to me in Hollywood... Nobody treated me honourably except for [David] Niven.")

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood

(hb; 2005)

From the inside flap:

"In Homer's account in The Odyssey, Penelope -- wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy -- is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumors, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and -- curiously -- twelve of her maids.

"In a... contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give her telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids, asking: 'What was Penelope really up to?'..."

Review:

Sly puncturing of a "timeless" myth, this. Penelope, in the words of a smart, average-attractive wife and mother, tells her side of the Odyssey-based story, where Helen of Troy, Penelope's cousin, may be outwardly beautiful but is ultimately vapid and cruel; where Odysseus, suave and brave, is considerably less noble than he's shown to be in the myth; and Penelope's refactory son, Telemachus, is all-too-ready to destroy his mother's careful management of what could've been an instant tragedy.

Leapfrogging through Penelope's recounting is the collective outrage of Penelope's twelve hanged maids, who, though loyal to Penelope, were executed because of deception and jealousy. The maids' outrage, taking various literary forms -- poetry, a case study, moments from a court room case -- provides a seering counterpoint to Penelope's seemingly-honest account.

Wow-worthy read, this, shot through with ego-diminishing digs (many of them distinctly feminine), incisive revenge, and all the other attendant emotions that culminate in a tragedy: these thirteen women are/were no shrinking vulvae, but intelligent women who were dealt the wrong cards, and suffered ignoble wounds (of varying degrees) because of them.

Check it out.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mister B. Gone, by Clive Barker

(hb; 2007)

From the inside flap:

"This bone-chilling novel, in which a medieval devil speaks directly to his reader -- his tone murderous one moment, seductive the next -- is a never-before-published memoir allegedly penned in the year 1438. The demon has embedded himself in the very words of this tale of terror, turning the book itself into a dangerous object, laced with menace only too ready to break free and exert its power..."

Review:

C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters plus Voltaire's Candide equals Mister B. Gone.

The story: a minor demon, Jakabok Botch, born in a Ninth Circle ghetto, is fished blindly out of Hell by human demon hunters. Botch (aka, Mister B.) is rescued from them by Quitoon Pathea (aka, Mister Q) , a high-born and gentlemanly (by infernal standards) demon, who becomes Botch's traveling companion for many years.

Pathea's strange obsession with new human inventions becomes understandable when, arriving in the town of Mainz, he and Botch interrupt a divine bloodbath, and an equally divine conspiracy...

Readers seeking the gore-iffic brilliance of Barker's early works or the dark beauty of his later works should skip this one. It's a lightweight YA-level read, with fleeting mentions of torture (this is set during Medieval times), and (intentionally) half-hearted threats from a demon-book who can't make deliver on them, given his circumstances.

That's not to say this isn't a good read; it is. It's simply not one of Barker's better novels. While it's certainly adroit, humorous and moves along at a clipped pace, it has no real twist to speak of -- something that might've made this as landmark as Lewis's The Screwtape Letters.

Worth your time, if you don't expect much. Better Barker thrills: his three-volume anthology Books of Blood, The Great and Secret Show, The Hellbound Heart (this novella is the basis for the Hellraiser films), Sacrament, Galilee, and, what I consider his masterwork, Imajica.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Chocolat, by Joanne Harris

(pb; 1999)

From the back cover:

"When beautiful, unmarried Vianne Rocher sweeps into the pinched little French town of Lansquenet on the heels of carnival and opens a gem of a chocolate shop across the square from the church, she begins to wreak havoc with the town's Lenten vows. Her uncanny ability to perceive her customers' private discontents and alleviate them with just the right concoction coaxes the villagers to abandon themselves to temptation and happiness, but enrages Pere Reynaud, the local priest. Certain only a witch could stir such sinful indulgences and devise such clever cures, Reynauld pits himself against Vianne and vows to block the chocolate festival she plans for Easter Sunday, and to run her out of town forever. Witch or not (she'll never tell), Vianne soon sparks a dramatic confrontation between those who prefer the cold comforts of church and those who revel in their newly discovered taste for pleasure."

Review:

This charmer of a novel seduces (in a non-sexual way) as easily as its protagonist, Vianne Rocher, a woman whose empathy, skill (with people and food) and practicality made me want to stay up and read it, though my eyes were drooping dangerously at four a.m..

Equally beguiling are Chocolat's supporting characters: Armande Voizin, the eighty-year old, "obstreperous" iconclast who bedevils the priest Reynaud, and her family by refusing to lay down and die; Luc Clairmont, Armande's teenage grandson, whose shy, stuttering manner conceals his love of Rimbaudian poetry and his grandmother; Josephine Muscat, the battered, quietly resilient wife of a local cafe owner and probable arsonist; Guillaume Duplessis, whose sadness over the impending death of his sickly dog, Charly, gives way to something better; Michel Roux, aka Roux, a man whose gypsy flair is grounded in goodhearted, honest work; and Anouk Rocher, Vianne's six-year old daughter, whose sense of wonder and magic proves to be enchanting as her mother's.

The villains of the novel are also unforgettable: Pere Reynaud, whose book- and guilt-based faith has rendered him brittle; Paul Muscat, Josephine's lecherous, abusive husband; Caroline Clairmont, Armande's daughter and Luc's mother, an airhead and part of Reynaud's "Bible brigade".

Chocolat touches on so many classic themes -- good v. evil, Christianity v. Paganism, Food equals Life/Passion -- in an ostensibly easy way that even though I'd seen the film that resulted from this book, I was still drawn in immediately, even found myself getting upset at the villains' malfeasance.

A wondrous ride, this. By all means check this -- and its resultant 2000 film -- out.

In the film, Juliette Binoche played Vianne Rocher. Alfred Molina played Comte Paul de Reynaud. Carrie-Anne Moss played Caroline Clairmont. Judi Dench played Armande Voizin. Johnny Depp played Roux. Lena Olin played Josephine Muscat. Peter Stormare played Serge Muscat, the cinematic counterpart to Paul Muscat. Lasse Halström directed.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Death of a Transvestite, by Ed Wood Jr.


(pb; 1967: sequel to Killer in Drag)

Review:

Caveat: spoilers in this review.

