Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Jaws: The Revenge by Hank Searls

 

(pb; 1987: movie tie-in, based on Michael De Guzman’s screenplay)

From the back cover

“This time it’s personal.

“The lives of the Brody family have been devastated by a natural force.

“A force that glides, silent and unseen, beneath the ocean surface—ready to strike out with a relentless fury.

“To Ellen Brody it is evil incarnate. And it must be destroyed. Once and for all.

“Even if it costs Ellen her life.”


Review

Twelve years have passed since the events of Jaws. Martin Brody died a few years ago, a heart attack—his heart was weakened by the shock he was jolted by while electrocuting the great white shark ten years prior, in Jaws 2. Now Ellen, his wife, is a nervous wreck, especially when Sean, Ellen and Martin’s second, youngest son, goes out to remove an obstruction from the Amity harbor one December night. Then another great white, spawn of the previous two killer sharks, eats Sean, a police officer like his dad.

This spirals Ellen further into grief, fear, rage and more than a touch of craziness. She allows her eldest son Michael, a marine biologist (much to her dismay), to take her to the Whiskey Cay/Prince George Town areas in the Bahamas. The shark follows the tides (hello, El Niño) to where Ellen is—to the hysterical widower and bereft mother, it smacks of grim and terrifying destiny.

Searls’s writing, as it was with his Jaws 2 novel, is solid and cinematically visual. Unfortunately, this third book outing in the Jaws franchise* saddles the worthwhile author with a ridiculous set-up and an annoying lead protagonist (Ellen), undermining most of the thrills and other pleasures Revenge might’ve had. Revenge is also undercut by a subplot involving Papa Jacques (a voodoo priest who has a grudge against Michael Brody and a psychic link with the flesh-rending shark)—another ridiculous conceit, one that the tightly edited film (credit Michael Brown for that) eschews. The film version, keeping with franchise tradition, also cuts out the book’s Mafia B-storyline (this time it’s a subplot about pilot Hoagie Newcombe and Bahaman drug smugglers, particularly the murder-happy and over-the-top Rico Lomas).

Revenge’s climax, with its cross-cut editing (somewhat reflected in the movie), is especially well-written and gripping, despite Ellen’s hysteria, the shark’s voodoo connections, and Ellen/the film-version’s conceit that the shark followed her to the Bahamas—at least Searls tried to provide a reasonable rationale for why the shark did the latter, something the movie version barely bothered with.

If you’re looking for the bookish thrills of the two previous novels, skip Revenge, and pretend the story ended with Jaws 2.

The film version was released stateside on July 17, 1987.

 

(*There were four movies. Revenge’s film version was preceded by Jaws 3-D, 1983, which was not novelized.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

The Secret People by John Wyndham

 

(pb; 1935)

From the back cover

“The ‘new sea’ was teeming with a secret life.

“It was the world’s greatest engineering feat─the flooding of part of the Sahara desert. But the new waters that covered up the land also threatened to destroy an ancient, secret civilization beneath the earth.

“When Mark Sunnet’s plane crashed into the New Sea, he and beautiful companion, Margaret Lawn, were taken prisoners by these secret people. They were taken deep beneath the earth into strange, dark caverns. Caverns that seemed to hold no hope for escape.

“But Mark and Margaret had to escape. For now, suddenly, they were faced with two terrors─the secret people who were to be their executioners and the merciless New Sea that threatened to kill them all.”

 

Review

Wyndham, who wrote under a few other names, imbues Secret’s familiar topside-adventurers-beneath-the-earth with his usual vivid, classic science fiction writing and twists. By today’s ADHD writing standards the story comes off as chatty in certain parts (particularly near the overlong finish, when a verbose Sunnet tells Margaret key information).

There’s also a possibly-disturbing-for-modern-audiences element to Secret: Wyndham’s omniscient-author, repeated, unfortunate use of the character-centric phrase of “the Negro Zickle” (though most of multinational characters of various skin colors don’t refer to the heroic, if language-challenged* man as such─they simply call him Zickle). Having said that, Wyndham’s era-distinctive (possible) racism is born of ignorance, not meanness─the author, who published this in the mid-1930s, only shows Zickle as a smart-minded and man-of-action character.

