Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer

manhunt review james l swansonThis new year may be but one month gone, but I think we have a clear contender for the best non-fiction book of 2006 in James L. Swanson’s MANHUNT: THE 12-DAY CHASE FOR LINCOLN’S KILLER. Everyone knows the story of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre the night of April 14, 1865, but what happened afterward is, arguably, a story every bit as interesting, if far less often told.

Swanson’s book puts a real face on Lincoln’s murderer, egotistical actor/lothario John Wilkes Booth. A Confederate sympathizer and white supremacist, Booth was angered at the President both for the surrender of Robert E. Lee in the Civil War and the President’s subsequent decision to award blacks the right to vote, which Booth decried as “nigger citizenship.” MANHUNT’s first third deals with the planning, execution and immediate aftermath of the assassination, not at all the simple, point-and-shoot affair as textbooks would have you believe. With a band of recruited conspirators, Booth first had hatched a plot to kidnap the leader; when that was thwarted, he seized on the opportunity of Lincoln’s public appearance at Ford’s, formulating a new plan in less than a day, no less complex.

Except this one was no mere kidnapping. And it called for the simultaneous murders of Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Booth left those to his associates, who promptly botched them (you’ll find all the details, ranging from the gory to the comic, here), while taking the biggest assignment for himself. After succeeding, he broke his leg jumping on the theater stage in his escape. That fracture should have proved an omen to the week and a half that followed, a bizarre series of misadventures that occasionally find him in good luck, but more often find him at the mercy of his injury, grown so large he cannot remove his boot. At one point in his journey that crosses three state lines, Booth loses a day when he inadvertently rows the wrong way up the Potomac, and near the end meets his fate in the form of a man who has castrated himself. I certainly don’t remember learning that in Mrs. Denton’s class.

So hateful of the powers that be and showing no remorse for his crimes, Booth struck me as the precursor to Timothy McVeigh, albeit with the added value of charm, talent and good looks. You get to know him well, so strict are his politics, so deluded his thinking. Swanson’s narrative is wholly absorbing, as it reads like fiction. Assembled from original sources, it also has the benefit of being real. It really is, as he writes in his introduction, “far too incredible to have ever been made up.”

With its wide array of colorful characters both good and bad, and Booth’s every hour accounted for, MANHUNT plays out like a colonial version of 24. It is the most accessible and suspenseful true-to-life tale since Erik Larson’s THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY. Beautifully designed and supplemented with period photographs and illustrations, it also certainly stands as the definitive book of its subject. I don’t often read history books because I find them so dry, but MANHUNT is alive. It’s one to savor. –Rod Lott

Buy it at Amazon.

BOOK WHORE >> 1.31.06

star wars outbound flight reviewHoly crap, are there a lot of notable new releases coming out today. At least seven by our count. Also by our count: We expect to have reviews of at least four of them soon. Which four? Exactly half the fun is coming back to find out. (Seriously, exactly half. We counted that, too.)

• Because this world is short on STAR WARS books, Timothy Zahn offers STAR WARS: OUTBOUND FLIGHT. We have no idea what this one’s about, but we’re guessing maybe spaceships. Perhaps yours is as good as ours?

• Miles away from that universe is THE DEEP BLUE ALIBI, Paul Levine’s immediate sequel to SOLOMON VS. LORD, the dueling-lawyers mystery that seems like it just came out last week. And before you blink – okay, August – he’ll have the third installment out, called KILL ALL THE LAWYERS. Now there’s a concept we can get behind. We’ll have a review of ALIBI ready in, oh … five days ago.

• Speaking of third installments, Marc Cerasini has 24 DECLASSIFIED: TROJAN HORSE, the third (see!) original novel based on the kick-ass TV series. Despite the title, it is not about Jack Bauer on the hunt for equestrian condoms. We hope.

dusk tim lebbon review• A new dark fantasy series gets underway with Tim Lebbon’s DUSK. The sequel will be called DAWN, and no, we’re not just being snarky there. Lebbon hasn’t had a book out in forever – like four weeks ago – so it’s nice to have him back after the long hiatus.

• Another new dark fantasy series takes root in Christopher Golden’s THE MYTH HUNTERS. Subtitled “Book One of The Veil,” we tagged it as one of the 10 books we were most looking forward to in 2006. We hope it doesn’t disappoint.

