Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Beautiful You by Chuck Palahniuk

(hb; 2014)

From the inside flap:

"Penny Harrigan is a low-level assistant in a big Manhattan law firm who has an apartment in Queens and no love life at all. So it comes as a great shock when she finds herself invited to dinner by one C. Linus Maxwell, a.k.a. 'Climax-Well,' a software megabillionaire and lover of the most gorgeous and accomplished women on earth. After taking her to dinner at Manhattan's most exclusive restaurant, he whisks Penny off to a hotel suite in Paris, where he proceeds, notebook in hand, to bring her to previously undreamed-of heights of orgasmic pleasure for days on end. What's not to like?

"This: Penny discovers she is a test subject for the final development of a line of sex toys to be marketed in a nationwide chain of boutiques called Beautiful You. So potent and effective are these devices that women by the millions line up outside stores on opening day and then lock themselves in their rooms with them and stop coming out. Except for batteries. Maxwell's plan for the erotically enabled world domination must be stopped. But how?"


Beautiful is an excellent, bleakly hilarious satire - a fictional reality that reads like real life in an exaggerated way.  Its journalistic tone is analytical, almost chilling, with touches of perverse, risible humor in the first quarter of the novel (a trademark of Palahniuk's work); after that, as all the plot-puzzle pieces begin to fall into place at the right time (for reader like myself), it's a warmer-in-tone rollercoaster ride for Penny - Beautiful's determined but frazzled protagonist - who is trying to gather information with which to defeat her ever-present and seemingly unstoppable ex-sexmate (to call Maxwell her lover would be tonally incorrect).

Readers who are familiar with Palahniuk's writing will likely spot some of his well-foreshadowed, necessary and theme-centric twists.  (This is not a criticism, of course.)  These twists, along with the ones that surprise and further delight, make Beautiful an effective work that amuses, otherwise entertains and rips into mindless pop culture and its resulting mindset with savage aplomb.  Worth owning, this.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Dead Skip by Joe Gores

(pb; 1972: first novel in the DKA File series.  Loosely linked crossover novel with Richard Stark's novel Plunder Squad.)

From the back cover:

"Ballard had 72 hours to find out who attacked his partner, Bart Heslip. Bart was no help.  He was in the hospital, in a coma; his woman was doing a slow burn by his side. Now Ballard was racing around in the frayed edges of Oakland and San Francisco tracing down deadbeats.  A lush stripper, an embezzler and an ex-con all had repo'd cars in common.  Did they also share a murder? With the clock ticking away like Bart Heslip's heartbeat, Ballard was up against a dead skip, a blank wall. Then Ballard's boss, Dan Kearny, jumped into the hunt, loving every minute of it - and hurtling them both toward the pointed barrel of a gun."


Dead is a fun, fast-moving and P.I.-gritty novel that features the East Bay and San Francisco area, written with feels-like-you're-there detailed effectiveness.  Good book for a lazy autumn afternoon read, worth owning.  Followed by Final Notice.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Plunder Squad by Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald E. Westlake)

(pb; 1972, 2010: fifteenth novel in the Parker series.  Introduction by Charles Ardai.  Loosely linked crossover novel with Joe Gores' novel Dead Skip.)

From the back cover:

" 'Hearing the click behind him, Parker threw his glass straight back over his right shoulder, and dove off his chair to the left.' When a job looks like amateur hour, Parker walks away. But even a squad of seasoned professionals can't guarantee against human error in a high-risk scam. Can an art dealer with issues unload a truck of paintings with Parker's aid? Or will the heist end up too much of a human interest story, as luck runs out before Parker can get in on the score?"


Plunder is another favorite-for-this-reader entry in Stark's Parker series.  It not only varies up the usual Parker storyline in a taut and thrilling way, it brings together familiar faces from previous novels in this series: Ed Mackey, one of Parker's cheerful semi-regular heistmates; Dan Kearny*, a P.I. who crossed paths with Parker prior to the main storyline of The Hunter; George Uhl, a murderous thug Parker encountered in The Sour Lemon Score; Stan Devers, whose work with Parker in The Green Eagle Score led to Devers' expulsion from the ROTC and his subsequent life of crime; and, of course, Handy McKay, a ex-Parker-heistmate-now-diner-owner in Presque, Maine who serves as Parker's "contact man" for jobs.

Plunder, like the preceding Parker novels, is an excellent read, one worth owning.

Followed by Butcher's Moon.

[*Dan Kearny is the main character in Joe Gores' DKA Files series.]

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Blackbird by Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald E. Westlake)

(pb; 1969, 2012: third novel in the Alan Grofeld series. Foreword by Sarah Weinman.)

From the back cover:

"Both Parker and his sometimes associate, Alan Grofeld, are pros when it comes to stealing loot and staging heists.  But where Parker is cold and calculating, Grofeld is slick, funny and flirtatious - a criminal Casanova.  The Blackbird shares its first chapter with the Parker novel Slayground: after a traumatic car crash, Parker eludes the police, but Grofeld gets caught. Lying injured in the hospital, Grofeld is visited by G-Men who offer him an alternative to jail, and he finds himself forced into a deadly situation involving international criminals and a political conspiracy."


Blackbird is my favorite Grofeld novel thus far - not only is it humorous, action-packed, James Bond-esque and tightly written, it also ties other elements (including some of their more intriguing characters) from previous Grofeld books into this fast-moving tie-together story, which is attention-getting from its first word to its last.  Like every Stark work I've read this is worth owning.

