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."


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."


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."


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!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Bind, Torture, Kill, by Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, L. Kelly, & Hurst Laviana

(hb; 2007: non-fiction)

From the inside flap:

"For thirty-one years, an unremarkable family man stalked, killed and terrorized the people of Wichita, Kansas. He was a devoted husband. A helpful Boy Scout dad. A reliable, conscientious employee. A dependable church president. And behind it all, the notorious serial killer BTK -- a self-anointed acronym for "bind, torture, kill."

"Now that he's in prison serving ten consecutive life sentences, the whole world knows that Dennis Rader is BTK. But the intricate twists and shocking turns of this story have never before been told by the people who were intimately acquainted with the BTK killer and Rader the family man, or the dedicated cops who finally caught him. Bind, Torture, Kill takes readers behind closed doors, revealing full and horrific tales as seen through the eyes of the killer, his victims, the investigators, and the reporters who covered it all."


Compelling, difficult-to-put-down read, this, shot through with dark ironies and coincidences that linked the players in this real-life drama. The authors, who write about themselves in a third-person manner, focus on the individuals and how they interacted. And how they caught BTK seems almost too easy: BTK was less clever, less interesting and luckier -- way luckier -- than anyone had previously imagined.

I picked this up at the library on a whim, and I'm glad I did. This is one of the best true crime books I've read in a long while, as intense as Robert Graysmith's Zodiac books.

Two movies about BTK/Rader exist.

BTK Killer came out in 2005. Directed and written by Ulli Lommel (that alone should serve as a BIG warning), it's a direct-to-video, shot-on-video-camera piece of s**t, with little or nothing to do with the actual BTK Killer.

The Hunt For BTK Killer, a TV movie, aired on CBS in October 2005. From what I've read, it's much better than Lommel's film. This film, directed by Stephen T. Kay, was based on Robert Beattie's non-fiction book, Nightmare in Wichita: The Hunt For the BTK Killer.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hell House, by Richard Matheson

(hb; 1971)

From the inside flap:

"For over twenty years, Belasco House has stood empty. A venerable mansion with shadowed walls, it has witnessed scenes of almost unimaginable horror and depravity. Two previous expeditions to investigate met with complete disaster, as the participants were destroyed by murder, suicide or insanity.

"Now a new investigation has been mounted, bring four strangers to the ominous house. Each has their own reason for daring the unknown torments and temptations of the mansion, but can any soul survive what lurks within the most haunted house on Earth?"


This is one of the most shivery haunted house novels I've ever read.

Matheson's prose is, as usual, straightforward, with chilling, oozing and often sexual going-ons plaguing the four researchers who take up residence in the notorious abode. Philosophical, psychological, metaphysical, religious and sexual dialogue make up much of this fun, atmospheric read.

Wow-worthy twists also highlight Hell House, as do Matheson's fully-developed characters, whose neuroses decide what forms the hauntings, individual and collective, take.

One nit: near the end, the characters sum up what they think is troubling the mansion, based on what they've experienced. (Is it psychic manifestations, born of the living neuroses of those who enter the house? Is it Emeric Belasco, the Aleister Crowley-like previous owner of the house, whose body was never found? Or are there other ghosts in the mansion?)

These character summations are fine the first time around; but the characters restate their beliefs two, even three times, bogging down the action for a short (approximately twenty page) stretch.

That said, this is a landmark haunted house book, with an ending that's sad, light and ironic.


This was released stateside as a film, The Legend of Hell House, on June 15, 1973.

Pamela Franklin played Florence Tanner. Roddy McDowall played Benjamin Franklin Fischer. Clive Revill played Mr. (Lionel) Barrett. Gayle Hunnicutt played Ann Barrett.

John Hough directed, from a script by book author Matheson.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Bethlehem Road, by Anne Perry

(pb; 1990: tenth book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the back cover:

"The gentleman tied to the lamppost on Westminster Bridge is most elegantly attired -- fresh boutonere, silk hat, white evening scarf -- and he is quite, quite dead, as a result of his thoroughly cut throat.

"Why should anyone kill Sir Lockwood Hamilton, that kindest of family men and most conscientious member of Parliament? Before Inspector Thomas Pitt can even speculate on the reasons, a colleague of Sir Lockwood's meets the same fate in the same spot.

