Saturday, June 28, 2008

'E' is for Evidence, by Sue Grafton

(pb; 1988: fifth book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

From the back cover:

" 'E' is for evidence: evidence planted, evidence lost. 'E' is for ex-lovers and evasions, enemies and endings. For Kinsey 'E' is for everything she stands to lose if she can't exonerate herself: her license, her livelihood, her good name. And she takes on a new client: namely, Kinsey Millhone, thirty-two and twice divorced, ex-cop and wisecracking loner, a California private investigator with a penchant for lost causes -- one of which, it is to be hoped, is not herself."

Review:

Grafton shuffles her trademark structures and plot elements in the fifth Kinsey Millhone novel. Millone's first-person, practical narrative is still present, but most everything else is reworked -- many regular characters aren't around (Henry Pitt, Millhone's landlord, for one), and other people from Millhone's past (e.g., her second ex-husband, junkie-musician Daniel) make appearances; also, the stiffs (dead bodies) don't start popping up until the middle of the book. The bad guys are easily spotted, but that's not a big deal, as Grafton, true to form, keeps the tale taut and the finish personal and explosive.

Another winner from Grafton, who consistently thrills.

Followed by 'F' is for Fugitive.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Survival... Zero, by Mickey Spillane

(pb; 1970)

When Mike Hammer's childhood friend, Lipton "Lippy" Sullivan, is gutted with a switchblade in his ghetto apartment, Hammer investigates why. Lippy, an all-around nice guy, didn't seem to have an enemy in the world: so why was he killed in such a nasty way?

The scope of Hammer's investigation quickly expands when other, lesser-known facets of Lippy's life become known, and a strange death on the subway -- the stiff appears to have been poisoned by nerve gas -- become incorporated into Hammer's investigative efforts. Once again, Velda (Hammer's street-savvy girlfriend) and Pat Chambers (Hammer's longtime police Captain friend) are along for the tough-guy ride, as well as new characters -- Woody Ballinger (a powerful local gangster), Heidi Anders (a heroin-hooked actress), William Dorn (a big-shot businessman) and Renee Talmage (Dorn's business associate-secretary).

Explosive, slick, and chock full of sex and violence, the stakes are higher than ever as Hammer runs down Lippy's killer, and other bad guys. The ending is action-packed and deliciously sadistic.

Highly recommended, this, as are other Hammer thrillers.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Trap, by Tabitha King

(hb; 1985)

From the inside flap:

"Olivia and Pat [Russell] appear to be the perfect couple. They are young, seemingly devoted, with two beautiful children and fulfilling careers -- she as a gifted artist, he as a promising screenwriter. But now, Liv's marriage is coming apart, and she does not quite know why. She has become a prisoner to her husband's ambitions and her wifely responsibilities. She is being forced to choose between the only way of life she loves and feels secure in, and one that appears alien and threatening -- with a husband she feels she no longer knows.

"To think, and to heal herself, she goes with her young son in the dead of winter to their family cottage in a now-deserted Maine summer community. It is there, in the one place Liv has always felt safe, that brutality and cruelty come into her life. Three young hoodlums, on a vicious treasure hunt through empty vacation houses, have discovered their ultimate prize -- and they have her trapped. And Liv, horrifying alone, suddenly realizes that the evil in our society is never far beneath the surface, waiting to erupt. To save her own life, and that of her son, she begins a desperate race against time to find within herself the strength, and the means, to thrwart her tormentors and escape."

Review:

This tangential tale in the Nodd's Ridge series is an improvement on Caretakers, the Nodd's Ridge novel that preceded The Trap. There's no middle sag, or feels-forced finish to this one, like there was in Caretakers. (Chronologically, the events in The Trap take place a year after Joe Nevers's death in Caretakers, which makes The Trap the third novel in the Nodd's Ridge timeline, just after Pearl.)

This is a good read, with relatable (or hiss-worthy) characters, believable action, and skillful writing. I'd been wary about reading this, because of my aversion to reading novels with sexual torture/rape scenes, and a dislike of hostage-situation mindf**k dramas, and King's writing quickly dispelled any reservations I'd had regarding the above elements: in the two brief rape scenes, King's prose was brief and somewhat blurred, compared to other scenes in the novel; and the hostage-situation mindf**k drama was kept to a minimum, as well.

[Note: For those readers wondering what happens to Olivia "Liv" Russell after the traumas of The Trap, read Pearl. Though Pearl is technically the second novel in the Nodd's Ridge series, it was actually written and published three years after The Trap.]