Secret, set in September 1964, is a good read if you can overlook a few instances of British speechifying and its era-centric, unintentional (possible) racism, its flaws ameliorated by solid, imaginative, and adventure-minded science fiction, Buck Rogers-esque fight scenes, and a sly villain (Miguel Salvades).   


[* = Zickle, a tribesman, was taken from his village where English was not spoken. His story, which may or may not include the events of Secret, would make for an interesting modern spin-off tale.]


Eddie's Boy by Thomas Perry

 

(hb; 2020: fourth book in the Butcher’s Boy series)

From the inside flap

“Michael Schaeffer is a retired American businessman, living peacefully in England with his aristocratic wife. But her annual summer party brings strangers to their house, and with them, an attempt on Michael’s life. He is immediately thrust into action, luring his lethal pursuers to Australia before venturing into the lion’s den─the States─to figure out why the mafia is after him─again─and how to stop them. . .”

 

Review 

The fourth Butcher’s Boy novel maintains the engaging, action-punctuated, and tautly written immediacy that make up the story DNA of Perry’s earlier Butcher’s books. This time Michael Schaeffer’s looks back at his childhood with butcher/hitman Eddie Mastrewski as his strict-but-kind father figure run longer and make up a much bigger part of Eddie’s.

When, a decade after the events of The Informant, another hit squad tries to take him out in his England estate (and he, with imaginative and slick efficiency, dispatches them), he is forced to return to stateside to deal with the last of the mobsters who likely ordered his murder. Elizabeth Waring, the FBI agent who’d previously hunted three times is now a high-ranking government employee and thrown into the hunt for Schaeffer (whose real name she still doesn’t know), though this time─as with the two previous books─she's friendlier with him.

Eddie’s is another great entry in the Butcher’s series, with all the elements that initial books in the (thus far) quadrilogy make them standout reads in the action/thriller genre.

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

The Informant by Thomas Perry

 

(pb; 2011: third book in the Butcher’s Boy series)

From the inside flap

“The Butcher’s Boy is back. Thomas Perry’s vengeful assassin, who turned on his Mafia clients. . . has been quiet for a decade. Now,. . .[he] has returned to play a deadly psychological game with Elizabeth Waring, the only Justice Department official who ever believed he existed.

“The Butcher’s Boy knows Waring can help him hunt down the Mafia boss who sent a team of hit men to kill him─and in return he offers her key information that will help her crack an unsolved murder. So begins a new assault on organized crime and an uneasy alliance between opposite sides of the law. As the Butcher’s Boy works his way closer to his deadly enemy. . . to kill him first, Waring is in a desperate struggle, either to force her unlikely ally to become a protected informant, or to take him out of commission for good.”

 

Review

Informant’s set-up will likely be familiar to readers of its two prequels, but its overall action and editorial pacing is varied, expedited and, just as importantly, possesses the raw immediacy, strong lead characters and well-sketched supporting characters of its previous works. The violence is again short, sharp and potent, while all of these elements deftly sidestep clichés and add surprising elements to and decisions by its two leads, Michael Schaeffer and Elizabeth Waring. This is an excellent read, and a welcome continuance of Perry’s Butcher Boy series. Followed by Eddie’s Boy.

Monday, May 30, 2022

Where the Devil Waits by Wesley Southard and Mark Steensland

 


(pb; 2021)

From the back cover

“What would you do for all the money in the world? Or to get with the girl of your dreams? What if you could make other people do anything you told them? What if all this and more could be yours just for winning a race. . . against the devil?

“A long-abandoned church on top of a mountain in the Pennsylvania backwoods is where the devil waits for anyone brave enough to challenge him. The course runs from the gate, through the cemetery, to the church doors.

“If you win, the prize is yours.

“If you lose. . . you die at sunrise.

“Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

“For four college students looking for a good time, nothing could be further from the truth.”

 

Review

Where, a 141-page novella, is an excellent, sharp-and-short, distinctive, horror image- and sensory-potent satanic spookshow work, with character-focused action and spiraling-beyond-them consequences and fast pacing. Appropriately, given its cemetery setting, undead uprising and other creepy elements, Where is dedicated to movie director Lucio Fulci, the genre-hopping filmmaker who’s best known for his horror films, e.g., ZOMBIE (1979), THE BEYOND (1981) and THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981), though Where's ending is more comforting than anything in Fulci’s oeuvre.

