Friday, October 31, 2008

'H' is for Homicide, by Sue Grafton

(pb; 1991: eighth book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

Review:

While investigating a case of auto insurance fraud, Kinsey Millhone, wisecracking P.I., is forced by circumstances to go undercover. She joins a group of con artists, headed by the paranoid, violent, Tourettes-wracked Raymond Maldonado -- can she make it out alive, in this death-at-any-minute situation?

Grafton once again has radically changed the situational game for Kinsey, making for an exceptionally wild and exciting ride (even for the Kinsey Millhone series), with a finish that stuns in an effective and simply-stated way.

Great work from a consistently-excellent writer. Check this series out.

Followed by 'I' is for Innocent.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Chocky, by John Wyndham

(hb; 1968)

When Matthew Gore, adopted eleven-year old son of David and Mary Gore, begins exhibiting odd behavior -- asking strangely adult/scientific questions, drawing in a skewed manner unfamiliar to children, and rescuing his nine-year old sister, Polly, from drowning when he doesn't know how to swim -- his parents are understandably alarmed.

Turns out that good-natured, obedient Matthew is being haunted by an invisible friend (who's more than an invisible friend), Chocky, who's driving Matthew to act strangely. Chocky, according to Matthew, is a visiting alien -- an androgynous one, who can only visit "certain kinds of [human] minds".

Larger problems stemming from Chocky's unseen presence become apparent: Mary, Matthew's mother, is worried that her adoptive son is "possessed"; this alarm heightens when the world at large -- via Matthew's teachers, his highly-publicized rescuing of his sister from drowning, and other events -- make him a national figure.

Matthew's father, David, narrates this tale in a simply-stated, semi-chatty, warm manner, charting the duration of Chocky's mostly friendly, uber-curious, only-heard-through-Matthew visitations.

Charming, short (it runs 183 pages), afternoon-read of a novel. Check it out.

On January 9, 1984, Chocky became a television mini-series in the UK. It lasted six episodes. James Hazeldine played David Gore. Carol Drinkwater played Mary Gore. Andrew Ellams played Matthew Gore. Glynis Brooks provided the voice of Chocky. Penny Brownjohn played Phyl. Zoe Hart played Polly Gore.

Two sequel six-episode mini-series followed.

Chocky's Children, the second mini-series, began airing in the UK on January 7, 1985. Andrew Ellams reprised his role of Matthew Gore (from the previous series). Angela Galbraith played Aunt Cissie. Michael Crompton played Luke. Glynis Brooks reprised her voice-role of Chocky. Annabel Worrell played Albertine Meyer.

Chocky's Challenge, the third mini-series, began airing in the UK on September 29, 1986. Annabel Worrell reprised her role of Albertine Meyer (from the previous mini-series). Prentis Hancock played Arnold Meyer. Glynis Brooks once again reprised her voice-role of Chocky. Illona Linthwaite played Dr. Liddle.

Not surprisingly, Steven Spielberg has bought the film rights to Chocky. (This information comes from a September 25, 2008 article posted on the website Digital Spy. Another, more cautious article, posted on the Cinematical website, mentions that Spielberg may direct the film, but he also has a few other films that he's publicly attached his name to.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Brisingr, by Christopher Paolini

(hb; 2008: third book in The Inheritance series)

From the inside flap:

"It's been only months since Eragon first uttered 'brisingr,' an ancient language term for fire. Since then, he's not only learned to create magic with words -- he's been challenged to his very core. Following the colossal battle against the Empire's warriors on the Burning Plains, Eragon and his dragon, Saphira, have narrowly escaped with their lives. Still, there is more adventure at hand for the Rider and his dragon, as Eragon finds himself bound by a tangle of promises he may not be able to keep.

"First is Eragon's oath to his cousin, Roran: to help rescue Roran's beloved from King Galbatorix's clutches. But Eragon owes his loyalty to others, too. The Varden are in desperate need of his talents and strength -- as are the elves and dwarves. When unrest claims the rebels and danger strikes from every corner, Eragon must make choices -- choices that will take him across the Empire and beyond, choices that may lead to unimagined sacrifice.

"Eragon is the greatest hope to rid the land of tyranny. Can this once simple farm boy unite the rebel forces and defeat the king?"

Review:

Brisingr all the strengths and one notable weakness of the previous two.

Strengthwise, there's the exemplary character development, making for root-worthy heroes and hiss-worthy characters, many of whom have complex relationships. Not only that, there's Paolini's well-written epic scenarios and landscapes, and fully-realized cultures (Paolini doesn't skimp on revealing the historical and cultural roots of each race, whether they're dwarf, human, elf or otherwise.)

