Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Book Trailer: THE MONEY SHOT by Christa Faust

A month or so ago I received an email from Charles Ardai—I’m on the mailing list over at the Hard Case Crime website—with a teaser about HCC’s February release, The Money Shot by Christa Faust. In it he said we should do two things: 1) go watch the book trailer; and 2) buy the book when it’s released.

The trailer for The Money Shot isn’t nearly as good as the trailer for Dean Koontz’s The Good Guy, but it’s kind of cool. If for no other reason than the dancing girl—whom, I think, is the author, Christa Faust. You can see the trailer below, but according to Charles Ardai the reader should be aware that it doesn’t make for easy reading:

“Fair warning to anyone who might be offended by such things: Some of the content of the novel is pretty raw, in terms of sex and violence. ”

I’ll give The Money Shot a try for no other reason than the cool cover art, but I have to admit I’m getting squeamish. I had to put Richard Laymon’s Savage aside a few evenings ago because it nearly made me sick. And I usually love Laymon’s work. Maybe it’s just my mood. I hope.

Friday, January 25, 2008

MANITOU BLOOD by Graham Masterton

This review originally went live on SFReader in October 2005. I thought this review rocked when I originally wrote it, but it didn't seem quite as great as I read it this evening. But the book is great. Really.

Graham Masterton revisits his horror roots with his recent novel Manitou Blood. For those of you familiar with Masterton’s work the title will tell you everything you need to know about the story. If you are new to his tales, Manitou Blood brings back two of Masterton’s most beloved characters: Harry Erskine (a fortune-telling skeptic and sometime con-man) as the protagonist; and Misquamacus (a Native American spirit, or manitou, of a shaman wonder-worker determined to push all, except the Native Americans, out of the New World) as the antagonist.

The story begins with Dr. Frank Winter walking to work. On his way Frank notices a young woman mime performing on the street. Her exposed skin is painted silver and she is beautiful in a “waiflike” manner that makes Frank stop and watch. Her performance is amazing. Almost surreal in the way she moves. Frank is awed by the spectacle and confused when a man standing behind him whispers: She’s one of the pale ones, that’s why [she is so convincing]. Frank doesn’t understand the phrase “pale ones,” but he will.

After the mime’s performance Frank approaches her and places a dollar in her silver collection bowl. He congratulates her on a wonderful performance, but before he can leave she begins to vomit blood. The blood is not hers, but rather it belongs to two different people. This is the beginning of what looks like a deadly blood disease. Those who contract it suffer from burning skin and a wet hunger for blood that cannot be quenched. It doesn’t take long for New York City to be inundated with the ill and their victims. The disease spreads so quickly that in less than a week the city is literally a ghost town by day and a howling bin of bloodsuckers by night.

The “vampire” plague is nothing the doctors or authorities can solve. The only man who can stop the destruction is a tarot card dealing, palm-reading fortune-teller named Harry Erskine. Unfortunately he is unable to convince anyone the plague is supernatural. The doctors are searching for a blood disorder, and the authorities quarantine New York City. Harry Erskine is alone, with a little help from unexpected friends, to save the world, again.

Manitou Blood is a mixture of vampire novel, ghost story, end of the world plague tale, and demonic possession all rolled into one unique and exhilarating story. It has all of the elements of a good horror novel: There is an abundant amount of fear, enough suspense to keep the reader turning the pages, a little sex, some humor, a touch of gore and a whole lot of fun. Masterton takes the familiar—the vampire—and adds some interesting and original elements to the mythos, and then he places some harrowing, very frightening Native American legends in the story. The ending is a surprise, and the journey is a romp. Manitou Blood is a banner example of Masterton’s better work: It is quick, well plotted, and definitely not disappointing.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Mojave Desert / Death Valley Part 2

Part One is Here.

Death Valley was everything I have ever imagined. Vast. Desolate. Beautiful. There were more people at Death Valley than Mojave, but the park is so large it didn’t bother me. In fact the only thing that did bother me was that our allotted time was far too short. On our way in, just past the ghost town of Rhyolite, we passed three wild burros on the edge of the road, and on our way out we saw a handful of wild horses. Somewhere in between we made an uneasy friendship with a Coyote that consisted of him eyeing us suspiciously, and us pointing and cooing at him. He got up and walked away. And we just watched him—the perfect predator. The animal that no matter what we humans do, we can’t seem to kill them out. In my home state of Utah there is still a $75 bounty on Coyotes, but they keep breeding, prospering, and living on. Thankfully.

