Book Review: ‘Django Unchained’ by Quentin Tarantino (adapted by Reginald Hudlin)

DjangoSingleQuentin Tarantino has never been shy about sharing the scripts for his films (unless, that is, it happens too early in the process). They are usually published right before or after the movie comes out, and I’ve bought them all. So when 2012′s Django Unchained came and went without a script in sight, I was a little bummed – until I realized Tarantino was taking a cool new route this time by turning his first draft over to DC Comics and their Vertigo imprint to adapt.

That seven issue series, adapted from Tarantino’s first draft script by Django Unchained producer Reginald Hudlin, is now out in a handsome hardcover edition that collects the entire series along with a cover gallery and a nice forward by Tarantino himself. As you’d expect, there are some major differences in what is on the page versus what ended up on film, and getting the opportunity to see those differences  is a major reason to pick this volume up.

After reading this, I can say that I’m glad the film came out as it did, as I think the majority of the changes that came in later drafts of the script were for the better. I’m going to talk about a couple of those changes in detail, so you might want to take a walk if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

The aftermath of Schultz shooting Calvin Candie is much more chaotic on screen than depicted here, and the finale that sees Django return to Candyland to rescue Hildi and avenge his friend’s death also got better after this first pass. In particular, Django’s last exchange with Stephen is much more satisfying in the finished film than what Tarantino first put on paper.

On the other hand, there’s a major sequence featured in the comic that didn’t make it to the film that I wish we had seen – that which shows exactly how Calvin came to acquire Hildi in the first place. It’s not that the character of Calvin Candie wasn’t already well established as complete piece of human garbage, but the idea that Hildi actually had some semblance of a good life – as good as it could be for her at that time and in those circumstances, anyway – before Calvin swindled her away makes you root for her, and for Django, even more.

Hudlin does a good job of adapting the material, retaining that characteristic Tarantino dialogue that’s such a trademark of his work. Unfortunately, the artwork is wildly uneven; the early chapters are strong, but some of the sequences at the end are muddy and unappealing. There are several artists credited - R.M. Guera, Jason Latour, Denys Cowan, Danijel Zezelj and John Floyd – but without any kind of chapter breaks or clear crediting in the book, it’s hard to know who to praise and who to blame.

Tarantino completists will want this for sure, but it stands on its own as a rollicking good revenge story. Yes, it’s filled with some of the most despicable people, actions and language you can imagine, but there is a visceral thrill in seeing these characters get their comeuppance.

Book Review: ‘Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece’ by Jason Bailey

PulpFictionPulp Fiction hit me like a sucker punch when I sat down for my first viewing back in 1994. Up to that point my cinematic tastes were fairly mainstream, with a heavy lean towards big budget Hollywood fare. I still love that kind of stuff, by the way, and won’t apologize for it; but, back then, I wasn’t a very adventurous moviegoer. If it tells you anything, the main reason I wanted to see Pulp Fiction was because Bruce Willis was in it.

By the time Quentin Tarantino’s movie was over, my taste in movies had transformed. I was stunned, excited, and curious. What the hell had I just seen? Were there other movies out there like this one?

In the 20 (!) years since that first viewing, I’ve watched Pulp Fiction too many times to count, and I’ve quoted Pulp Fiction too many times to count. I’ve anticipated – and, so far, enjoyed – each of Tarantino’s subsequent releases. And I’ve read everything I could get my hands on regarding the director’s work (and on Pulp Fiction in particular).  In Jason Bailey’s Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece I think we have – short of a making-of book penned by Tarantino himself – the definitive word on this highly influential film.

Bailey wraps a serious, thoughtful examination of the movie in a brightly colored, beautifully designed package. Don’t let any of those phrases fool you – this is neither a dry, academic paper nor is it a picture-laden puff piece. Bailey covers all the bases: essays that delve deeply into the movie’s characters, themes and influences; chapters on writing the film, casting it, and the nuts-and-bolts of shooting it; and sidebars on the minutiae that fans love, like a chart listing the events of the movie in chronological order, a look at the recurring use of diners and cafes in Tarantino’s movies, and charts of the many homages and cinematic references in the movie. Also – and this is one of my favorite things about the book – Bailey peppers the book with artwork inspired by the film.

Like the movie it covers, Bailey’s book has a ton of layers, and repeat visits will be rewarded. I don’t typically read books like this straight through, but I couldn’t put this one down until I’d read every article and pored over every picture. It’s available right now, and I can’t put a high enough recommendation on it.

Oh, and here – just for fun – is what Pulp Fiction would look like as an old video game. If only it were real….

