Tuesday, July 28, 2009

'M' is for Malice, by Sue Grafton

(pb; 1996: thirteenth book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

From the inside flap:

" 'M' is for. . . the Malek family: four sons nearing middle age who stand to inherit a fortune. But for any of them to claim their millions, the fourth brother must be found. Eighteen years before -- angry, troubled, and in trouble -- he disappeared. No one's seen or heard from him since. Now Kinsey Millhone must track him down. And when she does, she unknowingly sets in motion a bitter payback from the past that can end only in murder."


Kinsey locates a long-disappeared ne'er-do-well son (Guy Malek) of a recently-deceased wealthy business man, which sets into a motion a cycle of familial pettiness, deceit and murderous retribution, all of which culminate in a reader-affecting, impossible-to-set-down read.

Robert Dietz, Kinsey's fifty-year old on/off lover (last seen in 'G' is for Gumshoe), two years gone, makes a warm, welcome reappearance in Kinsey's life, adding emotional depth and turmoil to the novel.

As a mystery, this was one of the twistier tales from Grafton. I guessed some of the twists, but not all of them, and the identity of the killer(s) was/were a surprise to this reader, until the last moment.

One of the more emotive entries in the Kinsey Millhone series, this: it brings to mind the heartache of 'C' is for Corpse.

This is also one of my favorite Kinsey Millhone books.

Check this series out!

Followed by 'N' is for Noose.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Taking Woodstock, by Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte

(hb; 2007: memoir)

From the inside flap:

"Before there was a Woodstock Concert, there was Elliot Tiber working to make a go of his parents' upstate New York motel. The Jewish clientele who had frequented the Catskills had discovered Florida, and the upstate tourist business was dying. To save his family's livelihood, Elliot put on plays and local festivals. In the process, he became the area's issuer of event permits. he even used his own income from work as a Manhattan interior designer to support the family business.

"In the summer of 1969, Elliot Tiber's life change in a way he never could have foreseen. Working in Greenwich Village, a mecca for gays in America, Elliot socialized with the likes of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and a young photographer named Robert Mapplethorpe, and yet managed to keep his gay life a secret from his family. Then, on Friday, June 28, Elliot walked into the Stonewall Inn -- and witnessed a riot that would galvanize the American gay movement. And on July 15, when Elliot read that the Woodstock Concert promoters were unable to stage the show in Wallkill, he offered them a new venue. Elliot soon found himself swept up in a vortex that would change his life forever..."


Intimate, inspiring, breezy-read account of how Elliot Tiber (born Eliyahu Teichberg), weekend manager of his parents' El Monaco Motel, in White Lake, New York, was struggling to find his place in the world, when two things happened: the Stonewall Riot (the first time New York homosexuals openly fought back against illegal police oppression) and the Woodstock Concert (three-day rock concert which took place between August 15th and August 18th, 1969, on Max Yasgur's Bethel, New York farm field).

The Stonewall Riot (which took place outside the Stonewall Inn, on June 28, 1969) moved Stonewall patron Tiber to offer Woodstock promoters space in Bethel, New York (located just outside White Lake) for their Woodstock Concert. The international craziness that ensued because of the riot and the concert is hilarious, moving, and scary, as these events were two of the major happenings that summed up the attitudes and conflicts that continue to flavor and frame our social, sexual and political developments today.

Excellent, personal, timely, and unique-perspective read, this. Check it out.

The resulting film is scheduled for an August 28, 2009 stateside release.

Demetri Martin plays Elliot Teichberg. Jonathon Groff plays Michael Lang, one of the key concert promoters. Eugene Levy plays Max Yasgur. Liev Schreiber plays Vilma. Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Dan. Kevin Sussman plays Stan. Jason Antoon plays Abbie Hoffman.

Ang Lee directs, from a script by James Schamus.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

In My Skin, by Kate Holden

(hb; 2005: memoir)

From the inside flap:

"A shy, bookish college graduate, a nice girl from a solid middle-class home but uncertain of her way in life, Kate Holden tried her first hit of heroin as a one-time experiment, an adventure with friends, but the drug took over. Hooked, she lost her job, her apartment, stole from her family. Desperation drove her onto the streets, where she became 'Lucy,' offering her body for cash to the first car to stop, risking arrest, and worse, the human predators -- anything for her next fix. With her name on the police blotter, she left the streets and offered her services to first one, then another high-class brothel, where she discovered hidden strengths, as well as parts of herself that frightened her.

"Throughout, however hurt and dismayed, her family never abandoned her, and their acceptance and unyielding love helped her defeat the drug and leave her netherworld behind..."


