Something Odd this way comes … again

“In my short life, I have seen any detestable things, and I have been called upon to do repugnant things that have for a while broken me. But nothing in my experience had weighed upon me with greater power than the grievous scene in that subcellar of the mausoleum.” — from Odd Apocalypse, by Dean Koontz

THE LIVES AND CAREERS  of authors Dean Koontz and Stephen King are contemporaneous (Koontz, born in 1945, is 2 years older), and I have frequently found myself making comparisons between the two. Both had childhoods that contributed to their dark leanings (Koontz lived with an abusive, drunken father; King witnessed the death of a childhood friend under a train); and both have filled bookstores and libraries with their dark and macabre visions. I must confess, however, a preference for Koontz only because his narratives are more even, his attention span seemingly a bit longer, and his writing reflects a touch more erudition.

In 2003, Koontz introduced us to a twenty-year old short-order cook from Pico Mundo, California named Odd Thomas (Random House, 2003,2012), a man who sees dead people (“…but then, by God, I do something about it!”). Odd is a boy whose sad upbringing (possibly reflecting Koontz’ own) makes him susceptible to the spirits of those who have not yet “crossed over,” and Odd’s peregrinations are at once dark and funny. The ghosts of Elvis and of a white German Shepherd named Boo accompany Odd in the debut novel, later to be replaced, briefly, by Frank Sinatra and a variety of other spirits visible only to Odd and seemingly escaped from a Chris Consani poster or painting. The eponymous novel became a best seller, and several sequels followed, the last  (Odd Hours) appearing in 2008.  The “Odd” franchise also includes two graphic novels and a webisodic story in 4 parts, Odd Passenger.

The latest Odd sighting, Odd Apocalypse (Random House Publishing Group, 2102), is enchanting, as were the other novels. But it has been four years since the last installment and I was forced to go back and refresh my recollection of the events and characters in order to get into the mood. If you haven’t read the first novel, you will have a hard time making sense of this one. The story of Odd is like a dream and when you wake from a dream you may briefly recall the details–only to have them disappear into the web of synapses that hide them away from wakeful consciousness. That was how it felt opening Odd Apocalypse after several years: it took a while to bring it all back.

But, once I was able to refresh myself about the adventures of this peculiar protagonist, I found myself again amazed that I cared so much in the first place. The whole story is dreamlike (“Sometimes it seems that I am dreaming whenI am in fact awake, my reality as unreal as the lands I walk in sleep.”). Of course, in dreams things happen that are not only impossible but improbable. Yet you think nothing of it as you experience it (in dreams, I can sometimes fly!). Odd’s training in life is as a short-order cook (well, he does speak to the dead, but that’s not education, that avocation), yet his erudition is amazing: he can recognize quotes from Yeats, he is familiar with Hugo’s Les Miserables, and he can quote Shakespeare. But the incongruities gets better. And scarier.

In Apocalypse, Odd is led to an out of the way mansion known as Roseland by a girl named Annamaria whom he first encountered in his fourth Odd Thomas novel, Odd Hours. The owner of the property, a wealthy and disturbed (as well as disturbing) man named Noah Wolflaw, is mesmerized by Annamaria–as is Odd, but for different and less dark reasons. She is more woman than girl, more sprite than human: a person who has a way of making people say and do things that they would not ordinarily do. Annamaria has led Odd to this place because she senses that there is someone in danger, someone whom they need to help. The specter of a blonde woman in white on a black stallion confirms Annamaria’s premonition, and Odd quickly discovers how strange, and dangerous, this place is. It doesn’t’ bode well that daylight hours pass too quickly and that shadows are cast in two different directions; or that invisible creatures with claws roam the meadows and groves threatening sudden death to any who cross their path.

But in the land of Odd, the story can go from horrifying to knee-slapping hilarious at a moment’s notice. Odd’s irreverence is charming, and his observations and conversations–both with the living and the dead–can be riotously funny. Take this exchange between Odd and  Henry, a security guard at the mansion, about the possibility of UFO abduction. Odd begins:

“I just can’t buy into flying saucers and all that….it doesn’t make sense to me that a super intelligent race would come all the way across the galaxy just to abduct people and put probes up their rectums.”