The aforementioned weakness: most of the twists are by-the-numbers. Anybody who's read an ongoing fantasy series will see the twists coming long before they happen. Still, this is a minor bi**h, as this weakness isn't entirely Paolini's fault -- it's inherent in the "epic" fantasy structure, as defined by J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" series. (And, to Paolini's credit, he does manage to slip in a few unexpected subplots and a couple of unforeseen twists.)

Rousing, action-oriented read, this. Worth your time, despite the mostly-predictable twists and the increasingly religious overtones of the storyline. (Some of the religious plugs, disguised as character dialogue, are clearly meant to promote Christianity.)

The ending, once again, is such that this reader was left wishing the fourth Inheritance Cycle novel, title unknown, were already published.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

'G' is for Gumshoe, by Sue Grafton

(pb; 1990: seventh book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

From the inside flap:

"Kinsey Millhone celebrates her thirty-third birthday as only she can -- she moves back into her renovated apartment, gets hired to find an elderly lady supposedly living in the Mojave Desert by herself, and makes the top of triggerman Tyrone Patty's hit list. As much as she hates to admit it, Kinsey realizes even she's going to need help fening off a hit man and she hires a bodyguard: Robert Dietz, a Porshe-driving P.I. who takes his job very seriously. With Dietz watching her for the merest sign of her usual recklessness, Kinsey plunges into a case that will lead her to the gruesome truth about a long-buried betrayal. And, in the process, will bring her face-to-face with her own mortality. . ."

Review:

Another flame-through, twist-loaded and frequently-shivery read from Grafton, who spins a reader-familiar tale (with some choice shuffling of elements and structure) and fully introduces a once-peripheral character in the Millhone universe: Robert Dietz, a sensible, sensitive and manly P.I.-turned-bodyguard who's keeping Millhone alive, as well as possibly -- slowly -- winning Millhone's heart. (Dietz briefly was mentioned in an earlier Millhone mystery, I forget which one.)

The shivery part comes from the hitman who's stalking, toying with Millhone; not only is he a borderline-sociopath, he's also intent on turning this cat-and-mouse game into a family affair.

Excellent entry in the Kinsey Millhone series. Check the series out!

Followed by 'H' is for Homicide.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham

(hb; 1951)

Review:


A comet passes by the Earth, and has two effects: one, it blinds the majority of Earth's people; two, it turns the triffids -- tall plants with gourd-like mobile roots and stinger-blossoms, previously regarded as tame botanical oddities -- into army of clever, click-emitting killers who are dedicated to stinging mankind into extinction.

William Masen, a biologist who has the good misfortune to have been hospitalized and face-bandaged during the beautiful light show put on the comet, escapes being permanently blinded by it. (Ironically, the hospitalized Masen had been attacked by a triffid he was studying, and temporarily blinded by its poison. Prior to that attack, he'd warned fellow scoffing scientists that given how triffids reproduce quickly and possess stingers, they were a threat to mankind. Even Masen hadn't calculated how big a threat the triffids were.)

Masen provides the first-person narrative, which spans approximately seven years. His narration, for the most part, is calm and collected, his recollections simply-stated and viewed through a curious, science-minded lens. Most of the horrors he sees -- and there are many, whether they're perpetrated by triffids or men -- are left to the reader's imagination, as he travels across England, trying to rejoin Josella Playton (whom he met after the comet's passing), potboiler author and potential wife.

Triffids, at once an examination of the human race and scary science fiction thriller, is one of the best science fiction novels I've ever read. Wyndam's style is straightforward and almost dry, but between Masen's clear-eyed recollections, the distinctive characters, the steady pacing and the defiant, hopeful denouement, it's classic (in the truest, positive sense of the word).

Clean-cut and exciting work, this -- worth owning.

The Day of the Triffids became a film in 1962. Philip Yordan (aka, Bernard Gordon) scripted this movie; Steve Sekely and an uncredited Freddie Francis co-directed it. Howard Keel played Bill Masen. Nicole Maurey played Christine Durrant. Ewan Roberts played Dr. Soames. Mervyn Johns played Mr. Coker. Alison Leggatt played Miss Coker. Janina Faye played Susan.

On September 10, 1981, a short-lived television series, bearing the same name, began airing in the UK and Australia. (It lasted six episodes.) John Duttine played Bill Masen. Emma Relph played Jo Payton. Maurice Coulborne played Jack Coker. Jonathan Newth played Dr. Soames. Gary Olsen played "Red Haired Man Torrence." Perlita Neilson played Miss Durrant.

In 2001, Simon Clark wrote and published a sequel to the novel version of The Day of Triffids, The Night of the Triffids.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Haunter, by Charlee Jacob

(pb; 2003)

From the back cover:

"From the crumbling ruins of a Cambodian jungle temple to the arid canyons of west Texas, exotic demons of the ancient past collide with more modern devils. Crippled residents in a small Cambodian village are trying to rebuild their lives in a shattered country. Just as it seems they cannot go on, their god returns to them, providing hope and a dream of survival.

