Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Favorite Reads of 2009 (Best Books of the Year list)

2009 was a great year for reading. But it was a banner year especially in terms of my reading Westerns. In previous years, this underappreciated genre had comprised perhaps around 10% of my annual reading, but last year they really took hold of me, and a solid one-third (44) of the 125 books I read in 2009 were Westerns!

Of course, there was also the usual assortment of crime, horror, general (i.e., "literary") fiction, nonfiction, and even a respectable amount of science fiction and fantasy, especially since I discovered good sword-and-sorcery through my introduction to Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. In any case, 2009 was a solid year for reading in general — I discovered some great authors who have since become favorites — and this is the best of what I read.

For more on why I chose these particular books as the best of the year, click on the link to read the original review. I'm taking a break until January 4. Happy holidays! I'll be back with a review of — you guessed it! — another Western.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Chase by Clive Cussler (historical action mystery)

April 1950 — A fisherman searching the bottom of a lake for his lost outboard motor finds something quite a bit more impressive, and soon a dredging company unearths (unwaters?) Baldwin locomotive #3025 (and its 3 saponified corpses) from the silt and muck it sank in back in 1906.

Nearby, a tall, anonymous observer watches closely. He knows what happened 44 years ago. He was there....

January 1906 — A bank robber disguised as a wino makes off with a $325,000 mining payroll, leaving three dead victims in his wake. This is at least his fifteenth such undertaking, and the public knows him as the Butcher Bandit.

Joseph Van Dorn, founder of the famous detective agency that carries his name, puts his best man on the Butcher Bandit case: Isaac Bell, who feels that the bandit plans his escapades so well that he will undoubtedly be tripped up by a single overlooked mistake. Bell proposes that it is the job of the Van Dorn detectives "to find that insignificant mistake."

Jacob Cromwell is president of the Cromwell National Bank, but where he got his initial capital is a mystery. His sister Margaret seems to have some connection with the Bandit, but that, too, is not clear. With little else to go on, Bell focuses his sights on the Cromwell siblings, though they appear to be San Francisco's biggest philanthropists.

Clever villains make for the most interesting reading, and author Clive Cussler's The Chase offers up one of the cleverest in the Butcher Bandit. He robs and kills, and yet always escapes due to his very careful planning. (Some may say that this much planning is unbelievable, but Cussler never allows it to slip into parody, though he may have his tongue in his cheek.) But the Butcher's ambition and ego may just be his downfall.

However, as bright as the Butcher is, Cussler's newest hero Isaac Bell is at least as clever. Bell is from an independently wealthy family, so his interest in investigation is pure; he's not doing it for the money. He has his quirks, but he is a mostly relatable hero. The reader learns who the Bandit is fairly early on, and from then on The Chase offers a suspenseful ride of wondering when Bell and the Bandit will meet.

The Chase also features a close-up view of the San Francisco earthquake of that year. And Cussler caps things off with a thrilling locomotive chase across the Sierra Nevadas and north to Montana, with no working telegraph lines to warn of oncoming trains keeping the suspense at similarly mountainous heights.

The historical aspects of The Chase are also fun. It takes place mostly just after the turn of the 20th century, so it has many aspects of a Western (since that's only about 25 years after most Westerns are usually set). I especially enjoy a good Western-mystery, so this one really fits the bill, especially with the added adventure.

The Chase was first appreciated as a standalone thriller. But an also train-related sequel set the following year in 1907, The Wrecker (written with Justin Scott), has since appeared, with presumably more to come.

Trivia: Cussler tips his hat to a classic bank-robbery film by having Salt Lake police detective John Casale have nearly the same name as John Cazale, the actor who played Sal to Al Pacino's Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Charlie and the Sir by Frank Roderus (Western novel)

Charlie Roy was between jobs, spending time loafing at the Union Pacific depot, when he spotted a skinny, well-dressed jasper on the wrong side of a hooraw. The fellow looked on the sickly side, so the affable, good-natured Charlie escorted the gent to his hotel.

Before long, he'd gotten himself employed to drive Sir Arthur Williford-Cooke (for that was the jasper's moniker) and his team north ... just north. Well, sir, Charlie's not one to look sideways at fifty dollars a month, so he buys a sheep wagon with Sir Arthur's money, and aims it (and the dog that came with it) toward the north star. Their eventual destination is the Crown B Ranch, run by Lady Elizabeth Copperton, Sir Arthur's widowed sister.

It seems that the business partner of Lady Elizabeth's late husband wants the Crown B for himself, and he's not above using underhanded tactics to get it. Now, "Miz Copperton" may have a hoity-toity brother, but she's an experienced rancher who's not going to take this lying down. And now she's got the help of Charlie and the Sir.

Author Frank Roderus is a two-time winner of the Spur Award for his novels Leaving Kansas and Potter's Fields. Roderus has published over 300 books in his career (most under pseudonyms or house names), and he is still going strong (as evidenced by the publication of 2009's Harlan).

Charlie Roy is a very appealing character. Roderus's plot is suspenseful and holds the reader's attention throughout (with a few surprises at the end), but what makes this book a real joy to read is Charlie's narration. His language is authentic and colloquial, yet it never feels forced. Most writers who attempt colloquial speech tend to overdo it, but Roderus strikes the perfect balance between the formal and the informal, making Charlie and the Sir a perfect choice for reading out loud.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (unabridged audio book read by Dennis Boutsikaris)

In 1933, a time when hunger is rampant, two young Russian brothers chase down a cat, and one of them disappears. Twenty years later in 1953, another of a different pair of brothers meets a mysterious end, and MGB agent Leo Demidov follows the official line that it was an "accident."

For, in the Stalinist Soviet Union, crime officially does not exist. This is an era when bad driving can get you sent to the gulag for twenty years. But some growing doubts Leo has about the government's interrogation methods (like the popular practice of torturing until a confession is made) come to a head when he is asked to investigate his own wife, Raisa.

Meanwhile, a serial killer runs free, eventually amassing over 50 victims — a killer with an astonishing motive. But this "killer" officially does not exist in a time and place where paranoia is a survival tactic under a dictatorship that believes even sadness to be a punishable protest against the government's policies.

Author Tom Rob Smith crafts his debut with care, though Child 44 does require some patience. Smith introduces the murders, then spends a great deal of time developing the character of Leo and his surroundings before returning to the violence some time later. Though I predicted the "revelation" early on (it could not have going any other way and still have been fair to the truly attentive reader), that did not lessen the novel's effect, due to the author's admirable skill.

Actor Dennis Boutsikaris reads Child 44 with deftness and confidence. He exhibits a level of comfort with the complex prose (not to mention the ubiquitous Russian accents) that one suspects would exceed even that of the author himself.

In addition, his voice is smooth and flows easily into the ear, reminiscent of Kevin Spacey (himself an audiobook reader at one time), with an undercurrent of menace that matches well to a story wherein one wrong word can mean instant death — and where even a slow death may be preferable to government sanctioned "justice." (Where even a government agent's reputation can rise and fall as often as the barometric pressure.)

