Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Round-Up#42: Best of 2010 Edition

2010 was quite a year for readers, movie-goers, and music lovers. So, here they are: The best books and films I came across in 2010.

(Note: Not all of these titles were released in 2010, but I reviewed them this year).

Best Films of 2010:

Tron: Legacy: 1982's Tron was a good film, but it wasn't great. Not by a long shot. It was a visually imaginative, even revolutionary film, that surmounted the technical limitations of its time to deliver a film high on imagination and visceral thrills, yet low on story and dialogue. But that film's main characters, mainly John Flynn/Clu (played by a young, ebullient Jeff Bridges) and Alan Bradley/Tron (played endearingly by Bruce Boxleitner), were likable and memorable. Tron: Legacy takes the basic idea of the original (a programmer, John Flynn, gets zapped into a software program and discovers that it is a world unto itself, full of heroes, villains, games, dangers, and wonders), and basically reworks it for the modern age, with technology light-years ahead of the original film.

This time around, the story focuses on Sam, John Flynn's son, who, after his father disappears and is considered missing or dead, grows up to become an angry, wayward young man, with no interest in carrying on his father's legacy as CEO of Encom, the world's leading software development company. That is, till his father's old friend, Alan Bradley (wonderfully played by a returning Leitner), tells Sam that he's received a page from his father, sent from Flynn's arcade, his father's old hangout before he disappeared. Sam goes there, discovers his father's secret hideout inside the arcade, and gets zapped into the same world his father was zapped into 28 years earlier. But now this cyber world has become a much more dangerous place, and is ruled by Clu, his father's alter-ego, who has apparently gone insane.

What ensues is a film that surpasses the original in every way: narratively, dramatically, and, yes, visually. If Tron was an imaginative film ahead of its time, Tron: Legacy is a film whose imagination is on hyper-drive. From the mind-bogglingly detailed landscapes, to the wondrously animated version of a young Jeff Bridges, to the superbly orchestrated action sequences, to Daft Punk's magnificent electronic score (which pays tribute to the grandmasters of 80's synth scores, John Carpenter and Vangelis), this is a film that will leave you gasping, amazed, thrilled, and, strangely, moved; the latter mainly due to the acting prowess of Jeff Bridges, who emerges half-way through the film to reprise his role as John Flynn. But, as we soon, discover, this is a drastically different version of the character: older, wiser, sadder, and much more tragic than the man featured in the original Tron.

Although the writers (Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal), as well as director Jospeh Kosinski, should be given credit for the film's tone and dramatic weight, it is Bridges' performance as John Flynn that elevates this film above its genre trappings, creating a character that is likable, sympathetic, and wonderfully archetypal.

Despite some minor faults (like the bumpy opening sequence and Michael Sheen's atrocious turn as Castor/Zuse), flawless technical credentials, a tight script, Bridges' performance, and an effectively bittersweet ending (not to mention a neat surprise for fans of the character Tron), make this a highly enjoyable, technically daring near-classic.

The American: You've got to hand it to star and co-producer George Clooney. The American is a daring experiment. Sure, it isn't a great film, or an original one at that. But it's a good one, and it brings back memories of a time when movies focused on stories, performance, and filmmaking, rather than marketing, glitz, and music-video techniques that appeal to the lowest common denominator. The American is a film that tells a simple story and tells it well.

The story: An aging killer for hire moves to a small Italian town after a botched attempt on his life that resulted in the death of his lover. By his own hands. He tries to maintain a low profile and only takes simple, non-violent jobs. But, to his surprise, he falls in love with a local call girl, which leads to treachery, double-dealings and, ultimately, tragedy.

As mentioned above, the story is so simple, so cliched, that it almost borders on trite. But screenwriter Rowan Joffe (adapting Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman) and director Anton Corbijn keep things moving at a slow yet hypnotically seductive pace, while Clooney's effectively subdued portrayal of the cold killer having a crisis of faith, keeps us watching, intrigued.

But what makes this film a success, however minor, are two things: Its boldness and the supporting players. The film's boldness lies in its unwavering belief in the power of its story, with Corbijn and the performers reining themselves in, letting the story unfold, breathe, and hold us in its grip till the predictable yet haunting climax. Corbijn (better known as a music-video director, and who previously directed the Joy Division bio-pic Control) keeps the visuals clean, the editing smooth, and the use of music to a minimum. While the supporting players - especially a wonderfully touching performance by Paolo Bonacelli as the priest who tries to steer the hitman back to the grace of God, and Violante Placido as the romantic call girl - make the story come to life.

Although it needed a stronger actor in the lead role, and the story could've used a couple of twists, The American is a potent drama/thriller that feels like one of those classy, minimalist Euro-American thrillers made in the Seventies.