Where's stark writing style lends itself to an equally stark screenplay for an excellent hour, hour-and-fifteen-minute short film. Not only that, Where is my favorite Steensland book thus far, and my one of my favorite 2022 reading choices. (I haven’t read Southard’s other writing.)  Worth owning, of course!


Monday, May 23, 2022

Sleeping Dogs by Thomas Perry

 

(pb; 1992: second book in the Butcher’s Boy series)

From the back cover

“He came to England to rest. He calls himself Michael Schaeffer, says he’s a retired American businessman. He goes to the races, dates a kinky aristocrat, and sleeps with dozens of weapons. Ten years ago, it was different. Then, he was the Butcher’s Boy, the highly skilled mob hit man who pulled a slaughter job on some double-crossing clients and started a mob war. Ever since, there’s been a price on his head.

“Now, after a decade, they’ve found him. The Butcher’s Boy escapes back to the States with more reasons to kill. Until the odds turn terrifyingly against him. . . until the Mafia, the cops, the FBI, and the damn Justice Department want his hide. . . until he’s locked into a cross-country odyssey of fear and death that could tear his world to pieces.”

 

Review

Like its source novel, The Butcher's Boy (1982) Sleeping has the same raw-yet-tightly-written immediacy, with strong (further) character development (for its leads), well-sketched supporting players, and enough cinematic, sometimes dark-humored action to make it worth adapting into a film or miniseries. Its leads, Schaeffer and E.V. Waring─the government agent who pursued him in the first book─are true to the earlier incarnations while growing more interesting, more layered as they go along. Looking forward to reading the third Butcher’s Boy novel, The Informant.

Friday, May 13, 2022

All Souls Are Final by Will Viharo

 

(pb; 2022: novella, one half of a two-novella collection, Dixon Gets Lost / All Souls are Final: A P.I. Tales Double Feature, the first novella─Dixon─penned by William Dylan Powell)

From the back cover

“. . . A long-buried memory resurfaces in retired private eye Vic Valentine’s tormented psyche, forcing him to reckon with a pivotal event in his past while recovering from a psychotic break in his present. Most of the Action revolves around his erotic, erratic experiences with a secret satanic pornography cult in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Los Angeles, as he is seduced into a decadent den of delirious danger by a sexy client whose mysterious boyfriend Vic accidentally killed. Or did he? Discover the shocking truth in a sordid truth in a sordid series of twists and turns down this rocky road to raunchy ruin.”

 

Review

The latest adventure in Vic Valentine’s well-storied life has Valentine recounting a previously unmentioned life-chapter to his years-later wife, Val, while they enjoy life in Seattle, Washington.

You can read the back-cover description to get a feel for the story. This time out, Vic’s confession-tinged tale telling is more real world straight-forward, less psychotronic and “dream-or-reality?” in nature, taking place in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. Raquel Fleming─her real name?─is the latest (possible) femme fatale in Valentine’s sexy line-up, and their meeting impels the horny, often messed-up P.I. into (somewhat) familiar, over-the-top pulptastic, and fast-moving territory. Returning Viharo/Valentine readers will likely recognize themes and characters from previous Valentine outings, new twists on older tales, and new readers might find a fresh good-hearted anti-hero to root for and further read about─as I hope they do.

Viharo’s distinctive mix of clever sleaze, hope, neo-pulp, retro-pop and decades-old cinema still thrills (living up to part of Viharo’s website name, Thrillville). This quick, ninety-five-page for mature audiences only read is worth owning.

As noted above, Souls is part of a two-author collection, the other novella William Dylan Powell’s Dixon Guidry Gets Lost, a work I did not read.


Sunday, May 08, 2022

The Addams Family by Jack Sharkey

 

(pb; 1965)

From the back cover

“Meet the Addams family.

Gomez─master of the house─and several strange powers.

Morticia─dressed in an attractive shroud, she casts a spell over everyone─and everything─around her.

Pugsley─he took in stray kittens─straight into the dog kennel.

Wednesday─a pigtailed daughter whose close friend is a headless doll.

Uncle Fester─loved to feed the dog─to the crocodile.

“Plus Granny, Lurch the butler, and the family retainer, Thing─gift of a friend who had lent the Addams family a helping hand.”

