Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Hunger, by Whitley Strieber

(hb; 1981: first book in the Vampire Life series)

From the inside flap:

"Miriam Blaylock, rich and beautiful, lives life to the fullest -- a house in Manhattan's exclusive Sutton Place, a husband she adores, priceless antiques, magnificent roses. But then John Blaylock, like all Miriam's past lovers, suddenly begins to age. Almost overnight, his body reveals the truth: he is nearly two hundred years old!

"Fearing the terrible isolation of eternity, Miriam stalks a new lover. She is Sarah Roberts, a brilliant young sleep researcher who has discovered the blood factor that controls aging and thus may possess the secret of immortality. Miriam desperately wants Sarah, for herself and for her knowledge. But to win her, Miriam must destroy Sarah's love for Dr. Tom Haver, who learns that his enemy is like no other woman who has ever lived. . . now or forever."

Review:

Melancholy, romantic, cynical, classic vampire novel, with characters whose time-salted wounds, secret or evident, infuse their present -- often irrational -- actions. Even cool-headed, predatory Miriam is not immune from occasional irrationality, justified as experience-based logic.

The Hunger is a hard to put down, atmospheric, emotionally-restrained and -explosive read that ably mingles the sweet and the rot: it could, very likely, prove to be a stylistic, cornerstone read for readers with tragic-Goth(ic) leanings.

Check it out.

Followed by The Last Vampire.

The Hunger, the film, was released stateside on April 29, 1983.

Catherine Deneuve played Miriam. David Bowie played John. Susan Sarandon played Sarah Roberts. Cliff De Young played Tom Haver. Dan Hedaya played Lieutenant Alleggrezza. Ann Magnuson played "Young Woman from Disco". Willem Dafoe played ""2nd Phone Booth Youth". Beth Ehlers played Alice Cavender. Rufus Collins played Charlie Humphries. Suzanne Bertish played Phyllis.

Goth band Bauhaus played "Disco Group" (performing "Bela Lugosi Is Dead").

Tony Scott directed, from a script by James Costigan, Ivan Davison and Michael Thomas.

A cable series, loosely linked to the film, began airing on July 19, 1987. It ran two seasons, its final episode airing on March 5, 2000.

David Bowie appeared in nine episodes (1999-2000). Terence Stamp hosted five episodes (1997-1998).

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

All She Was Worth, by Miyuki Miyabe

(hb; 1992, 1996: translated by Alfred Birmbaum)

From the inside flap:

"Police detective Shunsuke Honma should be at the peak of his career, but can't stop the world from closing in around him. Alone with his small son, he's on an extended leave of absence since a car accident killed his wife and a stray bullet left him with a limp. His self-imposed exile is interrupted by a visit from a young nephew. It seems a routine credit card application turned up a bankruptcy in his fiancée's past, and she disappeared without a word.

"Honma visits the office where she last worked and checks into her resumé, only to find that all the previous employers listed are invented and that she owes massive debts to loan sharks. How well had his nephew ever known her?

"What would it take to cut through the elaborate red tape Japan uses to keep tabs on its citizens and become a different person? Maybe murder?"

Review:

Plotwise, this is more routine than The Devil's Whisper and Crossfire -- as in: no supernatural or subliminal elements are woven into the storyline.

Characterwise, it's masterfully complex, plot-twisty and character-true, with each character -- even the elusive Shoko Sekine -- shown as a realistic being with good and bad points. The characters are a big part of the glue that holds this quietly intriguing story together.

That is not to say that the storyline is staid; Miyabe subtly increases the tension, character by character, clue by clue, to an emotionally-charged open ending that reminded me of John le Carré's novel, Smiley's People (one of my all-time favorite book finishes).

Another entertaining, excellent novel from Miyabe, a bestselling author in Japan -- and rightfully so, judging by the three books I've read by her.

Worth owning, this, if you have space for a large personal library and must own what you love; worth checking out from the library, and recommending, if you're like me -- as in: you prefer a compacted "all-time favorites" book collection, and have little space to store books.

