Saturday, November 28, 2009

Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

(hb; 2005: non-fiction; precedent work to SuperFreakonomics)

From the inside flap:

"What is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? How much do parents eally matter? What kind of impact did Roe v. Wade have on violent crime?

"These may not sound like typical questions for an economist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He is a much heralded scholar who studies the stuff and riddles of everyday life -- from cheating and crime to sports and child rearing -- and whose conclusions regularly turn the conventional wisdom on its head. He usually begins with a mountain of data and a simple, unasked question. Some of these questions concern life-and-death issues; others have an admittedly freakish quality. Thus the new field of study contained in this book: freakonomics.

" . . What unites all these stories is a belief that the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication, and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and -- if the right questions are asked -- is even more intriguing than we think. All it takes is a new way of looking. Steven Levitt, through devilishly clever and clear-eyed thinking, shows how to see through all the clutter."

Review:

Entertaining, off-beat, real-world smart, logical and compelling read, with eye-catching chapter titles: "What Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?"; "How Is The Klu Klux Klan Like a Group of Real Estate Agents?"; "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?", etc.

The authors back up their flashy chapter titles with solid, economist-minded reasoning -- some of controversial on multiple levels -- that, for this reader, ultimately rings true, and has made this already-wary reader even more wary (but not in a negative way)... even the darkest truths contained in Freakonomics are presented with a skilled, deft hand.

Own this, if you're willing to set aside your preconceptions of how people, society, morality, etc., work, and entertain a cooler (as in: more rational) view of how things work.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

**NON-REVIEW** TreSart L. Sioux interviewed on Logical Lust's Blog

My funny, talented erotica writer-friend TreSart L. Sioux was interviewed on Logical Lust's Blog, in May 2009.

Here's the link!

It's worth checking out if you're open-minded about writing, erotica, have a realistic sense of humor, and want to hear a great writer talk.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

'S' is for Silence, by Sue Grafton

(pb; 2005: nineteenth book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

From the inside flap:

"Cases don't get much colder than that of Violet Sullvian, who disappeared from her rural California town in 1953, leaving behind an abusive husband and a seven-year old named Daisy. But PI Kinsey Millhone has promised Daisy she'll try her best to locate Violet, dead or alive. All signs point to a runaway wife -- the clothes that disappeared; the secret stash of money Violet bragged about; the brazen flirtations she indulged in with local men, including some married ones. Kinsey tries to pick up the trail by speaking to those who remember Violet -- and perhaps were more involved in her life than they let on. But the trail could lead her somewhere very dangerous. Because the case may have gone cold, but some people's feelings about Violet Sullivan still run as hot as ever."

Review:

Grafton nails the suspense/PI genre again, with this tension-steadily-mounting, insanely suspenseful end-burn novel. This one is especially dark, as it deals with small town folk, and their long-held secrets and feelings.

Check this series out.

Followed by 'T' is for Trespass.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Doomsman, by Harlan Ellison

(pb; 1958: novella)

From the back cover:

"The man Eskalyo was a threat to the America State system.

"The youth Montoya was abducted by the Seekers and taken to the School for Assassins. What better person could they find to kill Eskalyo than his own son?

"The man Montoya began to doubt. . . doubt the system. . . doubt the School. . . But he had been trained -- brain-programmed to kill! Could Montoya strike the bloody blow that would kill the father he barely remembered?"

Review:

Spare, action-oriented writing, spiced wtih science-fiction neologisms, highlights this exciting work. The scenario is familiar, but Ellison's barebones, earnest take on the "man driven to hunt another man" plot is effective and involving. The ending, while not surprising, is equally sharp and sound.

This is one of Ellison's finer, more direct efforts. The Doomsman doesn't sport some of his wilder visions, but Ellison is not going for spectacle here: he's going for brutal simplicity (which he achieves).

All zing, no filler, this. Check it out.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold

(hb; 2002)

From the inside flap:

"When we first meet Susie Salmon, she is already in heaven. As she looks down from this strange new place, she tells us, in the fresh and spirited voice of a fourteen-year old girl, a tale that is both haunting and full of hope.

"In the weeks following her death, Susie watches life continuing without her -- her school friends trading rumors about her disappearance, her family holding out hope that she'll be found, her killer trying to cover his tracks. As months pass without leads, Susie sees her parents' marriage being contorted by loss, her sister hardening herself in an effort to stay strong, and her little brother trying to grasp the meaning of the word gone.

