Wednesday, August 27, 2014

WILD WIVES by Charles Willeford


Wild Wives begins with a beautiful, young femme fatale walking into a private detective's office. Sound familiar? Yep, it's a well-used, ordinary convention in noir detective fiction. But writer Charles Willeford is anything but ordinary. As he did in the last Willeford book I read, Pick-up, he turns the genre on it's head. In the first two pages, we realize that the femme fatale is a 16-year-old girl, who shoots the detective with a water pistol, bends over his desk, and proceeds to ask him for a spanking.

Thus begins this bizarre, sleazy little  hard-boiled novella that has a hefty dose of sex and violence, not to mention a fitting title!

Monday, August 25, 2014

THE BIG NOWHERE by James Ellroy

*Book 2 of the L.A. Quartet*

Communist witchhunts. B-movie studio westerns. South Central jazz. Hollywood labor union strikes. 
Mickey Cohen and his feud with Jack Dragna. Queer sex orgies at the Chateau Marmont. Howard Hughes and his penchant for underage girls and crashing airplanes. Friction between the LAPD and the LA County Sheriffs. The Sleepy Lagoon murder and the Zoot Suit Riots. And a sick serial killer that disembowels his homosexual victims by biting into them with animal teeth.

This loaded novel is about all that and more, and skillfully stuffed into a dense and thrilling 400+ pages! This book is really something special and James Ellroy is a writer with impressive skill and a great attention to detail. He mixes hard-boiled noir, a complex police procedural, and historical fiction into a stunning story, painting a vivid picture of Los Angeles in 1950, and mixing fictional characters with real life events the way Dennis Lehane does in The Given Day and HBO does with many of their shows, like Boardwalk Empire, Rome, and Deadwood.

With such complex and detailed plot lines as well as the book's colorful prose, characterization could have totally been left to the wayside. But Ellroy spends just as much time developing the entire cast of complex colorful characters, especially the three leads. The novel follows three law enforcement officers (an LA County Deputy Sheriff, a DA investigator, and a former crooked LAPD officer turned Howard Hughes pimp and bagman) as they get thrown into a grand jury probe against Communist influence in Hollywood as well as an investigation of a series of grisly serial murders. Each man has something to lose, something to hide, and in time, something to fight for. They're complex, you root for them at times and then despise them the next. And Ellroy expertly brings their separate stories together in a web of gripping mystery and tragedy.

I love my new home of Los Angeles and I have a fascination with old Tinseltown history and conspiracy, so one would wonder why I took so long to start reading James Ellroy novels. But no worries, with just this book, I'm now on the Ellroy train, and here for the long haul.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

THE THICKET by Joe R. Lansdale


This was an entertaining, escapist story about a teenage Jack Parker who gathers a motley crew of unlikely heroes to help track down a gang of rough outlaws and save his kidnapped little sister. This is the first book I've read by the prolific Joe R. Lansdale, and in the vein of the classic True Grit, it's both a very enjoyable Western adventure and a great coming of age story. Are most of Lansdale's work like this? If so, I've got some more reading to do!

There are many other stories similar to the one you'll read in The Thicket. But Lansdale's easy writing really elevates it. He fills his story with an irresistible cast of well-drawn characters. I love how Jack doesn't a gather a bunch of hard, badass, Rooster Cogburn-types, but recruits a posse that many look at as being outcasts and a group that seem like they would fail from the outset. But as the story continues, you see that the group's heart and determination is what makes them extraordinary, and you can't help but root for them. And it's Jack himself that really gives the story it's heart and holds it together. It's a true coming of age tale, where we see that in this journey into the heart of darkness, he struggles with his values and beliefs as he realizes that he has to get down and dirty to save his little sis, even at the expense of his soul. 
To some extent I find sin like coffee. When I was young and had my first taste of it I found it bitter and nasty, but later on I learned to like it by putting a little milk in it, and then I learned to like it black. Sin is like that. You sweeten it a little with lies, and then you get so you can take it straight.
Great book. Read it when you can, you won't be disappointed.

Friday, August 15, 2014

S. by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst


In these times of Kindles, Nooks, and iBooks, a novel like S. is a really exciting breath of fresh air. It's truly a love letter to physical books and a great effort in interactive reading and storytelling. The novel is a story within a story within a story. The book contains "Ship of Theseus", the final novel of the critically popular but mysterious author V. M. Straka (who disappeared under unknown circumstances) with strange footnotes by Straka's frequent translator F. X. Caldeira. The book's margins include a second story, read as handwritten notes between two college students, Eric and Jen, as they try to interpret the novel and investigate who Straka and Caldeira are, while growing closer. Inserted throughout the book are physical pieces of other correspondence between , articles, essays, hand-drawn maps, and postcards. 

