Spin Control, Chris Moriarty

Bantam Spectra, 2006, 456 pages, C$16.00 tpb, ISBN 0-553-38214-4

Writing a review can be a declaration of victory over the work being discussed. It’s a way to come to a conclusion, to shape a final opinion. Whether it’s a rave or a rant, a review is a way of declaring to the world –There it is, I have figured out what this is all about, and how it relates to me. Case closed. Next.

And that makes Spin Control all that harder to review. For despite this reviewer’s best intentions, Chris Moriarty’s sophomore effort seems to fall into the morass of mid-list SF novels, solid enough to deserve upper-tier publishing but not sufficiently memorable to float above the rest of its contemporaries. Worse yet: Spin Control isn’t much better (or worse) than Moriarty’s previous Spin State, which inspired similar feelings of ambivalence.

Part of the blah can be tracked to the quasi hum-drum nature of the books’ premise. Spin State recast issues about coal mining in outer space, whereas Spin Control rehashes the same Israel/Palestine conflict three hundred years in the future, without much by way of change. While not completely implausible by middle-eastern standards where every ideological nut seems to have thousand-year-old grievances, the sheer pedestrian nature of the book’s main axis of conflict sucks interest out of the remainder of the book. Moriarty brings little that’s new or original to this issue (though her description of “Enders” is a nice SF nod) and the feeling is a lot like being spoon-fed bitter cough medicine: While it may be good for me, it’s hardly any fun.

This isn’t helped by the glacier-fast pacing of the book, which stretches in time even as the plot demands a faster pace. That problem also plagued Spin State, but the difference between ideal and actual pacing seems even more pronounced here given this sequel’s heightened intent as a thriller. Spin Control, at nearly five hundred pages of dense typography, overstays its welcome by at least a hundred pages.

Perhaps the best thing about the novel is how it really attempts to create a hybrid out of espionage thrillers and Science Fiction. Many, many, many recent authors have trodden down this path lately, from Richard Morgan to Charles Stross, but Moriarty is less focused on gadgets and more on the toll that official secrets can take on individual lives. This is where the grim ponderousness of the novel pays off, heightening the novel’s credibility as an espionage thriller in the vein of classic John Le Carré: how spying isn’t about the fancy gadgets and the high stakes, but about barren lives, the absence of certitude and the brutality of the business. Moriarty may crank up the tension for too long, but when the spring finally unwinds in the last few pages, the results leave almost no one unscathed.

Moriarty generally does better when it comes to the SF content of her story: The science is exact, the references are interesting, and the purer SF moments are handled with professionalism. It still could have been cut and edited down to a smoother-flowing rhythm, but hard-SF readers will not be disappointed by Moriarty’s grasp of science and the speculations she spins off her contemporary sources. (A reference bibliography is included.)

But trying to pin down Spin Control in a coherent “recommended/not recommended” verdict is a frustrating exercise: There are enough better books out there covering roughly the same terrain that it would take a long time for any reader to make it down to Spin Control before next year’s crop. On the other hand, Spin Control is a professional work of fairly good science-fiction, mature and polished enough to appear in a big publisher’s lineup without surprise. I wish Moriarty would strip down her prose and tackles issues that can’t be heard in contemporary news bulletins, but really, I just want to see her next novel.

The Constant Gardener, John Le Carré

Penguin, 2001, 570 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-14-100169-0

Hello John Le Carré. It’s been a long time.

I first tried to enjoy Le Carré’s fiction as a teenager, and almost invariably bounced off of it: Too long, too dull, too bleak, too ponderous. In still remember some of the titles: A Small Town in Germany? Eek. Never mind Le Carré: I just read something else.

But parallel development can be healthy. On one hand, Le Carré has successfully weathered the end of the Cold War, reportedly having tremendous fun with its New World Order aftermath (The Tailor of Panama), and even getting angry at the state of the War Against Terrorism (Absolute Friends). But it took me a movie, a really good movie to bring me back to Le Carré’s prose.

Seeing the pitch-perfect adaptation of The Constant Gardner on the big screen remains one of my favourite birthday memories so far: With its blend of contemporary geopolitics, growling anger, strong emotional content and low-key thrills, THE CONSTANT GARDNER landed near the top of my list of 2006 movies and got me thinking that I really should re-visit Le Carré’s latest fiction. Hence the call of the cheap paperback.