At the end of Killer in Drag, Glen (aka, Glenda) Marker is still on the lam from the Syndicate (whom he "retired" from) and the cops (who have questions for him stemming from a murder he -- ironically -- didn't commit). Rose "Red" Graves, Glen/da's lover, is also on the run from the Syndicate, for her involvement with Glen/da. And another unnamed cross-dressing killer has been recruited by the Syndicate to whack Glen/da, their logic being "it takes one to know one."

Death of a Transvestite picks up the tale months after that, when Glen/Glenda is facing the electric chair. He offers to tell the remainder of the events that led to his date wtih fatal electricity, as long as they let him play dress-up in his final moments.

Glen/da's tale: Paul "Pauline" Hefner, the homosexual unnamed cross-dressing contract killer from the end of Killer, begins tracking Glen/da in earnest. The Syndicate catches up with Rose. Glen/da hightails to Hollywood, hooks up with Cynthia Harland, a raven-haired whore, and hides out in dive bars and motels on Hollywood Boulevard, where tensions between "queers," beatniks and the cops are building to (literally) riotous proportions.

Structurally, Death is more ambitious than its predecessor. Wood varies the storyline by presenting it in a broken-up fashion, alternating between police Composite Reports, select diaries (Paul/ine Hefner's, Glen/da's would-be assassin), Glen/da's "Taped Confessions", and the Warden's Notes.

The conceit is an admirable one. Problem is, Wood's writing is exactly the same as it was in Killer: it reads like a lurid, sometimes awkwardly-written noir novel, the characters' thoughts on display for the reader to see. An example -- how could the Warden, who never meets Paul/ine, know Paul/ine's thoughts during her climactic shoot-out with Glen/da? Sure, Paul/ine's diaries are full of simmering resentment and disturbing wants, but it doesn't cover all the information, supposedly gleaned from the diaries, that the Warden puts into his Notes.

On the whole, Death isn't a complete botch. There are pockets of excitement (the aforementioned climax comes to mind) and some note-worthy passages in the mix, but overall this is a disappointing follow-up to Killer in Drag.

Read it only to complete Glen/da's journey from Hot Mama Whackmeister to Prison-Fried High-Heeled Convict.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Ripley's Game, by Patricia Highsmith

(pb; 1974: third novel in the Ripley series)

From the back cover:

"Connoisseur of art, harpsichord aficionado, gardener extraordinaire, and genius of the improvisational murder, the inimitable Tom Ripley finds his complacency shaken when he is scorned at a posh gala. The perpetrator: the mortally ill Jonathan Trevanny, a picture framer from a neighboring village. Now, while any ordinary psychopath might repay the insult with some mild act of retribution, the game Ripley has in mind is far subtler -- and infinitely more sinister. A social slight doesn't warrant murder, of course, just a chain of events that may lead to it."


Review:

Six months after the deaths and mishaps of Ripley Under Ground, Ripley once again is forced to commit "distasteful" murders to protect his interests -- as well as those of Jonathan Trevanny's, a squeaky-clean neighbor who's been duped, by Ripley and Reeves Minot (Ripley's partner-in-crime), into becoming a killer-for-hire.

Highsmith's writing tone is distinctive, cool, sly and filled with instances of macabre wit -- all Highsmith trademarks. Not only that, but, as with all five Ripley books, Ripley himself is changing -- where he was a panicked, lucky murderer in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and an incovenienced semi-wealthy expatriate in Ripley Under Ground, he is the cagey master of this novel's titular game, rarely breaking a sweat as he, with the help of Trevanny (who's scared, and sick with myeloid leukaemia), fends off Mafiosi.

All of the Ripley novels are excellent and memorable.

Followed by The Boy Who Followed Ripley.

#

Ripley's Game has been filmed twice.

The first film, Der Amerikanische Freund, aka The American Friend, was scripted and directed by Wim Wenders in 1977. It premiered stateside on September 24, 1977; it received a limited release two days later.

Dennis Hopper played Tom Ripley. Bruno Ganz played Jonathan Zimmerman [Jonathan Trevanny's cinematic stand-in]. Lisa Kreuzer played Marianne Zimmerman [a cinematic stand-in for Simone Trevanny, Jonathan's wife?]. Gerard Blain played Raoul Minot [cinematic stand-in for Reeves Minot]. Film director Nicholas Ray played the long-dead painter Derwatt (whose character is mentioned in passing in Ripley's Game). Film director Samuel Fuller plays "The American Mobster".

#

The second version, Ripley's Game - filmed in 2002 - premiered on American television on September 4, 2003. Liliana Cavani co-scripted and directed.

John Malkovich played Tom Ripley. Dougray Scott played Jonathan Trevanny. Lena Headey played Sarah Trevanny [cinematic stand-in for Simone Trevanny]. Ray Winstone played Reeves [aka, Reeves Minot in the novel].

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl

(hb; 1970)

From the back cover:

"Every evening as soon as it got dark, Mr. Fox would say to Mrs. Fox, 'Well, my darling, what shall it be this time? A plump chicken from Boggis? A duck or a goose from Bunce? Or a nice turkey from Bean?' And when Mrs. Fox told him what she wanted, Mr. Fox would creep down into the valley in the darkness of the night and help himself.

"Boggis and Bunce and Bean knew very well what was going on, and it made them wild with rage. They were not men who liked to give anything away. Less still did they like anything to be stolen from them. So every night each of them would take his shotgun and hide on his own farm, hoping to catch the robber.

"But Mr. Fox was too clever for them."

Review:

Charming children's book from Dahl, whose gentle, slightly dark-humored sensibilities highlight this short tale about three dumb farmers who wait outside the Foxes' hole with shotguns, hoping to starve out, or shoot, the elusive Mr. Fox, who's determined to make bigger fools of Boggis, Bunce and Bean.

There's fast mention of certain animals being killed -- it's never shown: parents might want to note that.

Fast read, worth your time: of course, it's a Dahl book!

This is scheduled to be released as a stop-motion/animated film on November 13, 2009.

