Monday, June 24, 2013

A Resurrected Classic from Dan J. Marlowe

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

His name might be Roy Martin; it might be Earl Drake; it might be Chet Arnold, or it might be something else altogether. In the end, we never know and it doesn't really matter. What counts is the fact that he's a classic pulp fiction criminal--a bank robber in this particular case--in a book that's one of the best examples of the genre.

Martin/Drake/Arnold is the creation of Dan J. Marlowe, a writer who began his career relatively late in life and whose career ended all too soon in 1977, when he contracted a mysterious case of amnesia and was no longer able to write. For a brief span, though, from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s, he produced a number of pulp novels, some of which he wrote alone and others which he wrote with a co-author.

The Name of the Game Is Death is generally considered to be his best book, and it's a terrific read--a lean story, stripped to the bone that pulls you in from the opening page and races through to the startling conclusion. It starts with a bank robbery in Phoenix that goes bad, although "Martin" and one of his partners manage to escape with $178,000--a pretty good haul in 1962.

But three people are dead, including the third robber and a couple of bank guards. Worse, from Martin's perspective, is the fact that he's been shot in the arm and can't travel. With their plans shot all to hell, Martin will lay low and attempt to heal while his remaining partner, Bunny, takes the loot to a small town in Florida. Martin will catch up when he can and in the meantime, Bunny will occasionally send him money to live on care of General Delivery.

Briefly, things go as planned, but then one day, there's no envelope at General Delivery on the scheduled day, and none appears thereafter. Martin trusts his partner implicitly, which means that something has gone badly wrong in Florida.

Once recovered from his wound, Martin makes his way cross country to Florida where he becomes Chet Arnold, a tree surgeon. Having established himself in the community, he begins searching for Bunny and the missing loot. Inevitably in a book of this sort, he will have to contend with brutal, crooked cops; sexy, treacherous dames and a host of other obstacles. But what sets this book apart from so many others of its day and genre is the skill that Marlowe brings to the effort. The plot is compelling; there's plenty of action; the characters are fully realized, and you once you start the book, you can't put the damned thing down until you reach the climax.

It's very unfortunate that Marlowe's career was cut so tragically short, and because his career was relatively brief, he's largely faded from view. But crime fiction fans owe a huge debt of gratitude to Charles Kelly who has done a great deal to resurrect Marlowe's reputation.

Kelly has recently written an excellent biography of Marlowe, Gunshots in Another Room: The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe, and he has provided an introduction to a new edition of The Name of the Game Is Death which has just been re-released by Stark House in a double volume alone with another Marlowe classic, One Endless Hour. As a result of Kelly's efforts Dan J. Marlowe is enjoying another moment in the sun, and those who love classic hard-boiled pulp fiction will certainly want to find the new Stark House edition of these books.

Zombies Vs. The World

World War Z

Reviewed by Kemper
3 out of 5 undead stars

I’m scratching my head as to why Hollywood even bothered buying the rights to the World War Z novel by Max Brooks because the film version bears so little resemblance to the original that there really wasn’t any reason to call it an adaptation. Since it’s written as the collected accounts from many people all over the world after the zombie war, it seemed like making some kind of Ken Burns style faux-documentary would be the way to go, but instead they went with the more traditional structure of a single movie star as the hero.

If they didn’t want to use the style that made the book unique, then why even associate the two?  It’s not like a movie featuring Brad Pitt fighting zombies would be a tough sell so it seems odd that they’d risk alienating fans by making a movie that doesn’t use the elements that made the book stand out.  Reports of extensive reshooting with a revised script after the film was supposed to be done weren’t inspiring a lot of confidence either. However despite these issues, the movie is actually pretty good.  Go figure.

Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) used to be an investigator for the United Nations who spent time in some of the most dangerous places in the world.  Now he’s living in Philadelphia with his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters.  As they start their commute on an ordinary day, a traffic jam suddenly turns into chaos as hordes of dead people start attacking and biting the living.  Lane and his family barely manage to escape the city, and his old boss at the UN (Fana Mokoena) arranges to have them brought to a US naval ship in the Atlantic

The zombie outbreak is worldwide and the living people are losing the fight. Communication is breaking down and entire nations are being quickly overwhelmed.  The best guess is that a virus is to blame and finding its origin is the key to stopping the zombies. The only clue is an email that came from a US military base in South Korea before everything went to hell, and Gerry is recruited to go with a young doctor (Elyes Gabel) and a team of soldiers to track the source of the virus.  Gerry’s mission takes him around the world, and the zombies are a constant danger everywhere he goes. 

