Novel Review: Divine Assassin by Bob Reiss


After terrorists kill his fiancée for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Tim Currie is determined to get justice.  Unfortunately, the police can offer him little support and the U.S. intelligence community doesn’t seem to be interested in helping him either.  The problem is that the attack that led to the death of Currie’s fiancée was ordered by someone who doesn’t live in the United States and who doesn’t have the slightest concern about the innocent people who have died as a result of his actions.  Realizing that he is going to have to get justice on his own, Currie turns to the only man that he feels that he can trust.

Long before his fiancée was murdered, Tim Currie was one of the many Americans held hostage in Iran.  During that time, he had two friends, a mouse who was callously killed by a brutal guard and a cellmate who was frequently tortured for being a spy.  His cellmate may have used the name Charles Murphy but he was actually a mercenary named Zarek.  The amoral Zarek owes Currie a favor and Currie intends to collect.  He wants Zarek to train him to be an assassin so that Currie can kill the man that he holds responsible for his fiancée’s death, Libyan dictator Muammar Quaddafi!

As you probably already guessed, this book was written long before the Libyan Civil War and the real-life Qaddafi’s very public execution in 2011.  Indeed, Divine Assassin was originally published in 1985!  Reading it today, it’s interesting to see that, nearly 40 years ago, people were just as concerned with and confused by Middle Eastern politics as they are today.  Other than the fact that the Qaddafi on the book is described as being in his 40s, what we read about the fictional Qaddafi pretty much mirrors what was said of the real Qaddafi in the days before his death.  Of course, needless to say, there’s more going on in this book than just Tim Currie’s search for vengeance and Qaddafi’s amazing arrogance.  It quickly turns out that there’s quite a few people and nations looking to use the instability in the Middle East to their advantage and again, it’s interesting to see that the discussion around the Middle East really hasn’t changed that much over the past few decades.

As for the book itself, it’s an entertaining and relentlessly paced thriller, one that features a sympathetic protagonist and several memorable supporting characters.  The cynical Zarek (who also happens to be terminally ill) gets all of the best lines while two other Americans, a police inspector and Currie’s ex-wife, try (and often fail) to serve as a voice of reason to Currie’s obsessive attempts to get revenge.  The villains are memorably evil, with a German assassin especially making himself so loathsome that the reader will eagerly look forward to his comeuppance.  The dialogue is often sharp and there are moments of unexpected wit to be found throughout the book.  All in all, this a good and quick read.  It would have made a good movie.  Actually, it still could.  It’s not like Qaddafi was ever the only terrorist-supporting dictator in the world.

Book Review: Godzilla: The Official Guide To The King Of The Monsters by Graham Skipper


Do you like Godzilla?

You better!  Seriously, for over 60 years, Godzilla has been the rightful king of the monsters and not even a few less-than-perfect films have been able to knock him off of his throne.  He started out as a symbol of the nuclear age, a prehistoric monster brought back to life by man’s arrogance and war-like nature.  He eventually became mankind’s protector but then deciding that he no longer cared for mankind. And then, like many international stars, he ended up making movies for the American studios.  It’s an epic story and it’s hard not to like the big monster at the center of it.  If, for some reason, you don’t like Godzilla, maybe Graham Skipper’s new book, Godzilla: The Official Guide To The King of the Monsters, will change your mind.

Godzilla: The Official Guide To The King of the Monsters is exactly what the title says.  It’s a guide to all of Godzilla’s adventures, from his first appearance in the 50s all the way through his animated films and the current American version.  (Perhaps not surprisingly, the 1998 version of Godzilla is only afforded a few paragraphs.)  Helpfully, Skipper divides his overview into ears, so you can see how Godzilla changed as he moved from studio to studio.  Skipper also takes a look at Godzilla’s existence outside of the movies, as a comic book mainstay and an occasional television guest star.  The book is written with a lot of obvious affection for Godzilla in all of his incarnations and reading it will remind you of why Godzilla’s films — yes, even Son of Godzilla — are so much fun to begin with.  Skipper includes a lot of trivia, some of which was new to even me.  Such as, did you know that Luigi Cozzi re-edited and colorized the original 1954 Gojira for a 1970s release in Italy?

The book is also heavily-illustrated, featuring a lot of shots from the films and behind-the-scenes pictures of Godzilla and all of his colleagues.  As I read the book, it occurred to me that, as goofy as Jet Jaguar was, it’s still nice that Godzilla had a friend.  As well, as I looked at the pictures, it occurred to me that, even in the later films when Godzilla had been transformed from a truly fearsome symbol of the nuclear age to a somewhat goofy rubber monster, there was still an undeniable majesty to him as a creation.  Even at his worse, Godzilla still looks like a king.

