Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Overland Kid by Max Brand (Western novellas)

Many of the Leisure reprints of Max Brand's work are not actually novels but collections of novellas, often not related at all, either in year of publication or pseudonym. Luckily, this does not matter so much, as Frederick Faust (under whatever name he wrote) was such a good writer that it is hard to go wrong with his work at any length. The Overland Kid is one such collection, containing three novellas, with the title story starring his famous series character, Reata.

The title piece, "The Overland Kid," is the last and longest, the sixth of the very popular Reata stories from the 1930s (this one was published in 1934); "George Owen Baxter" was the official author of this series of stories, connected by little other than the main character. Unfortunately, it is also the weakest of the three novellas, mainly because its main character, a man who eschews guns in favor of his trusty lariat, is simply too good to be true.

Reata's method of getting into trouble is by returning stolen gold to the bank it was stolen from. The thief wants it back and tries to get people to kill Reata and get "his" gold back. These include the Overland Kid, a gunfighter considered nigh unbeatable. It's a decent read, though a bit long at 110 pages. But fans of the character will probably enjoy it. The other two novellas are simply better.

First up in The Overland Kid is "The Cabin in the Pines," first published in 1922 under the name "John Frederick." It concerns Babe Rourke and Angus Cairn, two men who are so great in their own circles that learning of each other's reputation causes them to seek out one another for a confrontation: they believe they are enemies just by their very existence.

When they eventually run into each other, they decide to take their feud up to the titular location. There they meet up with Nell, a woman in distress, whereupon they must put aside their differences and work together to save Nell from her pursuers (while each wooing her in his own way).

Brand Faust Frederick The author makes Babe and Angus two easily distinguishable characters linked only by their superiority to other men, and watching them seethe at each other while doing their best to hide this from Nell, who favors different things about each man, is some great entertainment. The ending is quite abrupt, though, and is not quite satisfying.

But the best piece by far in The Overland Kid is the novella in the middle, entitled "Joe White's Brand." This one was also published in 1922, but under the George Owen Baxter byline. Thirty years ago, Joe White was called "Young Stallion on Fire" by the Indians, but that was three decades ago, and time has taken a lot of the fire out of this no-longer-young stallion.

But time has not lessened his reputation, and White is constantly on the run from young up-and-comers looking for a quick reward and a quick reputation from killing the legend. This time, a skinny fellow wearing a red bandanna comes after Joe and eventually wipes out his entire posse. Some are killed, and some leave out of fear, with Joe left to fend for himself. But Joe White is in for a big surprise when he and "red bandanna" finally meet up.

"Joe White's Brand" is a surprisingly fast-moving, suspenseful tale with a great deal of unexpected emotional depth, and Joe White is one of the most fully developed characters I have come across in some time — even in Brand's work, which is full of such characters. This short novel is one of the best things I have read by Max Brand yet, and it soundly defeats the other entries in The Overland Kid.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Book: White Star by James Thayer (audio book read by David Purdham)

For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, visit Pattinase.

During Vietnam, Owen Gray was a sniper with the greatest reputation, having eliminated 97 enemy targets, after which he retired. At each site, he would fold a white star out of paper and leave it behind as an identifier. This led to his nickname, White Star. Gray's list of kills was supposed to have included his main rival, Russian Nikolai Trusov.

But Trusov wasn't killed, only deeply humiliated, and he yearns for a rematch of sorts in a one-on-one sniper fight to the death. Interestingly, author James Thayer has written Trusov as a villain with a strong moral compass, however misguided: he refuses to meet Gray in anything but a fair fight. If an advantage appears on Trusov's side, he eliminates it. Likewise, if one of Gray's friends tries to give Gray an advantage, Trusov kills them.

White Star culminates in the grudge-match duel that is the main reason for reading the book. Preceding it, though, are enough details about the sniper life, in addition to the suspense of whether it's going to happen and then how it's going to play out, to keep things interesting until then. The showdown is truly fascinating, as we get to see a pair of evenly matched supermen as they repeatedly attempt to outwit each other, and succeed a little more each time.

