Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B Movie by Chris Nahawaty

[This book] is a rollicking account of the life and career of Roger Corman - one of the most prolific independent producers, directors, and writers of all time. Known for low-budget cult classics such as Little Shop of Horrors (1960), Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979), and Galaxy of Terror (1981), Corman is the self-proclaimed king of the B movie, and it is thanks to his films that actors like Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson found the limelight.

As told by Corman himself and by the showbiz legends that got their starts alongside him, [this book] provides a comprehensive oral history of more than six decades of American cinema. Renowned directors and actors including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert de Niro, and Peter Bogdanovich candidly recount working with Corman in the years before their big breaks, as if trading anecdotes at a Hollywood cocktail party.

Brimming with never-before-published behind-the-scenes photographs and ephemera drawn from Corman's personal archive, [this book] provides an unprecedented glimpse into the world of a film legend. Full-page reproductions of classic Corman movie posters trace his impressive filmography, and critical essays on Corman's most daring and influential films - including The Intruder (1951), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), Boxcar Bertha (1972), and The Big Doll House (1971) - make the case for Corman as an artist like no other. [This book] is the definitive chronicle of a singular career and personality - the giddy, fun-filled companion to a Roger Corman drive-in retrospective. 

I've always been a fan of Roger Corman, but after reading this book, I'm also inspired by the man. I knew about some of his movies, having grown up watching them, but wow! The man is literally unstoppable, a true work-horse, and an innovator in every sense of the word. And still making/producing movies today, in his mid 80s! I had no idea just how long he'd been in the business, nor did I know how many people he helped out along the way. Granted, his tactics weren't always the most popular, but his credentials are impressive (bring up his page on IMDB and there's over 400 entries listing him as producer. Four hundred plus.)

The movies of his I love best are the ones based on Edgar Allan Poe stories, starring Vincent Price. Back when I was in grade school, our local NBC affiliate (WTHR, Channel 13 - back in the days before cable) showed movies at 4 pm weekday afternoons. I would race home when it was Price week, as they almost always pulled out all the Corman flicks: Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, House of Usher...all fabulous films with one of my favorite horror movie actors, very atmospheric and creepy. Never mind that I was young enough that the plots were sometimes over my head. Those movies made a big impact on me. Of course, Corman would have been happier if I had somehow bought copies of those flicks, as he was always looking to make money on his movies.

And make money he did. The things I learned from this wonderful love letter (because that's really what it is - a love letter from a fan) are amazing, such as the fact that Corman almost never lost money on his films, able to produce/direct/distribute at a profit. Think about that for a moment. At least 90% of the time, maybe even 95%, he made a profit. What other Hollywood type can say that? Corman worked his casts and crews to the bone, always asking them to do as much as was humanly possible in the least amount of time for very little dough. Many of the actors/directors/other staff quoted mention how they "survived" the Corman School of Filmmaking, not a real school but the very experience of working with/for Roger. And work they did, grueling schedules on shoots plagued with problems.

And yet, everyone interviewed speaks of their time at Roger's feet with love and admiration. I would liken it to summer camp or something similar. Also, not many people worked with/for Roger more than one or two films, specifically if they showed talent; Corman himself would tell them it was time to move on. He showed them the ropes, gave them a crash course education, and then kicked them out of the nest. He did what any good manager should do - he grew his people so that they could move up in the business. And grow them he did, lots of very famous names, such as those listed in the book blurb, not to mention the women he mentored: actresses like Pam Grier and Angie Dickinson to directors like Penelope Spheeris, Amy Holden Jones, Deborah Brock, and Katt Shea. He gave women a chance when others simply wanted them for their...um...assets. Roger knew they had assets, and not the ones that were visible. He truly broke new ground, and did it over and over again.