I picked up a copy of this book on the day after Christmas and I’m glad I did.  Not only does it celebrate Godzilla but it also provides me with a guide because, over the next 12 months, I hope to watch every Godzilla film that’s ever been made.  (I’ve seen the majority but, as this book reminded me, there’s still a few that I missed.)  For the record, I still think that Godzilla vs Destoroyah is the best of the Godzilla films but who knows?  Maybe my mind will have been changed by December.

Humanity has survived a lot over the past few years and I’m happy to say that Godzilla has survived with us.  Graham Skipper’s Godzilla helps to explain why.

Book Review: Runaway by R.L. Stine


Tired of being used as a test subject by a mad scientist and feeling guilty about an accident that caused the death of two of her friends, telekinetic Felicia Fletcher has run away!  After using her powers to escape from the pervy dude who gave her a ride, Felecia ends up in Shadyside.  She not only get a job as a house sitter on Fear Street but she also enrolls in high school and gets a job at the Burger Basket…

Wait, what?

Now, the whole telekinetic thing is pretty cool and I cheered a little when she caused the pervy guy’s car to crash.  I mean, if you’ve got the power to do that, why not?  But who runs away from home just so they can enroll in high school and get a job working at a fast food restaurant?  I mean, it just seems like there’s more that she could do, especially considering that she has super powers.  Along with going to school and finding a low-paying job, Felecia also develops a crush on her classmate and co-worker, Nick.  Unfortunately, Nick is dating Zan.  Zan doesn’t appreciate the new girl trying to move in on her man.  Felecia’s main concern, though, is making sure that no one discovers that she’s a runaway.  SO WHY DID YOU ENROLL IN HIGH SCHOOL AND GET A JOB UNDER YOUR REAL NAME, FELECIA!?

Seriously, Felecia might have telekinesis but she obviously has no common sense.

Soo, Felecia is getting strange letters from someone who claims to know who she is.  Someone also breaks into her house, a crime that Felecia can’t report without running the risk of being discovered.  Felecia tries to control her powers while also discovering who is stalking her.

Even by the standards of R.L. Stine, the plot is fairly incoherent but the fact that Felecia has psychic powers (and, with the exception of Nick, pretty much zero friends) adds a new wrinkle to all of the usual Stine melodrama.  Felecia has a lot to deal with, from avoiding the police to avoiding her crush’s girlfriend to avoiding the people searching for her to avoiding her Fear Street stalker.  In fact, Felecia has so much to deal with that it’s impossible not to like and root for her.  I might not have telekinesis but I could still relate to Felecia’s desire to just have one normal, relaxing day in her life.  I liked that Felecia was trying to regain control of her life and there’s a pretty cool scene where The Burger Basket basically explodes.  This was definitely one of the better Stine books that I’ve read this month.

Book Review: The Fire Game by R.L. Stine


Jill, Andrea, Diane, Max, and Nick want get out of taking a superhard Geography test.  What can they possibly do, since apparently into not an option to study or to track down someone who has a copy of the test from last year?

If you said accidentally start a fire in the school library so that the test gets cancelled, congratulations!  You could be the star of an R.L. Stine novel!

The day after the fire, school is still a bore.  Our group of friends, who are all gymnasts for some reason, want to get out of class so that they can hang out with Gabe, the supercool new kid who has an odd fascination with burning things.  What’s the best way to get out of school?  How about blowing up the boy’s bathroom?  Not only does that cause classes to get canceled but everyone now gets to hang out on Fear Island!

R.L. Stine’s 1991 book, The Fire Game, is all about people like to set fires.  Admittedly, the book doesn’t really go into the reasons why these people are so obsessed with fire.  For the most part, it’s just something that they do because they’re not imaginative to come up with any other way to skip school.  (Has no one ever heard of faking not feeling well?  When I was in high school, all I had to do was say the word “cramps” and the gym teacher would practically escort me off campus and tell me not to come back for a week.  It’s not that difficult.)  Anyway, eventually a house burns down on Fear Street and all the members of the Fire Club are like, “Wait!  We didn’t do that!”  It looks like someone is trying to frame the arsonists!

The main problem with this book is found in the last sentence of this paragraph.  Yes, the Fire Club is, more or less, innocent of burning down that house and killing the homeless man who was living inside.  But, they’re still a group of people who DELIBERATELY SET FIRES!  It’s like, “Okay, it sucks you’re being framed for that one fire but how about all the ones you actually started?”  Not a single lesson is learned and usually, I’m in favor of that but in this case, our heroes are actually doing something that could kill someone or something.

