Monday, June 29, 2009

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman (audio book read by the author)

Right after their Brown University graduation in 1986, author Susan Jane Gilman and her friend Claire Van Houten embark on an ambitious venture: backpacking around the world. Of course, after studying a placemat at the International House of Pancakes, they decide to begin in Communist China, only ten days after outsiders have been allowed to enter. Thus begins Gilman's memoir of the journey, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven.

After deplaning in Hong Kong, Gilman gets a raging nosebleed, and only then do they realize they've packed everything but tissues — including a year's supply of tampons, a Lonely Planet guide, and the complete works of Friedrich Nietzsche (a little light reading on the trail is always good). And that's only the beginning of a truly misguided attempt at life-expansion that takes them through most of China, though they have increasing difficulty with communication as they find their Mandarin phrasebook practically useless when faced with the many different regional dialects.

The strangeness only escalates when, once they're settled, with little social contact to speak of, Claire suddenly decides to repeatedly go off by herself, doing "business," making "contacts," etc. and making less and less sense all the time. What happens later acts as the climax of this globe-trotting story and illustrates the everpresent bureaucracy of a country under Communist rule.

Gilman does her best to tell only the more entertaining parts of the story — oddly enough, the title references an event that didn't actually happen — but it's hard to stay interested in a pair of women who are so blatantly despicable. Unlikable protagonists are not the way to go with a book intended for a wide audience, though Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is still bound to be a huge hit with reading groups. The various people that Susan and Claire meet offer money, food, help, and advice, and yet are more often than not left without even a thank you.

Nevertheless, the seemingly unending procession of one obstacle after another makes it equally difficult to stop reading/listening. And while not exactly likable, both women display a certain guileless charm: a complete lack of worldliness that makes it easy to step into their shoes and wonder what you would do in the same situation (or give thanks that you aren't).

The audiobook of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven (read by the author) includes an interview with Gilman on the last disc, where she brings the listener up to date with her life and contact with the characters. Perhaps the time spent confirming events and writing them down overexposed her to the text and characters, but she sounds rather bored by the whole venture.

Nitpicker's Note: One would think that having Gilman read her own book would add an extra layer to the experience, but it actually detracts somewhat and emphasizes the fact that she is trying to write above her ability. She mispronounces numerous words, including "Charybdis," "depravity," "normalcy," and the verb form of "frequent" while using questionable phrases like "gouged with graffiti," and these seeming mistakes continually took me out of the story. (The moral: one so proud of her alma mater to repeatedly brag about it in the text should choose words she has mastered.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Road to Purgatory by Max Allan Collins (sequel to Road to Perdition)

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

It seems odd to write of a book as "forgotten" when it's only a few years old, but since Road to Purgatory is already out of print, I guess it applies. But perhaps it's not as much forgotten as it is simply little-known. One hopes that the film version currently in production (directed by the book's author, Max Allan Collins) will bring the story to more people, however, because it just may be the best thing he's ever written.

Michael Satariano, formerly Michael O'Sullivan Jr. — son of John Looney's "Angel of Death" — has become the one-eyed war hero who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in Bataan. He is looking to avenge his father's murder by the famous Chicago gangster Al Capone, now released from prison but sequestering himself from all but his most intimate fellows (including acting Outfit boss, Frank Nitti) due to the advanced debilitating effects of syphilis.

To succeed in doing that, Michael will have to infiltrate the highest echelons of the Outfit, using his apparent Sicilian heritage to his benefit (Papa Satariano, his adoptive father, ran a restaurant that was a favorite hangout of Outfit personnel) — and with the full knowledge of FBI agent Eliot Ness, who has kept Michael's true identity a secret (and even assisted with his eventual adoption).

Part sequel (primarily to Collins's Road to Perdition novelization — the events begin ten years later) and part prequel (four chapters focus on Michael O'Sullivan Sr.'s, role in a political riot in 1922, his antagonistic relationship with Connor Looney, and the birth of Mike's brother, Peter), Road to Purgatory is, above all, a novel of betrayal.

Mike can't seem to keep his promises to anyone but himself — not even the too-good-to-be-true hometown girl he left behind when he went to war — and a good deal of the novel's suspense comes from wondering when Frank Nitti, who all but adopts Mike as a surrogate son, will find out the truth. Mike digs himself deeper with each new relationship, and things really start to fall apart when someone from his pre-war past resurfaces in the present.

