Sunday, February 28, 2010

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, by Ian Fleming

(hb; 1964: illustrated by John Burningham)

From the inside flap:

"'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' went the great car's exhaust pipes, and the big green Paragon Panther roared to life. The Pott family knew that their car was no ordinary car. The twins, Jeremy and Jemima, had noticed that right off. Her license plate read GEN 11, and that could be read genii by knowing people.

"There was something magical about her, too. The Potts found that out soon enough. The great car could be an airplane or a boat when she had a mind to. So the Potts took a sea voyage from their English home and, by chance, found a gangster's hidden cave across the Channel in France.

"It was the cave that really got the adventurous Pott family into trouble. It belonged to a mob of gangsters - Joe the Monster, Man-Mountain Fink, Soapy Sam, and Blood-Money Banks.

"Could the famous inventor Commander Caractacus Pott, his wife Mimsie, and the twins escape the clutches of Joe the Monster and his mob? Their only hope, their only ally, was

"CHITTY-CHITTY-BANG-BANG

"and she was just a car - or was she?"

Review:

Warm, clever, informative, unique fun-blast of a kid's book. Classic, memorable, worth owning.

The resulting film was released stateside on December 18, 1968.

Dick Van Dyke played Caractacus Potts. Sally Ann Howes played Truly Scrumptious. Lionel Jeffries played Grandpa Potts. Gert Fröbe played Baron Bomburst. Benny Hill played "Toymaker". Heather Ripley played Jemima Potts. Adrian Hall played Jeremy Potts. Desmond Llewelyn played George Coggins.

Ken Hughes directed the film, from a script he co-penned with Roald Dahl and Richard Maibaum.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Safety of Unknown Cities, by Lucy Taylor

(pb; 1995, 1999)

Review:

Val Petrillo, a jet-set serial fornicatress, seeks "the City," a legendary, mystical location where all forms of carnality and perversions are indulged in. Unbeknownst to her, she's being pursued by a suitor she abandoned - Arthur Quentin Breen, who "alternate[s] back and forth between convivial killer and misanthropic recluse."

When Val meets Majeed, a hermaphroditic (primarily male) prostitute, and becomes his lover, she figures she's found a way into the City. But Majeed is reluctant to take her to the City - not only because of what he says he experienced and saw there, but because he's being stalked by Dominick Filakis, aka the Turk, to whom Majeed owes a nebulous, potentially flesh-riving debt.

As dangerous and perverse as Val, Arthur and Majeed are, they've got nothing on the City-linked Turk, whose powers seem limitless.

Safety is a sexually and horrifically subversive novel that recalls the horror works of Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite and Lucifer Fulci, rammed home with over-the-top Dario Argento-esque/snuff splatter scenes.


Check it out, if you've got a strong constitution and a love for true horror.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell

(hb; 2008: non-fiction)

From the inside flap:

"To this day America views itself as a Puritan nation, but Vowell investigates what that means -- and what it should mean. What was this great political enterprise all about? Who were these people who are considered the philosophical, spiritual, and moral ancestors of our nation? What Vowell discovers is something far different from what their uptight shoe-buckles-and-corn reputation might suggest. The people she finds are highly literate, deeply principled, and surprisingly feisty. Their story is filled with pamphlet feuds, witty courtroom dramas, and bloody vengeance. Along the way she asks:

"Was Massachussetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop a communitarian, a Christ-like Christian, or conformity's tyrannical enforcer? Answer: Yes!

"Was Rhode Island's architect, Roger Williams, America's founding freak or the father of the First Amendment? Same difference.

"What does it take to get that jezebel Anne Hutchinson to shut up? A hatchet.

"What was the Puritans' pet name for the Pope? The Great Whore of Babylon.

"Sarah Vowell's special brand of armchair history makes the bizarre and esoteric fascinatingly relevant and fun. She takes us from the modern-day reenactment of an Indian massacre to the Mohegan Sun casino, from the old-timey Puritan poetry, where 'righteousness' is rhymed with 'wilderness,' to a Mayflower-themed waterslide... Thou shalt enjoy it."


