Friday, December 26, 2008

The Whitechapel Conspiracy, by Anne Perry

(hb; 2001: twenty-first book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the inside flap:

"It is spring 1892. Queen Victoria persists in her life of self-absorbed seclusion. The Prince of Wales outrages decent people with his mistresses and profligate ways. The grisly killings of Whitechapel prostitutes by a man dubbed Jack the Ripper remain a frightening enigma. And in a packed Old Bailey courtroom, distinguished soldier John Adinett is sentenced to hang for the inexplicable murder of his friend, Martin Fetters.

"Though Thomas Pitt should receive praise for providing key testimony in the Fetters investigation, Adinett's powerful friends of the secretive Inner Circle make sure he is vilified instead. Thus Pitt is relieved of his Bow Street command and reassigned to the clandestine Special Branch in the dangerous East End. There he must investigate alleged anarchist plots, working undercover and living, far from his family, in Whitechapel, one of the area's worst slums. His allies are few -- among them clever Charlotte and intrepid Gracie, the maid who knows the neighborhood and can maneuver it without raising eyebrows. But neither of them anticipates the horrors soon to be revealed."

Review:

The twenty-first novel in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series is chockful of Victorian dooziness. The political situation is a powderkeg ready to blow, with the royalists (those who support the royal family) and the republicans (those who'd see the royal family dethroned); Thomas Pitt, and by extension, his wife (Charlotte) and his grand-aunt-by-marriage, Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould, are caught between these two opposing, often-violent political groups. Adding to Vespasia's concerns: the love of Vespasia's life, Mario Corena (a widely-lauded revolutionary hero who romanced her so long ago in Rome, in 1848), has come to England. Why he's done so, she doesn't know, but for discerning readers, there can be little doubt. The question is: whose side is he on?

Meanwhile, Samuel Tellman, Pitt's former right-hand man, is secretly investigating the case that got Pitt unjustly rousted from his position of Superintendent of Bow Street. If Tellman gets caught by the new Superintendent -- who acts like one of the Inner Circle, a political extremist group that favors the Crown -- Tellman will be fired. Gracie Phipps, the Pitts' feisty maid, is helping Tellman; their slow-simmering, lots-o'-argumentative-fireworks romance now coming to a discernible boil, even as the whole of England looks to explode, figuratively and perhaps literally.

Not only that, but a muck-raking journalist, Lyndon Remus (who first appeared in Half Moon Street) is on the prowl, with a story that may just link royalty to one of the most-publicized crimes of the seventeenth century, shortening England's political fuse even more.

Gripping read, this, with a sublime ending that concludes the current story, while providing plenty of possibilities for future Pitt-based books.

Check this series out!

Followed by Southampton Row.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Abel Ferrara: The King of New York, by Nick Johnstone

(pb; 1999: non-fiction)

From the back cover:

"Abel Ferrara's controversial movies always push the censors to the limits and provoke powerful critical reactions.

"Now comes the first major portrait of the New York maverick director who is revered as an auteur as often as he is reviled as a sensationalist.

"From The Driller Killer (1979) onwards, Ferrara's films have courted controversy and kept him firmly on the wild side of mainstream movie-making.

"Ms. 45 (1981)
"Bad Lieutenant (1992)
"Dangerous Game (1993)
"The Addiction (1995)
"The Funeral (1996)
"The Blackout (1997)

"Nick Johnstone assesses the movies with a sharp critical eye and offers a rare insight into a very private director and his close circle of collaborators.

"For years little has been known about Ferrara. Now The King of New York throws a bright and revealing light on one of cinema's darkest talents."

Review:

Johnstone initially provides a few surface-but-key-facts about Ferrara's private life to give readers (who may not be familiar with Ferrara's ouevre) a sense of Ferrara, the man (outside the director's chair).

Mostly, though, Johnstone provides sharp, almost-shot-by-shot analyses of the films in Ferrara's cinematic career, starting with the low-budget, shockingly violent Ms. 45 (1981) and ending with Ferrara's underappreciated-and-masterful The Blackout (1997). (Ferrara, since publication of this book, has had other directing/writing gigs, but Johnstone's analyses -- for obvious reasons -- don't address those films.)

Johnstone, in a compelling way, writes about Ferrara's raw-noirish shooting style and recurring, often-Catholic-faith-based motifs (the ravaging of innocence, redemption, etc.). If you get anything out of a Ferrara film, Johnstone says, it's that you can't get to heaven -- if it exists -- without going through the bleakest of addictive hells first.

These themes of Ferrara's are partially formed and/or reinforced by those in "Abel's stable," the actors, screenwriters and technicians whom Ferrara consistently works with. (The phrase "Abel's stable" was coined by actress/screenwriter Zoë Lund, who co-scripted one of Ferrara's most infamous films, Bad Lieutenant [1992]; Lund has also acted in some of Ferrara's films, most notably playing Thana, the gun-toting, twice-raped main character in Ms. 45, under the moniker Zoë Tamerlis.)

First and foremost in Ferrara's "stable" is Nicholas St. John, longtime friend who's scripted most of Ferrara's more striking films, including Driller Killer (1979), Ms. 45 (1981), King of New York (1990), Dangerous Game (1993), The Addiction (1995) and The Funeral (1996). St John, a school-chum of Ferrara's, grew up much the same way Ferrara did -- in rough, poor, Catholic neighborhoods. Soundtrack musicians in Ferrara's "stable" include: Joe Delia (who's soundtracked three-quarters of Ferrara's films) and rapper Schoolly D (who soundtracked King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, The Blackout and New Rose Hotel.)

Actors in Ferrara's "stable" include: Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, Victor Argo, James Russo, Paul Calderon, Nicholas De Cegli and others.

One of the things that makes this an excellent read is that Johnstone, like Ferrara, has an informed appreciation of film history, and the directors and writers who helped shape that history -- directors like Pier Paolo Pasolini, Robert Bresson, John Cassavetes, Roman Polanski, and Martin Scorsese. (Ferrara's films often include homage/mirroring-other-films scenes in his own movies: the aforementioned directors are often the men who helmed the films that inspired Ferrara's "homage" scenes.)

My only nit about this book is that Johnstone confuses Wesley Snipes's and Laurence Fishburne's roles in King of New York (1990). It was Fishburne who played Jimmy Jump (not Snipes, as Johnstone claims); it was Snipes who played Thomas Flannigan, a cop itching to bust Frank White [Christopher Walken's character] (not Fishburne).

This is strictly a read for Ferrara enthusiasts, film-school/creative-types or anyone who's looking to expand their knowledge of certain, darker avenues of filmdom.

Well worth your time, this. Check it out.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, by Michael Moynihan & Didrik SØderlind

(hb; 1998, 2003: non-fiction)

From the back cover:

"At the close of the last millennium, more than 100 churches in Europe were torched and desecrated by adherents of Black Metal, the most extreme form of underground music on the planet. In an escalating uholy war, Black Metal bands and their obsessive fans have left a grim legacy of suicide, murder, and terrorism that continues to spread from Norway to Germany, Finland, America, and beyond. . .

"Written by two journalists with unique access to the hellish demimonde, the acclaimed Lords of Chaos has now been revised and expanded, with startling new revelations. This award-winning exposé features hundreds of rare photos and exclusive interrogations with priests, police officers, Satanists, and leaders of demonic bands who believe the greater evil spawns the greatest glory."

Review:

A good friend, Gary Russell, turned me onto this non-fiction book nine years ago, but I finally, after getting distracted by so much other stuff, got around to reading it: thanks, Gary!

This is one of the best true-crime books I've ever read. Authors Didrik SØderlind and Michael Moynihan have composed a level-headed, fascinating account of the Black Metal suicides, murders and ancient church burnings that took place in Norway (and in other countries) in the early 1990s (and, to a limited degree, to this day).

One of the reasons why Lords of Chaos works so well is that the authors have, for the most part, adopted a non-judgmental attitude towards the people involved -- that includes hangers-on, police officers, and those who perpetrated the crimes, like: Per Yngve Ohlin (aka, Dead, vocalist for Mayhem, who blew his head off with a shotgun in April 1992); several members of the highly-regarded Black Metal band, Emperor, who continue to put out music today; Hendrik Möbus (of the band Absurd, who was also convicted of a Black Metal murder, and briefly found refuge from the German police in the States with William Pierce, founder of the racialist group the National Alliance, and author of notorious racist tract The Turner Diaries); Bård "Faust" Eithun (drummer of the aforementioned band, Emperor, who, in August 1992, stabbed a homosexual pedestrian to death); and Kristian "Varg" Vikerenes (aka, Varg Qisling LarssØn Vikerenes, aka, Count Grishnackh), founder of the one-man band, Burzum, who, in August 1993, stabbed and killed Øystein Aarseth (aka, Euronymous, of the band Mayhem, and owner of the Black Metal music store, Helvete).