Zombie movies usually focus on a small group of people dealing with the threat and while the breakdown of society is a constant factor, this is the first time we’ve had a big budget movie trying to show the scope of what that would be like.  World War Z succeeds in this for the most part with big action sequences during Gerry’s travels that highlight the panic and chaos.

One thing that really sells the threat is how the zombies are done.  The movie uses the fast type instead of the more traditional slow ones, and they attack in swarms.  These zombies come at their victims with snapping teeth and will throw themselves off a building to get at someone.  They’re genuinely scary and when hordes of them start to overrun a location, it’s easy to believe that even the various military forces can’t hold them off for long.

Pitt’s performance also helps anchor the movie in a recognizable reality.  Gerry’s background in various hotspots makes it credible that he knows how to work his way through a collapsing world without making him seem like an unbelievable bad-ass, and since he only went on the mission because his family would be kicked off the ship if he didn’t, it makes him a reluctant hero we can relate to.

Unfortunately, the movie lets down a bit in the last act when we go from the large scale segments in places like Jerusalem to Gerry playing a cat-and-mouse game in a laboratory complex that’s infested with zombies.  It’s a tense segment, but it’s anti-climatic after we’ve seen wholesale carnage around the globe.  Reducing the ending to just Gerry and a few others in a confined space feels much less ambitious than the rest of the film, and I wonder if the extra filming had to limit the scope for time and money reasons.  It’s also odd that the zombies can suddenly tell that any random noise is made by living people and not the undead when they’re bumping into walls and squawking all over the building.

While it’s still disappointing to not get a more faithful version of the book with its comprehensive view of a world at war with zombies, this is still an entertaining action horror movie that gives at least some flavor of what that fight would look like.

Meet the Shelf Inflicted Staff - Amanda

Today's guest is the notorious book pimp, Amanda.  She also posts at This Insignificant Cinder

How did you discover Goodreads?
Oddly enough, through My Space. I was trying to find something that would display what I was reading on my profile and stumbled upon Goodreads. The rest (including My Space) is history.

What have been your most memorable Goodreads experiences?
The positives have been e-mails from authors thanking me for my reviews, as well as bantering and biblio-bonding with the ragtag band of misfits who eventually became the Shelf Inflicted staff. The negatives have been the trolls, who are apparently legion and skulking in the dark reaches of cyberspace, just waiting for someone to take a poke at Orson Scott Card. On the plus side, it’s fun to verbally swat at them.

Name one reviewer not in the Forbes 25 that people should be aware of.
If you’re looking for insightful and honest reviews about science fiction and urban fantasy, Carol’s your gal. I love how she breaks a story down and thoughtfully evaluates the positives and the negatives. She calls them as she sees them, with no apologies. I’ve dodged many a bad book because of her and discovered many a treasure.

What was your initial reaction to Amazon buying Goodreads?
I believe my initial reaction was, “Holy shit snacks!!!" . . . and then I went back to reading my book. I’m not as anti-Amazon as a lot of people, but I do have concerns with how my data is used and censorship/creative control of my reviews. However, so far, so good.

How many books do you own?
Roughly 1,000, give or take a few tucked away into nooks and crannies I've forgotten about. Fortunately, I'm married to a man of many talents--among them being the ability to build sturdy, kick ass bookshelves to my specifications.

Who is your favorite author?
For fantasy, Neil Gaiman. For modern literature, Tim O'Brien. For all time, Ernest Hemingway (with apologies to Stephanie).

What is your favorite book of all time?

I know that for most readers this is the equivalent of asking, “Who is your favorite child?” But I can say without hesitation: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. It was the first time I read a book that took me into the heart of an experience so utterly outside of the tiny little life I lead. Before that, literature was just escapism or dealt with issues that I at least had a touchstone for understanding. However, O’Brien’s exploration of the fear, the courage, the brotherhood, the awe, and the horror of the war in Vietnam was the first time I read something and thought, "This. This matters." It's not just a story--it's a visceral experience.

What are your thoughts on ebooks?
To paraphrase Community’s Jeff Winger: To me, e-readers are like Paul Rudd. I see the appeal, and I would never take it away from anyone. But I would also never stand in line for it.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
I like the freedom it gives writers to put themselves out there without waiting to be discovered, but my experience with reading self-published hasn’t exactly been pleasant. It’s probably given me a better appreciation for what a good editor can do for a writer.

