Tuesday, July 31, 2007

End-of-the-Month Update


This month got off to a slow start, but after a couple of weeks I was able to pick up the pace and the last two weeks have been pretty productive. I had to backtrack some in the current novel because I realized I had fouled a few things up and gotten off the track stylistically. Fixing the stuff that had gone wrong didn’t take too long, and I expect the rest of the book to roll along at a normal rate of speed. I was also able to figure out the plots for a couple of upcoming books and get short outlines done for them. That’s always a good feeling.


I read the following books in July (as usual, they’re listed in the order in which I read them):

EASY COMPANY AND THE MEDICINE GUN , John Wesley Howard (Stephen Winston)
EMPIRE, Orson Scott Card
THE NEW AVENGERS: SENTRY, Brian Michael Bendis
THE SONG IS YOU, Megan Abbott
ROBBIE’S WIFE, Russell Hill
EASY COMPANY AND THE BLOOD FEUD, John Wesley Howard (Paul Lederer)
WARHAMMER: SWORDS OF THE EMPIRE, Marc Gascoigne and Christian Dunn, eds.


These are the movies we watched in July:


A mixed bag, to be sure. By the way, we’ve pretty much given up on being able to understand all the dialogue in modern movies and now turn the captions on just as a matter of habit. It’s amazing how much more sense some movies make when you know what they’re saying. Of course, in some it still doesn’t help all that much.

Black Snake Moan

Look up the word “lurid” in the dictionary and you’re liable to find one of the posters for the movie BLACK SNAKE MOAN. Most of you have probably either seen the movie already or at least know what it’s about: a blues-playing farmer in the South, played by Samuel L. Jackson, chains the local slut, played by Christina Ricci, to his radiator so that he can break her from her sinful behavior. It’s a pretty far-fetched premise, but writer-director Craig Brewer and his cast make it seem perfectly reasonable. There’s some scenery-chewing, but everybody plays it pretty much straight, which goes a long way toward making the audience believe in what’s going on.

This movie is part updated Gold Medal backwoods novel, part Southern gothic, and part country noir. It actually reminded me of Daniel Woodrell’s novels more than anything else. The music plays a large part in it, too. I’m not a big fan of the blues, but the songs really work here. Maybe I’m just a sucker for redemption stories, but at its heart, even with all the sex, violence, and cussin’, I think BLACK SNAKE MOAN is more of a Christian movie than, say, FACING THE GIANTS (although I’m sure the folks at Sherwood Baptist Church would disagree with me). This is a very good movie, maybe even a great movie, and easily the best new film I’ve seen so far this year.

(In the spirit of fairness, I should add that I’m the only one in the Reasoner household who feels this way. But I’ve been the oddball many times before, and I’m sure I will be again in the future.)

The Farmers Hotel -- John O'Hara

A lot of authors have used the old plot of having a group of strangers thrown together by circumstances and then seeing what happens among them. John O’Hara does it in a short novel from 1951 called THE FARMERS HOTEL. Set in a small town in Pennsylvania, the story finds a rich couple from Philadelphia who are married (but not to each other), a trio of small-time entertainers (a couple of strippers and their piano player), and a sullen truck driver who drinks too much all forced by a blizzard to stop at the hotel of the title, which, as it happens, has just reopened under new ownership. The middle-aged hotel owner, the cook, the black bellman/bartender (who has an adventurous history involving World War I and gangsters), and the local doctor are also on hand.

As usual with O’Hara, there’s lots of dialogue, most of it very well-written. The story gets darker as it goes on, and the ending is downright bleak. I gather from what I’ve read that this isn’t regarded as one of O’Hara’s better novels; in fact, some critics at the time called it his worst. I haven’t read enough of his work to make any judgments of that sort. But I can say that I enjoyed THE FARMERS HOTEL quite a bit, and it only makes me want to read more of O’Hara’s books.

