Friday, January 23, 2009

Review: "House of Mystery: Room & Boredom"

I've mentioned before that I seem to be closing in on my final days as purchaser of monthly comics. Two more issues of "100 Bullets," and I'm done, I think.

For a long while, I stuck with Bill Willingham's "Fables," but even its clever take on folklore and fairy tales couldn't keep me reading past Issue 75. Now Willingham and Matthew Sturges are collaborating on a monthly series, "House of Mystery," with art by Luca Rossi and various guest contributors, and the first five issues have been collected in a new trade.

One of DC's longest-running series, the original "The House of Mystery," an anthology of short horror stories hosted by homicidal "caretaker" Cain, was open for business from 1951 through 1983, most notably under the editorships of Joe Orlando and Karen Berger. (Its counterpart, the House of Secrets, was home to Cain's hapless brother/victim Abel.) Alan Moore put a new spin on the concept in his "Swamp Thing" saga, and Neil Gaiman gave Cain and Abel the spotlight in a few episodes of "Sandman."

Sturges and Willingham's incarnation of the House of Mystery abruptly evicts Cain for reasons unknown. The focus of the main narrative is now a young woman named Fig Keeler, who finds herself within the house and unable to leave. She's one of five permanent residents who attend to the needs of various visitors who stop in its bar, where the cost of a drink is a good story. The others seem mostly resigned to their fates, but Fig is determined to escape.

Sturges and Willingham employ a light touch with this material, introducing some genuinely creepy elements without getting all dour and angst-y (as happened with the "House of Secrets" reboot of the late 1990s). But somehow the biggest questions about where the main narrative is heading are not terribly compelling yet. The five- to six-page bar tales offer little bursts of humor or terror and hint at future connections, but they don't offer the one-two-punch ironies that characterize the best of, say, the old EC horror comics.

"House of Mystery" has potential, but it doesn't yet succeed as a serial or an anthology -- or as a unique hybrid of the two. I won't start buying the series monthly, but I'll welcome the next trade collection.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Every Good Boy..." Revival

Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn's 1977 orchestral drama, "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour," is being revived in the National Theatre's Olivier Auditorium, starring Toby Jones and Joseph Millson. Set in Soviet Russia, "EGBDF" "contrasts the circumstances of a political prisoner and a mental patient in a Soviet insane asylum, to question the difference, if any, between free will and the freedom to conform."

The Mail Online admires the score
but says "the politics have moved on." The Oxford Times finds the piece less dated: "The violence at the core of the debased political system under scrutiny is graphically revealed in a shocking display of balletic beatings-up among and around the orchestra, during which the players continue to bow and blow with vigour."

Variety says of the 65-minute piece
: "the production reveals the piece as more theatrical than dramatic, more a premise than a play." The Financial Times admires the production's ambition, but deems it "a play for yesterday." The Independent is even less enthusiastic.

Nevertheless, finds the play still chillingly relevant. And musicOMH praises it, deeming it "a timely revival of a politically acute and quirkily engaging work."

As it requires the presence of a full orchestra onstage, "EGBDF" is rarely performed, so my advice to any Stoppard fans visiting the West End is that they not pass up the chance to see this production if given the opportunity.

UPDATE: The Sunday Times weighs in, and Liz Hoggard on the Evening Standard sings the praises of short plays that inspire long friendships.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lisa Rogak's "Haunted Heart"

I've been following the career of Stephen King for more than 30 years now, and Lisa Rogak's "Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King" (St. Martin's; 310 pages; $25.95) didn't initially strike me as something I absolutely needed to read or review. I haven't seen every story in the media about King in the last three decades, but I'm certainly well acquainted with the major turning points in his life story. Although Rogak has published more than 40 books, I wasn't familiar with her work enough to trust her immediately as an authority, as I did Douglas Winter when he published "The Art of Darkness" back in the Eighties.

I'm glad I picked up "Haunted Heart," though. It's smoothly written, respectful and non-exploitative, a straight-forward chronological biography that treads lightly when it comes to literary criticism. In addition to the usual rags-to-riches-with-a-slight-detour-through-alcohol-and-drug-abuse narrative, Rogak elicits fresh comments and anecdotes from King's mentors, friends and colleagues. She also sheds light on King's relationships with his wife and children, rounding out her portrait of an artist obsessed with the darker side but usually also focused on traditional values of family, charity and hard work.

I caught a couple of minor errors (Tom Clancy's "The Hunt of Red October" was his second book, but his first novel), some odd interpretations of King's fiction (the ending of "Thinner" is very, very far from "upbeat") and a strange omission or two (after emphasizing so heavily King's love of the Red Sox, why no mention in the main text of "Faithful," his non-fiction collaboration with Stewart O'Nan?).

In general, though, Rogak's presentation of the material gibes with what I know about her subject, and she provided sufficient new tidbits to keep me interested. I'm not sure what the audience for this book might be -- truly devoted King fans may be tired of the umpteenth retelling of how "Carrie" was rescued from the garbage pail -- but it's the kind of easy-going biography that might appeal to a high school or college student who wants to know what it's like to be one of the most influential popular writers of the past half-century.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Stoppard's "Cherry Orchard"

Sam Mendes of "American Beauty" and "Revolutionary Road" is directing the Bridge Project production of Stoppard's new version of Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." It boasts a stellar Anglo-American cast, including Sinead Cusack, Simon Russell Beale, Rebecca Hall and Ethan Hawke. So far, the critical consensus has been favorable.

Ben Brantley of the New York Times calls it a "nimble new version...that invites fresh comic shadings, pushes that sense of the incongruous not so much into farce (although there’s some of that) as into 'Alice in Wonderland' absurdity."