"And she explores the place called heaven. It looks a lot like her school playground, with the good kind of swing sets. There are counselors to help newcomers adjust and friends to room with. Everything she ever wanted appears as soon as she thinks of it -- except the thing she wants most: to be with the people she loved on Earth.

"With compassion, longing, and a growing understanding, Susie sees her loved ones pass through grief and begin to mend. Her father embarks on a risky quest to ensnare her killer. Her sister undertakes a feat of remarkable daring. And the boy Susie cared for moves on, only to find himself at the center of a miraculous event."

Review:

The novel, considering its horrible subject matter (child murder), is sensitive and balanced. While Sebold shows the dreadful oh-no moments leading up to Susie's murder, she doesn't show much of the actual murder. At the same time, she doesn't spare the reader, focusing on Susie's sensations during the aforementioned event.

Sebold's heaven is mainstream -- God is barely mentioned -- and Susie's "voice" is realistic: while touches of pubescent moodiness appear here and there, death has graced Susie with a certain maturity.

Sebold subtly illustrates the emotive, mutable patterns of grief and anger -- which strike at unexpected moments, triggered by seemingly inconsequential things.

Solid read, worth your time.

#

The resulting film is scheduled for a January 15, 2010 stateside release.

Peter Jackson directed the film, from a script he co-authored wtih Fran Walsh and Philipa Boyens.

Saoirse Ronan played Susie Salmon. Mark Wahlberg played Jack Salmon. Rachel Weisz played Abigail Salmon. Susan Sarandon played Grandma Lyn. Stanley Tucci played George Harvey. Thomas McCarthy played Principal Caden.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Man In The High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

(pb; 1962)

From the back cover:

"It's America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war -- and now is jointly occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan. This harrowing, Hugo Award-winning novel is the work that established Dick as an innovator in science fiction while breaking the barrier between science fiction and the serious novel of ideas. . ."

Review:

Dick's surreal swirl of a first novel is a stunner. In it, marijuana is packaged like cigarettes. The Nazis, still engaged in political internecenic warfare, keep things running, but only barely when the current head of government, Bormann (yes, that Bormann), dies. (Hitler, suffering from syphilis of the brrain, has been institutionalized.)

The Japanese, who hold sovereignty in other, more humane parts of the United States, are wary of their Teutonic counterparts, with good reason -- another war may be imminent, brought about by Nazi intrigue.


Not only that, there's a popular author, Hawthorne Abendsen, who's written a novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which imagines what might've happened, had the Allies won World War II: a call for revolution? Some of his readers think so.

The multi-viewpoint writing is straightforward, with little -- if any -- filler, each new sentence drawing responses that run the gamut of human emotion. (In particular, the sections about Abendsen's "imagined future" inspire disturbing and comforting bouts of laughter -- in this reader, at least.)

Satirical and unpredictable, this excellent first novel only hints at the genius of Dick's later novels.

Monday, November 16, 2009

'R' is for Ricochet, by Sue Grafton

(pb; 2004: eighteenth book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

From the inside flap:

"Reba Lafferty was a daughter of privilege, the only child of an adoring father. Nord Lafferty was already in his fifties when Reba was born, and he could deny her nothing. Over the years, he quietly settled her many scrapes with the law, but wasn't there for her when she was convicted of embezzlement and sent to the California Institution for Women. Now, at thirty-two, she is about to be paroled, having served twenty-two months of a four-year sentence. Nord Lafferty wants to be sure she stays straight, stays at home and away from the drugs, the booze, the gamblers.

"It seems a straightforward assignment for Kinsey: babysit Reba until she settles in, make sure she follows all the rules of her parole. Maybe all of a week's work. Nothing untoward -- the woman seems remorseful and friendly. And the money is good.

"But life is never that simple, and Reba is out of prison less than twenty-four hours when one of her old crowd comes circling around. . ."

Review:

Suspenseful, character-progressive, hard-to-put down read -- like all of Grafton's "alphabet mystery"/Kinsey Millhone novels.

Check this series out.

