Month: June 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

(In theaters, June 2009): Those looking for a New York crime thriller should be pleased by this latest remake: while the film is good enough, it stops short of being anything more. Director Tony Scott keeps his usual hyper-kinetic tendencies under control, only unleashing them during the credit sequence and a few high-speed interludes. The rest of the film is polished and played generally well by John Travolta and an unglamorous Denzel Washington. Most of the hostage drama is dedicated to a sometimes-contrived actor’s duel, at the expense of the hostages’ characterization. It’s engrossing enough until the third act, when our protagonist keeps volunteering back into a situation that is clearly not his to solve; it all leads to a ridiculously blood-thirty conclusion that hasn’t earned its over-the-top drama and actually diminishes the everyman quality of our tainted hero. As for the rest, well, the remake is generally successful at erasing the seventies origins of the previous film: There are financial shenanigans, high-tech gadgets and plenty of references to contemporary New York. With a stronger and more appropriate conclusion, The Taking of Pelham 123 could have made onto the list of genuinely good thrillers. As it is now, it’s a good-enough choice whenever everything else has been seen.

The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, Hunter S. Thompson

The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, Hunter S. Thompson

Ballantine Books, 1997 (1998 paperback re-issue), 683 pages, C$24.95 pb, ISBN 978-0-345-37796-8

My lofty intentions to read Hunter S. Thompson’s entire output in strictly chronological order of publication don’t make much sense considering The Proud Highway, a 1997 collection of letters written between 1955 and 1967. In a bid to solidify Thompson’s position as an American writer of some renown (and to please legions of fans accumulated since 1972’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Thompson authorized noted academic Douglas Brinkley to dig in his archives and assemble volumes of correspondence.

Thompson famously kept copies of nearly everything he wrote, even from a young age, and it’s those copies that fuel this collection of letters published before his first book (Hell’s Angels) hits the market. Those are the letters of a young man, a cocksure writer just waiting for greatness. Some juvenalia aside, the first letters collected here date from Thompson’s years in the Air Force, where he channels his renegade energies into sports writing, and then in engineering his own departure from the US military forces.

The rest of the book follows Thompson as he travels across America, and then from one continent to another. Thompson fans will track his travels from New York to San Juan to Big Sur to South America to San Francisco, only to end up, pages before the end of the book, in his home base of Woody Creek, Colorado.

This is as close as we’ll ever get to a Thompson autobiography, as we track his progress through quasi-weekly letters written from always-desperate circumstance. A vivid letter describes as Thompson manages to write in the cargo hold of a military flight heading back to his usual post; another hilariously portrays Thompson as battling insects while writing to his friend. One thing’s for sure: Thompson’s character was forged well before he hit his stride with Hell’s Angels: even his early letters show an aggressive and self-assured spirit: in fact, some of his letters to female acquaintances are uncomfortably pointed –especially for those who don’t know the context.

Still, life wasn’t easy for the young Thompson. Nearly every single letter mentions monetary difficulties of some sort, to the point where it becomes tiresome. Small wonder if Thompson-the-older-man would remain fixated on monetary issues, often to the detriment of his relationships.

Readers with specific interests may learn a few good details of trivia through those nearly seven hundred pages of letters. As a science-fiction fan, for instance, I was amused to find out that Thompson had sent a few stories to SF magazines at the beginning of the sixties –what an alternate universe that would have been if he had found success in that field! Similarly, the first editor to buy something from Thompson was Frank M. Robinson, an editor who would move west to San Francisco, become Harvey Milk’s speechwriter and eventually develop in a fine SF writer in his own right. Small world…

It almost goes without saying the The Proud Highway is aimed squarely at Thompson fans and scholars: Brinkley’s contextual input is slight, and the book’s best moments often illuminate other aspects of Thompson’s work. (The whole bizarre “American ambassador to Samoa” allusions in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 finds an explanation in a series of letters actually sent to Democratic Party honcho Larry O’Brien, for instance.) A lot of the material is either repetitive or desperately trivial, and casual readers may not want to wade through it all.