The Wrestler: Darren Aronofsky is a frustrating filmmaker. He has his good moments (Pi), his pretentious moments (Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain), and then there are the flashes of genius. The Wrestler is a work of art. It's a deceptively simple film, with a simple storyline: a has-been professional wrestler, played by a brilliant Mickey Rourke, tries to overcome his mid-life crisis and his money troubles by diving back into wrestling. But his life is a shambles: his daughter hates him, his heart is failing him, and his money is running out. The only thing he has going for him is his developing relationship with a middle-aged stripper (Marisa Tomei, in a career-best performance).

Don't let that lame synopsis give you the wrong idea. No, sir. This is a film that is powerfully touching, technically masterful, and, above all, tells a great story using the least amount of flash. Aronofsky, not known for his restraint, reins himself in, telling the aging wrestler's story with awe-inspiring restraint, using a docu-style to tell the story, never letting technique get in the way of the characters' journeys. But that doesn't mean that the film isn't visually stylish. Far from it. Aronofsky's minimalism is a style in itself: The bleached visuals, the primitive editing style, and the brilliant sound-design create a somber, naturalistic mood that befits the gritty tale.

But what makes the film what it is, a brilliant piece of filmmaking and a story wonderfully told, is Mickey Rourke. A charismatic, versatile actor, Rourke creates a character that is so real, so flawed, so memorable, that one wonders why the actor didn't win an Oscar for the role. This is a performance to be studied, a performance for the ages, a marvel of minimalism and craftsmanship.

With a brilliant script by Robert D. Siegel, masterful direction, a mesmerizing performance by Rourke, and a powerful ending, The Wrestler is not to be missed.

Inception: Christopher Nolan's first attempt at a heady summer blockbuster (The Dark Knight not withstanding, since it was based on one of the most popular comic-book characters in the world) is a fascinating filmmaking experiment, which, for the most part, and considering the film's worldwide box-office receipts, has proven successful.

The story, about a group of dream-invaders/thieves who specialize in breaking into a person's dreams and stealing treasured secrets, is trippy Sci-Fi at its best. You've got the wild (and highly improbable) idea of invading dreams and stealing thoughts, the tortured protagonist with a dark secret in his past, and the almost impossible mission (invading the mind of the son of a corporate titan to implant a thought which will determine the future of the energy industry). Nolan's screenplay piles concept on top of concept (much like the three dream levels depicted in the film), giving vague explanations as to how these people actually achieve the process of invading dreams and planting thoughts (a process referred to throughout the film as "inception"), which makes the film's central premise highly implausible and bordering on ludicrous. But this is Christopher Nolan we're talking about, the man who pulled Batman out of the gutter and turned him into a noirish anti-hero living in a nihilistic universe, and made it work (The Dark Knight has become one of the most profitable feature films in history). So, under Nolan's meticulous direction, and despite the aforementioned faults, the film works, on many levels.

This is a film that is so exciting, so breathtaking, both visually and aurally (Hans Zimmer's moody score is magnificent), that one can't help but be swept along by its sheer audacity. To my mind, this is the first film to combine elements of Sci-Fi, mystery, psychological drama, heist movies, and film-noir, and pulls it off! Also, for the most part, Nolan grounds the film in reality, keeping CGI to a minimum; instead, relying on his by now trademark visual style and clever editing techniques to sell the concept and realize his imagery. And for a film whose concept boggles the mind and whose plot is anything but easy to follow, it never lets up and never gives the viewer a chance to lose interest, thanks to the endearing performances by all of the cast and to Nolan's dynamic direction.

What prevents the film from becoming a masterpiece, though, aside from the improbability of its central premise, are two things: Firstly, the film is overly and needlessly complex. While watching the film, you get the feeling that Nolan was so in love with the cleverness of his screenplay that he kept adding more and more layers to its already serpentine structure, to the point that the film begins to wobble under the weight of its own complexity. The film, which is indeed clever (but, arguably, not as clever as Nolan thinks it is), could have been less complex in terms of structure and nothing would have been lost in terms of drama and plot.

Secondly, the film is not very effective dramatically. Although all of the film's characters are endearing and brought to life wonderfully by a game cast (especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a scene-stealing Ken Watanabe), none of them, with the exception of Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Cobb, are fully fleshed out. As we get deeper and deeper into the story, we realize that these characters are mostly fodder for Cobb's journey, which is somewhat understandable, considering that he's the film's protagonist and the team leader. But since all of the film's characters, including DiCaprio's, are more or less criminals, it would have been more effective for us to get to know them better in order to get more attached to them.

But, in the end, this is a fantastic film, daring in its complexity, and a formalist triumph. Do yourself a favour, avoid most of the dreck (both foreign and local) being released in cinemas this summer, and go watch this clever feat of the imagination.

The Burrowers: If Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men, Blood Meredian, The Road) ever wrote an outright horror tale, it would probably be something like this. The Burrowers, a strange mixture of Sci-Fi, Horror, Western, and political allegory, sure is one original piece of filmmaking.

The story: In the year 1879, after a series of brutal murders and unexplained kidnappings, a group of cowboys set out to hunt down and kill the responsible party (whom they think is a group of Native Americans), and discover that the enemy they are after isn't even human, but a species of carnivorous underground dwellers.