Followed by 'S' is for Silence.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Psycho II, by Robert Bloch

(pb; 1982: second book in the Psycho trilogy)

From the back cover:

"You remember Norman Bates -- the shy motel manager with the fatal mother fixation. Now, years after his bout of butchery that horrified the world, Norman is at large again, breaking free from the psycho ward, cutting a shocking swath of blood all the way to Hollywood -- where, it so happens, they are making a movie about Norman's life and crimes.

"A movie that suddenly and terrifyingly becomes a lot like real life."

Review:

The first portion of the book, viewed from Norman's point of view (POV) -- he knows who he is, and he's pissed at his dead Mother -- is exhilarating, delightfully bloody and shocking, and deeply disturbing: it seems Norman has picked up a few sexual kinks in the years since he was institutionalized. This is Bloch at the height of his powers, writing a worthy sequel to Psycho.

When the POV switches to that of other characters, notably Dr. Claiborne, the plot and writing becomes less potent, removed from the intimate, almost-unbearable intensity that is Norman's psychosis.

Seen through the other characters' eyes, Norman is an active bogeyman -- a cautionary tale to scare people, nothing more.

That's not to say that there aren't plenty of pulpish thrills in this. Bloch's macabre wit punctuates the prose, and his jabs at Hollywood and its denizens are dead-on.

As a murder mystery Psycho II works. It has lots of twists (some of them forced; pulp-writing relies heavily on constant shocks), dark humor and alarming content.

As a Psycho sequel, this failed, though the first section -- seen through Norman's eyes -- is great.

In short: good novel from a spectacular writer.

Followed by Psycho House.

A film, sharing the same title and main character, but otherwise unrelated to Bloch's second Psycho novel, lit up stateside silver screens on June 3, 1983.

Richard Franklin directed the film, in which Anthony Perkins reprised his role of Norman Bates. Vera Miles reprised her role of Lila Loomis (previously named Lila Craine). Meg Tilly played Mary Loomis. Robert Loggia played Dr. Bill Raymond. Dennis Franz played Warren Toomey. Tom Holland, who scripted the film, played Deputy Norris. Oz Perkins (son of Anthony Perkins and Berry Berenson, and elder brother of musician Elvis Perkins) played "Young Norman" (he was billed as "Osgood Perkins").

An uncredited Virginia Gregg reprised her voice-role of Norma Bates, Norman's mother.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Now You're One Of Us, by Asa Nonami

(pb; 1993, 2007: translated by Michael Volek & Mitsuko Votek)

From the back cover:

"The Shitos: eight people, four generations, one household, with young newlywed Noriko joining the clan to make nine. Her husband Kazuhito adores her to distraction and her in-laws seem to be the most good-natured people imaginable. the family owns a thriving business and lives on a sprawling estate in the suburbs of Tokyo where they've created a floral paradise. Once a series of strange events and inconsistencies trigger Noriko's suspicions, however, reality becomes inseparable from her own dark imaginings."

Review:

Okay read from a potentially-great writer.

The pluses:

Now You're One Of Us flows better than Nonami's translation-stilted The Hunter. Nonami is in her element here, with strong characters and a pace (for the most part) that wastes no time establishing the initially low-key creepiness necessary for this kind of novel.

The minuses:

Now You're One Of Us is predictable.

Anyone who's read Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, or seen the resulting film, will spot the lame end-"twist" early on. In this day and age, at least in the United States, that twist is Clichéd, with a capital "C".

While reading Now, I kept hoping that Nonami was playing the clichéd set-up to spring some mind-f*ck/paradigm-shift on the reader. Sadly, this is not the case.

Another deal-killer on this 239-page novel is that it's seventy-five to a hundred pages too long. The last quarter of Now would've been fine if the storyline wasn't so predictable: yes, folks, another case of style over increasingly-thin substance.

Also, in order to support the flagging storyline, Now's characters start acting dumb, really dumb. Not 'cinematic-teenagers-in-a-haunted-house' dumb, but close.

With a less common set-up, and a lot of end-section trimming, this novel-that-should've-been-a-novella is disappointing, at best.

As far as I know of, The Hunter and Now You're One Of Us are the only Nonami English-translated novels available stateside. I hope more come this way soon, because I'd like to read a nailed-it work by this potentially-wondrous author.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Charnel House by Graham Masterton

(pb; 1978)


From the back cover:

"When Seymour Willis told people his house was breathing, they thought he was crazy -- until they heard it for themselves. . . The sound was terrifying -- like a human heartbeat, pounding within the walls.