"Public indignation is boundless, and clever Charlotte Pitt, Thomas's well-born wife, can't resist helping her hard-pressed husband, scouting society's drawing rooms for clues to these appalling crimes. Meanwhile, the Westminster Bridge Cutthroat stalks still another victim..."


One of the more unpredicable entries in the Pitt series, Bethlehem Road maintains the charm and intrigue of Perry's earlier books. It's not one of my favorites because it's feels different -- perhaps it's because Emily Ashworth, who's set to be married to Jack Radley (who first appeared in Cardington Crescent), isn't in the novel much, and she, like many of the other regular characters, has come to seem less like a book character and more like an old friend to me. Or maybe it's because I was afraid that Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould, over eighty years old, was going to die this time out -- she's been ailing since Silence in Hanover Close, and I've grown quite fond of her character, also.

Anyhow, the killer -- or killers -- is/are not obvious, and the situation is increasingly political (Irish Home Rule and women's suffrage are angry buzzwords of the day, 1888), lending a "wild card" element to the plot.

The ending isn't one of the better ones in the series (though it doesn't quite fizzle out, either), which made this an average -- that is to say, well-written, as Perry's work rarely disappoints -- Victoriana excursion.

Worth checking out, this.

Followed by Highgate Rise.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Totem, by David Morrell

(pb; 1979)

From the back cover:

"Potters Field, Wyoming.

"A small Western town like hundreds of others. Even the incidents that started that midsummer's night seemed routine.

"The dead hitchhiker, victim of a hit-and-run. The coroner's heart attack. The drunk, dead in the culvert, his face destroyed. Slowly the routine began to twist into unexplainable horror. And slowly, under the searchlight rays of the too full moon it walked..."


All horror novels should be this extraordinary. It's terse, bloodcurdling and lean (nary a wasted word in this work), with characters that you actually root for (or curse).

The story's predictable -- up to a point -- but most of the characters, especially Nathan Slaughter (sheriff of Potter's Field), Gordon Dunlap (a once-great reporter who's fallen on hard times, and Slaughter's friend), and Accum (an emotionally detached coroner) make the novel's semi-predictability a moot point. As does the graceful denouement, which, tone-wise, matches the interactions between the aforementioned characters.

As a horror novel, The Totem puts a new spin on certain elements, which could've been cliches -- a haunted mansion, creepy mountains, a long-gone hippie cult that met a grisly end (or did it?), a virulent madness that's threatening to literally rend the townspeople. Morrell's breakneck-paced, spot-on writing kept it fresh; I knew Morrell was an excellent action writer, but I wasn't sure about his horror stuff, prior to reading this.

Now I am -- I can't wait to read his other horror outings.

Meaningful (without being annoyingly so), effective terror work, this: highly recommended for even the pickiest of horror fans.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling

(hb; 2007)

First, the plot: Harry, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger seek the remainder of the seven Horcruxes -- the physically manifested pieces of Voldermort's soul, separated and hidden by Voldemort, so as to keep them safe -- so that they might destroy them, and, along with them, Voldemort.

Meanwhile, Voldemort has quietly taken over everything. Pius Thicknesse, one of his minions, runs the Ministry of Magic; the media is monitored and manipulated by Voldemort's forces; Severus Snape, Albus Dumbledore's murderer, is Head Wizard of Hogwarts; Muggles (aka, Mudbloods) are being killed by Voldemort's wizards, via what Muggles call "accidents".

Now for the review.

It's a wonderful read. The middle section lags, when Harry, Ron & Hermione, lost, squabbling and seemingly directionless, seek the Horcruxes, even as Voldemort's Death Eaters hound them.

The writing, overall, is excellent, if a bit loquacious at times, as it consistently has been since the fourth book (Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire). The Battle of Hogwarts is appropriately cataclysmic and rousing (especially when Mrs. Weasley comes to the aid of her daughter, Ginny, who's being menaced by Bellatrix Lestrange -- wow, talk about fierce).

The body count, like the denouement, isn't shocking; nor is it too predictable. Rowling has sewed up the Harry Potter saga in a satisfying, character-true manner, with little, if any, room left for more (worthwhile) sequels.

By all means, check it out.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Killer in Drag, by Ed Wood, Jr.