But for the Thompson fans, The Proud Highway is a look at the early years of a noteworthy writer. The 1967 date at which the book ends is significant, since it finds Thompson safely housed in Woody Creek Colorado, waiting for Hell’s Angels to hit bestseller lists and the subsequent events that would catapult him to national fame. But that story is covered in a second book of letters, aptly named Fear and Loathing in America

Batman (1989)

Batman (1989)

(Second viewing, on DVD, June 2009): With the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, it’s becoming easier to forget about Tim Burton’s reinvention of the character, before it slid once again in franchise-killing high camp during the Joel Schumacher years. And that’s a shame, because despite some increasingly dated aspects, Batman still keeps an operatic grandeur that resonates even today. The story is thin and eighties-fashion still peeks through the self-conscious blend of historical references, but the entire film remains intriguing. Health Ledger may have taken over the Joker’s look, but Jack Nicholson’s take on the character remains magnetic. Only an underwhelming finale falters visibly: While everyone remembers the Batman/Joker showdown in the streets of Gotham, fewer will recall the following sequence taking place in a cathedral. Two decades after the film’s release, the special edition DVD can afford to be candid about the film’s rushed production, last-minute producer-driven script changes and casting choices. Alas, director Burton’s commentary track could have benefited from judicious editing: His “you know?”s start grating early on and never fade away.

(Third viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) I hadn’t watched Batman in more than ten years, but another look was more than warranted given rapid evolution of superhero movies since then. Tim Burton’s Batman turns out to be a significant step in the evolution of Batman’s movie portrayal from sixties silliness to Nolan’s grimmer portrayal. It’s certainly trying to be more serious, but it can’t completely manage it. It doesn’t help that Burton’s vision for his characters (and particularly the joker) is so colourful and exuberant: it’s tough to keep a straight face at what Jack Nicholson pulls off in his completely unrestrained performance. Otherwise, it’s fascinating to see in here the seeds of the modern superhero blockbuster, albeit with pre-digital effects, restrained cinematography and somewhat more silliness. (Not included in the movie, but far more important, are the media tie-in and marketing effort surrounding the film, which I remember more than the movie itself) Michael Keaton is better than anyone may remember as Bruce Wayne/Batman, while Kim Basinger is spectacular as Vicki Vale. The ending is a bit dull (the Joker shooting down the batwing is memorable, but the subsequent cathedral sequence isn’t), but there are enough good scenes along the way to make it worthwhile. It’s probably impossible to overstate Batman’s impact on the modern blockbuster industry, but there’s actually a worthwhile film underneath the hype.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

(In theaters, June 2009): The most remarkable thing about this film isn’t nearly as much the near-constant special effects, brute sonic force or always-moving camera: It’s the feeling that a tremendous amount of talent and energy has gone into making one of the loudest, fastest and dullest films of the year. In that, it’s not particularly different from the first film of the series: Michael Bay’s artistic choices (huh?) in portraying robots as an indistinct blur of loosely-coupled pieces still offends my own aesthetic preferences, while the attempts at injecting comedy in an SF/thriller framework feel almost as embarrassing as in the first film. The self-contradictory science-fiction elements (firmly stepped in mysticism) make absolutely no sense, while the steady accumulation of robot-on-robot fights quickly get tiresome, especially when they don’t allow any clean visuals. The film works slightly better when it becomes a military thriller: it’s a surprise to find that there hasn’t been a better recent glossy portrayal of the US military than in this pair of robot sci-fi fest. Still, it’s hard to be entirely displeased by a film that obviously cost so much: All the money is visible on-screen (although sound design often favors robot rumbling over intelligible dialogue), and it’s an education to see some of the insane shots that are now possible via special effects. Alas, it’s the accumulation of those shots that weaken them: There’s no other pacing that full-steam-ahead, which is good since the film becomes lousy whenever the characters speak to each other. But guess what? Once my ears have cleaned up and once I got used to a non-shaky vision again, I have to admit that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen isn’t quite as embarrassing as the first Transformers. (Well, at the exception of the racist “comedy” robot duo.) Small praise, but there you go. As of this writing, five days after release, the film is already the third-biggest grossing film of the year, and is set to overtake the top spot in the remaining days of its first week in theaters. Do you even think the bad reviews even slowed it down?