The first sequel in this projected trilogy of novels, The Secret Speech, is already available. It is also read by Boutsikaris, who won a 2009 Audie Award in the Thriller/Suspense category for his work on Child 44.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Come Out Tonight by Richard Laymon (unabridged audio book read by Gene Engene)

Sherry and Duane are about to consummate their love (or whatever it is they have together) when some poor planning sends Duane out on a jaunt to the all-night Speed-D-Mart two blocks away for the appropriate supplies. After waiting for over an hour, and hearing what sounds very much like a gunshot, Sherry gets concerned and goes out to look for Duane.

This simple summary is the set-up for a night of terror that will soon involve Sherry's family, her sister's friends, and a trio of strangers with somewhat questionable motives, all doing their best to avoid and defeat a crazed teenager with the unforgettable name of Toby Bones. Come Out Tonight is a perfect example of Laymon's inimitable skill, and an excellent introduction to his particular style of writing.

Before I read Come Out Tonight, my favorite Richard Laymon novel was In the Dark, but two reads later, this one has displaced it. Sherry's and Toby's stories stay lodged in my memory unlike any other novel Laymon has written.

Laymon piles on all of the usual deviant behaviors found in the horror genre but levies them with his signature dark humor and a pure skill with words, resulting in a novel that was one of my quickest ever reads the first time around (less than 24 hours for a 400+ page book). The unabridged audiobook, read with range and insight by the prolific Gene Engene, took longer, of course, but it allowed me to get deeper into the characters by not allowing me to read any faster than Engene could speak.

What makes Come Out Tonight so memorable is Laymon's ability to truly get inside his characters. The chapters where two teenage boys nurse back to health a naked, nearly dead young woman found outside their house are some of the most realistically played scenes (from the standpoint of character motivation and action) of any novel I've read.

Laymon focuses on the conflicting emotions and thoughts that would occur in that situation, while never letting us know exactly what will happen next. In Come Out Tonight, as well as his other novels, he chronicles every detail of each event while never allowing a full description to slow down the action. And that is his appeal. The man is truly an artist; sex and violence are simply his medium of choice.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (mixed-genre novel)

A drunk porn actor gets in a car accident, which results in burns all over his body. (The liquor he was drinking, and spilled in his lap, flares up and does an especially bad number on his penis, leaving him with little more than a flap of skin).

During his recover in the hospital, a possibly schizophrenic gargoyle sculptor named Marianne Engel visits him regularly, saying she knows him from when she was a nun working in a monastery scriptorium (a room dedicated to Bible translation and transcription) in the 14th century. Marianne tells him stories of their life together 700 years ago, as well as myriad other stories from her multilingual experience.

The Gargoyle is a completely immersive experience. Author Andrew Davidson's debut — the product of seven years of research and writing — has something for everyone: history, horror, mystery, religion, romance, terrific storytelling, and well-crafted prose.

The story of Marianne Engel and the unnamed narrator/protagonist is one of and for the ages. Not only did reading The Gargoyle entertain and literarily satisfy me, but its breadth of scope and Davidson's unconventional style (including humor that ranges from the subtle to the laugh-out-loud — there's even a throwaway Caddyshack reference that will get past a lot of people) inspired me to try new things in my own writing.

As Marianne herself states at one point, "It was apparent from the start that the writing was unlike anything I'd ever read." The Gargoyle combines portions of Dante's Inferno, the One Thousand Nights and a Night, the Gnaden-vita, the Bible, and likely others I simply didn't recognize. It is multilayered and multilingual, and even though the novel sometimes asks a little much in the realm of suspension of disbelief, Davidson never stretches plausibility too far, especially once you give yourself over to its mythic structure and its motif of arrows and fire.

Lincoln Hoppe reads the unabridged audiobook of The Gargoyle, and his grasp of the characters is stunning. From Vikings to nuns to a man with a scarred larynx to the "bitch snake" that only morphine will quiet, he offers believable portraits of all of them. And he is not slowed in the least by all the foreign idioms and accents that he is required to master. Hoppe's reading may even make the book more accessible to those that find it a difficult read.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Vendetta by Ed Gorman (Western noir)

Father Pete Madsen's best friend Noah Greaves was released from prison and was subsequently killed trying to exact revenge on the one reason he was there: Tom Radigan. Noah's daughter Joan decides to finish what her father set out to do, but that's not the only revenge being enacted in Vendetta. Simple stories are not author Ed Gorman's stock in trade.

Vendetta beautifully showcases Gorman's skill at characterization through various lengthy passages from different points of view. In this way, we more closely follow the actions of Joan Greaves; her quarry, Radigan; his lover, Caroline Petty; her husband, chief of police Walter Petty; his assistant chief, Red Carney; and bank-robbing brothers, Carl and Leonard Schmidt.

Gorman puts the reader inside his characters' heads and gives us access to their most private thoughts. All the while offering suspenseful narrative that leaves questions unanswered until the reader is simply aching to find out how these complex and interconnected relationships will out.

His ability to make the villain of one story into the tragic hero of another only enhances the reader's involvement in the tale. The centerpiece of Vendetta, a 4-hour bank robbery, brings all the characters together in one place and brings their tensions to a head. The ending floored me.

Best of all, Vendetta is a story that could be set in any time or place. The events are universal and timeless. That Gorman has set it in the Old West merely allows the author to utilize aspects specific to the era while showing that people really haven't changed all that much. It will appeal to fans of Westerns and crime fiction (given that Gorman calls his style "Western noir") or any enthusiasts of solid storytelling. (Fans of modern westerns will appreciate the cameo from a gunsmith named "J.R. Randisi.")

Reader of the unabridged audiobook, Scott Brick's dysthymic delivery is perfect for Gorman's tight prose. Brick is one of my favorite all-around audiobook readers due to his ability to avoid inserting himself into the story; he's a fresh canvas primed for any material, and offers a letter-perfect interpretation of Vendetta.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Under the Diehard Brand by L. Ron Hubbard (Western short stories audio book)

L. Ron Hubbard is probably best known as the founder of Scientology and creator of Dianetics. These days, his name is largely connected with the antics of the some of the more "outspoken" members of the religion, overshadowing the fact that the man really knew how to tell an entertaining story.

Pulp fiction fans rejoice, because there's a "new" voice on the block that deserves to be noticed. All 150 of the stories Hubbard wrote for the pulp magazines of the 1930s and '40s are being rereleased in paperback and audio under the evocative title Stories from the Golden Age.

The recordings I've tried so far are just terrific. They are a professionally produced combination of traditional narrated audiobooks (with narration deftly handled by R.F. Daley) and old-time radio, with actors playing the characters (often multiple roles) and genre-specific music and sound effects rounding out the experience.

Under the Diehard Brand is actually a collection of three short stories. In the title story (originally published in Western Aces in March 1938), Lee Thompson attempts to reunite with his father "Diehard" Thompson, the sheriff of Wolf River, Montana. But when Lee doesn't get the homecoming he's looking for, he gets involved with Holy George Gates by besting his foreman Anvil Bores in a fistfight.

Diehard thinks Holy George is behind a string of murders and stampedes, but the local businessmen appreciate the money Holy George brings into town via his large beef-cattle contracts — even if Diehard is sure it's blood money. They also think Diehard is getting old and going easy on the "real" criminals. (Rheumatism has slowed his gun hand to where he is afraid to use it.)