George Clooney voices Mr. Fox. Meryl Streep voices Mrs. Fox. Bill Murray voices Badger. Michael Gambon voices Franklin Bean. Jason Schwartzman voices Ash. Brian Cox voices Boggis. Willem Dafoe voices Rat. Owen Wilson voices Coach Skip. Adrien Brody voices Rickity. Anjelica Huston has an unnamed voice part. Wes Anderson, who voices Weasel, also directs and co-scripted; Noam Baumbach co-scripted.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lighthousekeeping, by Jeanette Winterson

(hb; 2004)

From the inside flap:

"Orphaned and anchorless, Silver is taken in by blind Mr. Pew, the mysterious and miraculously old keeper of the Cape Wrath lighthouse. As the lighthouse beam illuminates a swath of water, so do stories emerge from the vast ocean of Pew's memory: the history of Cape Wrath and its founder Babel Dark, a nineteenth-century clergyman. Dark lived two lives: a public one mired in darkness and deceit, and a private one bathed in the light of a passionate love. For Silver, Dark's life becomes a map through her own particular darkness, into her own story, and, finally, into love."

Review:

This is one of the best books I've read this year.

I expected it to be great, as Winterson's narratives are often fractured (they leap-frog through time, space, form and voice), but not this great.

The story: an "lighthousekeeping" orphan, Silver, tells, in a first-person narrative, of her childhood (beginning in 1969, when she and her balance-challenged dog, DogJim, are taken in by the latest lighthousekeeper, blind Pew), the history of Salts (the barren seaside town she, DogJim and Pew reside in), the life-story of the minister Babel Dark (whose tortured, 19th-century double life eventually tears him apart), and eventually, of her adulthood, post-1989 (Tim Burton's Batman is mentioned, in passing).

It's difficult, nearly impossible to do this book justice. It's sparsely-worded, symbolic, passionate, sad, cleverly funny, sublime, genre-defying and altogether enchanting.

As with other Winterson novels (The PowerBook comes to mind), it's also literary: Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the 1886 classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Charles Darwin (whose 1859 anthropological study, On the Origin of Species, also changed the world) make brief appearances, their ideas and persons an integral, interwoven part of Silver's tales.

Own this, if you can.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star, by Nikki Sixx & Ian Gittins

(hb; 2007: memoir)

From the inside flap:

"When Mötley Crüe was at the height of its fame, there wasn't any drug that Nikki Sixx wouldn't do. He spent days -- sometimes alone, sometimes with other addicts, friends and lovers -- ina coke- and heroin-fueled daze. The highs were high, and Nikki's journal entries reveal some euphoria and joy. But the lows were lower, often ending with Nikki in the closet, surrounded by drug paraphernelia and wrapped in paranoid delusions.

"Here, Nikki shares those diary entries -- some poetic, some scatterbrained, some bizarre -- and reflects on that time. Joining him are Tommy Lee, Vince Neil, Mick Mars, Slash, Rick Nielsen, Bob Rock, and a host of ex-managers, ex-lovers, and more."

Review:

Like The Dirt, The Heroin Diaries is sordid, raw, shockingly funny and cruel. It has a more personal element as its focus is on one person -- Nikki Sixx, born Frank Ferrano, the one-time fifteen-year old kid who heard Alice Cooper's "Welcome to My Nightmare" and the Stooges' "Search and Destroy," two songs which not only inspired Ferrano/Sixx, but also "predicted" his future, as well.

The diary entries run from December 25, 1986, when Sixx had already been a junkie for a year, to December 23, 1987, when he overdosed -- was clinically dead for several minutes -- for the second time.

As a read, this is a burn-through. I read the 413-page glossy-paged book in one three-hour sitting: there are few lulls in the fractured narrative, and while Sixx, or Sikki (Nikki's self-named Hyde junkie persona), often appears excessively cruel for the sh*t he did, he's also strangely relatable in his remorse, which never comes off as bathetic. Rather, he comes off as an angry immature kid who got rich and famous too soon, and wanted, in part, to emulate one of his nihlistic musical heroes, Sid Vicious (bassist for The Sex Pistols, who died of a heroin overdose, after killing his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen).

He almost got that wish -- minus the drug skank murder -- twice.

Other voices (his bandmates, friends) are liberally sprinkled throughout the diaries -- punctuating this tawdry, often acerbic book with post-diary reality checks that Sixx clearly didn't want to acknowledge back then. They're welcome additions, balancing out Sixx's chemical and sexual manias with wisdom and recollections that only age can deliver.

The only time Sixx and Gittins stumble are when they allow Evangelist Denise Matthews (aka, Vanity, aka one-time girlfriend to Prince and divinity-obsessed crackhead) to put her two cents in. While her "recollections" don't run very long (they span less than three paragraphs, usually), they read more like denials, like "hey, I don't remember that stuff, I only know God now." Putting her in there once would've sufficed; more than that only slowed down -- albeit briefly -- the written unfolding of Sixx's 1986-7 reality.

At the end of the book, Sixx provides a timeline to, and comments about, his current life/style. It's sweet at times, but not woosy, and clearly age has done wonders for Sixx, who's still self-admittedly a f***-up, but a smarter, kinder one.

The book's design/artwork looks like it was done by the same guy who used to work with Hunter S. Thompson. It's spectacular, and crazy-bloody graphic.

Anybody who's curious about what heroin is like should read this. (This is Sixx's stated reason for publishing this -- as a warning to anybody who's thinking of trying heroin.)

Worth your time, this.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Belgrave Square, by Anne Perry

(hb; 1992: twelfth book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the inside flap:

"When an obscure moneylender named William Weems is murdered in the humble Clerkenwell district, there are no mourners and more than a little discreet rejoicing among those whose meager earnings he so mercilessly devoured.

"Only one man seems troubled by the crime -- that respected aristocrat Lord Sholto Byam, who approaches a friend in the police department to ask for help in exonerating himself from any possible connection to the crime. It is an astonishing move, for had he not come forward, the police might have had no reason to suspect that he knew the dead man. So baffling and delicate is the manner that Inspector Pitt, the best man on the force, is summoned to deal with the mystery.

"When he finds in the murdered man's office a list containing the names of some of London's most distinguished gentlemen, Pitt begins to measure the magnitude of the job he has been given. William Weems was no mere common usurer, but a vicious blackmailer, and his sordid death is only the first ripple in a wave of scandal that threatens to engulf not only Lord Byam and his beautiful wife, but many others as well.