“Well, that’s not the only thing they do in their examinations.”

“But it always seems to be the first and most important thing….[W]hy would aliens be interested in whether I have colon cancer?”

“Maybe because they care,” Henry said.

Or consider the reason that Odd doesn’t own a cell phone: “I never needed to play video games or surf the Net, or exchange nude photos with a congressman.”

But there are times when Odd waxes philosophical in ways bordering on the psychological:

“I wonder sometimes why those theorize about the human mind can so easily believe in the existence of things they cannot see or measure, or in any meaningful way confirm as real–such as the id, the ego, the unconscious I–but nevertheless dismiss as superstitious those who believe the body has a soul.”

Humor and philosophy aside, this is a story about the depths of depravity to which humans can descend, and yet Koontz is able to endow it with a redemptive quality I have seldom encountered in anything by Stephen King.

“…because I am able to see the lingering dead, I know that something lies outside of time, a place to which they belong and to which I will one day go.”

The Odd series is an amazing pastiche of ideas, dreams, spirits, and horror seasoned with just enough humor to take the edge off. However long since his previous incarnation, Thomas is Odd as ever in Odd Apocalypse, and equally, unbelievably enjoyable. It is Alice through the Looking Glass with attitude. But before you try to read it, I suggest you pick up Odd Thomas, the book that started it all. That is where you first meet Odd, learn what makes him that way, and learn to love him. He’s a trip, that’s for sure! If nothing else, you will learn what became of Elvis after he left K-Mart.

But just wait until you see which famous dead celebrity makes several brief appearances in Odd Apocalypse: his ghostly presence in this story couldn’t be more appropriate.

If you are interested in learning more about Odd Thomas, check out http://www.oddthomas.tv.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

Update: Low Pressure, by Sandra Brown

This advance review of Low Pressure, by Sandra Brown (Grand Central Publishing) first appeared July 31, 2012 on this site. Low Pressure is now for sale in bookstores.

Sandra Brown has had a place in my heart and on my bookshelf for years. I never miss the chance to read one of her novels, and her newest, Low Pressure, is as good as any she has written.

Why do I like her so much? For one thing, her plotting is intricate. For another, she has the uncanny knack of making you care about the characters in her novels: not quite sure how she does it, but she pulls it off. Thirdly she is a writer of both mystery and suspense (two different things); and fourthly, she knows how to effectively use sexual tension to keep the reader wondering when, where, and in how many different positions.

In Low Pressure we meet Bellamy Lyston Price, an heiress who has written a novel under a pseudonym. The daughter of Austin, Texas millionaire Oliver Lyston, she constructed the fictional account based on events surrounding the murder of her sexually promiscuous older sister Susan. At the time, Bellamy was only twelve years old (the book’s title stems from a tornado that struck Austin eighteen years before the story begins, just prior to which the murder occurred). Bellamy claims to have written the book for therapeutic reasons—but then she went ahead and published it. It didn’t catch on until a “smarmy” newspaper reporter discovered who the real author was. The press went wild over a story that smacked of sex, a beautiful heiress, and an unsolved murder, and Bellamy Price became an instant celebrity.

Unfortunately, some of the people who had been involved in the events of eighteen years earlier weren’t thrilled by the book’s contents. Bellamy, it seems, may have become a target for one or more of them. After receiving a very disturbing package in the mail, she drops the book tour and leaves New York for Austin, Texas to regroup.

Bellamy’s father is dying of cancer. She charters a plane for her stepmother, father and herself to fly to a Houston medical center. To fly the charter she hires someone from her past, charter pilot Dent Carter. Carter is not happy to see her: there are too many bad memories. As Susan’s boyfriend, he was the first to come under suspicion for her murder and his life has not yet fallen back into place. Why had Bellamy deliberately come to him now?