Facing the Giants

We love our inspirational, heart-warming football movies around here. It’s even better when they’re based on a true story, which, as far as I know, FACING THE GIANTS isn’t. Or maybe it is. From the looks of it, the fine folks at Sherwood Baptist Church in Georgia got together and said, “Hey, let’s make a movie.” Many of the young actors playing members of the football team from the fictional “Shiloh Christian Academy” are actually members of the Sherwood Christian Academy team. The actress playing the head coach’s wife is the wife of the real head coach. Alex Kendrick, the actor playing the head coach, also co-wrote and directed the movie, and the closing credits include a lot of other people whose last name is Kendrick. In other words, this is a pretty low-budget, backyard production with a heavy emphasis on religious values in addition to the usual sports movie elements.

It’s also, perhaps surprisingly, a pretty entertaining film. The production values are very good, the script has some nice humorous lines to offset the preachy moments, the small-town setting is absolutely authentic, and the acting, while not smooth and polished by any means, has enough realism to it to make it effective. These people aren’t just delivering lines, they’re tapping into things that come right out of their own lives. And the football scenes are nicely realistic, something I always pay attention to in movies like this, except for one last-minute plot twist that would never happen in real life. I wouldn’t recommend FACING THE GIANTS for everybody, but if you like sports movies and aren’t bothered by the religious angle, it’s worth watching.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Raintree: Inferno -- Linda Howard

Paranormal novels are hugely popular in the romance genre right now, as some of you probably know already. I suppose this boom was prompted by the success of TV shows like BUFFY, ANGEL, CHARMED, etc., plus the best-selling status of novels by Laurell K. Hamilton, Charlaine Harris, and others. Silhouette Books has started an entire line of paranormal romance novels, the Nocturne series.

RAINTREE: INFERNO is the first book in a trilogy within the Nocturne line, about a centuries-long war between two rival clans of wizards, the Raintree and the Ansara, who have varying powers, most of them somehow connected to the elements. Dante Raintree, the hero of this novel, is a Fire Master, able to start and control fires, heat, smoke, etc. The heroine is Lorna Clay, a “stray” wizard, not aligned with either side in the war and in fact unaware of it -- and her own powers -- until she stumbles into an attempt on Dante’s life by agents of the Ansara.

There’s enough sexual tension here for the book to qualify as a romance, but for the most part it’s actually more of an urban fantasy/suspense novel. The author, Linda Howard, is a veteran romance writer who has produced work in several different sub-genres, including some mainstream romantic suspense novels that I’ve read and enjoyed. She’s a very smooth storyteller and keeps the pace rolling along in this book until it reaches a cliffhanger ending that has me thinking I’ll probably read the other two books in the trilogy.

I’ve read quite a few romance novels over the years, mostly of the historical and romantic suspense varieties. Teresa Medeiros and Marsha Canham are probably my favorite romance authors. Medeiros’s BREATH OF MAGIC is one of the best-plotted time travel novels I’ve read, and Canham’s medieval adventures are full of well-written action. So it’s not surprising that I would read some of these Silhouette Nocturne books, but in the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I have an ulterior motive. Livia’s going to be writing a book for the line, which means that sooner or later I’ll be reading and editing the manuscript. So I want to get a good feel for the style and pacing of the novels they publish. RAINTREE: INFERNO was the second Nocturne I’ve read. The other was BLOOD SON, a vampire novel by Erica Orloff, which I also enjoyed quite a bit. I’m sure I’ll be reading more.

Longarm and the Hell Riders -- Tabor Evans

This is the August release in the series, and it features an outlaw gang with blazing skulls where their heads should be. I'm just guessing, of course, but I'd say that the author of this one must have been heavily influenced by Western pulps, Three Mesquiteers movies, comic books, and things like that.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Prestige

THE PRESTIGE is one of the magician movies that came out fairly close together a while back, THE ILLUSIONIST being the other. I liked THE ILLUSIONIST fairly well. While THE PRESTIGE got better reviews, as far as I remember, I didn’t think it was as good.