"Fortunately, Pitt's clever, well-born wife, Charlotte, has entree to London's best society. At glittering balls and over gossipy tea tables, she observes a world of passion, power, and greed that the police are seldom permitted to see. with her astute assistance, Pitt is finally able to root out the monstrous truth."

Review:

A few months after the events of Highgate Rise, the Pitts -- Thomas, in his official capacity; Charlotte, in her unofficial one -- are trying to figure out who killed Weems, a usurer and blackmailer. Of course, there's their usual entourage aiding in their murderer-sussing: Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould, Emily (who's pregnant) and Jack Radley, and Somerset Carlisle (who first appeared in the series in Resurrection Row).

As in the better Pitt entries, Perry puts plenty of variation (in terms of M.O., situations, and killer unveiling) in Belgrave Square. While the killer was, for me, easily spotted, there were enough wild-card elements to offset that minor nit.

Followed by Farriers' Lane.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Horror Show, by Greg Kihn

(hb; 1996)

From the inside flap:

"When Monster Magazine reporter Clint Stockbern sets out to interview the legendary fifties horror movie director Landis Woodley, he finds a reclusive, forgotten, and bitter old man. Worming his way through the front door of the Scotch-drinking, cigar-smoking filmmmaker's home, Stockbern finds a treasure trove of B-movie memorabilia. Playing to the movie genius's ego, Stockbern does his best to dig up a few good anecdotes from the past -- but what he uncovers is a story of real-life horror!

"Flashback to 1957 Hollywood, where Landis Woodley is getting ready to shoot his latest movie, Cadaver, set in a real-life L.A. morgue. He is also bent on throwing the ultimate Halloween party. Attendees will include Lucifer-obsessed anthropologist Albert Beaumond and Devila, the celebrated TV horror-show hostess. Even Satan himself may put in an appearance. And when cheap special effects are replaced by real corpses, a deadly curse may wind up taking its toll on all those foolish to become involved with the filming of the cult movie classic, Cadaver."

Review:

This novel reads like H.P. Lovecraft salad-tossed with Ed Wood and Anton LaVey, liberally sprinkled with a film geek's love of fifties kitsch equals Horror Show. Kihn's assured, homage-laden writing made this unputdownable, the perfect autumn novel.

The characters, thinly-veiled fictionalizations of real-life people, are funny and (often) tragic, most of whom have seen their unrealized dreams come and go.

Ed Wood is divided into two characters: Landis Woodley, the canny filmmaker who holds his shoestring crew together with warmth, bluff and bull***t, and Neil Bugmier, the brilliant ex-Marine scriptwriter whose cross-dressing puts off more distinguished Hollywood types. There's also Albert Beaumond, a literary stand-in for Anton LaVey, now-deceased founder/high priest of the Satanic Church. There's Devila, stand-in for the real-life Vampira. And, of course, there's Jonathon Luboff, the dying heroin-hooked homosexual, whose life facts (like everyone else's) stem directly from his real-life counterparts, Bela Lugosi (a real-life heterosexual) and Criswell.

This is great homage from an excellent writer. Can't wait to see what Kihn does next, bookwise (he's also the founder of the Greg Kihn Band, and a disc jockey).

Friday, October 26, 2007

The River King, by Alice Hoffman

(hb; 2000)

From the inside flap:

"For more than a century, the small town of Haddan, Massachusetts, has been divided, as if by a line drawn down the center of Main Street, separating those born and bred in the village from those who attend the prestigious Haddan School. But one October night, after an inexplicable death, the two worlds are thrust together, and the town's divided history is revealed in all its complexity. The lives of everyone involved are unraveled: from Carlin Leander, the fifteen-year old who is as loyal as she is proud, to Betsy Chase, a woman running from her own destiny; from August Pierce, a boy who unexpectedly finds courage in his darkest hour, to Abel Grey, the police officer who refuses to let unspeakable actions -- both past and present -- slide by without notice..."


Review:

Elegant, quiet, visually delicate yet enduring -- these words describe Hoffman's prose as she unveils the secret longings and wounds of her characters, from Harry McKenna, the rich handsome boy who's a charming sexual predator (in the barely acceptable social sense) to Abel Grey, a cop whose intentions to right past and present wrongs often cause him to publicly stumble.

This is one of the most beautiful and sympathetic (in terms of dealing with flawed humanity) books I've read in a long while. The imagery and symbolism are memorable and reinforced by the storyline and characters' actions, the flow feels naturally smooth, like the seasons the novel spans: in short, you should check this book out.

#

This became a film in 2005. Edward Burns played Abel Grey. John Kapelos played Joey Tosh. Thomas Gibson played August "Gus" Pierce. Jennifer Ehle played Betsy Chase. Rachelle Lefevre played Carlin Leander. Nick Willing directed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, by Ian Christe

(hb; 2003: non-fiction)

From the inside flap:

"From its cataclysmic beginning with Black Sabbath more than thirty years ago to the hyperactive nu metal bands ripping apart the charts today, heavy metal has become the dominant musical force around the globe. Yet despite selling more than a quarter-billion albums and breaking into new markets wherever it can be heard, metal has never been given a complete overview of its dark, powerful, and untamed history -- until now.

"Included here are heavy metal's primitive origins, the rise and fall of MTV hair metal, Metallica's successful quest for world domination, the devilish frenzy of Florida death metal, the church-burning fever of Scandinavia's morbid teen terrorists, and metal's return to center stage at the hands of Ozzy Osbourne and Ozzfest.

"Plus readers will get:

"Twenty chapters based on interviews with Black Sabbath, Metallica, Slayer, W.A.S.P., Slipknot, and more than one hundred other great heavy metal bands.

"A timeline of the most explosive happenings in metal from 1970 to 2002

"A list of twenty-five heavy metal masterpieces that changed music history

"Genre boxes breaking down dozens of metal styles, from thrash and black metal to avant-garde and beyond, including essential CDs

"Exclusive insights from Chuck D of Public Enemy, Iron Maiden artist Derek Riggs, the directors of Paradise Lost, and more..."