What Thayer puts his characters through is jaw-dropping. A highlight is certainly the scene where Trusov tries to flush Gray out of his hiding place in a field of tall grass by setting fire to the area. Gray knows that any motion on his part equals his death, and so he has no choice but to let the fire overtake him. Thayer does not flinch in his description of the damage to Gray's skin or the resulting pain, and the reader feels roasted right along with him.

Reader David Purdham's intensely serious reading style fits right along with Thayer's text in the audiobook (only available abridged, as far as I know). It's a perfect listen for the work commute or any other road trip, chore, or event that needs to go by quickly. White Star isn't a classic by any means, but it's certainly a forgotten book that needs remembering — if only for as long as it takes to experience it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Killer Grizzly (The Gunsmith #24) by Robert J. Randisi writing as J.R. Roberts (Western series)

When a wheel on his rig breaks, Clint Adams — a.k.a. The Gunsmith, an ex-lawman with a well-known reputation — is stranded in the town of Bear Pass, Wyoming, while it is fixed. Adams laments being stuck, but before long a Killer Grizzly known as "Ol' Three-Paw" appears and destroys his horse team, making things immediately more interesting.

A reward is soon offered by Calvin Lockman, the local bigwig, for the death (with proof) of the giant grizzly bear — Ol' Three-Paw seems to like eating Lockman's cows. So the Gunsmith is on the hunt — despite the protestations of hotel mistress Dorian Ward, who says Ol' Three-Paw killed her husband and followed her here from Montana. Though it is thought that the money will bring all the amateurs out of the woodwork, Adams's only competition is Lacy Blake, a beautiful bounty hunter who heard about the reward. Will they compete against each other or decide to join forces?

One trait about the Gunsmith series that invariably brings a smile is how the author's business sense comes out. After referring to characters or events in past storylines, Randisi includes a footnote naming the other volume in which it appeared. For example, in Killer Grizzly, Adams thinks the Parker-Hale game rifle would be best to use on Ol' Three-Paw since it was so effective in taking down Big Foot (in book #21, Sasquatch Hunt). (A poker game also reminds him of the events in book #13, Draw to an Inside Death. I think you get the idea.) This is probably the best way I've seen yet to get a reader to buy other books in a series.

Killer Grizzly and its brethren are perfect back-pocket reads. The stories are fast-paced and told simply, and the short chapters make them easy to dip into at any free moment. Most appealing, however, is how Roberts / Randisi offers a heavy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor along with the sex and violence expected in "The All-Action Western Series." He doesn't take himself too seriously (he had his hero hunting down Big Foot, for Pete's sake!), making for an all-around pleasurable reading experience.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Book: Walk in Shadows by Nicholas Kaufmann (horror short stories)

For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, visit Pattinase.

Author Nicholas Kaufmann was one of a select handful of writers chosen to pen the inaugural novels of the Gabriel Hunt adventure series from Charles Ardai (founder of Hard Case Crime). Kaufmann's book, Hunt at World's End is the third in the series, and though he was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for his novella General Slocum's Gold, many readers may not previously have heard of him. A good place to get an idea of his range (and especially his skill at fast-paced narratives) is his first book, a collection of short stories called Walk in Shadows.

Despite what some reviewers would have you think, it's really not very often that a debut fiction collection comes along that trumpets an exciting new talent (at least new to me). I've probably only read three so far in my life. The first was Soft and Others by F. Paul Wilson, then more recently there was Douglas Clegg's The Nightmare Chronicles.

Now, add Nicholas Kaufmann to that list. With Walk in Shadows, he shows a sure hand at horror, from the psychological profile ("Not That Kind of Story") to the kinetic escape (aptly titled "Go!").

There are several highlights in Kaufmann's debut collection (culled from several magazines and anthologies of which mainstream readers have likely never heard), beginning with "The Jew of Prague." This story starts out as a simple jewel heist and turns into something else. The atmosphere is the strongest point of this story and Kaufmann layers it on with gusto. Similarly, "VIP Room" is the most disturbingly sexy story I've read since Dan Simmons' "Dying in Bangkok" (from Lovedeath), and that is mostly due to Kaufmann's skill at setting the scene properly.