It’s certainly clever, well-written, and well-directed, with good performances from Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as feuding stage magicians and Michael Caine as the designer and builder of the illusions used in Jackman’s act. I found the story extremely difficult to follow, though, as the plot kept jumping around in time. And I’m still not sure I understand the ending. But maybe I was just too tired to keep up with all of it. Normally, I like movies (and books) where nothing is what it appears to be at first, so I’m inclined to give THE PRESTIGE the benefit of the doubt and say that it’s probably a better movie than I thought it was. This may be one of those I have to watch again sometime, just to see if it improves on a second viewing even though I’ll already know the plot twists.

Or maybe not. There’s a lot out there to watch that I haven’t seen yet.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

New Avengers Trade Paperbacks

Between other books over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading trade paperbacks reprinting various story arcs from the NEW AVENGERS comic book: SENTRY, SECRETS & LIES, and THE COLLECTIVE. A year or so ago I read the first New Avengers collection, and these volumes represent about the next year and a half’s worth of issues from the comic book series.

Now, the Avengers and I go ’way back . . . to Christmas Day, 1963, in fact, when a couple of my girl cousins gave me a stack of comic books they didn’t want. Included in that stack was a copy of AVENGERS #1, which I thoroughly enjoyed. When I went to the drugstore the next week, the fourth issue, which featured the return of Captain America, was on the spinner rack. So I bought it regularly from then on, until I pretty much gave up reading comics in the mid-Nineties.

When I read these collections from current comics series, I’m a little lost sometimes because of that gap in my reading, but luckily nearly all the characters in NEW AVENGERS are ones with whom I’m familiar, like Cap, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Luke Cage, so I was able to pick up the storyline fairly well. All of these volumes were written by Brian Michael Bendis, one of this era’s top comics writers, and while his plotting has the same slow pace most modern comics do, he writes really good dialogue and overall I enjoy his stories. SENTRY, which is about the introduction of a superhero who seems to have a long history in the Marvel Universe, even though nobody really remembers him, is the best of these three volumes in my opinion, but I liked them all. The art is by various hands, and reactionary curmudgeon that I am, I still think most modern comics artists just aren’t very good storytellers, at least not on a par with the ones from the Golden and Silver Ages. But I was able to follow what was going on in these stories, at least most of the time.

I’ll never be the fan of modern comics that I was back in the Sixties and Seventies (which is why I read so many reprints from that era), but I can recommend these NEW AVENGERS reprint volumes. I enjoyed all three of them quite a bit.

The Core

We missed this movie when it came out a few years ago, so when we came across a copy of the DVD at the library we decided to go ahead and watch it. It’s a near-future scientific thriller about how the earth’s outer core stops rotating for some reason, which causes the electro-magnetic field around the planet to start dissipating, which is going to lead to all sorts of disasters and ultimate destruction unless an intrepid team of scientist/adventurers can bore down to the earth’s core in a special vessel made of Unobtainium (to quote Dave Barry, I am not making this up) and restart the core’s rotation by setting off a series of nuclear explosions.

Now, Mr. Wizard I’m not. But if that plot description sounds pretty far-fetched to you, well, it does to me, too. This is definitely a movie that requires a large amount of suspension of disbelief. If you can shrug your shoulders, though, and say, “Okay, I’ll buy that”, it’s fairly entertaining. Lots of special effects and lots of dialogue like “We’re approaching the core/mantle interface!” Aaron Eckhart is a brilliant, ruggedly handsome scientist. (Brilliant scientists in movies are always ruggedly handsome, although it’s acceptable for them to have brilliant scientist sidekicks who are semi-nerdish. Unless of course the brilliant scientist is female, in which case she’s intelligent-looking but still hot.) Hilary Swank is the former astronaut who pilots the ship going to the earth’s core. She’s very capable and intelligent-looking -- but still hot. As for the rest of the crew . . . well, you can pretty much figure out what’s going to happen to them.

Which is another problem that THE CORE has. If you’ve ever seen any other movies in the near-future scientific thriller genre, or read any books like that, you’ll know everything that’s going to happen ’way before it does. There was one minor twist near the end that I didn’t see coming, but I should have.