Corey Burton's vocal performance as Holy George is highly reminiscent of Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. But I couldn't place the accent used by actor (and Firesign Theatre alum) Phil Proctor in his role as Anvil Bores, until it brought to mind images of Boris Badenov of "moose and squirrel" fame (himself no doubt pulp-inspired).

The second story, "Hoss Tamer" (from the January 1950 issue of Thrilling Western) is a redemptive story of sorts. It is entertaining in its own way, though the conclusion is unsurprising. But the Under the Diehard Brand book and audio also contain a real discovery in its tragicomic final tale.

In "The Ghost Town Gun-Ghost" (from an August 1938 issue of Western Story), a man on the run from the law escapes to an nearly empty settlement populated only by a man named Pokey McKay. Pokey fills in the gaps of his loneliness by performing all the needed functions of the town under other names, and speaking of them in the third person. Rob Paulsen (a double Emmy winner for his work on Animaniacs) delivers a tour de force as Pokey and all his personalities.

Author L. Ron Hubbard not only tells an entertaining story, but doesn't shy away from descriptive passages that enhance the atmosphere, like the following from "Under the Diehard Brand":

He sidled up to the bar and stared at the dill pickle and aged cheese, which Long Henry was carelessly wont to call his 'free lunch'. Even so, the meager display was tantalizing to a stomach grown a stranger to food and coupled with a pocket lined only with tobacco crumbs.
There are some unintentional chuckles along the way and the occasional schmaltzy ending, but those sorts of things are to be expected. Nobody reads pulp fiction for the intellectual challenge it offers, after all. That said, Under the Diehard Brand is a highly entertaining listen.

The music and sound effects are of high quality, the actors are experienced professionals, and director Jim Meskimen orchestrates all the pieces beautifully. Galaxy Press has spent the money for a quality product, and it shows. Plus, Under the Diehard Brand gives the reader and listener three solid stories — and two real winners — for the price of one.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Caveman: V.T. Hamlin & Alley Oop written and directed by Max Allan Collins (comic strip documentary)

Before watching Caveman: V.T. Hamlin & Alley Oop, my knowledge of the comic-strip cave-dweller was limited to the hit single by the Argyles (with a few additional raunchy lyrics I heard from my dad). But Max Allan Collins has produced quality indie-film work in the past — mostly crime-genre films like Mommy and Real Time but also another documentary, Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane — so my interest was definitely piqued.

Caveman (originally shown at special screenings and on PBS affiliates) combines Collins's nearly career-long work in comics and his passion for independent filmmaking. Collins wrote Dick Tracy for 15 years, created Ms. Tree, and wrote the original Road to Perdition graphic novel. (He finally meshed comics and mystery novels in books like Strip for Murder.)

Collins was first intrigued by Vincent Trout Hamlin when he discovered that the artist was a fellow Iowan. To this Midwestern kid aspiring to a career in writing, knowing that someone else nearby had made a success of it provided a boost of confidence.

Caveman approaches its subject, and to a lesser extent comics in general, from the viewpoint of the uninitiated. Narrator Michael Cornelison (Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life) gently delves into the history of Alley Oop for the benefit of neophytes, tracing comics (aptly enough) from their beginnings on cave walls.

The film touches on Hamlin's beginnings and covers his life and that of his creation through his huge success, his antagonistic relationship with his assistant (Dave Graue, who would eventually take over the strip), Hamlin's eventual death, and how Alley Oop has carried on into the modern day through the writing and artistry of husband-and-wife team Jack and Carole Bender.

Following on the success of films like The Lost World, Hamlin created Alley Oop as an alternative to popular futuristic strips like Buck Rodgers. Caveman even suggests that Hamlin was responsible for getting modern children interested in dinosaurs by including factual information along with the entertainment, and he also used the platform to introduce kids to other historical figures like Shakespeare and Cleopatra through his use of time-travel storylines.

A documentary is made in the editing room, and Caveman skillfully splices interviews and narration with still photos to great effect. The interviews are the real meat for viewers and comics fans and include talks with Graue and the Benders, along with Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit), George Hagenauer (Collins's long-time research associate), Russell Myers (Broom Hilda), Teddy Dewalt (Hamlin's daughter, who doesn't shy away from her father's faults), Stan Sakai, Sergio Aragonés, and many others offering wonderful insight from the perspective of the industry. (Collins took his camera to the San Diego Comic Con and was thus able to get a lot of material for relatively little money.)

Under all this great material is a flows an appropriately upbeat rock score by composer Chris Christensen. Also featured throughout is a new Alley Oop song with music by Christensen and lyrics by Collins.

The extras on the Caveman DVD are numerous, with probably the most spectacular one being the 45-minute interview with Will Eisner, where he discourses on comics, history, the educational use of what he calls "sequential art," The Spirit, and his own influences among other various subjects. This was the last on-camera interview Eisner gave of any length, so it's a special keepsake for comics fans.

Also included are two commentaries, one by Collins and another by Jack and Carole Bender; a morning show feature on/interview with the Benders; and a nearly hour-long panel discussion (filmed around the time of release of Collins's novel Red Sky in Morning) celebrating Alley Oop's 75th anniversary. (Caveman was also shown that day.) The panel includes Collins, the Benders, and producer Mark Lambert. They go into some detail on the making of the documentary, including some problems and other information that will interest those curious about the behind-the-scenes process of independent filmmaking.

Collins obviously has a real affection for the material (he also calls it his "secret biography of Chester Gould"), and this comes through in the viewing. Fans of Collins, Hamlin, Eisner, comics in general, documentaries, or just a well-told story should give Caveman: V.T. Hamlin & Alley Oop a look.

Friday, December 4, 2009

.45-Caliber Firebrand by Peter Brandvold (Cuno Massey Western series)

"Cuno Massey saw the Indian a quarter second before the arrow careened toward him from a snag of brush and sun-bleached rocks." That is the opening sentence of author Peter Brandvold's novel .45-Caliber Firebrand, and it offers a fitting introduction to the kind of life its hero leads.

Massey has had a rough year. First his father and stepmother were murdered. His .45-Caliber Revenge for that put a price on his head, and bounty hunters killed his new bride, July. His subsequent .45-Caliber Fury doubled the bounty.

Since then, the .45-Caliber Manhunt has continued. Though a successful venture into the freight-hauling business gave a much-needed break, it turned into a .45-Caliber Deathtrap when Massey's partner was killed.

Now, hauling supplies to Logan Trent's Double-Horseshoe Ranch, Cuno inadvertently smuggles weapons for the rancher, who has had trouble with Leaping Wolf's band of Ute Indians since a couple of ranch hands raped a killed a Ute girl. Massey and his crew stay on to defend the ranch until a trio a braves attempt revenge-in-kind with Trent's daughter Michelle.

While Trent stays to defend the homeplace, he asks the .45-Caliber Firebrand to help Michelle and a servant's children escape, using only a horse-drawn wagon and a secret passage. As Cuno reminisces (about events chronicled in .45-Caliber Widow Maker), "Recently, he'd found himself driving a jail wagon loaded with four deadly brigands, including one snarling beast known as Colorado Bob King, across the Mexico Mountains up Wyoming way.