Review:

Christe provides an excellent overview of metal, its effect on society (and vice-versa), and its musical permutations into subgenres over the past thirty-something years, making this real-life narrative -- much of what was familiar to me, given that I'm a metalhead -- more user-friendly for non-metal readers with genre-specific bullet lists and a detailed timeline. The writing is engaging and solid, with occasional flashes of appropriate metal-esque hyperbole; many of the interviews are illuminating (the star factor is impressive and knowing), with genre breakdowns that are well-defined and charted.

This is a gotta-read for any metalhead, and a great starting point (in terms of readership) for anybody interested in metal. Good stuff.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Highgate Rise, by Anne Perry

(hb; 1991: eleventh book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the inside flap:

"In a London stunned by the sensational crimes of a madman named Jack the Ripper, a tragic fire in the peaceful suburb of Highgate goes unremarked. But the blaze was set by an arsonist, and an innocent woman has died in it: Clemency Shaw, wife of a prominent doctor. It is unclear whether she or Dr. Shaw were the intended victim -- or whether the doctor himself may have set the blaze in order to inherit his wife's large fortune.

"Baffled by the scarcity of clues in this terrible crime, Inspector [Thomas] Pitt turns to the people who were closest to the couple -- Clemency's stuffy but distinguished relatives; Dr. Shaw's brilliant friends, who share his advanced political views; and neighbors, especially the self-made millionaire who lives next door with his charming daughter.

"Meanwhile, Charlotte [Thomas's wife] gathers the gossip that is being whispered about the Shaws in the city's most proper drawing rooms. Slowly, a tantalizing picture of the dead woman comes into focus. And as she retraces the dangerous path that Clemency walked in the last months of her life, Charlotte finds herself enmeshed in a sinister web that stretches from the lowest slums to the loftiest centers of power."

Review:

Perry adds new elements and semi-twists to the eleventh book in the Pitt series, keeping it intriguing, but not completely forsaking her series-integral theme (murder investigation shakes up the upper class social hierarchy): there's the varying M.O. -- this time, the murderer uses fire to kill. Also, certain longstanding background characters come into the forefront to help Charlotte and Thomas solve the mystery of the fatal blazes -- namely, Gracie, the Pitts' teenage maid, and Grandmama, Charlotte and Emily's snooty great aunt (whose aid is unwittingly rendered). These elements and character differentiate Highgate Rise from earlier Pitt mysteries.

The social and political milieu is different, too: Jack the Ripper is running rampant in Whitechapel, and upper class slum lords, whose identities are kept secret by law, are under siege by reformers who seek to remedy that particular social ill, which may be the motive for the fiery murders.

All the regular supporting characters are involved this time, adding to the fun: Emily and Jack Radley (just returned from their honeymoon), as well as Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould, whose good health seems to have returned (she was sick in the last two books, Silence in Hanover Close and Bethlehem Road).

The killer isn't surprising, but Perry puts enough red herring elements and characters in the story to keep him/her from being too overt. And the Thin Man-like unmasking of the killer is suitably shocking and rude, with a subtle, series-familiar closing-line.

Once again, Perry delivers the excellence. Check it out.

Followed by Belgrave Square.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone

(pb; 1973, 1974)

From the back cover:

"Heroin. You pick it up in Southeast Asia. You smuggle it in through San Francisco. You sell it for all the ravenous American market will bear.

"For Converse, a disillusioned journalist, it is a perverse proof of his manhood. For his wife Marge, a college dropout working in a porno movie house, it is a new kick. For Hicks, a devotee of Oriental spiritualism and martial arts, it is another step past fear and moral scruples.

"For all of them it is a trip into a nightmare of lawless violence and insane greed."

Review:

Like the untenable and nasty war that helped spawn it (Vietnam), the events that take place after Ray Hicks smuggles heroin into the States are spectacularly f***ed-up. (Normally, Converse and Hicks smuggle marijuana, but the heroin pay-off, which looks to be astonomical, is too tempting.)

This is the melancholic, sordid and body-strewn milieu of Joseph Conrad, times ten. Converse is the cowardly, morally ambiguous American; Ray, his amoral American antithesis. Marge, Hick's wife in the States, with her growing needle habit, is just another victim. Even Antheil, whose smack Ray and Marge have fled with (after Antheil sends goons to whack them), is a victim of sorts, in a high-risk game where the wrong word in the wrong ear means instant death.

Bleak, ironic, crazy-violent and ultimately tragic, Dog Soldiers encapsulates many aspects of the Vietnam War, as seen by small-time eclectic "operators" whose cash and chemical endeavours arise from that struggle.

Stunning, pivotal work, this. Worth your cash and time.

The retitled film, Who'll Stop The Rain, was released stateside on September 8, 1978. Michael Moriarty played John Converse. Nick Nolte played Ray Hicks. Tuesday Weld played Marge Converse. Anthony Zerbe played Antheil. Richard Masur played Danskin.

Karel Reisz directed, from a script by author Robert Stone, and Judith Rascoe.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan

(hb; 2006)

From the inside flap:

"Two cousins, irreversibly damaged by a childhood prank whose devastating consequences changed both their lives, reunite twenty years later to renovate a medieval castle in Eastern Europe, a castle steeped in blood lore and family pride. Built over a secret system of caves and tunnels, the castle and its violent history invoke and subvert all the elements of a gothic past: twins, a pool, an old baroness, a fearsome tower. In an environment of extreme paranoia, cut off from the outside world, the men reenact the signal event of their youth, with even more catatrophic results. And as the full horror of their predicament unfolds, a prisoner in jail for an unnamed crime, recounts an unforgettable story -- a story about two cousins who unite to renovate a castle -- that brings the crimes of the past and the present into piercing relation."

Review:

This is a milestone in haunted-house fiction, both stylistically and in terms of narrative. Not only does she eschew quotation marks when her characters talk (much like Cormac McCarthy), but she utilizes multiple POVs [points of view], especially at the twisty finish, masterfully rendered.

The above elements aren't the main reasons why this novel wowed me. It's how Egan balanced the "guilt = haunted" equation with surprising and effective moments of spine-freezing terror. And the characters are full of conflicts, doubts, guilt and other emotions, rich soil in which to plant seeds of shadows-out-of-the-corner-of-your-eye fear moments.

