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).

<em>Phantom</em> by Jo Nesbø

(hb;  2011, 2012: ninth novel in the Inspector Harry Hole series. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett .) From the back cover...