But he and Bellamy both shortly find themselves involved after his plane is vandalized. His plane is his life, and it has now become personal. Whoever is out for Bellamy has it out for him—and perhaps others as well. Was the wrong man convicted of the murder so many years ago, and if so who really committed the crime? Who is it that doesn’t want people to start reexamining the evidence?

We have a mystery: a mystery marked by thick suspense. There is a difference. Alfred Hitchcock was clear about the difference (mystery involves the mind, suspense the emotions). Few chapters are more suspenseful than the one in which a killer is hiding in Bellamy’s bedroom closet with a double-edged hunting knife as she and Dent are arguing for several pages down in the living room. We know he is waiting up there and we can only keep reading. I defy anyone who reads this far to stop reading at the end of chapter twenty-nine to turn out the lights. You’ll be up for at least two more chapters

Author Brown: She is famous for her sparky dialogue. Source: Wikipedia

Then, there’s the sexual tension. Dent and Bellamy clearly have chemistry—she remembers having a crush on him when she was twelve and it never really went away. Neither of them wants to admit it, and there is much angry banter between them. Brown is skilled at dialogue, and their interchanges create sparks. The sexual tension tightens when we learn that she has relationship issues that allow her to go only so far before saying “No”, which drives Carter to distraction. But he is determined to break through. I admit it: I kept turning pages.  I’m really into sparky dialogue.

Brown writes sex scenes better than any writer working. Men sometimes write them with a “slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am” sort of style, but Brown got her creds as a writer of romance novels and this adds a deeper human dimension to her work (this may partly explain her success at making us care about her characters). She knows what makes a woman tick. Men are well advised to pay attention (and pick up some of that sparky dialogue).

Low Pressure, like many of Sandra Brown’s novels, is part murder mystery, part romance novel, and part Lifetime movie script. But it is wholly entertaining.

Matt Dillon, oh how I miss you!

James Arness (1923-2011) played Marshal Matt Dillon on the TV series “Gunsmoke” from 1955-1975. Source: LA Times Obituary

Sometimes I put myself to sleep by watching movies and TV programs on my iPad. I was delighted to see that the Encore channel carries a hundred or more episodes of Gunsmoke, a show I started watching when I was 6 and continued to watch until it went off the air in 1975. Watching these old episodes made me realize why I tuned in every week, and made me wonder if we weren’t better off with shows like Gunsmoke. They made us think about stuff like courage, honor, loyalty, and decency. These, unfortunately, aren’t virtues that are as popular today as say saving the whales or redistributing wealth, so we don’t hear as much about them.

Okay, why am I writing about Matt Dillon and Gunsmoke? Gunsmoke was a television series (one of the longest-running series ever). What does this have to do with books?

Nothing. But it has everything to do with writing. Every television series (excluding reality TV, which is not reality and not TV as far as I am concerned) requires a script, and there are good and bad script writers out there. (Don’t get me started on comedy writers; the pitiful skits that they present on Saturday Night Live these days don’t even qualify as writing: they have completely lost the art.). Gunsmoke had some of the best writers in the business, and I miss that. Intelligent TV–whether Western, Detective, or anything. I miss it.

Oh sure, there were guns. The opening credits start out with Matt facing down a gunfighter. But that was just fluff. The meat was in the stories, written by some of the best scriptwriters: writers who could develop a story with depth requiring an attention span that could go beyond a punchline. In other words, for a generation not raised on Sesame Street.

One episode, for example, had a theme of courage (When was the last time you heard this word used in a TV series, or held up as an ideal?). It starred Glen Corbett, a good looking young actor who starred later on Route 66. He played a young man named Dan Collins who always shied away from trouble. He somehow ends up in the robbery of a stagecoach stop where all of the bandits are found dead. They killed themselves fighting over the money, but people thought Dan Collins had killed them. He now had an undeserved reputation as a gunfighter. For once, however, he was respected and treated well. He enjoyed his new celebrity and so did nothing to disabuse anyone of the notion that he had, in fact, saved the day .