Unlike many authors who seem to tread similar ground over and over, Kaufmann doesn't write the same kind of story (although many of them take place in his fictional Quick City); each has a different tone — and, surprisingly often, a different voice — from the preceding one. This allows him to excel as the first-person narrator, since his "author's voice" is completely absorbed into the character's (one prime example is with "Better Off with the Blues").

The only story in Walk in Shadows that shows its obvious origins in a themed anthology (a tribute to Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers), "With Its Sleeves Rolled," is a weaker entry, although it does manage to achieve the unthinkable: making Senator Joseph McCarthy a sympathetic character and causing the reader to think of Communism in a new way.

Kaufmann's characters aren't always the nicest people (like the assassin in "The Dead Stay Dead"), but he manages to make them easy to identify with. Even the gang members in "Street Cred" — which takes hazing to a new low, adding zombies to the equation with complete believability — are somehow familiar enough to elicit empathy.

"Voir Dire" is original to this collection and is another highlight. I read it prior to my own jury duty, and it gets the details right, but it's really about fear: the universal fear of being found out, because everyone has a secret they wouldn't like discovered, however small. I've also ridden in a taxi in New York, but luckily it was nothing like "Hail" (a double entendre dealing with taxis and the weather). I must admit I didn't care for the ending, but I was willingly carried along up until then.

Only "La Bete est Morte" was what I would call mediocre, and that only because the "surprise" was entirely predictable (in fact, I hadn't realized it was a surprise until it was "revealed"), and without that, there was little remaining. This is a small complaint because the story reads so well that it almost doesn't matter.

But all of the stories in Walk in Shadows are great reading. The only piece I actually regret reading is not even Kaufmann's doing; that honor goes to the rambling introduction of Brian A. Hopkins, in which he talks about himself for several pages, saving only a few paragraphs for praise of Kaufmann.

Aficionados of new voices would do well to pick up a copy of Walk in Shadows. It is filled with imagination and natural storytelling ability, as well as a talent for action that should serve well in a pulp-style narrative.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Dark Side of the Morgue by Raymond Benson (prog-rock mystery)

Oddly enough, I got this book because I'm excited about an upcoming book. Raymond Benson is one of six authors tapped to write for the newest venture from Hard Case Crime founder Charles Ardai: pulp adventure novels in the old style featuring a new character, Gabriel Hunt.

I've been highly anticipating this series since it was first announced because the other five authors (Ardai himself, David J. Schow, Christa Faust, James Reasoner, and Nicholas Kaufmann) have proven themselves to be quite skilled at fast-paced narratives. Benson is the only one I'd not read before, so when I saw that his second Spike Berenger novel, Dark Side of the Morgue was available, I leapt.

Part of the attraction came from the concept of a rock and roll P.I. Spike Berenger used to be in a progressive rock band called The Fixers, but they didn't last long (though they still have some devoted fans). Now Berenger and his partner Rudy Bishop run Rockin' Security, a service for the music industry. Berenger also has his private investigator's license because it sometimes helps with business. Suzanne Prescott, a former Goth devotee now into Transcendental Meditation (T.M.) and martial arts, is his investigation partner.

A blonde wearing sunglasses and a big, floppy hat has been killing members of Chicago's prog-rock scene (known locally as "Chicagoprog"), and Zach Garriott (guitarist and vocalist for the seminal bands North Side and Red Skyez, but gone solo since 1980) wants Berenger's help finding the suspect — he's on the list. The trouble is, the main suspect is Sylvia Favero, and she's been dead since 1970.