(On DVD, January 2010): Something strange happens when watching Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen at home while doing something else: It almost becomes enjoyable. Part of the answer is that you can pay attention to something else (say, a good book), while listening to the audio commentary and only looking at the screen for the good parts. The other part of the answer is that by being able to opt out of the movie frame, the pummeling effect of Bay’s increasingly nonsensical direction becomes less pronounced. Oh, it’s still not much of a film, but home viewing will allow you to focus on the good parts… and there are a few of those. Whenever Bay’s ADD lets up and he gets to avoid cutting for more than five seconds, the polish of his sequences is admirable. The sound design is incredible. The presentation of military hardware is terrific. Watching the tons of extras in the two-disc special edition (including a documentary that’s almost as long as the film itself) can even give you a renewed appreciation of the logistical challenges of big-budget moviemaking. The looks at editing and the special effects crunch are perhaps too revealing, while discussions of the film’s script-writing process are a reminder that even films with lousy plots have a lot more sophistication than we can take for granted. A lot of time is dedicated to Bay himself, which is appropriate given how charming the man can be –except when turning curiously defensive in discussing how reviews don’t really matter. Hmmm…

The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson, Michael Cleverly & Bob Braudis

The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson, Michael Cleverly & Bob Braudis

Harper Perennial, 2008, 272 pages, C$16.50 tp, ISBN 978-0-06-115928-2 Jun 24

Since Hunter S. Thompson’s death in 2005, there’s been a small cottage industry of books about the writer’s life. There’s certainly now enough related material about Thompson to rival books by Thompson: He led a wild life, and what he did to his friends has noteworthy enough to fill books of stories.

Which is exactly what we get here with Michael Cleverly and Bob Braudis’ The Kitchen Readings. A book squarely aimed at existing Thompson fans, it doesn’t even try to provide an overview of the writer’s career: It just tells stories of what it was like to live near him. Both were friends of Thompson for decades: Cleverly is an Aspen artist and writer while Bob Braudis, as most obsessive Thompson fans know, has long been the sheriff for the county where Thompson lived.

The Kitchen Readings is their chance to tell all about being Thompson’s friends and neighbors. Most of Thompson’s proclivities are mentioned at least once: The drinking, the drug use, the shooting, the crazy driving, the peacocks… There’s little in here about Thompson’s literary output, but plenty about what it felt to live near him, and how unpredictable life could become when he was around.

On a certain level, it’s hilarious fun. Conceptually, a character like Thompson is the stuff legends are made: Apt to shoot guns at propane tanks for fun, drive with one hand on the wheel and another one around a bottle of Wild Turkey and scream at neighbors to blame them for the actions of his own escaped peacocks, Thompson’s legend is likely to be further enhanced by some of the tales within this book. The one that first sticks in mind is a crazy reverse-driving drunken race through Woody Creek’s snowy streets, culminating with property damage.

On the other hand, virtually the entire book bolsters my own feeling that Thompson was, essentially, unable to function in society and a real pain to be around. Beyond the surface mumbling and obvious drug use, Thompson is again and again shown as taking casual advantage of those who surround him, whether for money, favors or their indulgence after incidents that would have sent non-legends to either small-claims court or prison.

It’s to Cleverly and Braudis’ credit that their tone remains bemused and sympathetic throughout; It’s not hard to imagine that more casual acquaintances of Thompson may not have been so kind in their assessment. Still, from time to time, some less-honorable feelings seep through. In the chapter detailing Thompson’s disastrous adventures in Vietnam, it’s obvious that Thompson wasn’t as much of an action junkie as he pretended: his tolerance to real danger imposed by others was lower than anyone else would think. Elsewhere in the book, we get obvious hints that Thompson craved everyone’s attention and couldn’t tolerate being upstaged. Much of Thompson’s personality and social interactions stemmed from the idea that he liked to think of himself as being, in the most literal of sense, an outlaw.

Nonetheless (and if you haven’t figured out that Thompson was a pain to live with in other biographies, you haven’t paid attention), The Kitchen Readings is a worthwhile addition to the small library of posthumous testimonies about the Gonzo Doctor. It read a lot as if anecdotes in the Gonzo oral biography were fleshed out and tells us much about Thompson’s daily life in Woody Creek. It’s often a pleasure to read, and pays service, in its own way, to the memory and legend of Hunter S. Thompson. Fans will be pleased; many others, appalled.