The Chicago gangland of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s is author Max Allan Collins' specialty. Eliot Ness, in particular, has appeared in many of his novels, including the author's well-known series starring historical private-eye Nathan Heller. Ness is also featured in his own quartet of novels (Bullet Proof, et al.) and the film Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life, which Collins wrote and directed. So, it's hardly a surprise that Ness plays a sizable role in Road to Purgatory — though, with Prohibition over, he's pretty much stuck fighting that other social pariah, venereal disease, giving him yet another connection to Capone.

Collins' characteristic exhaustive research (he even lets us in on the Outfit's "made man" ceremony) adds considerable depth and atmosphere to this not-so-simple revenge tale, the middle story in a saga named after the three parts of Dante's Divine Comedy. He takes the bold step of making Capone and Nitti sympathetic characters and also manages to add Nitti's death into the narrative in a way that does not contradict his earlier dramatization of it in his Nathan Heller novel, The Million-Dollar Wound — something that was reportedly in his mind while he was writing it. In many ways, Road to Purgatory is a culmination of certain parts of Collins's career, and I look forward to what he does with the film adaptation.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Casino Moon by Peter Blauner (Hard Case Crime)

Author Peter Blauner's second novel Casino Moon is a bit of an anomaly in the Hard Case Crime line. Not only does it exceed 320 pages (only two others of the more than 50 novels in the line, The Last Match and Fifty-to-One, have gone that far over the 250-page median), but it is also barely 15 years old, having been first published in 1994 — after Slow Motion Riot won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel but before Blauner's breakout thriller The Intruder became a national bestseller.

But even the author's original intentions seem to make it a perfect choice for reprinting in this way. As Blauner himself wryly states on his website, "[Casino Moon] was meant to be sort of a quick down-and-dirty pulp novel about a young man trying to get away from his mobbed-up family. So naturally, it ended up taking four years and dozens of painstaking rewrites to get it in shape."

Anthony Russo has always known the mob. After his real father, Mike Dillon, was murdered, Vincent Russo raised him as his own. In fact, the only thing stopping Anthony from being "made" is his lack of Sicilian blood — well, that and the fact that Anthony hasn't killed anybody yet, despite Vincent continual attempts to make it easy for him. What Anthony really wants, though, is a chance to make his money legitimately, and funding former champion boxer Elijah Barton's comeback, against current champ Terrence Mulvehill, is the opportunity he's been looking for.

But, like Michael Corleone says in Godfather III, "Just when I thought I was out ... they pull me back in." (What? You expect me to review a mafia novel and not make a Godfather reference? Even Blauner does it, naming a restaurant "Andolini's" — Andolini was the Corleone family's original surname before Ellis Island officials changed it.)

Anthony finds it difficult to actually do anything on his own. Among other things, Anthony owes people money and wants to support his wife and kids, but his wife's uncle Teddy, the capodecine, always takes half of any money made by his underlings. Other people want their piece of the pie, as well, including his girlfriend Rosemary (who has her own daughter to support).

As he is floundering, Anthony gets a view of the other side from Mulvehill's promoter Frank Diamond, who manages to get a portion of every fee possible through having his son be the manager, renting his own space out for training, and other entirely legal (though not necessarily ethical) means. Sitting in Diamond's $5,000-a-night suite, Anthony notices, "a gold jacuzzi over by the window ... and a bar stocked with 150-year-old bottles of wine. Still, five thousand a night seemed a little steep.... But it must be worth it, I figured, just to know that the guy downstairs only had 75-year-old wine." He soon realizes, "Growing up around wiseguys was the best preparation I could have had for the fight game."

Casino Moon is unnecessarily melodramatic at times (does Teddy really need to have a son who killed himself, a mentally retarded daughter, a wife addicted to downers, an eating disorder, and prostate cancer all in one book?), especially with the constant parent–child issues present and an ending seemingly designed to make men cry. Also, Blauner jumps from first person for Anthony's story to third person for everyone else, making it a little confusing in the beginning until I got used to the style.

But despite these complaints, Blauner kept the pages turning, if sometimes filling them with a little too much detail. His characters are richly drawn, and I can still see their faces clearly in my mind. I really felt Anthony's tension at all the hands pulling him in different directions — and his struggles between his wife and his mistress make a strong case for fidelity. (One lesson: don't piss off a woman with no dignity left to lose.) Casino Moon is by no means a perfect novel, but Blauner tries hard and succeeds for the most part, particularly in making the mafia human.