Berenger, a little bored with his current caseload involving Iggy Pop's dogs and Debbie Harry's landlord, decides to take the case, partly because he's friends and former colleagues with many of the participants. Here, Benson's knowledge of the prog-rock industry serves him well (he wrote The Pocket Guide to Jethro Tull and is himself a composer and songwriter). After a long exposition introducing character relationships and band histories, Benson's feel for the high points brings authenticity to the story and never feels just like some guy trying to write a rock novel. (A Chicagoprog "family tree" at the front of the book is great for reference, and the table of contents is actually a "track listing" of song titles.)

Dark Side of the Morgue is funny, disturbing, and filled with deep knowledge of the music industry and abnormal psychology, all combined to make a really terrific read that I wanted to pick up whenever I had a free moment. It is assembled from P.I./thriller tropes we've seen many times before, but Benson has put them together in a way that feels fresh and original, and results in the reader responding to them as if they were brand new (a skill no doubt useful in his upcoming Gabriel Hunt novel, Hunt through Napoleon's Web).

Also speaking well of his skill at adventure, Benson is the author of six recent original novels featuring Ian Fleming's James Bond — only the fourth author chosen to do so — in addition to the first two Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell novels (written under the pseudonym "David Michaels") and other thrillers like Sweetie's Diamonds and the first Berenger "hit," A Hard Day's Death.

My only real complaint is that protagonist Spike Berenger is the least interesting person in the book. But Berenger's transparency allows the supporting characters to truly shine (for example, in how Prescott's T.M. skills actually figure into the plot instead of being just an interesting character quirk). Dark Side of the Morgue is an intelligent mystery with a twist as layer after layer of the story is slowly revealed to the reader's joyous satisfaction.

Benson obviously spent a great deal of time developing his musicians' relationships and histories, and the hard work pays off in an engrossing read that is as much for rock fans as it is for fans of conventional P.I. novels. Honestly, Dark Side of the Morgue is so good that if it's not nominated for both the Edgar and the Shamus awards, somebody's just not paying attention.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

This review is a little different than most of those I've written because I haven't actually read the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary all the way through, and yet this is not a negative tirade on how ridiculously awful the first few pages were (see Code of the Mountain Man, X-Rated Bloodsuckers, and When One Man Dies for examples of those). In fact, I couldn't be happier with it. I hope I never finish it — that there will always be something new to discover about our fabulous (though often painfully flawed) English language.

Though I wouldn't turn down a full Oxford English Dictionary if someone gave it to me and I had the free shelf space for all twenty volumes (both of which are equally unlikely), I actually believe the two-volume shorter version is more useful. The editors have pared the contents of the behemoth down to just those words in regular use any time after 1700 a.d.

Added to this are the entire contents of the works of pre-1700 authors William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Edmund Spenser, as well as the full text of the King James Version of the Bible. This is basically every word the average person is likely to come across, provided you don't often indulge in pre-18th century reading material (with Geoffrey Chaucer and Beowulf being notable omissions).

And of course the Oxford editors are perhaps best known for their historical perspective, an aspect that is also contained in the shorter version of their dictionary. Most words have chronological listings and a complete etymology with origins where they're known and literary examples, something often missing in American dictionaries but utterly vital to language enthusiasts (like those of us who take the time to write rave reviews of dictionaries).

If you're in the market for a dictionary and just aren't satisfied with yet another variation on the Webster's/American Heritage clan (and you're willing to spend the extra money), the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is an investment in your future. (Mine was a gift from my wife — that's definitely one way to know you've married the right woman.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Terminal City (miniseries) created and written by Angus Fraser (starring Maria del Mar, Gil Bellows, Katie Boland)

Terminal City (2005 miniseries). Episodes directed variously by Rachel Talalay (episodes 1, 2, 7, and 8), Lynne Stopkewich (episodes 3 and 4), Kari Skogland (episodes 5 and 6), and Stephen Surjik (episodes 9 and 10).

Katie Sampson has a lump in her breast. This is going to change her life in more than the expected way. On leaving the hospital following a biopsy, Katie is interviewed by the waning medical reality show Post Op!, and her winning personality and openness reinvigorate viewers. Quickly, the producers retool the show to focus on her as both host and subject, and the newly titled No Show is a huge success.

