Monday, October 27, 2008

Roger's Version by John Updike (unabridged audio book read by Michael Prichard)

A born-again computer whiz kid bent on proving the existence of God on his computer meets a middle-aged divinity professor, Roger Lambert, who'd just as soon leave faith a mystery. Soon the computer hacker begins an affair with professor Lambert's wife — and Roger finds himself experiencing deep longings for a trashy teenage girl.

That's what the marketing department of Ballantine Books says Roger's Version is about. And, really, that description does summarize the high points. Surprisingly, they've left out the fact that the "trashy teenage girl" is the daughter of Roger's half-sister. Wouldn't that little taste of partial incest bring in a few more readers? At least, the ones who are already familiar with author John Updike's specialty: what I like to call "the dalliances of adulterous suburbanites."

Only this time, Updike also adds in discussions about religion, computers, and astrophysics culled from the best minds in these areas (check out the Acknowledgments page for credits). In addition, also talked about freely are politics, economics, and modern music (the book is practically soundtracked to Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual).

In this way, Roger's Version is like an undergraduate-level class on these subjects delivered with Updike's typically gorgeous prose — and peppered with illicit trysts to keep the reader's interest. Reader Michael Prichard is the perfect audiobook reader for Updike's work. His nearly flat tone gives equal gravity both to lengthy passages on erudite subjects and to nearly pornographic sexual situations (including a description of one character's erect member so detailed that the listener could practically draw it from memory).

Friday, October 24, 2008

Gun Work by David J. Schow (Hard Case Crime)

There are friends you hang out with on a regular basis. Then there are your special friends — the ones you can depend on to get you out of a jam you can't solve on your own. Carl Ledbetter is in that kind of trouble.

His fiancée Erica has been kidnapped while in Mexico City, and the ransom is one million dollars. So, who can Carl call but his fellow Iraq War vet, Barney, a scarred yet deliberately nondescript character with the proverbial "checkered past." Carl once saved Barney's life, so Barney accompanies Carl to the money drop and shows he was born to tackle this kind of situation.

But when things go wrong because Barney's aim is too good, he smells a fish ... and someone who was supposed to stay alive doesn't ... and then things get really bad.

Though he's done a great deal in the intervening years, author David J. Schow is probably still best known for (whether it's true or not) coining the term to describe the kind of horror fiction he and his fellow "splatterpunk" writers were producing in the mid-1980s.

Also, though Schow has written half a dozen novels, and about as many Hollywood screenplays, his reputation has been primarily based on his skills at the short story. He deserves for his newest novel, Gun Work from Hard Case Crime, to change that perception.

Gun Work is Schow's first book since his 2006 collection, Havoc Swims Jaded — and his first ever set firmly in the hardboiled crime genre. 250 pages of constant action are divided into five parts and no chapters, with Schow (who was once married to fellow Hard Case scribe Christa Faust) offering up a speedy, grueling, and ultimately satisfying read — as well as a graduate-level education in artillery.

Parts of the story fit well into the usual Hard Case style, but Gun Work is most definitely rawer than anything else they've published to date. Barney has to go through one hell of a struggle to finish the task he sets for himself, all resulting in a blistering confrontation with the person responsible for the whole mess. If you enjoyed how Allan Guthrie put his protagonist through the wringer in Hard Man, you'll love what Schow does with Barney in Gun Work. The Mexican wrestlers are just a bonus.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Christmas Crime: Three Days of the Condor directed by Sydney Pollack (starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow, Cliff Robertson, John Houseman)

Three Days of the Condor (1975). Screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., and David Rayfiel from the book Six Days of the Condor by James Grady.

Joseph Turner (Robert Redford once again as the all-American) gets to read for a living, analyzing texts for the CIA through the cover of the "American Literary Historical Society." When it's his turn to go out for everybody's lunch, he comes back to find them all dead.

From then on, Turner (code name "Condor") is on the run — from the killers and from the government — with only photographer Kathy (striking Faye Dunaway) his only, albeit reluctant, ally.

Setting Three Days of the Condor during the Christmas season does little to bring tidings of comfort and joy. But the script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (The Parallax View) and David Rayfiel — and the direction of Sydney Pollack (his fourth of seven collaborations with Redford) — deliver the right amounts of post-Watergate paranoia and intrigue.