• For straight horror, don’t count out GRIMM REAPINGS, R. Patrick Gates’ long-awaited sequel to his horror-fan favorite, 1990’s GRIMM MEMORIALS. Even after 15 years, the horror community has not forgotten.

• And finally, Robert Silverberg’s acclaimed 1972 novel THE BOOK OF SKULLS is brought back into print by Del Rey, in advance of what’s sure to be an unsuccessful transition to the big screen by director William Friedkin, who hasn’t made anything worth seeing since, what, 1985? (And by that we refer to TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., not C.A.T. SQUAD.)

Fun with Bookgasm (and James Frey’s breasts)

james frey liar loserAnother month, another look at search terms that brings surfers to the world that is BOOKGASM. Amidst all the usual suspects (Mimi Rogers, Uschi Digard … do I sense a trend?) we find not one, not two, but eight differently worded searches for James Frey, the recently/rightfully tarred-and-feathered “memorist” whose credibility has broken into (if you’ll forgive the pun) A MILLION LITTLE PIECES.

However, the award for My Favorite Search Term of the Month goes handily (if you’ll forgive the pun) to “sex fuck flicks under $5.00,” as if $6 is simply out of the question when it comes to masturbatory material. Hey, the economy sucks. But this list doesn’t…

• james frye a million little pieces
• james frye oprah
• sex fuck flicks under $5.00
• koontz the husband
• james frye on oprah
• james frye smoking gun
• a million little pieces/frye
• james frye one million little pieces
• sexy movies
• uschi digard
• ryun patterson
• mimi rogers
• evangeline lilly naked
• smoking gun james frye
• oprah and james frye
• gloria trevi
• jessica lange king kong
• book reviews of brian garfield’s novels
• steve berry templar legacy
• steve alten hell’s aquarium
• questions unanswered of otzi
• splinter cell operation barracuda
• torture drawings
• grimm reapings release date
• essential book of kakuro
• marc cerasini
• 24 declassified
• christopher golden myth hunters review
• the book of the dead pendergast
• dance of death preston child
• first and fifteenth pop art short stories
• paperbacks release january 2006 publisher fantasy scifi
• 1940s gas executions
• hg wells comics
• 1602 new world preview
• revolution on the planet of the apes mr comics
• planet of the apes fans
• dean koontz’s frankenstein book three
• king kong skull island adventure
• fables homeland
• amityville horror
• gaiman
• goth icky

Survivor

survivor j.f. gonzalez reviewWhat’s a nice girl like The New York Times doing reviewing a bad boy like J.F. Gonzalez’s SURVIVOR? The NYT‘s cover blurb says the novel “pushes your eyes of the page and then pulls them back,” which is a euphemism for “this one is sick, but you’re just as sick for reading it.” Fair enough.

It begins with a highway road-rage incident that yields genuine unease (especially for someone like me who harbors travel anxiety), but is child’s play compared to the grisly scenario that will follow. The victims are vacationing yuppie lawyer couple Brad and Lisa Miller, and through a set of circumstances too complex to go into here, Brad has to spent the weekend in jail under citizen’s arrest. Lisa has it worse, however, when the man who put Brad in the clinker kidnaps her from her motel room and hauls her off to a remote cabin.

The man promises he won’t hurt her. But Al and Animal will! They are, respectively, the behind-the-camera and on-camera talent of a series of underground snuff films, in the next of which Lisa is set to star as the most unlucky and unfortunate receptacle of Animal’s fluids, desires and abuse. She won’t live through it, which is exactly the point of a snuff film (in reality, merely the stuff of urban legends … we hope).

Needless to say, a huge twist occurs before her life can be extinguished, and you’re going to react in one of two ways: by tearing through the rest as fast as possible to find out what happens, or by hurling the book across the room. Just before it, I thought SURVIVOR was fairly tame compared to other stuff I’ve read – perhaps one Habitrail away from matching the depravity of AMERICAN PSYCHO – but then that damned page 142 rolled around. I won’t divulge the details, but suffice to say, it’s not something I ever expected to read anywhere, an act that not only puts the “X” in “extreme,” but bolds and underlines it as well. And you’ve still got 230 pages left to go!

Yet I couldn’t not finish it, because I had to see these people punished. And that trip is wrought with frustration and tension, both marks of a truly effective horror novel. Passages will sicken, yet seem oddly comic, i.e. “But he’d never thought of a neck stump as a sexual orifice before last night” or “I like to baste the asses in the oven with onions and bacon strips.” But at least the shock has a definite purpose to the story; without it, there simply wouldn’t be one.