Smart, concise and sensory-intense memoir about the author's five-year addiction to heroin, how she worked as a prostitute (on the streets, later in brothels) during that time, and how she eventually, with support from her family, quit both. The sexual bits are descriptive at times, but not lascivious -- they're simply honest, maintaining the same level-headed tone as the rest of the book.

Interesting read, this, as well as a potent cautionary tale for anyone who's ever considered using junk.

Check this out!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Executioners, by John D. MacDonald

(pb; 1957, 1958: also published under the title Cape Fear)

From the back cover:

"For fourteen years convicted rapist Max Cady nursed his hatred for Sam Bowden into an insane passion for revenge. He lived only for the day he would be free -- free to track down and destroy the man who put him behind bars.

"Murder was merciful compared to what Cady had in mind -- and what Cady had in mind was Bowden's innocent and lovely teenaged daughter. . ."


Taut, realistic, and terrifying work, this. Its terrors strike at the heart of what most of us subconsciously fear: losing those we love to primordial forces beyond our control.

MacDonald leavens Cady's intended brutalities -- which are largely left to the reader's imagination, but more effective for being so -- by intercutting them with scenes of Sam Bowden with his affectionate family (his wife, Carol; their three kids), making The Executioners more palatable for squeamish readers.

The actualized violence in the novel is potent enough to send shivers up even the most hardened reader's spine. It's not as explicit or brutal as much of Jack Ketchum's ouevre, but a jungle-law mentality runs darkly through The Executioners, making it read like read like a logical, if restrained, influence on Ketchum's works.

Max Cady is pure malevolence, a canny, "animalistic" predator in our supposedly-civilized world -- one hundred percent nightmare, and all too believable (I've met people like Cady). I'll probably have a bad dream or two about him in the near future, but it's worth it, given how mean and lean this novel is.

Perfect suspense work from a prolific, consistent writer. Own this, already!


The Executioners has been filmed twice, under the title Cape Fear.

The original Cape Fear was released stateside on April 12, 1962. Gregory Peck played Sam Bowden. Robert Mitchum played Max Cady. Polly Bergen played Peggy Bowden (cinematic stand-in for Carol Bowden). Lori Martin played Nancy Bowden, the Bowdens' teenage daughter. Martin Balsam played Police Chief Mark Dutton. Telly Savalas played Private Detective Charles Sievers. Page Slattery played Deputy Kersek. J. Lee Thompson directed, from a script by James R. Webb.


The remake, bearing the same title, was released stateside on November 13, 1991. It was directed by Martin Scorsese, and scripted by Wesley Strick (from an earlier script by James R. Webb).

Nick Nolte played Sam Bowden. Robert DeNiro played Max Cady. Jessica Lange played Leigh Bowden (cinematic stand-in for Carol Bowden). Juliette Lewis played Danielle Bowden (cinematic stand-in for Nancy Bowden). Joe Don Baker played Claude Kersek. Robert Mitchum, who played Max Cady in the original film, played Lieutenant Elgart, an honest cop, in the remake. Gregory Peck, who played Sam Bowden in the original film, played a sleazy lawyer named Lee Heller in the remake. Martin Balsam, who played Police Chief Mark Dutton in the original film, played a "Judge" in the remake.

Illeana Douglas played Lori Davis. Charles Scorsese, Martin Scorsese's father, played a "Fruitstand Customer". Catherine Scorsese, Martin Scorsese's mother, played a "Fruitstand Customer". Domenica Cameron-Scorsese, Martin Scorsese daughter, played "Danny's Girlfriend".

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Club Dead, by Charlaine Harris

(pb; 2003: third entry in The Sookie Stackhouse Novels)

From the back cover:

"There's only one vampire Sookie Stackhouse is involved with (at least voluntarily) and that's Bill. But recently he's been a little distant -- in another state, distant. His sinister and sexy boss, Eric, has an idea where to find him. Next thing Sookie knows, she is off to Jackson, Mississippi, to mingle with the under-underworld at Club Dead [aka Josephine's]. It's a dangerous little haunt where the elitist vampire society can go to chill out and suck down some type O. But when Sookie finally finds Bill-- caught in an act of serious betrayal -- she's not sure whether to save him. . . or sharpen some stakes."


Sookie's dealings with the supernatural take her to Jackson, Mississippi, when Eric Northman, Bill Compton's boss, tells her that Bill has been kidnapped. Once there, Sookie works with: a kind-hearted Were (shape-changing werecreature), Alcide Herveaux; a mentally-damaged "Bubba" (aka, the usually-well-hidden and undead Elvis Presley, introduced in Dead Until Dark); and Eric, who must keep his true identity a secret -- to conduct business in another vamp leader's territory without informing him/her is seen as a serious breach of vamp etiquette, with probably-fatal consequences.