Either way, Miyabe's consistently distinctive works are worth your time and money.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Fog, by James Herbert

(pb; 1975)

From the back cover:

"In an exclusive school, students sexually assaulted and mutilated their teachers, then savagely turned on one another. . . in a great seaside resort, thousands of people joined in a monstrous act of self-destruction. . . in a lonely room, an old lady was shredded and eaten by her beloved pet cats. . . in the streets of the city, mass copulation and insane slaying spread from block to block.

"From the depths of the earth the fog had come -- to poison the deepest recesses of the human mind and soul. And as a group of scientists in an insulated underground laboratory worked around the clock to find out what this fog was and how to stop it, time was running out for mankind. . ."

Review:

Don't let the above, overly-familiar scenario turn you off from this brisk, exciting novel.

Herbert's writing is straightforward and solid, his characters are believable, and the scenario (as timely today as it was when the book was published), is intense.

The ending, simple and laugh-out-loud funny, maintains the sharp, intelligent feel of the rest of the novel.

Fun, hard to put down work: I read this in less than a day. Normally it takes me several days to read a book, given my schedule.

Check it out.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Little Birds, by Anaïs Nin

(pb; 1979: erotica anthology)

Overall review:

This is one of my all-time favorite erotic anthologies. I've read this three times, but I don't recall reviewing it.

Nin's influence on my own story writing is immeasurable.

Nin favors mood and character exploration over overt plots, which, when I subconsciously conjure up her influence in my writing, helps -- has helped -- me balance my preference for penning quick-minded plots/action over character development/mood.

Organically erotic and sometimes disturbing, even her slighter stories are written in an assured and consistently reader-hooking manner; in this collection, only a couple of so-so stories are on display: "The Chanchiquito" (which is flat-out strange); "Two Sisters" (which reads like a flitting, if restrained, soap opera early on).


Standout stories:

"Little Birds": A married man (Manuel) who enjoys watching school girls at innocent public play builds an exotic birdhouse to fascinate them, bring them into viewing range. Disturbing, sharp, with a sublime exit line (despite its repellant subject).

"The Woman on the Dunes": Steamy entry about a young man (Louis) who is seduced by a mysterious woman; the woman tells him about a recent, macabre -- and joyous -- sexual encounter. One of the most memorable 'life in the midst of death'-themed short works I've ever read.

"Sirocco": A woman recounts a scandalous travel experience to a houseguest. Like "The Woman on the Dunes," this expertly-spun tale effortlessly seduces the reader.

"Saffron": Fay, a poor New Orleans woman, marries a wealthy older man (Albert) whose reticence to end her virginity cloaks a darker truth. Sad, harsh, this story.

"Runaway": Jeanette, a sixteen-year old runaway, becomes -- at different times -- the lover of two roommates (Jean and Pierre), who take different approaches in dealing with her. This story's theme-centric exit line, clichéd in the hands of a lesser writer, is rendered deceptively simple and sublime in Nin's.


Other stories:

"Lina" (a jealous homophobe visits her sexually adventurous female friend in Paris);

"Two Sisters" (longer piece about a group of people around two women, Edna and Dorothy, who are done and undone by repression, passion, deception and infidelity);

"The Maja" (a bourgeois Catholic wife slowly comes to an understanding of her painter husband, and her own sensuality);

"A Model" (one of the longer stories in the collection - a young virgin model engages in international travel and learns about physical love vicariously through others);

"The Queen" (a painter rhapsodizes about his favorite artistic and sexual subject, a "cold" whore named Bijou).

"Hilda and Rango" (a woman, used to the particular sexual demands of one lover, adapts to the varied demands of a new lover).

"The Chanchiquito" (strange entry about a woman [Laura], a legendary pig-like creature, and an amorous painter).

"Mandra" (a bisexual woman New York woman has sexual encounters with a quick succession of upper class lovers. Fleet-footed, blurring-memoried tale, whose plot keeps pace with daily city life).