Despite my sarcasm, I did enjoy this movie. It’s silly and predictable, but there are some nice lines of dialogue and I was able to accept the spirit of the whole thing. I was a little disappointed that they went all the way to the Earth’s core and back, though, and didn’t stop even once in Pellucidar.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Warhammer: Swords of the Empire

For a while now I’ve been reading this anthology of heroic fantasy stories set in the universe of the Warhammer role-playing game, using the stories as breaks between novels. It’s a good collection of tales, and as usual with Warhammer, you get a variety of stories ranging from pure sword-and-sorcery (the title story “Swords of the Empire” by Dan Abnett and “The Nagenhof Bell” by Jonathan Green) to fairly-clued mystery (“The Case of the Scarlet Cell” by Gordon Rennie) to a Western with fantasy trappings (“Meat Wagon” by C.L. Werner). I enjoyed all of them. Abnett’s yarn is probably the best-written of the bunch, with a nice plot twist. From what I can tell he seems to be the superstar of the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 authors, but this is the first thing I’ve read by him. I’ll probably get around to reading one of his novels before too much longer.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Man of the House

Sure, MAN OF THE HOUSE is a silly little comedy about hard-nosed Texas Ranger Tommy Lee Jones going undercover as an assistant cheerleading coach to protect a group of University of Texas cheerleaders who witnessed a mob-related murder. And yes, about every twenty minutes something else happens that’s pretty much ridiculous. But Jones -- who didn’t have to go very far to film this, just from his hometown of San Saba to Austin -- is a hoot, there are some fairly well-staged action scenes, and the girls are cute. I found it to be a reasonably entertaining way to spend an hour and a half. And I always enjoy movies that were filmed in places where I’ve been.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Date With Darkness -- Donald Hamilton

I love Dell Mapbacks . . . the look, the feel, even the smell of them. A lot of people consider Gold Medal to be the all-time best publisher of paperback originals, and I can’t argue with that. But the Dell Mapbacks are my all-time favorite line of paperback reprints.

So naturally when I ran across this one recently, I didn’t hesitate in grabbing it up. Not only did it have a fine Robert Stanley cover, but it’s also by Donald Hamilton, the author of the Matt Helm series and numerous other well-regarded hardboiled novels. I was a huge Matt Helm fan back in the Sixties, although I have to admit that the longer the books got, the less I liked them. I’ve also read a couple of Westerns by Hamilton that I liked quite a bit.

DATE WITH DARKNESS is Hamilton’s first novel, a post-war intrigue yarn that finds a young naval officer (who never saw action in the Pacific but sat behind a desk in Chicago pushing papers for the duration of the war instead) heading to New York on leave. He meets a beautiful young woman on the train, but she’s not what she seems to be and a bit of innocent flirtation plunges Lieutenant Philip Branch into a dangerous conspiracy, the roots of which go back to Vichy France.

I hate to say it because I generally like Hamilton’s work so much, but DATE WITH DARKNESS is something of a disappointment. The plot is interesting, but it takes forever to develop. The writing is talky and static, without much action at all, and even the few action scenes are hard to follow. None of the characters are likable, even the hero. But the book certainly isn’t all bad. Here and there, lines and even whole scenes really sparkle, showing the promise of the writer that Hamilton would develop into, and he does a good job of creating an atmosphere of brooding menace. I’d give DATE WITH DARKNESS only a qualified recommendation, though. If you’ve never read any of Hamilton’s books, don’t start with this one. But if you’ve read and enjoyed his other work, it’s worth reading, for its historical value if nothing else. And hey, it’s a Dell Mapback with a Robert Stanley redhead on the cover. Money well spent, if you ask me.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter

No, you won't be getting a review of the final Harry Potter book from me. I read the first two books in the series, enjoyed them quite a bit, found them very well-written, and for whatever reason, never really felt any compulsion to go on with the rest of the books. I've watched all the movies but don't mind admitting that I'm pretty much lost as far as what's going on. Somebody asked me what happened in one of them, and I said, "I dunno, they ran around and did magic and stuff." However . . . my daughter Joanna, who started reading the series when she was in junior high and is now a senior in college, spent the weekend reading HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, and she liked it and seemed to be quite satisfied with the way it ended. So I suspect it's pretty good. Will I ever get around to reading it, and all the others? Never say never, I guess.

