Friday, March 28, 2008

Spiral, by Koji Suzuki

(hb; 1995, 2004: second book in the Ring Cycle; translated by Glynne Walley)

Review:

Spiral picks up twelve hours after Ring. Medical examiner Mitsuo Ando, grieving the accidental drowning of his son a year before (as well as his impending divorce from the boy’s mother), performs an autopsy on Ryuji Takayama, one of Sadako Yamamura’s videotape-curse victims from Ring, and an old medical school rival of Ando’s.

Almost immediately strange things happen: a code, seemingly sent from Ryuji from “beyond the grave”, compels Ando, and later Ando’s friend, Miyashita (an “Assistant Researcher in Pathology”), to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding the odd rash of Sadako-spawned deaths, past and present, that reveal the presence of an evolving strain of a smallpox-like disease.

Spiral is a sly sequel that uses the style and structure of the first book, while reworking its characters and elements to create something that is new. Spiral, on several levels, is an appropriate title for this exemplary follow-up to Ring.

Spiral is not without its faults – or, more precisely, its faulty characterizations. Ando, who initially seems competent and above-average smart, suffers plot-convenient bouts of inconsistent stupidity at key moments. While this is a small nit, it’s certainly a relevant one, because a writer of Suzuki’s caliber needn’t have included that unbelievable defect in Ando – all Suzuki would’ve needed to do was acknowledge, right away, the twist-facts, and then cleverly flip the Obvious Horror Moment script on its head, like he did in the best parts of the two books.

Another possible fault is how far Suzuki stretches the readers’ suspension of disbelief. He talks about genetics, spirituality, and human will – all thematic hallmarks of Ring – and almost seems to take it for granted that the reader will follow his sometimes incredibly-abstract logic to the ends necessary for Spiral to work. Maybe it’s a cultural thing – Japan is more ghost-oriented than America, judging by its horror stylings, and honoring of the past – but at times I found myself thinking: um, okay, that’s really pushing it.

Despite these nits, I was impressed by Spiral. It reminded me of the same feeling that I had when I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street creator Wes Craven’s New Nightmare – while the material wasn’t exactly fresh, its creator (now, in this case, Koji Suzuki) had revamped it, put it in a more expansive frame, and in doing so, had changed the reader/viewer’s sense of the work.

The ending, theme- and tone-wise, is similar to that of Ring, but it isn't a tired rehash – more an evolution. There are a sufficient number of twists and spine-tingling moments to be had in this first sequel to Ring to justify its existence (and a second sequel), and it stays true to the spirit of its initial book with its character-centric brand of fear.

Followed by Loop.

Two movies resulted from Spiral.

Rasen, bearing its source novel's name, was released in Japan on January 31, 1998 - the same release date as Ringu. Koichi Sato played Mitsuo Ando. Miki Nakatani played Mai Takano (reprising her role from Ringu, and later, Ringu 2, which pretended like Rasen never happened). Hinako Saeti played Sadako Yamamura. Shingo Tsurumi played Miyashita. Nanako Matsushima played Reiko Asakawa, seen in Ringu archive footage. Hiroyuki Sanada resumed his role of Ryuji Takayama, first seen in Ringu. Yutaka Mastushige resumed his role of Yoshino, from Ringu. Jojo Iida scripted and directed.

A TV series remake, bearing the same name, aired in Japan on July 1, 1999. It was a sequel to Ringu: Saishuso. Goro Kishitani played Mistuo Ando. Akiko Yada played Mai Takano. Takami Yoshimoto played Natsumi Aihara. Takao Kinoshita and Hiroshi Nishitani co-directed.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

City of Shadows, by Ariana Franklin

(hb; 2006)

From the inside flap:

“...Germany in the 1920s and 1930s – a decadent, turbulent time in which a proud nation scarred by defeat, deprivation, and debauchery will become the fertile breeding ground for the rise of National Socialism.