Vikerenes's comments make up much of the interview sections. As a motormouth and founder of the religious organization, Norwegian Heathen Front (aka, NHS), he was part of the "Black Circle" (a phrase used to describe many of the Black Metallers who hung out at Øystein Aarseth's store Helvete, where Aarseth recorded and sold albums, including Burzum/Vikerenes's); also, Vikernes, who has a hate-hate relationship with the media (who love to interview him, because of the s**t he spouts), has evolved, belief-wise: he's disdainful of his early satanic Black Metal work -- it seems he's more into his later, dark Ambient Electronica work, which is heavily influenced by neo-Nazi/skinhead propaganda, heathenism (with a heavy emphasis on Odinism, which is anti-Christian), and grim Norwegian Black Metal steadfastness (which seems, on the surface, to be humorless).

SØderlind and Moynihan also trace the beginnings of Black Metal, to English and American bands like Venom, Bathory and Slayer (who, aside from their early occult themes, are actually are more speed-metal) -- the phrase Black Metal actually stems from Venom's second album of the same name, which came out in 1982. One of the main things that differientiates these bands from the later Noregian and Swedish bands is that the American/English bands were using their Satanic, often-nonsensical themes as sensationalistic window-dressing. At heart, they were regular, law-abiding people who were trying stir s**t up, get recognized (at that point in their careers).

It's that lack of sensationalism that ultimately propels Lords of Chaos into greatness. These events and personalities are dramatic enough to sell themselves, and all SØderlind and Moynihan had to do, writing-wise, was research it and put it down on paper without flourish -- in recognizing that and doing so, SØderlind and Moynihan have written a timeless true crime tome that remains relevant today.

Disturbing, informative time capsule book with (no doubt) echoes of our future -- hopefully only in a fringe, limited sense.

Read it, already.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Moondance of Stonewylde, by Kit Berry

(pb; 2006)

From the back cover:

"The cracks are beginning to show in the apparently idyllic country estate of Stonewylde, a very special modern community in beautiful Dorset.

"Yul and Sylvie must defy the tyranny of Magus, who holds all the power. Nobody challenges him and survives.

"Now Magus knows Sylvie's secret, but makes a further discovery that puts her life at risk."

Review:

The Stonewylde drama continues, picking up day after the climax of Magus of Stonewylde. Yul's feud with the cruel, arrogant Magus (aka, Sol) continues, to a lesser degree.

Tensions between Yul and the Magus increase when Yul discovers that the Magus, along with Clip, owner of Stonewylde and Sol's kinder but weaker-willed half-brother, are stealing magical "moongazy" energy from his beloved Sylvie via magic-storing stones. Not only is this a moral outrage, but the Magus is greedy, taking as much of Sylvie's life-magic as he can. In doing so, the Magus is slowly, painfully killing her.

It's up to Yul, with the help of Mother Heggy, a Wise Woman with magical know-how, to save Sylvie from the Magus and Clip. But will they reach Sylvie in time to save her?

Berry's writing, once again, is chockful of drama, relying on natural, relatable, character-personality-based situations instead of adolescent histrionics. Reader-hooking passages are simply presented, yet the deeper import of the story, characters, and other writing elements are abundantly clear. The Stonewylde series, thus far, is excellently written, more memorable than much of its published competition, non-clichéd, and, above all, worth owning.

Check out this series, already!

Followed by Solstice at Stonewylde.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Dexter in the Dark, by Jeff Lindsay

(hb; 2007: third book in the Dexter series)

From the inside flap:

"In his work as a Miami Crime Scene Investigator, Dexter Morgan is accustomed to seeing evil deeds. . . particularly, because, on occasion, he rather enjoys committing them himself. Guided by his Dark Passenger (the reptilian voice inside him), he lives his outwardly normal life adhering to one simple rule: he kills only very bad people. Dexter slide through life undetected, working as a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department, helping his fiancée raise her adorable (if somewhat. . . unique) children, and always planning his next jaunt as Dexter the Dark Avenger under the light of the full moon.

"But then everything changes. Dexter is called to a crime scene that seems routine: a gruesome double homicide at the university campus, which Dexter would normally investigate with gusto, before enjoying a savory lunch. And yet this scene feels terribly wrong. Dexter's Dark Passenger senses something he recognizes, something utterly chilling, and the Passenger -- mastermind of Dexter's homicidal prowess -- promptly goes into hiding.

"With his Passenger on the run, Dexter is left to face this case all alone -- not to mention his demanding sister (Sergeant Deborah), his frantic fiancée (Rita), and the most frightening wedding caterer ever to plan a menu. Equally unsettling, Dexter begins to realize that something very dark and very powerful has its sights set on him. Dexter is left in the dark, but he must summon his sharpest investigative instincts not only to pursue his enemy but to locate and truly understand his Dark Passenger. To find him, Dexter has to research the questions he's never dared to ask: Who is the Dark Passenger, and where does he come from? It is nothing less than a search for Dexter's own dark soul. . . fueled by a steady supply of fresh donuts."

Review:

Not long after the happenings of Dearly Devoted Dexter, the ever-charming Dexter finds himself in a quandary: he (and others around him) are being stalked by a larger, seemingly supernatural, dark force that not only speaks to his Dark Passenger, but is able to vanquish it from Dexter's awareness. This dark force, Dexter learns, has roots going back three thousand years, to the worship of Moloch, the bull-headed, human-sacrifice-loving god, leading Dexter to ask himself, what the heck is going on here?

This, by far, is my favorite entry in the (thus-far) three-book Dexter series. Author Jeff Lindsay has opened up an exciting number of future storyline/series characters and possibilities, including the creation of what could possibly become serious-threat arch-nemeses who are far away beyond what Dexter has encountered before. (Yes, that includes the recently-unlimbed-by-a-madman Sergeant Doakes.)

Not only that, but Lindsay has penned one of my favorite book endings that I've read this year, one that's simultaneously heart-warming and awesomely macabre.

Check this series out!

Followed by Dexter By Design (which is scheduled for publication on September 8, 2009).

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Doll Who Ate His Mother, by Ramsey Campbell

(hb; 1976)

Review:

Clare Frayn, a responsible twenty-something school teacher, is driving her slightly-younger, wilder brother (Rob) home late one night, when a man darts in front of her car, causing her to crash her car. Clare's brother is killed; not only that, his severed arm is taken by the shadow-man, who disappears immediately after the crash.

Clare discovers who the shadow-man is, when she begins, without police help, investigating the shadow man's past: he's Christopher Kelly, a young thief and murderer, with a tragic and supernatural childhood, and a predilection for cannibalism.

Clare is aided in her investigation by an opportunistic, self-important crime writer (Edmund Hall, a former childhood classmate of Kelly's), George Pugh (a middle-aged cinema owner whose mother was murdered by Kelly), and Chris Barrow (an actor whose cat was killed and partially eaten by Kelly).

This is an off-beat, low-key, and creepy novel. The characters, most of them oddly charming, are amateurs -- and quite lucky -- when it comes to finding their killer. The pacing is less psycho-thriller than real life; the nasty horrific bits, which punctuate the story with sharp regularity, utilize restrained-but-vivid imagery and taboo subject matter (cannibalism, black magic, matricide) to deliver its shocks.

Worthwhile, strange read.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dearly Devoted Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay

(hb; 2005: second book in the Dexter series)

From the inside flap:

"Dexter Morgan has been under considerable pressure. It's just not easy being an ethical serial killer -- especially while trying to avoid the unshakable suspicions of the dangerous Sergeant Doakes (who believes Dexter is a homicidal maniac. . . which, of course, he is). In an attempt to throw Doakes off his trail, Dexter has had to slip deep into his foolproof disguise. While not working as a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department, he now spends nearly all his time with his cheerful girlfriend, Rita, and her two children, sipping light beer and slowly becoming the world's first serial couch potato. But how long can Dexter play Kick the Can instead of Slice the Slasher? How long before his Dark Passenger forces him to drop the charade and let his inner monster run free?

"In trying times opportunity knocks. A particularly nasty psychopath is cutting a trail through Miami -- a man whose twisted technique leaves even Dexter speechless. As Dexter's dark appetite is revived, his sister Deborah (a newly minted, tough-as-nails Miami detective), is drawn headlong into the case. It quickly becomes clear that it will take a monster to catch a monster -- but it isn't until his archnemesis is abducted that Dex can finally throw himself into a search for a new plaything. Unless, of course, his plaything finds him first."

Review:

The second book in the Dexter series carries the same winning elements of the first: a seemingly-light toned narrative, a witty first-person narrator (Dexter), characters who aren't all that they seem to be (and are revealing new shades of themselves), and a macabre plot that moves at an exciting clip, providing an interesting counter-element to Dexter's mild, kind-hearted, sociopath-filtered tellings.