Batman: Nine Lives

This graphic novel is part of DC’s “Elseworlds” series, alternate histories of some of their comic book characters, if you will. In this heavily film noir influenced version of Batman, only Bruce Wayne and his caped alter ego are roughly the same as in the comic books we all know. Instead of Robin, Dick Grayson is an ex-cop, currently making his living as a private detective. His long-suffering secretary is Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Commissioner Gordon. The Joker is a gambler, the Penguin and Clayface are two of Gotham City’s gangsters, Mr. Freeze is the Penguin’s enforcer, Harvey Dent is a crooked, “two-faced” attorney, and Selina Kyle is a blackmailer and the owner of the Kit Kat Klub, rather than Catwoman. The look and trappings of the story place it in the Forties, and it’s a suitably convoluted yarn featuring a bunch of shady characters, narrated by Dick Grayson in the usual PI voiceover style.

This is a very entertaining book and probably would be even if you were reading it as a straight mystery and had never read any of the other versions of the Batman character. Being able to appreciate the differences just adds another level of enjoyment. The script is by Dean Motter, the art by Michael Lark, and I’d recommend it to any Batman and/or noir fans.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Case of the Sun Bather's Diary -- Erle Stanley Gardner

This Perry Mason novel was originally published in 1955, an era during which Gardner’s work was still consistently good, although as far as I’m concerned his best books were published during the Thirties and Forties. The edition pictured is the first paperback, from February 1958. I have no idea why there was a three-year gap between the William Morrow hardback and the Cardinal paperback.

As for the story itself, it starts off in a typically intriguing Gardner fashion: Perry Mason receives a phone call at his office from a young woman who wants to hire him. It seems that she lives in a trailer, the small kind that can be pulled behind a car, and while she was out sunbathing -- nude, of course -- somebody stole the car and trailer, literally driving off with her home. She wants to hire Mason to bring her some clothes and find out who stole the trailer.

Well, you know there has to be a lot more to it than that in an Erle Stanley Gardner book, and of course, there is. It turns out the young woman is the daughter of a man who is serving time in prison for masterminding an armored car robbery, and wouldn’t you know it, the nearly four hundred thousand dollars in loot that was stolen in that robbery has never been found. The daughter is convinced that her father is really innocent and wants Mason to prove it. Meanwhile, various factions are equally convinced that the daughter really knows where the money is hidden. Sure enough, once Perry Mason gets involved in the case, it’s only a matter of hours before there’s a murder, and Mason’s client is arrested and charged with the crime.

I thought I was doing a pretty good job of keeping up with the plot in this one, something I often have a hard time doing in a Gardner novel. I spotted some clues, recognized some misdirection, and was convinced that I had the solution figured out. Then, with only a few pages left in the book, Gardner throws in a perfectly logical twist that I never saw coming at all. I wound up being about half-right in what I figured, and for a Perry Mason novel, that’s not bad, I suppose.

This book is also interesting because of the trailer angle. Gardner was known for going off to the desert and staying for weeks at a time in a trailer, so he puts his knowledge of such things to good use here, throwing in a few nuggets of information about how such trailers are set up and what they’re worth.
The Mitchell Hooks cover on the paperback edition is okay, but if ever a book was crying out for a McGinnis cover, you’d think that one with a title like THE CASE OF THE SUN BATHER’S DIARY would be it.

Congratulations, Al!

Congratulations to Al Guthrie for winning the Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year Award for TWO-WAY SPLIT. I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't read this book yet, but I will be very soon. My friends just write too many books for me to keep up with them! (And yes, I know how hypocritical it is for me to complain, even humorously, about people writing too many books . . . ) Anyway, many of you know Al as a fine writer and all-around great guy, but I'm one of the lucky people who has had him edit one of my books, and I'm here to tell you he's also one of the best editors in the business. Any award the guy wins is well-deserved as far as I'm concerned.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Death Head Crossing and Others

I got my author’s copies of DEATH HEAD CROSSING today, so I assume it should be showing up in the stores soon. The book looks really good, except for one odd thing in the biographical info on the inside back cover: it attributes the L.J. Washburn books to me, when of course it was Livia who really wrote them. Oh, sure, I helped with the plotting and editing of them, but you might as well say that Livia wrote all of my books since she does the same for me. I just hope that the misinformation doesn’t spread to the Internet, since there are already websites out there that attribute books to both of us that we didn’t write.