Terry Teachout has a review in the Wall Street Journal.

The review in Variety says: "The chief strengths of Stoppard's adaptation are its conversational ease and erudite humor, but there's a slight chill to the playwright's gaze that undercuts the melancholy strains of a great Chekhov production."

The New York Daily News also likes the production.

Charlie Huston's "The Mystic Arts..."

I've been a Charlie Huston fan since I picked up "Caught Stealing," the first volume of the Hank Thompson Trilogy. (The other books are "Six Bad Things" and "A Dangerous Man.") I was impressed most by their immediacy, the way Huston lets the characters' weaknesses and bad decisions cascade ever closer to disaster. Hank's adventures are harrowing, profane, tragic and funny, well worth the time of anyone who enjoy crime fiction.

I am less enamored of Huston's work on the Joe Pitt vampire detective novels. I reviewed the first for The Chronicle and never felt a need to seek out the others. Their central conceit is clever enough, but the series really doesn't give me anything I can't find elsewhere. Huston's first stand-alone novel was 2007's "The Shotgun Rule," and it shared an approach and viewpoint similar to the Thompson Trilogy. I thought it rocked.

Now Huston gives us "The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death," and it looks as if it may be his breakout book. (The blurb from Stephen King can't hurt.)

"Mystic Arts…" is narrated by Webster Fillmore Goodhue, a former teacher traumatized into slackerhood. Desperate for cash, he reluctantly joins trauma specialists Clean Team and begins to learn the trade of mopping up after people who have died messily. His first gig leads to an after-hours job in a hotel room for a suicide's pretty daughter, and everything begins to spiral out of control from there.

Over at John Scalzi's Whatever, Huston writes about the origins of his new novel and confirms some of the suspicions I had about the book. I hadn't picked up on its debt to "The Rockford Files" (which is clear once you've been tipped to it), but I'm glad to hear that Huston regards this as the first of a new series. It's fast, funny and bracing, similar to "Caught Stealing" but with a much more positive vibe.

If you haven't read Huston, this is the perfect place to start.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

New Chronicle Review -- Reed, Priest & Langan

SFGate has already posted my book column for this month. The books under discussion are "Enclave" by Kit Reed, "Fathom" by Cherie Priest and "Mr Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters" by John Langan.

I'm a big fan of Reed, but "Enclave" was a bit of a disappointment. Great set-up, smooth execution, but I felt the ending felt too neat. As for Priest, I hadn't reviewed any of her work since her debut, so it was good to see what she's up to these days. "Fathom" is an odd, sometime unfocused, book, but it pulls itself together at the end.

I was unfamiliar with Langan's work, but I'm glad I took a chance with his new collection of novellas. He's somebody I'll keep an eye out for in the future.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Books I'm Looking forward to in 2009

There's never enough time to read everything that catches my eye during any season of the publishing year. I know I won't be able to crack all of what's listed below, but it's always nice to dream...

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston -- I've been a fan of Huston since "Caught Stealing." I prefer his straight crime novels to his vampire detective series, so this new one, about a crime scene clean-up technician, is especially appealing. It's getting a big push from his publisher.

Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King by Lisa Rogak -- Not sure if it'll reveal much I don't already know, but this seems to be a low-key, non-exploitative bio of Mr. King.

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry -- "An unlikely detective, armed only with an umbrella and a singular handbook, must untangle a string of crimes committed in and through people's dreams." Could be an enjoyable bit of literary gamesmanship. Could be an annoyingly pretentious wank-a-thon.

End of the Century by Chris Roberson -- The search for the Holy Grail, set in three eras. I'm always impressed by Roberson's creative energy, and it's been a while since I read "Here, There & Everywhere."

Poe edited by Ellen Datlow -- Nineteen tales inspired by Edgar Allan.

The Caryatids
by Bruce Sterling -- I'm sure Sterling's take on clones will be an interesting one.

Escape from Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle -- The long-awaited sequel to "Inferno." I haven't read much Niven/Pournelle since college, so there's a nostalgia factor here.

Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald -- A collection of stories set in the same milieu as the award-winning "River of Gods."

Under the Dome -- Stephen King's next major work, said to rival "The Stand" and "IT" in page count.

Donald Westlake/Richard Stark RIP

Damn. Mystery writer Donald Westlake is dead at age 75.

Westlake surely ranks within my dozen favorite writers, regardless of genre. Under his own name, he's the creator of the Dortmunder series of comic caper novels, starting with "The Hot Rock."As Richard Stark, he's the genius who chronicles the adventures of Parker, the ultimate professional criminal. He adapted Jim Thompson's "The Grifters" for the screen and wrote the original screenplay for "The Stepfather."

I've been reading Westlake since I was about 15, and although some of his books are better than others, I don't think I've been genuinely disappointed by any of them. He made it all look easy -- plotting, character, scene-setting, humor, irony. He had the kind of career that's deeply enviable and most likely will never be matched.

If you've never read Westlake, I particularly recommend "The Ax," a newly relevant look at middle-aged and middle-management malaise. "Slayground" is one of the best Stark books, but it's currently hard to find, so you might as well just start with "The Hunter," filmed as "Point Blank" with Lee Marvin (good) and "Payback" with Mel Gibson (not so). Among the Dortmunders, I'm fond of "Jimmy the Kid" and "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" If you want a real change of pace, try "Kahawa," about diamonds, coffe and Idi Amin, and "Smoke," a clever riff on "The Invisible Man."

Sarah Weinman has posted a list of worthwhile Westlake-related links. The Onion AV Club interview and the chat with John Banville are especially good.

I'm thankful for everything Westlake gave us, but I still wish there were more.