If you're a film fan, this book is for you. If you're a B movie fan, this book is for you. And if you're a Roger Corman fan, this book is definitely for you. Big, beautiful, and yes, even a bit cheesy at times. Everything that makes a Corman film a Corman film.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

Rose Baker seals men's fates. With a few strokes of the keys that sit before her, she can send a person away for life in prison. A typist in the New York City Police Department, Rose is like a high priestess. Confessions are her job. The criminals admit to their transgressions, and Rose records their crimes.

But 1923 is a confusing time for Rose. Gone are the Victorian standards of what is acceptable. All around her women bob their hair short, they smoke, they go to speakeasies. Yet prudish Rose is stuck in the fading light of yesteryear. When glamorous Odalie, a new girl, joins the typing pool, despite her best intentions Rose falls under Odalie's spell. And soon her fascination with Odalie turns into an obsession from which she may never recover.

This is one of those really good books that drives you nuts once you reach the end. In many ways, I'm reminded of when I read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson; when I finished that book (which is awesome!) I realized that I wasn't sure I'd read the story correctly. And that's how The Other Typist feels - I'm not sure I read the story right. If I had the time, I'd love to go through it again, see if I can figure it out. Because it's one of those books, with not only an unreliable narrator, but also an ambiguous ending.

However, it's a very well written book. Rindell has done a wonderful job capturing the feel/flavor of Prohibition New York, of the start of the flappers, and of the underground world of the speakeasies. And she did an excellent, and creepy, job of showing how a mild-mannered, by-the-book person like Rose could fall under the spell of someone who seems to have it all, falling so hard as wanting to be like her. The story is told in first person POV, which is really the only way to write the unreliable narrator. At times, Rose comes across like one of the nuns that helped raise her in the orphanage - cold, unfeeling, unwavering, and frankly, not very nice/likable. At other times, though, her yearning for a good friend (a "bosom-friend" as she keeps referring to Odalie), for a home, for a family, is just heartbreaking. You, as the reader, can completely understand why she does some of the things she does - she so wants someone, anyone, to love her.

A very interesting book, and thankfully, a debut novel. Which means that Rindell will hopefully have many more books to come.

Friday, January 3, 2014

All She Wrote by Josh Lanyon

A murderous fall down icy stairs is nearly the death of Anna Hitchcock, the much-beloved "American Agatha Christie" and Christopher Holmes's former mentor. Anna's plea for him to host her annual winter writing retreat touches all Kit's sore spots - traveling, teaching writing classes, and separation from his new lover, J.X. Moriarity.

For J.X., Kit's cancellation of yet another romantic weekend is the death knell of a relationship that has been limping along for months. But that's just as well, right? Kit isn't ready for anything serious and besides, Kit owe Anna far too much to refuse.

Faster than you can say "Miss Marple wears boxer shorts", Kit is snooping around Anna's elegant, snowbound mansion in the Berkshires for clues as to who's trying to kill her. A tough task with six amateur sleuths underfoot. Six budding writers with a tangled web of dark undercurrents running among them.

Slowly, Kit gets the uneasy feeling that the secret may lie between the pages of someone's fictional past. Unfortunately, a clever killer is one step ahead. And it may be too late for J.X. to ride to the rescue.

This is the second book in Lanyon's Holmes & Moriarity series, and it's a pretty fun read. Plenty of red herrings, and also lots of danger, as well as exploring the on-again-off-again relationship of Kit and J.X.

There's the usual cast of characters that one would expect from a writers' retreat (or what I imagine would be the usual cast of characters): the ingenue, Nella House, a young 20-ish something who shows promise as a writer, someone that Anna has said she'll take under her wing; the cold fish, Poppy C. Clarke, who dresses in manly clothes and may have had her ex-husband killed; the tenant, Victoria Sherwell, a writer living in a cabin on Anna's estate; the chubby guy, Rowland Bride, who is rather heavyset, always looks "hot" as in perspiring hot, and who obviously has a crush on young Nella; the cool, biker-looking writer, Arthur Gohring, whom no one knows anything about; the PA, Sara Mason, who has been with Anna several years now - and who writes "for herself"; the longtime editor, Rudolph Dunst, who might have a less-than-professional relationship with his author, Anna; the obnoxious stepson, Ricky, who stands to inherit quite a tidy sum of money and his deceased father's catalog of work - but only once his stepmother is dead; and the ever-lurking handyman, Luke, who is young, an ex-con, and might be tending more than Anna's outside gardens.

