Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Book of Reuben, by Tabitha King

(hb; 1994)

From the inside flap:

"In a decade shadowed by the draft and the war in Vietnam, Reuben is a raw-boned, determined teenager whose ideas of romance have been shaped by the songs of his generation and whose dreams seem well within his reach despite the death of his tyrannical father. He tries to do everything right according to the standard American success story -- but life is not a straight line for him. He stars in high school sports, but has to abandon his athletic ambitions to go to work. He labors hard at the local filling station and works his way up to buying it, but is frustrated by obstacles in his way. He meets a rich and beautiful older woman who takes him into her bed, and has the misfortune to witness her child's mysterious murder. He marries his childhood sweetheart, and finds himself on a battleground that lies between desire and responsibility.

"While nothing turns out as Reuben expects, his incredible spirit and core of strength, his refusal to break down or cave in, is evidenced by his readiness to love again after he meets the beautiful Pearl. And his struggle to become the person he had envisioned gives insight into what it costs him to become a man in a world he never made but learns to accept."


This is a heartbreaker and a charmer of a novel. It's a heartbreaker because of the bad breaks that Reuben (and by extension, Reuben's other characters) endure, but, which, in King's sure narrative, sweeten the novel's (i.e., life's) compensative everyday miracles.

It's a charmer because of not only how King handles the story, detailing the characters' lives to the extent that the reader cares, becomes immersed in (as I did), their daily and emotional states, but because of the complexity of the characters. Reuben, a life-thwarted professional athlete and mechanic, is sincere and emotionally awkward; David, son of the widow Reuben becomes a lover of, is an adolescent rich-spoiled vandal, but he's also kind and sensitive to others; Sixtus, the owner of the auto shop Reuben hopes to buy, is cranky as all aged hell, but is surreptitiously caring; even Laura, Reuben's ball-busting cult-crazed wife, isn't completely villainous -- she's bad, but there's legitimate reasons why her sense of tenderness goes dangerously awry.

King seamlessly imbues the characters' lives with small details from the outside world -- e.g., the Vietnam War and its attendant political-social views, evolving tastes in music and drugs, attitudes towards sex (which really don't seem to change all that much).

This is a perfect novel -- no end-flaws (like those in King's mostly-excellent Survivor), and worth owning.

Side-note: story-wise, Reuben follows two other novels from King's Nodd's Ridge series: Caretakers (which features Reuben's Joe Nevers as a younger man) and Pearl (which features Pearl Dickenson from Reuben). One on One, a story-overlapping sequel to Reuben, was published the year before Reuben was.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

North Dallas Forty, by Peter Gent

(pb; 1973)

From the back cover:

"Eight days in the life of a pro-football player. Eight days of savagery, pain, drugs, drinking, laughter and raunchy sex, and haunting love between a man and a woman... Eight days that take you into the heart of a man, a team, a sport, a game and the raw power and violence that is America itself. The author, Peter Gent, former offensive for the Dallas Cowboys, has emerged as an astounding writing talent."


Laugh out loud funny in some parts, sad in others, this dark comedy is a roller-coaster ride of Dantean proportions. It's not just another football book: it's a written-from-the-gut, inside look at a sport and a country that's troubling, compromised (by power-brokers, money men and players alike) and often admirable.

The ending is one of the most shocking I've ever read. I still get upset when I think about it, all the while applauding Gent's galvanizing finish.

By all means, check it out. Avoid the lackluster book sequel, North Dallas After Forty, which posssessed none of the power and realism of the original novel.

The film version was released stateside on August 3, 1979.

Nick Nolte played Phillip Elliott. Mac Davis played Seth Maxwell. Charles Durning played Coach Johnson. Dayle Haddon played Charlotte Caulder. Bo Svenson played Jo Bob Priddy. John Matuszak played O.W. Shaddock. Dabney Coleman played Emmett Hunter.