Review:

In The Wordy Shipmates, Vowell focuses her observations on "those Puritans who fall between the cracks of 1620 Plymouth and 1692 Salem, the ones who settled the Massachussetts Bay Colony and then Rhode Island during what came to be called the Great Migration. (Between 1629, when King Charles I dissolves the Puritan-friendly English Parliament, and 1640, when the English Civil War begins and the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell eventually behead Charles and run the country, more than 20,000 English men, women and children settled in New England.)"

When I use the word "focus" I really mean focus. Vowell trims back her trademark snarkiness a bit, to show readers the intensity of the bickering, the bloody wars, the secret reconciliations, and social manueverings of key, influential individuals (Winthrop, Williams, Hutchinson, etc.) whose strong personalities and actions shaped the United States into what it is today.

Vowell's writing, thick with events, personalities and their long-term consequences, educates, amuses, alarms and astounds.

Excellent read, this: it's heavier, stylistically and subject-wise, than The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Assassination Vacation.

Check it out.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Man On The Balcony, by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö

(pb; 1967: third book in the Martin Beck Police Mysteries. Translated from the Swedish by Alan Blair.)

From the back cover:

"In the once peaceful parks of Stockholm, a killer is stalking young girls and disposing of their bodies. The city is on edge, and an undercurrent of fear has gripped its residents. Martin Beck, now a superintendant, has two possible witnesses: a silent, stone-cold mugger and a mute three-year-old boy. The police force works night and day, but their efforts have offered little insight into the whereabouts of the killer. Then a distant memory resurfaces in Beck's mind, and he finally may have the break he needs."

Review:

This is an especially vicious, high-profile case for Beck and his crew: a child rapist-murder is on the loose, accruing victims at an increasingly acelerated rate. Of course, the media is having a field day reporting the crimes, and the public is demanding that the rapist-murderer get caught, pronto.

There are few revelations in this disquieting, hard to put down read, but Balcony doesn't need any revelations. Balcony is solid, logical, character-rich and -expansive, its action and pseudo-twists revolving around many of its core/series characters.

Another excellent entry in the Martin Beck Mysteries.

Followed by The Laughing Policeman.



A film version of The Man On The Balcony was released in Sweden on November 26, 1993.

Gösta Ekman reprised his role of Martin Beck. Kjell Bergqvist reprised his role of Lennart Kollberg. Rolf Lassgård reprised his role of Gunvald Larsson. Jonas Falk reprised his role of Stig Åke Malm. Ing-Marie Carlsson reprised her role of Gun Kollberg. Bernt Ström reprised his role of Einar Rönn. Niklas Hjulström reprised his role of Skacke.


Daniel Alfredson directed the film from a script he co-authored with Jonas Cornell (based on Rainer Berg's treatment-story).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

First Blood, by David Morrell

(pb; 1972)

From the back cover:

"Nobody in the small Kentucky town knew his name was Rambo. All they knew was that he was a stranger. . . and that he looked like trouble. The army had trained him in the art of killing, and now he did not know how to stop. . ."

Review:

Character-driven actioner about two war veterans -- Will Teasle, from the Korean War; John Rambo, from the Vietnam War -- who are both too stubborn for their own good.

When Teasle, a smalltown sheriff, tries to drive Rambo out of town, he sets off a war that neither he nor Rambo expected, one that echoes the conflicts they'd abandoned in Korea and Vietnam.

Morrell's balanced writing is vivid, his characters are relatable and sympathetic, and his pacing battle-intensive. The body count and brutality never dominate the character-centric human element of the novel which is ultimately the heart of this work.

Good blaze-through-it read, this.

Morrell wrote a sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, but don't be fooled by it. Rambo is a movie tie-in novel, not a sequel to the source novel. (Read First Blood, and you'll understand why.)


First Blood, the film, was released stateside on October 22, 1982.

Sylvester Stallone played John Rambo. Brian Dennehy played Sheriff Will Teasle. Richard Crenna played Col. Samuel Trautman.

Bill McKinney played State Police Capt Dave Kern. David Caruso played Deputy Mitch. John McLiam played Orval the Dog Man. Bruce Greenwood played Guardsman #5.

