Reviews

A Couple of Sunday Afternoon Book Reviews

The Earhart BetrayalThe Earhart Betrayal by James Stewart Thayer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the enduring ideas about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart is the notion that her attempted around-the-world flight was a cover for some sort of covert activity… that she was a spy, essentially, and that she did not die in the ocean or on some lonely speck of land somewhere, but was in fact captured by the Japanese. That idea forms the basis for this novel, a nifty thriller set in post-war Singapore. An American intelligence operative and his wife arrive to investigate evidence that Earhart died in a nearby POW camp. But what ought to be a simple milk run turns out to be the entry into something much bigger and more dangerous. The couple quickly find themselves mired in the intrigue surrounding a priceless jade elephant stolen during the war and now sought by several powerful individuals, while long-simmering ethnic tensions threaten to boil over. The sense of place is particularly well done; the sweaty, oppressive environment is practically a character on it own. In addition, the human characters are all colorful, the action brutal, and the revelations unexpected, and underlying all of it is a plausible explanation for one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century… what really happened to Amelia Earhart? An excellent summertime hammock read.

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The Girl, the Gold Watch & EverythingThe Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A recent conversation about TV movies of the ’70s reminded me of this story, which I recall as a pleasantly cute film starring Robert Hays and Pam Dawber of Mork & Mindy fame. That conversation sent me questing for the original novel. Like the movie, the book is pleasantly cute: the story of a nebbishy young man named Kirby whose eccentric uncle dies and leaves him a mysterious gold watch and a big mess of trouble. It seems this watch has the ability to stop time for whoever is holding it, which was the secret behind the uncle’s unlikely success in life, and now there are unscrupulous people who want that power for themselves. In the wrong hands, the watch could unleash chaos on the world. Can Kirby uncover the secrets of the watch, outsmart the bad guys, and discover the self-confidence his uncle believed he has within him?

Written in 1962, the book is unquestionably a product of the Mad Men era, with all the pros and cons you might imagine. The recurring theme of Kirby’s sexual inadequacy, his inability to get laid and the suggestion that he’s not a real man because he doesn’t know how to score, is rather jarring to modern sensibilities, while his love interest Bonnie wouldn’t feel out of place in an Austin Powers movie. (She’s a groovy babe, you see.) Yes, this is a sexist book, but it’s made palatable by the fact that Kirby is more hapless than predatory, and the female characters are in fact the competent ones, the ones with the power to make things happen. It’s also presented in a lighthearted, broadly humorous style that’s difficult to dislike. Ultimately, if you can look past its dated elements, it’s a harmless bit of fun from another time.

And now I want to see that TV movie again…

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Book Review: The Poseidon Adventure

The Poseidon AdventureThe Poseidon Adventure by Paul Gallico
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I suspect this potboiler would’ve been entirely forgotten by now if not for the classic 1972 disaster movie it inspired.

While the film followed the book’s plot fairly closely — the screenplay shuffles around a few major events and pares away some characters — the two properties are very different in tone. Gallico presents us with a group of unlikable characters who are all, to one degree or another, the last person with whom you’d want to be trapped in a life-and-death struggle. It isn’t merely a case of these people being flawed and having to find their individual strengths or rise above their weaknesses, which is how the movie presented them. These people are genuine jerks, in particular the vacationing police detective Rogo (played by Ernest Borgnine in the movie) and even the ostensible hero, the Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman in the movie). Scott is an especially frustrating character because the reader never fully learns what it is that’s driving him. There are some hints, things that the movie expanded upon, but on the page he remains a cypher. As for Rogo, he has some redeeming, humanizing moments toward the end, but it comes across as too little, too late, especially as those moments are counteracted by one sneering comment he makes in the final pages.

In addition to the obnoxiousness of the characters, the book fairly drips with anti-Semitism, misogyny (lots of “don’t worry your pretty little head” types of attitudes), and homophobia. Possibly this simply reflects the attitudes of the time — it was first published in 1969, the year I was born — but it’s difficult going for the modern reader.