In the northern corner of the park is a beautiful estate built in the 1920s called Scotty’s Castle—it was built by an insurance magnate who lost his fortune during the Great Depression and was never able to finish his Death Valley hideaway, but the portion that he did finish is impressive. The house is magnificent, and the National Park Service offers two distinct tours of the house: the living areas, and the tunnels that run beneath it. We decided we weren’t overly interested in the rugs and furniture, but the idea of dank and dark tunnels filled us with excitement, so we forked over the twenty dollars and went on the tunnel tour.

The tour took about an hour, and it consisted of us, the tour guide and a friendly gentleman from upstate New York. The tunnels, like the rest of the house, were never finished, but they were still impressive. The house used a condensation cooling system that blew desert air into the tunnels with a large fan past water-filled pipes that cooled the air before it was pushed into small shafts that vented into the main house. Impressive. Even more so if it actually worked.

When the tour ended we wandered the grounds, and met a myriad of interesting people. There was an older man who worked the bookshop, his wife sold tickets for the tours, and while there really weren’t many tourists, the few we met were kind, and very obliging. It was Christmas day, and everyone was glad to be in the California desert. We tried to find the mysterious sand surfing rocks—they call it the racetrack, but the old man at the bookshop warned us away with a “the road is terrible. The last car that tried it was stranded, and the towing fee was $1,800.” We decided next time we’d rent an SUV, and get full coverage through the rental agency. Poor bastards.

We spent the night in a Motel 6 in the tiny town of Beatty, Nevada. It has something like five motels, and one restaurant—Rita’s Café. Fortunately the food at Rita’s is, at the least, edible, and at the best pretty good. The next day we went back into the park with the intention of eating breakfast at Furnace Creek—the place was packed. We walked into a diner, and they told us it was an hour wait. So we plunged ahead down the boardwalk about fifteen feet to a buffet, dropped thirty dollars and had our choice of three mystery meats (I think they were turkey, ham, and an unappealing beef.) The salad bar was a little better—the food was at least identifiable—and it gave me good reason to eat more greens than cholesterol.

The heart of Death Valley is impressive. The road winds down below sea level, and to the west dry ranges rise some 11,000-feet into vibrant sky. It reminded me very much of the Great Salt Lake, but without the water, and a whole lot more people eyeballing it. That isn’t to say it wasn’t great, it just reminded me how much I love the Great Salt Lake, and how under-appreciated it is—thankfully. We headed out of the park early that evening because we needed to get to Las Vegas for the night—our flight was scheduled to leave the next morning. And damn if I don’t wish we had a few more days, hell, maybe weeks, to wander the desolation of Death Valley.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


The Korean Intercept is the fifth (by my count) novel Stephen Mertz has published under his own name in the past few years, and it is the first to hit mass-market paperback. It is an action thriller with more than a little attitude, and even a touch of originality.

The space shuttle Liberty is just minutes off the launch pad at Cape Canaveral when its crew is given the order to abort mission—they are to maintain radio silence, and let the navigation system take them down. It isn’t long before the crew realizes something is terribly wrong and as the shuttle makes its final approach the pilot takes the controls and overshoots the approaching runway in Hamgyong Province, North Korea. He also gets a short mayday transmission out before the shuttle’s power goes down.

In the United States the president wants answers. No one knows exactly where the Liberty went down and the crew’s emergency beacons are frighteningly quiet. The Koreans, while not openly hostile, are unreceptive to a U.S. led search party, and the Chinese are more interested in their own search than helping the United States. This is where the hero arrives—Trev Galt. He is the best operator the United States has and to make things even more interesting his wife is one of Liberty’s missing astronauts. It doesn’t take Galt long to take things to the next level and when he does, watch out.

The Korean Intercept is a modern thriller in every sense of the word. The writing is loose and stark. The plot is flamboyant, larger-than-life, and fast-paced. The characters are cardboard, but they fit the story and fulfill their roles perfectly as the plot steams toward the climax. The major difference between The Korean Intercept and most of its peers is the action. Stephen Mertz made a name in the men’s action novel market in the 1980s, and it shows here. The action is quick, sharp, and exhilarating.

