Hold a Scorpion

holdascorpionMelodie Johnson Howe’s HOLD A SCORPION is the second book in her series featuring Hollywood actress Diana Poole (the first was CITY OF MIRRORS; there is also a collection of short stories titled SHOOTING HOLLYWOOD). Howe’s protagonist, Poole, is mostly believable, likable, has a strong personality with realistic deductive powers, and can certainly hold her own with greasy talent agents and narcissistic fellow actors. The pacing of the book and its brevity are also refreshing after so many 300+ page mysteries.

We start out with a bang, or maybe more with a sickening thud. Diana is standing outside her front door, adjacent to the Pacific Coast Highway, when she sees a woman on the other side waving to her. The woman sees a large black car pull up along the berm and then, deliberately, she walks into traffic and is instantly run over and killed. When Diana investigates the actual scene of the “accident”(?), she discovers a bejeweled scorpion, the very same scorpion that Diana’s mother had on her bedside table right up to the day she died.

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Mad Dog Barked

maddogbarkedRick Ollerman’s latest, MAD DOG BARKED, starts out like a typical detective novel. Before long, however, the Stark House Press release becomes something way beyond typical. Truth is, Ollerman has somewhat redefined the detective novel for contemporary crime fiction readers, and gives us a complex and intriguing story at the same time.

Scott Porter owns and operates a detective agency in Sarasota, Florida, that specializes in criminal court cases. One morning a man names Edwin Morton Holmes appears at the agency carrying what looks like a rare first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE.

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The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World

tetriseffectRecently, the Hollywood trade papers announced that MORTAL KOMBAT franchise producer Lawrence Kasanoff not only will be gifting us with a feature film based on the classic video game TETRIS, but three of them; the project is plotted as a movie trilogy. The only question more automatic and pressing than “Why?” is, of course, “How?”

Only time will tell, but I can tell you right now that the real drama is the real truth: how the game was made and, more importantly, how it broke big and busted borders — all told in the new nonfiction book THE TETRIS EFFECT: THE GAME THAT HYPNOTIZED THE WORLD. Written by Dan Ackerman, the PublicAffairs hardcover release contains the same kind of twisty, tortured-birth tale that made THE SOCIAL NETWORK so oddly engaging.

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Fall into These 4 New Pop-Culture Books

comingbackOne-night-only engagements and George Lucas tinkering notwithstanding, nowadays it pretty much takes the death of a beloved celebrity to get old movies back on the big screens of the multiplex; witness the recent passing of Prince and Gene Wilder, and the immediate return of Purple Rain and Young Frankenstein to first-run theaters. Once upon a time, however — the days before cable TV and VHS, to be exact — reissues were likely the only way audiences would get another chance to see a particular motion picture. Brian Hannan examines this bygone phenomenon in Coming Back to a Theater Near You: A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014, published in trade paperback by McFarland & Company. In admittedly “forensic detail,” Hannan chronologically examines this business model of sloppy seconds — initially a financial necessity for studios yet despised by exhibitors (until television and James Bond double-bills changed their tune). While the author grants big-picture visibility throughout this unusual slice of Hollywood history, his case studies — using films as disparate as Gone with the Wind and Reefer Madness — offer the greatest entertainment value. So thorough is Hannan, the footnotes to chapter one alone number 470! Don’t think that dedication to research translates into a wan read; Coming Back is a lively look back, packed with scads of incredible ads and posters that illustrate a peculiar sort of Tinseltown ballyhoo.

viewcheapseatsMan, what can’t Neil Gaiman write? (“Poorly” may be the answer, although the question was rhetorical.) Although famous for his fiction across novels both prose (American Gods) and graphic (The Sandman), the fantastic fantasist got his start in nonfiction. Published by William Morrow, The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction is not a collection of that early journalism, but nearly 100 essays he has penned — plus reviews he has written, speeches he has given, introductions he has contributed — since “making it.” The title refers to his surreal experience at the Oscars in 2010; attending for Coraline, an excellent animated adaptation of his 2002 YA work, the out-of-element author recounts crossing paths with Steve Carell, Michael Sheen and the Westboro Baptist Church. The movies constitute an admirable chunk of Cheap Seats’ contents, with an appreciation of The Bride of Frankenstein; three pieces on pal Dave McKean’s MirrorMask, for which he wrote the screenplay (with Gaiman’s Sundance diary being the best of the trio and somewhat of a companion to the title article); and, for the small screen, childhood nostalgia for Doctor Who. You’ll also find pages on music, comics and a lot of lit — all splendidly crafted, no matter the topic.