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, by Charlie Huston

(hb; 2009)

From the inside flap:

"The fact is, whether it's a dog hit by a train or an old lady who had a heart attack on the can, someone has to clean up the nasty mess. And that someone is Webster Fillmore Goodhue, who just may be the least likely person in Los Angeles County to hold down such a gig. With his teaching career derailed by tragedy, Web hasn't done much for the last year except some heavy slacking. But when his only friend in the world lets him know that his freeloading days are over, and he tires of taking cash from his spaced-out mom and refuses to take any more from his embittered father, Web joins Clean Team -- and soon finds himself sponging a Malibu suicide's brains from a bathroom mirror and flirting with the man's bereaved and beautiful daughter.

"Then things get weird: The dead man's daughter asks a favor. Her brother's in need of somebody who can clean up a mess. Every cell in Web's brain tells him to turn her down, but something else makes him hit the Harbor Freeway at midnight to help her however he can. Is it her laugh? Her desperate tone of voice? The chance that this might be history's strangest booty call? Whatever it is, soon enough it's Web who needs the help when gun-toting California cowboys start showing up on his doorstep. What's the deal? Is it something to do with what he cleaned up in that motel room in Carson? Or is it about the brewing war between rival trauma cleaners? Web doesn't have a clue, but he'll need to get one if he's going to keep from getting his face kicked in. Again. And again. And again."

Review:

Quickfire on-the-mark dialogue, twisty memorable characters and plot screws, and cinematic, truly "f**ked-up" situations make this a impossible-to-set-down read.

Laugh-out-loud funny, macabre neo-noir for readers who don't squirm easily, this.

Own this, already!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Crossfire, by Miyuki Miyabe

(hb; 1998, 2005: prequel to Shadow Family. Translated by Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi and Anna Husson Isozaki)

From the inside flap:

"Young, pretty Junko Aoki has the extraordinary ability to start fires using just willpower. Furthermore, she believes it to be her duty to use her pyrokinetic powers to punish violent criminals who have evaded justice.

"A chance encounter one night sends Junko on a mission to rescue a young woman abducted by a vicious gang of youths. The trail of bodies she leaves across Tokyo attracts the attention of two very different groups: a secretive vigilante group that tries to recruit her, and the arson squad of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.

"Hardly able to keep up with Junko's killing spree, Detective Chikako Ishizu finds herself drawn deeper into a case that defies belief.

"Although on opposite sides of the law, both Junko and Chikako are committed to fighting evil, and both find their deeply held beliefs challenged. While Junko is increasingly disturbed by the innocent lives lost in the crossfire, Chikako is gradually forced to accept the possible existence of paranormal powers."

Review:

Insightful police procedural, made memorable by intriguing story elements, deft writing, and complex, relatable characters.

Excellent, entertaining novel: worth your time.

Crossfire, along with another Miyabe novel (Hatobue-gusa), became the basis for a film, Pyrokinesis (aka Kurosufaia).

Pyrokinesis was released in Japan on June 10, 2000.

Akiko Yada played Junko Aoki. Kaori Momoi played "Chikako Ishizu, the Detective". Hideaki Ito played Tada Kazuki. Ryuuji Harada played Yasuaki Makihara. Masami Nagasawa played Kaori Kurata. Hisashi Yoshizawa (billed as Yû Yoshizawa) played Kouichi Kido. Hidenori Tokuyama played Masaki Kogure.

Shisuke Kaneko directed and co-scripted Pyrokinesis. Kota Yamada and Masahiro Yokotani also co-scripted.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Earthbound, by Richard Matheson

(pb; 1989)

From the back cover:

"David and Ellen came to the lonely beachside cottage in hopes of rekindling their troubled marriage. Yet they are not alone on their second honeymoon. Marianna, a beautiful and enigmatic stranger, comes to visit when Ellen is away. But who is Marianna, and where is she from?

"Even as he succumbs to her seductive charms, David realizes that Marianna is far more than a threat to his marriage, for her secrets lie deep in the past and beyond the grave. And her unholy desires endanger the lives and souls of everyone she touches."

Review:

This is one of Matheson's lesser novels. Even Matheson's sharp prose fails to elevate this predictable ghost story above its clichés.

If there's a bright spot in this novel (aside from Matheson's crisp writing), it's the philosophical musings of his protagonist, David, who ponders the shapes marriage takes over time. These sections are wonderful, touching, and wise, and made up for my boredom during the other parts. (Fortunately, Earthbound is relatively short, less than three hundred pages.)