Ted Kotcheff directed the film, from a script by Peter Gent, Nancy Dowd (uncredited) and Rich Eustis.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Hyde Park Headsman, by Anne Perry

(hb; 1994: fourteenth book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)


Spring, 1890: eighteen months after the arsons of Highgate Rise, and the unsolved Whitechapel murders, Thomas Pitt is now Superintendent of the Bow Street station. Uncomfortable with his new position -- he's used to working the streets, not politicking or doling out orders to other inspectors from behind a desk -- new pressures are brought to bear on Pitt from all sides, when several unrelated citizens are found beheaded. Threats of demotion from hypocritical -- and more importantly, Inner Circle-associated -- superiors are overshadowed by death threats from pimps who are losing "trade" money because of terrified customers, who won't go near Hyde Park, where all the bodies have been found.

(The Inner Circle, for Pitt-uninitiated readers of this review, is a group of rich, positioned and influential men in government who have formed a society that encourages sometimes-morally dubious favors among its members. Pitt, like anyone who is not a member of the Inner Circle, is viewed as a possible threat to the Circle.)

Once again, Pitt has help: his wife, Charlotte, who's hard-pressed to find ways to aid him; Great-aunt Vespasia Cumming-Gould, Charlotte and Emily's great-aunt by marriage; the Pitts' maid, Gracie, now eighteen years old and headstrong. And, of course, Emily Radley, Charlotte's sister, who now has two children: seven-year old Edward (from Emily's marriage to George Ashworth, which came to a fatal end in Cardington Crescent) and Evangeline, aka "Evie", less than a year old and born after the last Pitt mystery, Farriers' Lane.

Other things are happening, too: Jack Radley, Emily's husband, is making a second, hotly-contested run for a Parliament seat. Caroline Ellison, Charlotte and Emily's once-socially "proper" mother, is having a love affair with a younger -- Jewish -- actor, Joshua Fielding (who first appeared in Farriers' Lane).

If all this sounds soap opera-ish, it's not. Perry's era-consistent, character-based writing keeps things interesting, in a fast-paced way. Fourteen books into the Pitt series, Perry has managed to keep the books fresh and exciting, while building on the characters and themes (murder, social scandal) that were birthed in the first books. Additionally, Perry has kept the later books accessible to new readers who may not have read earlier books, because Perry provides ADD-quick backstories in these mysteries.

The endings to Pitt mysteries usually fall into one of two categories: Shocking and Dramatic, and Effectively Understated and Melancholy. The ending to Hyde manages to be both.

Another excellent entry, well worth your time.

Followed by Traitors Gate.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Idlewild, by Nick Sagan

(hb; 2003)


A young man -- who quickly discovers his name is Halloween, and he's a in strange place where disembodied voices and crazy hallucinations run amuk -- works through various onion-layers of "reality" to discover who's trying to kill him. Is it one of his eight classmates, who, like him, have a virtual instructor (Maestro), who seems to becoming increasingly hostile? Or is it Maestro himself? And who is that gray human-shaped phantom who flickers in and out of his reality?

Sagan ably cuts between two storylines: the first one, where Halloween is not only puzzling out the mystery of his and his classmates' circumstances, but the identity of a murderer, whom everybody claims doesn't exist; and the second, where a group of scientists are trying to outrace a pandemic disease (Black Ep) which has a hundred-percent mortality rate, and will certainly wipe out the human race. The two storylines, cleverly woven around each other and full of brainy quips, are suspenseful, with a denouement that ends one chapter of what promises to be a Matrix-style (but better, if Idlewild is any indication) epic trilogy.

Fun, informative (it's full of weird story-enhancing facts), quick-moving and engrossing, this is one of the best science fiction books I've read in a while. Highly recommended, this.

Followed by Edenborn.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, by Melissa Bank

(hb; 1999)


This (mostly) well-written book focuses on "Jane," whose first-person narrative traces her love life from childhood to her early thirties. The tone of the book is warm, intimate, and full of details that enrich and make up our lives; however, Bank's propensity for neurotic Woody Allen-style humor turned me off. It's a fast read -- a saving grace -- but in no way memorable. If you like Woody Allen's humor, check it out.


The resulting theatrical film, Suburban Girl, got wide release stateside on October 31, 2007. Marc Klein scripted and directed the film, based on two stories from Bank's book, namely "My Old Man" and "The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine".