“Berlin, 1922 – one of this troubled city’s growing number of refugees, Esther Solomonova survives by working as secretary to her fellow Russian emigre, ‘Prince’ Nick, a scheming adventurer and cabaret owner. Always on the prowl for a deal, Nick smells money when he hears of a woman in an asylum claiming to be the grand duchess, daughter of the Czar of all the Russias, who escaped the assassination of the rest of her family by the Bolsheviks. Enlisting a highly suspicious Esther, Nick plans to prepare the woman – known as Anna Anderson – to claim the Romanov fortune.

“But Anna is being hunted. Or so she claims. At first Esther believes Anna’s fear to be just in her imagination – until innocent people around them begin to die. So in a Berlin stricken by hyperinflation, Esther enlists the help of a German police officer – a dogged inspector named Schmidt – to try and find out who wants Anna dead – and why. Yet the deeper she and Schmidt dig, the more they realize that their own lives are at risk.”

Review:

Franklin’s first novel is completely thrillville: it has romance, constant suspense, duplicitous characters, a mounting body count, the rise of Naziism, believable twists, and relatable characters worth rooting for (or hissing at).

Like the better historical thrillers that see the publishing light of day, it also has real-life famous folk, who pass through its pages – met, as it were, as flesh-and-blood people. Franklin populates City of Shadows with Peter Lorre (star of M and other notable films), Hermann Göring (who became Hitler’s “minister of interior” in 1933), Fritz Lang (director of M, Metropolis, and other masterworks), and Adolf Hitler himself.

The finish disappointed me – I’m often not a big fan of semi-cliffhanger finishes – but I can see why Franklin might’ve utilized it. Other than that, City of Shadows is as entrancing and unputdownable as Mistress of the Art of Death, Franklin’s second novel (not related to City).

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ring, by Koji Suzuki

(hb; 1991, 2003: first book in the Ring Cycle; translated by Robert B. Rohmer & Glynne Walley)

From the inside flap:

"Asakawa is a hardworking journalist who has climbed his way up from a local-news beat reporter to a writer for his newspaper's weekly magazine. His one mistake along the way, getting too close to the subject of one of his stories on the occult, still haunts him.

"Never much of a family man, not even his niece's sudden, inexplicable death moves him... until he leanrs that on the night of her death another healthy teenager died in Tokyo at the exact same time of sudden heart failure. Sensing something extraordinary, Asawkawa begins to investigate with the aid of his strange old classmate Ryuji, a cynical philophy professor and a self-proclaimed rapist.

"The two are led from a metropolitan Tokyo that teems with modern society's fears to rural sections of Japan -- a highland resort, a volcanic island and a countryside clinic -- that are haunted by the past. The hunt puts them on the trail of an apocalyptic force that will call for Asakawa to choose between saving his family and saving civilization."

Review:

Suzuki constructs this terrifying tale with crystal clarity, steadily ratcheting up the horror ante, as Kazuyuki Asakawa, a workaholic reporter, and Ryuji Takayama, a philosophy/mathematics professor and Asakawa's morbidly funny friend, pursue the facts relating to a video tape that causes its viewers to die in a mysterious and grisly fashion within seven days of them viewing it. The deeper Asawkawa and Takayama dig into the video tape's history, the more they find themselves immersed in Japan's not-so-distant past -- and a viral, psychic phenomena -- which may just kill Asakawa, Takayama and many more, as well.

Brilliant, scary, full of crazy-effective twists, and sporting a wow-that's-cool unsettling ending (that practically demands a sequel), this is one of the best mainstream horror novels I've read in a long while.

Followed by Spiral.



Ring has been filmed many times.

The first film, Ringu: Kanzen-ban, aired on Japanese television on August 11, 1995. Katsunori Takahashi played Asakawa. Yoshio Harada played Takayama. Ayane Miura played Sadako Yamamura. Mai Tachahara played Shizuko Asakawa, Kazuyuki's wife. Chisui Takigawa directed.



On January 31, 1998, Ringu hit the Japanese silver screen. Directed by Hideo Nakata, it starred Nanako Matsushima as Reiko Asakawa (the now-female cinematic counterpart to Kazuyuki Asakawa). Miki Nakatani played Mai Takano. Hiroyuki Sanada played Ryuji Takayama. Rie Inou played Sadako Yamamura. Hiroshi Takahashi scripted.