With sumptuous cinematography by Phil Parmet, stylish, assured direction by writer/director J.T. Petty, and a screenplay that has a lot on its mind other than monster mayhem and gore (although there is plenty of that), The Burrowers is an ambitious horror film about American greed and ruthlessness, and humans' inability to learn from past mistakes.

Whether you are a horror fan, a Western buff, or just want to watch a brilliant piece of filmmaking, you should give The Burrowers a whirl. It's worth your time.

Shutter Island: Based on Dennis Lehane's stupendous novel and directed by Martin Scorsese, Shutter Island is a wondrous piece of filmmaking. This is an audacious, stylish film, and one which has been meticulously adapted for the screen.

The plot - revolving around a U.S. Marshall's investigation of a secret government facility for the insane, the secrets he discovers, and how it all ties to a tragic incident in his past - is serpentine and challenging. But thanks to a near-perfect screenplay, Leonardo DiCaprio's impressive portrayal of the haunted protagonist, and Scorsese's perfectionist direction, the film's pace is fast and the story moves along smoothly, right down to the harrowing ending.

But what makes this film a masterpiece is Scorsese's direction. With this film, Scorsese has made something that is as rare as diamonds: A big-budget studio-produced film that is wildly experimental. Using unorthodox lighting techniques, toying with continuity, and creating images that are as surreal as any found in psychedelic art-house films, Scorsese pulls out all the stops and delivers a film that is both technically and narratively daring. This is a film that looks like it was shot in the 1940's but with current technology. This is the kind of film that Val Lewton (the 40's pioneer of psychological horror films) - someone whom Scorsese admits he admires greatly - would have made had he been alive today. In other words: this is the kind of polished, intelligent Gothic/Noir Drama Studios rarely produce nowadays.

Even darker than the original novel on which it is based, Shutter Island is an unmissable masterpiece of filmmaking, and a treat for film buffs.

The Fourth Kind: No, it's not real. Any of it. Let me explain.

Before The Fourth Kind came out, Universal Pictures pulled out all the stops with an aggressive promotional campaign, claiming that the film was based on true events and that it incorporated real archival footage. Sorry, folks. It turned out to be a hoax. All of it. But that doesn't take away the fact that this is a hugely entertaining thriller. It's dark, suspenseful, and occasionally terrifying. It tells the tale of Dr. Abbey Tyler, a psychiatrist who is out to find out who, or, rather, what killed her husband. Her quest for the truth leads her into a bizarre mystery involving sightings of owls, and nightly visits by omnipotent, malevolent creatures. Director/Co-writer Olatunde Osunsamni uses every trick in the book, visual and narrative, to make a film that is slightly cheesy, yet strangely effective and unsettling. Earnest performances by Milla Jovovich, Elias Koteas and Enzo Cilenti also add a touch of class to the proceedings.

So, forget the promotional campaign, forget Jovovich's cheesy intro in which she tells you that it's all real, and sit down and enjoy this film for what it really is: a stylish and entertaining thriller.

The Mist: Adapted from Stephen King's harrowing novella, The Mist, written for the screen and directed by Frank Darabont, is one of the finest Stephen King adaptations ever made, and one of the finest horror films I have ever seen. Period.
The story is simple. A mysterious mist shrouds a small town. Something is in that mist. Something deadly and hungry for blood. A group of people take refuge in a department store. Chaos ensues. King and Darabont use that simple premise to draw an ugly, yet realistic, picture of humanity under pressure. Once the creatures inside the mist make their presence known, the department store becomes a microcosm, a dog eat dog world where human frailty and humanity's penchant for violence rise to the surface.
This is a film that will haunt you for days. Not because of the violence (which is aplenty), or the fine performances, or Darabont's almost flawless direction. No. What will haunt you are the actions of the characters, the film's refusal to look away from our faults as a species, and the ending, which is devastating in its brutality and power.

Sherlock Holmes: Take one of the most versatile and charming actors to come out of Hollywood in a couple of decades (Robert Downey Jr.), a brilliant British actor who is obviously having loads of fun playing the side-kick (Jude Law), a fresh take on one of the most famous - if not the most famous - detectives in literary and film history (Sherlock Holmes), a director whose films are always kinetic and full of energy (Guy Ritchie), a rousing score by Hans Zimmer, and this is what you get. An engaging, thrilling, entertaining film, that, contrary to what the promotional campaign would like you to believe, is surprisingly reverential to the source material.

Downey Jr.'s Holmes is much darker and ebullient than the original, but, as with almost anything that the actor tackles, he makes it work admirably well. Jude Law as Watson seems to relish his role, and manages to make his supporting role shine without stealing the show, striking just the right balance. Director Guy Ritchie's flashy and energetic direction is stylish and effective (much more so than most of his previous films).