The FedEx driver dropped off a couple of other boxes while he was here. One contained copies of the large print edition of TALES FROM DEADWOOD: THE KILLERS, published by Thorndike. All three books in the series are available in large print now. The other box had author’s copies of one of my ghost jobs in it, so I can’t post that cover or title, but I hope it’s out there selling well, too.

Robbie's Wife -- Russell Hill

ROBBIE’S WIFE isn’t your usual Hard Case Crime novel (if there is such a thing, which is debatable). For one thing, it’s set in England, not America. Of course, there have been other Hard Case Crime books set in other countries. David Dodge’s PLUNDER OF THE SUN and THE LAST MATCH come to mind. Also, ROBBIE’S WIFE is extremely slow-paced, instead of zipping along like most of the other HCC books I’ve read.

Plot-wise, though, it fits right in with the rest of the line, centering around a doomed romance between a burned-out American screenwriter and a beautiful English farm wife who regrets giving up her life as a dancer. Although Russell Hill (an author I’m not familiar with) takes a long time to get around to it, before the book is over we get murder and blackmail and a couple of plot twists. Not everything works out as I expected it to, which is always a plus. The writing is good enough, and the story and characters intriguing enough, so that I never considered abandoning the book but stuck with it instead, and I’m glad I did. Although my tastes run more toward Gil Brewer’s THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN, another Hard Case Crime novel I read recently, I don’t have any hesitation in recommending ROBBIE’S WIFE, too.

And as usual with Hard Case Crime, this book has a really nice cover.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Movie Roundup

We’ve seen several movies lately, but none of them impressed me very much, so instead of individual posts about them I’m just going to make a few comments about each.

I was interested in THE LAST MIMZY because it’s based on a short story by one of my favorite science fiction writers, Henry Kuttner. However, it’s been too long since I read the story, so I don’t know how faithful an adaptation the movie is. I’m guessing, even given the need for updating things, that it’s not very faithful. The movie, about two little kids who find a mysterious artifact, is good-hearted, but that’s part of the problem: it’s not long before everything gets bogged down in touchy-feely political correctness, and that’s not a very good fit with Kuttner’s sly humor.

THE PRIZE WINNER OF DEFIANCE, OHIO is a heartwarming, based-on-a-true-story, Fifties-set family drama about a woman who supports her large family by winning advertising contests, coming up with jingles and slogans, etc. The performances are good and there’s a fine sense of time and place, but overall I didn’t find this film very compelling.

THE QUIET AMERICAN is based on a novel by Graham Greene, and I’m pretty sure that this version, starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, is a remake of an earlier film. But I’m too lazy these days to look up the specifics. It’s also set in the Fifties, in French Indochina (Vietnam) and is full of war, political intrigue, and romance. There are some good scenes here and there, but the slow pace made it hard for me to stay awake. This is also one of those movies where everybody mutters and whispers, so that much of the dialogue is incomprehensible. Thank goodness for captions or I wouldn’t have had the slightest idea what was going on.

I guess watching BANDIDAS and GHOST RIDER recently fouled me up. I got this crazy idea that movies are supposed to be entertaining.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Nothing Personal -- Jason Starr

Until this book, the only thing I’d read by Jason Starr was BUST, his Hard Case Crime novel written in collaboration with Ken Bruen, which I liked quite a bit. NOTHING PERSONAL is one of Starr’s earlier novels, and it’s good enough to convince me that I need to read more of his work.

This book is about two couples in New York, the white-collar David and Leslie Sussman and the blue-collar Joey and Maureen DePino, and the way all their lives intersect in unexpected and tragic fashion. Leslie and Maureen are best friends from childhood. David is being stalked by a woman from his office with whom he’s been having an affair. Joey is a compulsive gambler up to his eyeballs in debt who has a loan shark’s goons after him. You know when things start out this bad, they’re only going to get worse . . . but the trick is in how they get worse.

