Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again... and shot a buncha guys, so it became Rebecca #2: Massacre at Manderley

Tiz the season to hide from your obnoxious family and catch up on yer readin', although I'm cheating and including a few things I read a few months ago, too, because, really, what difference does it make? I hide from people year 'round! I stuck to mostly action-series books just for the hell of it, although I tossed a couple more in there for readers who could care less about such things. I also read Oliver Twist but thought I'd wait and see if I could scare up any sequels, like Oliver Twist #2: Idaho Immolation or something... y'know, something where Oliver doesn't fucking cry every time he shows up in the book. Jesus Christ, I was starting to root for Fagin before the end. (By the way, y'know who would've loved Oliver Twist? Hitler! There's more anti-semitism in that book than there is in The Turner Diaries!

Crystal Kill: The Terminator #4 - John Quinn (Pinnacle, 1984) Good action novel in which Ron Gavin, a CIA assassin who quit and went fugitive over principles, takes a simple assignment to deliver a message to a runaway husband. While visiting a friend in the area he gets mixed up in the aftermath of a drug deal that went bad and is turning into an ugly bloodbath. The action scenes are limited but the book makes up for that in a higher level of plausibility than most action series novels deliver, plus the characterization is good: Gavin has a personality and seems like a regular fella, but more capable of handling violence than most. His interest throughout the book is seeing old friends and doing some partying rather than just being hell-bent on fighting crime like an obsessed vigilante. The writing is good and it's a quick read, so I'll look for more of these even though it's not slam-bang wall-to-wall gunfire.

Death Bird Contract - Philip Atlee (Fawcett-Gold Medal, 1966). Top government troubleshooter Joe Gall is sent to Mexico to find out if a candidate for Under-Secretary of State for the Far East has gotten rid of a past heroin addiction. Why this mission would require the country's supposed best agent of mayhem is unclear, as is the wisdom of hooking Gall on heroin so he'll be able to infiltrate the drug underground more easily. In any case, Gall is given a heroin habit and a beautiful black model for an ersatz girlfriend (who he falls madly in love with far too easily) and is turned loose on Mexico... where he honestly doesn't do much. The book cover calls him "the Nullifier" but he's more like the Stultifier because he spends more time reading magazines and eating lunch than anything else, and he doesn't come across as double-tough; a couple of nips from piranha in a pool (one of the only attempts to inject any kind of menace into the book) make him swoon for four days, and when something resembling a car chase happens, he's the passenger, not the driver. He talks a lot about all the violence he's engaged in but the book is nearly action-free, with only one brief fight and no exchanges of gunfire. The writing style is good and Gall makes for an interesting, opinionated wise-guy jerk of a narrator, but it's hard to get around the fact that nothing really happens. Where a Nick Carter book would be packing in climactic gunfights, explosions, fistfights and chases, Gall is getting ready for a marathon game of gin rummy, and I'm not even kidding about that. The cover is the best part of the book, because the back makes it sound like it might actually be bad-ass. And I kinda like that the guy in the picture's got some of the worst acne-scarring ever.

Deep Sea Death - Nick Carter (Jove, 1989) This time the spy has to deal with a more-outlandish-than-usual threat: a megalomaniacal villain who's built an undersea kingdom full of cyborg clones. Nick teams up with a female archaeologist (who doesn't let being a pacifist stop her from doing her share of killing) and they use missile-firing scuba sleds to stop the sub-marine supervillain from taking over the world with technology and nukes. Plenty of action, decent entry in the series.

Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King (Scribner, 2010) Stephen King is near the top of his game in a collection of four novellas, less supernatural and darker in tone than most of his recent work. The first story, 1922, concerns the horrific results of a farmer murdering his wife with the help of his son and getting nothing but tragedy -- and rats -- for his effort. This one's well-written and grim as hell. The next story, Big Driver, has a spunky writer of cozy mysteries getting thrust into a noir world when she falls into a predator's trap and is raped and (he thinks) murdered, and she -- even though it's out of character for her -- decides to gets some Death Wish style vigilante vengeance. But this situation keeps getting more complicated than she counted on. You can't help but root for her as she takes on some truly evil scum, as well as her own nature, but the device of having her cat and GPS system converse with her is a bit too cutesy for the incredibly dark situation. Other than that, aces! The third, Fair Extension, involves a terminal cancer patient making a deal with the devil for more time. It's like a Twilight Zone story with no real twist and I don't get the point of it. It's very mediocre but it's fairly short so it doesn't drag the book down much. The last, A Good Marriage, sees a wife whose discovery of her husband's horrific secret hobby shakes her marriage, and the rest of her life. Very well done. Overall, one of King's best books in years, and one of the few I didn't feel was too long. King is at his best when he doesn't indulge himself with page count, and I think staying away from the supernatural is a good idea for him now, since the last things he's done that were "supernatural" were embarrassingly idiotic (giant multicolored frogs? Sheesh). This one's worth checking out even if you've been down on him for a while.