Although the plot, which involves the supernatural, deviates from Arthur Conan Doyle's mythology, it provides for an entertaining, if slight, mystery. But it's all fodder for a group of talented actors and filmmakers who are more interested in thrills and atmosphere than in intellect, which might not be totally loyal to Doyle's original intentions for the stories and character, but it makes for a very good film. And the ending, which promises great things to come for Holmes aficionados, is pitch-perfect.

Best Books of 2010:

Crooked by Laura and Tom McNeal: This Young-Adult thriller is so stylish, so beautifully written and meticulously paced, that one wonders why it wasn't a smash when it first came out. This is the kind of novel that shows what can be done with Young-Adult fiction when the author - or, in this case, authors - knows his subject matter, understands - or rather remembers - what it really feels like to be a teenager, and knows how to craft a damn good story.
Focusing on the intertwined lives of two teenagers, a boy and a girl - who are just starting to realize that life is not as rosy as they thought - whose parents, in myriad ways, are starting to show for what they really are. Flawed human beings.
Touching, masterfully written, and with spot-on characterization, this is a modern classic that deserves re-discovery, and one that accomplishes quite a feat: leaving the reader wanting more. A must read.

The Orchard by Charles L. Grant: There are writers who write straight horror with populist leanings (Stephen King), and those that write horror that is playful and ebullient (Richard Laymon). There are writers who try to mishmash genres together, and, therefore, don't like to be labeled as "horror"authors (Dean Koontz). There are writers who try to elevate horror to something akin to "literary"fiction" (Peter Straub); and then there is Charles L. Grant.

Charles L. Grant (1942-2006) is, undoubtedly, one of the most underrated horror writers in history. He was prolific (writing dozens of novels and short story collections, as well as editing dozens of anthologies, the most famous of which is Shadows), he treated the genre with the reverence it deserves, and his style was unmistakably his own. He was one of the most flavorful horror writers to ever come out of the States, and his writing was never pretentious. He never attempted to write anything but fine, atmospheric, quiet horror, a genre which he helped invent (along with Ramsey Campbell).

It is a damn shame that all of his work is now out of print (why a major imprint like Leisure isn't re-releasing his work, despite re-issuing the works of other underrated writers like Richard Laymon and Gord Rollo, is beyond me), since if you are a fan of stylish, understated, imaginative horror with memorable characters and which drips with menacing atmosphere, then any book by Grant would hit the spot, and then some.

I could go on and on about the writings of Charles L. Grant (his tremendously entertaining and genre-mashing Black Oak series, his X-Files media tie-ins, his popular novel The Pet, his marvelous collection of stories and novellas that is The Black Carousel, any book in his Oxrun series), but for now, I am just going to tell you about The Orchard, one of his finest achievements, in my very humble opinion.

The Orchard is a collection of stories that are linked together by their location (the fictional town of Oxrun) and by the titular orchard; a mysterious place where the dead roam and dark memories linger. Grant's ability to frighten the living daylights out of the reader with silky-smooth prose that is as subtle as a cool breeze and a masterful grip of atmosphere, is on fine display here. From the opener "Mary's asleep", Grant grabs hold of your attention and deluges your senses with a slowly but surely growing dark ambiance. But it is "The last dreadful hour", a tale about a group of people trapped in a haunted movie theater, that shows Grant's genius. It is a story so frightening, so masterfully told, that it haunts the reader days (in my case, even years!) after finishing it. The imagery, style and sense of foreboding contained within this tale, make it one of the finest ghost stories ever written, and showcases Grant as one of the few American writers who succeeded in marrying the American Gothic sensibilities with the Victorian Ghost story tradition (Peter Straub also, to a lesser extent, managed to achieve this in stories like Mrs. God from his collection Houses without doors).

So, if you are willing to do some work and hunt down used copies of Grant's work, The Orchard is a great place to start. And I promise you, you won't regret it.

The Descent by Jeff Long: Every once in a while you come across a book that is so good, so challenging, that it redefines a genre for you. I know, it doesn't happen a lot. But The Descent is one of these books.

Combing elements of Military Sci-Fi, Adventure and Horror to produce something that is truly unique, this is an astoundingly good novel that is both frightening and thought-provoking. The plot is complex: A new species of underground dwellers - monstrous and cannibalistic - suddenly surface in several locations around the world, leading to an investigation into their underground world, which, the world slowly realizes, bears a strong resemblance to Biblical Hell. This sets in motion a series of events that may lead to the end of the world as we know it, and the re-emergence of Satan himself.

I know that the above synopsis makes this novel seem like a straight-forward horror novel, which this novel definitely isn't. This is an ambitious, genre-bending thriller, that is more interested in juggling thought-provoking theological, scientific and metaphysical questions and ideas, than providing stomach-churning thrills. Don't get me wrong. It is a very scary story, and author Jeff Long delivers the goods when it comes to disturbing and gory set-pieces. But this is not where the heart of this novel lies. No. This novel asks questions and presents moral dilemmas that are as viable today as when this novel was written a decade ago. Long also provides interesting theories about the nature of demonic possession, and the origins of our idea of Hell. But what makes this novel a near-masterpiece are two things: The extremely well-drawn characters, and Long's depiction of Satan. Long's Satan is like nothing you've ever come across before in any film or work of literature. This Satan is truly a terrifying creation; mainly because he feels real, his actions deliberate and devastatingly cruel.