Still, even if there’s absolutely no one to really root for in this book, it’s hard not to be a little impressed by the fact that R.L. Stine felt that gymnastics and pyromania would be a natural combination.  Though the majority of the book is Stine on autopilot, arsonist gymnasts is at least an interesting concept.  Plus, Arsonist Gymnasts sounds like it would be a great band name.

Book Review: Truth or Dare by R.L. Stine


In this 1995 book from R.L. Stine, a group of wealthy teenagers decide to take a vacation from Fear Street and Shadyside High.  They decide to spend the weekend skiing but, once they reach their mountain lodge, they end up getting hit by a blizzard.  They’re going to be trapped inside for a day or two.  Because the storm took out all the phone lines (and since this book is from the age when everyone was dependent on a landline), they are cut off from the world.  If anything bad happens in the cabin, there will be no way to get help.  If anyone is driven to kill someone else, there will be no way to call the police.

Now, if I was in that situation, I would probably try to pass the time in the safest and least dramatic way possible.  I mean, if you’re going to be stuck with a group of people for a day or two, you should probably try not to do anything that could cause anyone to lose their temper.  The best thing to do is try to have fun and not obsess on the situation.  However, since this is an R.L. Stine book, everyone decides to play Truth or Dare.

Great idea!  Nothing bad has ever happened as a result of playing Truth or Dare!

Though I played it a few times and I always managed to survive, Truth or Dare is still a strange game to me.  First off, why wouldn’t you just automatically take the dare?  But, beyond that, there’s this weird assumption that everyone is just automatically obligated to follow the rules of Truth or Dare, even if it means hurting someone.  Inevitably, anyone playing Truth or Dare is going to have at least one deep dark secret that they are going to get asked about, something like: “Did you cheat on your partner?”  And instead of just saying, “No,” even if the answer is “Yes,” they always reply, “I’ll take a dare instead.”  Well, just the fact that you took a dare at that point is pretty much the same thing as answering yes.  There’s really no way to win this game, other than to lie whenever you’re asked a question that could potentially lead to you being murdered.  But that would mean breaking the rules of Truth or Dare!  It would apparently be better to die.  I guess it’s all about ethics.

Anyway, not surprisingly, the game of Truth or  Dare does lead to someone being murdered.  They get a hatchet in the back and the killer leaves it there to be discovered by the rest of the group.  AGCK!  This killer isn’t messing around.  Anyway, you can probably guess where all this leads.  The initial suspect looks guilty but is actually innocent.  The killer is the person that most people would least expect.  Stine mentions that chair lift enough times that you just know it’s going to be the setting for the climax of the story.  It’s a typical R.L. Stine novel but it is one that teaches an important lesson.  For the love of all things good and decent, do not play Truth or Dare!

Book Review: Spooky Texas by S.E. Schlosser


If you’re going to be in Texas this Halloween and you want to spend the holiday at a location that might be haunted …. well, as I’ve said many times on this site, I don’t believe in ghosts, werewolves, vampires, or anything else so I won’t be of much help there.  Probably the best recommendation that I can make is that you drive out to Marfa, set up a lawn chair in the desert, and wait for the Marfa Lights to appear.  The Marfa Lights have been appearing for decades, hovering over the town of Marfa.  Boring, reality-based people claim that it’s just an atmospheric phenomena.  Others claim that it’s either ghosts or maybe a UFO visitation.

Marfa itself is in the desert of west Texas.  (Giant was filmed in Marfa.)  As of late, it’s become as well-known for being an artists colony as for its paranormal reputation.  A few years ago, 60 Minutes did a breathless story on all the artists who were moving to Marfa and not once were the Marfa Lights mentioned.  Several minutes were devoted to Prada Marfa but not a single second to the Marfa Lights.  Don’t get me wrong, of course.  I would much rather the town be known for its artists than its UFOs but still, you have to wonder how a show could spend twelve minutes talking about Marfa without mentioning the lights.  Am I suggesting that there’s some sort of government cover-up going on?  No, I’m not.  That would be dumb.  I’m just suggesting that 60 Minutes, which is apparently a show that only exists so that elderly reporters have something to do after they lose their nightly news gig, might be out-of-touch.