Good follow-up to Darkly Dreaming Dexter, worth your time.

Followed by Dexter in the Dark.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Half Moon Street, by Anne Perry

(hb; 2000: twentieth book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the inside flap:

"Superintendent Thomas Pitt cannot immediately ascertain exactly what segment of society the dead man riding the morning tide of the Thames cam from, but the sight of him is unforgettable. He lies in a battered punt drifting through the mornging mist, his arms and legs chained to the boat's sides. He is clad in a torn green gown, and flowers bestrew his battered body.

"Is he, as Pitt fears, a French diplomat who has gone missing? Or merely someone who greatly resembles him? Pitt's determined search for answers leads him deep into London's bohemia to the theatre where beautiful Cecily Antrim is outraging society with her bold portrayal of a modern woman -- and into studios where masters of light and shadow are experimenting with the fascinating art of photography.

"But only Pitt's most relentless pursuit enables him to identify the wildfire passions raging through this tragedy of good and evil, to hunt down the guilty and protect the innocent."

Review:

Another excellent entry in the Thomas & Charlotte Pitt series. Perry freshens the formula by focusing on characters who normally don't get as much "air time" in the series.

Charlotte Pitt is away in Paris with her sister Emily, and Emily's husband, Jack; Gracie (the Pitts' maid) is away on vacation with the Pitts' young children. This situation allows Caroline Fielding (Thomas's mother-in-law) to take a more direct, if inadvertant, hand in helping Thomas solve this case, which may or may not be an international incident (Thomas's professional specialty).

That's not the only storm brewing: the arrival of a not-so-distant, previously-unknown relative (Samuel Ellison) from America provokes Mariah Ellison (aka, Grandmama, Caroline Fielding's former mother-in-law) to panic and fury -- and possibly the revealing of a dark family secret. Will Caroline find out what it is before her family -- and her still-young marriage -- is shattered?

Check the series out.

Followed by The Whitechapel Conspiracy.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay

(pb; 2004: first book in the Dexter series)

From the back cover:

"Meet Dexter Morgan, a polite wolf in sheep's clothing. He's handsome and charming, but something in his past has made him abide by a different set of rules. He's a serial killer whose one golden rule makes him immensely likeable: he only kills bad people. And his job as a blood splatter expert for the Miami police department puts him in the perfect position to identify his victims. But when a series of brutal murders bearing a striking similarity to his own style start turning up, Dexter is caught between being flattered and being frightened -- of himself or some other fiend."

Review:

On Hole's 1994 album, Live Through This, Courtney Love sang "I fake it so well/I am beyond fake." Love might well have been singing about Dexter, an amiable serial killer who has a ghostly resemblance of a conscience, given his adherence to the "Harry Code" (the set of rules laid out by Dexter's adoptive father, Harry, on how to be a "good" person and still indulge the "Dark Passenger" that lurks in Dexter's head). Dexter, by his own admissions, seems to care about certain people around him -- namely his sister, Deborah (who's a cop, like Harry was), and Cody and Astor (son and daughter of Rita Bennett, the woman he's been dating for two years, for the sake of "cover").

This is a fast, difficult-to-set-down read. On the surface, given Dexter's relatively breezy tone, it'd be easy to pass this off as a pleasantly-written, hip serial-killer read. But it's more than that -- Dexter is a unique and memorable serial killer, who deserves to be remembered along with other top literary slashers like Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), Hannibal Lechter (Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, etc.) and others.

This is a slyly subversive work, challenging readers' comfortable notions about society, and the (possibly) true nature(s) of those who surround us -- especially friends and family members.

Superb, clever, burn-through read, with a chuckle-worthy end-line.

Followed by Dearly Devoted Dexter.

The Dexter book series (thus far, it numbers three novels) inspired a still-running Showtime/cable series, Dexter, which began airing on October 1, 2006. Michael C. Hall plays Dexter Morgan. Julie Benz plays Rita Bennett. Christina Robinson plays Astor. Preston Bailey plays Cody. Jennifer Carpenter plays Debra Morgan. James Remar plays Harry Morgan. Erik King plays Sergeant James Doakes (the cable-series equivalent of Sergeant Albert Doakes in the book series).

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Night of the Triffids, by Simon Clark

(hb; 2001)

From the back cover:

"The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndam's extraordinary bestseller, is one man's description of doomsday: almost the entire population has become blind, and the world has a new master -- the monstrous triffid plant. The novel ends with its narrator, Bill Masen, leaving the British mainland with his wife and four-year old son to join a new colony on the Isle of Wight.

"Simon Clark takes up the story twenty-five years later.

"In the 29th year since the fall of the old world, David Masen, the now grown-up son of Bill, wakes one morning to discover that the world has been mysteriously plunged into darkness. The few sighted people have their artificial lights, but once more the triffid has the advantage. . .

"Setting off to seek the cause of the darkness, David finds himself stranded. Eventually rescued and taken to New York, he discovers a very different sort of colony: prosperous and technologically advanced. But all is not as it seems. This sophisticated society hides an evil secret -- and David is about to come face to face with an old enemy from his father's past."

Review:

Clark's sequel to John Wyndam's The Day of the Triffids hews closely to the even-handed tone of the original novel, all the while expanding on the concepts and characters created by Wyndam.

When David Masen, son of Bill and Josella Masen, is taken to New York (after crash-landing his plane on a vegetable-based, triffid-filled island) by his American steam shipping rescuers, the tale turns even more surreal, with shades of Escape From New York thrown into the plot mix. Not only that, the triffids are evolving into terrifying new forms, forms that allow the triffids to overcome previously-effective barriers that protect the remaining humans from triffid sting-attacks.

Author Clark twist-ably builds on this increasing surreality, keeping tight focus on Wyndam's source novel themes -- man's arrogant war-like nature, evolution (triffid- and human-related) and science, and, of course, terror.

Clark also builds well on Night's characters, a few of whom originated in Day, while introducing compelling new characters.

Some of these new characters resemble, temperament-wise, characters from Day, namely: Kerris Badekker, David's love interest and daughter of General Fielding (Kerris resembles Josella Playton-later-Masen); Christina Jane Schofield, a feral, triffid poison-immune teenage girl discovered on David's strange-vegetable island (she resembles the little girl Susan from Day); and General Fielding, an overly-ambitious, militaristic Tetrach (governor) of one of four Manhattan Island-based sectors. (Fielding bears a resemblance to the brutal, efficient Torrence from Day.) Sam Dymes, co-leader of the United Liberty Confederation (a rebel faction opposed to General Fielding's eugenics-based plans), resembles Coker (from Day).

My only complaint about this novel is that the opening paragraph of the Night is too much like the opening paragraph of Day -- not only does it seem like Clark is trying too hard to emulate Wyndam's dry-wit style (at least initially), but Night's opening paragraph is clunky and confusing. (The opening paragraph in Day is clever and quotable.)

This is a minor complaint, though, as the rest of the novel is excellent, a can't-put-it-down science-fiction thriller.

Worth owning, this. Not only that, it'd make a kick-butt film, too.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The White Buffalo, by Richard Sale

(hb; 1975)

From the inside flap:

"At the center of [this] story are two very different heroes: the nervous, elegant and deadly master of triggernometry who has come to the Wyoming Territory in the wake of General Custer under an assumed name and who is really Wild Bill Hickok -- scout, gunman, a living legend -- in pursuit of his last adventure; and an Indian, 'Worm,' Nadonaissioux mieyebo, soon to be called Crazy Horse, one day to fight at Little Big Horn.

"The two men share the same dream: to kill (or be killed) by the last of the great white buffaloes, whose mystical presence haunts them both. Their search for this fabulous (and all too real) creature takes both men through the lonely highlands of the West in its last days of wildness; to small towns full of impoverished gold rushers, whores and killers; to Army camps; to the high mountains and grassy plains and Indian settlements, until finally the two most legendary figures of the West -- Hickok and Crazy Horse -- meet in a stunning and terrifying climax before the maddened charge of the White Buffalo himself."


Review:

Sale intertwines legends, great characterizations, action and an exciting -- if dying -- era into resonant and unique storyline. Making this story even more thrilling is Sale's use of semi-poetic turns of phrase and interesting Old West-related facts (which don't slow the pace of the story one whit). This is, hands-down, one of the best (and most original) Westerns I've ever read.

By all means, check this out.

#

The resulting film was released stateside in May 1977.

Charles Bronson played Wild Bill Hickok (aka, James Otis). Jack Warden played Charlie Zane. Will Sampson played Crazy Horse (aka, Worm). Clint Walker played Whistling Jack Kileen. Slim Pickens played Abel Pickney. Kim Novak played Mrs. Jenny Schermerhorn (aka, Poker Jenny). John Carradine played Amos Briggs (an undertaker). Shay Duffin played Tim Brady. Ed Lauter played Tom Custer. Martin Kove played Jack McCall.