Together, they must find a way to free Bill from his kidnappers, without rustling the ego-feathers of Russell Edgington, king of the Louisiana vampires, or starting a Were-vampire turf war.

Another entertaining page-turner from Harris, who writes focussed mysteries that read less like mysteries and more like sur/real life. Excellent series, this.

Followed by Dead To The World.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Shimmer, by David Morrell

(hb; 2009)

From the inside flap:

"When police officer Dan Page's wife disappears, her trail leads to Rostov, a remote Texas town where unexplained phenomena attract hundreds of spectators each night. Not merely curious, these onlookers are compelled to reach this tiny community and gaze at the mysterious Rostov Lights.

"But more than the faithful are drawn there. A gunman begins shooting at the lights, screaming 'Go back to hell where you came from!' then turns his rifle on the innocent bystanders. As more and more people are drawn to the scene of the massacre, the stage is set for even greater bloodshed.

"To save his wife, Page must solve the mystery of the Rostov Lights. In the process, he uncovers a deadly government secret dating back to the First World War. The lights are more dangerous than anyone ever imagined, but more deadly are those who try to exploit forces beyond their control."


Fun, blaze-through read, this. It possesses Morrell's trademark elements: slightly-left-of-center quirkiness, solid enthralling action sequences and plot, and believable/relatable characters.

In short, this is a good book by a great writer.

Be sure to read the post-novel "Afterword: Specters in the Dark," where Morrell writes about the real-life inspiration(s) for this novel -- namely, the mysterious lights at Marfa, Texas, and similiar lights that appear at the "Hessdalen valley in Norway, a remote part of the Mekong River in Thailand, and a rugged area in northeastern Australia." An additional inspiration for the novel: the story behind the 1956 film Giant, which was filmed near Marfa, Texas.

Check this out.

Friday, July 10, 2009

'L' is for Lawless, by Sue Grafton

(pb; 1995: twelfth book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

From the inside cover:

"When Kinsey Millhone agrees to do a favor for Henry Pitts, her lovable octogenarian landlord, she literally gets taken for the ride of her life. The family of a recently deceased WWII veteran wants her to find out why the military has no record of his service. All Kinsey has to do, she thinks, is cut through some government red tape. But when the dead man's house is ransacked and his old army buddy is beaten up, she quickly realizes he was not all he seemed. Before long Kinsey is trailing crooks halfway across the country, impersonating a hotel maid, tangling with a baseball-bat-wielding grandmother, and running from one very dangerous character. With her money almost gone and her nerves frayed, Kinsey's got to solve a decades-old crime and make it back home in time for Henry's brother's wedding. . . if she can make it back at all. . ."


A good deed on Kinsey's part becomes more than that when she's forced to go on an interstate roadtrip with Ray Rawson, an untrustworthy ex-con, and his immature, deceptive daughter. Kinsey and company are being pursued by a psychopathic "former celly" of Rawson's, Gilbert Hays, who kills everybody who gets between him and what he wants: revenge, and loot from a decades-old crime.

Another straightforward, sometimes edgy, always entertaining Kinsey novel, this.

Check this series out!

Followed by 'M' is for Malice.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Junky, by William S. Burroughs

(pb; 1953: prequel to Queer)

This stark, semi-autobiographical account of a post-World War II bisexual heroin junkie is one of Burroughs's best, and most blunt, works. Written under the pseudonym William Lee, the low-life elements of Burroughs's/Lee's thinly-fictionalized experiences (drug addiction, being a fugitive from the law) are off-set by obviously-educated, minutiae-rich observations about living on "junk time," as well as his repeated, failed attempts to kick the life-draining habit for good.

Harrowing, bold, unforgettable book. It's a grim 158 pages, but its perfectly-telescoped and -honed writing, with its semi-cliffhanger-ish finish, makes this stand out from other drug-addiction memoirs that currently clog bookshelves.

Followed by Queer.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Living Dead in Dallas, by Charlaine Harris

(pb; 2002: second entry in The Sookie Stackhouse Novels)

From the back cover:

"Cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse is on a streak of bad luck. First, her coworker is murdered and no one seems to care. Then she's face-to-face with a beastly creature that gives her a painful and poisonous lashing. Enter the vampires, who graciously suck the poison from her veins (like they didn't enjoy it).

