Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Derby Girl, by Shauna Cross

(hb; 2007: YA novel)

From the inside flap:

"Meet Bliss Cavendar, an indie-rock-loving misfit stuck in the tiny town of Bodeen, Texasd. Her paegant-addicted mother expects her to compete for the coveted Miss Bluebonnet crown, but Bliss wold rather feast on roaches than be subjected to such rhinestone tyranny.

"Bliss's escape? Roller Derby.

"When she discovers a league in nearby Austin, Bliss embarks on an epic journey full of hilarious tattooed girls, delicious boys in bands, and a few not-so-awesome realities even the most bad-assed derby chick has to learn."


Emotionally honest and charming first-person-narrative work. It's short, with a story that moves along at a swift, focused clip; just as important, Derby Girl is a realistic work, staying adolescent true in its balancing of teenage angst/hormonal surges and self-absorption/search for identity confusion -- it's not a rosy-eyed remembrance of being young(er), nor is it too gushy, like some teenage-voiced novels are.

This is good read that became an excellent movie, retitled Whip It. (I saw an advance screening of the movie last weekend.)


Whip It is scheduled to grace stateside theater screens on October 2, 2009.

Drew Barrymore, who directed the film, plays Smashley Simpson. Ellen Page plays Bliss Cavendar. Alia Shawkat plays Pash. Marcia Gay Harden plays Brooke Cavendar. Daniel Stern plays Earl Cavendar. Eulala Scheel plays Shania Cavendar. Kristen Wiig plays Maggie Mayhem. Jimmy Fallon plays "Hot Tub" Johnny Rocket. Juliette Lewis plays Iron Maven. Zoe Bell plays Bloody Holly. Andrew Wilson plays Razor. Eve plays Rosa Sparks. Landon Pigg plays Oliver.

The film was scripted by novel author Shauna Cross.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Winter Sleep, by Kenzo Kitakata

(pb; 1996, 2004: translated by Mark Schilling)

From the back cover:

"Nakagi, an ex-con painter who has sequestered himself in a mountain cabin, is trying to elevate his art. The only thing breaking his solitude are the visits of two women: an art dealer who wants him to produce the sort of paintings that she would like to buy from him, and a young, aspiring, and soulful apprentice. When Nakagi welcomes an escaped felon into the emotionally fraught fold, and begins to teach him to paint as well, Winter Sleep awakens to. . . an incendiary climax."


Out of the three Kitakata novels I've read this month, this one is my favorite. It maintains the underlying edge-intensity of The Cage and Ashes, but there's an enveloping sense of peace throughout most of this work -- a (comparatively) mellow-ish, contagious mood that I got caught up in while reading this.

Technically, this is still a crime-genre work: two of the characters are murderers (quirky murderers, but murderers just the same), and, as a result of those characters, there are cops, as well.

But the heart of this novel lies in the often-lonely characters, and their individual and collective searches for understanding and peace:

Masatake Nakagi, the ex-con painter who narrates this years-long tale, is still restless, but he senses that his peace waits around a nearby corner.

Akiko Tsukada, an eighteen-year old fledgling painter and Nakagi's apprentice-artist, is passive aggressive: sometimes listless and/or accepting, other times a wild animal.

Koichi Oshita, a misfit murderer on the lam and another Nakagi apprentice-artist, is on a similar course as Nakagi and Tsukada, yet his journey -- familiar to Nakagi -- is formed by Oshita's equally-strange personality.

Natsue Kosugi, a proud, successful art agent whores herself to Nakagi just to get close to the artist's evolving, often incomplete paintings.

This, hands down, is one of the best books I've read this year. I wish I'd written this, and I plan to own it.

As excellent, diverse and off-kilter as Ashes and The Cage, Winter Sleep should especially appeal to artistic-minded readers -- painters, writers, etc. -- and crime buffs.

I can't read to wait other books by Kenzo Kitakata.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

'O' Is For Outlaw, by Sue Grafton

(pb; 1999: fifteenth book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

From the back cover:

"Once Mickey Magruder was a cop with a wild streak. And Kinsey Millhone was a younger cop who adored and married him. Then Mickey was implicated in a fatal beating, and Kinsey walked out. Now, fourteen years later, she comes face-to-face with those tragic yars and Mickey's harrowing downward spiral after he lost the job he loved -- and the marriage he loved a little less.

"Mickey lies dying in an L.A. hospital. Trying to find out how Mickey got there, Kinsey uncovers evidence that he was innocent of the beating charges. But as she searches through the lives that swirled around Mickey's -- lives gone wrong and lives gone well -- Kinsey must also search the blind spots of her own life, including one that hides a killer."


