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."


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.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Scavenger, by David Morrell

(hb; 2007)

From the inside flap:

"Scavenger, Morrell's latest novel, takes us in a harrowing new direction -- a desperate high-tech scavenger hunt for a 100-year time capsule. Frank Balenger, the resolute but damaged hero of Creepers, now finds himself trapped in a nightmarish game of fear and death. To save himself and the woman he loves, he must play by the rules of a god-like Game Master with an obsession for unearthing the past. But sometimes the past is buried for a reason."


Scavenger is notably different than its prequel, Creepers. While it has all the template elements of its prequel -- a madman with illusions of grandeur, worthy adversaries and challenging traps/obstacles, and a hero (Balenger) trying to rescue his lady (this time its Amanda Evert, another survivor from Creepers), and unexpected plot corkscrews -- it's a weirdly altered beast. For one, the playing field isn't limited to a booby-trapped hotel, it's a mountainous valley; also, Balenger, an American veteran of both Iraq wars, is less traumatized by his PTSD (Post Tramatic Stress Disorder) this time out. Additionally, another, larger element dominates the tale: online gaming, specifically the type called "first-person shooter". Initially an odd element, it rapidly becomes integral to the storyline, as Balenger (and the other characters) fight and intuit their way through the Game Master's life-threatening "levels".

Not your average thriller, this is an excellent follow-up to Creepers. Make sure you check your expectations in at the door; you're not likely to be disappointed if you do.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Small g: A Summer Idyll by Patricia Highsmith

(hb; 1995)

From the inside flap:

"...The story opens. . . with the brutal murder of Petey Ritter. The story picks up six months later at Jakob's, a louche Zurich bar designated in guide books as a 'small g' for its mixture of gay, straight, and bisexual clientele. The bar is home to a small circle of friends; chief among them is Rickie Markwalder, Petey's former lover, who was initially suspected of the murder. Rickie and his dancing dog, Lulu, hold court at Jakob's with the club-footed Renate Hagnauer, a possessive seamstress who finds herself attracted to the very gay men she loathes, and her beautiful apprentice Luisa Zimmerman. The tenuous balance of this incongruous group is broken on the day that the impressionable and handsome Teddie Stevenson arrives. Luisa and Rickie both fall in love with him -- but Renate and her henchman, Willi Biber, conspire to break Teddie's spell by force. Renate in turn becomes the subject of a counter-conspiracy hatched by Rickie and Luisa involving a woman to whom Luisa finds herself strongly attracted, Dorrie Wyss, with unexpected results."


Fans of Highsmith's word-economical, chilly tone of Ripley novels may be put off this odd sidestep of a final novel (Highsmith died in 1995, a few months after she finished writing it). Small g is perfectly titled, and reads like a chatty evening -- or a series of them -- out with drunk, usually happy friends. It's also somewhat unpredictable and quirkily crazy. The ending is at once sublime, emotionally satisfying and logical.

Small g  is worth checking out, if you're not turned off by Highsmith's last experimental turn and enjoy summer-set books.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Creepers, by David Morrell

(pb; 2005)

From the back cover:

"On a cold October night, five people gather in a run-down motel on the Jersey shore and prepare to break into the Paragon Hotel. The once-magnificent structure is now boarded up and marked for demolition.

"They are 'creepers': urban explorers with a passion for investigating abandoned buildings and their dying secrets. Reporter Frank Balenger joins them to profile this highly illegal activity for the New York Times. But he isn't looking for just another story, and soon after they enter the rat-infested tunnel leading to the hotel, he gets more than he bargained for. Danger, fear, and death await the creepers in a place ravaged by time and redolent of evil."


Morrell is one of the best living, working action writers around. Creepers is further proof of that thrilling truth: it's got all the elements an action novel needs, and more -- an unpredictable plot (I initially thought this was going to be a spookhouse work... it briefly, effectively read as one); fully-realized characters worth caring about or hissing at; non-stop, twist-punctuated action and motives; and an ending that lives up to its adrenalized lead-up.

By all means, own this novel.

This needs to be made into a theatrical film. It has all the hallmarks of a potential cinematic classic.

Followed by Scavenger.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Brunswick Gardens, by Anne Perry

(hb; 1998: eighteenth book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the inside flap:

"A century ago, Charles Darwin's revolutionary theory of evolution rocked the civilized world, and the outraged Anglican church went on the warpath against it. In a mansion in London's affluent Brunswick Gardens, the battle is intense, as that most respected clergyman, the Reverend Ramsay Parmenter, is boldly challenged by his beautiful new assistant, Unity Bellwood -- a 'new woman' whose feminism and aggressive Darwinism he finds appalling.

"When Unity, three months pregnant, tumbles down the Parmenter's staircase to her death, Thomas Pitt, commander of the Bow Street police station, is virtually certain that one of the three devout men in the house committed the murder. Could it have been the Reverend Parmenter, his handsome curate, or his Roman Catholic son? Powerful forces demand that the scandalous matter be cleared up immediately. But Pitt and his clever wife, Charlotte, refuse to settle for less than the truth... and justice."


February 1891. Five months after the Ashworth Hall murder, Superintendant Thomas Pitt of Scotland Yard, and his wife, Charlotte -- in an unofficial capacity -- are investigating the death of a progressive, sharp-tongued woman in a house teeming with conflicting religious faiths. Did Reverend Ramsay Parmenter, Anglican clergyman and intellectual who often, loudly quarreled with Unity, push her down the stairs? Or was it Mallory, Ramsay's socially-maladaptive, seething, Catholic-faithed son? Or was it Dominic Corde, priest-in-training (aka, curate), who first appeared in the Pitt series as the badly-behaved widower of Charlotte's sister, Sarah (in The Cater Street Hangman)?