"Led by John Hyatt, San Francisco Sanitation Department Exterminator, the disbelievers investigated. Their only lead was an ancient Indian legend. Centuries ago a demon coyote had been banished from that very spot. Now the creature lived again -- and killed again -- grotesquely murdering one of the searchers.

"By then it was too late to stop the fiendish force from rejoining the land of the living -- wreaking vengeance on those who had denied his very existence."


Review:

Compact, fast-moving, suspenseful, deftly-characterized entry in the horror genre.

A couple of the scenes in Charnel House threatened to crash this reader's suspension of disbelief, but Masterton, aware of how the workings of ancient Indian magic must seem to a non-believer, isn't above cracking darkly-comical jokes, or explaining why characters do the things they do, and why certain scenes play out the way they do.

Solid, and chock full of cinematic money shots, this is a B-flick worthy novel that echoes an earlier novel of Masterton's, The Manitou.

Charnel House sufficiently differs from The Manitou, making Charnel House an original, interlinked work. (The Gitche Manitou, a heavily-mentioned element/character in the Manitou series, gets a mention in Charnel House.)

In some ways, because of its deeper characterizations, its colorful locale (San Francisco), and its fuller explanations of Indian magic, Charnel House is a superior, more fully realized work than The Manitou.

Both novels -- and the Manitou series -- are worth reading, but if you're looking for a fun, horrific afternoon read, check out Charnel House first, then start the Manitou series.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Strange Blood, by Lindsay Jayne Ashford

(hb; 2005: second book in the Megan Rhys Mystery series)

From the inside flap:

". . . forensic psychologist Dr. Megan Rhys is called in to help the police investigate what they believe to be a ritual killing. But as more women die, and as the press, the police, her boss, and even her own family turn on her, Megan stakes everything on finding the killer."

Review:

Excellent, tightly-plotted and -characterized read, this. Its tone is warmer, emotionally-broadened, compared to its also-excellent prequel, Frozen, and it was near-impossible to put down (which I did, reluctantly, because I have my own stories to write).

If you're a fan of police or forensics procedurals, you owe it to yourself to check out this series.

Followed by Death Studies.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Psycho, by Robert Bloch

(hb; 1959: first book in the Psycho trilogy)

From the back cover:

"When the Bates Motel loomed up out of the storm, Mary Craine thought it was her salvation. The rooms were musty but clean, and the manager, Norman Bates, seemed like a nice enough fellow, if a little strange. . .

"Then Mary met Norman's mother. And the butcher knife.

"The nightmare had just begun. . ."

Review:

Pulp-style writing, crisp prose, succinct characterizations, macabre puns and shocking violence form this familiar landmark work. This, easily, is one of the best pulp novels I've ever read.

Own it!

Followed by Psycho II.

Psycho resulted in two film versions.

The first version was released stateside on August 25, 1960. Helmed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock and scripted by Joseph Stefano, it starred Anthony Perkins in his career-defining role of Norman Bates.

Janet Leigh played Marion Crane (cinematic stand-in for Mary Craine). Vera Miles played Lila Craine. John Gavin played Sam Loomis. Martin Balsam played Milton Arbogast. Simon Oakland played Dr. Fred Richmond. Patricia "Pat" Hitchcock (daughter of Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville) played Caroline.

An uncredited Virginia Gregg played the voice-role of Norma Bates, Norman's mother.

#

The second version, directed and produced by Gus Van Sant, was released stateside on December 4, 1998. Joseph Stefano's screenplay for the original version was used for this almost shot-for-shot remake.

Vince Vaughn played Norman Bates. Anne Heche played Marion Crane. Julianne Moore played Lila Crane. Viggo Mortensen played Samuel "Sam" Loomis. William H. Macy played Milton Arbogast. Robert Forster played Dr. Fred Richmond. Phillip Baker Hall played Sheriff Al Chambers. James Remar played "Patrolman". Rita Wilson played Caroline. James LeGros played "Charlie the Car Dealer".