J. Lee Thompson directed the film, from a script by source-book author Richard Sale.

Friday, October 31, 2008

'H' is for Homicide, by Sue Grafton

(pb; 1991: eighth book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

Review:

While investigating a case of auto insurance fraud, Kinsey Millhone, wisecracking P.I., is forced by circumstances to go undercover. She joins a group of con artists, headed by the paranoid, violent, Tourettes-wracked Raymond Maldonado -- can she make it out alive, in this death-at-any-minute situation?

Grafton once again has radically changed the situational game for Kinsey, making for an exceptionally wild and exciting ride (even for the Kinsey Millhone series), with a finish that stuns in an effective and simply-stated way.

Great work from a consistently-excellent writer. Check this series out.

Followed by 'I' is for Innocent.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Chocky, by John Wyndham

(hb; 1968)

When Matthew Gore, adopted eleven-year old son of David and Mary Gore, begins exhibiting odd behavior -- asking strangely adult/scientific questions, drawing in a skewed manner unfamiliar to children, and rescuing his nine-year old sister, Polly, from drowning when he doesn't know how to swim -- his parents are understandably alarmed.

Turns out that good-natured, obedient Matthew is being haunted by an invisible friend (who's more than an invisible friend), Chocky, who's driving Matthew to act strangely. Chocky, according to Matthew, is a visiting alien -- an androgynous one, who can only visit "certain kinds of [human] minds".

Larger problems stemming from Chocky's unseen presence become apparent: Mary, Matthew's mother, is worried that her adoptive son is "possessed"; this alarm heightens when the world at large -- via Matthew's teachers, his highly-publicized rescuing of his sister from drowning, and other events -- make him a national figure.

Matthew's father, David, narrates this tale in a simply-stated, semi-chatty, warm manner, charting the duration of Chocky's mostly friendly, uber-curious, only-heard-through-Matthew visitations.

Charming, short (it runs 183 pages), afternoon-read of a novel. Check it out.

On January 9, 1984, Chocky became a television mini-series in the UK. It lasted six episodes. James Hazeldine played David Gore. Carol Drinkwater played Mary Gore. Andrew Ellams played Matthew Gore. Glynis Brooks provided the voice of Chocky. Penny Brownjohn played Phyl. Zoe Hart played Polly Gore.

Two sequel six-episode mini-series followed.

Chocky's Children, the second mini-series, began airing in the UK on January 7, 1985. Andrew Ellams reprised his role of Matthew Gore (from the previous series). Angela Galbraith played Aunt Cissie. Michael Crompton played Luke. Glynis Brooks reprised her voice-role of Chocky. Annabel Worrell played Albertine Meyer.

Chocky's Challenge, the third mini-series, began airing in the UK on September 29, 1986. Annabel Worrell reprised her role of Albertine Meyer (from the previous mini-series). Prentis Hancock played Arnold Meyer. Glynis Brooks once again reprised her voice-role of Chocky. Illona Linthwaite played Dr. Liddle.

Not surprisingly, Steven Spielberg has bought the film rights to Chocky. (This information comes from a September 25, 2008 article posted on the website Digital Spy. Another, more cautious article, posted on the Cinematical website, mentions that Spielberg may direct the film, but he also has a few other films that he's publicly attached his name to.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Brisingr, by Christopher Paolini

(hb; 2008: third book in The Inheritance series)

From the inside flap:

"It's been only months since Eragon first uttered 'brisingr,' an ancient language term for fire. Since then, he's not only learned to create magic with words -- he's been challenged to his very core. Following the colossal battle against the Empire's warriors on the Burning Plains, Eragon and his dragon, Saphira, have narrowly escaped with their lives. Still, there is more adventure at hand for the Rider and his dragon, as Eragon finds himself bound by a tangle of promises he may not be able to keep.

"First is Eragon's oath to his cousin, Roran: to help rescue Roran's beloved from King Galbatorix's clutches. But Eragon owes his loyalty to others, too. The Varden are in desperate need of his talents and strength -- as are the elves and dwarves. When unrest claims the rebels and danger strikes from every corner, Eragon must make choices -- choices that will take him across the Empire and beyond, choices that may lead to unimagined sacrifice.

"Eragon is the greatest hope to rid the land of tyranny. Can this once simple farm boy unite the rebel forces and defeat the king?"

Review:

Brisingr all the strengths and one notable weakness of the previous two.

Strengthwise, there's the exemplary character development, making for root-worthy heroes and hiss-worthy characters, many of whom have complex relationships. Not only that, there's Paolini's well-written epic scenarios and landscapes, and fully-realized cultures (Paolini doesn't skimp on revealing the historical and cultural roots of each race, whether they're dwarf, human, elf or otherwise.)

The aforementioned weakness: most of the twists are by-the-numbers. Anybody who's read an ongoing fantasy series will see the twists coming long before they happen. Still, this is a minor bi**h, as this weakness isn't entirely Paolini's fault -- it's inherent in the "epic" fantasy structure, as defined by J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" series. (And, to Paolini's credit, he does manage to slip in a few unexpected subplots and a couple of unforeseen twists.)

Rousing, action-oriented read, this. Worth your time, despite the mostly-predictable twists and the increasingly religious overtones of the storyline. (Some of the religious plugs, disguised as character dialogue, are clearly meant to promote Christianity.)

The ending, once again, is such that this reader was left wishing the fourth Inheritance Cycle novel, title unknown, were already published.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

'G' is for Gumshoe, by Sue Grafton

(pb; 1990: seventh book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

From the inside flap:

"Kinsey Millhone celebrates her thirty-third birthday as only she can -- she moves back into her renovated apartment, gets hired to find an elderly lady supposedly living in the Mojave Desert by herself, and makes the top of triggerman Tyrone Patty's hit list. As much as she hates to admit it, Kinsey realizes even she's going to need help fening off a hit man and she hires a bodyguard: Robert Dietz, a Porshe-driving P.I. who takes his job very seriously. With Dietz watching her for the merest sign of her usual recklessness, Kinsey plunges into a case that will lead her to the gruesome truth about a long-buried betrayal. And, in the process, will bring her face-to-face with her own mortality. . ."

Review:

Another flame-through, twist-loaded and frequently-shivery read from Grafton, who spins a reader-familiar tale (with some choice shuffling of elements and structure) and fully introduces a once-peripheral character in the Millhone universe: Robert Dietz, a sensible, sensitive and manly P.I.-turned-bodyguard who's keeping Millhone alive, as well as possibly -- slowly -- winning Millhone's heart. (Dietz briefly was mentioned in an earlier Millhone mystery, I forget which one.)

The shivery part comes from the hitman who's stalking, toying with Millhone; not only is he a borderline-sociopath, he's also intent on turning this cat-and-mouse game into a family affair.

Excellent entry in the Kinsey Millhone series. Check the series out!

Followed by 'H' is for Homicide.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham

(hb; 1951)

Review:


A comet passes by the Earth, and has two effects: one, it blinds the majority of Earth's people; two, it turns the triffids -- tall plants with gourd-like mobile roots and stinger-blossoms, previously regarded as tame botanical oddities -- into army of clever, click-emitting killers who are dedicated to stinging mankind into extinction.

William Masen, a biologist who has the good misfortune to have been hospitalized and face-bandaged during the beautiful light show put on the comet, escapes being permanently blinded by it. (Ironically, the hospitalized Masen had been attacked by a triffid he was studying, and temporarily blinded by its poison. Prior to that attack, he'd warned fellow scoffing scientists that given how triffids reproduce quickly and possess stingers, they were a threat to mankind. Even Masen hadn't calculated how big a threat the triffids were.)

Masen provides the first-person narrative, which spans approximately seven years. His narration, for the most part, is calm and collected, his recollections simply-stated and viewed through a curious, science-minded lens. Most of the horrors he sees -- and there are many, whether they're perpetrated by triffids or men -- are left to the reader's imagination, as he travels across England, trying to rejoin Josella Playton (whom he met after the comet's passing), potboiler author and potential wife.

Triffids, at once an examination of the human race and scary science fiction thriller, is one of the best science fiction novels I've ever read. Wyndam's style is straightforward and almost dry, but between Masen's clear-eyed recollections, the distinctive characters, the steady pacing and the defiant, hopeful denouement, it's classic (in the truest, positive sense of the word).

Clean-cut and exciting work, this -- worth owning.

The Day of the Triffids became a film in 1962. Philip Yordan (aka, Bernard Gordon) scripted this movie; Steve Sekely and an uncredited Freddie Francis co-directed it. Howard Keel played Bill Masen. Nicole Maurey played Christine Durrant. Ewan Roberts played Dr. Soames. Mervyn Johns played Mr. Coker. Alison Leggatt played Miss Coker. Janina Faye played Susan.