Ringu: Saishuso, a Japanese television series, first aired on January 7, 1999. Lasting twelve episodes, the drama -- not a horror series -- is a different take on the Ring story.



On June 10, 1999, Ringu 2 hit the Japanese silver screen. It's strictly a cinematic sequel, mostly using characters created for Ringu. Miki Nakatani returned as Mai Takano, a surviving character from the first film (who was also in the novel). Hitomi Sato, also from the first film, once again played Misami Kurahashi. Hideo Nakata, director of Ringu, directed.



The Ring: Virus, a Korean remake of Ringu, was released on June 12, 1999 in South Korea. Dong-bin Kim, who also scripted the film, directed. Eun-Kyung Shin played Sun-ju. Jin-yeong Jeong played Choi Yeol. Du-na Bae played Eun-suh.



On October 18, 2002, the American remake, The Ring, graced stateside cineplexes. Naomi Watts played Rachel Keller (the female cinematic counterpart to Kazuyuki Asawakawa). Martin Henderson played Noah Clay. David Dorfman played Aidan Keller. Brian Cox played Richard Morgan. Jane Alexander played Dr. Grasnik.  An uncredited Chuck Hicks played a "Ferry Worker".

 Directed by Gore Verbinski, it's a less atmospheric, more linear take on the Ring story.



Following the lead of Ringu 2, The Ring Two (released stateside on March 18, 2005) was less about continuing the ideas of the novel than furthering the storyline of the cinematic characters. Naomi Watts returned to her role of Rachel Keller. Simon Baker played Max Rourke. David Dorfman once again played Aidan Keller. Elizabeth Perkins played Dr. Emma Temple. Gary Cole played Martin Savide. Sissy Spasek played Evelyn. It was directed by Hideo Nakata, director of Ringu and Ringu 2.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

'A' is for Alibi, by Sue Grafton

(hb; 1982: first book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

From the inside flap:

"When Laurence Fife was murdered, few mourned his passing. A prominent divorce attorney with a reputation for single-minded ruthlessness on behalf of his clients, Fife was also rumored to be a dedicated philanderer. Plenty of people in the picturesque Southern California town of Santa Teresa had a reason to want him dead. Including, thought the cops, his young and beautiful wife, Nikki. With motive, access, and opportunity, Nikki was their number-one suspect. The jury thought so, too.

"Eight years later and out on parole, Nikki Fife hires Kinsey Millhone to find out who really killed her late husband.

"A trail that is eight years cold. A trail that raches out to enfold a bitter, wealthy and foul-mouthed old woman and a young boy, born deaf, whose memory cannot be trusted. A trial that leads to a lawyer defensively loyal to a dead partner -- and disarmingly attractive to Millhone; to an ex-wife, brave, lucid, lovely -- and still angry over Fife's betrayal of her; to a not-so-young secretary with too high a salary for too few skills -- and too many debts left owing; The trail twists to include them all, with Millhone following every turn until it finally twists back on itself and she finds herself face-to-face with a killer cunning enough to get away with murder."

Review:

Recounted in the first-person voice of Millhone, a just-the-facts, usually-friendly PI, this is a reader-hooking, blast-through-the-pages mystery. The killer(s) isn't/aren't surprising, but the barebones prose is razor-sharp and the finish is mind-blowing and blunt, in the style of Mickey Spillane.

One of the best new crime writers I've read in a while -- definitely check this writer and series out.

Followed by 'B' is for Burglar.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Do I Come Here Often? by Henry Rollins

(pb; 1996: non-fiction)

From the back cover:

" 'I believe that one defines himself by re-invention. To not be like your parents. To not be like your friends. To be yourself. To cut yourself out of stone.'

"With the addictive intensity, irreverence and humor for which he is renown, Henry Rollins interviews and writes about some of his musical heroes, as well as laying himself bare in his private journals.