That is until he fell in love with a young woman whose brother was threatened by a wealthy rancher who was trying to force them off their property. The rancher hired killers to run them off. Collins, in love with the girl, confesses that he is not a hero. Then, in the end, four gunmen attack the ranch and Collins, at first hesitant, charges in and kills three of the four before the fourth shoots him down. Of course, Matt Dillon rides in in time to stop the last gunman. But Collins, the man who thought himself a coward, died showing extreme bravery and gaining–in death (unfortunately)–the deserved reputation of a hero.

Honor. Courage. Decency. Honesty. All of these virtues ended up as themes in this oh so great TV series, shown as standing out in  an imperfect world filled with many who were not honorable, honest, or even courageous. A world just like the one we live in now.

I just wish we had shows on TV to remind us of those things now.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

Murder in the Tower of London

“The Princes in the Tower” (1878), John Everett Millais. Source: Wikipedia

One of history’s greatest mysteries involves the death of two royal children in 1483, Edward and Richard, the sons of England’s Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, aged 13 and 10 respectively. Young Edward was brought to England to wear the crown, but within a few months he was declared a bastard by Parliament leaving the way to the throne clear for Richard of Gloucester, the boys’ uncle and Edward IV’s brother, who would rule as Richard III. The skulduggery leading to their disappearance and presumed murder is the subject of Phillippa Gregory’s latest novel, The Kingmaker’s Daughter (Touchstone, 2012).

Gregory’s fascination with the history of English monarchs has given us more than twenty well-crafted works of historical fiction. One of them, The Other Boleyn Girl (Touchstone, 2002), tapped into the fascination so many have with the randy court of Henry VIII and was made into a major motion picture. I don’t see motion picture quality in The Kingmaker’s Daughter, but it is quite a good read.

The protagonist-narrator here is Anne Neville, one of two daughters of Richard Neville, the Duke of Warwick, whose manipulations of those seeking the crown gained him the moniker which supplies the novel’s title. Two titled houses are tilting for power, the houses of Lancaster and York. Due to the long history of royal pairing for the purpose of political advantage, it is an internecine struggle, sometimes known as the “Cousins War,” but history remembers it best as the “War of the Roses” (so called because the emblem of the Yorks was a white rose, that of the Lancasters a red rose).

We meet Anne when she is a child of 8, a pawn of her father’s destined for his machinations, matchmaking, and kingmaking efforts. A short-lived marriage of convenience is followed by a love match with young Richard of Gloucester, one of the three sons of York and the one who will wear the crown after his brother Edward’s death.

This Richard is nothing like the misshapen and brooding man we meet in Shakespeare (remember, Shakespeare was pandering to the daughter of Henry VIII, whose father defeated Richard III ending the War of the Roses). He is a kind, gentle warrior who truly loves Anne, even though he has ambitions towards his brother’s crown.

Was he the kind of man who could have murdered, or ordered the murder of, two innocent young boys? History’s verdict has long been expressed in the affirmative, but the question remains open as far as Gregory is concerned. Indeed, she plans to give us her answer in her next novel.

One thing becomes clear: Anne Neville, who starts our story as a kind and innocent child, is a very different person after the years of intrigue and warfare. By the time Edward dies, she has become a woman who could do whatever was necessary, and the degree to which she may have encouraged the death of those children is deliciously suggested, though never confirmed. She is an older, more hardened woman by the time the novel nears it’s end, so who knows? She is quite clear concerning the threat to Richard, her husband, that the boys pose if they remain alive:

They will always be a danger to us. They will always be a focus of any discontent, for anyone who wants to question our rule.

It is now almost certain that the children were, in fact, murdered. A box containing the bones of two children was discovered buried in the Tower of London in 1674 during a renovation, and while conclusive scientific evidence is lacking the evidence that has been amassed is too striking to rule out the awful conclusion. But the question of who did it, thought closed by many, lends a eerie edge to Gregory’s novel that will leave you waiting for the next installment.