Still Life With Crows, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Still Life With Crows, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Grand Central, 2003 (2004 paperback reprint), 564 pages, C$9.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61276-6

Whenever the prosecution will put together its case for my terminal jadedness in matters of reviewing, I expect that this review will be high on the list. Because here I am, praising a thriller for its setting and dismissing it for its thrills.

On the other hand, who can argue against the idea that there are only so many thriller plots to use? A serial killer with quasi-supernatural methods isn’t just a well-worn plot driver, it’s arguably the same formula that allowed Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child to hit it big with their debut novel The Relic: mysterious murders in an unusual location reveal a killer that’s half-man, half-creature.

While Still Life With Crows may abandon Preston/Child’s usual urban haunts for the American Midwest, it’s pretty much the same story: The book opens on the discovery of a body in a corn field. (A gruesome discovery, of course) The murder appears to have ritual overtones, which quickly attracts agent Pendergast, now more fully defined than ever after the events of The Cabinet of Curiosities gave him a starring role.

The first 150 pages of Still Life With Crows are certainly the book’s best, if only for seeing dapper Pendergast stuck in the strange new environment of a tiny American town. This is American Gothic in more ways than one as Pendergast’s ideas about gastronomy and correct police procedures often run at odds with the local way of doing things. No matter; Pendergast quickly befriends the local goth, gets emergency cooking supplies delivered to his temporary headquarters and makes progress when the police forces seem unable to go further.

It follows that the small town of Medicine Creek, Kansas is a hotbed of potential drama: Beyond the usual small-town rivalries, we understand that the existence of the community depends on a major poultry processing plant and the promise of a major corn research projects. Ancient Indian lore eventually make their way in the plot, along with a seemingly-useless visit to a cave system managed by Pendergast’s landlord. Some of those elements are nothing more than artful diversions; others end up being part of the solution.

But the answers, when they come, end up deflating the entire novel, leaving us with nothing more than an overcooking killer that wouldn’t exist anywhere but in a thriller novel. The clever sense-of-place carefully built in the first act of the novel ends up taking a back seat to the usual running-in-the-dark hijinks. At 564 pages, Still Life With Crows is far too long for its own good, and most of this lengths, absurdly enough, comes toward the end of the novel even as the pacing should accelerate.

This isn’t as much of a problem as you may suspect: For their meanderings and tendency to recycle plot premises, the Lincoln/Child duo hasn’t become the most popular team in the business by skimping on readable prose and interesting characters. Agent Pendergast remains one of the most compelling protagonists in modern thriller fiction, and there are enough small details here and there to keep our interest. (For instance, there’s a cute little wink at their previous The Ice Limit via a character reading a paperback thriller called Beyond the Ice Limit).

It’s still a shame, though, that the vast corn fields of Kansas so impressively portrayed in the first half of the book had to cede the spotlight to yet another confined space. The interest of Still Life With Crows lies chiefly in how it manages to wring thrills out of an environment that many would consider terminally dull. But there’s such a thing as overdoing it, and the last few chapters of the novel could have easily been swapped with the end of The Relic.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just terminally jaded. I’ll let the jury decide.

A Certain Chemistry, Mil Millington

A Certain Chemistry, Mil Millington

Flame, 2003, 372 pages, C$24.95 tp, ISBN 0-340-82114-0

You wouldn’t normally expect infidelity to be a good engine for a comic novel, but it’s true the Mil Millington doesn’t write about conventional subjects. His first novel, Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About, was directly inspired by the autobiographical website that first brought him so much attention: It was based on, well, a couple that argued a lot. From there to infidelity is a logical progression on the list of unpleasant things that couples do, which brings us to his second novel: A Certain Chemistry.

Stepping a bit farther away from autobiographical experiences, Millington’s second novel features a professional writer whose five-year-old relationship is seriously tested when he’s asked to ghost-write the autobiography of Britain’s most popular soap star. He’s funny and ordinary, while she’s famous and gorgeous: this is all headed toward disaster. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that infidelity does occur, and that a good chunk of the novel is spent looking at the narrator as he tries to cover up his infidelities in bumbling and inept fashion.

Meanwhile, in interstitial chapters, God is our narrator and he can’t shut up about the evolutionary processes that doom our relationships. Apologies for the way we’re designed don’t make him any less sorry for the tribulations that the narrator is going through.

