Thursday, January 31, 2008

Midnight on Mourn Street by Christopher Conlon

A homeless teenage girl settles down for the night in a stranger's front yard. But he's not a stranger. She knows who he is. More importantly, she knows what he did. When he sees her in the rain, he invites her in.

She says her name is Mauri Stevens, but that's only the first lie she will tell to get what she wants. The man, Reed Waters, was responsible for a pivotal event in Mauri's life, and she has traveled a long way, looking for ... something.

Reed has no idea what he is in for.

Midnight on Mourn Street is the debut novel of editor / poet / writer Christopher Conlon, and it is a stunner. Not only because Conlon gives us just enough information in the beginning to create suspense that lasts even through the "slow" parts of the story — while we wait for the other shoe to drop. But also because he creates characters who are so real that I was completely immersed in their lives.

When the climax erupted, two-thirds of the way in, I wondered what could possibly be left to tell. But, oh, there's plenty of Midnight on Mourn Street to go. Even though I read it in 2007, this short novel from Earthling Publications is destined to be one of the best books of 2008.

Midnight on Mourn Street succeeds partly because Conlon keeps the cast small, allowing the reader to get deeply involved with two very damaged individuals (though a third does show up to add tension and contrast, and a fourth's presence is felt throughout).

Conlon wonderfully expresses these characters' innermost thoughts and motivations. I was continually impressed by how he truly understood the deeper levels of how one person's actions can change the direction of another's life, while the first remains completely oblivious of this (and is, in fact, still totally immersed in the thoughts that led to the life-changing behavior in the first place).

Whether the way I described it makes sense or not, the way Conlon writes makes it all perfectly clear, though you'll just see Midnight on Mourn Street as an emotionally charged story told by a natural storyteller.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Money for Nothing by Donald E. Westlake

Seven years ago, Josh Redmont began receiving mysterious checks for $1,000 every month. Once the first one cleared, he thought less and less about them, especially once he made a career for himself and didn't really need them anymore. But the time has come to offer up his services for that money — Josh Redmont has been "activated."

This is what I saw as a very promising premise for a Donald E. Westlake novel. But Money for Nothing was less, and more, than I expected. It's funny, but not as funny as his Dortmunder novels. It's really more of a genuine mainstream spy thriller, with a few funny moments. And at first I was disappointed.

So disappointed, in fact, that, after thinking the story had gone as far as it could go, I gave up on Money for Nothing on page 127. But then, something happened. With nothing else currently at hand, I picked it up again and subsequently zoomed right to the end. If that's not a testament to Westlake's page-turning talents, then I don't know what is.

Tappan's Burro by Zane Grey (audiobook read by Christopher Lane)

Zane Grey is all right. He's not one of my favorite authors (he tends toward passages of overlong description), but he tells a good story with interesting characters. So, when he appears on an audiobook like Tales from the Old West, Volume Two, with other authors I like (especially Max Brand), I don't skip him like I've begun to do with Louis L'Amour (who, these days, I find rather dry).

Tappan's Burro isn't going to make anyone a Grey fan, but it might make someone interested enough in seeking out more. Tappan is a lonely prospector who has two things in life: an instinct for finding gold, and his loyal burro, Jenet, who even saved his life once. But, when a woman comes into the picture, certain things are forgotten....

Grey draws a portrait of true loyalty in Tappan's Burro. Jenet is like you wish your dog was, loyal to a fault. Tappan even says about her, "It takes a person to be faithless."

Christopher Lane gives a solid reading of a nicely short novella (only two discs of the anthology's total of 13). The only part I'm not sure about is the ending — is it supposed to be a happy one? Perhaps it is, just not for whom we expect. There's a price for disloyalty that, just maybe, can never truly be repaid.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Western/Crime Novel Quote of the Day (from Black Hats by Patrick Culhane/Max Allan Collins)

"You're reading a book," [Kate Elder] said as [Wyatt Earp] set the thick little red-bound volume on the porch railing.

"You needn't sound so surprised."

"What is it?"

"Hamlet. Friend of mine suggested it."

This seemed to amuse her. "What do you think of it?"

"This Hamlet feller is a talkative man. Wouldn't have lasted long in Kansas."

— from Black Hats by Patrick Culhane (pseudonym of Max Allan Collins)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ten More Great Reads from 2007

This is my second Best Books I Read in 2007 list. (The first one is here.) This one consists of those books that were not first published in 2007. These should not in any way be taken as lesser selections — in fact the best book I read all year is on this list — I just wanted to keep them separate.