As for the writing, well, Gallico’s style is serviceable at best. There are occasional glimmers of poetry, nice images here and there, but there’s also a whole lot of clunky prose and info-dumps in between them. And the dialog is incredibly stilted.

And yet, I have to confess that the book held my interest. It was a genuine pageturner infused throughout with an authentic tension and claustrophobic feeling, as well as a sense of relief when our survivors are rescued at the end, followed by a sadness at their realization that they’ll likely never see each other again. For that emotional response alone, I’m giving the book a positive rating. If you’re a fan of the movie, it’s worth a look to see where the film came from.

But believe me, this is the rare case where the movie was better than the book.

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Book Review: Ghost Story

Ghost StoryGhost Story by Peter Straub
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was inspired to track this down after seeing the 1981 film adaptation last year. I’d heard the film left out a lot of material and was generally inferior. While it’s true that the movie does pare down the story quite a bit, as well as substantially changing the nature of the monster, I’m undecided as to whether I’d call it inferior or not, because the book really didn’t do much for me.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t like the book. I did. But I didn’t love the book. I thought it had a really interesting idea at its core, namely that the vampires, werewolves, and ghosts that have been talked about throughout human history are all in fact the same kind of creature, a very long-lived creature that preys on humanity and genuinely enjoys screwing with its prey. There were a few moments of genuine dread. And I thought the story was interesting on a metatextual level, as it was a ghost story in which many people tell ghost stories, and those stories both influence and explain the events the characters experience. But I’m sorry to say none of the characters, out of an entire townful of characters, ever really came alive for me. I’m afraid Stephen King has the corner on that market. And the author’s prose style kept me at arm’s length for reasons I haven’t quite been able to work out.

Bottom line, I respected it intellectually, but I just didn’t have much of an emotional response to it. A disappointment, but not a complete misfire.

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Book Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary. Behind-the-scenes Diary of How They Made the Decade's Greatest Movie!Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary. Behind-the-scenes Diary of How They Made the Decade’s Greatest Movie! by Bob Balaban
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re looking for an in-depth history of the production of the classic Spielberg film, this isn’t it.

Instead, it is exactly what the title promises, a transcription of the diary kept by actor Bob Balaban during the time he spent working on CE3K. While there are some behind-the-scenes tidbits of movie magic — for example, I never knew that the curving mountaintop road where Richard Dreyfuss’ character Roy Neary nearly runs over a young boy in his truck, and then moments later gets his first good look at several UFOs, was in fact built on a soundstage — the book really is just Balaban’s personal experiences on location and on set. Fortunately, he’s an engaging writer, and there is a certain wistful innocence about the the time he’s describing, when it was still very unusual for actors to have to react to objects that wouldn’t exist until the visual-effects teams constructed them months later.

The most charming aspect of the book, however, is the growing friendship between Balaban and his costar, the famed French director and actor Francois Truffaut. Balaban plays Truffaut’s interpreter in the film, and he filled a similar role in real life, helping Truffaut learn his English lines and generally navigate an American film production that was shooting in very American locations. I’ve always had the sense that Truffaut was fundamentally a kind man, and I was pleased that Balaban’s descriptions of him support that impression. One moment in particular stands out to me, when Truffaut befriends some young boys on a Wyoming street corner and passes the time with them tossing pebbles at an old candy bar wrapper, the language barrier between them completely negated by Truffaut’s inherent warmth and openness.

Highly recommended if you’re a fan of the film, or of Truffaut.