Any literary aspirations? 
Zip. Zero. Zilch.

What is your ideal super villain lair?
It’s not a super villain lair, but I remember that, even as a small child, I thought, “If I ever rule the world, it shall be from Castle Grayskull.” I completely understand Skeletor’s desire for it—that place oozes sinister.

The Rook by Daniel O'Malley

Daniel O'Malley
Reviewed by Carol
Recommended for: people who like all those movies I mention
read count: twice, sure to be more
Finally! First great read of 2013. Admittedly, that's because I'm hoarding Days of Blood & Starlight and The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There like a survivalist with canned goods, or a chocoholic with a secret stash of Toblerone in the back of the freezer (not that I'm speaking from experience). And while I tempered down my five stars to a more reasonable four, the fact is this was a perfect read the first time through.I'll save the detailed summary; this is one time when the blurb gets it right. It starts rather hard-core action movie: woman coming to consciousness in a midst of a circle of bodies, no memory of self or events, dripping from the rain and blood. She discovers an envelope in her pocket from the Myfanwy-That-Was. Soon it evolves into a James Bond-style government agency spy thriller crunched with identity disorientation of The Bourne Identity. Halfway through I realize O'Malley is channeling The Hitchhiker's Guide, or at least Men In Black, and that the flashbacks felt a lot like X-Men. (I'm finding it disturbing that I'm describing a book by referencing movies. Is that acceptable in a book review?)
Narrative shifts between letters from Myfanwy-That-Was to the current scramble of Myfanwy-That-Is to solve the mystery of who is trying to kill her. While that had the potential to become a tiresome device, O'Malley uses it well, giving context to Newbie just before she needs to use it, cuing the reader at the same time. Sometimes Senior relates an incident, sometimes she lays out structure and organization, or gives a dossier on other characters. For the most part it was able to maintain pace and tension through the shifts. At times, O'Malley is tongue-in-cheek: right as Myfanwy thinks, "I suppose I should do some more homework on how this organization actually works," the next section is from one of the letters, under the title of "How This Organization Actually Works." I actually found it rather delightful, highlighting the mental similarities in how they process information.

As the story develops, Myfanwy starts to take on her own personality, more abrupt and direct than the prior, who she now thinks of as "Thomas," their last name. I thought the transition between the two was handled well, and as the story developed, I cared just as much about what happened to Thomas and wanted to know her story, even though I knew where it would end (here's where my habit of peeking at the end of books comes in handy; it's kind of like the book is a spoiler for it's own self because we know Thomas is 'dead,' or at least, gone). I enjoyed Myfanwy's character breaks, and it set the stage for gentle humor as she responded almost--but not quite--in character:
"An emergency has emerged, and both you and Rook Gestalt have been summoned to an interrogation," the secretary replied in an unruffled manner.
"Oh. Okay." Myfanwy looked down and her desk, thought for a moment, and then looked up. "Are we getting interrogated, or are we doing the interrogating?" she asked.
Then there is:
"It's time for your dinner with Lady Farrier."
"Oh, crap," she sighed, then noticed Clovis's shocked expression. "I mean, oh, good, this should be delightful."

The humor isn't out front in the beginning, which now strikes me as one of the delightful parts about the writing. Tightly wound around an action core at the start, O'Malley sneaks in humor one subtle comment at a time, gradually becoming more absurd. The first hint that we aren't in London any more comes about three chapters in when we meet Rook Gestalt, really one of the more innovative creations in sci-fi/fantasy literature that I've happened upon. One mind, four bodies. I found myself trying to wrap my head around that one (somewhat distracted by comparing it with Zaphod and his two heads) and just got rather smacked with the possibilities. By the end, the absurd veered out of control at a couple of points, but for the most part O'Malley was able to maintain the balance between chuckles and tension.

Before too long, the American version of the Court comes to call, and the subtlety gloves come off when the American Bishop Shantay and Myfanwy take on some fungus--after lunch, of course.
"'That is experience talking,' said Shantay. 'In these situations the glass is always half-empty.'
'Always,' confirmed the Bishop. 'Right until it fills up with some sort of spectral blood that grows into a demon entity.'

'I'll kill you first,' promised Myfanwy in a cold voice. 'I'll kill you twice if I feel like it.'

Truly riveting fun, exactly what I needed after an awful start to the week--it was the ideal book experience of immersion and diversion. Highly recommended to anyone who likes a dose of humor with their surreal action-spy-mystery thriller.

Four out of five stars. Or are they?