As an enigmatic professional killer, Max von Sydow heads an impressive supporting cast that also features Cliff Robertson and John Houseman. (Keep an eye out for von Sydow's code name. It is a nice little in-joke connected to his appearance in The Exorcist.) The result in a fun thriller that, while very tied to its period, also reminds us that the priorities of the government have been the same for a long time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

21 directed by Robert Luketic (starring Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Bosworth)

21 (2008). Screenplay by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb from the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich.

Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a brilliant MIT student on his way to Harvard Medical School. He's already been accepted, but the money is an issue. Ben is up for a full scholarship, but so are 76 other people, and he has spent so much time studying, he's had little opportunity for the "life experience" the scholarship board seeks from that one "dazzling" candidate that deserves the $300,000 free ride.

So, when his Nonlinear Equations professor, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), recruits him to his team of other brilliant students to count cards in Las Vegas casinos, he reluctantly accepts — on the condition that once he's earned the three-hundred grand, he's out.

Spacey is electric as Professor Rosa, but it's Sturgess's work as Ben Campbell that grounds this flight of fancy in reality. He is instantly likable, and his troubles are relatable, even though few people have actually experienced them. Laurence Fishburne also has a nice turn as ultra-intimidating security man Cole Williams, a man who does whatever it takes to keep his job in an increasingly computer-controlled arena.

Though it's supposedly based on a true story, 21 is pure Hollywood all the way. From its underprivileged hero given the opportunity of a lifetime, to its instant inclusion of the hero's dream love interest (here Kate Bosworth), to how Ben drops his geek friends once he gets the chance to hang out with cooler people, to how the student surpasses the teacher.

The first portion of the movie is so predictable, in fact — and so spelled-out for the general audience — that it's a struggle just to get through to the interesting portion: the actual Vegas scenes. As a whole, however, 21 is a lot of fun, and I was surprised at how much I thought about it after it was over, especially that insipid but catchy phrase, "Winner, winner, chicken dinner."

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Cutie by Donald E. Westlake (originally The Mercenaries, also published as The Smashers) (Hard Case Crime)

Mavis St. Paul has been murdered, and Billy-Billy Cantell, a stuttering dope user/seller is the prime suspect, mostly because he was found at the scene of the crime with the gun in his hand. Only there's no way he could've done it. His friend and colleague Clay believes this and, following order from their boss, gangster Ed Ganolese, is trying to clear his name because the police aren't interested in another suspect.

But Billy-Billy has disappeared, and the police are getting too involved in Ganolese's operation, so Clay (who creates "accidents" for people who cross Ganolese) has to play amateur detective and discover who the "cutie" (as Ganolese refers to him) is that killed Mavis and framed Billy-Billy, apparently just to sabotage Ganolese's outfit.

Will Clay find out who did it? Will he get any sleep? Will his girlfriend Ella leave when she finds out what Clay does for a living?

The Cutie is a reprinting of Donald E. Westlake's debut novel under his own name. (He had previously published so-called "sex novels" under a pseudonym.) As The Mercenaries (its original title), it was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for that year (it did not win, but the author would eventually win multiple times for other books).

The Cutie was always Westlake's preferred title, and it's actually more appropriate once you read the book. The funny thing is that the girl on the cover is not the "cutie" of the book, but she is the only one referred to as "mercenary."

For a debut novel, Westlake's familiar style is already apparent: a semihumorous approach, clever plotting, and an engaging mix of smart and dumb characters. (And I have to imagine that, before Westlake, nobody else was combining those things in just that way.) It's reassuring to know that the author emerged fully formed from the literary womb. In fact, it's only in later portions that The Cutie shows signs of inexperience — even as one character practically confesses before our eyes, Westlake tries to force us down the wrong path by having Clay continually remind us who the "only" suspects are. When the solution is finally revealed, it's actually a relief.

On top of this, however, the author offers an ending that reinforces the notion (spoken throughout) that emotion has no place in business. I never saw it coming. Westlake fans will undoubtedly enjoy this reprinting of yet another early novel by Hard Case Crime. And fans of the author's Dortmunder series will appreciate that Westlake already has a character stealing a car with M.D. plates.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Widow for One Year by John Irving (unabridged audio book read by George Guidall)

Is love too strong a word to describe one's feelings toward a great read? Admiration, definitely — I'll even freely admit to affection. But love? I have to imagine that everyone who reads John Irving's A Widow for One Year struggles with that question, simply because it is one of the most perfectly put together pieces of fiction I have yet encountered. I still think about the characters — especially protagonist Ruth Cole — I even miss them.

A Widow for One Year is Ruth's story. It begins when she is four years old, and her portion is tangential in the first third of the novel while Irving tells the story of her parents. Ted Cole is a successful children's book writer and illustrator who has affairs with "young mothers" under the guise of using their children as models.