The Pitts, as usual, are resolved to finding the killer, or killers. But this time there's an internal conflict -- Thomas is still distrustful and slightly jealous of Dominic (who once was the object of Charlotte's unrealized adolescent fancies). Charlotte, content and true in her marriage to Thomas, is in turmoil, also, with the unpleasant awareness of past sins -- some of them committed by her, in the semi-crazy blush of youth.

Perry also freshens her effective mystery formula by showing Dominic Corde's third-person perspective. This more or less clears him of being the killer (in his own mind), but it makes the story more interesting to see another character's viewpoint -- author Perry has used third-party perspective before, but rarely are these third-party points of view given so much free rein, word-wise.

I spotted the killer/s almost instantly, but that's partly because I'm cynical, and I read a lot of mystery novels. That didn't spoil the read for me, though, as it's always a delight to spend time with the Pitts and those in their personal circle.

The novel runs a little long about three-quarter of the way in, but the last quarter of Brunswick Gardens -- interesting, and deeply personal -- makes up for that.

Check the series out.

Followed by Bedford Square.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Hell Is Too Crowded, by Jack Higgins

(pb; 1962)

From the back cover:

"It all seemed to be chance...

"The face swimming at him out of the fog.
The strange young woman appearing suddenly.
The invitation to her flat. The offer of a drink.
The drink was the last thing Matt Brady remembered.

"When he woke, the police were swarming about -- and the body of the girl was lying near him on the floor. Of course, they did not believe his story. He was charged with murder and sent to prison for life.

"There were few prisons strong enough to hold Matt Brady. And Matt knew he had to break out of this one fast. He had to find out the truth behind this bizarre nightmare. Who wanted to frame him? Who wanted him out of the way?

"All he remembered was a face in the fog, a half-remembered face that was his only link with sanity..."


Lean, hard-to-put-down noiresque/action novel that grabs you from the first word, and doesn't let up. Higgins's story is fast-moving and straight-forward, with a few plot-tasty twists that keep with noir standards. It doesn't stand out, storywise, but Higgins's exemplary writing renders that point moot -- Matt Brody, much like Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, is a perfect noir creation: pissed-off, smart, driven, and violent (or roughly tender) at the right moments.

Worth your time, great for an afternoon read. Excellent B-movie material, in the right cinematic hands.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Derik's Bane, by MaryJanice Davidson

(pb; 2005)

From the back cover:

"It's always good to have a psychic around -- except when she tells you the world will soon end unless you do something about it. For werewolf Derik Gardner, 'doing something about it' means heading to sunny California and destroying the reincarnation of possibly the most powerful sorceress in history: Morgan Le Fay.

"But the beautiful -- and slightly ditzy -- Dr. Sara Gunn has no idea that she is Morgan Le Fay. Her masses of wild red curls and crystal blue eyes make knocking her off an unpleasant prospect for Derik... and his half-hearted attempts don't meet with much success. So if he can't kill Sara, he'll join her, on a cross-country odyssey to change her fate, confront a medieval evil -- and get a little something on the side."


This "paranormal romance" has most of elements of a screwball comedy: lively, on-target banter between its quirky couple (a fiery female sorceress, laid-back male werewolf), and plenty of slapstick silliness.

There's one notable flaw in this otherwise fun beach read: two explicit, genre-stipulated(?), non-humorous sex scenes that threaten to upset the mainstream tone of the rest of the book. The first sex scene is built up to -- the lead characters are hot for each other, as the reader is constantly reminded -- so that's kind of understandable, even if it runs too long. But the second, running about a page (like the first sex scene), is too explicit for such a comic-minded romance, unless Davidson wanted to cause her readers to roll their eyes at Derik and Sara's cliched passion.

Aside from those pesky sex scenes, this is a good read. Not one worth owning, but worth borrowing, provided you can justify occasional story-jarring, generic-explicit sex.

[**Two prequel "Wyndam Werewolf Tales" for interested readers to check out: "Love's Prisoner" (from Secrets Volume 6), and "Jared's Wolf" (from Secrets Volume 8). I haven't read them, but Derik's Bane contained blurb-listings for them.]

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Ruins, by Scott Smith

(pb; 2006)

From the back cover:

"Two young couples are on a lazy Mexican vacation -- sun-drenched days, wild nights, making friends with fellow tourists. When the brother of one of those friends disappears, they decide to venture into the jungle to look for him. What started out as a fun day trip slowly spirals into a nightmare when they find an ancient ruins site... and a terrifying presence that lurks there."


Smith has crafted an excellent, creepy novel that steadily ratchets up the terror factor. His characters' quirks, flaws, and interaction ring true and intense; clearly, Smith built the tale around the characters, who become as familiar to the reader as one's friends or family.

Now, if only Smith had put the same thoughtfulness and energy into creating an ending that was as interesting or intense as his characters. While logical, this horror-cliche ending is predictable and lazy compared to the rest of the book. It didn't exactly ruin the dark joy of reading what came before it, but it did make me want to pass it on to a fellow horror aficionado rather than keep it.

Worth reading, despite that minor end-flaw.

The Ruins hit the American silver screen on April 4, 2008. Jonathan Tucker played Jeff Mcintire. Jena Malone played Amy. Laura Ramsey played Stacy. Shawn Ashmore played Eric. Joe Anderson played Mathias. Carter Smith directed the film, from a script by author Scott Smith.

<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...