For all the usual vitriol directed at book adaptations, it truly seems as if the last decade or so has seen a marked improvement in the quality of such adaptations. More and more, screenwriters and producers seem to understand how to preserve the nature of the story as it makes its way from one medium to another. If everyone does their job properly, if the producers are confident enough not to meddle with the original material, the resulting adaptation can feed back into the novel by providing another framework for the reader: It’s easier to portray the characters, follow the structure of the story and enjoy the style of the writing without worrying so much about the story.

So is the case with The Constant Gardener: Reading the film after seeing the movie is like getting and second, more complete run at the story. In light of what we already know about what happens in The Constant Gardener, Le Carré’s choices in telling the story seem even more surprising than if we’d encountered them for the first time. The first section, for instance, is told almost entirely from a would-be adulterer’s point of view: a secondary character in the film, here given first point of view. The novel also gives more time to some of the film’s most intriguing characters: I was particularly happy to see Ghita get more screen time, as it were, in this version of the story.

Reading the novel only increased my admiration for the screenwriters who adapted it, as much for what they kept than what they didn’t: the weakest part of the novel, a trip to Canada, has been almost completely excised from the finished film –though a radically reworked but no less ridiculous version of the sequence subsists in the DVD’s cut scenes.

But what’s also obvious, regardless of whether you’ve seen the film or not, is that The Constant Gardener is a superb example of the modern thriller, freed from the usual terrorists and old-fashioned villains: It tackles issues of contemporary sensibilities, with a resigned but not impotent rage at the ways the world is designed. Character-wise, it will stun you. Writing-wise, Le Carré’s never been better.

But then again, you knew I’d say that. After fifteen years, it may just be time for me to go back and take a look at the rest of Le Carré’s fiction.

Gil’s All Fright Diner, A. Lee Martinez

Tor, 2005, 287 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-35001-7

Saying that this book is pure fun diminishes it somehow. As if the bland truth failed to account for the full experience. As a plot-driven reader, I can often find myself out of vocabulary when comes the time to discuss atmosphere and characters. Gil’s All Fright Diner is one of those book: Though it has plenty of narrative ideas, it sticks in memory for the prose and the good fun of the protagonists.

It starts in a pickup, which is appropriate considering that the novel takes place in a small Texas town where the scenery is made out of sand. Our two travelling heroes, Duke and Earl, aren’t your usual redneck drifters: One’s a werewolf, the other’s a vampire, and together they can fight the even worse kind of undead creatures. As they settle down for a late dinner, they quickly find out that their host has unusual pest-control problems. But it’s not the diner as much as it’s the city… especially when there’s a teenage witch running around stirring up trouble.

The novel truly hits its rhythm as the heroes face off against the undead. Friendly banter, sharp prose, amusing ideas and folksy charm all combine to form a hybrid of Terry Pratchett and Joe Landsdale. Undead cows get a short time in the spotlight as the young female antagonist has to make do with what’s at her disposal: It’s not easy trying to destroy the world when you’ve got schoolwork, no shopping outlets for magical supplies and a minion whose only reason to stick around is trying to get in your pants.

Character-wise, it’s easy to give Duke and Earl the full benefits of character sympathy: Their aw-shucks shtick, equally made of jaded weariness and buddy-buddy dynamics, is immediately likable, and they make terrific protagonists: Not too cowered, not too cocky, with enough amusing banter to plaster a big permanent smile on anyone’s face.

There’s a comic-book sensibility to the entire novel, which is horror without being horrific, and comic without being comedy. Gil’s All-Fright Diner apparently won a YA award, but this should be a guide to the unpretentious nature of the story rather than to the thematic content: There is plenty of undead gore, harsh language and unwholesome lust here to please everyone, including the teenage boys in the audience. There are a few scenes of ichor-mopping here and there (the fights are fun, but it’s the cleaning up that really sucks) and the teenage witch has no compulsion at using her body to get what she wants… which includes the protagonists of the story. Add to that a vampire who hasn’t had a date in ages, a moping ghost as well as a feisty diner caretaker who knows how to get satisfaction and the result is, as I never get tired of writing, a whole lot of fun.