I don’t mind admitting I thought I had this book figured out. I knew what was going to happen. Only I didn’t. Starr kept coming up with different but perfectly logical ways to take his story, so that every time I started to nod knowingly to myself, he yanked the rug out from under me again. That’s good stuff and kept me flipping the pages even as the events unfolding grew darker and darker. I love it when a book takes me by surprise. NOTHING PERSONAL is a fine novel, and now I have to go find more of Jason Starr’s books.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Song is You -- Megan Abbott

In discussing the slam-bang pace of Gil Brewer’s THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN the other day, I mentioned that some authors prefer to take a more deliberate approach. Megan Abbott falls into that category. Her stories unfold at a leisurely, nuanced pace, rich with characterization and detail and plot twists. Her excellent second novel, THE SONG IS YOU, strikes a near-perfect balance between those elements.

This book was inspired by the real-life disappearance of actress Jean Spangler in 1949, and historical characters appear throughout the story, interacting with Abbott’s fictional creations as her protagonist, movie publicist Gil “Hop” Hopkins, tries to find out what really happened to Spangler. Hop finds more than he bargained for, including connections between his own life and that of the missing woman that he never dreamed existed. His search is that of the classic hardboiled hero looking for the truth, even though he knows he may not like what he finds. Many of the scenes strike the same chords as the classic black-and-white film noirs; you can almost see the rain glistening on the streets and hear a saxophone wailing. Yet Abbott manages to put her own distinct spin on the proceedings, so that she’s not just imitating what has gone before. The fact that she’s one of the best in the business at structuring sentences certainly helps.

At times in Abbott’s first novel, DIE A LITTLE, I thought she went a little overboard with the period trappings, but that’s not the case here. The plot in THE SONG IS YOU took a couple of twists I wasn’t expecting and one major one that I was. But even though I anticipated the ending, it was still very effectively done. As good as DIE A LITTLE is -- and it’s very good -- THE SONG IS YOU is better all around. I recommend it highly.

And I’m really looking forward to reading Abbott’s new one, QUEENPIN.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Independent Crime Review of Dust Devils

Nathan Cain of the Independent Crime website has some very nice things to say about DUST DEVILS. You can read his review here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Half Past Dead

I wasn’t expecting much from HALF PAST DEAD, but it turns out to be a pretty nice little action thriller that’s also a prison picture and hostage drama. The plot revolves around two hundred million dollars worth of gold bars that were stolen nearly two decades earlier and never recovered. The mastermind behind that robbery was caught, tried, and convicted of murder because several federal officers guarding the gold were killed when it was stolen. Now that mastermind, the only one who knows where the gold is hidden, is about to be executed in a fancy, high-tech execution chamber on New Alcatraz. Naturally, several different factions, both good and bad, make last-ditch efforts to find out where the gold is before it’s lost for all time.

Steven Seagal is getting pretty beefy, but he can still pull off the action-hero bit. Morris Chestnut does a good job as a small-time crook roped into something much bigger than he realizes. Author and TV producer Stephen J. Cannell has a cameo as a prison warden. Lots of stuff blows up real good, and there are plenty of shoot-outs and last-minute rescues, all of it zipping past at a pace that gets things wrapped up neatly in an hour and a half. Good stuff if you like this sort of film, and since I do, I say it’s worth a look.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Vengeful Virgin -- Gil Brewer

Despite having most of Gil Brewer’s books on my shelves, I’ve read only one or two of them. He’s one of the Gold Medal authors I haven’t really gotten to yet. But I don’t have the original edition of THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN, a Brewer novel from 1958. Thanks to the recent Hard Case Crime reprint, I don’t have to have the original, and now that I’ve read it, I think I’ll be pulling some of those other Brewers down from the shelves.