So, here they are, alphabetically by author, along with their year of publication. Any links go to the more detailed reviews I wrote when I first read them. Others you can research yourself (and then tell your friends that you discovered them).
  1. Max Brand, Beyond the Outposts (1925) — The best book I read all year is a great story and a great audiobook. Kristoffer Tabori brings this Western about a different kind of father-son relationship to life!
  2. Gil Brewer, The Vengeful Virgin (1958) — This book is the true pulp crime experience: it feels like it was written in a flash of inspiration, and Brewer's characters are boldly sexy, violently cruel, lustfully greedy, and utterly remorseless.
  3. Clifford Irving, Fake! (1969) — Part biography, part crime story, part world travelogue, and probably part fiction, this biography of art forger Elmyr de Hory (by the man behind The Hoax) remains wholly engaging and eminently readable.
  4. Drew Karpyshyn, Darth Bane: Path of Destruction (2006) — Yes, it's a Star Wars novel, but anyone who wants to know everything about the growth and development of a Sith Lord needs to read this book, which is set 1,000 years before the movies.
  5. Stanislaw Lem, One Human Minute (1986) — The title piece is alone worth the cover price (but don't skip the other two), as Lem takes us on a tour of what happens all over the world every minute (it's set in the future yet feels timely). It doesn't sound like much, but it's surprisingly entertaining and thought-provoking.
  6. Ira Levin, Son of Rosemary (1997) — A terrific thriller and a fitting end to a career filled with high points. Anyone who dismissed it because of the ending, thinking that it negated the legacy of Rosemary's Baby, simply needs to go back and read it again. You missed some important details.
  7. Charles Portis, True Grit (1968) — Another great Western novel/audiobook, and one of the few to elicit genuine affection from me toward the characters. Anyone who thinks he can skip it because he's seen the movie is fooling himself — the film is a weak imitation. I enjoyed the library copy so much, I bought my own.
  8. Damon Runyon, Guys and Dolls (1934) — Runyon is little-known today, but that should change. He is still probably the best short-story writer ever, and with a style that simply cannot be imitated (not least of which because of its difficulty in doing correctly). Crime fans especially should flock to his work, because it shows criminals from a different time on their off time. This collection was pure pleasure, and as a bonus it made me a regular listener to the old-time radio program Damon Runyon Theater.
  9. Duane Swierczynski, The Blonde (2006) — I found this to be an almost perfect book. It's short and fast, has great characters, and adds pieces of sci-fi and horror to its old-time crime noir plot. I think it would appeal to practically anybody reading this weblog.
  10. F. Paul Wilson, Harbingers (2006) — The tenth Repairman Jack novel is also one of the best, as Jack is even further swept along on a path of "coincidences" out of his control (something he is not used to and cannot stand) toward his predestined fate. What a ride Wilson has taken us on.
(And I only received one of these as a review copy. The rest I got from the library, received as gifts, or — gasp! — paid actual money for.)

Pulp Western Quote of the Day (from Black Jack by Max Brand)

"I'll tell you, McGuire," he said gently. "Your great mistake is in talking too much. You've had a good deal of success, my friend. So much that your head is turned. You're quite confident that no one will invade your special territory; and ... you pity the sheriffs around you. Now listen to me. You've branded me as a criminal in advance. And I'm not going to disappoint you.... I'm going to make the sheriffs pity you, McGuire. I'm going to make your life a small bit of hell."

— from Black Jack by Max Brand

Die a Little by Megan Abbott (audiobook read by Ellen Archer)

I got halfway through Die a Little (disc 3 of the unabridged audiobook read by Ellen Archer) before I gave up on it. Megan Abbott can definitely write, so I'll probably try another of her books (specifically the one I've heard the most about, Queenpin), but I'm marking this one up under the lost-time column.

When Lora King's brother Bill marries the mysterious Alice Steele after a quickie courtship, Lora begins to notice that her new sister-in-law doesn't seem to have any history. Currently working in wardrobe in Hollywood, Alice has a friend named Lois that seems to tell Lora a lot about their past together (as does a certain photo on a certain playing card), and Lora takes it upon herself to find out just who this woman is that her brother has married.

Abbott has set Die a Little in the 1950s, and for good reason. A lot of the goings-on are not quite so shocking to modern readers, and enveloping them in a less permissive time makes them a little easier to take as such. (I mean, who in Hollywood these days doesn't have some naked photos just waiting for the right offer to surface?)