Could it be better? Probably. Some of the comic ideas get old really fast, such as the Pig-Latin spell-casting. As with all horror/comedy hybrids, the tone can be uneven as it races from splatter to silliness. There is an almost-complete absence of weightier thematic concerns, which really isn’t a prerequisite for this type of novel, but could have made it even better. Although, as I write this, it occurs to me that Gil’s All-Fright Diner is almost a point-for-point parody of the latest urban-horror vogue. By taking the usual monsters-fighting-monsters plotl and setting it in small-town constraints, Martinez indulges in a clever reversal of the usual clichés.

Still, there’s a lot to be said for a small perfectly-formed piece of entertainment that delivers exactly what it promises to do. In many ways, Gil’s All-Fright Diner reminded me of TREMORS with its small-town atmosphere, redneck banter and mixture of action, terror and humour. Sam Raimi, in his earlier phase between EVIL DEAD II and DARKMAN, would have been the perfect director for a cinema adaptation of this novel. As it is, it’s sufficiently close to a charming B-Movie aesthetics that many media horror fans will feel right at home.

But Gil’s All-Fright Diner is more than a good book that ends well: it’s the kind of story that, only a few pages in, lets you know that you’re about to enjoy this experience and doesn’t disappoints afterwards. Everyone will make it to the end with satisfaction, perfectly happy that everything went well. It’s a great debut novel by an author who obvious knows what he’s going. Don’t miss it if small-town horror comedies are your idea of a good time.

Chronospace, Allen Steele

Ace, 2001, 320 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00906-9

The beauty of time-travel stories is that they’re purely intellectual games. Despite tantalizing speculations from time to time, there is little factual evidence that time-travel is scientifically possible, making the entire concept indifferent to new discoveries. Unlike other types of Science Fiction, the time-travel sub-genre is essentially feeding upon itself in sort of a game in which authors bring their best ideas to the table. It’s one of the purest example of the kind of conversation that can be found in literary genres. Sort of the SF equivalent to closed-room mysteries: every writer’s got to do one at some point. So when Allen Steele tackles time-travel in Chronospace, he better both acknowledge the ongoing state of the genre and bring something new to the discussion.

Steele being a proud and acknowledged hard-SF genre writer, he doesn’t miss a trick to show that he’s done his homework in the time-travelling genre: he name-checks not only Analog magazine (in which one of his protagonists publishes a thought experiment with far-reaching consequences), but also gives SF writer Gregory “Timescape” Benford a small walk-on cameo. References to past concepts and stories make it clear that Steele is riffing off familiar tunes and playing by genre rules. A bibliography of sources (historical, scientific and science-fictional) completes the book. It helps, in some strange sense, that the novel is an expansion of a previous short story published in Analog, “Where angels fear to tread”: you really can’t hammer down Chronospace more firmly in the genre playground if you tried.

But what does Steele himself bring to the discussion? In some ways, the genre references are part of it: Chronospace is in part a reflexion on the power of Science Fiction in potentially altering our future (and, positing time-travel technology, our past as well). The title of the third section, “Free Will” alludes to the other big subject of contemplation that’s become one of the central paradoxes of time-travel as a dramatic concept: What if the malleability of history removes the assumption that free will exists? Steele, as he travels between past, present and future, mulls over such issues and has some fun with the established conventions of time-travel as it inevitably leads to alternate history. For confirmed SF fans, it’s like hearing a good cover of a music piece we particularly enjoy, with a number of extra twangs and zings to make it different.

On the other hand, Chronospace (like many of Steele’s novels) doesn’t venture all that far away from comfy familiarity. As familiar as it seems, it’s also a bit dull in the way so characteristic of mid-list SF fillers, lacking either the intellectual inferno of first-grade Science Fiction or the top-notch writing of superior fiction. It’s readable and interesting enough, mind you, and there’s a public for that type of thing. (A public that even includes me most sunny days of the week.) But if Steele does a fine job a contextualizing where Chronospace takes place in the SF discourse, he doesn’t do much to advance the discussion. In convention panel terms, Chronospace is the guy who summarizes well the discussion so far, but is timid in venturing any further.

Even in historical terms, Steele’s carefully-researched details fail to convince. The Hindenburg as a crucial piece of Nazi resolve? Allow me my doubts as I point to an entire geopolitical framework. On a smaller scale, the characters make stupid mistakes that seriously belies their putative professionalism at the whole time-travel business. Meh. Welcome to by-the-numbers plotting.

But I’m being too harsh. Not every book has to change the genre as we know it: As a certified genre SF geek, I should be happy that someone is stoking over the coals of time-travel and throwing another log on the fire: It keeps the conversation going and it gives us something to do during lazy Sunday afternoons. For a type of discussion that’s been feeding upon itself since H.G. Wells, a competent recap really isn’t all that bad.