Like a modern day adventure co-written by Jules Verne, Douglas Preston, and Peter Straub, this is an unmissable modern classic.

Neverland by Douglas Clegg: I have been a fan of Douglas Clegg's work for some time now; ever since reading The Hour Before Dark (which is thematically related to this novel). Since then, I have read several other works by Clegg, and I've always found his work to be intelligent and entertaining. But nothing prepared me for Neverland, which is now back in print in Mass Market Paperback, with gorgeous interior illustrations by Glenn Chadbourne.

It is, at least on the surface, a coming-of-age horror novel, which are a dime-a-dozen. Stephen King (It), Peter Straub (Shadowland), Dan Simmons (Summer of Night), Richard Laymon (The Traveling Vampire Show), Brian Keene (Ghoul), among many other popular horror writers, have dabbled in this genre. But saying that Neverland is merely a coming-of-age horror tale, is like saying that Henry James was a writer of Victorian dramas. Neverland is so much more than just a coming-of-age horror novel. It combines elements of the Southern-Gothic tale, the coming-of-age horror story, Lovecraftian mythos, and the psychological thriller, to create a novel that is both frightening and deeply affecting.

Ten year old Beau is vacationing with his family in the rundown family retreat when he discovers that his cousin, Sumter, is keeping something in the shed by the house where the family is spending the summer; something that Sumter claims is hungry for blood; a god. Beau doesn't believe his cousin, who has always been a little strange and who has trouble keeping his imagination from going into overdrive. But, bit by bit, Beau begins to realize that there is more to the thing Sumter keeps in the crate inside the shed, the thing which he calls Lucy, than meets the eye. Beau begins to see horrible visions and, as he gets more and more alienated from his family, who, like most grown-ups, are fighting all the time, he begins to feel that Lucy is real. And she is out for blood.

Although it takes a while before Neverland really gets going, once it does, watch out. This is a horror novel that is out to transcend the trappings of the genre. Clegg seems more interested in the psychology of children and how they deal with the dilemma of growing up with nothing to depend on but their innocence and their parents' advice, than in supernatural horror. Indeed, the grown-ups' blindness to what is going on with their children, their narrow-mindedness and their constant fighting, is at times more disturbing than anything that takes place in the shed, where the god, Lucy, lies. This is a dark, disturbing, and surprisingly touching novel, whose power lies in Clegg's astute portrayal of pre-pubescent children who are faced with evil, both within and without. And perhaps that is why that when the the supernatural mayhem is finally unleashed, it doesn't pack the punch it should. Because the inner turmoil of the characters, their struggle to protect their innocence and sanity in a world of flawed and damaged grown-ups, is much more affecting and suspenseful than any fight with demonic creatures. But that doesn't take away from the power of the finale - where a horrible sacrifice is made by one of the main characters - which is tragic and haunting.

A powerful and beautifully written novel about children struggling with the darkness of life and the pains of crossing over from childhood into adolescence, Neverland is bound to become a classic.

Thriller. Edited by James Patterson: The phrase "Something for everybody" truly applies to this wonderful collection of thrilling short stories, chosen by James Patterson. Although Patterson has his fans, he also has his detractors (people who don't like his simplistic style and super-short chapters); but even those grumpy folks don't need to worry, as this is a fantastic collection of tales that is sure to please fans of the genre. Although highlights are plenty, stand-outs especially worth mentioning are: Greg Hurwitz's Dirty Weather, a dark and gripping crime story with a bleak ending; J.A. Konrath's Epitaph, a superb revenge tale that's violent, nasty and strangely moving; Chris Mooney's Falling, a clever tale about a hunt for a rogue FBI agent; James Rollins's Kowalski's in love, a humorous, fast-paced adventure tale with a likeable, if not too bright, protagonist; M.J. Rose and John Lescroart's The Portal, a compelling and dark psychological thriller about child abuse; F. Paul Wilson's action-packed and suspenseful Incident At Duane's, featuring his immensely popular Repairman Jack character; and the haunting closer, Gone Fishing, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, a terrifying tale about a ruthless killer and an ancient dagger stolen from a museum.

So, if you're looking for a collection of astounding short stories that span a range of genres with the only thing in common between them is that they are all thrilling, look no further than this anthology, one of the best I've ever come across. Unmissable.