"He'd thought he'd had his hands full then." In protecting his charges, Cuno makes a decision that puts him on the wrong side of the law (though not in the wrong, for rogue lawmen are no meters of justice). And When times are at their most desperate, Cuno gets help from a surprising corner.

With .45-Caliber Firebrand, Brandvold offers an action-packed Western filled with traditional genre tropes yet complex enough in its plotting to be difficult to summarize without possibly giving away some surprises. He keeps the pace quick as bullets and arrows fly and seemingly major characters are killed with impunity. (Brandvold also tips his hat to other writers with characters named after Karl Lassiter and Henry Kuttner.)

In fact, Cuno goes through so much physically and emotionally that the decision he makes at the end of .45-Caliber Firebrand hardly comes as a surprise — more as a relief. The reader hopes he'll get a chance to rest, at least for a little while.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (audio book read by Rene Auberjonois)

During work at a Catherine Street construction site in lower Manhattan, a charnel of bones is discovered: 36 bodies, all told, buried around 100 years before. FBI Special Agent Pendergast takes one skull to archeologist Nora Kelly, who places that victim's age at 13. When Pendergast gets Kelly access to the site, she learns that the victims were nearly all teens, primarily boys, and that they all appear to have had similar injuries to the lumbar spine.

While Nora gets in trouble for her work with Pendergast, her on-and-off boyfriend, reporter William Smithback, Jr., of The New York Times is working so hard to get a scoop that he's ruining his relationship with Nora. Later, Smithback gets himself into hot water when he discovers an address before Pendergast and Nora do and goes to check out the location.

The discovery of a sheaf of letters leads to the identity of the perpetrator of the century-old murders — a scientist searching for the secret of longer life — but that turns out to be only the beginning of the mystery when the body of a 27-year-old woman is found with the same portion of the spinal cord (the cauda equina, or horse's tail) removed. This grotesque surgery was likely done while the woman was alive, and was thus the cause of death.

Is a copycat killer at large, or did the scientist actually find what he was looking for and has chosen to recommence his spree? Or is something even more sinister and mysterious going on? Pendergast is sure that "The solution to the new murders lies in the old." One thing is for sure: with authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, it will be something other than the mundane and will be somehow connected to "the Cabinet of Curiosities."

In this first Preston/Child collaboration to feature Pendergast as the protagonist, we learn that a streak of insanity runs in his family when he asks advice of his great-aunt Cordelia about other family members. An odd duck anyway, Pendergast see an attack on him as a "positive development" since it means he's getting close to a solution.

The Cabinet of Curiosities is altogether a fascinating read, commingling old and new science with the tropes of horror fiction. Preston and Child don't shy away from the horror of having a deranged surgeon perform his signature surgery without anesthesia (and fully awake) on a major character.

One particular highlight was highly unexpected. From his hospital bed (following the aforementioned "positive development") — in a supernatural twist on The Daughter of Time — Pendergast travels through time and puts himself back into late-19th-century New York (on a fact-finding expedition) using only his mind.

For a novel so otherwise grounded in reality, however strange and obscure that reality may sometimes be, it takes a definite leap of faith to follow Pendergast along on his flight of fancy. But it is simultaneously a very rewarding trip into the period and takes The Cabinet of Curiosities another notch above the fray.

Other authors would have simply had their characters find old documents or the like. This choice, though unorthodox, is an imaginative improvement, especially since the authors work hard to make it believable. (Though Pendergast is inscrutable enough to make it plausible that he would spend his time developing this skill.)

Actor René Auberjonois — probably best known for his television work on Benson (for which he was Emmy-nominated), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Boston Legal, as well as in the film version of M*A*S*H — shows off his impressive vocal range in the audiobook of The Cabinet of Curiosities. Auberjonois makes each character different while retaining a familiar thread throughout (though he doesn't quite achieve the "mellifluous" tone frequently attributed to Pendergast).

The Cabinet of Curiosities has a wonderful sense of atmosphere that will particularly delight fans of the novels of Robert Bloch. (Enoch Leng is an especially Blochian character.) The authors' highly descriptive style immerses the reader in a richly drawn, though unfamiliar, world. And their intelligent approach appeals to more literate readers while their plot operates solidly within the confines of the genre.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Wild Waymire by Lewis B. Patten (Western novella)

Ernie Waymire's got it rough. He's in love with the wrong girl. His father Matthew hates two things: women and the Hunnicuts. Matthew Waymire and Olaf Hunnicut have been feuding so long that Ernie and his brother Al don't even know why.

And Ernie's fallen for Olaf's daughter Irene. If Matthew finds out -- a man who seems to constantly see red, even where his sons are concerned -- there'll be hell to pay. What's worse is that Irene was put up to the charade by Olaf in a scheme to take over the Waymire ranch.

After one too many beatings from Matthew, Ernie decides to run away with Irene. But things get complicated when Al tells Matthew and Olaf gives Irene and ultimatum. This final betrayal makes Ernie snap, and God help anyone who gets in the way of his revenge.

Author Lewis B. Patten came up through the pulps to make a lengthy career for himself that included 3 Spur Awards and a lifetime achievement award from the Western Writers of America. Wild Waymire originally appeared in 1955 in Triple Western magazine.

Patten doesn't shy away from the darker side of people, giving him a sort of cult following with readers of modern Westerns. Matthew Waymire is one of the more despicable characters of recent memory, yet Patten still endows the reader with sympathy for him, especially when the reason for the feud is revealed.

Wild Waymire is just one black event after another until it is no surprise that Ernie chooses the path he does. Patten makes things even more tragic by suggesting that there is a solution right in front of Ernie's face and he just won't see it. This made for a fascinating read and one that will add Lewis B. Patten to my list of writers to look for.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Longarm (Longarm #1) by Lou Cameron writing as Tabor Evans (Western series)

Prolific author Lou Cameron created Deputy U.S. Marshal Custis "Longarm" Long in 1978, and you couldn't ask for a more complete character introduction that the one he gives in the opening of the first novel in the series, simply titled Longarm. In a smooth narrative style, Cameron chronicles Longarm's rising in the morning, and we get the whole rundown from nearly every detail of his appearance (his hair is tobacco-leaf brown) to his whiskey preference to his philosophy on hygiene.

On this particular morning, Long goes into the office of his boss, U.S. Marshal Billy Vail for an assignment: to go to the tiny village of Crooked Lance and bring Cotton Younger to face trial. When Longarm gets there, though, he finds that others had the same idea.

A Canadian mountie, a local sheriff, a French-Canadian bent on revenge, a couple of bounty hunters, and a captain of the U.S. Army all want Younger, either for the crimes committed under their jurisdiction or for the price on his head (as well as his assumed knowledge of the whereabouts of Frank and Jesse James and the even bigger rewards for them).

So, since nobody is letting anybody go anywhere with their prisoner, things come to a standstill. Soon, people start getting killed and true identities come to light, and it's up to Longarm to bring his man back to justice — even though Younger swears he's not Younger — and find out what happened to Deputy Kincaid, who came to Crooked Lance looking for Younger and disappeared.