Unputdownable and landmark, this. By all means, own this.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

(pb; 1954: novella)

From the back cover:

"Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth... but he is not alone. Every other man, woman and child on the planet has become a vampire, and they are hungry for Neville's blood.

"By day he is the hunter, stalking the undead through the ruins of civilization. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for the dawn.

"How long can one man survive like this?"

Review:

This is Matheson at his best. Neville is one of fiction's greatest anti-heroes. He vacillates between emotional extremes, sometimes tender, often brutal and gruff, as he struggles to survive, and ultimately understand, the whys of his situation.

Grim, black-humored and sometimes ironic, this is a must-read for any science fiction fan: one of my all-time favorite books.

Check this out.



The novella has been filmed three times.

The Last Man on Earth was released stateside on March 8, 1964.

Vincent Price played Dr. Robert Morgan, the film equivalent of Robert Neville. Giacomo Rossi-Stuart played Ben Cortland.

Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow shared directing duties, co-scripting the film with William F. Leicester and book author Richard Matheson (billed as Logan Swanson).



The second version, retitled The Omega Man, was released stateside on August 1, 1971.

Charlton Heston played Robert Neville. Anthony Zerbe played Matthias, the film equivalent of the novel's Ben Cortland. Rosalind Cash played Lisa.

Boris Sagal directed the film, from a script by John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington (billed as Joyce H. Corrington).



The third version, titled I Am Legend, is scheduled for stateside release on December 14, 2007.

Will Smith plays Neville. Salli Richardson plays Ginny. Paradox Pollack plays Alpha. Willow Smith, daughter of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, plays Marley.

Francis Lawrence directs, from a script by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

And Now You Can Go by Vendela Vida

(hb; 2003)

From the inside flap:

"A sharply humorous, fast-paced debut novel about the effects -- some predictable, some wildly unexpected --that an encounter at gunpoint can have on the life of a (previously) assured young woman.

"The gun in question is pointed at twenty-one-year old Ellis as she walks through a New York City park. In the end she is unrobbed and physically unharmed. But she is left psychologically reeling.

"Over the next few weeks Ellis keeps everyone at bay: the police, the men who want to save her ('the ROTC boy' poet and 'the red-faced representative of the world'), and the university therapist who hints that her sweaters may be too tight. But when Ellis accompanies her mother, a nurse, on a mission to the Philippines, she finds that life -- even if held up -- cannot be held back, and neither, finally, can she."


Review:

Vida's debut novel is not as good as her second, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. And Now has its quirky, clever moments, and starts off in a tightly-written manner, but it quickly becomes obvious that for all of this novel's slyness, this should've been a novella. Few of the scenes in that make up the middle section of the novel have anything to do with Ellis's experience with the sad gunman: they're superfluous. It's just a semi-edited ramble, albeit a charming one at times.

Skip this one, but make sure to check out Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Now And Forever, by Ray Bradbury

(hb; 2007: novella anthology)


From the back cover:

"In Somewhere a Band is Playing, a writer is drawn by poetry and dreams to tiny Summerton, Arizona, a community hidden in plain view, where no small children play, and where the residents never seem to age. Enchanted by its powerful rural magic -- and by a beautiful, enigmatic lady who bears the name of an Egyptian queen -- the writer sets out to uncover Summerton's mysteries before the inevitable arrival of a ruthless destruction.

"With Leviathan '99, the author who once colonized Mars returns to the cosmos to brilliantly reimagine Herman Melville's classic masterwork obsession and the sea, transforming a great whale into a worlds-devouring comet. In the year 2099, fledgling astronaut Ishmael Hunnicut Jones boards the Cetus 7, placing his fate in the hands of a relentless madman who is blindly chasing the celestial monster's tail. And in the merciless void, a crew of earthborn and alien star-travelers will face a divine judgment, and an 'enemy' wielding the most fearsome weapon of all... Time."


Review:

Somewhere a Band is Playing is a familiar but still-entrancing riff for Bradbury: magic in a small town --this time a town that is magic itself -- replete with quotable poetic passages about youth, the seasons and the inevitability of death. Worthwhile stuff, this.

Leviathan '99, with its Ahab-in-space storyline, is heavier, with a theocratic space program theme running thickly through it. It's good -- of course, it's Bradbury -- but I'm guessing the old radio program which had Christopher Lee providing the voice of the mad captain was more exhilarating. Not one of Bradbury's better works, though some last-minute twists made it memorable.

Overall, this two-novella collection is a good read for Bradbury fans. First-time Bradbury readers should probably avoid this until they've read other books by him.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ripley Under Ground, by Patricia Highsmith

(pb; 1970: second novel in the Ripley series)

Review:

Tom Ripley, enjoying the quiet life with his wife Heloise and live-in maid Mme. Annette, suddenly finds his life turned every which way when an American art collector (Thomas Murchison) begins questioning the authenticity of certain Phillip Derwatt paintings -- high-priced artwork that's actually the result of a forgery ring that is Ripley's brainchild. Also, Bernard Tufts, the depressed, possibly suicidal painter who created the aforementioned forgeries, is threatening to quit painting, making the crisis even worse -- just as Christopher Greenleaf, a curious cousin of Dickie's (who met a watery end at the hands of Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley) is about to visit Ripley's Villeperce-sur-Seine home.

Darkly funny, often ironic and self-assured, both the novel and Ripley are dead-on winners. Those readers who didn't cotton to Ripley's panicked up-and-down personality in the first novel might cotton to the older, smoother Ripley, who has the good sense to worry about things, but the mature wherewithal to deal with them -- even if it means burying more bodies.

Check it out.

Followed by Ripley's Game.

#

The movie version of Ripley Under Ground premiered stateside on November 6, 2005. Barry Pepper played Tom Ripley. Jacinda Barrett played Heloise Plisson, Ripley's wife. 