Despite the premise (and, almost despite where the novel inevitably goes), A Certain Chemistry is a very, very funny book. Most of the humor is on a page-per-page level, as the narrator always have a good turn of phrase to describe the humiliating situations in which he is forced, and the slapstick nature of the various adventures following his affair with a celebrity. As one could expect, other people find out, the whole mess gets bigger, and we’re left wondering how this is going to be settled.

One thing is certain: This is a two-page-a-minute read: The narration is engaging even when the character is doing reprehensible things, and the voice of a late-twenties man trying to muddle through life is convincing. Our protagonist is frequently being an idiot, and it’s not his privileged position as a narrator that absolves him from our disapproval. There are a number of situations where the conclusion of the narrator’s efforts is foregone from the start… and yet it keeps its appeal.

On the other hand, there’s no denying that the novel is constantly headed towards a depressing crisis. The balance between this overarching impression of doom and the jocular nature of the narration is one of the trickiest aspects of the novel, and it’s entirely possible to be depressed while reading some amusing passages: what they mask isn’t all that different from tragedy in the classical sense, a hero’s flaws being the seed of his downfall-by-pratfalls.

Compared to Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About, A Certain Chemistry has a plot that’s more than episodic, and a definite conclusion that puts things to rest rather than let everything hang in mid-air. The life of a professional writer (ie; someone who writes, preferably on command, those articles in popular magazines) is described with a number of amusing peeks inside the industry, and there’s a sense throughout that Millington is breaking free from the web personae that so obviously fueled his first novel.

So it’s not that improbable that a typically-British humor novel would be hilarious even as it’s treating one of the least amusing subjects on record. It’s Millington’s charm, after all.

Gone Tomorrow, Lee Child

Gone Tomorrow, Lee Child

Delacorte, 2009, 421 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-34057-1

Jack Reacher has a knack for finding himself in plot-rich situations, and his thirteenth adventure Gone Tomorrow is no exception to the rule. As usual, Lee Child confronts the coincidence-driven nature of his premises head-on, from the very first page. Reacher is back in New York, late at night, in a quasi-deserted subway train. Except that something is wrong: the woman in front of him shows clear signs that she’s a suicide bomber. As Reacher ticks off his mental checklist of suicide bomber traits, everything makes sense except for the timing. Why conduct a suicide mission late at night?

So Reacher gets up and confronts the woman. The results of his action will surprise even him. Not that he stays confounded for long: Once again, he has stumbled into a puzzle box of surprises and twists and revelations, and he’s the best man to get to the bottom of it.

This time, his enemies are a bit stronger than usual: It turns out that there is a terrorist connection to the whole business, not to mention a presidential hopeful. When that happens, official US forces don’t stop to make subtle distinctions between allies and enemy combatants, and Reacher soon finds himself targeted by elements of his own government. The left-leaning political content that bubbled up in Nothing to Lose is present here in a different way: Reacher’s struggles against the new half-corporate security apparatus show the way in which the thriller game is still evolving, and which contemporary threads can be used by authors to put their heroes in ever more complex jeopardy.

Along the way, Reacher does get to go on a rampage of sorts through New York, beating up opponents who don’t consider him a threat, or enough of a threat. Unsurprisingly, his most formidable adversaries end up being those who look least threatening. Reacher doesn’t often end up in the hospital, but there are exceptions to most rules.

Gone Tomorrow (the title can be found in-text as part of dialogue referring, bitterly, to Reacher’s lack of roots) features political maneuvering, New York lore and long-hidden military secrets dating back to Reacher’s early days in the military. The twists and turns are among the series’ best: It takes a while before the true plot is revealed, and there are plenty of surprises along the way. And yet… Child does foreshadowing and red herrings effectively, which is partly why latter plot development don’t seem as outlandish as they would have seemed if presented cold.

As with the last few novels in the series, there are references to Reacher getting old: His old contacts aren’t working as reliably as they should, his technological know-how is primitive, and even the people in the US Government don’t think much of Reacher’s “prehistoric” history with Uncle Sam. One of the most damning aspects of the series’s structure is that Reacher seldom gains new friends and contacts along the way: Since the goal is to have all volumes read independently, Child can seldom point back meaningfully to Reacher’s previous adventures. In this case, readers could have expected Reacher’s US Secret Service adventures in Without Fail to have been mentioned whenever he’s contacting a high-level politician, but that’s not the case. This is a frustrating tension at play, in the middle of such well-constructed novels, and it’s getting harder to ignore.

