Saturday, February 28, 2009

'I' is for Innocent, by Sue Grafton

(pb; 1992: ninth book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

From the inside flap:

"Since she was fired by California Fidelity Insurance, Kinsey Millhone has lost her usual swagger. And her new case is no confidence builder. Attorney Lonnie Kingman is going to court on a civil suit in three weeks when his P.I. drops dead of a heart attack. With the statute of limitations running out, Kinsey has to tie up the loose ends of a murder investigation. The victim, an affluent artist named Isabelle Barney, had been shot with a .38; her husband, David Barney, was tried and acquitted of the murder. Now her ex-husband is suing Barney for Isabelle's estate, claiming the jury made a big mistake.

"Things get complicated when Barney gets to Kinsey, insisting he's innocent. Everything says he checks out. But if Barney is innocent, who's guilty? In trying to learn who's getting away with murder, Kinsey may be courting her own. . ."


Another addictive, excellent entry in Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series. Fast-paced, straight-forward (Kinsey's outlook on life is, true to P.I. form, tell-it-like-it-is): my only nit, a minor one, is that I knew who the killer was right away (though I can see where Kinsey, given that she has to prove who the killer is, might've been unsure).

"I" is for Innocent is still one of the best Millhone novels thus far, despite the killer's easily-guessed identity.

Check this series out!

Followed by 'J' is for Judgment.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Old Flames, by Jack Ketchum

(pb; 2008: novella, coupled with an additional novella, Right to Life)

From the back cover:

"Burned again. Men never treated Dora well. This latest cheated on her and dumped her. The last decent guy she knew was her old high school boyfriend, Jim. He'd said that he loved her. Maybe he did. So with the help of the Flame Finders, Dora's found him again. Turns out he's married with two kids. But Dora isn't about to let that stand in her way. . ."


Old Flames is standard Ketchum fare: solid, straightforward, more true-crime than horror (a book section that Ketchum usually gets lumped in), and barbed with small, sharp shocks -- as is the ending, which adheres to Ketchum's habit of keeping his work believable.

Definitely worth reading, this. It's not one of Ketchum's landmark works (like Off Season), but it's satisfying and worth buying.

The same can be said about Right to Life (a 1998 novella that previously had been published as a limited-release work).

When Sara Foster, a couple of months along with child, is abducted at an abortion clinic by two strangers (Kath and Stephen Teach) and put into a box in their cellar, she's terrified and disoriented. But the worst is yet to come. In order to escape, Sara must endure horrors that veer between the banal and the extreme (torture, rape).

Ketchum's writing doesn't flinch from violence or ugliness; nor does it glorify it. The rape and torture scenes are handled as tastefully as possible, with little flourish: Ketchum is not a flashy author, generally speaking. Yet there's always a sense of hope to this tale, due to Sara's cool-headed intelligence and The Cat.

Both of these novellas are worth checking out. The fact that they've been paired together in one volume is a dark-hearted joy.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson

(pb; 2003: biography)

From the back cover:

"The life of Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, was as secretive and unusual as that of many of the characters who people her 'peerlessly disturbing' thrillers and short stories. In Beautiful Shadow, the first biography of Highsmith, British journalist Andrew Wilson mines the vast archives of diaries, notebooks, and letters the writer left behind, astonishing in their candor and detail. He draws on interviews with her closest friends and colleagues, as well as some of her many lovers, and traces Highsmith's literary roots in the work of Poe, noir and existentialism, whose influence distinguished Highsmith's writing so startlingly from more ordinary thrillers. The result is both a serious critical biography and one that reveals much about a brilliant and contradictory woman, one who despite her acclaim and affairs always maintained her solitude."


This is one of the best literary biographies I've ever read.

Wilson show Highsmith -- a bristling, often seemingly depressed and private being of contradictions -- for all her flaws and glories. Born on January 19, 1921 (the same birthdate of one of her main writing influences, Edgar Allan Poe, years prior) in Fort Worth, Texas, she quickly realized she was different than those around her, including her family. She knew at an early age that she was romantically attracted to girls, an attraction that led her into more than a few tortured relationships, and impelled her to publish her only blatantly-lesbian novel, Carol, in 1952, under the nom de plume Claire Morgan. (This landmark book -- its ending doesn't conform to the usual "pulp lesbian" novels of that time -- was re-published, over thirty years later, under Highsmith's name, and re-titled The Price of Salt.)

Young Highsmith also realized that she was fascinated by crime stories, especially ones rife with dark ironies and twisted personalities. Psychological, sometimes pseudo-political crime thrillers became her trademark, making up many of the thirty-four books she published in her lifetime. (It was these elements which caused many American publishers and readers to be repelled by her works: her misanthropy, which dictated many of her actions and words, was laid bare in her existential stories. In Europe and other parts of the world, she was better received, commercially and awards-wise.)

American readers' discomfort with Highsmith was reciprocated: she often reviled what America, with its political witch hunts, political and social uptightness, and materialism, stood for, and she wasn't afraid to write about it in her novels. Yet, ironically, many of her core beliefs and attitudes, were, in a twisty way, based on her American childhood.

Privately, she could be an exceedingly difficult, Type-A, financially-stingy person -- judging by what many of her ex-lovers, acquaintances and long-time friends have said of her in interviews, many of which were told exclusively to biographer Andrew Wilson; but she could also be incredibly shy, charming and kind, quietly lending money to friends in need, while moving constantly moving around the world: France, Switzerland, England were her dour playgrounds. She also enjoyed meeting new people, despite her media-"reclusive" -- read: private -- personality.