On September 10, 1981, a short-lived television series, bearing the same name, began airing in the UK and Australia. (It lasted six episodes.) John Duttine played Bill Masen. Emma Relph played Jo Payton. Maurice Coulborne played Jack Coker. Jonathan Newth played Dr. Soames. Gary Olsen played "Red Haired Man Torrence." Perlita Neilson played Miss Durrant.

In 2001, Simon Clark wrote and published a sequel to the novel version of The Day of Triffids, The Night of the Triffids.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Haunter, by Charlee Jacob

(pb; 2003)

From the back cover:

"From the crumbling ruins of a Cambodian jungle temple to the arid canyons of west Texas, exotic demons of the ancient past collide with more modern devils. Crippled residents in a small Cambodian village are trying to rebuild their lives in a shattered country. Just as it seems they cannot go on, their god returns to them, providing hope and a dream of survival.

"But their god has returned in the body of a former American GI, and their hope for peace comes in a drug that opens the door to unfold horrors. Their beautiful nirvana waits only at the end of a road traveled by nightmares. It is a world peopled by the bizarre and the unearthly, in which damnation -- and redemption -- can come in the most terrifying forms."

Review:

The first few chapters of Haunter are a fever dreams, phantasmagoric swirls of grisliness, Vietnam War-era aggression and Hindu faith-based horrors as a new avatar of Shiva comes into being -- it's initiallly difficult to follow, but word-dazzling and poetic (as is much of the rest of the novel). After those first few chapters, the narrative settles down into a more straight-forward, solid tale.

The tale is this: Harry Tyler, an American soldier, who enjoys his condition of priapism (he has constant erections) and banging anything with an orifice, is in Cambodia, specifically the territory of Phnom Yohp, when he rapes a strange golden half-animal half-human creature discovered in an ancient Hindu temple (Nagas Wat). Harry immediately becomes possessed by the four-armed animalistic creature's deity, Shiva (you see, that creature was Shiva's last incarnation). This sets Harry on a gory, exotic path that inevitably re-joins with one of his brothers' (Elliott), who's also a soldier, and later, an often-merciless merc-for-hire.

Harry and Elliott are not alone. Along for the crazy, kill-f***-devour ride are the limb-missing Camobodian denizens of Phnom Yohp, who'd initially resurrected Shiva's last incarnation, and a crime boss, Tak, who's looking get a cut of the wild, truly original drug (Soma) that Harry/Shiva and his followers have loosed upon the world: Soma leaves its users literally golden-orbed and sitting in the lotus position, completely shutting out the outside "real" world, with no need of food, water or human company.

Jacob's writing is helter-skelter with mindmelting splatterific erotic visions, and depictions of perversion and cruelty -- few characters are innocent in this original work, and even that innocence is quickly diminished by nihilistic darkness.

Gripping, spectacular read with an oddly transcendant finish, this: worth owning, as long as you're not easily queasy or looking for a comforting read.

Check it out!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Appaloosa, by Robert B. Parker

(hb; 2005)

From the inside flap:

". . . the untamed territories of the West during the 1800s. . .

"When Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch arrive in Appaloosa, they find a small, dusy town suffering at the hands of renegade rancher Randall Bragg, a man who has so little regard for the law that he has taken supplies, horses, and women for his own and left the city marshal and one of his deputies dead. Cole and Hitch, itinerant lawmen, are used to cleaning up after opportunistic thieves, but in Bragg they find an unusually wily adversary -- one who raises the stakes by playing not with the rules, but with emotions."

Review:

Like many of the better Westerns I've read, Parker's Appaloosa is lean and mean, with sentence structures that are bare-bones basic (but not simple-minded), and characters whose words and actions effectively echo their personalities and intentions.

Appaloosa follows a familiar plotline, with a few well-placed and highly-effective pseudo-twists to individualize the story. Between these pseudo-twists, Parker's no-frills writing style, and the engaging (or hiss-worthy) characters, this is a must-read for anyone looking for a burn-through, modern-day Western.

Check it out.

Appaloosa became a theatrical film release on October 3, 2008. Ed Harris, who also directed and co-scripted the film with Robert Knott, played Virgil Cole. Viggo Mortensen played Everett Hitch. Jeremy Irons played Randall Bragg. Renee Zellweger played Allison French. Timothy Spall played Phil Olson. Cerris Morgan-Moyer played Tilda. Lance Henriksen (who co-starred with Ed Harris in The Right Stuff) played Ring Shelton. Adam Nelson played Mackie Shelton. Bob Harris, father of Ed, played Judge Elias Callison.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach

(pb; 2003: science/non-fiction)

From the back cover:

"Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers -- some willing, some unwittingly -- have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. In this fascinating account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them."

Review:

The above book blurb describes Stiff the way I would: it's (mostly) interesting and always informative, with some laugh-out loud (but respectful) quips. Like Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, it's a standout -- in a good way -- book.

My only quibble about Stiff is that certain chapters held no fascination for me, namely: "Dead Man Driving" (where Roach writes about car companies using corpses to measure the effect of car crashes on human bodies); "The Cadaver Who Joined the Army" (where Roach reveals U.S. military ballistics testing on corpses); and portions of "Holy Cadaver" (where Roach talks about historical medical and religious professionals who, among other things, have sought the physical location of man's fictional "soul"). Bear in mind this minor complaint is a reflection of my lack of interest in these subjects; Roach, in order to be thorough and reflect the interests of other readers, practically had to include these bits. (I only mention this personal quibble so certain readers who share my reading tastes may be forewarned.)

This is a memorable and informative read -- definitely worth owning.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Shotgun, by William Wingate

(hb; 1980)

From the inside flap:

"Baptist's Fire was a stormy little town all along, wtih gunfire from bitter Tennessee feuds spilling down Main Street since the 1890s. It was no place for a city slicker to visit, let alone start buying up, and that's what Mr. Cam seemed to be doing. And by the time some of the townspeople realized what was happening, they were too involved -- or too scared -- to do anything about it.

"Lou's pa didn't like it. Didn't like gassing up Mr. Cam's big black Cadillac and being polite to his bodyguards, and didn't mind saying so to the stranger whose broken-down car had to be pushed into the gas station. His name was Hardacre and that was about the only thing they found out about him, even though he stayed with them while the parts for his car were on order.

"Having Hardacre around made Lou nervous. But the strange thing was that it seemed to make the tough Mr. Cam nervous too, especially when he found out that Hardacre didn't scare. Whether provoked or moving swiftly on his own, the stranger was equally capable with his fists or his gun.

"Who was he? And to whom did he owe alleigance? Perhaps Baptist's Fire would never know, but when the dust had settled -- and Lou's shameful secret was bared -- the town and its inhabitants were changed and shaken."


Review:

Wingate employs a structure Jack Schaefer used in his classic -- in the truest sense of the word -- 1949 novel, Shane (which later became a 1953 film), except this time it's a fifteen-year old girl (Elsa Lou Colson), not a young boy (Robert "Bob" Starrett), who narrates the story. The daughter of an ornery gas station owner (Jedemiah "Jed" Colson), "Lou" tells how a stranded, quiet stranger (John Hardacre) refuses to be pushed around by a bullying land baron, who's also an exiled East Coast mafioso (Sam Camazza, aka "Mr. Cam").

The local police, led by a quirky Sheriff, Barton Haskins, aren't any help to Hardacre: they're on Camazza's payroll. So, of course, it's up to Hardacre to make things right -- as much as he can, given the situation.

More than a modern-day knock-off of Schaefer's lean, mean Western, Wingate infuses his characters with complex, relatable personalities, especially "Lou" (who, in comparison to Bob Starrett, is a runaway chatterbox), and the action is vivid and riveting -- especially in the last twenty pages, when I couldn't put the book down, even though I had writing of my own to do.

Solid, singular read, this. Shotgun reads like the bastard mating of Schaefer's Shane and David Morrell's novel First Blood.

Check it out.

#

Shotgun, retitled Malone, became a loosely-linked theatrical release on May 1, 1987.

Burt Reynolds played Richard Malone (a cinematic stand-in for John Hardacre). Cliff Robertson played Charles Delaney. Kenneth McMillan played Hawkins. Cynthia Gibb played Jo Barlow (a cinematic stand-in for Elsa Lou Colson). Scott Wilson played Paul Barlow (a cinematic stand-in for Jedemiah "Jed" Colson). Lauren Hutton (who also starred in the films Gator and Paternity with Reynolds) played Jamie. Tracey Walter played Calvin Bollard.

Harley Cokeliss directed, from a script by Christopher Frank.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk

(pb; 2001)

From the back cover:

"Victor Mancini's a medical school dropout with a problem. He needs to pay for elder care for his mother, who's got Alzheimer's. So he comes up with the perfect scam: pretending to choke in upscale restaurants and getting 'saved' by fellow diners, who, feeling responsible for Victor's life, offer him financial support.