One of the more personal Kinsey Millhone novels, this -- and one of the best.

Kinsey is trying to find out why her first ex-husband was shot, the victim of intended murder. In doing so, this means she has to recover some uncomfortable elements and characters from her now-more-dangerous past.

Like the other Kinsey reads, this starts as a slow first-few-chapters burn, building to a full-forest plot blaze, as Kinsey uncovers secrets, clues and more unsavory characters than you can beat down with a Whack-A-Mole club.

Excellent, as usual. This series is one of the best detective series I've ever read.

Followed by 'P' Is For Peril.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Dexter By Design, by Jeff Lindsay

(hb; 2009: fourth book in the Dexter series)

From the inside flap:

"Back from his surprisingly glorious honeymoon in Paris, Miami blood spatter analyst Dexter Morgan is one step closer to perfecting his human disguise. Married life feels almost normal, and even seems to agree with him: he's a devoted husband who plays Kick The Can with his little Dexters-in-training, Astor and Cody; his stomach is full; and his homicidal hobbies are nicely under control. But old habits die hard. . . and Dexter's work for the Miami Police Department never fails to offer up new playmates -- bad men who appeal to his offbeat and unshakable sense of justice.

"The discovery of a corpse, artfully arranged in a very public place, sends shock waves through the Miami Police Department and the tourist industry alike. And when more of these 'decorative projects' are displayed around Miami, Dexter and his Dark Passenger can't help but lend their expertise and get involved. Miami's finest, led by Dex's surly sister, Deborah, realize they've got a terrifying new serial killer on the loose. . . and Dexter, of course, is back in business."


Dexter once again runs the edge-line between being "outed" as a serial killer (by the police) and death, as a new killer -- one with a penchant for highly-publicized video murders -- stalks Dexter and his family.

The plot structure is familiar (it's reminiscent of Darkly Dreaming Dexter, with character-based expansive elements of its two sequels thrown into the mix), but Dexter By Design is so joyously audacious in its hilarious and horrific flaunting of familial and social mores that the familiar structure is a moot point.

Sublime, pitch-black funny, and oddly heart-warming (especially the violent climax), this is a worthy follow-up to Dexter In The Dark, and a welcome addition to the Dexter series.

Check this series out!

Followed by Dexter is Delicious.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dead And Gone, by Charlaine Harris

(hb; 2009: ninth entry in The Sookie Stackhouse Novels)

From the inside flap:

"For Sookie Stackhouse, the day-to-day activities of the vampire and Were communities in and around Bon Temps, Louisiana, are of vital interest. She's blood bound to the leader of the vamps, is a friend to the local Were pack, works for a man who is a shifter, and has a brother who is a werepanther. . .

"But for most of the humans in Bon Temps, the vamps are mysterious, seductive creatures -- and they don't even know about the Weres.

"Until now. The Weres and shifters have finally decided to follow the lead of the undead and reveal their existence to the ordinary world.

"At first it seems to go well. Then the mutilated body of a werepanther is found in the parking lot of the bar where Sookie works. The victim is someone she knows, so she feels compelled to discover who -- human or otherwise -- did the deed.

"But what she doesn't realize is that there is a much greater danger than the killer threatening Bon Temps. A race of unhuman beings -- older, more powerful, and far more secretive than vampires or werewolves -- is preparing for war. And Sookie will find herself an all-too-human pawn in their battle."


Caveat: (possible) spoilers in this review.

Another fleet-footed, pot-boilin' tale from Harris.

This time out, Sookie's dodging the questions of two FBI agents who are curious how telepaths Sookie and Barry Horowitz (aka "Barry Bellboy") helped locate survivors at the Pyramid of Gizeh hotel bombing (at the end of All Together Dead).

She's also being stalked by abattoir-minded fey folk, political enemies of her fully-fey great-grandfather, Niall.

Not only that, Sookie, along with the FBI and the local PD, is trying to figure out who murdered then crucified her cheatin'-heart sister-in-law, Crystal, behind Sam Merlotte's bar.

Like most of the previous Sookie books -- the one exception is All Together Dead -- Dead And Gone has that relatable, fast n' furious vibe that makes this continually-expanding series such a hoot to read.

Fun, often intense, surprise-filled read, this. Check it out!