"Point is, they saved her life. So when one of the bloodsuckers asks for a favor, she complies. And soon, Sookie's in Dallas using her telepathic skills to search for a missing vampire. She's supposed to interview certain humans involved. There's just one condition: The vampires must promise to behave -- and let the humans go unharmed. Easier said than done. All it takes is one delicious blonde and one small mistake for things to turn deadly. . ."


Sookie's day-to-day activities (waitressing; hanging out with her boyfriend, Bill) take a weird turn when the body of one of her co-workers, a short-order cook named Lafayette, is found, torn apart, in a car in the diner parking lot.

A short time later, Sookie is attacked by a message-bearing maenad (Callisto) near the woods bordering Sookie's hometown, Bon Temps, Louisiana.

No mere coincidence, this attack: it has something to do with Eric Northman, head vampire in Sookie's area, who has summoned Sookie to his Shreveport bar.

Eric sends Sookie and Bill to Dallas, Texas, so she can use her mind-reading abilities to sort out a serious vampire matter there.

Not long after that, Sookie is kidnapped by The Fellowship of the Sun, a Christian hate group that kills vampires; Fellowship believers do this on what they believe for be moral/religious principles.

Like Dead Until Dark, this second book is a burn-through, character-cool, can't-set-down read.

Check this series out!

Followed by Club Dead.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Manitou Blood by Graham Masterton

(pb; 2005: fifth book in The Manitou series)

From the back cover:

"A bizarre epidemic is sweeping New York City. Doctors can only watch, as, one by one, victims fall prey to a very unusual blood disorder. They become unable to eat solid food, are extremely sensitive to daylight -- and they have an irresistible need to drink human blood. . .

"As panic, bloodlust and death grip the city, a few begin to consider the unimaginable: Could the old folktales and legends be true? Could the epidemic be the work of. . . vampires? Their search for the truth will lead them to shadowy realms where very few dare to go. They will seek help from both the living and the dead. And they will realize that their worst fear was only the beginning."


Masterton takes a comic book approach to the fifth Manitou book. He drops the reader in the middle of the storyline, then, as the action advances, fills in the backstory bit by bit. This is the most frenetic entry in The Manitou series.

When Frank Winter, a medical doctor, helps a young street mime (Susan Fireman) recover from a strange epileptic attack, he has no idea that this will be a kick-off event in even an larger medical catastrophe. It seems Susan has a mysterious disease that causes her to have a life-threatening fever, one that makes her violently crave the blood of other people.

Susan is not the only fever victim. All across the city, the death toll is rising. As Frank tries to figure out what's causing this disaster, he encounters Gil Johnson (a thirty-something National Guardsman), Jenica Dragomir (intellectual daughter of Razvan Dragomir, an expert on Romanian vampirism), and con man-psychic Harry Erskine.

Together, they will confront this transmutated disease (as well as its carriers) -- an oft-taled sickness that has now reached civilization-threatening proportions, and is tied to an even more powerful evil. . . an evil that Harry has battled four times* before.

Fun and fast-moving, this. Given the novel's dash-from-Word-One set-up, and its different take on vampirism (as well as its different handling of the Manitou's role in all this), this is one of the best, more distinctive novels in The Manitou series.

Followed by Blind Panic.

(*Harry Erskine and Misquamacus also tangled in a short story, "Spirit Jump," which takes place between Burial and Manitou Blood. This story appeared in the 1996 Faces of Fear anthology.)

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Burial by Graham Masterton

(hb; 1994: fourth book in The Manitou series)

From the inside flap:

"For Harry Erskine, the scene is frighteningly familiar. A paralyzing coldness fills the air, though it is the height of summer. A terrible, inhuman shadow moves across a wall, though nothing in the room is moving. A woman dies, ripped to bloody shreds, though no one is touching her.

"The Manitou has returned.
"All white men shall perish!

"Harry Erskine, professional fortune teller, has faced the Manitou before. Twenty years ago Harry and the woman he loved, Karen Tandy, nearly destroyed the vengeful Indian spirit. Fifteen years ago Harry and Singing Rock, a powerful shaman, drove the Manitou back into the Land of the Dead. But now Singing Rock is dead and Harry is more aware than ever that he has no real spiritual powers -- he's a con artist, not a clairvoyant.

"Still, he's the only person who may be able to stop the Manitou's deadly plan to destroy first the white man's great cities and then the white man himself. Two decades in the Great Outside have greatly increased the dead wonder-worker's abilities -- he takes possession of Karen Tandy's soul with a mere flick of power. Worse, the Manitou has joined forces with the spirit of a voodoo prince whose hatred of whites is undimmed by a century of death.