Followed by Lemons Don't Lie.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

(hb; 2012)

From the inside flap

"On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary.  Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick's clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River.  Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn't doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife's head, but passages from Amy's diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and media - as well as Amy's fiercely doting parents - the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior.  Nick is oddly evasive, and he's definitely bitter - but is he really a killer?

"As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one they love.  With his twin sister, Margo, at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn't do it, where is that beautiful wife?  And what is in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?"


I loved parts of this book and hated other parts of it - and by "hate," a word I rarely use in writing book reviews, it's not because the author (in this case Flynn) did her job right.  It is not because she made me form attachments with her characters before she started doing horrible things to them; it is because her writing sports some serious mistakes.

The cons of Gone.

The first hundred or a hundred and fifty pages of this four hundred and five-page novel are unnecessary and ultra-chatty, like a Ritalin-addled schoolgirl prattling on about things of little importance (it should be noted that Flynn cuts between Amy's diary and Nick's point of view in this section, but the result is the same: a better writer would have established true-to-the-characters voice variation and important detailed plot points - which do pop up, on occasion - in fifty or twenty-five pages).

I normally give a novelist twenty-five to fifty pages to impress me with their writing.  The writing can be flawed, but there has to be something to keep me turning their pages.  In this case, I only stuck with Gone for a hundred or so pages because an acquaintance - an excellent writer himself - suggested that I do so.  The end-twist, he proclaimed, was memorable in a great way.  (More on that later.)

There's a few I'm-so-clever-gotcha moments in these initial pages that were telegraphed in clumsy, voice-true fashion, but again, a better writer would have not made them read like hackwork.  So: points to Flynn for the voice-veracity element, but her gotcha-hackery. . . no.  Not good.

The ending fits the black-as-a-pulp-noir tone of Gone, but Nick - whose character has matured in the course of the excellent middle section of the novel - suddenly reverts to plot-convenient lazy-noirish stupidity, making a decision that he more likely would have made in the beginning of the novel not the end.  Nick's key stroke-forced, unlikely actions near the finish don't ring true, given all that Nick has gone through prior to the novel's denouement. 

The pros of Gone.

It is clear that Flynn worked out the twist 'n' turn OCD details of Gone.  Once Flynn has passes the awkward and overly long set-up of the first hundred or so pages, the middle section is explosive with pitch black, effective pulp-noir.  The writing gets tighter and the chapters shorter, and the book becomes difficult to set down, taking Gone into intriguing, if still-familiar territory.  Not only that, but Flynn does role-reversals well in this stretch, made me like a character I normally would, as she puts it, would like to "punch in the face."

Overall review

Check Gone out from the library or buy it used, at an ultra-cheap price.  Flynn is a writer with great promise - that middle section is proof of that - but the overly chatty hackery she evidences in with Gone shows that she has a ways to go before she could be called a great, or even a good, writer.  Or don't read Gone at all, and watch the film version, which hit stateside movie screens on October 3, 2014.

David Fincher directed the film from Gillian Flynn's screenplay. 

Ben Affleck played Nick Dunne. Rosamund Pike played Amy Dunne. Neil Patrick Harris played Desi Collings. Tyler Perry played Tanner Bolt. Carrie Coon played Margo "Go" Dunne. Kim Dickens played Rhonda Boney. Patrick Fugit played Officer Jim Gilpin. 

David Clennon played Rand Elliot.  Lisa Banes played Marybeth Elliot. Missy Pyle played Ellen Abbott. Emily Ratajkowski played Andie Hardy. Casey Wilson played Noelle Hawthorne. Sela Ward played Sharon Schieber.  Scoot McNairy played Tommy O'Hara.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The 13th by John Everson

(pb; 2009)

From the back cover:

"Castle House Lodge.  A century ago it was an exclusive resort hotel.  But for years it's stood empty, a haunting shadow of its former glories.  Now, after twenty-five years of rumors and ghost stories, the overgrown grounds are showing signs of being tended.  The building itself has been repaired.  Castle House has new occupants.

"What was once a haven for the elite is now a madhouse, a private asylum for pregnant women. But are all the patients really insane? And is it just a coincidence that people have begun to disappear from the nearby town?  David Shale's girlfriend is one of the missing, and he's determined to find the truth behind the mysterious Dr. Rockford and his house of secrets.  He will learn the meaning of the red X painted on the basement door. . and he will know the ultimate fear, the horror of the 13th."


13th is a gleefully glory, often wry B-movie horror read that brings together the elements of small town horror, Satanism, medical horror, sex, a spooky abode, slasher flickdom and excellent, entertaining writing.  This may be one of my favorite books from Everson, whose work is often impressive - worth owning, this.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

(pb; 2001: loosely linked to Anansi Boys)

From the back cover:

"Shadow is a man with a past. But now he wants nothing more than to live a quiet life with his wife and stay out of trouble. Until he learns that she's been killed in a terrible accident.

"Flying home for the funeral, as a violent storm rocks the plane, a strange man in the seat next to him introduces himself.  The man calls himself Mr. Wednesday, and he knows more about Shadow than is possible.

"He warns Shadow that a far bigger storm is coming.  And from that moment on, nothing will ever be the same."


American  is an epic - in the truest sense of the word - and entertaining novel that mixes humor, various mythologies, American history and landscapes, and murderous characters.  There are some great characters and excellent writing in this one.  Worth owning, this.
Steve Isaak has published two hundred stories and poems, and is the author of three anthologies: Behind the wheel: selected poems, Shinjuku sex cheese holocaust: poems and the forthcoming Horrorsex County: stories (which are, or will be, available at Lulu and Amazon).