Followed by a Sookie-based anthology, A Touch of Dead (which is scheduled for an October 6, 2009 release).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How To Survive A Robot Uprising: Tips On Defending Yourself Against The Coming Rebellion, by Daniel H. Wilson

(pb; 2005: non-fiction/survival guide; illustrated by Richard Horne)

From the back cover:

"In this essential survival guide, roboticist Daniel H. Wilson teaches worried humans the secrets to squashing a robot mutiny. From treating laser wounds to fooling face and speech recognition, outwitting robot logic to engaging in hand-to-pincer combat, How To Survive A Robot Uprising covers every possible doomsday scenario facing the newest endangered species: humans.

"Based on extensive interviews with prominent scientists working on the cutting edge of the latest robotics technology, and including a thorough overview of current robot prototypes -- everything from humanoid walkers to insect, gecko, and snake robots -- How To Survive A Robot Uprising is a perfect introduction to contemporary robotics."


Practical, droll-humored guide to dealing with varied, cinematic-style robot takeovers. There are so many quotable lines in this, I spent as much time scribbling down quotes as I did reading this short glossy-paged book.

Horne's distinctive cut n' paste style, intentionally-kitschy artwork perfectly complements Wilson's straight-faced prose.

A must-own read, for a wide range of readers -- it cuts across so many genre lines.

This is scheduled to become a film in 2011. Mike Myers is scheduled to star; Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant (of Reno 911!) are "scripting [the film] for Paramount." (This quote comes from - May 23, 2009.)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Candy Girl, by Diablo Cody

(hb; 2006: memoir)

From the inside flap:

"Diablo Cody was twenty-four years old when she had a revelation -- surely, there had to be more to life than typing copy at an ad agency. On a whim, she signed up for amateur night at Minneapolis's seedy Skyway Lounge. While she didn't win a prize that night, Diablo discovered a rush she had never felt before, and an experience she couldn't forget. Although she didn't quite fit the ordinary profile of a stripper -- with a supportive boyfriend, equal parts brainpower and beauty, from a good family, and out to do a little soul searching -- she soon immersed herself in this enticing life full time.

"But don't be misled -- this is not the story of a girl gone wrong who finds herself stripping just to scrape by while living life on the wild side. Far from it. It's the captivating fish-out-of-water story of a young woman who tried something outrageously new, providing a behinds-the-scene look at this dark world where one keeps her wits -- and wit -- about her. . ."


Funny, smart, charming and honest account of a nerdish young woman's one-year gig as a stripper (or "showgirl," as most club owners call them) at various, often wildly-different clubs in Minnesota: the same sensibility that infused Cody's Academy Award-winning screenplay for Juno is on display here, though the subject matter of Candy Girl is more adult in nature.

Cody's prose flies sleaze-free and fast, enhanced by snarky side-bar lists (e.g., "Ten Worst Songs To Strip To") with a refreshing, no-regrets attitude.

Check this out, if you're open-minded and looking for something to make you chuckle. It's well worth your time.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Ashes, by Kenzo Kitakata

(hb; 1990, 2003: translated by Emi Shimokawa)

From the inside flap:

"The vices and virtues of middle age are espied with an eagle eye in this hardboiled story about a mid-career gangster. Unfolding through chiseled sketches and run through with tantalizing motifs, Kitakata's masterpiece follows the fortunes of a yakuza mobster as his moment of truth approaches..."


Male yakuza-filtered brutality and observations define and structure this edgy, masterful work.

Ashes is divided into two sections: "The Man Within" and "Within The Man".

The first section, "The Man Within," is written as a string of jigsaw-pieced, third-person-POV'd chapters, showing Tanaka, a middle-aged, middle-management yakuza as he, in unconventional fashion, extorts and dispatches orders to his "punk" underlings.

These reader-teasing, motif-recurrent chapters may prove frustrating for readers who are used to having their narratives spoonfed to them. (Those finding themselves put out by Kitakata's structuring of Ashes may enjoy Kitakata's The Cage more -- it sports a more-linear, noir-traditional structure.)

The second section, "Within The Man," ties the characters and motifs of the first section into a first-person narrative. Seen through the eyes of the punk-spirited esoteric Tanaka, the events of the second section -- results of what happened in the first section -- are more linear, and easier to follow, culminating in a finish that is character-progressive and sublime.

Spillane-eseque and worth owning, this.

Fans of filmmaker/actor Takeshi "Beat" Kitano may enjoy this writer. Kitakata shares Kitano's offbeat, yakuza-stark humor, as well as Kitano's sense of structuring.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Evil At Heart, by Chelsea Cain

(hb; 2009: third book in the Gretchen Lowell series)

From the inside flap:

"Gretchen Lowell is still on the loose. These days, she's more of a cause célèbre than a feared killer, thanks to sensationalistic news coverage that has made her a star. Her face graces magazine covers weekly and there have been sightings of her around the world. Most shocking of all, Portland Herald reporter Susan Ward has uncovered a bizarre kind of fan club, which celebrates the number of days she's been free.