Sarah Michelle Gellar played Brett Eisenberg. Alec Baldwin played Archie Knox. Maggie Grace played Chloe.

James Naughton played Robert Eisenberg. Jill Eikenberry played Marlene Eisenberg. Peter Scolari played Mickey Lamm.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Inkspell, by Cornelia Funke

(hb; 2005: second book in the Inkheart trilogy. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell)

From the inside flap:

"Although a year has passed, not a day goes by without Meggie thinking of Inkheart, the book whose characters came to life -- and changed her life forever.

"But for Dustfinger, the fire-eater brought into being from words, the need to return to the original tale has become desperate. When he finds a crooked storyteller with a magical ability to read him back, Dustfinger leaves behind his young apprentice Farid and plunges into the medieval inkscape once more.

"Distraught, Farid goes in search of Meggie, and before long both are caught inside the book, too. There they meet Inkheart's author, Fenoglio, now living within his own story. But the tale is much changed, and threatening to evolve in ways none of them could ever have imagined. Will Meggie, Farid, and Fenoglio manage to write the wrongs of a charmed world? Or is their story on the brink of a very bad ending?"


The second book in the Inkheart trilogy is a worthy sequel to Inkheart. Set mostly in Inkworld, an alternate realm created by the writer Fenoglio, it has all the excitement, pathos and great characters -- plus new ones: the Black Prince (with his attendant black bear) and Jink, another horned marten, are especially fun. Inkspell's downfalls are that the few plot-twists it contains are too obvious (not that Inkheart's twists weren't obvious, at least to an adult reader, but they weren't annoying like those in Inkspell), and that certain characters (especially Fenoglio) occasionally suffer from uncharacteristic plot-convenient bouts of stupidity.

But these are minor complaints. Ninety-nine percent of this story and its characters thrill, its pacing is flawless, and it ends at a solid, pseudo-cliffhanger transition point, that undoubtedly will leave most readers eagerly awaiting the third novel, Inkdawn, which is set for Stateside publication sometime this year (probably about the time that the Inkheart movie comes out).

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Kill Riff, by David J. Schow

(pb; 1988)

From the back cover:

"Lucas Ellington's daughter is dead, trampled by an out-of-control mob at a rock concert turned riot. There was no trial, but Lucas has identified the murderers -- the band, Whip Hand.

"Two of Gabriel Stannard's old bandmates are dead. Whip Hand's former lead singer knows who killed them. Stannard will not be a passive target..."


Adrenalated, excellent novel, this. The familiar storyline gets a boost from Schow's metal-edgy well-paced writing, characters who ring veracious (that's saying a lot, considering how crazy-violent a few of the characters are), explosive twists, and the underlying message regarding societal and media responsibilities -- a given, considering that this is set in the late-Eighties milieu. (Do yourself a favor, and read Schow's one-paragraph Foreward: it's a smart hoot.)

This is not a tale for the faint-of-heart. The violence and several of the characters are over-the-top and vivid (particularly: Lucas Ellington, the grief-enraged Vietnam-vet father; Gabriel Stannard, the macho rocker who opts to face Ellington, on his terms, not Ellington's; Cannibal Rex [aka, Martin Killough Beecher, Stannard's younger, ferocious, Kerry King-like guitarist]).

The milder, more "normal" characters, who provide balance to this crazed tale, are interesting, too: there's Sertha Valich, Stannard's ex-model live-in lover; Sara, Lucas's doctor, who just might be in love with Lucas; Horus, Stannard's Zen-infused, death-ready bodyguard (he reminded me of Common's character, Sir Ivy, from the movie Smokin' Aces); Cass, an ex-boyfriend-battered young woman who takes shelter with Lucas in his mountain cabin; and Burt Kroeger, Lucas's level-headed friend and PR business partner (who's also a war vet).

Exciting horror/action novel, worth owning -- especially recommended for book worm metalheads.

<em>Mother Night</em> by Kurt Vonnegut

(pb; 1961) From the back cover “ Mother Night is a daring challenge to our moral sense. American Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a spy du...