This initial entry in the long-running series is one of the more interesting and well-written I've read yet. Cameron offers surprises galore in Longarm and keep the suspense high. Who is this Frenchman who doesn't speak French? And who is the woman who keeps climbing into Longarm's bed in the dark of night? Cameron knows his period and continually inserts little nuggets of historical context.

Longarm (bound with the second novel in the series in "double" fashion) is a hot-blooded Western and a good old-fashioned mystery with a solid, sensible ending. Only one question is left unanswered, but it serves to end the book with a chuckle. Even the love interest is drawn in an intriguing fashion, with the woman Longarm ends up with being the only one who can hold her own in a intellectually stimulating conversation. This novel starts the series off well, and Cameron (who was still occasionally writing Longarms as recently as 2006) sets the standard for all to follow.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Losers Live Longer by Russell Atwood (Hard Case Crime)

The follow-up to author Russell Atwood's debut novel (and cult favorite), East of A, was ten years in the writing. Originally titled Between C and D (making for a sort of A-B-C-D motif across the titles, which is cute), Losers Live Longer is also a sequel, featuring Atwood's private investigator Payton Sherwood and a beautifully unconventional horizontal cover painting by Robert McGinnis.

At 9:30 in the morning, the Thursday after Labor Day, private detective Payton Sherwood's buzzer sounds — a highly unexpected intrusion during a time of few clients. But it is a client ... sort of. Private eye extraordinaire George Rowell (called "Owl" by his friends and colleagues) wants Sherwood to follow a follower, a simple soft cover job.

But before Sherwood can get down to the street to discuss the job with the great detective, Rowell is killed, and Sherwood sets out to find the killer. However, nothing is ever so simple in New York City, and Sherwood gets deep into the dark side of the city and finds out more about human depravity than he ever wanted to know.

Losers Live Longer has an odd sort of protagonist: Sherwood seems to only be playing detective, more interested in spouting pop-culture references than in doing any real legwork. (Though any book that obliquely references The Electric Company and Sesame Street and directly name-checks Murder, My Sweet can't be all bad.)

I have a tendency to think this is a result of the author's putting too much of himself into the character (Atwood, Sherwood: it's not a big leap, and it reminds me of the Lawrence Block stories with characters called "Lenny Blake" and the like). This is generally a bad idea unless your plot is particularly strong, and the plot of Losers Live Longer is just OK. It also takes a while to get going. (As usual in this genre, things don't get really interesting until the ladies show up.)

Flaws in either plot or characterization can generally be overlooked, though, if they complement each other. Neither is strong enough to carry Losers Live Longer by itself, but they're just good enough together to make for a decent read, if not a particularly memorable one.

Atwood's website — conveniently titled — has an mp3 of the author reading the first chapter of Losers Live Longer, a pdf of the original short-story publication of "East of A" in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (where he was an editor for a time), and other interesting downloads for crime fiction fans (including a rare recording of Mickey Spillane reading a Mike Hammer story that chronologically precedes all the novels).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Son of Retro Pulp Tales edited by Joe R. Lansdale and Keith Lansdale

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2009. Reprinted with permission.

In 2006, author/editor Joe R. Lansdale collected a selection of short stories written by various authors in the style of the old pulp magazines. Retro Pulp Tales was that rare anthology that was almost universally acclaimed, and it shared the Bram Stoker Award for Best Anthology for that year. It is therefore not surprising that Lansdale and Subterranean Press have come out with a sequel, appropriately titled Son of Retro Pulp Tales and appropriately edited by Lansdale and his own son Keith.

The anthology starts off with a bang with Joe Lansdale's own contribution. (He sat out the first round.) "The Crawling Sky" features Reverend Jebediah Mercer, the hero of a novella (Dead in the West) and two other short stories collected in The Shadows, Kith and Kin. It concerns a caged lunatic, a house with "haints," a magic book, and a man-eating Shmoo — you know, your average everyday Western (at least as seen through a Lansdalean filter).

David J. Schow chronicles "A Gunfight," as his hero Proctor (with apologies given to the late Donald E. Westlake, a.k.a. Richard Stark) is run through the wringer for the sake of a few bucks. Schow never lets the action stop, and the result is reminiscent of his Hard Case Crime novel Gun Work. James Grady offers an action-filled tale of Crows, crutches, and a cocked Colt set in the other kind of "Border Town."

Mike Resnick brings the funny in the pulp-adventure parody "The Forgotten Kingdom." It's his latest story to feature the Right Reverend Honorable Doctor Lucifer Jones, man of the cloth and seeker of half-naked High Priestesses. Jones is not too educated, but he has a sharply developed sense of irony, which makes his narration a hilarious read. Cherie Priest delivers creepiness to spare with her Weird Tale of "The Catastrophe Box" (stolen from a paranormal investigator) and its effect on a doctor and his wife.

I wish I could praise William F. Nolan's "The Perfect Nanny," since it seems so personally significant in his introduction, but it is unfortunately so cliche and predictable that there's really nothing to recommend it. Also, Christopher Golden has a beautiful germ of an idea in "Quiet Bullets" — a spectral cowboy teaches a fatherless boy how to defend his home — but the short format requires him to skimp on its development and bring it to its conclusion too quickly.

Timothy Truman serves up "Pretty Green Eyes," the "first piece of all-prose fiction sold" by one known primarily for his illustrations. (He also did the terrific cover.) Truman digs into his Appalachian roots and comes up with a story that delivers the punch of a Mickey Spillane novel in just 12 pages. Matt Venne tries out his version of the Steve Costigan boxing stories of Robert E. Howard — only with Joe Louis fighting Himmler ans his Nazi werewolves during WWII. "The Brown Bomber and the Nazi Werewolves of the SS" is one of the more exciting stories in Son of Retro Pulp Tales due to its climactic scene in the ring; just watch out for the schmaltzy ending.

Stephen Mertz pays homage to another pulp master by writing "The Lizard Men of Blood River" according to the formula reportedly used by Doc Savage creator Lester Dent. What results is one hell of a pulp story. It has a strong and fast hero, Speed McCoy, a scantily clad damsel in distress, and a highly unconventional villain. It's also unbelievable, wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, highly imaginative, well written, and most of all, exciting. "The Lizard Men of Blood River" is undoubtedly the high point of Son of Retro Pulp Tales, and this Mertz fellow was obviously born in the wrong decade.

Ending the anthology is Harlan Ellison's "The Toad Prince, or Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure-Domes," a highly imaginative — though disappointingly linear — piece of sci-fi involving pieces of six and a whore called Sarna. Ellison offers a great deal of suspense and creative detail along with a sort-of surprise ending that caps off another worthy selection of pulp pastiches.

Though it doesn't have the fully fledged atmosphere of its celebrated parent, Son of Retro Pulp Tales is actually more representative of the broad range of genres published during pulp's heyday. It also offers a similar success rate, with at least one true gem and only one true dud. Those seeking to recapture the past with fiction of the present need look no further.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Six-Gun Caballero by L. Ron Hubbard (unabridged Western audio book)

L. Ron Hubbard is probably best known as the founder of Scientology and creator of Dianetics, but his fiction has been popular for decades. His science-fiction epic Battlefield Earth was a worldwide bestseller, as were all ten volumes of his Mission Earth series.