The Alien Years, Robert Silverberg

EOS, 1998, 488 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105111-X

This book is designed to annoy you.

Not that this is a bad thing. Think of Robert Silverberg’s The Alien Years as part of the great big genre Science Fiction conversation about alien invasions, reaching all the way back to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. The whole initial point of alien invasions, of course, is to show the dynamics of imperialism as applied to us first-world readers. A truly realistic alien invasion novel isn’t supposed to be jolly: we get conquered/killed, The End. Extra points for believability can be given to those stories when the aliens just blast the Earth to little bits without pausing to negotiate or even say hi.

But what’s the fun in that? It may not be a surprise if, since the pulp era of science-fiction all the way up to half of Baen’s SF lineup, most alien-invasion stories have been about winning against overwhelming odds. It’s one of SF’s core myths, and one which, post-Vietnam and almost post-Iraq, may not be as implausible as critics of the BEM-Killer sub-genre may think. Alas, most contemporary alien-invasion stories now fall into such common story-telling patterns: They are so far off the original intent of the story template that they’ve flipped over to comfort fantasy.

So when grandmaster Robert Silverberg sets out to write new alien-invasion novel, it’s not implausible to expect him to have something more on his mind than writing another shoot-em-up novel in which the plucky human send the BEMs packing home in a matter of days.

For one thing, you can depend on the invasion scenario, but you can’t depend on your protagonists: Within pages, Silverberg kills off the first viewpoint character to witness the alien’s initial invasion. Then it’s fast-forward in the future as the aliens don’t leave and there’s nothing the humans can do to change their mind. Everyone’s hopes for negotiations remain unfulfilled: the aliens aren’t talking and whenever they think humans are getting too uppity, they flick a magical switch and shut down all electricity around the planet. Billions die. Years pass. Another chapter begins.

Against such overwhelming odds, most humans give up. Some of them throw in their lot with the aliens. Others just try to ignore the problem. Not all of them, though: Around the world, pockets of resistance try and try again. A particularly hardy bunch cloisters around the Carmichael compound in Southern California, where various plans are discussed to bring down the invaders.

But it’s in the nature of The Alien Years that whenever someone gets too close, something happens, plans fail and the action skips forward a few years later. The novel gradually takes on the mantle of a family epic, as the original players die and are replaced by another generation, and then another. A dramatic heft settles upon the novel as Silverberg plays with the expectations of the alien-invasion sub-genre, gravely intoning that the little comforts of such stories are just there to make us feel better.

It’s not, however, a complete success: So all of its dour contrarian attitude, The Alien Years often resorts to its own share of clichés and dramatic shortcuts. Somehow, the impassive aliens manage to talk to humans Quislings without communicating with anyone else. Silverberg’s cyber-hackers and orphan assassins all seem awfully convenient. And, for all of his genre self-awareness, Silverberg wraps up his novel too conveniently, leaving little explanation and even less satisfaction besides the good old sub-genre template. In some ways, The Alien Years is a novel that runs out of convictions.

One the other hand, Silverberg may be too much of an old pro to go to the logical end of his intentions: If readers are bound to be annoyed by this novel as it exists right now; imagine how they would have felt had The Alien Years really tried to overturn alien-invasion novel clichés. It would have been a five-page short story with hundreds pages on which to note your frustrations.

Smokin’ Aces (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Smokin’ Aces</strong> (2006)

(In theaters, January 2007) The little hyper-caffeinated action film has become a staples of winter movie-going and in these matters, you could do worse than Joe Carnahan’s long-awaited return to the screen after 2002’s Narc. This effort hims him juggling dozens of characters in an action film that owes as much to comic-book plotting than to straight-up criminal mayhem. Loosely stated, Smokin’ Aces is about dozens of paid killers converging on a hotel where a would-be prosecution witness is staying. With that many characters, it doesn’t take a long time before they clash together and start taking themselves down. The cheerfully chaotic nature of the plotting starts early and ends up past the point of ridiculousness (with a nod to Carnahan’s “Ticker” short film), but it’s a fun ride. Alicia Keys is particularly enjoyable as an assassin on the cusp of big decisions, and so is Ryan Reynolds as one of the few characters firmly committed to justice. The film’s best scene comes along with a hail of big-calibre bullets: It’ll thrill you just as it will make you deaf. While the build-up is better than the end result (a statement that also goes for the trailer versus the film), the film itself leaves a good impression, as long as all expectations are in check, and as long as you expect the right type of film.