“The book was better” isn’t always true

Just when you thought it was safe to go into the water....One of the most unforgettable movies ever was Jaws, the 1975 summer blockbuster about a great white shark that decided to use the beaches of Amity Island as a buffet. Naturally, I just had to go pick up a copy of the newly released version of that movie on Blu-Ray, which has cleaned up and clarified the film we have been watching on late night for so long that it has almost lost its power. I have to say, watching that new version was almost like seeing it for the first time in the theater. My wife actually (literally) jumped out of her chair when Ben Gardner’s head popped out of the hole in the bottom of his boat.

Steven Spielberg based his thriller on a novel by Peter Benchley, and Benchley worked on the script with Spielberg’s writers. Jaws is one example of how the movie is better than the book; in fact, it is a decided improvement over the novel which at the time I sort of passed over because, quite frankly, it struck me as tawdry, trashy pulp fiction. Spielberg saw the possibilities beneath the muck, and turned the story into one that still causes the hair on your arms to tingle.

In the novel, Benchley spent too much time delving into the neuroses of his characters, and their sexual longings and peccadilloes. The affair between oceanographer Matt Hooper and Ellen Brodie added nothing to the story, except provide requisite sexual romps that publishers prized in the sex-obsessed seventies. Mayor Vaughn was as slimy in the book as he was in the movie, but he also was in league with the Mafia. Mafia hoods had invested in Amity real estate and closing the beaches would have endangered their investment. Just to spice things up, Vaughn also had a thing for Ellen Brodie. That woman was as slippery as the shark.

Robert Shaw as Captain Quint in "Jaws."

Robert Shaw gave a brilliant performance as the crusty Captain Quint, an Ahab-like character with demons, in Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Image: Photobucket.

As for Quint, Benchley clearly saw him as a modern day Captain Ahab. At first, the old fisherman was in int for the money but then became obsessed with the fish. His obsession eventually led to his death, and his death occurred in the same way Ahab’s did: caught in a rope, dragged to the bottom, and then resurfacing on the huge fish like some harbinger of hell.

Spielberg’s script honed this somewhat confused tale down to a work of art, clean, crisp, and streamlined. He completely threw out the sexual longings of the characters; jettisoned the Mafia link, leaving Vaughn just a self-aggrandizing political hack who tried to please everybody (something we can easily identify with). Hooper is not a skirt chaser, but a shark chaser who develops a bond with Chief Brodie that precluded his dalliance with Ellen. And Quint? Well, the allusion to Captain Ahab is still unmistakeable. However, his manner of death is more grisly and the ending is doubly impressive because it is Chief Brodie who brings down the shark, having once and for all overcome a lifelong terror of being in the water.

But one of the most unforgettable scenes in Spielberg’s film is the soliloquy that Quint delivers on the boat while the three men are drinking and relaxing about his experience on the U.S.S. Indianapolis, and in the water surrounded by sharks after the boat was hit by Japanese torpedoes. It is one of the most powerful film moments I have experienced. It turned Benchley’s muddled effort at storytelling into a product of genius.

So, if you ever wondered how the movie compared with the book, and feel the urge to pick up Benchley’s novel, by all means check it out. However, I think you will see that Spielberg made the story into something far superior.

Incidentally, another instance of the movie surpassing the novel is Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. The novel was–unlike Jaws–quite a good book, but the script for the 1972 blockbuster took the novel, shaved off it’s excesses (like the focus on Johnny Fontaine and his Hollywood antics), and created a work of art which I, personally, consider one of the finest films ever made.

Now for some instances of where the book is better than the movie. No one has ever made a movie version of Wuthering Heights that is as good as Emily Bronte’s novel. Likewise, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has never successfully been translated to celluloid. (Incidentally, new movie versions of both of these novels are shortly coming out.)

But the all-time worst attempt to translate a film from novel to the big screen that I can remember was Catch 22, based on Joseph Heller’s best seller. The 1970 film version turned a work of genius into a superficial, tawdry piece of seventies pandering.

