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.

<em>The Big Blow</em> by Joe R. Lansdale

(hb; 2000: novella) From the inside flap “ Galveston, 1900. “Local fighter, future legend, Jack Johnson versus a professional str...