That said, SURVIVOR needs some tightening, as points and phrases are repeated multiple times, often in the form of awfully long exposition that is entirely repetitive. And despite that occasional bit of over-the-top dialogue, the book feels mostly grounded in reality, except when the bad guys get diarrhea of the mouth, such as when Animal launches into a 13-page explanation of how he came to be the beast he is. You could do it in two, though I’d argue it’s more horrifying not to know at all.

Purposely unpleasant and unflinching, SURVIVOR’s zero-immunity stance makes for a read that is good, though not exactly enjoyable. Make any sense? If so, you’ll likely be part of the group that makes it past page 142. –Rod Lott

Buy it at Amazon.

Hard Case circles Block a third time

girl with the long green heart reviewLawrence Block has the honor of having written the first book to come out in the Hard Case Crime series (GRIFTER’S GAME) and is one of the few authors to have had a second book under the imprint as well (THE GIRL WITH THE LONG GREEN HEART).

Soon, he’ll be the only one to have a third, and this time it’s a major coup for Hard Case: LUCKY AT CARDS, about a crook and the dangerous woman for whom he falls. Unavailable for almost four decades and written under the pen name of Sheldon Lord, “It’s a terrific book – and no matter how big a Lawrence Block fan you are, there’s practically no chance you’ve read it. It’s one you’re not going to want to miss,” said editor Charles Ardai. “Over the past half-century, Block has consistently produced some of the very best crime novels being written, and like many of Block’s readers, my only complaint is that I’ve read everything he’s written and crave more.”

In the meantime, you can preview covers for three Hard Case titles coming this fall – THE GUNS OF HEAVEN by Pete Hamill, the previously unpublished THE LAST MATCH by David Dodge (author of PLUNDER IN THE SUN) and GRAVE DESCEND by John Lange (aka Michael Crichton) – after the jump.

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BOOKGASM defines…

Is MILLION LITTLE PIECES one big lie?Freydar
(fra’där’)
noun

1. an instinct for determining the level of fabrication, enhancement and/or outright falsehoods in a memoir. Ex. “I don’t really believe this author’s claim that he located a horde of zombies under his back porch. He’s tripping my Freydar.”

Q&A with Hard Case Crime’s Charles Ardai

a touch of death reviewHere at BOOKGASM, it’s no secret that we love the Hard Case Crime series. Seeing that cool yellow-ribbon logo is like paperback crack. In between issuing monthly editions, series editor Charles Ardai talked to us about the line’s genesis and its future.

BOOKGASM: As the sole editor for Hard Case Crime, what is the selection process like when choosing novels for publication? Have there been any older titles you wanted to acquire for reprint, but were unable to?

ARDAI: It’s very simple: I buy novels I love. Nothing could be easier. For the reprint side of the line, I go to my bookshelves and the thousands of paperback crime novels I have there, and I pick out the ones I remember being blown away by when I read them. I also get recommendations over the transom from our readers, and have a pile of several dozen books on my to-be-read pile at any given time.

For original novels, the process is different, but the criteria are the same: We’ll only buy a book if we love it, if it tells a remarkable story in a remarkable way. We get about 1,000 submissions per year, mostly by e-mail, and I read as much of each as I need to in order to tell whether it’s good enough and interesting enough for us to publish. The simplest way to describe my selection process is this: If I can stop reading, I do; if I can’t, we buy it.

Since we only publish between four and six original titles each year, we have to say “no” to more than 99 percent of the books we receive; the positive way of looking at that is that we have the opportunity to hold out for those rare few that are really irresistible.

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Mister X: The Definitive Collection Volume Two

mister x volume 2 reviewI love when I discover something I’ve heard absolutely nothing about. MISTER X is one of those rare things. Or, rather, was one of those rare things when I happened upon the first collection last year. Loving every page of it – even the ones accidentally duplicated in a printing mishap – I waited nearly a long year for the recently released MISTER X: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION VOLUME TWO.

For the uninitiated, MISTER X was a relatively obscure but highly influential indie comics series that was published briefly (and sporadically at that) in the 1980s, created by Dean Motter (who went on to do TERMINAL CITY for Vertigo). The bald, bespectacled Mister X is some sort of mad genius with many skeletons in his closet, but the plot doesn’t matter as much as the setting – think Fritz Lang’s dreamworld city of METROPOLIS. I don’t know if comics have captured the German expressionist and Art Deco looks better than this puzzling, crime-minded series. The story is really secondary to the marvelous visuals, especially in this follow-up collecting the final eight issues, continuing the threads laid in the previous book. (In other words, start there.) Its plot is complex, entailing blackmail, murder and pharmaceuticals, all in a candy-colored universe that recalls the brightness of COOL WORLD, but with harsh, sharp edges and true bite.