Heller’s Catch 22 does bring us full circle, because in 1973 a pilot episode for a TV series based on Catch 22 was released starring Richard Dreyfuss, Jaws’ Matt Hooper, in the Yossarian role. It apparently went nowhere. That was a good thing. Catch 22 should be remembered for its own peculiar genius, not for the chop job that Hollywood script writers did on it.

So, if you liked the book, you may not like the movie. And vice versa. But being familiar with both makes the overall appreciation of whatever is positive about the story that much more deeply understandable. And that’s a good thing!

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

A Most Dangerous Woman

This is an advance review of Parlor Games, by Maryka Biaggio (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group). The novel will be released January 22, 2013.

In college, I found myself enjoying a type of novel classified as picaresque. The word comes from the Spanish word picaro, meaning a “rogue” or a “scoundrel.” These novels are typically narrated by the anti-hero, a person who chooses to live by his or her wits rather than make an honest living; they take us to many places and through different classes of society; and they are frequently humorous, and quite entertaining. Some of the more memorable ones include Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders; Henry Fieldng’s Tom Jones; and William Makepeace Thackery’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon. The picaresque novel most familiar to Americans, however, is probably Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Maryka Biaggio’s breakout novel, Parlor Games, is a novel of this sort. One difference: it is an historical novel. The anti-heroine, May Dugas, is based on an historical personage whose reputation garnered her the moniker of “a most dangerous woman.”

Dugas was not a serial killer. The “danger” faced by those who encountered her was financial. She had a long history of separating male admirers–and one female one–from their money. However, the “victims” were not all that innocent. They all wanted something from her.

Biaggo has a Ph.D. in psychology, and as such has sound insight into her character. She has also researched the late 19th and early 20th century exhaustively, and has written a book that speaks the language of that time, complete with its politeness and well-thought out syntax. This is not an easy thing to do.

Dugas, born in Fox River Grove, Illinois, moved with her mother and two brothers to Menominee, Michigan after her father’s sudden death. She loved her father, and enjoyed the times when he would take her to his favorite bar and have her do pirouettes on the bar to the delight of his drinking buddies. “Some people claim I hate men. Such nonsense. How I loved the sound of the men clapping and hooting.”

A beautiful girl, Dugas soon learned how her feminine charms could control men. Her first dalliance was with the handsome son of the town’s wealthiest citizen, which ended in a pregnancy scare. Not wanting to marry the boy, she talked him into supporting her on a trip to Chicago, ostensibly to find a family to take the child and spare her lover’s family the shame. They could, afterwards, begin their life afresh without the taint of scandal. At least that was what she told him.

In fact, she wasn’t pregnant, and instead found a life for herself in the big city which was everything she had ever dreamed it would be. In time, the boyfriend realized he was being taken and this forced her to find other means of employment. Which she did, without hesitation, in one of Chicago’s finest bordellos.

From there, she went on to enchant well-to-do men on several continents, and was soon the quarry of a Pinkerton detective named Dougherty, who plays Javert to her female Jean Valjean for the rest of the novel.

At one point, she pairs up with a hired “assistant” who is every bit as scheming as the lady herself. Together, they pull of a scam involved a diamond necklace that was allegedly stolen and rip off Lloyd’s of London for a large sum of money.

Her undoing is a woman she befriends, a manly woman named “Frank.” Frank is drawn to her friendship, and soon we understand why. She is in love with Dugas. When the book begins, Frank has filed suit against May–who now goes by “Countess DeVries” after a failed marriage with a Dutch nobleman–and the narrative goes back and forth between the 1917 trial (which is based in fact) and May’s travels through time and across the globe.

Will our heroine overcome the odds? Will she evade the wily Pinkerton man and find happiness? Oddly enough, those questions kept me reading. Biaggio made me care about the characters I was encountering. That’s a real skill for a writer.

I enjoyed this novel immensely. It is not what I thought it would be, just a “chick” book (although women would no doubt enjoy it, since it is about a woman in a time when wits were just about the only thing women had going for them). It is an entertaining romp across the globe, through bedrooms on several continents, and a fascinating insight into a very complicated, and perhaps totally amoral woman.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris