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2001

Hush, It's a Game
Patricia Carlon
Soho Press
189 pp.
$22

 

 

Patricia Carlon, the too-long-neglected Australian master of suspense, never wasted time or ink when she started a new thriller. In Hush, It's a Game (which originally appeared outside the U.S. in 1967), she cuts characteristically to the chase: Frank Aldan has just been released from prison and is tracking down his former girlfriend and partner-in-crime, Isobel Tarks. They'd seemed headed for marriage--Frank thought--and they'd managed to build up a nice if ill-gotten nest egg, but then Frank woke up one morning to find Isobel and the loot gone. Now, post-prison, he's out for revenge.

He quickly gets satisfaction (this is a Carlon thriller, after all), but a couple unexpected problems crop up for Frank. First, when he dispatched Isobel, he unwittingly left a six-year-old girl locked in the apartment with Isobel's corpse. Second, his ex-wife shows up at the airport just as he's about to escape to New Zealand. Since she's accompanied by her brawny brothers and father, Frank has no choice but to let the plane to freedom slip away. The ex-wife doesn't know about Isobel's murder, of course, but she knows Frank well enough to realize he's about to skip out on his alimony payments. And she's not going to let Frank leave the country until he can sign over his traveler's checks to her. Given that it's Christmas Eve, that means he's stuck in town for several days, waiting for the banks to open.

But the real tension, of course, lies in the apartment with the six-year-old girl. Carlon has a ruthlessly sadistic streak that allows her most vulnerable characters to get into horrifically painful dilemmas, and her work here with the little girl Virginia is no exception. Exploiting the gap between our knowledge and Virginia's blind innocence, Carlon writes that

 

Virginia wondered in sudden excitement if perhaps after all it was a game; that a wonderful, wonderful surprise was coming; a surprise so lovely that bedtime could become elastic for it. Perhaps, she thought hopefully, the stranger had been a friend of her father's, coming to say a wonderful surprise had to be collected. And Miss Tarks had gone to get it. She was being longer than she'd expected to be, that was all.

She began to laugh and because life was suddenly such a happy thing, an exciting thing, she began to sing again, going to the window, sliding back a little and peering out, down into the world of the courtyard far below where Christmas lights were lit on a tree in the court, and gazing at lighted windows across the way and lights dancing on the harbour.

"It's Christmas," she said aloud, "Christmas and I'm having a surprise," and she laughed again from sheer happiness.

 

Poor Virginia isn't Carlon's only character to suffer at her creator's hands (the little boy in The Price of an Orphan certainly suffers at great length, as does the heroine in The Unquiet Night). But the additional promise of a happy Christmas makes Virginia's naïve optimism particularly touching. Frank may be caught up in his own intricate machinations, but it's clearly Virginia we care about, and Carlon's brilliant plot mechanics (truly, she's the genre's unheralded master of plot developments) make us suffer deliciously through Virginia's plight.

Soho Press plans to continue its reprints of Carlon's thrillers, so the burning question--can Patricia Carlon do no wrong?--remains unanswered. So far, though, the answer is a resounding no: she's as close to perfect as the genre can get.

--Charlie Onion

Editor's Note: Click here to read WAG's combined review of Patricia Carlon's The Price of an Orphan and The Unquiet Night.

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Whose Song? And Other Stories
Thomas Glave
City Lights
253 pp.
$12.95

 

If all stories are driven by conflict, Thomas Glave's short fiction needs a stronger term--Glave's stories are driven by fire...fear...hatred... death . That might sound too strong, perhaps, unless you've read his stories. I defy you to find one mild, quiet-hearted story among the nine included in his stunning debut collection, Whose Song? And Other Stories. Again and again, we find that many of Glave's characters are in a death grip they once--long ago--thought was a gentle caress. The narrator of "Accidents," for instance, finds the world suddenly fraught with unnerving, fantasized threats after his mother drowns in a car accident, and the narrator of "--And Love Them?," turns from a monologue on racism to a breathtaking recollection of a date that ended with what might have been a rape. The story settings are wide-ranging (New York City, Jamaica, the American South), but Glave's characters are linked by shared fundamental needs and fears, and it's most often the hatred his characters conceal from each other that drives the tension in this collection.

The range of Glave's narrative voices and the sheer number of ways in which he approaches his stories reveal an impressive degree of narrative mastery. But it's his formal experimentation--idiosyncratic use of parentheses, word clusters, double columns of type, unpunctuated paragraphs that look like prose poems--that makes these stories remarkably fresh and unpredictable. And that, in this long age of minimalist short stories, is truly an unexpected delight.

Glave, who is an assistant professor of English at the State University of New York, Binghamton, has been anthologized in prestigious collections (Best American Gay Fiction and Prize Stories 1997: The O. Henry Awards, among others), and the Village Voice Literary Supplement recently declared him "a writer on the verge." I don't think they're wrong: Glave is a literary voice to be followed avidly.

--Charlie Onion

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A Grand Guy: The Art and Life of Terry Southern
Lee Hill
HarperCollins
344 pp.
$30

 

 

Screenwriter and satirical novelist Terry Southern interacted with so many philosophers, writers, actors and directors over his long career that readers of A Grand Guy, Lee Hill's new, whoppingly entertaining Southern biography, might be tempted to create a drinking game called Six Degrees of Separation from Terry Southern. Who but Southern, after all, can connect both Jean-Paul Sartre and Eddie Murphy in one step?

After spending his childhood in Texas and serving in the Army during World War II, Southern (like a lot of other veterans) used the GI Bill as his ticket to fairer climes. In Southern's case, that meant Paris, and a happily unstructured life as a student at the Sorbonne. While he attended lectures by heroic figures like Sartre and Albert Camus, Southern's real classroom was Paris's café society, with its easily gotten drugs, jazz clubs offering the big names of the Bebop movement, and a chummy environment that linked him to unknown American writers who would soon become intellectual household names (William Styron and George Plimpton among them).

In Paris and later Greenwich Village, Southern played what he called the Quality Lit Game to critical acclaim, but it didn't translate into financial success. (Once, while doing a temporary stint as an Esquire editor, Southern actually had to use an ink pen to color his knee dark blue in order to hide a quarter-sized hole in his suit pants.) Then in 1962, with three published novels under his belt (Flash and Filigree, The Magic Christian and Candy), he interviewed Stanley Kubrick for an article in Esquire, and shortly afterwards he got a telegram query from Kubrick that would change his life irrevocably: would Southern be interested in working on Kubrick's new film?

The project, of course, was Dr. Strangelove, and its success brought Southern a string of lucrative screenwriting jobs (including The Collector, The Loved One, Candy, Barbarella and Easy Rider). By 1967, he was such a hip icon he showed up on the cover of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper. Tax problems put a damper on Southern's fun in 1968, though (they would recur in the 1980s and finally in 1992), and with few film prospects panning out, he reached a low point in the 1970s. His only on-screen credit of the decade was a TV script for CBS's The American Parade, and as Hill points out, Southern even offered to write anything for National Lampoon "for $100 a shot."

He worked a single season (1981-1982) as a writer for Saturday Night Live, but for all his fame as a satirical genius, Southern simply didn't fit in to SNL's skit formulas--or its aggressive, youth-driven environment. In a remarkably brief period, Southern had slid from the ultimate hipster to someone who felt uncomfortably old among the competitive SNL writers. ("I feel like the professor at the end of The Blue Angel," he told one SNL staff member.) To call the last fifteen years of Southern's career 'tragically unfulfilled' is to risk damnable understatement (he died in 1995).

Happily for a biographical subject who managed to mingle with so many diverse groups and movements, Hill is a remarkably knowledgeable and careful biographer. He can write intelligently about Henry Greene, the English novelist who influenced Southern's first novel (Flash and Filigree), but he's equally at home writing about the making of Easy Rider and the tumultuous machinations inside SNL in the early 1980s. (Hill's long chapter on Southern's collaboration with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove is particularly captivating.) A Grand Guy is a well-researched work, but perhaps above all else, it's a consistently intelligent look at the diversely compelling world in which Southern worked.

Highly recommended for a broad audience--from Sartre and Camus enthusiasts to Kubrick and head-trip film aficionados.

--Doug Childers

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How to Publish and Promote Online
M.J. Rose and Angela Adair-Hoy
St. Martin's Press
224 pp.
$13.95

 

 

M.J. Rose and Angela Adair-Hoy are ready to share the secrets behind what has generated the biggest buzz the publishing industry has seen in quite a while--the e-book--and given their personal success with the medium, we should probably heed their advice.

In 1996, M.J. Rose's erotic novel Lip Service garnered her agent rejection slip after rejection slip on the grounds that, while the editors enjoyed it, the marketing executives weren't sure how to sell it. Then, while doing research for another project, Rose stumbled onto a brand new publishing tool: the World Wide Web. With little to lose, she took a chance and put an e-book version of Lip Service on the Web. A few orders trickled in. With some savvy marketing, those few orders multiplied, and in time, Lip Service became the highest ranking small-press novel on Amazon.com, where it caught the attention of a publishing executive who bought the book for mail-order book clubs. Then Pocket Books bought the rights to it and released it in hardcover in August 1999. Since it was the first self-published novel and the first e-book to be picked up on the Web by a publishing house, it's not too grandiose to call it an historical moment, of sorts. Her second novel, In Fidelity, has just been released by Pocket Books.

Angela Adair-Hoy was the publisher of an electronic weekly newsletter, WritersWeekly, geared towards writers. She received so many requests from new authors seeking information about e-publishing that she decided to put together her own e-book. Five minutes after posting it, she had thirteen orders. And they kept rolling in--more than $1,000 worth in the first three days. Now, she and her husband run an e-publishing company (Booklocker.com), and sales of her own how-to e-books exceed $5,000 a month.

In How to Publish and Promote Online, Rose and Adair-Hoy show precisely how they succeeded--and how you can too. This is nuts-and-bolts advice that covers everything from e-book formats to cover design and--most importantly--marketing strategies, and it's an invaluable resource for anyone looking at e-publishing as an alternative to traditional avenues.

Can I recommend this book? Probably not highly enough. Suffice it to say I'm following their advice, and I'll let you know if it works for me.

--John Porter

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