But it’s not difficult to avoid thinking about these things in the middle of any Lee Child novel: His crisp, detailed and fluid writing is as good as ever, and the plotting of Gone Tomorrow takes us back to the good days of One Shot in giving a good time to seasoned thriller readers trying to figure out the true plot of the story. Reacher’s problems with the shadow US intelligence apparatus are a fresh wrinkle on old plot drivers. None of Child’s increasing fans will be disappointed by this one, and he may pick up a few along the way.

As for me, this thirteenth Reacher Novel marks the end of my monthly Lee Child Reading Project: I have now read the entire series, switching like a real fan from paperbacks to hardcovers along the way. The results are unarguable: Child may be the best pure-thriller series writer on the market today.

Up (2009)

Up (2009)

(In theaters, June 2009): Will Pixar ever stop surprising audiences? It’s not enough for them to keep producing the best animated films on the face of the planet: They have to take insane chances with what they try to do. Up may be for kids, but it talks to adults by starring an old cranky man who seizes upon his last chance for adventure; it may be a comedy, but it starts with the single saddest ten minutes of film in recent memory. I’ll argue that the film never completely recovers from the strength of this first segment (even the comedy rings hollow when confronting death and loneliness), but I have to acknowledge the insane artistic ambition of the entire thing. The risk-taking never stops: The cast of characters for the entire film is tiny, half of them aren’t human, and the blatant symbolism of a character walking around with an entire house’s worth of baggage never feels forced. (On the other hand, the mean-spirited climax strikes a false note.) Ultimately, I may not love Up (and Wall-E) quite as much as I love Ratatouille, but it’s impossible to take a look at Pixar’s last few films and feel that they’re not trying to do things that other filmmakers won’t even contemplate.

Avenger, Frederick Forsyth

Avenger, Frederick Forsyth

St. Martin’s Press, 2003, 370 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-31951-7

In the grand arc of Frederick Forsyth’s multi-decade career, Avenger was a return to form: Between 1996’s Icon and 2003’s Avenger, Forsyth published a gothic romance follow-up to The Phantom of the Opera (The Phantom of Manhattan, 1999) and a book of short stories (The Veteran, 2001). Avenger not only returned to the long-form thriller, but had the added advantage of being the first Forsyth novel written after 9/11.

It’s a bit of a surprise, then, to find out that despite the frequent reminders that the bulk of the story takes place during the summer of 2001, Avenger is more concerned about a Serbian mass-murderer than a middle-eastern terrorist. It’s not a complicated story: Our protagonist is an ex Vietnam-era “Tunnel Rat” named Calvin Dexter, and his specialty is tracking down criminals that have somehow eluded traditional justice. He extracts them from their hiding places and delivers them to the proper authorities. Avenger tells the story of one such extraction, Dexter taking on the task of bringing back a Serbian involved in the murder of a young man with very rich relatives.

The rest, frankly, is just detail. Fortunately, details are what Forsyth does best. Avenger lies somewhere between Icon and The Afghan (2006) in exposition delivery and structure. As in Icon, Forsyth interleaves vignettes describing Dexter’s life in-between installments of his Serbian adventure. If the detail with which he describes the story is heavier than in previous novel, it’s still not up to the quasi-ridiculous voice-of-God level of The Afghan. There’s quite a bit of dialogue, and the political outlook of the story doesn’t fall as deep in right-wing blood-lust territory as his follow-up novel.

It’s also meant to take place in the real world, and isn’t set “five minutes in the future” like many of his other novels are meant to. The historical focus alludes to the waste of intelligence resources and shady deals that led to the events of 9/11 without necessarily beating readers over the head with them (or, worse, using the event as an escape hatch like Nelson DeMille did in Night Fall.) Elements of the epilogue seem familiar (Forsyth has used the “character having deeply-buried personal connections to another character” twist before), but then again the whole novel feels like another solid bag of Forsyth’s tricks.