The scenario in THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN is a familiar one: the narrator is a working man (in this case, the owner of a TV repair and electronics shop) hungry for a big payoff. He meets a beautiful young woman who’s stuck taking care of her wealthy, invalid stepfather. It’s what Brewer does with this set-up that makes this such a fine novel. Some authors would take half the book to develop a slow, psychological build-up, and that’s certainly a valid approach. Brewer, on the other hand, has his characters screwing like minks on the kitchen floor and plotting to kill the old man almost before they -- and the reader -- know what’s happening.

They come up with a decent plan, too, but as always, events don’t play out exactly as they’re supposed to. The fast pace continues all the way through the book as more and more goes wrong and one murder leads to another. There are some striking scenes starkly illuminating the lust and greed that are the twin essences of noir fiction. Brewer’s prose is simple but powerful and carries the reader along. There’s probably not much here that will surprise a veteran reader of this sort of novel, but I had a thoroughly enjoyable time watching Brewer work at his craft.

And isn’t that a great cover? Ties right in with what happens in the book, too. THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN gets a strong recommendation from me.

Saturday, July 07, 2007


BANDIDAS isn’t your typical Western, although it has some of the traditional elements of one. You’ve got financiers and railroad tycoons plotting to steal land from poor farmers. You’ve got a pair of noble outlaws who fight back by becoming bank robbers, like Frank and Jesse James. You’ve got an arch-villain (Dwight Yoakum chewing the scenery for all he’s worth) with a bunch of evil henchmen. You’ve got beautiful, sweeping landscapes and stirring music.

But instead of the American West, this movie is set in Mexico. Instead of Frank and Jesse, or even Butch and Sundance, the outlaws are women -- Salma Hayek playing the daughter of a banker double-crossed and murdered by his partners, and Penelope Cruz as the daughter of one of those poor farmers. You’ve also got frontier forensics, a tic-tac-toe-playing horse, an adorably ugly dog, an incredibly fast pace, and a lot of well-staged action, including some running around on top of a moving train, one of my favorite types of scene (as anyone who’s read very many of my books can probably guess). Oh, and cleavage. Can’t forget the cleavage. The only actual nudity involves Steve Zahn, who plays a detective (that’s where the forensic stuff comes in, too). There’s also a catfight or two, since the characters played by Hayek and Cruz don’t get along at first, before teaming up to become famous as Las Bandidas, the Robin Hood-like bank robbers.

If you’ve read this far, you should be able to tell whether or not this is your kind of movie. I loved it. It’s not a great film, but it is a heck of a lot of fun and the same sort of thing that I try to do in some of my house-name Westerns.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Fourth of July

Since I took yesterday off, I spent a quiet day at home today, writing. This morning I finished a short story I've been working on, and then this afternoon I wrote an outline for an upcoming project and worked on the research for another outline. I was pretty pleased with the way all of those things came together.

Usually by the Fourth of July, it's so dry around here that we always worry about fireworks starting a grass fire. Not this year. It's been raining so much that all the grass is wet and there's standing water in a lot of places. Mosquite heaven. Not having to worry about fires is a relief, but the place is going to be a jungle before it dries out enough for us to mow it again.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Music and Lyrics

It’s no secret that we watch quite a few romantic comedies around here. MUSIC AND LYRICS is a good one. Hugh Grant plays a washed-up Eighties pop star, half of a Wham!-like duo whose partner goes on to a successful solo career while Grant’s character is reduced to playing state fairs and amusement parks. He gets a comeback chance when a current pop star asks him to write a new song for her, but he needs someone to write lyrics to go with his music. Who better than the eccentric young woman who comes to his apartment to take care of his plants? She’s played by Drew Barrymore, and yes, it’s a “meet cute” scenario, but if you can get past that, the script by Marc Lawrence (who also directed) is smart and funny and contains some nice observations about the nature of creativity, along with clever shots at various aspects of the music business, past and present, and pompous professors turned literary novelists. The music is pretty good, too. Hugh Grant is charming (as usual), Drew Barrymore is cute (as usual), and this is one of those movies set in a clean, friendly, romantic New York City. Not a great film, but one that does exactly what it sets out to do, and I enjoyed it.