Ted Kotcheff directed the film, from a script by Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim and Sylvester Stallone.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Man Who Went Up In Smoke, by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö

(hb; 1966: second book in the Martin Beck Police Mysteries. Translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate.)

From the inside flap:

"This new adventure of the dedicated Swedish policeman Martin Beck begins as a long, leisurely summer holiday is cut off by the top brass at the Foreign Office who decide to pack him off to Budapest. The mission turns out to be one of the most exasperating assignments in Beck's entire career: the search for Alf Matsson, a well-known journalist who has vanished without a trace.

"On this trail of this hard-drinking Swedish newsman, Martin Beck investigates some curious East European underworld characters and -- at the risk of his life -- stumbles upon a flourishing international racket in which Matsson was involved. Yet even after an exhaustive search along the banks of the Danube, Martin Beck still cannot produce the missing man. Gradually some remarkably efficient policemen in Budapest -- and his own hard-working colleagues at home in Stockholm -- help Martin Beck convert this wild-goose chase into a coolly systematic manhunt. .."

Review:

Lean, addictive, and word-spare as its predecessor novel, Roseanna, Smoke is a character-expansive, lighter-in-tone follow-up to that source novel.

Check it out.

Followed by The Man On The Balcony.



A film version of The Man Who Went Up In Smoke was released in Sweden on December 25, 1980.

Derek Jacobi played Martin Beck. Thomas Oredsson played Alf Mattson. Judy Winter played Aina Mattson. Ferenc Bács played Inspector Szluke. Lasse Strömstedt played Kollberg. Krisztina Peremartoni played Ari. Sándor Szabó played Mr. Sós.

Péter Bacsó directed the film, from a screenplay written by Wolfgang Mühlbauer.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill

(pb; 1988: story anthology)

OVERALL REVIEW:

Superb anthology of stories revolving around mostly-intinerant, city-dwelling personalities.

Even the two stories that didn't grab me ("Something Nice"; "An Affair, Edited") were decent, publishable; what separates them from the standout stories is that they aren't as focused as the others, and their subject matter/characters feel like redundant, secondary additions to the anthology.

One of the things I love about this anthology is how Gaitskill never get nihlistic with her edginess -- she certainly flirts with it, but compared to other writers who traffic in similiar subject matter and revel its nihlistic bent, her reserve adds a distinctive subliminity to Bad Behavior that would otherwise be lacking.



STANDOUT STORIES:

"Daisy's Valentine": A speed freak (Joey) dates Daisy, a co-worker and epileptic artist, while both of them live with their respective lovers. Sweet, edgy (as are many of the stories in this collecton).


"A Romantic Weekend": An ill-matched couple embark on a mutually-dissatisfactory weekend trip. Hopeful, ironic - laugh-out-loud, stellar end-line.


"Connection": Two contrasting women (Susan, Leisha) cycle through an intense, rollercoaster friendship, then split from each other.

Six years later, Susan wonders what happened to Leisha, and starts tracking her through old mutual friends and ex-lovers. Relatable (most of us have had friendships like this), masterfully shaped and paced.


"Trying To Be": Stephanie, an aspiring magazine writer and reluctant house prostitute, begins a sweet-natured affair with one of her johns (Bernard), while trying to network her way into a magazine-writing gig. Mature, warm, hopeful.


"Secretary": A young woman (Debby) discovers her BDSM bent via her lawyer boss. Tightly-written, focused, coming-into-oneself tale.

This was released stateside as a film on November 14, 2002.

Maggie Gyllenhaal played Lee Holloway (cinematic stand-in for Debby). James Spader played Mr. Grey. Jeremy Davies played Peter. Lesley Ann Warren played Joan Holloway. Oz Perkins played Jonathan. Amy Locane played Lee's Sister.

Steven Shainsberg directed the film, from a script by Erin Cressida Wilson.


"Other Factors": Constance Weymouth, an editor at a publishing company, is forced to re-examine her past friendship with a woman (Alice) who abandoned their relationship years before. Taut, relatable in its stay-or-fly social/interpersonal dynamics.