Not entirely bad, I'd hesitate to recommend this one. Better to read Matheson's earlier, short fiction if you want a Matheson fix.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Partly Cloudy Patriot, by Sarah Vowell

(hb; 2002: non-fiction)

From the inside flap:

". . . [Sarah] Vowell. . .ponders a number of curious questions: Why is she happiest when visiting the sites of bloody struggles like Salem or Gettysburg? Why do people always inappropriately compare themselves to Rosa Parks? Why is a bad life in sunny California so much worse than a bad life anywhere else? What is it about the Zen of foul shots? And, in the title piece, why must doubt and internal arguments haunt the sleepless nights of the true patriot?

"Her essays confront a wide range of subjects, themes, icons and historical moments: Ike, Teddy Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton; Canadian Mounties and German filmmakers; Tom Cruise and Buffy The Vampire Slayer; twins and nerds; the Gettysburg Address, the State of the Union, and George W. Bush's inauguration."


Review:

This is an earlier, slightly better book than Vowell's Assassination Vacation.

Partly, shorter, more focalized and laugh-out-loud funny, is darkly snarky like Assassination Vacation. Its emotionally-resonant, logical points about why she feels the way she does, again, are often dead-on with constantly-hilarious asides.

Stand-out chapters: "The First Thanksgiving"; "God Will Give You Blood to Drink in a Souvenir Shot Glass"; "The New German Cinema"; "The Nerd Voice"; "Tom Cruise Makes Me Nervous"; "Cowboys v. Mounties"; "The Partly Cloudy Patriot".

Partly is worth your time, this, if your humor runs dark, sardonic and politically liberal.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Prizzi's Glory, by Richard Condon

(hb; 1988: third book in the Prizzi quadrilogy)

From the inside flap:

"The Prizzis have long proved that with good planning, a Mafia chief can take his family from the humblest beginnings to a billion-dollar base in America. And the acquisition of such large amounts of money automatically commands respectability -- success demands it, money buys it. After all, those old robber barons, the Mellons, the Astors, achieved the ultimate in respectability, so why not the Prizzis? And in Prizzi's Glory, they go for it!

"Franchising their multifarious operations, the members of the Environment will turn their attention to mainstream America where the Game of Politics is played. Helping old Don Corrado Prizzi, capo di tutti capi, achieve his last wish, his granddaughter Maerose -- interior decorator de luxe -- sees to it that the word goes out: the gambling, narcotics, extortion, murder, pornography, loan-sharking, prostitution -- all their old lines of work -- will be franchised to other up-and-comers, while the Prizzis will use the profits for a new kind of plunder: national political power."

Review:

Another sharp-eyed, politically smart and plot twisty skewering of the American Dream from Condon, whose Prizzi family -- along with Charley Partanna and other players -- experience a Life makeover, the likes that few people have fully imagined or realized.

I love reading about these characters. Reading about the Prizzis, the Partannas, and the other characters is like visiting passionate, romantic, calculating, and blackly funny family: you feel what they feel, see what they see, etc., whether you admire their craftiness, or groan at their disingenuous reasonings.

Check this series out.

Followed by Prizzi's Money.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham

(pb; 1955: introduction by Christopher Priest)

From the back cover:

"The Chrysalids is set in the future after a devastating global nuclear war. David, the young hero of the novel, lives in a tight-knit community of religious and genetic fundamentalists, always on the alert for any deviation from the norm of God's creation. Abnormal plants are publicly burned, with much singing of hymns. Abnormal humans (who are not really humans) are also condemned to destruction -- unless they succeed in fleeing to the Fringes, that Wild Country where, as the authorities say, nothing is reliable and the devil does his work. David grows up ringed by admonitions: KEEP PURE THE STOCK OF THE LORD; WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT.

"At first he does not question. Then, however, he realizes that he too is out of the ordinary, in possession of a power that could doom him to death or introduce him to a new, hitherto unimagined world of freedom."

Review:

Classic, quirky, compact science fiction novel from a great writer.