The book is a true masterpiece in design  and publishing. I can't even imagine how expensive it was to publish this, with handwritten notes in different colors and reproducing the inserts for each copy! Kudos to the publisher Mulholland Books, on a real feat! Here are a couple photos I found on the Interwebs, that gives an example of what to expect in the book:

Given how gorgeous the book is and how ingenious the concept is, I was terribly disappointed in how uninteresting the story was and how bored I was through the whole thing. The story in Ship of Theseus, of a man with amnesia, who has know idea why he has been kidnapped and sent on a dangerous journey, is...*YAWN*..... It has some interesting imagery but I found it pretty forgettable. The real story, found in the notes between Jen and Eric, is not only just as dull as the "Ship of Theseus" story, but the characters are also annoying. Eric was particularly irritating. Reading their back and forth notes got to be tiresome. I couldn't see for the life of me why Jen would be at all attracted to Eric. And once they meet, I couldn't understand why they would keep writing back and forth together in a library book. I couldn't get past that. Reading the book is a lot of work, which could turn into a fun project, but ultimately it felt like homework because I couldn't get into the characters and stories. 

Speaking of that, I should detail what I found to be the best way to read the book. After some research and some experimenting, I found this to be the best way:

1) Remove the inserts and replace them with sticky notes describing them between the pages that they belong in. It was difficult trying to keep them from falling out while reading. Once you get to the page with the sticky note, you can get the corresponding insert so you have it while reading.

2) Read it chapter by chapter, including the Caldeira's footnotes. After reading a chapter, read the pencil notes (Eric's original notes to himself in the book) as well as the black and blue pen notes, (the initial back and forth correspondence between Eric and Jen). I sometimes read these while reading the chapter, if it looked like the note referred to something specific in the book's text. 
*By doing this instead of reading the entire book before reading the first notes, the chapters were kept fresh in my head so I understood what Jen and Eric were talking about

3) After finishing the whole book that way, go back and read all of the notes written in Orange and Green ink, written when Jen and Eric go back through the novel again after their relationship deepens.

4) Go back again and read the Purple and Red text

5) Then read the final black and black text.

*Study the inserts as they're referred to.

As you can see it can be pretty involved. If you're reading this, don't let this turn you off too much. This book deserves to be given a chance, and you may be one of the many who really love it! One day I will revisit this again and maybe I'll enjoy it more.  It's sad, because the book is a great concept, but I wish the design and concept was used to service a better story. I really wished I liked it. But it's a great example of awesome style over little substance. 

*Sad Face*

Thursday, August 14, 2014

THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir


I was looking for an exciting page-turner to read this month, a good book for a summer read. This book is pretty popular here on Goodreads and I decided to give this one a try. I think I made a pretty damn good choice! This book reads like a summer blockbuster, so if you ever want something light but exciting, pick this up!

When the book opens, astronaut Mark Watney has been left behind on Mars after his crew makes an emergency evacuation and believes him to be dead. Throughout the rest of the novel, we witness Mark use his ingenuity, experience, and determination in an effort to survive and get back home.

Andy Weir makes a book that is mostly filled with technical and scientific jargon compulsively readable. He does this by giving the main character an endearing sense of humour. Not only is it hard not to root for the guy, with his positive attitude and ability to find a joke in everything, but his amusing asides also help to ground this larger than life story and keep the story moving. And sometimes the most exciting thing to read about or watch is simply characters solving problems; to witness as a character uses their proficiency and resourcefulness to work through a situation. In that way, this book was similar to the Robert Redford movie All Is Lost, where we basically watched Redford try to survive in a sinking boat out on the open sea for an hour and a half, but it was riveting. Weir also uses the ticking clock method wonderfully, where we always are reminded that time is of the essence and that if the smallest thing goes wrong, it could all be over.

Sometimes the book did feel like the author was making it just to be the blueprint for a movie and that was sometimes annoying, especially once (SORT OF MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD) he introduced the NASA characters after they've realized that Watney is alive and begin hatching ideas to rescue him. Although this is when the book really kicks into high gear, it felt like every character had a "quirk" forced onto them combined with corny dialogue to get a smile out of the reader.

But if you're looking for a book that will definitely keep you turning pages and you like exciting survival stories like Gravity, Castaway, The Edge, or All Is Lost, definitely check this one out!

Monday, August 11, 2014

THE LAST GOOD KISS by James Crumley


A true classic of the crime fiction genre, and for some reason I just got around to it. The book introduces C.W. Sughrue, a Vietnam vet who is now a private dick, usually working boring jobs doing repossessions and divorce cases. As the novel opens, he's finally tracked down Abraham Trahearne, a famous drunken writer who Sughrue was hired to track down before he drinks himself to death. While on the job, he takes another assignment from an old barmaid to track down her daughter, who ran away from home ten years prior. So, accompanied by Trahearne and an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts, Sughrue searches for a girl he's mysteriously drawn to, a girl he only knows from a faded, crumpled photograph.

This book inspired almost all of the contemporary crime writers working today. One of the big reasons why it was so influential is because it took your standard detective novel and turned it into something more, with it's brilliant, poetic prose that, before then, would usually be reserved for more "serious" fiction. Sughrue is a great character, also influencing the modern detective characters today, with his mix of not only toughness, humor, and rough charm, but also with a tender empathy that drives his search for Betty Sue and his friendship with Trahearne. Thankfully he's so likeable and gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, because I really didn't like any of the other supporting characters, especially Trahearne. But along with Sughrue, it was Crumley's vivid writing that kept me turning pages, inherently hard-boiled and lyrical at the same time.
"Nobody lives forever, nobody stays young long enough. My past seemed like so much excess baggage, my future a series of long goodbyes, my present an empty flask, the last good drink already bitter on my tongue."