The Queen (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Queen</strong> (2006)

(In theaters, January 2007) As someone without excessive affection for either Diana Spencer, Tony Blair or the entire monarchic system, I was surprised to discover some entertainment value in The Queen. Oh, it’s certainly nowhere to be found in either cinematography, special effects or action scenes: Perhaps the most damning criticism of the film is that it’s a movie-of-the-week written large, accidentally released in theatres. It aspires to quasi-documentary recreation, and scarcely anything more. As the story describes the aftermath of “Princess Diana”’s death on the Royals and Tony Blair, it also allows something like mutual respect to grow between the two after a rocky beginning. Ultimately, it’s the human element that forms the cornerstone of the film: The exceptional performance of Helen Mirren as the titular Queen is respectful and revealing. The rest of the players do just as well. If the film can often feel a bit long, it’s definitely headed in the right direction throughout. Not spectacular (and definitely overrated by contemporary reviewers), but reasonably good.

Carnival, Elizabeth Bear

Bantam Spectra, 2006, 392 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58904-0

Even when authors make a spectacular entrance, it can take a while before they deliver books that can truly be called their own. For every William Gibson forever cursed with a first novel that can’t be topped there’s a Greg Bear whose breakthrough novel comes years after their debut. Even the most promising writers can take a while before shaking off their inspirations and set out in a territory of their own creation.

It’s possible to say plenty of good things about Elizabeth Bear’s debut SF trilogy, but “original” would be stretching it: While competently imagined and vividly written, Hammered , Scardown and Worldwired often felt like good-quality remixes of ideas, genres and situations already familiar to genre readers. Good reading, but sometimes indistinguishable from so many other mid-list SF novels. Middle-of-the-pack material, with the added advantage of excellent characterization.

Carnival is something else. Something better. It manages to find a place in SF tradition and improve on it.

It finds a place in Science Fiction’s stream of feminist writing, though as a further argument rather than an imitation. As our two protagonists, agents for an unwholesome human hegemony, step on the planet of New Amazonia, we’re led to contemplate what could have very well been a creation of past feminist writers: a strong matriarchy in which weapons are practically mandatory and where males are either neutered or put down. But if you think Carnival is just going to be a tour of a strange new society, think again: There’s a strong thriller engine at the core of this novel, and it never stops purring. Our two protagonists have agendas that don’t necessarily mesh together, to say nothing of a thorny personal conflict between them. As if that wasn’t enough, New Amazonia thankfully isn’t a monolithic utopia where everything is aligned perfectly: factions-within-factions are at play to radically change the nature of its government, even as there may be an extra surprise or two buried in the planet’s alien ruins…

The plotting gets complex at times, but Bear’s non-nonsense style does wonders at drawing the readers in, then keeping everything interesting even as the complexity of the political intrigue increases. Strong personal conflicts mesh with overarching social issues to produce not only a vigorous thriller, but a Science Fiction genre novel that acknowledges its predecessors while engaging into a sustained argument with them. Carnival works as an extension to the feminist utopia genre, while brining a degree of political complexity that allows us to look at utopian assumptions with a new light. You can almost hear Bear adding to the genre discourse with a well-placed “But it’s not so simple!”

There are a number of good SF ideas thrown into the mix too: A radical solution to environmental problems; fascinating character names; matter-of-fact use of utility fogs; heavy-duty plague engineering; and so on. The alien presence on top of all that may be a bit too much, but it plays into the complexity of the story, and places the characters in difficult choices… which seems to be what Bear’s fiction is all about.

All in all, it adds up to a very satisfying novel; either Bear is breaking through to a superior level, or my brain is calibrating itself to what she’s doing. Either way, I’m buying a copy of her upcoming Undertow as soon as it comes out.

Night At The Museum (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Night At The Museum</strong> (2006)

(In theaters, January 2007) See Ben Stiller mug for the camera! Mug, Ben, mug! Oh, no, now here comes Robin Williams! Mug, Ben, mug, Robin! Now here are dinosaur-shaped special effects! And Egyptian warriors! And cowboys! And romans! And monkeys! Wow, that’s whole lot of stuff! But who can’t stop mugging? It’s Robin! It’s Ben! This is a kid’s movie, because it hits adults over the head until they’re as dumb as kids! Yaaay, dinosaurs! Yaaay, monkeys!

Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Letters From Iwo Jima</strong> (2006)

(In theaters, January 2007) This flip-side to Flags Of Our Fathers is a better film in most respects: the structure is tighter, the characters are more interesting, and there’s definitely more dramatic tension amongst a band of soldier historically fated to lose. The film, taking place almost entirely in Japanese, nevertheless feels immediate and relevant: Director Clint Eastwood was able to accomplish a film that transcends linguistic borders without even seeming to. The battle of Iwo Jima is fascinating regardless of which side gets the spotlight, but there’s an extra dramatic dimension in seeing it from the “other” point of view. The historical recreation is impressive and so are some of the scenes. What I really would like to see, though, is a mash-up between Eastwood’s two Iwo Jima films, an action-oriented war film presenting a look at the battle from both sides, wrapping up in under 90 minutes.

The Last King Of Scotland (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Last King Of Scotland</strong> (2006)

(In theaters, January 2007) The “African thriller” sub-genre picks up another good entry with this dramatic version of Idi Amin’s reign of terror. Here, a young Scottish doctor stands in for an audience both fascinated and then repelled by Amin’s garrulous charm and utter lack of conscience. The protagonist’s gradual descent into Amin’s madness is reflected in the visual tones of the film, which gets darker and darker as the film advances. This isn’t the only subtle trick played on us: The camera gets noticeably more jittery whenever Amin’s on screen, almost as if the power of the character couldn’t be contained on mere film. (Forrest Whittaker’s turn as Amin is hypnotically compelling, a sure case for an Academy Award nomination.) It all adds up to a small but very effective film, one that manages to use fiction to give us a glimpse at the truth.

El Laberinto Del Fauno [Pan’s Labyrinth] (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">El Laberinto Del Fauno</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Pan’s Labyrinth</strong>] (2006)

(In theaters, January 2007) Guillermo del Toro may not make masterpiece after masterpiece (Hellboy, anyone?), but he’s consistently fascinating in what he can turn out. His habit of alternating between glossy Hollywood movies and more personal films seems to be good for him in both directions: His Hollywood films are quirkier and more interesting, whereas his home-grown films are slicker than ever. So it is that Pan’s Labyrinth is unmistakably a successor to El Espinazo Del Diablo: The children-in peril motif is back, and so is the historical framework and the humans-are-the-monsters theme. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about the film is its mixture of an adult theme with a childish perspective: There an ambiguity to the story that contributes to its impact rather than obscure it: its most likeliest explanation is also the cruelest.. Otherwise, there little to say about the slick polish to the film, the excellent acting and the sensibility of the special effect. Del Toro may mis-step when drawing villains (defining them with the crudest elements), but the rest of his script is sure-footed. Where the film may lose a few viewers is in how, for a while, it’s not clear if it’s a film for kids or featuring kids: by the time the film settles the question, the younger members of the audience may have irreversible nightmares. Good for them.

Fuel Injected Dreams, James Robert Baker

Onyx, 1986, 322 pages, C$4.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-40027-5

Dead authors rarely get reviewed. That’s how it works, and I’m no exception. While some scholars prefer a stable corpus, I’m like most readers: I love to splash into the boiling hot-tub of contemporary literature where reputations are made, new authors appear all the time and no one knows if the next novel will be a dud or not. Most of the books I review are books I buy from the bookstore, which usually implies a still-breathing author.

But there are exceptions. Used book sales. Premature deaths.

The world lost a heck of a writer when James Robert Baker committed suicide in 1997. Boy Wonder still figures on my top list of Hollywood novels: An angry, hilarious, knowing and over-the-top satire of the film industry, it’s as mean-spirited as it’s liberating. For years, I looked for a copy of his earlier novel Fuel Injected Dreams, hoping for much of the same. I finally lucked out… at a used-book sale.

Taking on the rock-and-roll music publishing industry through the lens of a disillusioned radio DJ, Fuel Injected Dreams steps on the accelerator from the first few lines and seldom lets up. Protagonist Scott Cochrane’s narration is fuelled by bitterness and illegal substances. He has never quite been able to forget the one lost love of his life, and seems determined to hasten his own exit through the usual sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll regimen. The first few pages read as if Hunter S. Thompson had remixed the familiar litany of Hollywood venality. The rest of the novel is just as intense.