Wilson captures well all these sides of Highsmith, at once sympathetic and honest. Wilson's sense of flow is sure, always interesting; he shows enough details to back up his portrayal(s) of Highsmith, never verging into didactic overkill (as some biographers are inclined to do). In this regard, this reads more like a lively fiction novel about a real person than a standard biography of a distinctive, talented writer.

Highsmith died on February 4, 1995, of complications arising from her aplastic anemia. The creator of the "whydunit, in which an interest in the criminal and criminal psychology replaces the puzzle" (as one critic from The Times described her work) was seventy-four years old.

Check this out.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Vampires, Werewolves & Other Demons, by Bernhardt J. Hurwood

(pb; 1972: YA horror anthology)

From the back cover:

"Lock your doors and bar your windows against THINGS you'd rather not see or hear. Turn down all the lights except the one you need to read by. Then, let your mind drift back to other lands, other times, when terrors rose with the moon and unspeakable monsters stalked the land.

"Thirty tales resurrected from the mouldering vaults of horror, from the crypts of fear, to send old-fashioned chills down your spine."


Good primer for young readers new to horror writing. For the experienced horror aficionado, it's a worthwhile -- if simplified, tell-don't-show -- read.

All of the thirty stories contained in this short anthology -- which are little more than morality tales with a minimum of gothic window-dressing -- are über-short, told-in-broad-strokes pieces. Hurwood used this tell-don't-show approach in a few of the stories in another, less generic (non-YA) anthology, Monsters Galore. This style of tell-don't-show writing is interesting in a dry, intellectual way, but probably won't engage readers used to fuller, more descriptive terror tales.

One of the stories in Vampires, Werewolves & Other Demons also appeared in Monsters Galore, namely: "The Vampire at the Inn" (which was listed in Monsters as "The Corpse at the Inn" and credited to Pu Sung Ling and, again, adapted by Hurwood).

Monster's "The Purple Terror" (by Fred M. White) gets a genericized, character-less, less-story-oriented retelling as "The Vampire Plant" in Vampires; Monster's "The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima" gets the same treatment in Vampires, listed there as "The Demon Cat". Hurwood wisely simplified these last two tales for a younger audience, though the genericized versions aren't nearly as interesting as the character-based longer versions in Monsters.

My favorite stories in Vampires: "The Curious Vampires of Bohemia and Moravia"; "The Wine Demon"; "The Two Corpses"; "The Beautiful Mara"; "The Last Meal of Igor Malikov" "The Were-Tiger of Slim"; "The Return of the Werewolf"; and "The Lonely Man and the Fox Princess".

Good anthological offering, this. Check it out.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Never Shower in a Thunderstorm, by Anahad O'Connor

(pb; 2007: non-fiction)

From the back cover:

"For more than two years the New York Times's 'Really?' columnist Anahad O'Connor has tracked down the facts, fictions, and occasional fuzziness of old wives' tales, conventional-wisdom cures, and other medical mysteries. Now he opens up his case files to disclose the experts' answers on everything from which of your bad habits you can indulge (sitting too close to the television does not hurt your eyes) to what foods don't pack the punch advertised (you can lay off the beet juice!).

"A compendium of answers to the curious and nagging questions of how to keep healthy. Never Shower in a Thunderstorm provides guidance and amusement to anyone who has ever wondered if the mosquitoes really are attacking her more than everyone else. (Yes, they are.)..."


Witty, informative, straight-forward read, this. O'Connor is an excellent writer who's written the perfect, read-it-when-you-feel-like it coffee table paperback -- or, as some of my friends would say, it's a "bathroom read," something you can read (O'Connor's facts and explanations rarely run longer than a few pages) for a few minutes, here and there, without losing the "flow" or feel of the book.

Fun work, this. Can't wait to read O'Connor's follow-up to this.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Fish Out of Water, by MaryJanice Davidson

(pb; 2008: third book in The Mermaid Series)

From the back cover:

"Fred the mermaid has taken the bait and chosen Artur, High Prince of the Black Sea, over human marine biologist Thomas. And just in time. The existence of the Undersea Folk is no longer a secret, and someone needs to keep them from floundering in the media spotlight. Fred has all the right skills for the job, but not for when her real father surfaces and his presence complicates matters even more."


Fish Out of Water catches up with Fred and the gang six months after the events of Swimming Without a Net. Fred, acerbic as ever, is now a media-beleaguered world-famous intermediary between "bipeds" (humans) and the Undersea Folk, and, for the most part, it seems to be going well.

Things aren't so rosy with Fred's romantic life. Dating Prince Artur (whom she hasn't yet slept with) seems to be going okay, but potentially divisive, engagement-busting issues crop up between Fred and Prince Artur. One of these issues is the surprising appearance of Fred's long-absent, once-coup-leader father, Farrem. Farrem's re-emergence causes an uproar amongst the Undersea Folk that's only secondary to the uproar of the sudden news that five hundred of the Undersea Folk have disappeared, without a trace. . . Is it linked to the secret Naval base that's located near Fred and her people (human and Undersea Folk)? And, more personal for Fred, does it have anything to do with her father's re-appearance?

Fish Out of Water is less slapstick but no less funny than the first two "Fred the Mermaid" books (its humor, like the humor of Swimming Without a Net, is more situational and plot-serious).

Excellent genre writing here. Check it out.

<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...