If The Korean Intercept has a weakness, it is one shared by most works in the genre—it takes the story a little too long to develop as the major players are introduced, but Mr. Mertz infuses the introductory scenes with enough action to keep it interesting. Then it really begins to pop about a quarter of the way through and it doesn’t let up until the final climax when Trev Galt makes it his mission in life to rescue both the Liberty and its crew.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Jack Higgins

I've never been a letter writer. I don’t write letters to celebrities, writers, or anyone else I don’t know. In fact, the idea kind of embarrasses me. But sometime around 1994 a friend of mine wrote a letter to Harry Patterson—the guy who became famous as Jack Higgins when he published the bestseller The Eagle Has Landed.

In 1994 Higgins published a novel titled On Dangerous Ground, which was the third novel to feature Higgins’ latest hero Sean Dillon. On Dangerous Ground was a reworking of an earlier novel written by Harry Patterson titled Midnight Never Comes; and my buddy was one of the few people lucky enough to have a copy of the original novel—it was published by Abelard-Schuman in 1966, and there were something liked 1,000 copies printed.

My friend purchased a copy of On Dangerous Ground in hardcover when it hit bookstores, and when, on page ten or eleven, he realized he'd read it before, he got annoyed. Annoyed enough to do the unthinkable: write a letter to the author. He didn’t have an address, but the dust jacket on every Jack Higgins’ novel published in the last twenty-five years reports his residence as Jersey Island. So my buddy addressed his sorta angry letter:

Harry Patterson
aka Jack Higgins
Isle of Jersey, Channel Islands
United Kingdom

Amazingly, a month or two later he received a response from Mr. Patterson. A very kind, somewhat apologetic letter that explained why he had reworked an older novel, and that there was a small notice of the fact on the copyright page. He explained that the original printing had sold very few copies and those only to libraries in the United Kingdom. The letter was double spaced, typed and filled with typos—Patterson explained this by saying he was recovering from a serious scuba diving accident and he only had use of one hand.

For a nerdy, book-loving teenager this was the coolest thing ever. At the time Jack Higgins was my favorite writer and the idea that he would actually climb down from his tower and converse with a lowly fan was astonishing and oh so cool to me. I was so impressed that my friend gave me a photocopy of the letter, and I read and reread this letter dozens of times over the years. And I would probably still get it out and reread it, but I lost it in a move several years ago.

The bottom line: I will never forget the kindness of Mr. Patterson’s response to a mildly disappointed reader. And I will always be a fan of his work—especially those tight, lean, and oh so cool early adventure novels. Those slim titles I wish he were still writing.

NOTE: Midnight Never Comes was the fourth Jack Higgins’ novel to feature the tough and resilient spy Paul Chavesse. Chavesse is a spy who is more blue-collar, tough, and a hell of a lot more fun than James Bond. If you enjoy solid action and top-notch suspense, you should hunt down the Chavesse novels because they never fail to entertain. A few of them have even been reprinted in the past few years; and I hope Berkley has Midnight Never Comes on its schedule.

The Paul Chavesse titles are: The Testament of Caspar Schultz (republished as The Bormann Testament), Year of the Tiger, The Keys of Hell, Midnight Never Comes, The Dark Side of the Street, and A Fine Night for Dying.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Mojave Desert / Death Valley Part 1

A few weeks ago I promised a few photographs of our Mojave Desert / Death Valley trip, and today, finally, I’m going to deliver. We flew into Las Vegas; a flight that, once it finally got in the air, took a little more than an hour, and our plan was to spend the first night there. But when we finally hit the city, traffic was so bad we made the decision to drive south, and spent the night in Baker, California—the place with the world’s largest thermometer. Baker is no more than a roadside stop on I-15. It is filled with restaurants, motels, and gas stations. And the biggest damn crows I have ever seen–they are the size of a small golden eagle, and all the residents watch their children closely, because a pack of these birds could easily carry them away.