Top Ten Reads of 2013

Although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from looking at my Top Ten list this year, 2013 was a good year for me in discovering new writers. Those new discoveries aren’t completely unrepresented here – both Gary McMahon and Aaron Dries made the list – but there would be a lot more unknowns if it hadn’t been such a strong year for established authors. The King family dominates the first three spots, and may have been even more of a presence had I had the opportunity to read the releases by Owen King (Double Feature) and his wife Kelly Braffet (Save Yourself), both of which I hope to get to in 2014. Ace Atkins has become a perennial favorite with dual releases each of the last couple of years in his own Quinn Colson series and his continuation of Robert Parker’s Spenser novels (this year’s Spenser, Wonderland, is another unfortunate victim of didn’t-get-to-it.) Tom Piccirilli is a mainstay on my yearly list of favorites, as are Daniel Woodrell and Justin Cronin in the years they release books.

If I have any reading goals for 2014, it’s simply to read more. More variety. More volume. Catch up on the ones I missed last year and stay ahead of the curve this year. Revisit some old favorites and seek out new talent. Chop down that massive to-be-read pile. Yeah – good luck with all of that. The great thing, and the cursed thing, about books is they just keep coming.

So, without further adieu, here’s my Top Ten Reads of 2013. I’ve linked to full reviews of the books when appropriate. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the list, as well as your own top reads of 2013 – the comments section is at your disposal. Thanks to all of you for visiting October Country in 2013 – Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

1. Joyland by Stephen King
2. 
NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
3. Doctor Sleep by Stephen
King
4. The Broken Places by Ace
Atkins
5. The Maid’s Version by Daniel
Woodrell
6. Turn Down the Lights edited by Richard Chizmar
7. The Last Whisper in the Dark by Tom
Piccirilli
8. The Bones of You by Gary McMahon
9. The Fallen Boys by Aaron Dries
10. The Twelve by Justin Cronin

Book Review: ‘Hot In December’ by Joe R. Lansdale

HotInDecemberAll Tom Chan wanted to do was grill up a little supper for his family. He was just doing what he’d probably done a hundred times before – standing at the grill, looking out at the quiet suburban street he lived on, thinking of nothing in particular. But instead of the usual calm, forgettable scene, what he saw was a neighbor run down by a speeding car – a car that kept on going while the woman lay crushed and bleeding in the street.

From that point on, things in Tom Chan’s life turn upside-down.

Joe R. Lansdale spins another unforgettable tale in Hot In December, available now in a variety of editions (from ebook to deluxe limited) from Dark Regions Press. Nobody writes better blue collar, “regular joe,” down-to-earth characters than Lansdale, and Tom Chan is the kind of guy we can all relate to. He’s done his time in the military and had hoped that all of that sort of conflict was behind him. He’s got a strong moral center, though, and when he gets a glimpse of the hit-and-run driver he knows he has to help the police bring him in. Unfortunately, the man he saw at the wheel is in deep with the Dixie Mafia – deep enough that even the cops are willing to let Chan off the hook should he “forget” the face of the driver altogether.

Caught between what he knows is right and the potential danger doing the right thing could bring to his family, Chan turns to a couple of his military buddies for advice and assistance. One of his buddies is Cason Statler, an award-winning journalist. The other is a guy called Booger, a cold, remorseless killing machine. The three hash out a plan that will protect Chan’s family even as it puts him square in the sights of some of the baddest men in LaBorde, Texas.

This is a novella with roots in a lot of Lansdale’s other works – the Dixie Mafia is a prominent player in the “Hap and Leonard” novels Vanilla Ride and Devil Red, and Cason Statler’s grandmother is none other than Sunset Jones from Sunset and Sawdust. I love it when authors weave their various stories into a single world, and Lansdale has a lot of fun dropping these little tidbits throughout Hot In December without pulling the focus away from the business at hand.

It’s a dark story, but Lansdale brings his trademark wit to the table, providing plenty of needed levity even as Chan falls deeper into a rabbit hole of danger and violence. His prose is sharp and lean, and his characterization is spot-on as usual. If you’re a Lansdale fan, I don’t need to sell you on this. If you’re not, this short book is as good a place to jump on as any.

Book Review: ‘Odds On’ by Michael Crichton (writing as John Lange)

OddsOnHard Case Crime seems to be one of those rare instances where a singular vision is allowed to thrive under a corporate umbrella. Charles Ardai took his pet project over to Titan Books once Leisure Publishing dissolved, and he hasn’t missed a beat in curating his impeccable mix of crime reprints and originals. He still gets guys like Max Allan Collins and Stephen King to write originals for him, and he continues to unearth hidden treasures.

Ardai’s latest gift to crime fans is a re-release of eight early novels written by Michael Crichton under the name of “John Lange.” This is a project that was underway before Crichton’s death; HCC had already released Grave Descend and Zero Cool with his input – and with the Lange pen name intact. Now they’ve re-released those two along with six more Crichton/Lange novels, and all will appear under Crichton’s name for the very first time.