"Heaven": The ups and downs of a large family are seen through the eyes of Virginia - sister, wife, mother of four. Touching, honest, differentiated from the other stories in the collection (in that its characters are centered through blood). The end-line is sublime; it ties everything in the story together in a natural, resounding way.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers

(hb; 1987)

From the inside flap:

"Sailing unwittingly into this unsavory company comes one John Chandagnac, bookkeeper and puppeteer. He seems an unlikely candidate for piracy, or the machinations of dark sorcery. But christened Jack Shandy by a drunken pirate captain, he may turn out to be one of the greatest of them all. . .

"A hunt for unearthly spirits with the aid of a mummified two-headed dog. A journey through the Florida swamps in search of the Fountain of Youth. A battle at sea with the Royal English Navy. An encounter with sunken ships crewed by zombies. . ."

Review:

Jack Chandagnac is on his way to reclaim a stolen inheritance when pirates seize the ship he's on; he gets a choice: join the pirate crew, or die.

He chooses to join them, falling in love with another non-pirate passenger, Beth Hurwood, as he does so.

Problem is, he and Beth are caught up in the dark-magic schemings of Beth's father (Benjamin Hurwood), her father's toadlike companion (Leo Friend), and an equally dark rendezvous with Edward Thatch, more commonly called Blackbeard.

These three men (Hurwood, Friend, Blackbeard) seek the Fountain of Youth, located in the dangerous-strange swamps of Florida, toward various ends -- all of them involving the death of Chandagnac's love, Beth.

Engaging, exhilarating, and bursting at the seams with action and black magic, On Stranger Tides is a rollicking work that never lets up: it has zombies, pirates, ghosts, vodun, terrifying sea storms and soul-claiming, ick-inducing swamps.

Check this out.

On Stranger Tides is the source/plot-structural overlay novel for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

Johnny Depp is scheduled to resume his role of Jack Sparrow. Geoffrey Rush is rumored to returning as Barbossa.

Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, who respectively played Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner in the first three Pirates films, have passed on taking part in the fourth Pirates film.

On a further disheartening note, Gore Verbinski who helmed the first three films, won't be directing the fourth. Rob Marshall, a director known for visual panache but little cinematic substance, will direct the upcoming film, which is scheduled for a May 20, 2011 stateside release.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Psycho House, by Robert Bloch

(pb; 1990: third book in the Psycho trilogy)

From the back cover:

"The new Bates Motel is a tourist attraction, a recreation of the murder site, and the developers are already counting their profits. And there's a new exhibit, one nobody expected: the bloody corpse of a teenage girl crumpled in the front hall, stabbed to death. Among the avalanche of press and publicity is reporter Amelia Haines, true crime writer. She's studying the original Psycho killings and to Amy the new murders are a golden opportunity -- if she can be part of the investigation, perhaps track down the killer herself, then her fame, and fortune, will be assured.

"But catching the madman won't be easy. . . the town is full of suspects, and Amy's best informants keep turning up murdered. If she isn't careful, Amelia Haines may be the next permanent guest at the Bates Motel. . ."

Review:

This is best read as a Psycho side-novel. To read Psycho House as a direct sequel to that classic work is to court disappointment.

In this third book, Bloch is more interested in exploring the social and media-related effects of the Bates Legacy, as evidenced in the town of Fairvale, where the original Bates murders took place.

Bloch's shift to heavy social commentary isn't surprising. Briefly notable in Psycho, Bloch's penchance for that sort of thing makes up a large portion of Psycho II (e.g., Bloch's Los Angeles jabs).

Bearing that commentary in mind, Psycho House works as a thoughtful, if killer-obvious, thriller.

Bloch's sparse writing, black wit, cliffhanger chapters and constant twists, coupled with the aforementioned social commentary (perfectly crystallized in Psycho House's last line) makes this a worthwhile, notable pulp novel.

Check it out.

Psycho III, unrelated to the not-yet-penned Psycho House, first illuminated theater screens on July 2, 1986.

Anthony Perkins not only reprised his role of Norman Bates, he directed the film as well, from a script by Charles Edward Pogue.