My main problem with Die a Little is, unfortunately, with Lora herself. I simply didn't find her worthy of being a protagonist. I suppose the fault could lie with Archer's reading, but I don't think that's so in this case. The events and supporting characters around Miss King are, for the most part, intriguing — especially given the time period — but they do nothing to make her more interesting. And if falling into bed with a man she's just met doesn't make her interesting, nothing will.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Pulp Novel Quote of the Day (from The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers)

The thing that I have to consider now without delay — the thing that I have to consider most intensely, and with all my mind, and now (now, sitting here at the desk in MacComerou's dusty, old-fashioned country living room, with St. Erme's young bride asleep on the horsehair sofa beside me, and the hot moonless night still black out-of-doors, though the dawn must break eventually — now, with the lanterns and flashlights moving out in the darkness, and the voices of the troopers and posse men near and far off, calling to each other with the thin, empty sound which men's voices have in the night; and some of them dropping back a while ago to get hot coffee from the pot left brewing on the kitchen range, with their grim tired faces swollen from mosquito bites and their legs covered to the knees with swamp muck and damp sawdust from the old sawmill pit, glancing in at me and the sleeping girl through the kitchen doorway only briefly while they gulped their drink in deep draughts to keep their brains awake, shaking their heads, in answer to my silent question, to indicate they had found no trace yet, and then out again on farther trails, with an empty slam of the screen door behind them — and now with the lanterns moving farther off through the woods and swamps, over the hills and down into the hollows; and now the distant baying of the hounds that have been brought in from somewhere; and armed men in pairs and squads patrolling every road for miles around, ready to shoot down at the rustle of a leaf that crazy killer, with his bloody saw-tooth knife and fanged grin, creeping so cunningly and red-handedly through the dark) — the thing that I have to consider here and without delay, in this deep darkness near the end of night, is this thing, and this thing only:

Where is that killer now?

— from The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers

(In case you didn't notice, that's all one sentence, even with the paragraph break.)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Money Shot by Christa Faust

The only reason Christa Faust's novel Money Shot didn't make my Best Books of 2007 list is ... well, because even though I read it in December, it doesn't officially come out until the end of January 2008. (And a "best of" list needs regulations or we're no better than blogging monkeys....)

But, even though Money Shot is not a perfect book, it's still a hell of an improvement over a lot of the crap that passes for fiction these days. Faust displays a strong voice and a real understanding of what makes a story move. So you should give it a shot when it starts trickling into stores around January 29th.

Until then, check out my full review of Money Shot.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Comic Spy Novel Quote of the Day (from Money for Nothing by Donald E. Westlake)

"Her face now was a study in complexity, or abstraction, or something. Like a person eating a Fig Newton for the first time...."

— from Money for Nothing by Donald E. Westlake

Friday, January 4, 2008

Top Ten Best Books I Read in 2007

My first Best Books I Read in 2007 list consists of those books that were first published in 2007. I plan to do another list of books I read this year that were published elsewhen (if it's not a word, it should be), but who knows when that might happen?...

So, here they are, alphabetically by author. The links go to the more detailed reviews I wrote when I first read them.
  1. Richard Aleas (Charles Ardai), Songs of Innocence
  2. Max Allan Collins, Deadly Beloved
  3. Peter Crowther, The Spaces Between the Lines
  4. Allan Guthrie, Kill Clock
  5. Joe Hill, Heart-Shaped Box
  6. Russell Hill, Robbie's Wife
  7. Mark Justice and David T. Wilbanks, Dead Earth: The Green Dawn
  8. Norman Lebrecht, The Life and Death of Classical Music
  9. Ronald Damien Malfi, Via Dolorosa
  10. Paul S. Powers (edited by Laurie Powers), Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street
(In the interest of total disclosure, I received free review copies of all but one of these, and I got that one from the library. Hooray for free books!)

Beyond the Outposts by Max Brand (audiobook read by Kristoffer Tabori)

The best book I read in 2007 was originally published in 1925. And, as a bonus, it was actually read for me. The plot of Beyond the Outposts (originally published under the byline Peter Henry Morland) is unlike any I have encountered before: young Lew Dorset runs away from his Uncle Abner (looking after him since Lew's father went to prison) in search of his father, Will Dorset.

Along the way, he makes a great friend in Chuck Morris (and that's Morris, not Norris, in case you weren't really paying attention yet), fights Indians, later befriending them, and seeks a mythical horse. There's a lot more that happens, but I don't want to ruin this epic experience for you. This is one of author Max Brand's most ambitious plots, and he handles it deftly.

There's enough story in Beyond the Outposts for three more novels, and it contains two Brand signatures: the superiority of the Indian way of life, and the aforementioned horse search. Also, the complexity of the father-son relationship (even in the absence of the father) is dealt with especially well, giving Lew a depth that is not found in many characters.