tvthebookAnd now for something that could start as many arguments as the current presidential election: TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time. Undertaking this rather intimidating endeavor with due diligence, noted boob-tube critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall have ranked and reviewed the finest 100 U.S. series in the history’s medium. After a maddeningly redundant introductory chapter that preserves their Google Chat debate on whether The Simpsons or The Sopranos is most deserving to claim that No. 1 slot (spoiler: Homer > Tony), the paperback functions as the kind of dynamic reference work that movies get all the time, while television rarely does. In our era of binge-watching and “peak TV,” their book is perfectly timed (if already dated) and rife with thoughtful, helpful, why-it-matters essays on such picks as Cheers, Twin Peaks, Batman, St. Elsewhere and Police Squad! Their taste is near-impeccable — How I Met Your Mother?!? — and extends beyond the top 100 to shout-out current newbies likely to land on the list in future editions, shows of “a certain regard” that didn’t quite make the cut (from the short-lived Kolchak: The Night Stalker to season one of True Detective) and top-10 lists of made-for-TV movies, miniseries and live plays. Peppered throughout are looser lists to celebrate the finest in theme songs, pilots, finales, bosses, homes, ridiculous names and memorable deaths (Chuckles, we hardly knew ye). Despite the dead-serious approach (not to mention insane algorithms) Seitz and Sepinwall take to their self-imposed assignment, fun is first and foremost the name of their game. It earns the equivalent of the TiVo Season Pass.

thekrampusIt only took several hundred years, but that anti-Santa demon known as the Krampus finally has become an American celebrity, thanks to movies like A Christmas Horror Story, Night of the Krampus, Krampus: The Reckoning, Krampus: The Christmas Devil and just plain ol’ Krampus. Exactly from where did this unconventional leading man come? That’s the global-spanning goal — cleared! — of performance artist Al Ridenour in The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil. Using the baby-consuming creature’s recent cinematic surge as a launching pad, Ridenour explores the horrific goat-man’s European origins, town-to-town traditions (Buttnmandl, anyone?), stage appearances and more, all pithy and neatly arranged under subheads for easy-to-digest reading. Personally, I would have preferred more focus on the aspect of pure pop culture. One of the most appealing chapters introduces readers to the Krampus’ monstrous relatives, such as Pinecone Man. As is the modus operandi of outré publisher Feral House (whose recent volumes on Grand Guignol theater, sleazy sex novels of the 1960s and men’s adventure pulp magazines are all incredible), this trade paperback is a veritable visual feast of maps, photos and possbily insane vintage illustrations. So visual is The Krampus that it’s quite possible that functionally illiterate could spend time leafing through its pages and emerge satisfied, but why? They’d miss out on half the fun. —Rod Lott

Get them at Amazon.

Bad Little Children’s Books: KidLit Parodies, Shameless Spoofs, and Offensively Tweaked Covers

badlittlechildrenImmediately recognizable by their distinctive gold spines, the Little Golden Books made up many an American child’s bookshelf, mine included. Read and read until their pages fell apart in exhaustion were such classics as THE POKY LITTLE PUPPY, SCRUFFY THE TUGBOAT and various Disney tie-ins. All are skewed mercilessly — just the way I like it — in Arthur C. Gackley’s BAD LITTLE CHILDREN’S BOOKS. Unless you’re an asshole who simply refuses to read the Abrams Image release, it’s the funniest book you’ll read all year.