Fortunately, the book Spooky Texas has chapters on the Marfa Lights and twenty-four other paranormal stories that take place in Texas.  Admittedly, some of the detail mentioned in the stories did seem a bit odd to me.  (For some reason, the author of this book seems to be under the impression that it snows a lot in west Texas.)  But, despite that, it’s a fun read and it’s full of inspiration for both the aspiring horror writer and the Texan who is just looking for some place creepy to hang out on Halloween.  If you can’t go to Marfa and if you can’t find any of the ghosts that are rumored to haunt the Alamo, I would suggest going to Fort Worth and searching for the Gray Lady.  Or, if you really want to live dangerously, go down to Laredo and listen for a crying woman.  Just don’t get too close!

Novel Review: Night Games by R.L. Stine


“What the Hell was that!?” I said, as I read the final line of Night Games.

First published in 1996, Night Games is another one of those R.L. Stine books in which a group of otherwise law-abiding, wholesome American teenagers decide to live every teenager’s fantasy and have some fun by harassing one of their teachers.  (No, Lisa Marie, I loved all of my teachers!  Yeah, I hear you but I don’t believe you.)  Mr. Crowell seems like a nice enough guy but he’s constantly giving Lenny a hard time so all of Lenny’s friends decide that it’s time to play some “night games” with Mr. Crowell.  At first, this is limited to breaking into Mr. Crowell’s house at night and moving stuff around and stealing an item or two.  But then Mr, Crowell dies and our narrator, Diane, has to figure out if he was murdered by her ex-boyfriend or her current boyfriend.  At no point does it ever seem to occur to Diane that, in an ideal world, she wouldn’t have a history of dating boys who are capable of murder.

Anyway, the only special thing about this book is the final twist and I’m going to reveal it because, otherwise, this is going to be a short review.  So, consider this to be your SPOILER ALERT.  (I have to admit that every time I type the words “spoiler alert,” I lose a little respect for myself and even more respect for the people who demand that such warnings be used even for a book that is 26 years old.)  Anyway, it turns out that Lenny, despite his temper, is not the murderer.  Instead, the murderer is Spencer and Spencer …. well, Spencer’s a ghost.  He’s come back from the dead just to make Diane’s life difficult.  He starts to strangle Diane but Diane hugs him and apologizes to him for not being a better friend.  Spencer is conquered by love and his spirit is set free.  Yay!  All of Diane’s friends are happy but what they don’t realize is that Diane is now a ghost and now she’s plotting to get  revenge on all of them!

That’s actually not a bad ending.  Diane’s friends were really annoying so they deserve what’s coming to them.  Still, it’s interesting that Diane automatically became an evil ghost as opposed to a mournful ghost or a philosophical ghost or a confused ghost.  She died and she immediately embraced the dark side.  Agck!

Now, that’s scary!

Book Review: The Scandalous History of the Roman Emperors by Anthony Blond and Laura Blond


Who were the scariest people in the Roman Empire?

According to this book, which was first published in 1994, it was the Emperors.  The Scandalous History of the Roman Emperors takes an enjoyably gossipy and occasionally disturbing look at the first six emperors of the Roman Empire, from Julius Caesar to Nero.  By analyzing the words of Roman historians and occasionally reading between the lines, Anthony Blond makes a good argument that the most powerful men in the ancient world were, for the most part, an incredibly petty group of neurotic people.  Julius Caesar emerges as a pompous blowhard who probably owed most of his reputation to the circumstances of his death.  Augustus is motivated less by strategic genius and more by his fear of never escaping his uncle’s shadow.  Tiberius starts out strong, just to end up a paranoid mess on the Isle of Capri.  Caligula is a spoiled brat.  Claudius emerges as a casually cruel man who used his infirmities as a way to keep his enemies off guard.  And finally, Nero is portrayed as a frustrated artist whose subsequent reputation for cruelty may have been overstated by biased historians.  The emperors are portrayed as being flawed humans who all, even Caligula, had potential to do good but who were ultimately corrupted by a society that treated them like Gods while also constantly plotting their downfall.

Laura Blond contributes chapters about life in ancient Rome. A chapter which examines a day in the life of a Roman citizen reveals not only the grandeur of Rome but also all the details that would have made me frightened to walk barefoot through the city.  If you think the erratic emperors were frightening, just try to get through the chapter about Roman eating habits!  Agck!

It makes for compulsive and occasionally gossipy reading.  I’m a history nerd and I’m fascinated by the Roman Empire so I loved it.

Book Review: The Confession by R.L. Stine


What would you do if your friend confessed to committing a murder?

That’s the dilemma that is at the heart of R.L. Stine’s 1996 YA horror novel, The Confession.