"But their god has returned in the body of a former American GI, and their hope for peace comes in a drug that opens the door to unfold horrors. Their beautiful nirvana waits only at the end of a road traveled by nightmares. It is a world peopled by the bizarre and the unearthly, in which damnation -- and redemption -- can come in the most terrifying forms."

Review:

The first few chapters of Haunter are a fever dreams, phantasmagoric swirls of grisliness, Vietnam War-era aggression and Hindu faith-based horrors as a new avatar of Shiva comes into being -- it's initiallly difficult to follow, but word-dazzling and poetic (as is much of the rest of the novel). After those first few chapters, the narrative settles down into a more straight-forward, solid tale.

The tale is this: Harry Tyler, an American soldier, who enjoys his condition of priapism (he has constant erections) and banging anything with an orifice, is in Cambodia, specifically the territory of Phnom Yohp, when he rapes a strange golden half-animal half-human creature discovered in an ancient Hindu temple (Nagas Wat). Harry immediately becomes possessed by the four-armed animalistic creature's deity, Shiva (you see, that creature was Shiva's last incarnation). This sets Harry on a gory, exotic path that inevitably re-joins with one of his brothers' (Elliott), who's also a soldier, and later, an often-merciless merc-for-hire.

Harry and Elliott are not alone. Along for the crazy, kill-f***-devour ride are the limb-missing Camobodian denizens of Phnom Yohp, who'd initially resurrected Shiva's last incarnation, and a crime boss, Tak, who's looking get a cut of the wild, truly original drug (Soma) that Harry/Shiva and his followers have loosed upon the world: Soma leaves its users literally golden-orbed and sitting in the lotus position, completely shutting out the outside "real" world, with no need of food, water or human company.

Jacob's writing is helter-skelter with mindmelting splatterific erotic visions, and depictions of perversion and cruelty -- few characters are innocent in this original work, and even that innocence is quickly diminished by nihilistic darkness.

Gripping, spectacular read with an oddly transcendant finish, this: worth owning, as long as you're not easily queasy or looking for a comforting read.

Check it out!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Appaloosa, by Robert B. Parker

(hb; 2005)

From the inside flap:

". . . the untamed territories of the West during the 1800s. . .

"When Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch arrive in Appaloosa, they find a small, dusy town suffering at the hands of renegade rancher Randall Bragg, a man who has so little regard for the law that he has taken supplies, horses, and women for his own and left the city marshal and one of his deputies dead. Cole and Hitch, itinerant lawmen, are used to cleaning up after opportunistic thieves, but in Bragg they find an unusually wily adversary -- one who raises the stakes by playing not with the rules, but with emotions."

Review:

Like many of the better Westerns I've read, Parker's Appaloosa is lean and mean, with sentence structures that are bare-bones basic (but not simple-minded), and characters whose words and actions effectively echo their personalities and intentions.

Appaloosa follows a familiar plotline, with a few well-placed and highly-effective pseudo-twists to individualize the story. Between these pseudo-twists, Parker's no-frills writing style, and the engaging (or hiss-worthy) characters, this is a must-read for anyone looking for a burn-through, modern-day Western.

Check it out.

Appaloosa became a theatrical film release on October 3, 2008. Ed Harris, who also directed and co-scripted the film with Robert Knott, played Virgil Cole. Viggo Mortensen played Everett Hitch. Jeremy Irons played Randall Bragg. Renee Zellweger played Allison French. Timothy Spall played Phil Olson. Cerris Morgan-Moyer played Tilda. Lance Henriksen (who co-starred with Ed Harris in The Right Stuff) played Ring Shelton. Adam Nelson played Mackie Shelton. Bob Harris, father of Ed, played Judge Elias Callison.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach

(pb; 2003: science/non-fiction)

From the back cover:

"Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers -- some willing, some unwittingly -- have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. In this fascinating account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them."

Review:

The above book blurb describes Stiff the way I would: it's (mostly) interesting and always informative, with some laugh-out loud (but respectful) quips. Like Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, it's a standout -- in a good way -- book.

My only quibble about Stiff is that certain chapters held no fascination for me, namely: "Dead Man Driving" (where Roach writes about car companies using corpses to measure the effect of car crashes on human bodies); "The Cadaver Who Joined the Army" (where Roach reveals U.S. military ballistics testing on corpses); and portions of "Holy Cadaver" (where Roach talks about historical medical and religious professionals who, among other things, have sought the physical location of man's fictional "soul"). Bear in mind this minor complaint is a reflection of my lack of interest in these subjects; Roach, in order to be thorough and reflect the interests of other readers, practically had to include these bits. (I only mention this personal quibble so certain readers who share my reading tastes may be forewarned.)

This is a memorable and informative read -- definitely worth owning.