The real fun and interest of the novel doesn’t come as often from the sequence of events than in the flashbacks, extraneous details and technical knowledge that Forsyth weaves into his fiction. It’s instantly credible even in trying to justify something as trite as a white girl being led to prostitution by non-Caucasian criminals. When Forsyth spends the first half of the novel hopping around Dexter’s chronology, it’s not a holding action as much as an excuse to present a few showpieces (such as an excellent description of the “Tunnel Rats”’s activity in Vietnam) and slowly build up the character we will follow for the rest of a novel. It’s an effective trick, especially given that this is at least the second time Forsyth has tried it.

At face value, the novel certain needs the help –if you disengage even slightly, the protagonist’s improbable accumulation of skill and talents seems wildly over-the-top. It’s a testament to Forsyth’s skill that he can not only pull it off, but make it seem all normal.

While Avenger isn’t Grand Forsyth, it’s markedly more palatable than The Afghan, and far closer to the author’s core strengths than some of his previous books. As a bridge between Icon and The Afghan, is a nearly perfect fit. Fans will be pleased, beach readers will get a decent read and everyone will have a good time. Even Forsyth’s average novels are worth a read, after all.

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

(In theaters, June 2009): After the indulgent and bloated Spider-Man 3, one could justifiably wonder what happened to Sam Raimi, and if ever the champion of such films as Evil Dead, Army of Darkness and Darkman would ever find his way back to the kind of superlative B-grade movies that made his reputation. Well, all of those doubts can be laid to rest with Drag Me to Hell, a convincing throwback to the core of old-school horror. Relentless to the point of seeming mean-spirited, Drag Me to Hell has a lot of sadistic fun pitting its blonde heroine against a dark curse that will not stop until she’s gone. The mechanics are unsubtle (everything worth understanding is highlighted about three times), the heroine isn’t distinctive and the stereotypes are rough-hewn, but the jumps are plentiful (the cell phone one is particularly effective) and the pacing seldom slows down. A mixture of occult traditions, shlocko movie-making and over-the-top wackiness, it’s a film that feels reinvigorating not only for Raimi, but for horror fans in general. The third act is marred by an obvious set-up, but most of the film is pure horror gold: Fans will be delighted, and not only because it’s such a refreshing change from the dross passing itself off for horror these days. Just don’t look for a moral message.

Striptease (1996)

Striptease (1996)

(On DVD, June 2009): Carl Hiaasen’s particular brand of comic crime fiction can be tricky to swallow even on the page, so it’s not much of a shock to find out that this straight-up adaptation somehow fails to click. His usual strategy of surrounding a competent character with a bunch of idiots may be successful in a novel, but here it creates a comedy vacuum around lead Demi Moore, which becomes a problem since most scenes revolve around her. Hiaasen’s all-knowing narration can’t be used, and the uneasy mixture of comedy and violence becomes even more uneasy on-screen (even after toning down the book’s gratuitously blood-thirsty ending) Worse yet are the problems that the film creates for itself: While a film about strip-teasing is expected to show some flesh, the entire club sequences lose their charms quickly, especially when they still grind the film to a halt about three different times: it doesn’t help that Hiaasen’s twisty plot is snipped to a only a few thin threads that don’t create much suspense. Still, the film isn’t the disaster one could expect: Ving Rhames is hilarious in one of his first big-screen roles, whereas Burt Reynolds hits a late-career peak as a particularly perverted politician. The Miami locations are often well-used, and the whole thing is over before anyone has time to be really displeased.

The Addiction (1995)

The Addiction (1995)

(On DVD, June 2009): It goes without saying that a horror monster is seldom “just” a horror monster, but Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction takes things to a conceptual extreme by cramming vampires in a film chiefly about addition and the philosophical implications thereof. Pretentious? Very much. Intriguing? Definitely. Shot in stark black-and-white, The Addiction features a number of notable names (including an unusually fetching Lily Taylor, and a scene-grabbing cameo from Christopher Walken) and an improbable number of soliloquies that, stripped of their pretentiousness, still manage to deliver a number of fascinating ideas. The vampire here is a junkie who has managed to blame others for his addiction, and whose appetite is only matched by self-loathing. As horror, it’s generally lame (although there is a vampire feeding frenzy late in the film), and yet there’s no denying that The Addiction is a lot more worthwhile to watch than any half-dozen cheap vampire movies.