The Straw Men by Michael Marshall: I rarely read a book now that I find to be truly original; mainly because most books nowadays, whether they are good or bad, are just retreads of templates that have been recycled to death, and beyond. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Some writers make a good living out of doing just that (think Stephen King, whose work I greatly admire, but who, in fact, has never come up with a plot that is halfway original and who never deviates from the trappings of the genres he tackles). But there are some writers who manage to take a tired formula or genre and transform it into something new, while retaining what made it work in the first place. A nifty trick. Michael Marshall does just that with his thriller The Straw Men.

This is a thriller so compelling, so relentless in its pursuit of its ideas, that one can't help but surrender to its power and its ability to disturb and entertain at the same time. The plot revolves around a serial killer called The Upright Man, who kidnaps children. The children he abducts are sometimes found dead, thrown away in some park or forest, or they are never seen again, their fates a mystery. For different reasons, and due to circumstance beyond their control, two men are after The Upright Man: A former police officer whose daughter was one of the killer's victims, and a former CIA agent who discovers that his parents' deaths are somehow linked to a cult of sociopaths that The Upright Man might be involved with.

I won't say anymore about the plot, because most of the pleasure that comes from reading this novel comes from the unraveling of the mystery, layer by layer. And believe me, there are layers aplenty. Just when you think the author is done playing with you, you discover you're wrong. That's not to say that this is a gimmicky thriller reliant on shock-revelations. Not really. This is a thought-provoking, disturbing, original thriller about the nature of human evil and the monsters that prey on the weak. A stunner.

P.S. The book is the first in a trilogy, followed by The Upright Man and The Blood Of Angels.

Origin by J.A. Konrath: Mostly known for his Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels series of novels, J.A. Konrath has written a number of novels and short-stories spanning various genres (including horror, Sci-Fi and Crime). Origin is one of them, and a fine introduction to one of the most underrated and versatile American authors working today.

Origin tells the story of Samhain (a top-secret government facility in New Mexico) and the people who work there. You see, Samhain is not just any ordinary top-secret government facility, no, it is a facility dedicated to studying a most unique prisoner. Satan. At least President Roosevelt thought so when he created the facility after the discovery of the demonic-looking creature (nicknamed "Bub" ) in Panama in 1906. Jump to the present day, when the creature wakes up after being in a century long coma. And speaks. English. After that, all hell breaks loose.

To tell you anymore of the plot of this strange and strangely compelling novel, would be unfair. Suffice it to say, this is an original, entertaining and nasty piece of work.

What makes this novel original is Konrath's ability to mix a number of genres to produce something truly unique. This is a scary and darkly humorous novel, often at the same time!

What makes it entertaining are the sharp, witty dialogue, its endearing characters - which Konrath manages to make memorable with just a few strokes of characterization - and his effectively minimalist style; as the story never gets bogged down with too much descriptive detail, although everything is always clear and the reader never gets lost or confused; a neat narrative trick, and one which many writers working today don't know how to pull off or just don't care to, thinking that long stretches of self-consciously florid descriptive passages make your writing richer. Konrath proves otherwise.

What makes this novel nasty is its undeniably dark and violent streak. As the last third of the novel is no-holds-barred carnage. If you have a weak stomach, don't even attempt to read this novel. Yes, it's that nasty.

But there's also something else that makes this novel work: It's cleverness. Just when you think you got it all figured it out, Konrath pulls a fast one and pushes the story into another direction. That's not to say there are mind-blowing plot-twists, not really, but Konrath is clever enough to utilize cliches to make the reader comfortable, and then wham! Something goes wrong. Konrath also makes some interesting points about the nature of faith and organized religion. And he doesn't takes the easy way out. Instead, he uses science to try to explain the nature of " Bub" and what he really might be. Although some readers might find the techno-jargon a bit much, I found it fascinating, and thought it enriched the novel.

In his author's note, Konrath admits that he wrote this novel as a blockbuster, and it shows. This isn't literary fiction. This is an entertaining, stylish piece of work for people who like good books that are also fun. Period. So, if you are looking for an intelligent techno-thriller that's also a horror novel that's also a darkly humorous tale, look no further than Origin. You won't regret it.

* The novel is available to buy or download from the author's website.

Angel by Nicholas Guild: Part romantic thriller, part Gothic mystery, part livre noir, and part crime drama, Nicholas Guild's Angel is a wonderful read. The story - which revolves around Angela Wyman a.k.a Angel, an evil sociopath who is out to slaughter a group of men involved in a tragedy that occurred in her teens, and Jim Kinkaid, the only man who truly loved her and who plans to stop her - is complex and sprawling, filled with layers upon layers of mystery and intrigue, and involves numerous interesting and interestingly bizarre characters.

But what makes it stand out are Guild's impressive storytelling appetite and his creation of Angel, the ultimate femme fatale. Guild, who previously was known for his historical and spy thrillers, goes for broke here, layering his novel with elements from numerous genres, including Gothic thrillers, murder mysteries, gangster dramas, and vintage noir, which results in a novel that is rich with thrills and suspense. Also, Guild paces the novel almost flawlessly, never letting the story lag. He also manages to create a memorable villain and a classic femme fatale in Angel, a cold, calculating, homicidal maniac who loathes men.