 

Review

Based on Charles Addams's popular comic strip, this prequel to the television/ABC show of the same name (1964-66) is an episodic read, with each chapter-section a loosely linked continuation of the preceding chapter-section. Sometimes the set-up humor (with its offscreen, mentioned macabre action) gets stretched a bit thin writing-wise─it’s not a deal-breaking quality (the show also has that occasional, formulaic weakness)─but the characters (and their charm), the mostly spot-on wit, and overall concept make that nit a minor concern. Worth owning and reading, this, if you’re a fan of the series, or curious about how the characters, as shown in the ABC series, came to be where and the way they are.


Story breakdown

In “Be It Ever So Horrible,” the Addams move into a house that other people would consider horrible, bordering on offensive.

What is the Sound of One Hand Cackling?” introduces Thing, their disembodied hand-servant, when they discover him living in their new house.

The third chapter, “Dear Old Mold and Ghoul Days,” finds Wednesday and Pugsley, with their macabre worldviews, freaking out their classmates and teacher.

The Loud, Fragrant Flavor of Sharp Purple”: Abigail Glimmer, Wednesday and Pugsley’s schoolteacher (introduced in the previous chapter), visits the Addams. While she’s there, Gomez tries out one of his experiments on her─the Pentatronic Esthesidor, which allows its user to “experience any given sensation. In all five sense. Simulatneously” (Gomez). Things go delightfully awry for most involved.

In “The Inside is Definitely Out” an interior decorator (Miss Wyckwyre) with ulterior motives tries to─like other series-formulaic characters─fleece the Addams and, karmically, ends up paying the price for her deception, her payment not as pleasant as others’.

The Weakness That Was” has Gomez opening a “clinic” for those who are supernaturally afflicted─not to cure them of them, but to make said afflictions, weaknesses, into strengths. Beowulf Moosefoot, city official “staff Psychologist on the City’s Chamber of  Commerce” comes to the Addams residence to investigate whether Gomez is a fraud.

Ah, What’s the Youth?”: The Addams’ easily frightened accountant (Mr. Alden Fisk) is compelled to attend the Addams’ annual Halloween party, along with other mismatched guests.

The Army tries to induct Uncle Fester in “From Here to Perplexity,” only to see their battery of intake medical and psychological tests backfire in bizarre (for them) ways. Fester, born in 1626 and a military veteran, is especially amusing in this chapter, though it, like the television series and the tales within this book, run a bit long, threatening to mar the clever wit and distinctive feel of works relating to the Addams.

You Can’t Leave Home Again” finds Morticia and Granny going to a posh resort while the former ponders and laments Gomez’s recent habit changes─he’s so nice, so kind!─and she fends off the advances of a con-artist lothario (Jed Justin). The ending to this has a particularly heartwarming, clever, and character-centric twist. This is one of my favorite story-chapters in Addams.

In “After Cousin Charles, What?”, Gomez and Morticia, look for fresh adventures to engage in. Especially fun and short (in relation to other chapters), this is a perfect and laugh-out-loud fun lead-in to the television series.


Saturday, April 30, 2022

Victim 2117 by Jussi Adler-Olsen

 

(hb; 2020: eighth book in the Department Q series. Translated from the Danish by William Frost.)

From the inside flap

“The newspaper refers to the body only as Victim 2117─the two thousand one hundred and seventeenth refugee to die in the Mediterranean Sea. But to three people, the unnamed victim is so much more, and the death sets off a chain of events that throws Department Q, Copenhagen’s cold case division led by Carl Mørck, into a deeply dangerous─and deeply personal─case. A case that not only reveals dark secrets about the past but has deadly implications about the future.

“For troubled Danish teen Alexander, whose identity is hidden behind his computer screen, the death of Victim 2117 becomes a symbol of everything he resents and the perfect excuse to unleash his murderous impulses in real life. For Ghaalib, one of the most brutal tormentors from Abu Ghraib─Saddam Hussein’s infamous prison─the death of Victim 2117 is the first step in a terrorist plot years in the making. And for Department Q’s Assad, Victim 2117 is a link to his buried past─and the family he assumed was long dead. . .”

 

Review

Caveat: (possible) mini-spoilers in this review.