These days, however, his name is largely connected with the antics of the some of the more (shall we say?) "outspoken" members of the religion, overshadowing the fact that the man really knew how to tell an entertaining story. Now Galaxy Press, founded to promote Hubbard's fictional output, are focusing on the author's early work for the pulp magazines of the 1930s and '40s, reprinting all 150 of the stories he wrote during those years.

Pulp fiction fans rejoice, because there's a "new" voice on the block that deserves to be noticed. I'm a big fan of Westerns and audiobooks, but sadly, Western audiobooks are increasingly hard to come by these days. Plus, when you can find them, they're expensive. So, when I learned that the Stories from the Golden Age series was simultaneously being released in paperback and audio — with both versions at the same price — I knew I would have to try them out, despite any preconceived notions I had about the author.

The recordings I've tried so far are just terrific. They are a professionally produced combination of traditional narrated audiobooks (with narration deftly handled by R.F. Daley) and old-time radio, with actors playing the characters (often multiple roles) and genre-specific music and sound effects rounding out the experience.

Six-Gun Caballero was originally published in Western Story Magazine's March 12, 1938, issue. Michael Patrick Obañon inherited 100,000 acres of land from his father, Irishman Tim Obañ. Recently, the Gadsden Purchase has turned this Mexican property over to U.S. ownership, and all such property has been deemed open for settlement.

Tim's old friend, Judge Klarner, attempts to advice don Michael to refile his claim with the U.S. government, but he gets there just before the arrival of a gang set on taking the land and everything on it. When they mistake Don Michael for a "greaser" ranchhand and offer him new employment, he accepts and takes the opportunity to infiltrate. Because Michael Patrick Obañon is not about to let the renegados commandeer his father's legacy, but he'd rather use his wits than his silver-inlaid pistol any day; it's more fun that way.

Director Jim Meskimen's performance as don Michael grounds the whole cast's performance with its subtlety. He embraces the charm and humor of the character, adding more than could be projected merely on the printed page. Meskimen's relatively low-key acting leaves Shaun Duke free to chew up and spit out the microphone in his wonderfully over-the-top, villainous turn as Charlie Pearson. The rest of the cast, R.F. Daley and Tait Ruppert, is equally talented. (All the roles are played by just four people, and you'd never know it.)

Hubbard uses the traditional Western form to tell a challenging and unpredictable story, where the hero outwits his attackers instead of merely having to outshoot them. In doing so, he also puts the spotlight on the consequences of a well-known historical event: one seen as positive on the one side but obviously not fair to everyone involved. But Six-Gun Caballero is so intelligent and suspenseful that you'll not really notice the historical subtext until it's over.

I'm really excited about sampling more of the Stories from the Golden Age series of pulp tales. I think you'd agree that anything that gets somebody actually excited about fiction these days is worth a look. And Six-Gun Caballero is a great place to start: it's not only an exciting story, but it also takes a nontraditional approach to the hero, something that is even today a pleasant surprise in Western fiction.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

After Dark by Haruki Murakami (unabridged audio book read by Janet Song)

My reading of choice these days is genre fiction; I want something easy to follow when I read for relaxation. But occasionally I reach for something more challenging, most often by a familiar author I feel is doing something new with the form or its execution.

Ever since I read a handful of stories by author Haruki Murakami in the The New Yorker (starting with "The Ice Man" in 2003), I've wanted to try a novel of his. Audiobooks are how I do most of my experimentation, so coming across a copy of After Dark gave me the opportunity I sought.

All the action in After Dark takes place from midnight until dawn on a single night. Mari Asai, reading by herself in a Denny's in lieu of going home, encounters a handful of interesting characters.

First is Takahashi, a jazz trombonist who once met her at a party. He leads her to Kaoru, manager of a "love ho" (a hotel primarily used for trysts) and her staff, "Wheat" and "Cricket." Mari speaks Chinese and is needed to translate for them what happened to a Chinese prostitute brutally beaten at the love ho.

A touch of the eerie is added with an alternate subplot concerning Mari's sister Eri. While Eri sleeps, a man watches her, while wearing a mask that makes him look like he has no face, practically motionlessly, through her TV. I like how Murakami makes this whole setup voyeuristic. The man watches Eri, and we, through cinematographic description involving "POV camera," watch him watching her.

All of After Dark is equally visual, with descriptions so rich as to make the mind's eye unable to resist picturing the images, but I'm surprised that these Eri scenes have not already been filmed by some aspiring J-horror director: you could shoot the text as is. The set design, costuming, and camera movements are all there; Murakami has taken care of everything.

After Dark also showcases a different approach to its villain: we know what Shirikawa has done, but we didn't see if happen. Murakami only treats us to the mundane events of his life, but our knowledge casts a pall over those events, and we continually expect something else to happen, though the actual text never implies that at all.

Narrator Janet Song is invisible throughout her reading of After Dark, and that is the highest compliment I can pay an audiobook reader. She is merely a conduit for Murakami's magical-realist, post-modern narration (many questions are left unanswered) and richly drawn characters.

I'm always fascinated by authors who can make a series of seeming normal events absolutely enthralling. Half the credit must go, I suppose, to translator Jay Rubin since I can't read Japanese. The seemingly mundane appears, in reflection, to be quite profound. But Murakami shows us that, depending on the filters through which you look at life, even Love Story can appear to have a happy ending.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Trapp's Mountain by Robert J. Randisi (western)

In 1846, mountain man John Henry Trapp's wife and home were deliberately destroyed by fire. Trapp searched high and low and killed the men responsible. But one of the men was the son of a powerful man, and he made sure Trapp served the top sentence of 25 years in prison for his revenge. Finally free again, all Trapp wants is to get back to his mountain.

Now Trapp has to feel his way around the 1871 West as a 64-year-old man who still feels 39 (age doesn't matter in prison) but whom others now derisively call "Grandpa." And he's got only his talent for poker, his skill with his trusty Sharps buffalo rifle, and his new friend Fry to help him along.

As if that weren't enough, there's someone who thinks that prison was not enough punishment for Trapp and wants him dead. But getting between Trapp and his mountain is a dangerous proposition.

Robert J. Randisi is one of my favorite Western writers. In addition to his work on The Gunsmith (probably my favorite of the monthly Western series), he also manages to write some of the more interesting nonseries Westerns due to his modern approach to character and his liberal use of humor along with the expected traditional genre tropes.

In Trapp's Mountain (originally published as Mountain Man's Vengeance under the pseudonym "Robert Lake"), Randisi shows the other side of revenge. Many Western authors would have focused on Trapp's seeking of retribution and called it a day. Randisi does give that part its due through a strategic use of flashback, but he is more interested in how that action colors the rest of Trapp's life.

Trapp just wants to get back to the life he had before, but first he's got to actually make it back to the mountain, and Randisi puts a lot of exciting obstacles in his way. Trapp's Mountain makes great use of Randisi's unadorned prose style. It reads quickly and moves like the best pulp fiction. The only downside is that it ends at the point where a sequel would begin, and there doesn't seem to be one. But Trapp's journey is interesting enough to stand alone.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Where Everything Ends by Ray Bradbury (an omnibus of Death Is a Lonely Business, A Graveyard for Lunatics, and Let's All Kill Constance)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2009. Reprinted with permission.