Much like the fictional No Show, the success of Terminal City lies in Katie Sampson — or, rather, in the actress who plays her, Maria del Mar. Del Mar wins over viewers with her own engaging charm, and she carries this Canadian miniseries (that saw its American premiere on the Sundance Channel) on her shoulders.

Or on her chest, as the case may be. For in many ways, it is not just Katie but also Katie's breasts that are the focus of Terminal City. Creator Angus Fraser (who wrote all ten episodes) and the four directors never let us forget what's at stake, and Del Mar's own toplessness is showcased in different ways. I can't tell if this is meant to be titillating, but that it will undoubtedly be to many viewers is used by the filmmakers to perhaps make us think again, to treat Katie's breasts as just another body part.

However, this is television, a visual medium, and one wonders if lung, bone, or any other cancer would have been as appealing to Fraser as one whose subject can so easily cause such a combination of reactions in the viewer. Also, a good deal of dark humor is present, leading many to compare the miniseries to another dealing with death, Six Feet Under.

In a series of interviews with the cast and crew — the only extra on this three-DVD set — Fraser expounds on his inspiration for the Terminal City (his mother's own cancer scare), and he very specifically wants to make us think. Perhaps the intent is partially to keep us uncomfortable in much the same way that Katie's husband Ari (Gil Bellows) seems to spend the majority of his screen time.

In any case, it is a good thing that Katie's story is so compelling because the supporting plotlines involving the other Sampson family members are simply not equal to it, and often seem like filler. The attempt of daughter Sarah (Katie Boland) to seduce her teacher (Nakul Kupur) is completely predictable, though the young Boland has a certain screen presence. The affair older son Nicky (Adam Butcher) has with a married European woman (Stellina Rusich) seems merely an excuse to feature a different pair of breasts now and then.

The problem Ari's father Saul (Paul Soles) has dealing with his past comes across as an attempt to shock and yet appear additionally "thought-provoking" in addressing Holocaust themes. And younger son Eli (Nico McEown) and his crisis of faith are merely annoying. Someone from Katie's past (inspired by seeing her on TV) also suddenly decides to appear, bringing up memories and at least one genuine surprise (though it's obvious long before it's actually "revealed").

In all, it's just really hard to believe that every member of the Sampson family would be going through these major life events all at the same time. They have hardly any time left to support their dying matriarch. And if this weren't enough, the crew of No Show have their own problems to deal with, especially producer Jane Richards (Jane McLean).

The ten 40-minute episodes are certainly watchable (especially if you don't mind fast-forwarding through the slower parts), and the finale is original and moving, if a little hard for a jaded realist to accept at moments. (It's also only effective once you've seen everything leading up to it, but it's still the best of the set and quite a way to go out.) There are several jabs at the reality-TV phenomenon (an easy target, but still), but the primary reason to watch Terminal City is to discover a potential new star in the fine acting of Maria del Mar, and to watch her grasp this opportunity by the hair and steer it where she wants it to go. The actress gets to embody the full range of emotion, and she never once rings a false note. I definitely hope this leads to further substantial roles for her in the future.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold (unabridged audio book read by Joan Allen)

When Helen Knightly killed her mother Clair, the first thing she felt was relief — the horror didn't come till later. But in the next 24 hours, she will make her ex-husband an accomplice after the fact, have sex with her best friend's son ("'Fuck me,' I said, and hoped that no one's God was watching"), and realize she may just have killed the only person stranger (crazier?) than herself.

Author Alice Sebold has made a career of chronicling the aftermaths of violent acts; first with Lucky, her memoir of her own rape. Next came her debut novel, The Lovely Bones, the story of the rape and murder of a young girl told by the girl after her death.

The Lovely Bones was a sleeper phenomenon — the kind of book (like The DaVinci Code) that becomes popular because people actually read and liked it and recommended it to others, not because some ephemeral influential force says they should — and is the reason Sebold's name is well known today.