"As the Manitou sucks skyscrapers into the Land of the Dead, Harry Erskine joins forces with an Indian used-car salesman and magic-maker, and an innocent little girl who holds the key to the Manitou's destruction..."


Misquamacus, the series-titular Manitou, has found yet another supernatural loophole through which to escape death, also called the Great Outside. This time he's tied himself to a powerful, long-dead voodoo priest (Jonas DuPaul, aka Dr. Hambone, or Sawtooth). Together, they're causing transcontinental chaos across America: cities and their denizens are being sucked into the ground, via canyon-sized holes that suddenly appear without warning.

Having the same mastermind-villain behind so many books -- three, thus far -- could easily cause any genre-familiar reader (in this case, horror) to roll his eyes at the thought of another Manitou novel: didn't they vanquish that f*cker in two other books? It's like he's Freddy Krueger, or Jason Voorhees!

Fortunately, as Masterton proved in The Manitou and Revenge of the Manitou, this is a character- and plot-consistent series that's evolving, along with its characters. Many of the key characters may be familiar, but their theurgic dramas will play out differently than they did in previous books, up to a point.

This is also the first Manitou novel that would make a great A-list movie. Given its increasing scope, these Manitou/Dr. Hambone-caused horrors (possession; people ripped apart; entire cities sucked into mysterious, storm-attended voids) are epic, compared to the localized terrors of the first two Manitou novels.

As in the first two Manitou novels, and The Djinn (a Harry Erskine-based side-novel), the lead characters are memorable and believable, with a touch of quirkiness thrown into their personalities. Dr. Ernest Snow, the anthropologist who fought Misquamacus alongside Erskine in The Manitou, is drawn back into the fight to prevent the flesh-rending fruition of "All Shadows' Day, the day that the Ghost Dance comes true."

Also drawn into the supernatural struggle: Papago Joe, a used car salesman and an expert in Indian magic -- a human stand-in for the now-dead Singing Rock, who also helps, from a distance. Other notable characters include: Milan Protic (aka William Hood), a nineteenth-century Serbian vampire hunter who worked with Dr. Hambone when they were both alive; and Martin Vaizey, a highly-developed "sensitive" [psychic] whose conservative manners mask surprising quirks.

Excellent entry in The Manitou series. Like the other Manitou books, Burial works as a stand-alone read.

Followed by Manitou Blood.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris

(pb; 2001: first entry in The Sookie Stackhouse Novels)

From the back cover:

"Sookie Stackhouse is a small-time cocktail waitress in small-town Louisiana. She's quiet, keeps to herself, and doesn't get out much. Not because she's not pretty. She is. It's just that, well, Sookie has this sort of 'disability.' She can read minds. And that doesn't make her too dateable. And then along comes Bill. He's tall, dark, handsome -- and Sookie can't hear a word he's thinking. He's exactly the type of guy she's been waiting for all her life. . .

"But Bill has a disability of his own: He's a vampire with a bad reputation. He hangs with a seriously creepy crowd, all suspected of -- big suprise -- murder. And when one of Sookie's coworkers is killed, she fears she's next. . ."


Less a murder mystery than a fleet-footed story, this damn-near-impossible-to-set-down novel is an instant charmer. Lead character Sookie, a mind-reader with definite leanings and flaws, narrates the series of fantastic events with a natural Southern voice, making her world and those around her read believable.

Mystery-wise, the murderer, or murderers, isn't/aren't easy to spot. Credit author Harris for avoiding the all-too-common mistake of making the villains of the tale evil -- like real-life baddies, they're simply too intense or misguided in their goals and beliefs; ditto their methods for bringing them to fruition.

Excellent, memorable novel. When I was done reading it, I couldn't wait to read the next Sookie Stackhouse offering, Living Dead in Dallas.

Dead Until Dark, and it sequels, inspired a cable show, True Blood.

True Blood began airing on HBO on September 7, 2008. Anna Paquin plays Sookie Stackhouse. Stephen Moyer plays Bill Compton. Sam Trammell plays Sam Merlotte. Ryan Kwanten plays Jason Stackhouse. William ("Will") Sanderson plays Sheriff Bud Dearborne. Alexander Skarsgård (real-life son of Stellan Skarsgård) plays Eric Northman. Michael Raymond James plays Rene Lenier. Chris Bauer plays Detective Andy Bellefleur.

<em>The Letter, the Witch and the Ring</em> by John Bellairs

(pb; 1976: third book in the Lewis Barnavelt mysteries . Drawings by Richard Egielski .) From the back cover “Rose Rita [Pottinger]...