"Archie Sheridan hunted her for a decade, and after his last ploy to catch her went spectacularly wrong, remains hospitalized months later. When they last spoke,they entered a détente of sorts -- Archie agreed not to kill himself if she agreed not to kill anyone else. But when a new body is found accompanied by Gretchen's trademark heart, all bets are off and Archie is forced back into action. Has the Beauty Killer returned to her gruesome ways, or has the cult surrounding her created a whole new evil?"


Evil at Heart, like Heartsick and Sweetheart before it, is a burn-through-frenzy read. The plot and tension never let up from Word One; the characters are interesting -- especially Susan Ward, who's become decisive and life-smart, and Archie Sheridan, who, finally, seems to be outgrowing his conjoined obsessions for Gretchen and Vicadin.

What differentiates Evil from other Gretchen novels is the injection of the Gretchen-based cults that have sprung up; the existence of those possibly-proactive cults intensifies the expanding storyline.

One nit: the ending's solid (especially in how it relates to Sheridan's growth as a character), but it's anti-climactic. Cain could've easily ended this fun serial killer romp on a memorable high note with a few choice sentences, but it looks like she's going to crank out, at the very least, one more Gretchen novel.

I'll read that book, and probably like it, as Cain is an excellent, pop-culture savvy writer; however, it may very well read like a style/talent-over-substance work. I hope I'm wrong, in this case.

Check it out, don't expect a great ending.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Cage, by Kenzo Kitakata

(hb; 1983, 2006: translated by Paul Warham)

From the back cover:

"Kazuya Takino leads a quiet life running a supermarket in the Tokyo suburbs. But when an extortionist tries to force him out of business, he finds himself drawn into the yakuza underworld -- a world he once called home and though he had left behind. Pursuing him is Detective Takagi, an aficionado of French cigarettes and modernist poetry, the most decorated inspector on the Tokyo police force. As the shadowy Maruwa gang engages Takino in an escalating cycle of violence and retaliation, Detective Takagi can only stand by and watch as the beast within Takino is lured further and further out of his cage."


The Cage is structured by a less choppy, easier to follow narrative style than Kitakata's Ashes, but its tone is still yakuza-tough; a nervous energy inundates Kitakata's word choices. The Cage's gets-under-your-skin intensity kept this reader on delicious edge throughout, all the way to the violent, sweaty, gore-soaked finale.

The root-for-the-anti-hero finale may prove semi-predictable to those familiar with classic noir, but it's homage-worthy just the same.

Readers who might've been put off by the jump-cutty style of Ashes should give this one a try: it's more noir-traditional, with more than a few character-based twists up its blood-spattered sleeves.

Worth owning, this.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

From Dead To Worse, by Charlaine Harris

(hb; 2008: eighth entry in The Sookie Stackhouse Novels)

From the inside flap:

"The supernatural community in Bon Temps, Louisiana, is reeling from two hard blows -- the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the man-made horror of the explosion at the vampire summit the month before in the up-north city of Rhodes. Sookie Stackhouse is safe but dazed, yearning for things to get back to normal. But that's just not happening. Too many vampires -- some friends, some not -- were killed or injured, and her weretiger boyfriend, Quinn, is among the missing.

"It's clear things are changing, whether the Weres and vamps in her corner of Louisiana like it or not. And Sookie -- friend of the pack and blood-bonded to Eric Northman, the leader of the local vampire community -- is caught upin the changes.

"In the ensuing battles, Sookie faces danger, death. . . and once more, betrayal by someone she loves. And when the fur has finished flying and the cold blood flowing, her world will be forever altered. . ."


Caveat: (possible) spoilers in this review.

This isn't a mystery novel in any sense, simply -- intentionally -- a fiction novel.

Sookie has her hands full, dealing with: emotional fall-out resulting from the high-body count explosion at the Pyramid of Gizeh hotel (at the end of All Together Dead); another bloody Were-group coup; a rash of political assassinations within vampire territories; the disappearance of her Were-tiger sweetie Quinn; the swell of Fellowship of the Sun numbers in Bon Temps; and the discovery of previously-hidden relatives, some supernatural, some human.

Between all of the above hub-bub, Harris keeps the plot boiling along at a fast, amusing clip.

From Dead To Worse is better than the last Sookie outing (the too-predictable All Together Dead, where some characters became Unaccountably Stupid).

Guilt-free, fun Sunday-afternoon read, this. Check it out.

Followed by Dead And Gone.

<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]...