The subtitle "The Mystery Novels of Ray Bradbury" quickly tells us what's between the covers of Where Everything Ends, a collection of an underappreciated portion of the author's bibliography: three crime novels written between 1985 and 2003 that feature an unnamed narrator/protagonist (very much Bradbury's doppelganger) and detective Elmo Crumley dealing with mysteries during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The title piece, published here for the first time, is the short story that came first and inspired the rest. Reading it after the novels (it is placed at the back), it comes across as definitely a lesser work: one written by an author still trying to get his bearings in the genre. And he makes the beginner's mistake of focusing too much on how the crime was done instead of on his own forte, character. Luckily, Bradbury eventually combined the two and produced three novels that equal his speculative output in skill and heart, if not necessarily excitement.

In 1985, over twenty years since the publication of his last full-length work, 1962's Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury reentered the novel-writing world with the release of Death Is a Lonely Business, his first foray into a genre epitomized by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald — namely the crime investigation novel.

The narrator of Death Is a Lonely Business is a writer living in Venice, California, where the local carnival pier is being demolished. He discovers the body of Willie Smith, underwater and trapped in a disused lion cage. Then a strange shadowy figure begins appearing in hallways and outside windows at night, and the number of murders increases. The narrator teams with local police detective Elmo Crumley — reluctantly, at first, on Crumley's part — to solve the case. The only clues they have are the writer's intuition, articles that go missing from the deceased's residences, and a blind man's keen sense of smell.

Death Is a Lonely Business has many layers to it. First, on the surface, it's a fine noir pastiche. Second, our hero is especially interesting as a portrait of Bradbury himself in 1949. The naive, plump, 27-year-old writer, who is just becoming successful, inspires immediate identification from fans of the master's work. We already like the author, so we immediately root for his doppelganger.

I especially enjoyed the personal clues Bradbury laid within the story, some of which take a brave person to lay bare in print. But they work to gain our sympathy, which is quite necessary; in the beginning the writer is painted — whether deliberately or not — as a somewhat unsympathetic character prone to outbursts.

The other characters are just as fascinating: Crumley, the cop who just happens to also be a writer; Fannie, the 380-pound sedentary soprano; A.L. Shrank, the psychiatrist with the downbeat library; Cal, the incompetent barber with the ragtime past; John Wilkes Hopworth, the ex-silent film star who still pines for former love Constance Rattigan, his former costar who is dead set on not becoming Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard ("That dimwit Norma wants a new career; all I want most days is to hole up and not come out"); and Henry, the blind man, who is the only one who can identify the killer — by his smell.

Five years later, the author revisited the genre with 1990's A Graveyard for Lunatics, subtitled "Another Tale of Two Cities." It is now 1954, and the Bradbury character is working for Maximus Films as a screenwriter. The studio is separated from Green-Grade Cemetery by a single brick wall, and during a late-night studio party on the eve of Halloween, the screenwriter receives a note that "a great revelation awaits" him on the other side of the wall: "material for a best-selling novel or terrific screenplay." A timid soul, he hesitates but cannot resist. There he finds a body — or is it? Because the body is that of a studio head who supposedly died twenty years ago.

A Graveyard for Lunatics centers around the solving of the mystery, but it's primarily of interest to fans as a lengthy roman à clef of Bradbury's time working on King of Kings.

Famous Hollywood figures appear, operating under pseudonyms, such as the screenwriter's best friend, special effects master Roy Holdstrom (obviously Bradbury compatriot Ray Harryhausen). Even Jesus Christ (called "J.C.," resident of 911 Beechwood in Hollywood) is a prominent character, given his starring role in the film.

Though inspired by hard-boiled works, Bradbury's protagonist/alter ego is as soft-boiled as you can get. He's a sweetheart, an innocent — when Constance Rattigan arises nude from the sea, he looks her in the eyes — a bright child in a man's body. (Yet he's completely up to the task of a heart-racing fight to the death underwater.) The tone more closely matches that of Agatha Christie, but A Graveyard for Lunatics is a solid mystery as only Ray Bradbury could write it.

In 2003, Bradbury revisited Elmo Crumley and company with Let's All Kill Constance. In the opening, Constance Rattigan comes into the Bradbury character's home bearing two books: a 1900 telephone directory and her own personal address book. Some names in both books are crossed out entirely: these are names of those no longer of this earth. Others are circled with a cross beside them, one of them Constance's, and she believes that this means she is one of the next to die. On leaving the books with the writer, she disappears.

Let's All Kill Constance is not quite as good as its predecessors, but any Bradbury is worth reading. His particular style is always welcome, its familiarity alone bringing a level of comfort to the experience — like revisiting an old friend.

The mystery itself is not as interesting as the characters and their relationships with each other. Although it feels at times (as with the female impersonator) that Bradbury is simply creating a character to fill his plot needs, he still makes each real enough to justify the time spent with them.

The bulk of Let's All Kill Constance concerns the search for the title character. Teaming up again with detective Elmo Crumley, the Bradbury character meets several people involved with Constance's past (many of whom she has just left when the writer and Crumley arrive) and puts together the pieces into a disturbing yet satisfying solution illustrative of the difficulties inherent in being a Hollywood actress.

But through all this Bradbury's youthful exuberance shines. The writer's enthusiasm for life comes through as unadulterated innocence. He seems not to be jaded at all by the modern world, and so the novels contained in Where Everything Ends are not as "noir" as they would have been in other hands. And yet, it's refreshing to have, as a hero in this genre, a person whom the world has not made a pessimist.

Where Everything Ends is a trio of fine novels from Bradbury (together with the short story that provided the starting point), detective novels done in Bradbury's inimitable style. He plays with the conventions, but since he so obviously loves the genre, this is easily forgiven — embraced, even — because the end results are, simply put, fine additions to the canon. This trilogy plus one is also dear to fans because it is likely the closest thing to an autobiography we will receive from this man who has brought so much joy to so many people for so many years.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Stephen King's Rose Red directed by Craig R. Baxley (starring Nancy Travis, Judith Ivey, Melanie Lynskey, David Dukes)

Stephen King's Rose Red (2002). Screenplay by Stephen King.

I feel that I must first warn all readers of this review of the fact that this miniseries is over four hours long -- without commercials. This is simply so that everyone will know what they are getting into from the very beginning, not because I have anything against long movies per se, just long movies that are way too long.

There are several things wrong with Rose Red, but the main ones involve its relationship to previous Stephen King works. There is much familiar in this production, with references to Carrie, The Shining, Firestarter, and a tip of the hat to Cujo being the most obvious. Unfortunately, these references seem to be just there in order to move along an already-thin plot, not leaving a lot to recommend it.

Nancy Travis (who was so good in the Hollywood remake of The Vanishing) is sorely miscast as paranormal researcher Joyce Reardon (the supposed author of book tie-in The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer); she just doesn't have the presence to be believable in such an academically passionate role. The usually-wonderful Judith Ivey is ill-used in a histrionic performance.