Ted's relationship with his wife Marion has been over since the grief over the deaths of their two sons, Thomas and Timothy, has made her an emotional zombie. (Ruth's birth was an attempt to repair the loss, but Marion will not allow herself to love her daughter.) Ted hires college student Eddie O'Hare, an aspiring writer, to be his assistant for the summer of 1958. Soon after, Marion begins an affair with the boy, and Eddie soon discovers his job is more than advertised.

The second portion of the book begins in 1990, when Ruth is 36 and a successful writer on her own. She is still greatly affected by the decisions her parents made during her childhood, and is at a reading of her latest novel when she runs into Eddie, now 52 and a less successful writer (all the main characters are writers, yet this never becomes tedious).

During research for her latest novel, intended to be a departure from the semiautobiographical tomes written so far, Ruth gets herself into a situation that tests her to her limits. This thread lasts through the rest of A Widow for One Year, and Irving makes unexpected choices for his characters, never allowing the reader to predict just what they will do next.

I'm fascinated by how skillfully Irving assembled this story of two generations, carefully referring to past events that enhance the present narrative, and deftly paralleling those events with the novels the characters themselves write (all the main characters are professional writers, yet this never becomes tedious) — and especially drawing the story around so it reaches a full circle of sorts.

Also of note is Irving's ability to create even-handed personalities: people who do something despicable one moment and admirable the next, retaining their likeability in the process. Readers will be both literarily satisfied and emotionally moved even while they are crying tears of laughter at a couple of slapstick scenes. John Irving is really a writer who has something for everyone, and A Widow for One Year is the best book of his I've read yet. The audiobook read by the extraordinary George Guidall only enhances the experience. Not only are his characterizations awe-inspiring, but his Dutch pronunciation is immaculate.

A movie was made of the first portion of A Widow for One Year. The Door in the Floor stars Kim Basinger and Jeff Bridges as Marion and Ted Cole, respectively, and Elle Fanning as young Ruth.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Horror Is Not a 4-Letter Word by Matthew Warner (horror essays)

Subtitled Essays on Writing and Appreciating the Genre, short story writer and novelist Matthew Warner's first collection of nonfiction, Horror Is Not a 4-Letter Word, is ideal reading during the month best known for ending with Halloween. And it's a must-have for fans of the horror genre.

In these articles that span from 2002 to 2007 — with all but two coming from the author's tenure as a columnist for Horror World — Warner covers a variety of diverse topics from horror stereotypes (and why we need them) to the importance of research for verisimilitude, from why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an example of excellent plotting to the secrets of a successful collaboration, from how to write "invisible" dialogue to tips on public speaking.

Warner even gives new readers a taste of his short fiction ("With the Eyes of God") and then shows how he got there. (Those whose appetites are whetted can seek out Death Sentences, his short fiction collection). Horror Is Not a 4-Letter Word also contains a critique of Left Behind from the horror writer's perspective, one essay each focusing on the subjects of his two novels to date (The Organ Donor and Eyes Everywhere), a lengthy exposé on his summer working for notorious "book doctor" Edit Ink, and even insightful articles on censorship and the connection between horror and violence.

Warner has an engaging conversational style that makes even the most indepth material go down easy. But I'm not sure I can bestow a greater compliment than the fact that reading Horror Is Not a 4-Letter Word is the first time I've almost been late for work because of essays. As I finished one, the next one's title intrigued me to continue. Kudos to the author and Guide Dog Books for assembling a collection of horror-related articles that are just as accessible to the horror reader as to those who want to write in the genre — and is far more readable than others of its ilk.

The Boys Are Back in Town by Christopher Golden (dark fantasy)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission.

Will James, reporter and critic for the Boston Tribune, has just been passed over for a promotion — on the weekend of his 10-year high school reunion — because his articles are too "eccentric." (They are primarily exposés in the style of his idol Harry Houdini on occult subjects like Wicca and vampires.) The next day, he travels to his hometown of Eastborough, Massachusetts, for the reunion.

But since this is a Christopher Golden novel, this isn't going to be just any high school reunion. Almost as soon as Will arrives, something strange happens: when he asks about his friend Mike (Mike had sent Will an e-mail saying he would attend), his other friends look at him in horror. That's not funny, they say. You know Mike died before graduation; you were at the funeral.