Nitpicker's Note: One statement near the end of chapter 10, referring to a little girl's "toothless four-year-old smile," took me right out of the story. A one-year-old has most of her teeth already, and they don't generally start to fall out until around age 6. Probably Blauner simply wasn't a parent yet when he wrote Casino Moon, but this kind of fact is easy to research: just look at somebody else's kids. This also makes the attempts at parental characterization — "I've got two of my own. I'd kill for them" — ring false.

Monday, June 15, 2009

East of the River (The Gunsmith #328) by Robert J. Randisi writing as J.R. Roberts (Western series)

Clint Adams, better known as the Gunsmith, knows he's in for trouble whenever he goes east of the Mississippi, but a high-stakes poker game in Ajax, Indiana, is too good to pass up. When he finds it's been called off, he's irked, but you can't reasonably expect to receive a telegram when you're constantly on the move. His ersatz host recommends the nearby town of Dexter, where Clint gets himself embroiled in a Deputy U.S. Marshal's search for evidence against some local bank robbers.

I don't know what money Clint lives on; he doesn't seem to be selling guns like he did in the earlier books in the series. [Update: see author comment.] But he helps out at least 3 people in this story and sees not a cent from any of them, apart from the occasional free beer or roll in the hay. But suspension of disbelief notwithstanding, author J.R. Roberts (in reality Robert J. Randisi) has produced yet another entertaining page-turner with East of the River.

Roberts/Randisi has a very visual style that could easily translate to the screen. The author even changes perspective often during action scenes — as if he were editing the program "in the camera," so to speak — which keeps the mind alert. In general, he doesn't linger on a scene; he has his characters tell us what we need to know, and he moves on. I read the whole of East of the River in about ninety minutes.

Which brings me to my only complaint regarding this book: it's just too short. The story is thin and wouldn't stand for much expansion, but calling East of the River a novel is a stretch, even compared to other entries in the series. The large type, wide margins, and the fact that all the chapters begin on the right-hand page (very often leaving a blank facing page) all suggest that even the publisher had a hard time getting it to look like a book worth paying six dollars for. And there may lie the issue in a nutshell: I don't usually pay full price for books, but when I do, I want to feel I got my money's worth.

Luckily, Randisi is an always entertaining and sometimes even innovative writer. Possibly in response to those readers of series Westerns who complain that the obligatory sex scenes get in the way of the story (or even stop it cold), in East of the River he has cross-cut a scene of one kind of action with a scene of another kind, folding them together like the cards in a shuffling deck. Just one more reason that The Gunsmith is my favorite Western series.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

House Dick by E. Howard Hunt (Hard Case Crime)

In 1972, E. Howard Hunt was arrested for his part in the Watergate Hotel break-in, but in 1961, Hunt was still working for the CIA's anti-Castro operations (specifically the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion) and writing crime novels under pseudonyms — novels like House Dick, which was first published under the name "Gordon Davis." (The fact that the Watergate is name-dropped on page 18 is just a coincidence, right?)

Pete Novak is the house detective at the Tilden Hotel in Washington, D.C. Mostly his job consists of boring activities like the one he's confronted with this morning: Julia Boyd insists her jewelry has been stolen and wants Novak to find it. But things get a little more interesting when Julia's husband, Chalmers Boyd, suggests to Novak that his wife "suffers frequent delusions" and to not bother doing anything about it.

Novak is going to find things even more intriguing when other connections pop up with a young blonde also staying in the hotel, her mobster husband, and a private physician with unconventional prescriptions. Somebody's going to end up very dead, and this dick will stick his nose where it doesn't belong.

Author Hunt offers, at the very least, a seemingly original conceit in his protagonist's occupation. However, this does not save House Dick from its ultimate fate of being highly forgettable. Novak stays on the move for most of the novel, offering the pretense of action, but mostly seeming not to do much at all until near the end. The solution is no surprise. There's little here that hasn't been done better elsewhere. It would be safe to say that I was bored. I don't usually like to make such harsh pronouncements, but there you have it.

Nitpicker's Note: Maybe note paper needs to remain "stationary" when you use it, but you still have to buy it in the "stationery" department. Also, a hotel should offer some peace, but rooms should not be "quiet easy to find."

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Daemon by Harry Shannon (Night of the Daemon; Night trilogy)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form in the Spring 2008 issue of Dead Reckonings. Copyright 2008.