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Dahlia Season, by Myriam Gurba

(pb; 2007: story/novella anthology)

From the back cover:

"Chicana. Goth. Dykling. Desiree Garcia knows she's weird and a weirdo magnet. To extinguish her strangeness, her parents ship her to Saint Michael's Catholic High School, then to Mexico, but neurology can't be snuffed out so easily: screwy brain chemistry holds the key to Desiree's madness. As fellow crazies sense a kinship with her, Desiree attracts a coterie of both wanted and unwanted admirers, including a pair of racist deathrock sisters, a pretty Hispanic girl who did time in California's most infamous mental asylum, and a transnational stalker with a pronounced limp.

". . . Dahlia Season contains not only the title novella, but also several of Gurba's acclaimed short stories."

Overall review:

Beneath the distinctive blend-veneer of literary fringe-work -- read: Mexican-American/dyke/BDSM/goth -- elements lies a level-headed, sweet-natured, true-to-the-author's-roots anthology that celebrates borderline-spiritual diversity, be it dark, innocent, or both.

This is an assured, measured, sometimes-intense, tri-lingual work that flows hard, fast and true. Worth owning, this.

Descriptions, piece by piece:

"Cruising": A cross-dressing woman cruises gay guys on the Long Beach boardwalk.

"Just Drift": A high school junior (Roberto Cassidy Moran) has a memorably bad day. Dramatic, vivid finish to this one.

"White Girl": A Mexican-American goth girl fall in love for the first time, with another goth girl.

"Primera Communión": Esperanza (aka Angel Malo), a take-it-easy homegirl, finds a way to exit her childhood barrio, via an unexpected source.

"Dahlia Season"(novella): See the back cover description.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Day of the Guns, by Mickey Spillane

(pb; 1964: first book of the Tiger Mann Thriller series)

From the inside flap:

". . . counterspy Tiger Mann. . . smashes into a Communist conspiracy involving UN delegates; CIA agents; ex-Nazi spies; a bold-bosomed, no-good beauty who's so kissable and so killable. . ."

Review:

Standard, moves-so-fast-it-dizzies-the-reader effort from Spillane; it's fun, it's fast, it's Spillane by-the-numbers -- not a bad thing, necessarily, just not one of his better efforts.

Mann, as a character, is a stand-in for Mike Hammer: they're essentially the same hard-hitting characters, but with a slight, novel-flawing difference -- Mann speechifies more than Hammer does (though Hammer was understandably nationalistic in the post-9/11 novel, The Goliath Bone).

Mann's occasional blusterings stalled, distracted this reader from, the novel's adrenalized, slight storyline.

Also: the supposed "twist" at the end of the novel is obvious from the get-go.

Worth reading, if you're a Spillane fan. Just don't expect a lot from this one.

Followed by Bloody Sunrise.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Hunter, by Asa Nonami

(hb; 1996, 2006: translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. First book in the Detective Takako Otomichi Mystery series)

From the inside flap:

"When Takako Otomichi chooses the career of detective, her family disapproves and her male colleagues refuse to take her seriously, especially hard-bitten old gumshoe Sergeant Tamotsu Takizawa, her reluctant partner on the hunt for a mysterious murderer whose grisly trademark is to rip out the throats of his victims.

"The pair must put their differences aside as their search for the killer takes them into Tokyo's seedy underworld of drugs, nightclubs, and teenage prostitution, and to the terrifying realization that the murderer is some kind of wild animal on the loose in the city streets. Before long, Takako is hot on the trail of her dangerous yet highly intelligent prey in a hair-raising journey that will bring her face-to-face with the killer and face-to-face with herself."

Review:

I don't know if it's a translation issue -- no disrespect toward Carpenter's translating abilities -- or an inherent element of Nonami's writing, but the first quarter of The Hunter is an awkward, stilted affair. Perhaps it's appropriate, given how awkward and hostile Otomichi and Takizawa are towards each other, as they slowly learn to work together as partners.

This series set-up novel gets better in the second quarter, as Otomichi and Takizawa's personal details, as well as the plot, begin to gel. Both of the lead characters, as well as a couple of the background characters, are interesting. The plot, occasionally flashy and twistless, is police procedural-standard at best, aside from the case's two wild-card elements.

Nonami has crafted an uneven but attention-getting work: a series kick-off that, with its interesting lead characters and strange hook-elements, makes me curious about her next Takako Otomichi Mystery (if it gets published stateside). A second entry could easily improve upon the first, if The Hunter is any indication; Nonami has it in her to be a stand-out writer.

Check it out, just don't expect too much.