Again, it’s really the art that drives it. Which is why the very last chapter disappoints, newly redrawn by Motter himself, after being unhappy with the issue that was published so long ago. The man can draw, obviously, but it’s not up to the caliber of the rest of the series, which came to life under the sure hand of Seth (DRAWN AND QUARTERLY) and the Hernandez Brothers of LOVE AND ROCKETS fame. To justify the “definitive,” this collection includes an eight-page story in the world of MISTER X, written and illustrated by none other than Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, before they collaborated on the landmark SANDMAN. There’s other stellar talent on display as well, courtesy of covers by the likes of Howard Chaykin and Bill Sienciewicz. –Rod Lott

Buy it at Amazon.

Oprah tears Frey a MILLION new ones

Is MILLION LITTLE PIECES one big lie?James Frey made a return appearance to Oprah’s show yesterday in an attempt to answer charges claiming his memoir A MILLION LITTLE PIECES is largely fabricated. I was critical of Oprah for her defense of Frey on LARRY KING LIVE, but she redeemed herself at the show’s start, saying her judgment had been “clouded” and that she had sent the message to the nation that truth doesn’t matter.

I’m sure Oprah doesn’t feel she’s wrong very often, so to admit that not once but numerous times throughout the broadcast is brave. But not as brave as Frey, who took such a beating from the host, the other guests and the audience members that I hope he didn’t start using shortly after exiting Harpo Studios. He owned up to some of the charges, but seemed awfully wishy-washy on others.

The best line of the hour went to Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who asked about the scene where a bloody, vomitous Frey boards a flight, “How’d this guy get on an airplane? I can’t get on with a third piece of luggage.” I won’t recap the entire show since others already have done so, but I must take offense at publisher Nan Talese for trying to save her own reputation by saying that a memoir is an author’s “remembrance” of events. Which is true, Nan, until they actively create falsehoods; then it’s a novel.

Lessons learned from this ordeal: You can’t trust a drug addict, and you do not make Oprah look like a fool. Who knew?

The Deep Blue Alibi

deep blue alibi reviewI gave a fairly tepid review to Paul Levine’s first book featuring the lawyer characters of Stephen Solomon and Victoria Lord, cleverly titled SOLOMON VS. LORD. It wasn’t terrible, but it was riddled with clichés and stock character situations that came directly out of Lifetime Channel movies. Still, in spite of these flaws, the pace of the novel was relentless, and the addition of a tricky custody battle centering around Bobby, the semi-autistic 11-year-old nephew of Stephen, was a strong enough emotional hook to make the reader care about the story.

Now, in this second book of the series, Levine has improved a hundredfold. THE DEEP BLUE ALIBI is a rock-solid mystery novel with decent chunks of courtroom action and with better-established characters. Not having to explain everyone’s story from the ground up prevents Levine from telegraphing the plot, which involves the multimillion dollar development of a floating casino and hotel, situated in a very sensitive coral reef environment. Of course, the developer happens to be a beloved uncle of Victoria Lord, and dear Uncle is the one who is directly implicated in the murder of a federal environmental official.

The bickering between Solomon and Lord matched with the mediating wisdom of Bobby and Solomon’s father, placed against the eccentricities of Lord’s family, fuels the book’s story arc and the growing relationship of our two protagonists. While the plot itself is about a real estate deal gone awry, the joy is in the humanity of the book’s characters, their interactions, their foibles and moments of honor.

The book isn’t perfect. Levine is so fond of brand names you wonder if he’s angling for payola. And the last few scenes are so improbable, even a first-year law student could rip the case to shreds. But it is a good read, and much better than its predecessor. If you like exciting mysteries set in South Florida (think the legions of Carl Hiaasen fans), then you won’t be disappointed. But read DEEP BLUE ALIBI first, and then go back to the first book in the series, because you’ll want to start with the better book – the one that lets its characters be themselves, the one that captures the protagonists’ relationship in full bloom instead of its seedling stage. It’s worth your time. –Mark Rose

Buy it at Amazon.

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