Finity, John Barnes

Finity, John Barnes

Tor, 1999, 303 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86118-4

I’ve read the majority of John Barnes’ work, but a few books got forgotten along the way –such as Finity. It’s not much of an oversight: Finity is a minor novel, a trifle compared to some of Barnes’ other efforts. It’s not a success, and a look at Amazon confirms that the book received mixed reviews (29 reviews, and not one of them a five-star!)… but it fails to cohere in interesting ways.

If nothing else, it does have the decency to start promisingly: The first hundred pages or so take place in an alternate reality where Nazis have taken over the world, yet feature the quasi-comical adventures of one Lyle Peripart, a quiet academic whose days are calm enough to allow for pleasant exchanges with the panoply of AIs managing things around him. But for Lyle, a successful job interview becomes the prelude to an increasingly baffling series of events that he can’t understand –almost as if reality was being altered around him.

By the time his wife kills a Nazi spy and then disavows all knowledge of her actions, the readers are getting clued onto the fact that the many realities of Lyle Peripart are merging, splitting, shifting –and something has to be done! Good thing, then, that he suddenly finds himself in the middle of a group assembled especially for this occasion.

Alas, this middle chunk of the book presents its own unique challenges. As Lyle and friends shift between realities, the reader has little solid footing. Everything known is wrong, which includes all of the lovely amusing bits in the book’s first third. Our characters are stuck in a storm of parallel realities, and the impression left by this extended sequence is unique: It’s like reading in a fog, where the words on the page can be trusted, but the entire conceptual framework carried around by the reader has to be purged again and again. It’s not a pleasant moment, but I’m struggling in vain to remember a similar reading experience elsewhere in fiction.

When things settle down, they don’t go back to the world of the first third. In fact, our protagonist has to contend with altered version of his friends and significant others –a difference that leads to a pretty ugly scene of non-consensual sex between a bound and bewildered narrator and a girlfriend whose kinks don’t include safe-words. (Never underestimate Barnes’ ability to insert forcible anal penetration in an otherwise light-hearted adventure. But his fans already knew that.)

Alas, the novel continues unraveling from that point forward, to such an extent that it’s legitimate to wonder if Barnes is doing it on purpose to annoy genre readers. Even after all the characters are reunited and bound in a single stable reality, their grand quest peters out as characters are killed one by one, until the remaining ones decide to retreat into a passive lifestyle. This, too, may be a radically innovative concept for genre fiction: In how many novels do you recall the protagonists giving up the adventure in order to stay away from it all?

The fact that all of those things are interesting doesn’t in any way make them more satisfying. Finity messes with the genre fiction formula to its own perils: There’s a reason why formula works the way it works, and any attempt to defy convention also risks a backlash worse than just “a dull book”. Despite trappings of conventional adventure, Finity certainly engages the reader in ways that defy conventional reading protocols… but it’s the kind of experience that leaves readers without satisfaction. I certainly wouldn’t be so kind to the novel if I wasn’t already well predisposed to Barnes’ work, and if I didn’t suspect that his fiction often means to enrage a certain kind of readers. At the very least, the middle portion of Finity is a really fascinating reading experience; I wonder if the whole “reading in a fog” feeling couldn’t be exploited in other contexts.

Blood & Donuts (1995)

Blood & Donuts (1995)

(On DVD, June 2009): The most frustrating thing about this low-budget Canadian horror film shot and set in Toronto is how uneven it is: Too often settling for a muddy drama somehow featuring a vampire protagonist, it occasionally flickers brightly with a moment of interest, only to fade again. It’s self-consciously ridiculous (David Cronenberg plays a local mob boss with boot-scratching gusto), and yet it also tries to have it both ways as a character study, especially near the unsatisfying ending. (Here’s a hint: Don’t try make us go “Oooh nooo he’s dead” over the film’s most annoying character.) But what do I know? The film was nominated for a bunch of Genies, including for the Best Screenplay award. It’s a bit of a shame to see that lead Helene Clarkson’s IMDB filmography tapered off shortly after this film, because her charm is one of the things holding the rest of the film together. Otherwise, well, fans of Canadian horror will fill a big hole in their cinematography by watching this, and fans of unusual vampire films may as well give it a look.