Diana Scarwid played Maureen Coyle. Jeff Fahey played Duane Duke. Roberta Maxwell played Tracy Venable. Hugh Gillin played Sheriff John Hunt. Lee Garlington played Myrna. Robert Alan Browne played Ralph Statler.

An uncredited Virginia Gregg, for a third time, performed the voice-role of Norma Bates, Norman's mother.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Shadow Family, by Miyuki Miyabe

(hb; 2001, 2004: sequel to Crossfire. Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter)

From the inside flap:

"Police investigating the double murder of a middle-aged company employee and his college-age girlfriend discover email correspondence linking the victim with members of an online fantasy family, in which he plays the part of 'Dad.' Meanwhile, his real-life teenage daughter is assigned police protection after complaining of being stalked. The investigation focuses increasingly on the shadow family, as there is evidence that the members had emerged from the chat room and started meeting up offline.

"Veteran Desk Sergeant Takegami finds himself unexpectedly in the center of the investigation after his colleague is hospitalized. Adding to his surprise, he is partnered with his old friend Chikako Ishizu after a break of fifteen years. Working on a hunch, they collaborate to unravel the fine line between fantasy and the harsh reality of murder."


Review:

Shadow Family is set four years after pyrokinetic case of Crossfire.

Miyabe utilizes her word-spare, fast-moving, character-focused writing style, one that keeps Crossfire readable.

What ruins this otherwise solid novel is the play-like structure that frames the tale (it's mostly set in a police interrogation room). While it must have been interesting to skeleton the novel this way, it makes the identity of the bad guy(s) evident early on.

Disappointing, predictable work from an excellent writer. Read this only if you're a Miyabe completist.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume Two, by Clive Barker


(hb; 1984: story anthology)

Overall review:


Stunning, classic anthology, this -- wow-worthy as Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume One. Worth owning, and re-reading a few years after your initial perusal of it.


Review, story by story:

1.) "Dread": Solid, semi-predictable story about a philosophical professor (Quaid) whose terror experiments go too far.

The film version debuted at the Fantasia Film Festival in Canada on July 14, 2009. The film is scheduled for stateside DVD release sometime next March.

Jackson Rathbone played Stephen Grace. Shaun Evans played Quaid. Hanne Steen played Cheryl Fromme. Laura Donnelly played Abby. Jonathan Readwin played Joshua Shaw. Vivian Gray played Tabitha Swann. Carl McCrystal played Axe Man.

The film was scripted and directed by Anthony DiBlasi.



2.) "Hell's Event": A charity run becomes so much more when infernal principalities and interests become entwined in it. Clever, visceral, memorable, excellent, this.

In 1989, Eclipse Books published a comic book mini-series, Tapping The Vein, that is based on Barker's writings.

Fred Burke adapted, and Steven E. Johnson, Alan Okamoto and Jim Pearson illustrated "Hell's Event" in issue #4 (its front cover is seen below). This issue also contains an adaptation of one of Barker's other stories, "The Madonna" (published in In the Flesh).




3.) "Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament": A bitter, suicidal woman discovers she has transformative, death-dealing powers -- powers that radically change her life. Another visceral, excellent piece.


4.) "The Skins of the Fathers": The gun-toting hick denizens of a desert town (called Welcome) battle a surreal race of "monsters". Cinematic, ironic, epic -- one of my all-time favorite stories from Barker.

Barker would later expand on this ironic human-monster dynamic in his novel, Cabal.

Chuck Wagner and Fred Burke adapted, and Klaus Janson illustrated the re-titled "Skins of the Fathers" in issue #2 of Tapping The Vein (its front cover is seen below). This issue also contains an adaptation of one of Barker's other stories, "In the Hills, the Cities" (published in Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume One).




5.) "New Murders in the Rue Morgue": Edgar Allan Poe's famous tale gets a romantic, psychologically-complex update. An old painter (Lewis Fox) returns to Paris, France, after forty years to help clear the name of a friend who's been accused of murder -- a murder which has a literary, too-familiar M.O..

Memorable, classic, charming story.


This anthology is followed by Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume Three.