Tom Wilkinson played John Webster, a detective. Willem Dafoe played Neil Murchison (a cinematic stand-in for Thomas Murchison?). Alan Cumming played Jeff Constant, one of Ripley's partners-in-art-crime. Claire Forlani played Cynthia, Bernard Tufts's ex-girlfriend. Roger Spottiswoode directed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

(hb; 2005)

From the inside flap:

"Llewelyn Moss, hunting antelope near the Rio Grande, instead finds men shot dead, a load of heroin, and more than $2 million in cash. Packing the money out, he knows, will change everything. But only after two more men are murdered does a victim's burning car lead Sheriff Bell to the carnage out in the desert, and he soon realizes how desperately Moss and his young wife need protection. One party in the failed transaction hires an ex-Special Forces officer to defend his interests against a mesmerizing freelancer, while on either side are men accustomed to spectacular violence and mayhem. The pursuit stretches up and down and across the border, each participant seemingly determined to answer what one asks another: how does a man decide in what order to abandon his life?"


Review:

McCarthy's trademark apostrophe- and quotation mark-free prose makes this hyperviolent tale even more compelling, as Anton Chigurh, an escaped sociopathic killer, and Sheriff Bell, a laid-back no-nonsense cop, separately pursue Llewelyn Moss, who means to confront Chigurh on his terms, not Chigurh's.

But Chigurh and Bell aren't the only people interested in Moss. There's Carson Wells, a middle-aged ex-military hitter and ex-associate of Chigurh's, who's been hired by his unnamed employer to retrieve, by any means possible, the $2.4 million that Moss loped off with.

This bloodier-than-a-catamenial-clusterf**k work is often exceptional, with some great third-act plot twists and virtuosic omissions (leaving much to the reader's imagination), and characters (women included) who come off tougher and larger than life.

One of the things that mars this otherwise engrossing tale are the superfluous chapters where Bell reminisces about how times and people (particularly criminals) have changed since he first became a lawman, many years back. These first-person interludes feel completely out of place here: they're unnecessary speed-bumps in this pedal-to-the-metal read.

The other flaw is the disappointing finish, which peters out in semi-rambly fashion. It fits the themes running though No Country (Regret, Death, Change, Aging), but like those shoe-horned first-person ruminations, it doesn't fit in with the quirky ferocity of the rest of the novel.

Good book, worth your time -- not one of McCarthy's best, by most accounts I've read.

#

The resulting film is set for limited theatrical release on November 9, 2007. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen scripted and directed the film. Tommy Lee Jones plays Ed Tom Bell. Javier Bardem plays Chigurh. Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss. Woody Harrelson plays Carson Wells. Kelly Macdonald plays Carla Jean Moss. Tess Harper plays Loretta Bell.

Survivor, by Tabitha King

(hb; 1997)

From the inside flap:

"Kissy Mellors, an extraordinary photographer, is at the wheel of her Blazer when a shattering accident sparks a slow-burning, ultimately explosive drama of desire and decision. It is night. She is driving back to her apartment through the campus of a Maine college. A yellow T-bird zooms past her and hits two female pedestrians. One life is ended. One life is suspended in a coma. And Kissy's life is changed forever.

"After the accident three men enter Kissy's life. One is James Houston, the drunken premed student responsible for the fatal collision. One is Mike Burke, the policeman who arrived at the scene moments later. And one is Junior Clootie, a college hockey star being groomed for the pros, with whom Kissy begins an intensely sexual affair while still shaken by the aftershock of the nightmare experience."

Review:

This is three-quarters of a perfect novel, with characters at once admirable and deeply flawed, and an immaculately paced story that charts the twists and turns of each of the characters' lives as their paths cross and diverge. I was immediately absorbed in King's reads-like-real-life-yet-eloquent prose, and loathed having to set the book down to deal with my own life, which rarely fails to fascinate me.

It's in the final quarter of the novel that it stumbles, character-wise. One of the characters -- namely Kissy, about whom the action/story revolves -- acts uncharacteristically erratic and selfish in her desires, when before, even her impulsive acts made sense. Granted, some extreme situations present themselves in the story, but still...

The finish, ably and slyly built up to, dovetails the novel nicely, almost making up for Kissy's forced, oddball behavior near the end.

Good read that could've been great -- still worth reading, though. For a better King novel, check out The Book of Reuben.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Death Sentence, by Brian Garfield

(hb; 1975: sequel to Death Wish )

Review:

Less than a year after the tragic happenings of Death Wish, Paul Benjamin is still hunting criminals. His daughter, Carol, comatose at the finish of the first book, is now dead, as an indirect result of the attack that took her mother's life; Paul has moved to Chicago, hoping to shake off his grief, and to continue his mission: hunting and gunning down street scum.

Things have become complicated, however. No longer benumbed to life -- and a hostage to his rage -- Paul has fallen in love again, this time with a woman named Irene, who's clueless about his late-a.m. activities.

Not only that, but police are stepping up their efforts to catch him, as a copycat vigilante (whose actions have resulted in the deaths of innocent bystanders) is prowling the streets of Chicago, as well.

Logical, ably-written as the first book, Death Sentence lacks the bite of its predecessor. Part of this may be due to the fact that while Paul is angry, he's begun to let joy -- in the form of Irene -- enter into his life. He's begun to intellectualize the vigilante/crime thing, as opposed to just reacting to it.

The ending packs a wallop, not unlike the first book. Worthwhile sequel.



The in-name-only film version of Death Sentence was released stateside on August 31, 2007.

Kevin Bacon played Nick Hume. Kelly Preston played Helen Hume. John Goodman played Bones Darley. Leigh Whannell played Spink.

James Wan directed the film, from a script by Ian Jeffers.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

(pb; 1955: first novel in the Ripley series)

From the back cover:

"Tom Ripley is sent to Italy with a commission to coax Dickie Greenleaf back to his wealthy father. But Ripley finds himself very fond of this prodigal young American. He wants to be like him -- exactly like him. Suave, agreeable, and utterly amoral, Ripley stops at nothing -- certainly not only one murder -- to accomplish his goal."


Review:

The author of The Price of Salt and Strangers on a Train was starting to come into her own with this book, in which Ripley, a penurious, clever, first-time murderer with an inferiority complex, becomes the cincher of his destiny. Highsmith's analytic, distinctly European ambiance and tone lends an almost languid chill to the story, in which Ripley regularly slues between abject terror (when he thinks he's going to get caught) and thrill-seeker peaks (when he thinks he's going to get away with it all).