But Guild's ambitiousness gets the better of him near the end, when he somewhat loses control of the narrative during a climax that, though exciting, is hectic and rife with implausibilities. But he redeems himself with the novel's final sentence, which introduces one final twist that's sure to leave you smiling.

In the end, this is the kind of long, rich novel that you can lose yourself in, and which, despite its flaws, is rewarding and a hell of an entertaining ride. A modern classic.

*This novel is out-of-print, but copies are still available from numerous online booksellers.

Draculas by Jack Kilborn/J.A. Konrath, Blake Crouch, Jeff Strand and F. Paul Wilson: Take one soulless, dying millionaire who wants to be immortal, a recently discovered skull that might have belonged to Dracula himself, an infestation of vampirism in a secluded hospital, a gallery of memorable characters, a team of writers who are masters of their craft, and you get Draculas, one hell of a ride!

The plot, which is pure Kilborn/Konrath, is a one-trick pony, but the writing sure isn't. Konrath, Crouch, Strand and Wilson pull out all the stops here, delivering a book that only takes a couple of pages to get going and never looks back. This book has so much momentum that the reader never gets a chance to catch his/her breath. Jumping from one character's point-of-view to another, with no chapter stops, the novel's pace never lags. But, for me, what sets this novel apart, what makes it brilliant, is its sheer ebullience. Although it's nasty, ultra-violent, and, at times, stomach-churning and brutal, it is also very, very funny, in a super-twisted kind of way. This is a book that has an undead clown making balloon animals out of a victim's intestines, where vampire babies dangle by the umbilical cord from their mothers' open bellies, where heroes and children die; but it is also a book that makes time for characters to get untimely erections, exchange their favorite movie quotes, and which features a character that has an unhealthy relationship with his chainsaw and another who calls his gun Alice. So, yes, it's a funny book.

It's also a brutal book, with a relentless pace, and enough action, gore and grue to satisfy the most blood-thirsty reader. This is a no-holds-barred, go for the jugular (excuse the lame pun) kind of book, that does for vampires what Romero did for zombies: Make them scary again. These "draculas" aren't funny (well, most of the time they aren't), aren't handsome, and they sure don't want your love. They simply want to eat you alive with a mouth full of shark fangs. They are absolutely terrifying; creatures out of a black nightmare.

Also, Draculas is, without a doubt, one of the best, if not the best, action-horror novel I've ever read. The action sequences are brilliantly written, well-detailed, and nail-biting, which, considering the amount of talent involved, isn't surprising. What is surprising, however, is how tonally consistent this novel is. None of the four writers' voices gets to overpower the narrative, instead, this novel comes off as one well-oiled terror machine. But Konrath's penchant for locking his characters up with monsters and seeing what happens, definitely shines through. And the ending is pure Konrath: cynical and leaves you wanting more.

Hardcore horror, pitch-black humor, some of the best action/suspense sequences I've ever come across in a novel, vampires that scared the hell out of me, a cast of characters to die for, and one hell of an ending, make Draculas a modern classic. It is also the only novel I know of that features a character wielding an Amazon Kindle as a talisman. Unmissable.

* The book is available as an e-book at the Amazon Kindle Store.

The Narrows by Alexander C. Irvine: How do I describe this book? It won't be easy, believe me. I think it could be described as a Historical/Sci-Fi/Fantasy novel set in Detroit during World War II (1943, to be exact). But that above attempt at categorization is irrelevant and unnecessary, really. Because what this novel really is, is a very good, evocative, charming, melancholic story.

The plot: A young man, Jared, who wants to enroll in the army but can't due to an accident he had as a child that resulted in him cutting a nerve in his hand, takes a job at a Detroit Ford Factory where Golems are made by a Jewish shaman and sent to battle. But, soon, Jared finds himself in the middle of a dangerous game of espionage and psychic visions; a game which involves a magical red dwarf that might hold the key to winning WWII, and which eventually takes its toll on his already shaky marriage. Oh, and there's also a dragon.

Yes, I know. The plot sounds insane, and it really is. But this novel isn't really about the plot. Author Alex C. Irvine is more concerned with the characters - which are all wonderfully drawn and memorable - and the lush, elegiac atmosphere he creates. His evocation of WWII era America as seen through a nostalgic, fantastical lens is rich, gripping, and ultimately moving. This is a novel about a time and a place, flawed characters doing their best during a bad time in their lives, and shattered dreams, as told by a superb storyteller who makes it all look easy when really it isn't. My only gripe is with the climax, which is overly complex and doesn't tie things up neatly enough. But by that point in the book it almost doesn't matter, as you'll have gone through a deluge of smooth, well-crafted prose, and spent a good amount of time with characters you'll hate to part with. An undiscovered gem by a supremely talented writer.