"Meanwhile, he cruises sexual addiction recovery workshops and spends his days working at Colonial Dunsboro, where his stoner colleagues are sentenced to the stocks for any deviation from the colonial lifestyle. Oh, yeah, and he's desperate to find the truth of his paternity, which his addled mother suggests may be divine."

Review:

This is one of Palahniuk's finer novels, joining the ranks of Fight Club, Lullaby, Rant and Snuff.

The jigsaw-puzzle, factoid-laden structure is everpresent in any Palahniuk work, but the happenings of Choke, shown through the first-person POV of Victor Mancini, are less jigsaw-y and factoid-oriented. Rather, the focus is on Victor's dysfunctional, falling-apart life and his strange, crazy pseudo-family -- there's Denny, Victor's slovenly, rock-collecting, sex-addict best friend; there's Ida Mancini, Victor's Alzheimer's-afflicted, crazy jailbird mother, who doesn't even recognize him anymore; there's Dr. Paige Marshall, Ida Mancini's doctor, who says she can help Ida get better, if only Victor will have sex with her (the doctor, not his mother); and there's Cherry Daiquiri (aka, Beth), a stripper, Denny's girlfriend-of-sorts.

All of these characters figure prominently into Victor trying to push through the fourth step of his twelve-step Sexaholic Recovery program (listing and righting all of own's past sins, if possible), and his increasingly desperate attempts to pay for his mother's nursing-home care.

Thematically, this shares recognizable elements with Fight Club, and most of other Palahniuk's works. There's a mention of masturbating near a pool intake valve (which brings to mind the pool masturbation scene of Saint Gut-Free in Haunted).

The main thing that sets Choke apart from most other Palahniuk novels (aside from Diary and Snuff) is how warm (emotionally-speaking) and relatable Victor Mancini is. Less nihlistic than Tyler Durden (Ida Mancini ably fills that Palahniuk-recurrent role) and other like-minded Palahniukian characters, he's just a normal person -- like most of us -- trying to muddle his way through life as smartly as possible, with a minimum of fuss.

Great, fast read. Check it out.

Choke, the film, is set for a September 26, 2008 theatrical release. Sam Rockwell plays Victor Mancini. Anjelica Huston plays Ida Mancini. Kelly Macdonald plays Paige Marshall. Brad William Henke plays Denny. Bijou Phillips plays Ursula. Jonah Bobo plays "Young Victor" (Victor as a boy).

Clark Gregg (who also directed and wrote the screenplay for the film) plays Lord High Charlie.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox, by Eoin Colfer

(hb; 2008: sixth book in the Artemis Fowl series)

From the inside flap:

"After disappearing for three years, Artemis Fowl has returned to a life different from the one he had. Now he's a big brother, and spends his days teaching his twin siblings the important things in life, such as how to properly summon a waiter at a French restaurant.

"But when Artemis's mother contracts a life-threatening illness, his world is turned upside down. The only hope for a cure lies in the brain fluid of the silky sifaka lemur. Unfortunately, the animal is extinct, due to a heartless bargain Artemis himself made as a younger boy.

"Though the odds are stacked against him, Artemis is not willing to give up. With the help of his fairy friends, the young genius travels back in time to rescue the lemur and bring it to the present. But to do so, Artemis will have to defeat a maniacal poacher who has set his sights on new prey: Holly Short.

"The rules of time travel are far from simple, but to save his mother, Artemis will have to break them all. . . and outsmart his most cunning adversary yet: Artemis Fowl, age ten."

Review:

Artemis, Holly Short, Foaly, Mulch Diggums and No1 (a demon who first appeared in Artemis Fowl: The Lost Colony) are thrust back into collective action when Artemis's mother (Angeline Fowl) mysteriously contracts an antiquated fairy disease, fatal to humans as well. They travel back in time, to eight years prior, to try and alter the past and the future, in order to save Angeline.

Their primary foe this time out is Opal Koboi, a megalomaniacal scientist-fairy, who appeared, or is mentioned, in earlier Artemis adventures. She is joined by Damon Kronski, a dim-bulb, wealthy spokesman for the controversial Extinctionist movement, which takes dark delight in procuring and executing animals that are on the verge of extinction.

As in previous Artemis adventures, the semi-predictable story is solid, seeded with good characterization, humor and painless (for the reader) morality lessons. All of this, coupled with its familiar, adrenalized pace, left this reader nearly-breathless and wanting more.

Read this series!

Followed by Artemis Fowl: The Atlantis Complex.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey

(pb; 2001)

From the back cover:

"On the morning of Eva McEwan's birth, six magpies congregate in the apple tree outside the window -- a bad omen, according to Scottish legend. That night, Eva's mother dies, leaving her to be raised by her aunt and heartsick father in their small Scottish town. As a child, Eva is often visited by two companions -- a woman and a girl -- invisible to everyone save her. As she grows, their intentions become increasingly unclear: Do they wish to protect or harm her? A magical novel about loneliness, love, and the profound connection between mother and daughter. . . fuses the simplicity of a fairy tale with the complexity of adult passions."

Review:

Everything about this book worked for me: the characters, changing and deepening over time; the prose, spare, enchanting, and emotionally veracious; the interweaving of past and present -- and how the former creates the elements of the latter.

Check this out.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Me of Little Faith, by Lewis Black

(hb; 2008: non-fiction)

From the inside flap:

"What do we believe? And for God's sake why?

"Those are the thorny questions that Lewis Black, the bitingly funny comedian, social critic, and bestselling author, tackles [in this book]. And he's come up with some answers. Or at least his answers. In more than two dozen essays that investigate everything from the differences between how Christians and Jews celebrate their holidays, to the politics of faith, to people's individual search for transcendence, Black explores his unique odyssey through religion and belief.

"Growing up as a nonpracticing Jewish kid near Washington, D.C., during the 1950s, Black survived Hebrew school and a bar mitzvah (barely), went to college in the South during the tumultuous 1960s, and witnessed firsthand the unsettling parallels between religious rapture and drug-induced visions (even if none of his friends did). He explored the self-actualization movements of the 1970s (and the self-indulgence that they produced), and since then has turn an increasingly skeptical eye toward the politicians and televangelists who don the cloak of religious rectitude to mask their own moral hypocrisy.

"What he learned along the way about inconsistencies and peculiarities of religion infuriated Black, and in Me of Little Faith he gives full vent to his comedic rage. black explores how the rules and constraints of religion have affected his life and the lives of us all. Hilarious experiences with rabbis, Mormons, gurus, psychics, and even the joy of a perfect round of golf give Black the chance to expound upon what we believe and why -- in the language of a shock jock and with the heart of an iconclast."

Review:

The description on the book's inside flap is accurate. Black's humor stems from his cogent, well-written, and often-hilarious outrage at those around us who brazenly disregard the rules/facts of logic and good social behavior, in, as it says in the book flap, "the language of a shock jock and with the heart of an iconclast." Those who are religious and easily offended should not read this book, because it'll just tick them off. (Black also offers this warning in the beginning in Me of Little Faith.)

Thankfully, Black doesn't just come across as a funny jerk. His ideas, humor and personal experiences are shot through with some of the finer elements of humanity: humility/acceptance of his limitations and knowledge, cogent reasoning, and warmth for those around him.

Check it out, if you're not sensitive/close-minded about religious matters, and not afraid to enjoy some truly dark-ish humor.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Bedford Square, by Anne Perry

(pb; 1999: nineteenth book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the back cover:

"The freshly dead body sprawled on the Bedford Square doorstep of General Brandon Balantyne is an affront to every respectable sensibility. The general denies all knowledge of the shabbily dressed victim who has so rudely come to death outside his home. But Superintendant Thomas Pitt cannot believe him. For in the dead man's pockets he finds a rare snuffbox that recently graced the general's study. He must tread lightly, however, lest his investigation trigger a tragedy of immense proportions, ensnaring honorable men like flies in a web. Pitt's clever wife, Charlotte, becomes his full partner in probing this masterpiece of evil, spawned by an amorality greater than they can imagine."

Review:

June 1891. Several men in relative power (but not a lot of wealth) are being blackmailed via defamatory letters by someone who isn't making traditional blackmail demands (money, or political votes). One of these men is General Brandon Balantyne (who also appeared in Callander Square and Death in the Devil's Acre). That's not Balantyne's only problem: he's just had a murdered corpse dumped on his front doorstep, with a personal item of Balantyne's stuffed in the corpse's jacket pocket.