"Discover exactly what he thought of Jane's Addiction, Nine Inch Nails and [Johnny Mnemonic co-star] Ice-T as they journeyed across the US together on the 1991 Lollapalooza Tour with the frustration of playing in front of indifferent crowds, dealing with groupies and the daily trials of life on the road. Meet Rollins the music fan, as he explains how David Lee Roth inspired him to get into music, what it was like to interview greats like John Lee Hooker and Isaac Hayes, why Roky Erickson is unlike anyone you will ever meet and what happened the day he met 'Killer' Jerry Lee Lewis.

"Essential reading for both fans and the uninitiated alike."


Review:

Artists largely come into their brilliance by two routes. One route is through cleverness, cutting one-liners or, by extension, collections of well-set-up/well-acted one-liners (think Oscar Wilde or comedian Robin Williams).

The second route is through sheer force of personal expression. It's not an immediate quick-hit high, but a building-up-to-something-great talent/situation. The artist talks sincerely, passionately about something he or she cares about, and as a result of that point-minded passion, something transformative -- dare I utter the phrase real-life magic -- is born.

Rollins has often achieved brilliance via the second route. He's been doing spoken word shows for over twenty-five years, toured and worked musically with various entities and people (largely with Black Flag and Rollins Band), become a compelling writer, and acted (often in a tongue-in-cheek, dark-humored way) in notable films, done TV work (his current talk show, The Henry Rollins Show, is shown on the IFC Channel)... The list goes on and on; the man has been working hard for thirty plus years on various media fronts, with no sign of letting up.

This is one of Rollins finer efforts. Never mind the raging, often-awkward (but undeniably honest) poetry he started off publishing (on his 2.13.61 label) years ago, this is "the sh*t," as it's said these days. The date of the writings extend from "2.13.87" (Rollins' twenty-sixth birthday, privately -- now publicly -- recounted in the journal-essay "Happy Birthday") to 1996, when he went to Grenada, Spain to play an equipment-flawed gig (the aural feedback on the speakers was horrendous). In this book-final essay Rollins ruminates about the hell of flying in commercial airplanes, the joys of working with filmmaker David Lynch (Rollins had a role in Lynch's Lost Highway), the paranoia of ex-bandmate Greg "the Ginn" Ginn, his love of the Addams Family, and the crappiness of certain musicians (namely Sting and The Offspring, whom Rollins describes as "this weak band playing this cute, pale imitation of fifteen year old music").

Worth your time, this. You may not agree with everything Rollins says, but the force and plain-spoken charm of his words cannot honestly be denied.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Ripley Under Water, by Patricia Highsmith

(hb; 1991: fifth novel in the Ripley series)

From the back cover:

"Though his talent for evil has in no way diminished, Tom Ripley has aged, even mellowed. Now leading the good life in the French countryside, complete with chic wife and devoted housekeeper, he is more interested in his wine stores than the bloodstains on his cellar floor.

"Then a meddlesome American couple takes up residence in the same village. Though at first the Pritchards seem a mere curiosity, their taste as execrable as their manners, they are annoyingly well informed about incidents in Ripley's past and almsot smug about flaunting their knowledge. This, of course, disturbs the tranquility of the charmed, cultured life for which Tom has worked so hard, and he has no choice but to bedevil the Pritchards in return..."


Review:

The fifth and final Ripley novel, a follow-up to The Boy Who Followed Ripley, showcases Highsmith's quiet flair for macabre wit -- easily my favorite novel in the Ripley series. It's devious, semi-ironic (given Ripley's reputation for murder, and some of the situations that arise from the Pritchards' presence), and positively warm -- the last phrase one would not usually apply to a Ripley book. Yes, Ripley has "mellowed," is damn near effervescent towards people as he tries to figure out exactly who David and Janice Pritchard are, and why they, initially total strangers, are stalking him.