With a combination of dark crime tropes and a stream of consciousness narrative style, Sebold's sophomore novel The Almost Moon is a literary noir that is true enough to each to appeal to both audiences. Fans of Gillian Flynn's recent Sharp Objects should especially flock to it, as the pair have thematic similarities though their approaches are distinct. However, it's entirely possible that fans of Sebold's earlier work will be turned off by Helen's completely unlikeable nature.

The narrative of The Almost Moon is filled with Helen's reactive behavior combined with the character's insights into dysfunctional families ("When was it that you realized the thread woven through your DNA carried the relationship deformities of your blood relatives as much as it did their diabetes or bone density?") as she flashes back to her memories of her childhood and after.

Sebold skips back and forth between past and present with an abandon that expresses confidence in the intelligence of the reader (and it is hard to keep up sometimes). She is nonjudgmental about Helen's mostly shocking actions and winds a thread of dark humor throughout, offering some laugh-out-loud moments among the horrific elements.

Academy Award® nominee Joan Allen has a cool, detached delivery that matches the character beautifully. Many times I even forgot The Almost Moon was being read by someone other than Helen herself, which I think is the best compliment I can give. A good audiobook reader is like a good editor — if they're doing their job properly, both should be invisible.

The strength of Sebold's literary voice suggests that she is not finished stretching herself. I only hope that she also expands the boundaries of the readers that picked up The Almost Moon expecting something more like The Lovely Bones and stayed for the great writing.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Book: A Man Called Brazos by T.V. Olsen

For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, visit Pattinase.

"Brazos — that is a strange name. Isn't that a river?"
"Yes, ma'am, in Texas. My father settled by it, and I was named after it."

In Twentieth Century Western Writers, author Joe R. Lansdale says of T. V. Olsen, "He should be better known outside the immediate Western field, and ... I can not help but feel that with the right press, Olsen could command the position currently enjoyed by the late Louis L'Amour as America's most popular and foremost author of traditional Western novels."

The author of 40 novels under his own name and pseudonyms such as Joshua Stark and Christopher Storm, Theodore Victor "T.V." Olsen won a Spur Award for The Golden Chance, and two of his novels were made into films: The Stalking Moon with Gregory Peck and Soldier Blue with Candice Bergen. Olsen has lately become known for his often-sympathetic treatment of the American Indian in his fiction (see Bob Herzberg's recent Savages and Saints), though he considered his Jefferson Davis novel There Was a Season to be his most important work.

This week's "forgotten book," A Man Called Brazos, was originally published by Fawcett under their famous Gold Medal banner. It showcases Olsen's skill at the traditional Western tale. Based on my experience with it (and Lansdale's high praise), I'll definitely be looking for more of Olsen's work in the future.

Brazos Kane's parents were killed when he was ten by a raid of Choctaw Indians, and he was sent to live with his uncle, whom he left one night after a few too many beatings. Afterward, Brazos lived like an urchin in a trail town for a year until he picked the wrong drunk to roll — Pop Melaven. Pop offered Brazos a choice: work for him, or get his ass beaten right there. ("He'd rubbed his brass-studded belt, and Brazos was two seconds making up his mind.")

Brazos pulled his own weight and then some (as Pop liked his whiskey) in their partnership and was never treated as less than an equal for ten years. Then, after selling their largest herd of horses yet, Pop took the $12,000 into town and was promptly robbed and murdered. ("It was easy to anticipate a brutal and bitter end for the man, and yet when it came it had dropped the bottom out of Brazos' life.")

From that point on, Brazos's only goal in life was to find the man who'd killed his friend and mentor. Following up on a vague description of the culprit, Brazos zooms in on John Lambeth as his prime suspect. He hires himself out with Lambeth's crew on the Nugget ranch during the middle of a range war with the neighboring Montalvos.

The revenge story alone would be enough for some authors, but Olsen fills out the majority of A Man Called Brazos with the bad blood between the two ranches. Olsen also adds the spice of a femme fatale of sorts in the character of Lila Mae Lambeth, John's wife — a Southern belle with vast ambitions and just enough Lady Macbeth in her to make them happen.