Saturday, August 9, 2014

THE GREEN MILE by Stephen King


Whenever I mention to people that Stephen King is one of my favorite authors and that they should read more of his work, sometimes I get that "look". So many times he's dismissed into the "genre ghetto" as a popular horror writer and not a gifted writer of "literary" fiction. It frustrates me, because many people have no idea how gifted of a writer he truly is and how versatile he is. Obviously these same people have never read his novellas in the collection Different Seasons, or The Dead Zone, or 11/22/63, or Hearts in Atlantis, or this book especially.

The story is set in the 1930's and follows Paul Edgecomb, the head warden on the death row ward of Cold Mountain Penitentiary, a man whose job is to try to make the prisoners' last days and trip to "Old Sparky" as peaceful and humane as possible. One day, a new inmate arrives, John Coffey, a gentle giant black man who is accused on raping and murdering two white young twin sisters. But John Coffey has a special gift. And soon, once Edgecomb and the other guards learn the truth about Coffey, they will soon have all of their beliefs challenged and learn the true meaning of sacrifice and redemption.
“Sometimes there is absolutely no difference at all between salvation and damnation.” 
I believe that The Green Mile is superb. It is solidly on my list of favorite books and it's quite possibly the best full-length novel Stephen King has written. Although at the moment my favorite King novel is The Stand, I believe that this one is better written. It's mood and tone is pitch perfect, with the air of a fable laced with magical realism. The story truly moved me. When I read it for the first time years ago, I finished with what might have been a couple tears in my eyes. And that's a big deal, given the fact that I'm such a hardened badass. Stephen King shows a real knack of being able to take what should be very a brutal, depressing subject like death row during the Depression and infuse it with beauty, emotion, and sentiment that never feels forced. This novel is sincerely special and has stuck with me forever. If you've never read Stephen King's work because you don't like horror stories, then read this and it will make you a fan. If you are already a King fan and haven't read this, then do yourself a favor at start this one immediately.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014



I've mentioned before that Walter Mosley is probably one of the most versatile authors and consistently puts out solid work in different genres. At the point when this book was released, Mosley was mostly known for his great crime writing and was carving out a cult niche with his thoughtful sci-fi novels. With this book, he did what many would never expect and delved into erotic fiction.

Mild-mannered New York City translator Cordell Carmel is living a good life with his long-term girlfriend Joelle. Until one day he walks into Joelle's apartment and catches her majorly getting her freak on with wanna-be jazz musician John Fry. Without being noticed by them, Cordell walks out, not knowing what to feel. Haunted by the look of something more than ecstasy on Joelle's face, and by the image of Johnny Fry's bright red condom, Cordell decides to keep it to himself, beginning an intense journey of sexual transformation and awakening.

Although this book is definitely not for the prudish, what sets it apart from other erotic stories I've seen is the urgency and emotion in the storytelling and the fact that Mosley creates an awesome character in Cordell, one of the best characters in his work. What struck me the most about Cordell (and what many men can relate to, even though they might not admit it), was his insecurities after witnessing his wife's infidelity, as well as his conflicting feelings about the situation. After catching them, he's not just angry, but he's also confused and horrified to discover that witnessing it has also given him a hard-on, and he's not sure why. He becomes obsessed with a bizarre porno movie about a submissive, cuckolded man that he begins identifies with. There's something so honest about his behavior that touched me deeply. This sexual honesty is something that I almost never see in men, especially those in the black community.

The book is sort of an existential journey for Cordell to heal his sexual insecurity. It is yet another book that I've read this year that reminds me of the criminally under-appreciated movie Eyes Wide Shut (my favorite of Kubrick's). There is lots of hot sex for those interested in that, but much of it is covered with an aura of sadness and melancholy. The book falls apart almost completely in the last third, and it was a bit unbelievable that after Cordell catches Joelle cheating, every woman in the book suddenly reveal themselves to be heavy freaks and try to have sex with him. This caused me to lower it's score a bit, but the Cordell character and the honest and frank look at sexual identity makes this a novel that stuck with me for a while.

Monday, August 4, 2014

TREASURE ISLAND by Robert Louis Stevenson

Young Jim Hawkins stumbles onto a map leading to a treasure buried by the famous pirate Captain Flint on a small Caribbean island. This sparks a overseas adventure to find the buried treasure! Treasure Island is THE classic of pirate adventures.

I love pirates and pirate stories. The adventure and independence on the high-seas is something that speaks to old boyhood fantasies. Sadly, I didn't find much of that adventure in Treasure Island. It was interesting seeing where all of the pirate story conventions originated, but otherwise it wasn't as exciting as it should've been. Jim was one of the most boring characters I've read in a while. Maybe it was the language...or maybe the book just hasn't aged well in general.