Previously published as Night of the Daemon in an ultra-limited edition of 200 copies — and now in a more affordable format for the rest of us — Daemon is the third in author Harry Shannon’s pulp-inspired (but otherwise unrelated) trilogy that began with Night of the Beast and Night of the Werewolf. Knowledge of the prior two is not necessary to get full enjoyment out of this combination military thriller–horror–mystery set in Las Vegas.

Jeff Lehane worked black ops in Iraq, then called it quits, but assents to help his ex-wife Heather with security at a rap-rock star’s concert. There, Lehane meets up with a tall figure in a skull mask who knows him and taunts him as he kills Heather. Lehane dispatches the stranger but later finds out that Heather’s corpse was snacked on at the morgue. Something from Lehane’s past is coming back for revenge, so he gathers up his old team (most of whom were on the security detail) and sets out on the hunt to get before it gets him.

Though the blend of genres is jarring at first (military fiction is usually grounded in hard reality), Shannon executes Daemon’s combination with skill, making the ghoulish eater of the dead just another target in the lives of this well-trained team of professional killers.

It helps that Shannon really knows how to create suspense, such as in one scene from the ghoul’s point of view. It lies in the back floorboard of a woman’s car, awaiting an opportunity to attack. The woman is unaware, but other things threaten its plan, so it strategizes. Scary stuff, a ghoul that can restrain itself until the right moment and adapt to its situation.

The beginning of Daemon feels slow, but in retrospect this is deliberate, as Shannon has a good deal of plot detail and character back-story to dish out before the novel really begins moving. Once all the pieces begin to come together, however, there’s no stopping Shannon’s prose as it muscles up to the rocketing, blood-drenched finale, assuring that Shannon ends his trilogy on a high point.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Guest Blogger: Joe R. Lansdale, author of Vanilla Ride

Today, I have the honor of welcoming author Joe R. Lansdale to the pages of Somebody Dies. Joe has been one of my favorites since 2002, when I stumbled across a used copy of Savage Season, the first novel in Joe's series featuring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine.

Actually, Hap and Leonard are part of the reason Joe is here today. But why don't I shut up and let the man tell you about it himself? Over to you, Joe.

Thanks, Craig. Glad to drop in on your site, and I'm here for shameless promotion. My new book Vanilla Ride is coming out. It's a Hap and Leonard book, and the first in about eight years. I'm so excited by it, I'm writing another Hap and Leonard book right behind it, and maybe another behind that. I'm glad to be back with the characters, glad to hear Hap's voice.

I'm also pushing the fact that I have a new collection out from The University of Texas Press. Sanctified and Chicken-Fried: The Portable Lansdale has one new story in it, and a different arrangement of older stories, and two novel excerpts, and a nice introduction by Texas writer, Bill Crider.

I've been asked why would I do a collection that covers stories in other collections, except for that one. The reason is those collections are sold out and new readers come along everyday that don't have access to the old ones. I have a really cool retrospective collection coming out from Tachyon Publications, titled The Best of Joe R. Lansdale, and it's a wider view of my career, but the point is, Tachyon readers may not be as aware of my work as others, so I'm hitting a somewhat new audience. [Note: In 2011, Tachyon will also be publishing a supernatural-noir anthology edited by Joe called Crucified Dreams.]

Three years from now, a brand new collection, including two or three stories that will never be printed again by me. The owners of these stories are franchise series I wrote a story for and got permission for a one-time reprint. They may reprint it, but I'll be done. That will make that collection unique unto itself, like the limited Writer of the Purple Rage which had two Batman stories I wrote contained in it.

Having done that, I'll probably write less, or no more of that kind of business, as I want to own the stories I write. Too much love and energy goes into them.

Since I'm doing a commercial, I should add that the short story collection from University of Texas Press is a small printing, and it's going fast, so if you do want one, better jump. Thanks.

And thanks to you for dropping by, Joe.

I know I'm looking forward to getting all these books, especially Vanilla Ride. If readers are unfamiliar with the series, all the previous books, starting with Savage Season, have been rereleased by Vintage in trade paperback and for the first time on audiobook! Also, be sure to pick up a copy of Son of Retro Pulp Tales, since it's equally as good as the first, Retro Pulp Tales. Looks like there's
a lot to look forward to, folks, and a little something for everyone.

Thanks once again to Joe R. Lansdale for dropping by to tell us about his books, and thanks to you readers for your support. Anyone needing more incentive can go read the page of Lansdale reviews I've written over the years. Or just pick up one of his books and start reading. I can just about guarantee his unmistakable voice will hook you right away.
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