It's a lot of characters to keep up with, but Lanyon does a nice job of developing them enough that the reader has no trouble remembering who is who. Plus, said characters start dying pretty quickly, which helps us not only keep track of the players, but emotionally invests us in Kit's investigation. Because he is also in danger, suffering injuries in a fatal car wreck early in the book. He needs to find out if someone really is trying to kill Anna, or if her accidents are just that - a series of very unfortunate events that have her imagining assassins around every corner.

J.X. shows up after the car wreck, and that's where things really take off. Kit's lover has his former profession, that of law enforcement, on his side when trying to explain that sometimes, an accident is just that - an accident. J.X. obviously cares greatly for Kit; it's Kit who is holding back, fearing their age difference (only 5 years, but when you turn 40, any difference feels pretty big), J.X.'s fame (he's also a writer now, and pens very popular, bestselling, "utterly readable" thrillers), and his, Kit's, own writers block. Kit's series starring Miss Butterwith has been around for twenty some years, and much as he loves her and her cat (and her very obviously gay male friend), he's running out of ideas for her. He seems a bit bored with her, but also afraid to try something new. And yes, every time I read Miss Butterwith, I think of the syrup, Mrs. Butterworth. Hard not to, and then I want some pancakes. Hm...

But I digress. The mystery was pretty well-written, and I didn't realize whodunnit until pretty much the very end. I read a few reviews on Amazon where people thought Kit complained/worried too much about the possibility of losing J.X. Well, who wouldn't? Kit's ex-husband, David, had left him for a younger man, and that's gotta hurt, no matter who you are. J.X. is written to be smokin' hot, while Kit thinks of himself (and as such, so do we, the reader), as pretty much an ordinary 40-ish, middle-aged man. Not too firm, but not too flabby, having trouble seeing small print, not bouncing back from things nearly as quickly as he used to. I can see where he'd be nervous about letting J.X. get too close...and I thought this installment moved along their relationship very nicely.

Overall, my only disappointment was that a few characters were introduced, became part of the mystery, then just sort of disappeared. I would love to know what happened to them, and what their exact relationships with Anna were. Oh well. Can't have everything!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Hello 2014!

As always, my first promise is to keep up with this blog. OK, to do better at keeping up with this blog. Oh, alright, to at least post once a month on this blog.

I didn't make my reading goal of 2013 of 100 books - only made it to 75, maybe 76. It's hard to keep track; I use two different online bookshelf sites, and they don't always have every title available. Either way, I didn't succeed. Then again, 75 or 76 books is still nothing to sniff at. I've already set my goal of 100 books for this year on both sites, and wonder of wonders, I've already finished one book. And it's only the 2nd day of January!

Big changes are happening in my work life. I've been reassigned to a branch pairing in my library system, so I'll be responsible for two branches, two communities, and of course, all new staff (all new to me, that is). I've been at my current branch for 11 years. It's where I started my library career, and it's been very hard, the idea of leaving the people behind. And, since I work for county government, and one that is still struggling with very skeletal budgets, there is no raise for taking on more responsibility. In fact, we had to pick up a second car, so according to my husband, we're actually losing money with this move. Oh well - I still have a job, and that is definitely nothing to sneeze at (as anyone working in a library knows).

My hopes for 2014 include lots of great books, hopefully at least one good vacation, and to finish the year off still sane and maybe even 10 pounds lighter. Hey, it could happen! My hopes for you, my (very few) readers, is that you stick with me, don't give up on me, and that you have lots of great books in your future, too.