Helping Ripley are his English friends and partners in the Buckmaster (art) Gallery, Jeff Constant and Ed Banbury (who were first introduced to readers in Ripley Under Ground). Reeves Minot, Ripley's other, separate partner-in-crime, gets a mention here, but is largely absent. Highsmith also includes other minor characters from the four previous books, and liberally infuses Ripley's last storyline with recaps from the past, as well as a corpse that just may sink Ripley, if he doesn't act quickly.

Readers who haven't read the earlier Ripley novels need not do so to enjoy this delightful wrap-up -- and best book -- of the series. It does increase one's enjoyment of the darkly funny drama, however.

If you only read one Ripley book, read this one. Career-apex work, this.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Build My Gallows High, by Geoffrey Homes

(pb; 1946)

From the back cover:

"Retired private eye, Red Bailey, is finally happy in Nevada, spending most of this time fishing and tending his out-of-the-way gas station. Then his past returns to haunt him. Blackmailed into doing just one more job, he is forced to revisit the life from which he had flown. And in particular a woman from his past: the seductive Mumsie McGonigle. Red Bailey soon discovers that the whole affair is a set-up -- a trap laid just for him with little or no way out."

Review:

This is one of the leanest, sharpest pulp novels I have read. The characters are deftly (but thoroughly) sketched, the twists are effective and fast, and the sense of doom -- not only Red's -- is constantly remarked upon by the characters, and confirmed by the mounting number of corpses, as well as the clearly-defined divisions of light and dark (in the novel's oh-so-cinematic scenes). It's a fast read, a 153-page black-humored gem, well worth your time.

#

Build My Gallows High has been filmed twice, under different titles.

The first film, Out of the Past, lensed in 1946 and released on November 13, 1947, was scripted by Daniel Mainwaring, who wrote the novel under another name, Geoffrey Homes.

 Robert Mitchum played Jeff Markham (the cinematic counterpart to Peter "Red" Markham). Jane Greer played Kathie (the cinematic counterpart to femme fatale Mumsie McGonigle). Kirk Douglas played Whit Sterling. Rhonda Fleming played Meta Carson. Richard Webb played Jim. Virginia Huston played Ann.

 Directed by the consistently-great Jacques Tourneur, it's considered one of the best noir films made.

#

The second film, a remake called Against All Odds, hit the silver screen on March 2, 1984. Loosely based on Daniel Mainwaring's 1946 script, it was co-scripted by Eric Hughes. Taylor Hackford directed.

Jeff Bridges played Terry Brogan (the cinematic counterpart to Peter "Red" Markham). Rachel Ward played Jessie Wyler (the cinematic counterpart to Mumsie McGonigle). James Woods played Jake Wise (the cinematic counterpart to Whit Sterling).

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Everfree, by Nick Sagan

(hb; 2006)

From the inside flap:

"A small group of humans has survived the apocalyptic epidemic called Black Ep, a disease that ravaged the world and left them alone on Earth. The survivors gradually awaken others, who have been put into a state of frozen sleep to await a future when disease might be cured. At first, everyone agrees on the basics: We're lucky to be alive. We're all in this together. Let's look out for each other and build a better world.

"But inevitably, as more sleepers are roused, there are those who disagree. People who remember power are waking up to a new world, and they do not intend to wait their turn politely. And from very far off indeed, one more surprise awaits the survivors -- a shock that will transform the future for everyone in this post-plague, perhaps even post-human, world."

Review:

A few years after the happenings of Edenborn, the six surviving post-humans (Vashti, Champagne, Isaac, Pandora, Halloween and the largely-absent Fantasia) are still working to revive the cryogenic human sleepers (dubbed "Popsicles" by the post-humans) and create a society for the humans that will evolve into a more permanently-structured society -- a society that humans run, without too much help from the post-humans.

Inevitably, there are attempted coups and political factionings by the humans, and other threats -- crazy and unforseen -- that threaten the tremulous balance of this uncertain new world.

Everfree is as humorous, exciting and unputdownable as Sagan's two previous books, Idlewild and Edenborn, evolving the characters, and wrapping up pertinent plot points, while leaving room for future ones -- much like life itself, if one views life as a story.

Stunning series, this. Check it out.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Pentecost Alley, by Anne Perry

(hb; 1996: sixteenth book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the inside flap:

"The ritual murder of a prostitute named Ada McKinley in a bedroom on decrepit Pentecost Alley would ordinarily occasion no stir in Victoria's great metropolis. But under the victim's body the police find a Hellfire Club badge inscribed with the name Finlay Fitzjames -- a name that instantly draws Superintendent Thomas Pitt into the case.

"Finlay's father -- immensely wealthy, powerful, and dangerous -- refuses to consider the possibility that his son has been in Ada McKinley's bed. The implication is clear: Pitt is to arrest someone other than Finlay Fitzjames for Ada's demise.

"But Thomas Pitt is not a man to be intimidated, and with the help of his quick-witted wife, Charlotte, and her well-connected friends, he stubbornly pursues his investigation -- one that twists and turns like London's own ancient streets."

Review:

1890. Two months after the treacheries and murders of Traitors Gate, Pitt finds himself working a new, different, but just as difficult case. It's not the Inner Circle -- that group of wealthy, influential, and sometimes corrupt men who hold sway over politics and society -- that Pitt has to fear, but Augustus Fitzjames, Finlay's influential and rich father, and the general public (at one point Pitt comes close to being lynched by a pub full of misguided drunks). With no new clues immediately forthcoming, it appears that the case -- which may involve the possible, wrongful hanging of an innocent man -- things aren't looking very good for Pitt and the police.

Aiding Pitt in his case, of course, is his wife, Charlotte, and Emily, Charlotte's sister (who's feeling discontented and disconnected from friends and family -- everyone's so busy these days). In a more political fashion, Jack Radley (Emily's Parliament-member husband) and Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould (Charlotte and Emily's great-aunt by marriage) are working their bits, as well.

As in the better novels of the Pitt series, Perry mixes up the elements -- shifting the prominence of certain background characters from one novel to another; varying the numbers of plot shocks and twists; changing up the crimes, their M.O.s, and their areas; alternating between violent and quiet denouements. Perry does this here, and once again comes out with another excellent, explosive entry.

There's not a lot of twists in this one, but the ones that are there are effective. The killer/s isn't/aren't easily seen -- at least, Perry kept this reader re-assessing who the killer (or killers) might be -- and the ending, like most of the other Pitt novel finishes, is a pulse-racing stunner.

This series keeps getting better and better. Check it out.

Followed by Ashworth Hall.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Goon, by Edward Lee & John Pelan

(pb; 1996)

Review:

The story: Captain Phillip Straker, a member of the Violent Crimes Police Unit, and Melinda Pierce, a reporter posing as a ringrat (a wrestling groupie), are tracking a prolific serial killer who has sex with, and partially devours his (or her) victims. The crimes seem to be tied to one particular suspect -- the titular, mysterious, always-masked Goon, a wrestler in the DSWC (Deep South Wrestling Conference) who easily could be making more money in big-time wrestling, the WWF or WCW. As Straker and Pierce get closer to closing the case, however, new clues emerge that suggest there's more going on than initially meets the eye.

This gross-out of a novella is a hoot to read. It's less a horror story than an unrepentantly sexual tract, not written to titillate but to amuse, with its tasteless over-the-top X-rated debaucheries (many of their descriptions uttered by some disgusting and wildly verbose characters). Writing-wise, it reads like the bastard child of Robert Devereaux's Santa Steps Out and Lucifer Fulci's Siki City (both of which were published after Goon was published). The comparison to Devereaux's Santa stems from the well-edited, fast-dashing storyline; the comparison to Fulci's Siki City stems from Lee and Pelan's gleeful, unrestrained sidetracks into lurid carnality.

Lee and Pelan maintain an addictive balance between these disparate elements, set in the surreal, low-brow world of small-time, regional conference wrestling. They then top it off with some tasty twists, the biggest one not unexpected, but solid, followed by a few smaller, inspired ones.

Highly recommended, this, if you have a strong stomach and a nasty sense of humor (in regards to sex-mocking smut). Like much of Lee's work, this would make a great B-movie.