One of the other men being blackmailed is Assistant Commissioner Cornwallis, Pitt's immediate boss (who first appeared in Traitors Gate). While Pitt delves into Cornwallis's blackmail situation, Samuel Tellman, Pitt's right hand man (who, progressively, with every new book, gets increasing amounts of point of view time), sets out to discover who dumped the body on Balantyne's front steps -- and if that person is the same person who's blackmailing Balantyne and the others. Inevitably, Pitt's and Tellman's investigations dovetail into one case, one that has a tragic, though not completely unsurprising, finish.

Excellent reading, as are all the Pitt novels. Check them out.

Followed by Half Moon Street.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis

(pb; 1941)

From the back cover:

"The letters of the infernal Screwtape, a senior devil from a highly organized, computerized Hell, deftly instructs his nephew Wormwood, a junior demon, in the artof winning over a young man's soul -- not by a sudden fall into mortal sin, but by the routine and undramatic temptations of daily life.

"The Screwtape Letters takes us into a world that is immediate, familiar, and amusing, and so exposes the true nature of evil. . . and the very real devils in all our lives."

Review:

Lewis, through the fictional demon Screwtape, dryly skewers the vanities of mortal men, Christians and non-Christians, while exposing chinks in the spiritual armor and methods of both men and God, aka "the Enemy".

A must-read for anyone who's interested in Christianity, or just looking for a worthwhile satire. My only nit about this effective, word-taut work is that near the end of the 93-page novella Lewis/Screwtape begins to repeat his clever observations, albeit in a different form. A few chapters could've easily been trimmed from this; that said, this is one of my all-time favorite satirical works.

Check it out.

Followed by Screwtape Proposes a Toast.

Friday, August 22, 2008

No One You Know, by Michelle Richmond

(hb; 2008)

Review:

"All her life Ellie Enderlin had been known as Lila's sister. Until the day Lila, a top math student at Stanford, was murdered, and the shape of their family was changed forever. In the aftermath of her sister's death, Ellie entrusted her most intimate feelings to a man who turned the story into a best-selling true crime book -- a book that devastated her family and identified one of Lila's colleagues as the killer.

"Twenty years later, Ellie is now a professional coffee buyer, an inveterate traveler who is incapable of trust. In a chance meeting with the man accused of the crime, she comes into possession of the notebook filled with mathematical equations that Lila carried everywhere. Stunned, she will return home to San Francisco to explore the mysteries of Lila's notebook and begin a search that will lead her to a centuries-old mathematical puzzle, to the motives and fate of the man who profited from their family's anguish -- and to the deepest secrets even sisters keep from each other. As she connects with people whose lives unknowingly intersected with her own, Ellie will confront a series of startling revelations -- from the eloquent truths of numbers to confessions of love, pain, and loss."

Review:

The plot and themes of No One are so similar to that of The Year of Fog that comparisons to the earlier novel are inevitable. In both novels, the main protagonists travel between San Francisco (their home city) and Central America (in No One, Ellie Enderlin travels to Nicaragua; in Year, Abby Mason travels to Costa Rica). The reason? They're both on the trail of a long-gone family member: in No One, Ellie's searching for clues to the identity of her sister's killer, as well as "proofs" that will help her know her sister (Lila), and herself, better; in Year, Abby's looking for her kidnapped child (Emma), who's thought dead by the rest of her family.

I only mention this because it's an obvious comparison, and one I wish to dispel: while the plot and structural elements are similar, their dynamics are varied. Ellie (in No One) isn't as desperate as Abby (in Year) -- losing one's sibling, while traumatic, is dissimilar to losing one's only child; the attendant emotions of both traumas have distinctive traits and questions. Also, Richmond has shuffled around their structural elements: No One begins in Nicaragua, while Year begins in San Francisco/the Bay Area; it's not until later in Year that Abby's quest leads her to Costa Rica. As if that weren't enough to differentiate the two characters, Ellie's and Abby's personalities/journeys are unique to each of them.

Richmond once again shows her love of San Francisco/the East Bay by mentioning city-specific locations that I, as an East Bay resident, recognized -- as in Year, No One's locales are both tourist-friendly and local-cool/friendly.

Emotional without being excessive, plot-true without sacrificing the characters' emotional quotients/elements, and all-around well-written, this is a superb follow-up to The Year of Fog.

Pick this up.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Rollin' with Dre: The Unauthorized Account, by Bruce Williams with Donnell Alexander

(hb; 2008: memoir)

From the inside flap:

"As Dre's confidant and the problem-solver to a stable of artists and others who came to know him as 'Uncle Bruce,' Williams was either there when the action went down or close enough to feel the hollowpoints whiz by: Dre perfecting the gangsta era's signature sound displayed on his highly influential The Chronic and its Snoop Dogg-helmed follow-up, Doggystyle; getting out from under Death Row Records, the label Dre co-founded with impresario Suge Knight; launching the careers of Eminem, 50 Cent, and The Game.

"Williams lays it out in black and white, from dish on Tupac Shakur's chaotic rise and fall to the deadly feud between The Row (formerly Death Row Records) and the East Coast MCs and bigshots, from Suge's legal battles to Dre's reconciliation with Eazy-E before E's untimely demise from AIDS, from the hard-won 'overnight' successes of Snoop and Eminem to what it was like rollin' with giants and legends-in-the-making -- and living the life (and bearing the burdens) as a bona-fide master of the game."

Review:

Engaging, solid read. Williams, a former soldier and former prison guard, comes off as a smart, level-headed individual who found himself befriending, and later working for, Andre "Dr. Dre" Young, who, while a genius DJ/producer at the mixing board, was disconnected from the day-to-day realities surrounding him. . . realities that Williams dealt with, on Dre's behalf, for fifteen years. These realities ranged from setting up parties, to chilling out "wilding" (out of control) friends and business associates. One business associate Williams was careful not to offend, but not kowtow to, was Marion "Suge" Knight, the shady, drug-dealing thug who ran the record company Death Row Records; Knight's strong arm tactics later wound Knight up in a prison. Williams also dealt with less volatile personalities, like rapper/lyricist The D.O.C. (aka, Tracy Curry), Tupac (who, less volatile than Knight, adopted the wild attitude of those around him), 50 Cent (aka, Curtis Jackson), The Game, and Eminem (aka, Marshall Mathers, a sensitive mostly-nice kid with a sharp tongue).

In between the gangsta-tale telling, Williams (with Alexander's help) sketches in changes in his own life, about how he went from being wowed by the opulent lifestyle of the rappers (but not the rappers themselves -- bear in mind, Williams had dealt with tough guys in the military and prison) and being a playa of women, to meeting his wife, Vivian, becoming a responsible, happy father of three, and becoming an L.A. club co-owner (with his wife).

He also talks about his friendship with Dre, how it waxed and waned over time. Williams, however, never talks bad about Dre, aside from being sad about opportunities that Dre and other promising friends/rappers lost when Dre dropped the ball in certain business and personal situations. Mostly, Williams, who never comes off as self important -- he shows himself as a witness to events, not a major player -- just seems grateful for the experiences and people around him who helped him get to where he is today: that's a large part of what makes this such a good read, besides the tight editing and the occasionally salacious tale-telling.

Good read, this. Check it out.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

'F' is for Fugitive, by Sue Grafton

(pb; 1989: sixth book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

From the back cover:

"Everyone knew the kind of girl Jean Timberlake was -- ask anybody in the sleepy surf town of Floral Beach and they'd say Jean was wild, looking for trouble. But she certainly wasn't looking for murder. She was found dead on the beach seventeen years ago, and a rowdy ex-boyfriend named Bailey Fowler was convicted of her murder and imprisoned -- and then Bailey escaped. Now, private eye Kinsey Millhone steps into a case that never should have closed, in a town where there's no such thing as a 'private' investigation."

Review:

Millhone's investigation of Jean Timberlake's murder takes a lot of sordid turns, as she works her way through a cold-case that, seventeen years later, still incenses the citizens of the small town where it happened; those incensed are pissed for different reasons, as Millhone finds out, flurries of deceits (some petty, some deadly) dancing around her every investigative step.

Grafton's tight writing and thumbnail-sketched, effectively-rendered characters -- as well as Kinsey's wits and semi-quirky sense of humor -- carry the tale once again, however. The killer's identity was obvious (to me, anyway), but the scene where the killer is revealed made me think of one of the more chilling scenes in the 1978 film Halloween.

Good story, as usual, with characters who are memorably shady, and/or memorably human. Grafton's writing keeps getting better and better.

Followed by 'G' is for Gumshoe.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Last Detail, by Darryl Ponicsan

(hb; 1970)

Review:

In Norfolk, Virginia, two Naval Petty Officers -- Billy James Buddusky (aka, "Billy Bad-Ass"), a book- and street-smart Polack with a quick wit and equally-quick fists, and Richard Mulhall (aka,"Mule"), a black, usually level-headed man whose stubbornness validates his nickname -- pull "chaser" duty (escorting a fellow Navy man to the brig), a job considered to be choice work. Both Buddusky and Mulhall, in their mid-thirties, have been in the Navy for fourteen years and are comfortable with their "lifer" status -- six more years, and they can retire, well-off and happy.