Even odder is the fact that Will suddenly does have a vague memory of that series of events — where there was no such memory before. Before long, other things Will thought he remembered are changed, and he begins to notice changes in the personalities of the people around him as their memories (and therefore realities) are affected. But the worst is when he watches his best friend Ashleigh transform before his eyes from the shiny girl he loves into a world-weary sufferer, all due to a single event. Someone is messing around with their pasts, and Will seems to be the only one who realizes it. To fix it, and to find out who's behind this insidious transformation, Will has to go back into his past and rediscover a talent he has long tried to forget.

The Boys Are Back in Town represents a sort of coming of age for author Christopher Golden (then known primarily for his media tie-in and young-adult series novels). Previously, his works wore their influences on their sleeves (Straight On 'Til Morning was a Peter Pan update of sorts; The Ferryman featured Styx guardian Charon) — a practice Golden continues to adopt with his modern updates of classic stories (Bloodstained Oz, etc.) — but Boys Are Back feels truly original. The premise may feel somewhat familiar but the plot framework is Golden's own.

Golden's characters, as usual, are detailed and realistic. Since a good deal of the action focuses on their time in high school, he gets to cater to his faithful young-adult audience while not alienating the adult market. The only trouble is that the adults (with a few important exceptions) aren't really all that different from their younger counterparts (but, then again, we all know people who haven't changed since high school). Threaded among the events is a nice lesson in how our memories shape the people we later become. But his greatest accomplishment is in his very moving portrait of the platonic love between Will and Ashleigh. Even if you never had a best friend you truly loved, you'll know what it feels like when you finish this book.

I've read a number of novels where problems are caused, then solved, through the use of magic (usually spelled "magick"), but The Boys Are Back in Town is the first one that didn't resort to silly, florid incantation or spells cast in an ancient language for verisimilitude. Golden accomplishes this by a simple feat: he has his characters use magic and believe in it, and so the reader does, too. This kind of matter-of-fact approach succeeds with all of the more "out there" parts of the story, like time travel (with the usual paradox omitted, allowing characters to interact with their other-time selves), letting us be swept up in Golden's murder-mystery suspense-thriller plot that pulls the best parts from The Twilight Zone and Back to the Future, among others. And he does not slight us on the ending, offering up a conclusion that is both literarily satisfying and emotionally rewarding.

It's always fascinating to watch an author develop, and The Boys Are Back in Town is a big step forward for Golden, one that shows how he was perhaps training his literary muscles for a larger task, such as the recent Veil trilogy (beginning with The Myth Hunters), in which all of his skills come to fruition. But it's also just a solid thriller, a fully involving read ideal for anyone in search of a fast-paced, character-focused novel, even if they don't generally enjoy stories with elements of fantasy, because Golden integrates them into his story so seamlessly.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub (unabridged audio book read by Frank Muller)

Authors Stephen King and Peter Straub's second collaboration is much more than just a sequel to their first, The Talisman. In fact, Black House, draws from the earlier book's mythology only in a few scenes. An older Jack Sawyer returns as the protagonist, but now he's a talented police detective called out of voluntary retirement to help solve a rash of child murders in his newly adopted home of French Landing, Wisconsin.

This makes the vast majority of Black House reminiscent of Straub's murder mysteries (like The Throat) — which is a welcome change from the King-dominated tone of The Talisman. But King fans need not think of eschewing Black House outright because the authors have a trick up their collective sleeve: they've managed to also tie this story into the Dark Tower mythos — solidly but without overdoing it.

Everything is crafted so well and flows so smoothly that "even a blind man can see" (as the eminently quotable George Rathbun would say) that Black House is the best thing either of them had written up to that point — and is a shining example of what can be achieved when a pair's talents combine to enhance each other. Straub's literary bent gives style and intelligence to King's average-guy prose, and King's skill at pacing keeps Straub's tendency toward lengthy description from slowing things down. As a result, it offers the best of both authors with very few of their flaws remaining. The quality even transcends the distracting narrative style (using first-person plural, in the manner of screenplay directions, to reflect the book's dual storyteller).

Black House also manages to turn the impossible into the believable and can be enjoyed fully by the uninitiated, though fans who have already read The Talisman and the Dark Tower series will undoubtedly be the most rewarded and have the most fun. But I'm not sure the book as written is even as good as the audiobook as read by the late Frank Muller. His legendary vocal skills enhance the storyline with unforgettable characterizations of the colorful cast. The abovementioned George Rathbun and the villainous Mr. Munshun are particularly remarkable, making this original, exciting, suspenseful and intelligent story into something even better than the words on the page. "Case closed, game over, zip up your fly."
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