On the other hand, soap veteran Kimberly J. Brown knows just how to wring every last bit of sympathy from the audience in her role as Annie Wheaton, the catalyst meant to "wake up" the events at Rose Red. Her sister, "Sister," is played by Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures), who, despite her relatively small role, fares the best of all the cast (or perhaps because of it).

Matt Ross and the late David Dukes are both quite game in their roles (Emery Waterman and Professor Miller, respectively). But Dukes's character is one-note (sad to think it was his last role), and Ross's acting crescendos throughout the film from "subtle" to "absolutely annoying."

After about two hours of exposition, the plot actually begins to move a bit, but it is always slowly, and it is not worth the lackluster "inspirational" ending. For a horror movie, far too many of the cast of Rose Red survive — if more than two or three people are left at the end of a "haunted house thriller," the audience has been cheated.

One would think that Stephen King would know how to write a bang-up ending, especially for something that is partially based on Carrie, which epitomizes the shocker ending. But unfortunately, Rose Red is just one four-hour-long disappointment.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Longarm on the Goodnight Trail (Longarm #80) by Melvin Marshall writing as Tabor Evans (Western series)

From a tip by a former Texas Ranger, U.S. Marshal Billy Vail (himself a former Ranger) assigns Deputy U.S. Marshal Custis Long — better known as Longarm (as in "the long arm of the law") — to investigate a suspicious trail drive of Mexican longhorn steers traveling to Denver.

This case is full of questions: Who are the Arapahoe Cattle Syndicate and the mysterious Sterns who seems to be connected to them? Why are the steers being driven instead of shipped by rail? And why are they insured at $200 a head, with a $1,000 bonus to the trail boss for getting them all there?

The case is controversial too, though, so Longarm cannot investigate it in an official capacity — and if things go sour, he and Vail could both lose their jobs — so Longarm goes undercover, despite his newly wounded trigger finger, as a trail hand named ... Custis ("Not many folks know I even got a first name").

After a weak opening that suffers from too much information too fast, author Melvin Marshall (writing under the Tabor Evans house name) really hits his stride with the meat of Longarm on the Goodnight Trail — the eightieth in the long-running Longarm series. The scenes on the trail were exactly what I was looking for, having picked it up seeking a read similar to Ralph Compton's The Goodnight Trail with a mystery added.

But Longarm is instantly confronted by events and people that want to keep this drive from being a success, such as a tribe of Lipan Apache that do not want the steers to cross their land (resulting in a great hand-to-hand combat scene in a stream), a dwindling supply of grub with no hidetowns in sight, a sudden tornado, a flash flood, and even Charles Goodnight himself, who won't let any herds from Mexico or south Texas cross his land for fear of hoof-and-mouth disease. (Though he does offer an alternate route via the New Goodnight Trail.)

Those who read Longarm for the mystery will be disappointed: the solution doesn't play fair and is given short shrift in any case. But those looking for a fast-paced cattle-drive story — especially those who would normally give series Westerns a pass — should be pleasantly surprised. With author Melvin Marshall's attention to all the details inherent in such a venture, trail-drive novel enthusiasts would do well to pick up a copy of Longarm on the Goodnight Trail.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Death at Dark Water by John D. Nesbitt (Western)

Traditional Westerns are great, but every once in a while a nontraditional one is a nice respite from the sameness of many novels in the genre. (For example, I could never again read a book featuring Doc Holliday and be just fine.) John D. Nesbitt's Death at Dark Water is not going to get your heart racing, but it is a thoughtful portrait of a small town shaken up by an uncommon event.

I also enjoy it when an author offers up a character of a more creative bent, such as the typesetter protagonist in Johnny D. Boggs's The Big Fifty. In Death at Dark Water, Nesbitt introduces us to Devon Frost, a sketcher and painter who has come to Tinaja, and specifically the Rancho Agua Prieta (translation: Dark Water Ranch, named after the shady pool that was originally the water source), to study and draw the ruins.

Nesbitt takes his time setting up the atmosphere, and fans of more traditional Westerns (especially those who enjoy the monthly series — I'm a fan myself) may be wanting him to "get on with it," but I enjoyed the leisurely look at Tinaja and its intriguing cast of characters. These include Petra, the daughter of the original owner of Rancho Agua Prieta, and her conniving stepfather Don Felipe.

A little less than halfway through, one of Petra's suitors, Ricardo Vega, is murdered, and Death at Dark Water becomes a sort of mystery novel with Frost playing detective. Most novelists would have put Frost and Petra in bed together, but Nesbitt gives his hero another interest in the form of local prostitute Ramona. She and Frost develop a friendly business relationship while he does his best to figure out who killed Vega.

Death at Dark Water certainly wasn't what I was expecting when I picked it up, but that actually turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It expanded my expectations of what a Western can be: that it doesn't have to be all about gunfights and trail drives, but that the pages of a Western can also contain a more classical kind of story. I'm intrigued to try more of Nesbitt's work.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Ravens by George Dawes Green (unabridged audio book read by Robert Petkoff and Maggi-Meg Reed)

Tara Boatwright's life is about to change, and when she first hears the news, she doesn't even believe it as her mother, Patsy, screams that they've just won the $318 million lottery jackpot. Tara sees this as her opportunity to get out of Brunswick, Georgia, but a couple of outsiders have other ideas. Ravens is author George Dawes Green's first novel since his 1995 bestseller The Juror. (He won an Edgar Award for his debut, 1994's The Caveman's Valentine. Both were made into movies.)

Shaw McBride and Romeo Zderko are Ohioans who have hit the road trying to escape their soul-killing tech-support jobs. Stopping off in Georgia on their way to Florida, Shaw overhears the news of the lottery win and immediately sees it as an opportunity not to be missed. He decides that he will get the Boatwrights to give him half of their winnings, and uses Romeo as an off-site enforcer, giving him a gun and a map to the homes of the family's loved ones.

But navigating Georgia backroads waiting for Shaw's signal (or lack of one, as the case may be) leaves one time for reflection. Romeo begins having second thoughts about all the things he's done for Shaw and whether he really wants to continue.

In Ravens, Green and his co-author, Molly Friedrich, have great insight into their characters. (Friedrich is credited in the acknowledgments, and she is also Green's literary agent.) This is no better displayed than with Patsy Boatwright's quick descent from unbelievable riches to greed. She actually gets angry that, instead of her $40 million dream home, she can only afford upkeep on a $22 million "snack bar." Equally fascinating is Tara's friend Cleo, who represents the effect of the Boatwrights' lottery winnings on the supporting players in the family's life.

Though a single narrator is the general tactic with audiobooks, some books get deeper into the character's psyches, and multiple readers are needed to do the work justice. (Reservation Road was another notable case.) With Robert Petkoff (Beat the Reaper, BoneMan's Daughters) handling the perspectives of outsiders Shaw and Romeo, Maggi-Meg Reed is able to devote her talents to the Southern-accented Boatwright clan.

This double-narrator arrangement makes it easy to detect a change in point of view as well as making the contrast greater between captors and captives. And therefore, it serves to enhance the experience of Ravens, a story of faith, love, power, and hypocrisy, with more than a little dramatization of Stockholm Syndrome, into something larger than mere text can provide.
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