Good entry in the excellent Nodd's Ridge series. Worth your time, these books.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume One, by Clive Barker


(hb; 1984: story anthology)

Overall review:

Excellent horror anthology, the first of three volumes: easily one of the best anthologies I've read from a still-breathing writer. All the stories are above-average word fare, engaging, sometimes gory, and always fascinating. By all, means check this anthology out.

Review, story by story:

1.) "The Book of Blood" - A psychic researcher (Mary Florescu), her assistant (Reg Fuller), and a con-artist medium (Simon McNeal) move into a haunted house (Number 65, Tollington Place) in order to study it. The more they observe/tap into the energies of this metaphysical crossroads, or susurrating "highway of the dead," however, the more they risk ticking off the spirits they're studying. Fresh, Bradybury-esque take on the haunted house theme.

This story became a film in 2008. Currently in post-production, the film uses another Barker story, "On Jerusalem Street," as a co-basis for the film. Jonas Armstrong played Simon McNeal. Sophie Ward played Mary Florescu. Paul Blair played Reg Fuller. Doug Bradley, Barker's real-life friend and an actor who often appears in Barker's film projects, played Tollington. Directed and co-scripted by John Harrison; co-scripted by Darin Silverman.


2.) "The Midnight Meat Train" - An accountant (Kaufman) and a "divinely-inspired" serial killer (Mahogany, aka "The Butcher") cross paths on the Avenues of the Americas line. Classic work, touching on the themes of disillusionment, faith and (possibly) destiny. One of my favorite stories in this collection.

This story became a film in 2008. Set to be released Stateside on August 1, 2008, it was scripted by Jeff Buhler. Ryuhei Kitamura directed. Bradley Cooper played Leon Kaufman. Vinnie Jones played Mahogany. Leslie Bibb played Maya, a character absent from the source story. Brook Shields played Susan Hoff, another character absent from the source story.


3.) "The Yattering and Jack" - A low-echelon demon (The Yattering) is assigned to torment a quiet human nobody (Jack Polo), who seems not to notice the Yattering's sometimes-grisly poltergeist-like activities. Light (when compared to other stories in this collection), spirited Christmastime romp, this. An instant classic.

This story became the basis for an episode of the 1984 television show, Tales From the Darkside. It aired on November 8, 1987, the seventh episode of Tale's fourth season. Danielle Brisebois played Amanda. Anthony Carbone played Jack Polo - Carbone is listed in the credits as "Tony Carbone". Phil Fondacaro played The Yattering. Thomas Newman played Beezlebub. Barbara Shapiro played Caroler.


4.) "Pig Blood Blues" - An ex-cop-turned-woodshop-teacher (Neil Redman) discovers mysterious going-ons at Remand Centre for Adolescent Offenders, a reform school for teenage boys. Its story arc makes its end-twist predictable, but Barker made this reader care about the lead characters (Redman, Lacey), while ramping up the story's progressive tension. Well-written, at times ironic; not the best story in the bunch.

This is scheduled to be released as a film in the near future. I have no further details about the film at this point.

In 1989, Eclipse Books published a comic book mini-series, Tapping The Vein, that is based on Barker's writings.

Chuck Wagner adapted, and Scott Hampton illustrated "Pig Blood Blues" in issue #1 (its front cover is seen below). This issue also contains an adaptation of one of Barker's other stories, "Human Remains" (published in Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume Three).




5.) "Sex, Death and Starshine" - A troubled stage production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, led by a talentless crowd-popular actress (Diane Duvall) and directed by a jaded Terry Calloway, gets new life breathed into it with the unexpected appearance of a charming theatre-savvy stranger, Richard Walden Lichfield, and his actress lover, Constantia. Aptly-titled, clever, personable tale, and memorable.


6.) "In the Hills, the Cities" - Two Eastern bloc towns, Popolac and Podujevo, wage a bizarre contest-battle, utilizing the entirety of their citizenry. Caught between the town-giants are two warring lovers, a Right-leaning pundit (Judd) and an art aficionado (Mick). Strange, visually stunning tale, with an equally stunning end-line. Unforgettable, this.

"In the Hills, the Cities" also appeared in issue #2 of the comic book mini-series, Tapping The Vein.

Chuck Wagner and Fred Burke adapted, and John Bolton illustrated the story. This issue, its cover seen below, also contains an adaptation of one of Barker's other (re-titled) stories, "Skins of the Fathers" (published in Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume Two).