No one at Shadyside High likes Al.  He used to be kind of nice but, as of late, he’s been dressing in all black, drinking beer, and picking fights.  Plus, he’s got a really bad habit of blackmailing his friends.  Al is the type who will sell you the answers to a test and then threaten to tell everyone that you were cheating unless you keep him supplied with cash.  (Fortunately, my sister was a year ahead of me so I could just go through her old tests if I needed the answers in advance.)  Al is a real jerk and no one is that upset when he turns up dead and with a rollerblade stuffed in his mouth!

Who killed Al!?  Well, nerdy Sandy tells his friends that he did it.  At first, everyone’s okay with the idea of covering for Sandy because it’s not like Al was a nice guy and Sandy did promise not to kill anyone else.  But then Julie (who also discovered Al’s body) starts to have nightmares about Sandy and she finds it difficult to keep covering for him every time that she speaks to the police.  Julie also notices that Sandy has been acting a little bit differently since confessing to the murder.  Sandy seems to be a little bit more aggressive now, almost as if he might want to try to kill someone again….

AGCK!

Listen, if I was in Julie’s shoes …. well, I don’t know what I’d do.  On the one hand, I have always been against murder and violence in general.  On the other hand, Al was a real jerk and it was kind of obvious that he would have eventually ended up killing someone if someone hadn’t gotten to him first.  I would not want to be the person who sent a friend to death row.  So, in this case, R.L. Stine came up with a plot that actually made me think.  At the same time, he also added a last-minute twist that let almost all of the characters off the hook.  I guess that’s to be expected.  I mean, we’re talking R.L. Stine here, not Dostoevsky,  Still, I was a bit disappointed with the final few pages of the book.  Things worked out …. BUT AT WHAT COST?

Again, there was no cost.  This is R.L. Stine.  All the trauma in the world is worth it as long as you’re dating a cute guy and speaking in quips by the end of the book.  That, after all, is the appeal of Fear Street.

Book Review: Laid Cregar: A Hollywood Tragedy by Gregory William Mank


Ah, poor Laird Cregar.

Cregar was born in Philadelphia in 1913 and spent a good deal of his youth in England.  That was where he first appeared, as a child actor, with the Stratford-Upon-Avon theatrical troupe and it was also where he developed the English accent that would serve him well later in life.  Cregar once said that, from the age of eight, all he wanted to do was be on stage.

For most of the years that followed, Cregar never stopped performing.  Cregar went from acting on stage to eventually making his way to Hollywood.  He first appeared on the big screen in 1940 and he went on to appear in 16 films. He appeared in nearly every genre of film, from comedy to film noir to even a western.  As frequent viewers of TCM can tell you, he played a surprisingly charming devil in 1943’s Heaven Can Wait.  But he was probably best-known for playing a mysterious man who might be Jack the Ripper in 1944’s The Lodger and for his role as the possibly mad pianist, George Henry Bone, in Hangover Square, obsessively playing the piano while his room burned down around him.  Sadly, that will be his final role.

Cregar was an actor who had the talent to be a leading man but, because he weighed over 300 pounds, he found himself used as a supporting player in Hollywood.  He was a character actor who yearned to be a romantic star and who feared he would be forever typecast as a villain.  Perhaps because Cregar disliked playing villains, his villains often seemed to be conflicted about their actions.  (Indeed, there was a vulnerability to Cregar that made it difficult not to feel some sympathy for his characters.)  Determined to change his image, Cregar embarked on a crash diet that was aided by amphetamines.  He lost over a 100 pounds but he also put his health in jeopardy.  On December 9th, 1944, Cregar died after suffering a heart attack.  He was 31 years old.  His friend Vincent Price delivered the eulogy at Cregar’s story.  Cregar’s final film, Hangover Square, was released four months after he died.

Gregory William Mank’s biography, Laird Cregar: A Hollywood Tragedy, not only tells the story of Cregar’s short life but it also examines how Cregar took his frustrations and his insecurities and used them in his performances.  In Mank’s biography, Cregar comes across as being a kind and generous man who wanted so desperately to be a star that it destroyed him.  The book serves as not only an examination Cregar and his talent but an indictment of a studio system that set very rigid rules for who could and who couldn’t be a star.  The book also features details about Cregar’s extensive and successful stage career.  If you’re a history nerd like me, you’ll appreciate all of the detail that Mank goes into while discussing who co-starred with Cregar and their subsequent careers.  Mank explores Cregar’s childhood and his career.  The resulting biography pays tribute to a star who deserved better.