This would make a wonderful English class novel, for the above reasons -- not only that, it's rich with many of the themes that Wyndam has ably mined, albeit more thoroughly, in some of his other books: apocalyptic societies, religious and social repression (and other dynamics),and mutations/genetics.

Short, provocative, fleet-paced work -- worth owning.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

'T' is for Trespass, by Sue Grafton

(hb; 2007: twentieth book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

From the inside flap:

"Beginning slowly with the day-to-day of a private eye, Grafton suddenly shifts from the voice of Kinsey Millhone to that of Solana Rojas, introducing readers to a chilling sociopath. Rojas is not her birth name. It is an identity she cunningly stole, an identity that gives her access to private caregiving jobs. The true horror of this novel builds with excruciating tension as the reader foresees the awfulness that lies ahead. The wrenching suspense lies in whether Kinsey Millhone will realize what is happening in time to intervene.

"'T' is for Trespass,dealing with issues of identity theft, elder abuse, betrayal of trust, and the breakdown in the institutions charged with caring for the weak and the dependent, could not be more timely. It targets an all-to-real rip in the social fabric."

Review:

Suspenseful, compelling read that constantly had this reader muttering, "Ooh,'Solana Rojas' is creepy and infuriating!"

Rojas, as a devious character, is a worthy, if petty and vindictive, adversary for Millhone. That said, don't expect Rojas to read like a timeless villain, like, say, Sherlock Holmes's Moriarty, or Doctor Who's The Master.

Excellent novel from a writer who constantly delivers greatness. Check this series out.

Followed by 'U' is for Undertow.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

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

(hb; 2009: non-fiction.  Follow-up work to Freakonomics; precedent work to Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain)

From the inside flap:

"Four years in the making, SuperFreakonomics asks not only the tough questions, but the unexpected ones: What's more dangerous, driving drunk or walking drunk? Why is chemotherapy prescribed so often if it's so ineffective? Can a sex change boost your salary?

"SuperFreakonomics challenges the way we think all over again, exploring the hidden side of everything with such questions as:

"How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa?

"Why are doctors so bad at washing their hands?

"What's the best way to catch a terrorist?

"Did TV cause a rise in crime?

"What do hurricanes, heart attacks, and highway deaths have in common?

"Are people hardwired for altruism or selfishness?

"Can eating kangaroo save the planet?

"Who adds more value: a pimp or a realtor?

"Levitt and Dubner mix smart thinking and great storytelling. . . whether investigating a solution to global warming or explaining why the price of oral sex has fallen so drastically. By examining how people respond to incentives, they show the world for what it is -- good, bad, ugly, and in the final analysis, superfreaky."

Review:

Another off-beat, real-world smart, logical and compelling read from Dubner and Levitt.

As in Freakonomics, the authors back up their eye-catching chapter titles with solid, economist-minded reasoning -- much of controversial on multiple levels -- that makes practical sense.

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.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Devil's Whisper, by Miyuki Miyabe

(hb; 1989, 2007: translated by Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi)

From the inside flap:

"The three deaths come in quick succession: one girl jumps from the roof of a six-story building; another falls in front of a train; and the third is hit by a late-night taxi. But how are they related? And are they accidents, suicides or murders?

"Slowly, the answers are uncovered by sixteen-year-old Mamoru, the nephew of the taxi driver currently being held by the police on charges of manslaughter for the death of the third victim.

"Determined to help his uncle, Mamoru discovers that the girl killed by his uncle's taxi had participated in a devious scam to separate vulnerable men from their money, and that three of the four girls involved in the ploy are now dead.

"A powerful businessman comes forward with new evidence in favor of Mamoru's uncle and also to reveal the truth about Mamoru's long-lost father, who disappeared when the boy was only four.

"But in the meantime, Mamoru must go out if he is to save the last of the four girls being targeted by the real killer.

"And then the killer contacts him. . ."

Review:

Masterful, sublime, plot-twisty and tightly-executed work, with occasional touches of humor to lighten the suspenseful proceedings. The denouement is character-true, off-kilter and curiously humane, its tone distinctly Japanese (keeping with the down-played tone of the Japanese novels I've read in the past few months).

Perfect, this: worth purchasing and keeping.