A psychological, adroit and perturbing literary delving into deviant nature, this. Memorable, worth your time.

Four book sequels followed the novel. The first sequel is Ripley Under Ground.

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Two film versions have resulted from The Talented Mr. Ripley.

The first version, Purple Noon, was released in France on March 10, 1960.

Alain Delon played Thomas Ripley/Phillipe Greenleaf. Maurice Ronet played Phillipe Greenleaf. Marie Laforêt played Marge Duval. Billy Kearns, billed as Bill Kearns, played Freddie Miles.


René Clément directed the film, from a script he co-penned with Paul Gégauff (billed as Paul Gegauff).

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Anthony Minghella scripted and directed the second version, The Talented Mr. Ripley. The film was released stateside on December 25, 1999.

Matt Damon played Tom Ripley. Gwyneth Paltrow played Marge Sherwood. Jude Law played Dickie Greenleaf. Phillip Seymour Hoffman played Freddie Miles.

Cate Blanchett played Meredith Logue. Jack Davenport played Peter Smith-Kingsley. James Rebhorn played Herbert Greenleaf. Sergio Rubini played Inspector Roverini. Phillip Baker Hall played Alvin MacCarron. Alessandro Fabrizi played Sergeant Baggio.

Friday, August 31, 2007

My French Whore, by Gene Wilder

(hb; 2007)

From the inside flap:

"The beloved actor and screenwriter's first novel, set during World War I, delicately and elegantly explores a most unusual romance. It's almost at the end of the war and Paul Peachy, a young railway employee and amateur actor in Milwaukee, realizes his marriage is one-sided. He enlists, and ships off to France. Peachy instantly realizes how out of his depth he is -- and never more so than when he is captured. Risking everything, Peachy -- who as a child of immigrants speaks German -- makes the reckless decision to impersonate one of the enemy's most famous spies.

"As the urbane and accomplished spy Harry Stroller, Peachy has access to a world he could never have known existed -- a world of sumptuous iving, world-weary men, and available women. But when one of those women, Annie, a young, beautiful and wary courtesan, turns out to be more than she seems, Peachy's life is transformed forever."

Review:

Funny, deftly-composed and sentimental (but not overly so), this novella charms. The characters are well-rendered, as are the various milieux Peachy finds himself in.

Great, speedy read. Can't wait to see what Wilder comes out with next.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Death Wish, by Brian Garfield

(hb; 1972: prequel to Death Sentence)

From the inside flap:

"Paul Benjamin... lives in a roomy old apartment on New York's upper West Side. He's an accountant who has lived in the city all of his life. His daughter is married and he is comfortably settled with his wife in their old apartment, in the middle of the city and its all its problems -- pollution, drugs, cost of living and, particularly crime in the streets. Like most New Yorkers, Paul is concerned about the crime rate, but he has never been afraid.

"Not until one day when crime crosses his own threshold. Suddenly, Paul and his family are the people you read about in the newspapers, victims of a vicious, unprovoked attack. For a few days, even a week, what happened to Paul is of concern to everybody in New York: newspaper readers, the neighborhood, the police. But then another story takes its place and Paul has to pick up his life again, go to work, pay his taxes, and refrain from screaming in public places. But Paul can no longer do this; the world, the city has now become a private battleground on which he is fighting for his life. A battle calls for a gun. He gets one. And he starts to use it."

Review:

Stark, grimy and full of despair, Death Wish tracks Paul as he goes from being a concerned liberal to a gun-toting urban avenger, over the course of a few months. The plot is largely action-driven and tied to Paul's grief (which rarely veers from simmering rage) -- that is to say, this angry tale rings true, with a sublime "open" ending; it's not just some vigilante fantasy, it's a provocative, focused work.

Followed by Death Sentence.



The film version was released stateside on July 24, 1974.

Charles Bronson played Paul Kersey (the movie equivalent of Paul Benjamin). Vincent Gardenia played Frank Ochoa. Jeff Goldlbum played "Freak #1".

Michael Winner, who also directed Bronson in five other films, directed this, from a script by Wendell Mayes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Zombies of the Gene Pool, by Sharyn McCrumb

(hb; 1992)

From the inside flap:

"Dr. James Owen Mega, respected engineering professor turned sci-fi superstar 'Jay Omega,' and Dr. Marion Farley, respected English professor and self-confessed sci-fi fanatic (and Mega's significant other), are on their way to a most unusual science fiction convention: the reunion of the Lanthanides -- a group of fans from the 1950s who are gathering to open a time capsule they buried over thirty years ago.

"Now, in 1990, that time capsule is vitally important, for its real treasure is a collection of unpublished, never-seen-before short stories written by the then unknown Lanthanides, some of whom have gone on to become legends of the genre, while others languish in still-nerdy obscurity. The reunion also serves as a memorial to the late and not-so-lamented Lanthanide Pat Malone. That is, until Malone shows up with some very irreverent memories of the glorious past. With the love of scandal and the lack of diplomacy that were his trademarks, Malone reels off outrageous tales of times gone by, and disputes the authorship of certain works. Is this really Pat Malone? Soon the question becomes was he really Pat Malone, when the interloper is found murdered. Then it's up to Jay and Marion to discover the true identity of the dead man, and what secret the Lanthanides would kill to protect."

Review:

This science-fiction murder mystery spoof is just as funny as its predecessor, Bimbos of the Death Sun. Not only that, but McCrumb's writing is more slyly incisive and empathetic (towards its aging, disappointed characters) this second time around, making Zombies an even better read than Bimbos. (Not that Bimbos wasn't a gentle read; it's just that McCrumb seemed to be going more for laughs in the first book.)

Again, I pegged the killer long before s/he was revealed, but, again, the killer's identity wasn't all that important to me. It was the journey -- the empathetic, funny, relatable characters and story -- that mattered. The killer, in this case, was just window dressing.

I plan to own this book, I liked it so much. All spoofs should be this effective and meaningful.

Check this baby out!

<em>The Guns of Avalon</em> by Roger Zelazny

(hb; 1972: second novelette in The Chronicles of Amber quintology) From the inside " Across the worlds of Shadow, Corwin, p...