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Review: Runnin’ with the Devil

Running with the Devil: Managing Van Halen Straight to the TopRunning with the Devil: Managing Van Halen Straight to the Top by Noel Monk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Noel E. Monk managed the rock band Van Halen from its breakthrough in 1978 to the end of its first incarnation in 1985, when lead singer David Lee Roth left for a solo career and Monk himself was fired. Prohibited from publicly telling his side of things for many years, Monk is finally free to dish the gossip, and the result is this quick-reading memoir with the apropos subtitle “A Backstage Pass to the Wild Times, Loud Rock, and the Down and Dirty Truth Behind the Making of Van Halen.” (I don’t know why Goodreads claims the subtitle is something else. )

There are enough gossipy tidbits here to appeal to prurient interest, but if you’re a VH fan (or even just a fan of rock music in general), none of that will surprise you. Promiscuous sex, drugs and booze, trashed hotel rooms, and dickish behavior are hardly unique to this particular band. The basic outline of their rise and fall will seem familiar too: hard-working and talented young musicians break through, rise to immense heights, and then are undone by substance abuse and clashing egos. The thing that really distinguishes this book, however, is Monk himself. He’s led quite a swashbuckling life, before and after Van Halen, and he’s by turns funny, opinionated, and brutally honest. He doesn’t shy away from the really nasty aspects of the Van Halen story — Alex Van Halen comes off looking especially bad, in my opinion — but this isn’t a hit piece, and Monk never sounds like a guy with an ax to grind. He very obviously loved this band and loved the time he spent with them. But they weren’t always easy to deal with and the way things ultimately end up between the members of Van Halen and Noel Monk are downright heartbreaking.

My one complaint with Runnin’ with the Devil is that it leaves the reader hanging on certain matters. It is to Monk’s credit that he stops talking about Van Halen at the moment his involvement ended, rather than speculating on events he didn’t directly witness. But of course the band did continue in a new form, with Sammy Hagar as lead singer (Monk doesn’t think too highly of that era, or of David Lee Roth’s solo efforts), and there were a lot of unresolved personal matters at the time of Monk’s departure as well. What happened with Eddie and Alex’s alcoholism? And Michael Anthony’s as well? If you’re curious about those subjects, you’ll have to find another book. But if you want a powerful evocation of life on the road for a young band just arriving on the scene, as well as a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how things went wrong in only a few short years, this one is highly recommended.

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Review: The Questor Tapes

The Questor Tapes
The Questor Tapes by D.C. Fontana
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the years between the cancellation of the original Star Trek television series and the franchise-reviving feature Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Trek‘s creator Gene Roddenberry wrote and produced a number of made-for-TV pilot films that he hoped would lead to a new series and a regular gig for him. None of them sold, but they all at least made it to the airwaves and many are fondly remembered today. Probably the best of them (and the one I personally think would’ve been most interesting as an ongoing series) was The Questor Tapes, the story of a highly sophisticated android searching for its creator, a mysterious genius who’s gone missing. Along for the ride is a young engineer who was a protege of Questor’s creator and helped to assemble the android, and whose assistance Questor now requires to successfully navigate through society and those ever-confusing human emotions.

This novelization of the Questor film skillfully adapts an open-ended pilot into a satisfying stand-alone story. Some of the ideas in the story are overly familiar today, if not outright cliche’d, and Roddenberry’s, shall we say, outdated attitudes about sex and the human female are occasionally a bit jarring to modern eyes. (Every woman in the story has a smokin’ body and gets her wardrobe described in great detail, and the female character with the most prominent role is possibly a prostitute.) But if you keep in mind when this was written — 1974 — it’s a short and brisk read that’s perfect as disposable entertainment for a summer afternoon. Star Trek fans will find it particularly interesting because Questor is so clearly a forerunner of the Commander Data character from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which made its debut over a decade after Questor. Roddenberry wasn’t one to let go of a good idea…

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Review: Billy Connolly’s Route 66

Billy Connolly's Route 66
Billy Connolly’s Route 66 by Billy Connolly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Billy Connelly is a Scottish musician, comic and actor who, in 2011, rode a three-wheeled motorcycle from Chicago to Los Angeles, following the fragmented remains of the legendary Route 66. Naturally, the whole adventure was filmed for a British television series, and this book reads like what it basically is, i.e., a transcription of that series, complete with lengthy dialog between Connolly and the more interesting people he encounters.