(pb; 1965: prequel to Death of a Transvestite)

From the back cover:

"Impeccably attired in either gender, assassin-for-hire Glenn becomes Glenda when it's time for the dirty work. But Glendea wants out of the murder racket. She hightails it with the cops and the mob on her trail.

"Donning dapper menswear or slipping into stilettos and angora sweaters, Glen/Glenda falls in with hopped-up carnies, slinky prostitutes, and local-yokel sheriffs. But little does Glenda known that a red-haired dressed-to-killer -- with lips and nails to match -- is tracking her. The mob figures it takes one to know one..."


Wood's tale about a cross-dressing hitman is sleazy and ultra-noiresque, his prose trenchant and tautly wrought (with Wood's trademark, occasional kitschy asides resinating the sordid mix). Anyone expecting the supposed awfulness of Wood's cinematic ouevre will probably be disappointed to discover that Wood was actually a good writer, when his imagination was not compromised by budgetary constraints.

This isn't the best noir novel I've read, but it's one of the kitschiest (in a good way), and its tough-as-a-PMSing-motorcycle-dyke prose rings true.

Great shadowy read, this, with a semi-cliffhanger finish that provides an explicit lead-in to its follow-up novel, Death of a Transvestite.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Reflections in a Golden Eye, by Carson McCullers

(hb; 1941)

From the inside flap:

"... the story advances through the tangle of the emotional life of a Southern army post. The characters are strong and varied. Each is met in a revelatory moment: a captain safe only in impersonality; his golden, cruel wife; and a private mutely in love with her, watching the moonlight on her face as she sleeps, unaware of his presence."


The plot: An army Captain (cuckolded kleptomaniac Weldon Penderton), his wife ("feeble-minded" sensual Lenora), and their neighbors (Major Morris Langdon, Lenora's lover, and his sickly wife, Alison) are living in the social fishbowl of a military outpost, when a possibly-psychotic intensely-Xian Private L.G. Williams begins to stalk Lenora. In doing so, he helps bring about events that will ultimately shatter the fragile social structure that defines and restricts them all.

Bizarre, compact study of perversity, pettiness and antiseptic-toned cruelty, this: this is one of the most unique novels I've ever read; stylistically, it's incredibly different than McCullers's earlier novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which was a warm, rambly affair. It's difficult to believe that these tone- and theme-divergent novels sprang from the same mind.

This is also one of the most unsettling books I've read in a long while. Its brutality lies in taut-threatening-to-snap smiles, hissed comments and sudden, shocking acts of aggression.

The violent ending is flat and uninspired, after the creative displays of intimate cruelties that precede it. That said, Reflections in a Golden Eye a literary masterpiece, albeit a disturbing one.

Reflection in a Golden Eye, the film, was released stateside on October 13, 1967. Elizabeth Taylor played Lenora Penderton. Marlon Brando played Major Weldon Penderton. Brian Keith played Lt. Col. Morris Langdon. Julie Harris played Alison Langdon. Robert Forster played Pvt. L.G. Williams.

John Huston directed, from a script by Gladys Hill and Chapman Mortimer.

Offspring, by Jack Ketchum

(pb; 1991)

From the back cover:

"The local sheriff of Dead River, Maine, thought he'd killed the them off ten years ago -- a primitive, cave-dwelling tribe of predatory savages. But somehow, the clan survived. To breed. To hunt. To kill and eat. Now the peaceful residents, who came to Dead River to escape civilization, are fighting for their lives. And there's only one way to do it:

"Unleash the primal savagery lurking in their own hearts."


Warning: spoilers in this review.

Offspring is a well-written but unnecessary sequel to the memorably brutal Off Season.

Why is it unnecessary? For two reasons: at the end of Off Season, it was strongly implied that all the savages were fatally dispatched; secondly, while Ketchum has concocted a lean, believable and pulse-racing sequel with hiss-worthy villains (particularly Steven, a murdering sociopath), characters worth rooting for, and a few unforgettably terrifying scenes, the tone of Offspring feels lighter, like a PG-13-rated sequel to a grisly NC-17 horror flick.

The fact that Ketchum pulled a Hollyweird plot-cheat is a minor nit, though. Offspring is a good (not great) retread read, heads above many so-called "horror" novels.

Worth checking out, if you don't expect much.

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

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