Best of Extra! 2010:

In A Lonely Place: This Extra! selection is Nicholas Ray's superb psychological drama, In A Lonely Place, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. This is a film to be savored for its atmosphere, its astute depiction of an innately violent character (wonderfully played by Bogart in a career-best performance), and its surprising, heart-wrenching ending. A masterpiece. * The film is now available in a special DVD edition, featuring a gorgeous, remastered transfer and a featurette presented by filmmaker Curtis Hanson (L.A Confidential). *

The Amazing Mr. X: This Extra! selection is the noir classic, The Amazing Mr. X, a nifty little thriller about a con-artist posing as a spiritualist who stumbles upon a case that might be a real case of the paranormal. Suffice it to say, nothing is what it seems in this clever, highly atmospheric and gorgeously shot film.

Kingdom Hospital/The Journals Of Eleanor Druse: These Extra! selections are the TV series Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital and its companion "non-fiction" book, The Journals Of Eleanor Druse (which, in actuality, was penned by Richard Dooling). Kingdom Hospital, which only ran for a single, 13-episode season, was mostly written by King himself, and so features the best and worst of later King: Terrifying set-pieces, appealing characters, a dragging pace, and cringe-worthy moments of exposition. But the series is a remake of Lars Von Trier's superior TV series Riget, and so retains and embellishes upon some of best of that show, which makes for some entertaining, if not stellar, TV viewing. On the plus side, the series is very well-produced, the effects are good, and the finale exciting. More effective is the companion book, The Journals Of Eleanor Druse, which is presented as the journals of one of the TV series' main characters, the elderly psychic Eleanor Druse, and which adds some interesting aspects to the show's mythology. Taken together, the TV series and book provide plenty of scary entertainment.

The Ghost/Lo Spettro (1963): This Extra! selection is the horror film The Ghost/Lo Spettro, directed by Riccardo Freda. Freda (one of Mario Bava's mentors) injects this psychological ghost story with plenty of style and atmosphere, while Barbara Steele gives one of her best performances as the traitorous wife tormented by the ghost of her invalid husband, the malevolent Dr. Hichcock. This obscure oddity is a fine ghost story worth rediscovering.

Eyes Of Prey by John Sandford: This Extra! selection is the novel Eyes Of Prey by John Sandford. The third in Sandford's Prey series of thrillers about borderline sociopathic cop Lucas Davenport, this is a must read for fans of Cop-Thrillers, and is arguably the best installment in the series. And you don't even have to have read the previous two novels to enjoy it. A superb thriller. In print.

Paperhouse (1988): This Extra! selection is the 1988 psychological thriller Paperhouse, directed by Bernard Rose. This is a haunting, stylish, creepy, and strangely touching coming-of-age film. It is visually stunning and, more than 20 years after it was made, still packs a punch. Available on DVD.

The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding: This Extra! selection is the Young Adult novel The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding, a tremendously imaginative adventure/horror novel. Quickly paced, filled with frightening set-pieces, and endlessly entertaining, this dark little novel is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered by fans of dark fantasy. Highly recommended.

Batman: Inferno by Alex Irvine: This little-know novel - set in the Batman universe established by Christopher Nolan and co. in Batman Begins - is a gem. The complex plot, revolving around a new foe called Enfer, who's out to burn Gotham city to the ground, and The Joker's plan to destroy Batman's reputation by donning the caped-crusader's costume and impersonating him, is delightfully inventive and thrilling. But it is Irvine's energetic writing and his ability to get inside the characters' minds, that make this novel stand out among many of its kind. An undiscovered treasure for fans of The Dark Knight.

Victoria by Ruby Jean Jensen: This Extra! selection is the novel Victoria by Ruby Jean Jensen. Although the plot is simple (and a little thin), this is a tremendously atmospheric novel, with a couple of truly memorable sequences that chill the blood. It also packs a very effective and frightening ending. A forgotten gem for fans of atmospheric, quiet horror.

Robert Palmer's Clues: This edition's Extra! selection is the 1980 album Clues by Robert Palmer. Ever underrated as a musician, this seminal 1980 work is vintage Palmer, before his uber commercial, and at times underwhelming, work in the mid to late 80's. From the irresistible electro-afro beats of the opening track, to the masterful cover of Gary Numan's I dream of wires, to the haunting closing track Found you now, this is one of the most experimental albums by the late Palmer, one of the best albums of his entire career, and one of the best new wave albums of the 80's. A forgotten gem.

Mono/Poly by Machine Eat Man: This Extra! selection is Machine Eat Man's (Mohamed Ragab) third album, Mono/Poly, a superb mixture of sounds, noises, beats and melodies that truly defies categorization. From the eerie buzz tones of the opening track, Eye, don't, to Another Monkey's crunchy beat and theremin solo, to Inside's disturbing vocals and killer synth riff, to the haunting chants and polyrhythms of Zygote, to the multi-layered epic that is the closing track , Drugs in Corners, this is one of the year's best rock albums and an electro-rock masterpiece.

That's it for me. Till next year, keep browsing those shelves!

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