As someone who has long dreamed of making a similar journey, this book was a bit sobering. Connolly makes it sound as if there are more ghost towns along the Mother Road than thriving tourist traps, a stark contrast to most of the literature on the subject. He’s also pretty harsh in his opinions of the greasy-spoon-style “road food” that I tend to enjoy. And yet the things he does enjoy along the way are enticing, from his encounter with an Amish furniture maker to his wonder at the Grand Canyon, and these make the moodier passages worth enduring.

One thing to note: Connolly has lived in America for many years and loves this country, but he is not American. Nor is he Christian. But he is opinionated, and he’s not the sort of person to soft-pedal his opinions, which some readers may find a bit off-putting. Personally I found his outsider’s perspective and blunt revulsion at some of the more excessive, fanatical, or just plain weird aspects of American culture rather refreshing. His writing style — assisted by cowriter Robert Uhlig — is more serviceable than poetic, but he can get philosophical from time to time. The overall impression is something akin to spending a couple hours hearing your colorful uncle tell you all about his vacation over a pint.

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Review: Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A recent discussion with a friend regarding what I disliked about the film Man of Steel led to us reminiscing about the Superman comics we’d grown up with, which led in turn to him recommending this collection of stories from the 1980s that I somehow missed back in the day.

Briefly, in 1986, after decades of publication and hundreds of issues, DC Comics announced plans to reboot Superman… to toss everything that had come before and start over at issue #1, the destruction of Krypton, Ma and Pa Kent finding the baby in the crashed spaceship, the whole thing. But before that new series debuted, the publisher saw an opportunity that’s rare in ongoing comic-book titles, the chance for closure, to provide a definitive ending to the classic era of the Man of Steel… or, as he was once known, the Man of Tomorrow.

The two-part tale that lends its title to this collection, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (originally published in Superman #423 and Action Comics #583), is flat-out brilliant. Written by comic legend Alan Moore (Watchmen) and structured in the form of a flashback (from the futuristic year of 1997!) narrated by Lois Lane, the “last” Superman story tells of Kal-El’s old enemies and allies coming together for one final confrontation, with fatal consequences for many of them, including — apparently — Superman himself. While there are plenty of deaths and an overall elegaic tone, the story never gets too heavy, and it ends on an absolutely perfect note, quite literally with a wink and a smile. For older fans who loved the Superman of an earlier era, it’s a wonderfully satisfying, nostalgic conclusion. The art by Curt Swann and George Perez is perfect as well, clean and bright, a touch old-fashioned perhaps but very pleasing, and exactly the way I remember Superman comics looking when I was a kid.

Rounding out this trade paperback are two additional stories by Moore that are unrelated but have a similar tone and theme to “Whatever Happened.” In “The Jungle Line,” originally published in DC Comics Presents #85 with art by the great Al Williamson, Superman has been infected by an extra-terrestrial fungus. Delusional and not trusting himself to fly safely, he drives south, intending to die well away from anyone who might be hurt by his super-powered death throes. But the jungle he finds himself in is home to another denizen of the DC universe, the hideous but kindly Swamp Thing, who makes telepathic contact with the stranger in his realm and tries to help him fight the ravaging hallucinations.

Finally, in “For the Man Who Has Everything” from Superman Annual #11 (art by Dave Gibbons), the Man of Steel is held captive by a telepathic alien plant that grants the illusion of the victim’s greatest desire… in this case, a “normal” life on an unexploded Krypton. While his friends Batman and Wonder Woman fight to save him in the real world, Kal-El comes to realize the “life” he’s living is nothing but illusion…

Taken together, these four stories all form an interesting meditation on the core of the classic Superman’s character: his desire for a normal human life as a husband and father balanced against his superhuman nobility and sense of duty. Unlike more modern superhero stories, which would present these ideas with clenched jaws and grim self-loathing, these tales have a lighter touch, more humor and optimism, and a sense that, while Superman may wish he had a different life, he’s not all that unhappy with the one he’s got, because he’s serving a purpose. It’s a refreshing change from the modern superhero idiom, and a lot of fun to read.