Mekong Massacre: Black Eagles #2
- John Lansing (Zebra, 1983) Commie-hatin' Captain Falconi (cleverly called "The Falcon") leads a team into VC territory to recover a captured pilot who's being brainwashed by an evil Korean who Falconi's also supposed to bring back for questioning. Pretty soon the whole North Vietnamese army is after Falconi's squad... and it's not terribly interesting because the characterization is so weak. Major characters do get killed in significant numbers but Lansing isn't able to make them stand out as individuals or make them seem interesting. Even Falconi, his main guy, is almost devoid of personality. You get a better sense of the bad guys, who are seethingly, cartoonishly evil. The action scenes are okay, including kung fu fights, which Falconi gets in whenever he leaves his tent. At least two kung fu fights could be totally removed without changing the book at all; they're completely incidental, like "Suddenly on the way to visit a friend some guys jumped out of the bushes and attacked him." It's not terrible, just not memorable and doesn't really build to anything.

A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die: Mondo #3 - Anthony Destefano (Manor Books, 1977) Final entry in the hardboiled series has coldblooded killer Mondo tangling with assassins who are out to kill his sensei. He's distracted by a beautiful female Eurasian assassin named Michi, who uses sex as a weapon, but even his feelings for her (which admittedly aren't that deep because Mondo's feelings are pretty much limited to rage) can't get in the way of protecting his father figure and destroying the kill team. Mondo gets some help from a pimp named Spiderman, but in the end he has to settle things himself. Fairly realistic (although Mondo does escape police in a car chase far too easily) and as hard-ass as it gets. And Mondo doesn't let being a total badass keep him from having the most awesome guy-perm in action series history. Gotta love the back copy, too. And, yes, they stole the title from a spaghetti Western...

- Daphne Du Maurier (Harper, 1938) Classic suspense novel that works like a gothic ghost story with no actual ghost, but no less creepy for its absence. A young and somewhat foolish narrator, never named, falls in love with a rich but troubled man whose wife, Rebecca, died in a storm at sea the year before. They marry and move into his estate, known as Manderley, which is very beautiful but has an atmosphere of something being wrong. The narrator feels like she's always being judged by everyone and found lacking. The skeletal housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is disturbingly passive-aggressive to her, and becomes completely sinister. Rebecca's memory pervades the estate -- things are still done the way she wanted them done, they still eat meals from menus Rebecca prepared, rooms are laid out as if awaiting her return, whiffs of her perfume can still be smelled, and Mrs. Danvers' chief loyalties still lie with her even though she's dead. The narrator feels like she's competing with a dead woman - and losing - and that big, dark secrets are being hidden from her. And the more she discovers, the more morbid the truth about Rebecca and her influence become. Even though this isn't technically a horror novel I would (as with Wuthering Heights) be temped to count it as one, since the them of past-haunting-the-present is very strong here. Rebecca, and Manderley itself, are like characters and have great influence over the living, although they are unliving things. And memory haunts like a ghost (the eerie opening chapter is a dream of Manderley in ruins -- even at the opening of the book, Manderley, like Rebecca, is gone, yet still making its presence felt: nearly the entire book is a haunting memory). The writing is brilliant. The plot takes a little while to get into, feeling too much like some standard romance novel, but once the darkness kicks in it's hard to put the book down, and some scenes are skin-crawling without ever really becoming horror. Du Maurier manages a tricky feat -- having the reader be a better guesser at what's going on than the naive narrator who's supplying the information. But the narrator does believably grow with experience. Total masterpiece.

Shark North: Sea Wolf #2
- Bruno Krauss (Zebra, 1978) WWII from the other point of view, predating Das Boot. A German U-Boat Leutnant tries to make his mark despite an incompetent superior and malfunctioning equipment as his submarine faces a great deal of strife off the frozen coast of Norway. Other than an overabundance of technicalities and some clumsily-handled flashbacks, this is very well-written and the naval and air battles generate some real suspense, and defy action-novel convention by being realistic enough not to have everything work out perfectly. Not bad.

Valley of Death: Chopper Cop #1
- Paul Ross (Popular Library, 1972) First in the short-lived (three book) action series is pretty scant in even setting up the hero as a character, and the mystery is pretty predictable and not as action-packed as it should be. Long-haired motorcycle-riding cop Terry Bunker sets out to rescue a girl from a weird religious cult that supposedly resurrects people from the dead; the parents of the cultists think their daughters are dead, but then they appear again to be ransomed off. Bunker mostly figures out what's going on, as he is a very hesitant-to-use-his-gun kind of guy and most of the deaths in the book are the results of accidents the bad guys have while trying to escape. The writing is spare but decent and the story is an okay change of pace with a counterculture bent, but doesn't fully exploit its potential.

If books are too long and you prefer your writing to be 140 characters or less, you can be one of the few people who follows my Twitter shit, which is very funny and enchanting if you like juvenile vulgarity and peepee and hostility toward the human race and like that-there.

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