As for the audiobook of Beyond the Outposts, let me begin by saying that it is a special occasion when an actor you were previously unaware of makes an impression — and to do so twice is extraordinary — but that is just what happened to me with an actor with the distinctive name of Kristoffer Tabori.

The first time I saw Tabori, he was truly inhabiting the usually thankless role of Henry Baskerville to Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles. (In fact, I defy you to name anyone you who has ever played that role memorably.) His portrayal, I wrote at the time, "offers up a sympathetic rendition of the lord of the manor that actually makes the viewer care about his safety (and his heart)."

Fast-forward a year. I came across this audio of Beyond the Outposts (Brand is one of my favorite authors, and one whose audiobooks, for some reason, I have a good deal of trouble tracking down through the library) — read by Kristoffer Tabori. Well, I knew the name rang a bell and looked up the Holmes review to reread it. Interesting, I thought, a Briton reading a Western, but I decided to give it a go anyway. (It turns out Tabori is actually an American, and the son of director Don Siegel and actress Viveca Lindfors, but I was ignorant of this at the time. Thanks, Wikipedia!)

The voice that came from my car's speakers was so different from that of Henry Baskerville that I had to do some Googling to confirm that it was in fact the same person. Tabori's reading reeks of the Old West. His personification of narrator Lew Dorset surpassed even my expectations for a Max Brand character. And his voice never falters as he gives each character a voice distinct enough to be different, yet similar enough to remind us they are all from the same area. Tabori makes the people in Beyond the Outposts live in a way they simply cannot on paper. And anyone who can actually improve on a Brand story gets high marks in my book.

Crime Novel Quote of the Day (from Die a Little by Megan Abbott)

"[Lois] is the kind of woman whose face you try to commit to memory because you feel something might happen to her any minute and you'll have to remember that left dimple, the burn mark from a curling iron on her temple, the beauty mark next to her eye, the small tear in her earlobe, from an earring tugged too far."

— from Die a Little by Megan Abbott

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Fake! by Clifford Irving

Subtitled The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time, Fake! is the only kind of true-crime book I can get into: not the story of a murderer, but of a classy kind of con artist.

As any fan of Orson Welles's F for Fake will already know, Elmyr de Hory was responsible for a real shake-up in the art community. For decades, he sold all over the world paintings of his own as the work of old masters. But his story never reads as a mean-spirited attempt to get rich, mostly due to the approach.

Author Clifford Irving (who would, just a few years after writing this book, pull off his own fake -- with the fictional Autobiography of Howard Hughes) portrays Elmyr as a sympathetic figure. He only did it when he needed money; when he was flush, he focused on his own art career, and never painted in others' styles during those periods.

Sadly, his own career never took off, and so he was repeatedly forced to go back into his particular bag of tricks and produce works in the styles of Picasso, Modigliani, Derain, Renoir, and others until he was finally caught, though he was never convicted due to what was essentially a technicality. Elmyr always claimed to have never signed any of the paintings (although his business partners may have) which keeps the paintings from being outright forgeries.

Fake! is a terrific book. Part biography, part crime story, part world travelogue, and probably part fiction, it remains wholly engaging and eminently readable.

"Internes Can't Take Money" by Max Brand (from The Collected Stories of Max Brand)

Say the name Max Brand and people generally think Western. But this prolific writer from the pulp era dabbled in many genres, from spy stories to fantasy and even poetry (the work he saw as his true calling).

Brand even created the character of Dr. Jimmy Kildare, featured in over a dozen movies and two television series. The Collected Stories of Max Brand showcases mainly his non-Western work to great effect, including the first Kildare tale, "Internes Can't Take Money" (published in Cosmopolitan of all places in 1936).

Crime fans will likely enjoy this first foray into the medical drama, since it is contains a touch of the noir. Internist Jimmy Kildare gets involved in a Damon Runyon–esque (only without as much humor) cadre of criminal types in a situation that eventually folds in on itself in a manner more than somewhat reminiscent of O. Henry but still very satisfying.

Throughout, as Kildare is patching up various gunshot wounds and the like, he stays true to his calling and never accepts a dime for his work — until a friend of his desperately needs money. Then he is more than willing to accept the cash.

Though "Internes Can't Take Money" is not a great story, it is highly entertaining and, more importantly, inspired a film the next year (starring Joel McCrea) that eventually gave rise to the series (movie, radio, and TV) that would make the now-surprising idea of a good doctor who is also ethical into a pop-culture icon. The character also made its author a very rich man. And it all started with this story.
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