Odds On, a hotel heist suspense novel written in 1966, was among the first wave of titles released back in October (the rest came out in November). In it, a group of experienced thieves descend on an isolated luxury hotel in Spain called the Reina, where they plan to pull off a complicated plot that involves room-by-room robbery, the hotel safe, and a few pyrotechnics for good measure. The plan has been meticulously laid out with all possible variables run through a computer (the talk of punch cards is just one of the many quaint technological references you’ll enjoy throughout the novel) in order to calculate the odds of success. The computer says they’re good to go… but of course there are always variables one never expects.

Crichton paces the novel to match the crime. It gets off to a slow, deliberate start as the thieves move into the hotel, getting to know the layout, the routine, and many of their potential victims (readers expecting a cliffhanger in each chapter are going to be disappointed). However, when the day of the heist arrives everything begins to accelerate, both for the thieves and for readers. Odds On doesn’t have the kind of explosive, thrill-a-second climax that modern readers may be expecting, but the story is wrapped up nicely and patient readers will be rewarded.

As far as characters go, the thieves themselves are a somewhat bland group, but there are a couple of colorful hotel inhabitants that make up for them. The real draw here, of course, is the success or failure of the robbery, and Crichton does a good job of maintaining interest and suspense as events unfold.

I’ve not read enough of Crichton’s later, more popular work to say how this compares, but I can say that it is a fairly confident novel considering how early in his career it was written. Crichton’s attention to detail and fascination with technology are on full display here, and I look forward to working my way through the rest of the “John Lange” books to see how he progresses.

Book Review: ‘The Stranger You Know’ by Andrea Kane

the-stranger-you-know-by-andrea-kaneAndrea Kane’s The Stranger You Know is the third book in the Forensics Instincts series. Forensics Instincts is a crack investigative group that draws on top talents in disciplines like surveillance and behavioral science, headed up by its tough, intelligent founder, Casey Woods. I’ve not read either of the previous F.I. books but it wasn’t much of a disadvantage, as Kane finds ample opportunity to bring new readers up to speed on the skills and relationships that inform the team’s dynamic.

The Stranger You Know centers around a character from one of those previous F.I. books, The Girl Who Disappeared Twice. In that book, serial killer Glen Fisher was caught and locked away by the team, and even though he remains in jail he’s found a way to go after them, and Woods in particular. Girls with physical similarities and deeply-buried connections to Woods are dying, and somehow Fisher is pulling the strings from prison. The body count is mounting on a daily basis, and the man responsible is making it clear that Woods herself is the intended endgame.

Much of this is going to be familiar ground to regular thriller readers. Serial killers seeking revenge on their pursuers, the prisoner manipulating events from his cell, the “random” victims who aren’t random at all – it’s all standard thriller fodder. Kane does introduce a supernatural element to the proceedings in the form of F.I. teammate Claire, an “intuitive” (i.e., a psychic) whose abilities help the team hone in on the killer. Claire’s presence is a strong asset for the F.I. team, but Kane is for the most part judicious in her use of the character, resisting the urge to let the convenience of psychic ability pave over every difficult plot point.

Overall, The Stranger You Know isn’t breaking any new ground. As far as I’m concerned, though, familiarity doesn’t automatically breed contempt. You can tell me a story I’ve heard before as long as you tell it in a compelling way, and although I never got deeply invested in these characters or this story, Kane did at least hold my interest throughout.

The main stumbling block for me in this book is the dialogue. Achieving a natural conversational flow in dialogue is essential in building compelling characters, and Kane really struggles with this in my opinion. For example, when describing a crime in progress to a police officer, one character says, “It could be a fait accompli already.” Later on, someone says, “I’ll be doing yoga in the third-floor office where I store my mats.” It’s too stilted, too specific when compared to the way people actually talk, and lines like this popped up multiple times, pulling me completely out of the story each time.

Misgivings aside, I found The Stranger You Know to be a solid thriller. It’s got the convoluted plot and brisk pacing that you want, but it lacks the strong characterization and innovative approach that would elevate it for me. As it stands, Kane’s new novel is a fine diversion and fun, if ultimately forgettable, read.

Subterranean Press to release limited ‘Books of Blood’ set in 2014

The_Books_of_Blood_by_Clive_Barker_Volume_SixStart saving your pennies, kids.

Subterranean Press has announced plans to publish a six volume signed limited edition set of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood in 2014. This will mark the first U.S. publication of the set in six separate hardcover volumes. Previously we’ve only gotten them separately here as paperbacks, with the first three volumes going under the Books of Blood banner and the last three titled after individual short stories (volume four was The Inhuman Condition, volume five was In the Flesh, and volume six was Cabal, which lumped the short stories together with the title novella).

The set will also feature Barker’s original dust jacket art from the UK first edition hardcovers.

Books of Blood is one of the most important and influential collections in modern horror fiction, and it launched the career of one of our most treasured creators. Subterranean (which has released a 25th anniversary edition of Barker’s Weaveworld and has Chilead: A Meditation in the works) does beautiful work, and I have no doubt they’ll craft a worthy vessel for Barker’s stories.