Twelve years have passed since the happenings of The Keeper of Lost Causes, and two since the last entry, The Scarred Woman.

Victim is (thus far) my favorite Department Q novel, a pulse-thumping thriller with underlying potent pitch-black nastiness (e.g. mentioned rape, torture), mixed with equally shaded (sometimes humorous) twists and, eventually, a semblance of guarded hope. This eighth entry in the series also gives more writing space to the mentally fragile Rose Knudsen (still recovering from the traumas of The Scarred Woman) and Assad (and his mysterious past and family life)─in writing this, Adler-Olsen adds further emotional depth to his recurring and Victim-introduced characters, particularly Rose, Assad, and Lars Bjorn, the Homicide Chief for whom Carl Mørck bears much animus, much of it deserved. Even opportunistic reporter Joan Aiguader, new to the series, gets some understanding, though the main villains of Victim (Ghaalib and unrelated incel, Alexander) don’t get much sympathy (understandable, given their motivations and actions).

Victim, heartbreaking, cautiously hopeful and starkly realistic, is an excellent, burn-through, how-can-I-set-this-down read, one worth owning. Followed by The Shadow Murders, scheduled for publication on September 27, 2022.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Why Didn't They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie

 

(hb; 1934)

From the inside flap

“Believe it or not, Bobby Jones had topped his drive! He was badly bunkered. There were no eager crowds to groan with dismay. That is easily explained─for Bobby was merely the fourth son of the Vicar of Marchbolt, a small golfing resort on the Welsh coast. And Bobby, in spite of his name, was not much of a golfer. Still, that game was destined to be a memorable one. On going to play his ball, Bobby suddenly came upon the body of a man. He bent over him. The man was not yet dead. “Why didn’t they ask Evans?’ he said, and then his eyelids dropped, the jaw fell. . .

“It was the beginning of  a most baffling mystery. That strange question of the dying man is the recurring theme of Agatha Christie’s. . . story.”

 

Review

Evans is a light-hearted, fast-moving, and fun read, even with its underlying (relative) darkness about the goings-on of its villain character(s). Its two main characters, Bobby Jones and Frances (“Frankie”) Derwent, are hardly practical amateur sleuths─though Frances is clearly the smarter and more forward-looking of the two, despite her spirited faith in Bobby. The villain(s) is/arent’ difficult to spot for eagle-eyed readers, and the twists are solid. Evans is a good (possible) murder romantic comedy by a great writer.

#

Four television or streaming app adaptations have resulted from this novel, broadcast/streamed in these years: 1980, 2011, 2013 and 2022.


Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark by Cassandra Peterson


(hb; 2021: memoir)

From the inside flap

“On Good Friday in 1953, at only eighteen months old, Casandra Peterson reached for a pot on the stove and doused herself in boiling water, resulting in third degrees burns over 35 percent of her body. She miraculously survived, but burned and scarred, the impact would stay with her and become an obstacle she was determined to overcome. Feeling like a misfit led to her love of horror. While her sisters played with Barbie dolls, Cassandra built model kits of Frankenstein and Dracula, and idolized Vincent Price.

“Casandra left home at fourteen and supported herself as a go-go dancer. By age seventeen, she was performing as the youngest showgirl in Las Vegas, where run-ins with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Tom Jones helped her grow up fast. A chance encounter with the ‘King’ himself, Elvis Presley, inspired her to travel to Europe where she worked in film and toured Italy as lead singer of a band. She eventually made her way to Los Angeles, joining the famed improv group, The Groundlings, honing her comedic skills alongside Phil Hartman and Paul ‘Pee-wee’ Reubens.

In 1981, as a struggling actress considered past her prime, Cassandra auditioned for a local LA station as a hostess for their late-night horror movies. She got the job as ‘Elvira,’ never imagining it would lead to fame and a forty-year career.. .”

 

Review

Yours is a burn-through, smart, timely and entertaining read, sometime humorous, often serious, and charmingly feminist in its subject matter─as far as seriousness goes, Peterson was raped, something that only the darkest-hearted people joke about, and Peterson isn’t that sort of entertainer. The telling of that horror is balanced with practicality, maturity, and balance, one that doesn't tank the levity of much of the rest of the work.

Yours is one of the best, waste-no-words memoirs I’ve read in a long while, one worth owning.