All she needs is a cowpoke dimwitted enough to follow along while thinking he's in charge. The cast of characters is a little hard to keep straight at times, but the tension of the war, the suspense of Brazos's quest, and Lila Mae's machinations (while insightfully illustrating the difficulty of getting a man to see the truth about his wife) combine to make A Man Called Brazos a gripping read with a fine, fast-paced finale that more than satisfies the justice requirement.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

To Wake the Dead by Richard Laymon (unabridged audio book read by Gene Engene)

First off, there's something bothering me that I have to get out of the way right off the bat. Amara, the main subject of To Wake the Dead, looks nothing at all like the figure on the cover. Laymon's Amara is a 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummy, and she looks just like one, with beef-jerky skin, shriveled breasts (a fact that every character seems to notice), and no eyes in her empty sockets. So if you're looking for a story that features the vital (Asian?) vampiress depicted on the cover illustration, I'm afraid you're going to have to keep looking.

Now that subject has been covered, let's move on....

After the death of horror author Richard Laymon in 2001, his international fan base mourned the loss of a writer who seemed to still be improving his craft. (He won his first Bram Stoker Award posthumously for The Traveling Vampire Show, widely considered his best work.) Then three complete, previously unpublished manuscripts were found among his files. One of these was published each year from 2003 to 2005. They were, in order, To Wake the Dead (UK title: Amara), The Lake (same in the UK), and Into the Fire (UK title: The Glory Bus).

To Wake the Dead is the most ambitious novel by Laymon I've read to date. In the other novels of his I've encountered, the author has tended to focus on a relatively small cast of characters that we get to really know before he kills most of them.

In To Wake the Dead, however, there are several stories running parallel to each other, each with its own cast of characters, giving the novel a similar feel to a Robert Altman film. The focus is on Amara, an Egyptian mummy brought to a Los Angeles museum, but along the way, we meet a vast array of other individuals, each with their own struggles:

Virgina, Ed, and Marco, a trio of caged captives, are held as sex slaves by a mysterious kidnapper who only moves around in the dark. April, a young blind woman, alone in her remote mansion, receives an unexpected, but not unwelcome, visitor. Susan, the woman in charge of the mummy exhibit, has to deal with unexplained murders surrounding her new acquisition. Her cop boyfriend, Tag, has his own problem in the form of Mabel, a hygienically challenged woman who wants Tag to be her lover. Teenaged Grace, along with her boyfriend and sister, makes her way to Hollywood to be a star. And Imad, a local womanizer, proves to be the source of some surprising information.

Laymon somehow manages to make all these varied plotlines skillfully come together at just the right moments. He doesn't make the obvious choices, and manages to breathe some new life into an idea whose time came and went long ago (and that includes the laughable series of recent "mummy" movies). To Wake the Dead has the same flaws of most of Richard Laymon's bibliography, namely an overabundance of breast references, a reliance on implausible plot contrivances based on the characters' stupid decisions, and villains that are really more disgusting than they need to be. But, at the same time, it also has that wonderful Laymon charm that keeps you going in spite of these drawbacks.

Reader Gene Engene (who has a vocal range very similar to his colleague Michael Taylor) has a facility with accents that more than makes up for his limited number of female voices; his males fare considerably better, and it seems the more despicable the character, the more fun he has with stretching his talent. But, other than the characters not sounding the same as they do in your head, there is just one main difference between reading and listening: the speed. Visual reading speed is variable, but with a CD, you can't listen any faster or slower than the pace of Engene's voice, which leaves space for dramatic pauses and the like.

In the case of this book, that means the squeamish will be unable to skim the nastier elements of Laymon's story (and they're not always where or when you think they'll be), and you can't peek ahead to see what's about to happen — which results in at least one oh my god!–level surprise. The only drawback is that it makes To Wake the Dead seem just a bit longer than it would otherwise. Sometimes, when you just want the story to get going so you can find out what's going to happen next, that is frustrating. But more often, Engene's pacing leaves room for an appreciation for Laymon's inimitable way with words.
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