We spent the night in a dumpy little drive-in motel called Wills Fargo—cool name, and really not a bad place once I got used to the cold white tile laid throughout. There was a handwritten list on yellow lined paper taped to the mirror that quoted prices for each item in the room that wasn’t bolted down: television $75; clock radio $15; heater $70; and towels $5. Not a bad deal if you’re in the market for a new television, or wall mounted heater. The motel and the town felt very much like a Richard Laymon horror novel. I kept looking for skulking perverts, cannibals, and psychopaths, but didn’t see anything unusual other than a really cool motel office with a working pay phone out front. A real working payphone!

That morning after a greasy meal at Bob’s Big Boy we headed into Mojave National Preserve. The landscape is desolate. It is littered with sage, sequoia, and even a scattering of low growing cactus. In the distance dry mountain ranges claw into the vibrant blue sky, and traffic was nonexistent—exactly the way I like it. We spent two days in Mojave—we bivouacked at a Days Inn in Needles, California (a dumpy little town with an even dumpier grocery store)—and loved every minute. We discovered a cavern in the heart of the preserve called The Mitchell Caverns that captured our imagination. It is a short hike from a California State Parks visitor center, and it is furnished with stalagtites, stalagmites, and a plethora of other unique geological cave formations.

The guide was a treat. We took the tour with three other families, and as we wove our way through the cavern—it is actually two separate caverns that have been connected—he explained many of the geological events that can be seen in the cave. Then after the thirty-minute tour he asked my wife and I if we wanted to hang around for a few more minutes, and he told us several more stories. One of them was when Oliver Stone filmed a scene for The Doors. The crew painted a pictograph on the cave wall with a temporary paint that turned out o be much more permanent than temporary. The park no longer allows film crews in the cave. He also talked about an early theory of rock formation; it was believed that the rock was alive and grew much the same as an animal. In an odd way it made sense; it probably doesn't hurt that as a child my mother constantly spoke of the spirit of nature. I grew up believing that trees, rocks, and every other substance on earth had a spirit that was alive, aware, and sacred. She was a hippy, kind of, and I still find her sensitivites more believable than the trash the hucksters sell at the pulpites and on television.
Unfortunately I didn’t know how to capture the beauty of the cavern, and my camera stayed in my pocket the entire time. But I’ll be back there again. And if you’re ever the area you should stop in too.

Come back in a few days for the Death Valley segment.

I couldn't help myself--this photograph of Cat Man Pete was on the same card. He really is as tough as he looks.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

THE VENUS DIARIES by Harrison Arnston

I’ve written about Harry Arnston before—I reviewed his novel Act of Passion earlier this year, and in that post I categorically stated that I have enjoyed every Arnston novel I’ve read. And that feeling hasn’t changed one bit since then. I recently re-read the last novel Harry published before his death: The Venus Diaries.

The Venus Diaries is a little different than Arnston’s other work—it fits quite nicely in the thriller category. It is the story of Josephine, a young woman who lost both her father and mother in World War Two France. After the war ends a silent and brutal man adopts her—he was a leader in a partisan group during the war, but when the Nazis were driven out he was declared useless. The man takes his frustrations out on Josephine until she can take no more. She is moved into a school for troubled girls where she excels academically, but there is something missing in Josephine: she doesn’t think like other children.

Josephine looks for weaknesses and angles to manipulate people for her own ends, but she is intelligent enough to cover her motives and convincing enough to make people believe she is anything but the ruthless sociopath she is. When Josephine turns sixteen her beauty attracts a top model agency where she is groomed to be a star—this is where she meets her destiny. A man who calls himself a spy contacts her to help with special jobs. She play-acts at seducing men of power, and then she steals the information they have.

The Venus Diaries spans more than fifty years. It begins in the war torn regions of France, but it doesn’t end until it reaches the highest levels of power in the United States of 1994. There is a large cast of characters that fulfill their obligation to the sprawling plotline well and keep the story interesting. The plot is well formed and intriguing—it has the feel of a sweeping epic without bogging down with too much information and character development. The prose is light and smooth. It captures the story with stark and appealing descriptions of characters and places.

If The Venus Diaries has a weakness it is the limited action—the story is told in a dream-like voice that inhibits both the darkness of the main character and the potentially riveting action scenes. This is easily forgiven however, because of Arnston’s strong grip on the story and its effects on the reader.

The Venus Diaries was Harry Anrston’s last published novel—it was number nine by my count—and if it isn’t his best work, it is very close.

Harper Paperbacks originally published The Venus Diaries in January 1994.