This anthology is followed by Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume Two.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Coal Run, by Tawni O'Dell

(hb; 2004)

From the inside flap:

"Coal Run is a community of ghosts and memories. After a mining explosion took the lives of so many men and transformed their families, the reverberations are still being felt in the generation of survivors thirty years later. Narrator Ivan Zoschenko, the local deputy and erstwhile football legend ('the Great Z'), his pro career sidelined by a knee injury, spends a week seemingly preparing for an old teammate's imminent release from prison. In doing so, Ivan introduces a rich cast of characters -- his unexpectedly wise and comic former beauty queen sister, his former idol Val Claypool, and the young woman whose life he changed forever. And during the course of this week, Ivan confronts his demons and reveals himself to be a man whose conscience is burdened by a long-held and shocking secret that must be reckoned with."

Review:

Solid slice-o'-life novel. O'Dell has created some memorable, fully-fleshed characters. Also apparent is O'Dell's ability in showing the minutiae of small-town life, and the variegated attitudes of those residing within its boundaries.

The thematic dovetailing of the ending feels forced, unlike the rest of the novel, which reads like real life -- complicated, contradictory and rough. While consistent with the novel's theme that healing, slow and awkward as it may come, is imminent (if one allows it), the ending feels too perfect. O'Dell would've served her story, and her readers, better if she'd trusted the tone that she'd adopted throughout the rest of the novel, that life is full of loose ends, many of which remain that way.

Worthwhile, despite the above criticism.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Snake, by Mickey Spillane

(pb; 1964)

Review:

Mike Hammer is reunited with his dream-woman, Velda, who once disappeared and was thought dead. (Her disappearance caused Hammer to spiral into a seven-year drunk. Much of these events are recounted in an earlier Hammer book, The Girl Hunters, when Hammer dried out and resumed his case- and nose-busting ways.)

However, Hammer and Velda's amorous reunion is interrupted -- as usual -- by gun-toting hoods who seem to be working for two different interests.

Of course, Hammer and Velda get out of that scrape with their skins barely intact. Hammer quickly surmises that the hoods aren't gunning for Velda, but Sue Torrence, Lotlita-like step-daughter of politician Simpson "Sim" Torrence. Velda has been letting Sue crash at her place, though the girl has nutty ideas -- for example, Sue thinks her step-father is trying to kill her.

This opening-page action draws Hammer, Velda, and Pat Chambers (Hammer's police captain ex-friend and Velda's ex-lover) into a case that goes back thirty years, a robbery that resulted in a missing crook and the disappearance of three million dollars.

Could the missing crook (Black Conley) and the missing millions have something to do with those two opening-page gunmen? Why are so many top-notch Syndicate killers suddenly flocking into town at the same time? And how do the Torrences (Sue and Sim) tie into all this?

Like other Hammer novels, the action, characters, sleaze and situations in The Snake are kicked into plot overdrive, always consistent and plausible. Hammer is as canny, fallible and tough as tough guys come, usually one step ahead of the bad guys (who are easy to spot this time out).

By all means, check this out.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Ashworth Hall, by Anne Perry

(hb; 1997: seventeenth book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the inside flap:

"The gathering [at Ashworth Hall] has the appearance of a smart autumn house party -- stunning women and powerful men enjoying a few days of leisurely pleasure in a setting of exquisite beauty. In fact, the guests are Irish Protestants and Catholics gathered in reluctant parley over home rule for the Ireland, a problem that has plagued the British Isles since the reign of Elizabeth I. When the meeting's moderator, government bigwig Ainsley Greville, is found murdered in his bath, the negotiations seem doomed.

"Superintendent Thomas Pitt of Scotland Yard almost despairs as divorce preceedings involving the great Irish Nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell and his mistress, Kitty O'Shea, become an open scandal. To make matters worse, it seems the late Greville himself may have had a less than savory personal life. The surviving guests -- six men and five women -- unleash their true feelings, or perhaps only pretend to. Their servants follow suit. Unless Pitt and his clever wife, Charlotte, can root out the truth, simmering passions above and below stairs may again explode in murder, the hopeful home rule movement may collapse, and civil war may destroy Ireland.

"Never before has Pitt borne such terrible responsibilities; never before has Charlotte been less able to share them."

Review:

Perry's Pitt series gets more exciting with each new book. Part of the reason is that the stakes keep getting raised -- Thomas Pitt is no longer a beat cop with street-level murders and other street crimes to contend with; he is in a position of importance, defusing potentially explosive political situations, which usually begin in murder, and whose resolutions may result in long-term international ramifications (this time for England and Ireland).

Another reason for the increased excitement is that as the series progresses, characters, main and sometimes-peripheral, become like family (for series-familiar readers) -- e.g., Gracie Phipps, the Pitts' fiery-tempered maid of seven years (and now a twenty year-old woman who unofficially aids the Pitts in their murder-solving), and Jack Radley, Emily Ashworth's second husband, an honest, mid-level politician who's steadily becoming more prominent in his chosen profession. These once-peripheral characters, along with mainstays Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, Emily (Charlotte's sister), Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould (Emily and Charlotte's great-aunt by marriage), elicit an emotional reaction in readers like myself, in how they act, and react to the situations and people around them. [This last point about reader-familiarity provoking readers' emotional response(s) can be said about any worthwhile series, or excellent writers, of course, but when reviewing the Pitt series, the point definitely bears reiterating.]

The main reason why the Pitt series keeps getting better lies with Perry herself: she writes with warmth, wit, historically-accurate verve, and a true knowledge of what resides in the human heart, be it dark or light. And often, spotting the murderer (or murderers) isn't a simple thing -- as is the case with this particular novel. (I'd guessed part of it, being a mystery-fiction aficionado, and familiar with Perry's writing style/structure.)

Excellent mystery series, well worth your time.

Followed by Brunswick Gardens.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Breakheart Pass, by Alistair MacLean

(hb; 1974)

From the inside flap:

"... a raging blizzard in the Rocky Mountains... Murder, danger, vengeful Indians, the lust for gold, and a Federal agent pitted against as villainous a set of thieves as ever came out of the Old West -- these are the elements Mr. MacLean has woven into [this] exciting and fast-moving [novel]..."

Review:

What can I write that the above blurb didn't already cover? Breakheart Pass has all the necessary elements of an excellent action novel: plenty of twists (rooted in the characters' personalities, ably mapped by MacLean), lots of clever action, and even a hint of romance -- not enough to slow down the violence and drama, of course, but there nevertheless.

Check it out: a great, fun read for action and Old West aficionados.

The resulting film was released stateside on May 5, 1976.

Charles Bronson played Deakin. Ben Johnson played Pearce. Richard Crenna played Governor Fairchild. Jill Ireland played Marica. Charles Durning played O'Brien. Ed Lauter played Major Claremont. Bill McKinney played Reverend Peabody. Robert Tessier played Levi Calhoun.

Tom Gries directed the film, from a screenplay by source-novel author Alistair MacLean.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

'D' is for Deadbeat, by Sue Grafton

(pb; 1987: fourth book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

From the back cover:

"The client came to Kinsey Millhone with an easy job -- just deliver $25,000 to a fifteen-year old kid. A little odd, and a little too easy, but Kinsey took Alvin Limardo's retainer check anyway. It turned out to be as phony as he was. In real life his name was John Daggett, a chronic drunk with a record as long as your arm and a reputation for sleazy deals. But he wasn't just a deadbeat.

"By the time Kinsey caught up with him, he was a dead body -- with a whole host of people who were delighted to hear the news. But how do you make a stiff pay up what he owes you?"

Review:

Another breeze-through, grabs-you-at-the-start mystery from Grafton, whose Kinsey Millhone is as sharp, humorous and tough as ever. The killer wasn't easy to figure out -- an excellent point in this reader's estimation -- and, as with previous Kinsey Millhone mysteries (the last one being 'C' is for Corpse), it's practically impossible to put down.

Worth your time, this series.

Followed by 'E' is for Evidence.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Snuff, by Chuck Palahniuk

(hb; 2008)

From the inside flap:

"Cassie Wright, porn priestess, intends to cap her legendary career by breaking the world record for serial fornication. On camera. With six hundred men. Snuff unfolds from the perspectives of Mr. 72, Mr. 137, and Mr. 600, who await their turn on camera in a very crowded green room. This wild, lethally funny, and thoroughly researched novel brings the huge yet underacknowledged presence of pornography in contemporary life into the realm of literary fiction at last..."

Review:

Rife and peopled with ironies and good-intentions-gone-darkly-tragic, this mordant, fast, funny read is one of Palahniuk's best novels to date. It's not as shocking as Fight Club, but theme- and tone-wise, it reads like a logical follow-up to Rant, which maintained Palahniuk's puzzle-piece journalistic style and sly ideas, many of which are supported by Palahniuk's trademark, quoted factoids.

For those put off by Palahniuk's narrative ickiness (Palahniuk has a fondness to writing about bodily fluids and the less savory aspects of humanity), this may be the novel to read; Snuff, despite its pornographic subject matter, is surprisingly less gross, and gentler than many of his previous works (one exception is Diary, which has a female narrator).

By all means, check this out.