Because Cochrane is about to stumble upon something everyone wants: an interview with Dennis Contrelle, a legendary music producer turned recluse after a string of classic hits. Without quite knowing why, Cochrane befriends Contrelle and ends up with what he thinks is a new single. But it’s not, and it sets in motion a series of events that reach back to Cochrane’s own teenage years. Could it be that he will finally learn the truth about his lost love’s sudden disappearance?

If that sounds sweet, let me disabuse you of that notion: One of Baker’s writing quirks is excess. If there’s a way to fit graphic sex and dripping violence in the story, Baker will find it. The result is a pedal-to-the-metal succession of shocks and twists, anticipating Chuck Palahniuk and Quentin Tarantino’s work by a few years and delivering a reading experience quite unlike another. Perhaps the one saving grace of Baker’s work is that it’s genuinely hopeful: otherwise, the bleakness and morbid obsession of his prose would be nothing but a freak show of burnt characters and violent excess.

Fuel-Injected Dreams is a case in point. While it starts reasonably well, it eventually turns into one of those novels where characters don’t die despite grave wounds, where the protagonist spends half the novel on the run from the authorities, to say nothing about the natural disasters, necrophilia, betrayals and media hysteria so prevalent in those situations. Oh yes, you will remember bits and pieces of this novel for a long time.

The writing is what ties it all together, of course. The narrator may start off sounding as the most jaded deejay in the history of radio, but that’s just illusion: it doesn’t take too many paragraphs for the veneer to crack and show his true nature as a moping romantic. Baker is capable of harnessing this desperation and channel it into a course of action that seems as inevitable as it is extreme. As a romantic thriller, this book crackles with forward narrative power. By the time the narrator heads to his high school reunion with a runaway bride and a gun, you can almost anticipate the fireworks.

This being said, the novel will appeal even more to those with a good grounding in sixties and seventies rock-and-roll: I could catch a number of offhand references to California pop music bands and fill the rest with what I remember from music of that era, but those with better memories of the period will probably get a lot more out of the in-jokes, atmosphere and musical references.

But even for those who can’t remember the sixties on account of not having been there, Fuel-Injected Dreams is a high-octane romp through a chaotic slice of South California life. At times apocalyptic and disgusting, romantic and hilarious, it’s a highly enjoyable read and a reminder of what remains when great writers leave too soon.

The Good German (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Good German</strong> (2006)

(In theaters, January 2007) Steven Soderbergh strikes out as often as he hits home run, but The Good German ends up being a solid triple: not quite what we’d expect, but not a bad effort. There’s something lovely about his intention to direct a film as if this was 1945, with limited camera tricks, luscious black-and-white cinematography and classical staging. But this intention eventually clashes with the harsh language, explicit scenes and darkening geopolitics that eventually come to dominate the film. Though the clash is deliberate, it’s not entirely successful: Ironically, I think that the bitter denunciation of American post-WW2 power plays could have played well had the film toned down the more superficial language, sex and violence. More subtlety would have gone a long way… exactly like it did back then. Otherwise, George Clooney and Cate Blanchett are successful in roles seemingly tailored for them, while Tobey Maguire looks like he’s having a lot of fun as a repellent character far removed from his usual goody-goody heroes. Not a bad film, but certainly a let-down in how it does so many things right only to be defeated by the few things it does wrong.

Dreamgirls (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Dreamgirls</strong> (2006)

(In theaters, January 2007) The post-Moulin Rouge! resurgence in movie musicals has been good for adapting Broadway plays to the big screen, and Dreamgirls is the latest to make the transition. As with the other ones, Dreamgirls is an effortlessly enjoyable piece of work, with a good mixture of drama and song and humour. Well, ok, not too much humour: Following the template of Motown’s history, Dreamgirls does the usual VH1 biography scenario and manages to shoehorn a happy ending in there anyway. Beyonce Knowles and Jamie Foxx may be the film’s putative stars, but most of the attention goes to Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson in scene-stealing roles. Otherwise, the other highlight of the film is the “Cadillac Man” sequence, destined to be replayed in high-school classrooms whenever the subject of cultural appropriation comes up. Otherwise, well, there isn’t much to say: The film may not be the Oscar powerhouse everyone was expecting, but it’s good enough and “good enough” seems to be the rule for the new musicals.