And yet, it’s a tough tome to review, because to see it kind of says it all. Its 120-ish faux covers are dead-on parodies visually, boasting un-PC titles like COUSIN MILKY IS LACTOSE INTOLERANT (which adorns this collection’s own cover), DON’T LICK THE STRIPPER POLE, EVEN GIRLS FART, THE 3 LITTLE FUTURE BACON STRIPS and THE ANTI-VACCINE KID AND THE GIFT OF A NAVAJO BLANKET RIDDLED WITH SMALLPOX.

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The Emerald Lie

emeraldlieJack Taylor is back. Or perhaps it’s more correct to say what’s left of Jack Taylor is back. As author Ken Bruen reminds us in THE EMERALD LIE, his latest novel, the ex-Irish Guardsman and series protagonist walks with a limp, needs a hearing aid, and a few of his fingers are badly mangled. These being the results of several brutal beatings and the misadventures with booze and pills Taylor has survived all these years.

Still the citizens of Galway seek Taylor out at his favorite local pub when they need the kind of help the law can’t provide – or won’t allow. And Taylor, as frustrated and reluctant as he may be, still agrees to take whatever pay is offered and handle the case.

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Italian Horror Cinema

italianhorrorcinemaWhile regular visitors to this site would join me as disagreement, the very things that make horror films from Italy so distinctive — namely, unflinching violence, oft-excessive gore and heavily linked sexuality — are why scholars and critics long have turned their collective noses up at it. And yet, even a casual viewing of Mario Bava or Dario Argento works reveals real visual artistry at work, even amid controversy.

Standing on our side are Stefano Baschiera and Russ Hunter, co-editors of Italian Horror Cinema, and their 11 fellow contributors, giving the form that study of which others find it unworthy. The best kind of academic-minded texts (read: accessible), the trade paperback is ready-made reading for the genre’s most fervent enthusiasts, whose hunger doesn’t end with the final shot.

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Smoke and Mirrors

smokemirrorsYou may know the author Elly Griffiths from her eight-book Ruth Galloway series. Galloway is an archaeologist who studies old bones and is often brought onto contemporary crime cases by the local police inspector. Galloway has slept with that inspector, and they have a child together, but the inspector remains firmly married to his glamorous and beautiful wife who knows all about the affair. The series, while often producing rollicking good police procedurals, also concentrates on the emotional dynamism of the characters’ lives.

It’s a great series and highly recommended, but the policework is at one distance removed, since the protagonist herself is not a member of the police. In Griffiths’ other mystery series, The Magic Men mysteries, of which SMOKE AND MIRRORS is the second published, the police procedural takes front and center stage since the main character is Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens, who along with his magician friend, Max Mephisto, attempt to solve crimes in 1950s Britain.

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Indeed

hpcursedchildPredictably, the release of HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD, the rehearsal script for the play of the same name currently running in London, generated passionate fervor not seen since, well, the release of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS nine years ago. Midnight release parties, fans decked out in fancy dress, sorting games, and 2.5 million copies sold in the first day.

And yet … in our age of disposability, the rosy glow wears off ever more quickly. Collectively speaking, we’re like a cat that meows persistently at a closed door. You know that cat, right? You rush to open the door only to have the cat stand in exactly the same spot, staring at you like it had nothing to do with your decision to open that door. And why would you open it anyway? Weirdo. Then the cat flicks its tail and flounces off to find a box in which to sit and from which to glare menacingly at you.

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The Lost Boy

lostboyGrim. But with realistic scenes. Dour. But altogether far too plausible. Why, whatever could we be talking about? Nordic noir, of course! Scandinavian mystery writers have practically dominated the field over the last 20 years, and Camilla Läckberg is one of the best.

In THE LOST BOY, her ninth novel featuring Fjällbacka, Sweden detective Patrik Hedstrom and his wife Erica, we see the author’s significant growth and dynamism as she has vastly improved in both storyline and dialogue from her earlier efforts such as THE ICE PRINCESS (her first book) and THE STONECUTTER (her third), both of which were reviewed here at Bookgasm. Some of this may be due to her now longtime translator Tina Nunnally, who took over from translator Steven T. Murray after the fourth book.

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