Their prisoner, Lawrence Meadows, an eighteen-year old, kind-hearted kleptomaniac, has recently, stupidly, stolen forty dollars from a charity box in a commisary store. Because that particular charity box is the favorite charity of a high-ranking officer's wife, Meadows's punishment is excessively harsh: he's been sentenced to eight years in the brig, located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

An aura of fatalism and tragic inevitability hovers heavy over this sometimes-hilarious, often-heartbreaking story about these three men who, for all their differences, quickly become friends. It's not just another detail for any of them -- for Meadows, who's inexperienced in worldly matters (namely "booze and broads"), it's possibly his last chance at enjoying (relative) freedom; for Buddusky and Mulhall it's a disruption of their comfortable routine, a routine that prior to this detail, looked to be a given for the next six years.

Unpredictable, full of wild behavior and sharp/raw dialogue, this is an exhilarating blast of a read. The ending's not Hollywood-happy, but it doesn't need to be, because the heart of this book is its memorable characters (Buddusky, Mulhall, Meadows) and their life-changing interactions.

Great stuff. Check it out.

Followed by Last Flag Flying.

The Last Detail hit the silver screen on December 12, 1973. Jack Nicholson played "SM1 Billy 'Bad Ass' Buddusky". Otis Young played "GM1 'Mule' Mulhall". Randy Quaid played "Seaman Larry Meadows". Carol Kane played a "Young Whore". Michael Moriarty played a "Marine O.D.". Nancy Allen played Nancy.

Hal Ashby directed the film, from a script by Robert Towne.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Magus of Stonewylde, by Kit Berry

(pb; 2005)

From the back cover:

"Sylvie and her mother come to Stonewylde, a beautiful estate hidden in rural England, and believe their troubles are over. Stonewylde is a place of standing stones and earth energy, an idyllic refuge from the modern world.

"But all is not quite as it seems. There's another side to Stonewylde, a darker more sinister side where brutality is rife. One boy understands why Sylvie has come. And why his life is now in danger."

Review:

A sickly teenage girl (Sylvie) with mysterious allergies and allergy-attendant eczema (unseemly-looking flaky skin) is brought by her mother, Miranda, to a charming back-country village (Stonewylde) where alternative medicines and "magic" take precedence. Societally speaking, Stonewylde is a throwback to an almost-medieval age, where feudalism is the rule; there are two classes in Stonewylde: the educated Hallfolk who travel between the modern world and Stonewylde, and Villagers, who live in relative poverty, and do most of the grunt work in Stonewylde. Sylvie and Miranda, unfamiliar with this older society, are slowly, charmingly, being courted into becoming Hallfolk by the Magus (aka, Solstice, or "Sol"), whose iron fist methods of ruling Stonewylde are hidden beneath velvet gloves.

Yul, fifteen, headstrong, and one of the Villagers, is all too familiar with the Magus's cruelties, as he is constantly a victim of them. Seems the Magus, like Yul's drunk, abusive father, has taken a strong dislike to Yul, and Yul can't understand why. It's easy to understand why Yul's father is the way he is; but the Magus is another matter.

When Yul and Sylvie meet, changes immediately begin to happen -- slowly, at first, but by the end of this first Stonewylde book (there are to be five in the series) no one in Stonewylde can doubt that dynamic, crazy changes are about to flip their social order on its side.

Kit Berry is a plain-spoken writer, ably balancing elements of fantasy, restrained romance, adventure, and modern-day tensions. No flashiness to her fleet-footed prose, but plenty of show-it-like-it-is descriptions that gripped this reader, and made me loathe to put it down for relatively unimportant things like going to work, sleep, or eating. The main thing that caught me was how real and multidimensional her characters feel: even her bad-guy characters are shown to be relatably human, with their own (often misguided) reasons for their actions. I still cursed at them when they did cruel things (and there's plenty of cruelty going around), but at the same time I also understood why the bad guys acted the way they did.

I'd hesitate to recommend this gem to tweens. There are veiled references to rape, more than a few references to sex (all of them tasteful, and relatively veiled), and a few scenes of whipping/torture that would pale in comparison to certain "torture porn" flicks of recent years (the Saw series, and the much-better Hostel series come to mind). All of these darker elements are justified by -- and necessary to -- the themes of paganism, light and darkness that run through this well-written, engaging work that manages to work on a personal, character-centric level, while telegraphing a story that looks to go "epic" soon.

Can't wait to read the next Stonewylde book, Moondance of Stonewylde.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Devil May Care, by Sebastian Faulks

(hb; 2008)

From the inside flap:

"An Algerian drug runner is savagely executed in the desolate outskirts of Paris. This seemingly isolated event leads to the recall of Agent 007 from his sabbatical in Rome and his return to the world of intrigue and danger where he is most at home. The head of M16, M, assigns him to shadow the mysterious Dr. Julius Gorner, a power-crazed pharmaceutical magnate, whose wealth is exceeded only by his greed. Gorner has lately taken a disquieting interest in opiate derivatives, both legal and illegal, and this urgently bears looking into.

"Bond finds a willing accomplice in the shape of a glamorous Parisian named Scarlett Papava. He will need her help in a life-and-death struggle with his most dangerous adversary yet, as a chain of events threatens to lead to global catastrophe. A British airliner goes missing over Iraq. The thunder of a coming war echoes in the Middle East. And a tide of lethal narcotics threatens to engulf a Great Britain in the throes of the social upheavals of the the late sixties."

Review:

Faulks captures well the feel of an Ian Fleming 007 novel, touching thematically, structurally, or mood-wise on most, if not all of Fleming's Bond books. It's all here: the action, the grandiose-minded, esoteric villains (in this case Julius Gorner, who recalls Auric Goldfinger, and Chagrin, who calls to mind Goldfinger's Oddjob), the beautiful flirty women, and a heroine/femme fatale (who may or may not be what she seems). What transcends Faulks's work above a mere aping of Fleming's original fourteen novels is the small twists Faulks buries within the Bond template-plot tics. Not all of them are unexpected, but they are effective, providing a freshness to the familiar story-structure, while lending what I would presume to be Faulks's personal touches to the work.

The action takes place twenty-one months after the events of The Man With the Golden Gun. It's the late Sixties: the Rolling Stones have just been busted for drug possession. America is not so covertly waging early war in Vietnam, and pissed at Great Britain for not supporting its foolish (police) actions. All of these elements add to the timeliness and freshness of this hard-to-put-down book; it's Bond for a new age, and a book that should become a film, ASAP.

In the meantime, there's the upcoming film
Quantum of Solace, which opens in theaters on November 7, 2008. It takes its title from a short story of the same name in Fleming's Bond anthology, For Your Eyes Only.

An interesting note on Quantum of Solace. . . this, from www.imdb.com: "The producers and writers of Quantum of Solace have stated that the action of the film picks up 'almost an hour after the close of Casino Royale'. They have also said it will be a continuation of the story established in Casino Royale. In this way it can be regarded as a true sequel to Royale and, like that film, is separate in continuity to any of the previous Bond films to come before. While sharing the same continuity of the character, the previous Bond films were more 'stand-alone' adventures of the super spy than sequels that told one ongoing story. It is not clear how long the producers intend to continue this ret-con of Bond films in this manner, but they have already openly stated that they do not intend to re-visit or remake any of the material from the previously released series of Bond films."

Monday, July 28, 2008

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach


(hb; 2008: science/non-fiction)

From the inside flap:

"The study of sexual physiology -- what happens, and why, and how to make it happen better -- has been a paying career or a diverting sideline for scientists as far-ranging as Leonardo da Vinci and James Watson. The research has taken place beind the closed doors of laboratories, brothels, MRI centers, pig farms, sexy toy R&D labs, and Alfred Kinsey's attic.

"Mary Roach. . . devoted the past two years to stepping behind these doors. Can a person think herself to orgasm? Can a dead man get an erection? Is vaginal orgasm a myth? Why doesn't Viagra help women -- or, for that matter, pandas? In Bonk, Roach shows how and why sexual arousal and orgasm -- two of the most complex, delightful, and amazing scientific phenomena on earth -- can be so hard to achieve and what science is doing to slowly make the bedroom a more satisfying place."


Review:

Wry, informative, oh-so-quirky: Roach delves into the world of sexual research (less titillating than one might think), chronicling unexpected -- sometimes disconcerting -- results, social approbation (towards the researchers) over the centuries and decades, and the often unintentionally hilarious situations that come about. Roach is scientific, yet her writing is approachable for those outside the medical/scientific community.

Bonk is worth your time, this. Check it out.