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Review: Batman: The Doom That Came To Gotham

Batman: The Doom That Came To Gotham
Batman: The Doom That Came To Gotham by Mike Mignola

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am amazed by the seemingly infinite flexibility of the Batman mythos. I’ve read Batman stories set in the Victorian era and the far future, seen him teamed up with (or placed in opposition to) characters as offbeat as the monster from the film Predator, and of course he’s been interpreted through cinematic visions as wide-ranging as Adam West’s, Tim Burton’s, and Christopher Nolan’s, and yet, somehow, it almost always works. In The Doom that Came to Gotham, the Caped Crusader and his rogues’ gallery of regular sidekicks and villains are transplanted into an HP Lovecraft story, and it works very well indeed.

The year is 1928, and the globetrotting adventurer Bruce Wayne has just discovered the remnants of the overdue Cobblepott Antarctic expedition… as well as the tentacled thing they found in the ice that apparently drove them all mad. Wayne destroys the monster with explosives — or so he thinks — and returns to Gotham City, the home he hasn’t seen in 20 years. But he soon encounters a talking dead man and a demon called Etrigan, who warns him that an old debt is coming due. An ancient evil from before the time of men is waking up, and if Wayne can’t find a way to stop it, humanity is doomed…

One of the pleasures of an “alternate history” tale like this is seeing how familiar characters and tropes get reworked in service of a new framework, and in this case, the reworking is clever, organic to the story, and frequently surprising. (This story contains the most logical explanation behind The Penguin that I’ve ever encountered!) But I suspect this story would also be effective if you didn’t know a thing about Batman or his usual sidekicks and adversaries. Co-writer Mike Mignola is the creator of Hellboy, another series that draws heavily on Lovecraft’s dark tales of Elder Gods and cosmic dread, and this story is an effective pastiche of those. It’s a taut, spooky yarn that effectively ratchets up the dread panel by panel until the climax, which casts a whole new light on the eternal question of whether the Dark Knight’s true identity is Bruce Wayne… or the bat.

Mignola did not do the artwork in The Doom that Came to Gotham, but the general look will nevertheless be familiar to fans of Hellboy, although it’s less stylized. Rendered mostly in a subdued palette (except where fire is involved), with nice detail overall and a suitably squirmy look to the creatures, the art contributes greatly to the final effect of the story.

Overall, a highly satisfying read.

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Quick Take: Sing Street

sing-street_cast-hero-walkI feel like I’m late for the party on Sing Street, as it’s been making its way around the U.S. since April, but if you haven’t heard of it yet, take my word for it: you will. And if you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

An Irish import filmed in Dublin, Sing Street is a rare cinematic treasure: a movie that is both joyous and poignant, fanciful and authentic, with an ending that is exactly what you need it to be without it feeling predictable. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a fourteen-year-old boy who forms a band to impress a girl and escape from the grim realities of his daily existence, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a love letter to the mid 1980s and the synth-pop music videos that dominated MTV at the time. It’s also a slice-of-life picture about a gritty urban school milieu that is no more. It’s a comedy-drama about brothers and brothers in arms, as well as the struggle to find yourself in spite of the petty bullies who want to squash your spirit. And it’s a clear-eyed depiction of young romance. Mostly it’s about that time in everyone’s life when you feel both hope and disappointment more keenly than you ever have before and ever will again.

This is the kind of movie I sometimes see and think “I wish I’d written this,” while secretly fearing that I don’t have enough talent to pull it off, at least not this well. The music is great and the evocation of 1985 is spot-on, as is the casting. It’s refreshing to see a movie about teenagers in which the actors actually look like teenagers. And I’ve got to say that Lucy Boynton, who plays the mysterious older girl who claims to be a model and catalyzes the entire plot, is some kind of amazing. When I was a teenager, I’d have become a musician for her myself.

Sing Street is charming on every level. Don’t miss it.

Oh, one final note: the makers of this movie must’ve cleaned out every vintage clothing store in the UK to find all that acid-wash. Wow…

 

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