Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Books: THE EYE OF THE ABYSS (2003) and THE IRON HEART (2009) by Marshall Browne

I've written about these two books before, in fact, these are the links to my full reviews: here and here.

But I'm currently rereading (for the third time) THE IRON HEART, the second Franz Schmidt book and enjoying it as much as I did the first two times and so I've decided to quickly write about Browne's books yet again, this time in brief. Wouldn't want you to think I'm over-zealous or anything.

Suffice to say, I love Marshall Browne's thrillers.

What these two books are about:

It is 1939, Berlin seethes with Nazi fervor and virulence. The gloom-filled city appears as if dressed for a funeral. Down these mean streets walks Franz Schmidt, the the slightly handicapped (one eye lost to a band of brown shirted hooligans) bank auditor and hero of our tale. Small in stature, but comely of feature and blessed with luck and a natural cunning, he is the perfect double agent. Although that's certainly not what he started out to be.

(When was the last time an accountant (okay, auditor) was the hero of a book?)

After the radical life altering events in THE EYE OF THE ABYSS, Schmidt now finds himself under the shadowy protection of a Nazi higher-up, Martin Von Streck. Von Streck is a man working to foil Hitler from inside the Fuhrer's upper echelons. 'Trust no one.' is the operating motto and if one or two of the good guys are slaughtered by the wayside, then whoever is left continues the fight. (These are men who sew capsules of cyanide into the cuffs of their suits and uniforms - just in case.) Though their tactics are sometimes hard to define as 'good' - they are necessary. There appears to be no clean way to fight Nazis. Schmidt has learned that readily enough, though he is still attempting to hold true to a heroic vision of his knightly ancestors and oh, by the way, save his own hide.

Both these books would make for nail-bitingly exciting movies and, happy to say, both of them have a couple of strong roles for women. THE IRON HEART has an especially good villainess (do we use that word anymore?), a tall Teutonic bank executive (!) who salivates over Hitler and spouts things like, 'The Fuhrer wants peace!' and means it. Not to mention, she has a gusto for sex with her nasty boyfriend, a Gestapo guy named Sack who likes to dress up and slink around as his hero, Goebbels.

As slimy a duo of dangerous villains as you will ever meet.

Marshall Browne, again, manages to combine poignancy and a pulse pounding race against time not only to save a young woman from certain doom, but also to save an important Big Mission (Schmidt must take photos of certain secret plans!), and afterwards save Schmidt himself from the Gestapo. In the end there is retribution and a daring escape to Switzerland (not by Schmidt who must stay behind and continue to undermine the Reich in whatever way Von Streck sees fit.) which is so visual it's almost as if you're watching it unfold.

If you enjoy, as I do, reading books set during the years just before or during WWII, if you enjoy well created characters and suspenseful plots not to mention dark intrigue and consummate evil villains (the Gestapo! The SS!), then these books are definitely for you.

But though THE EYE OF THE ABYSS is slightly easier to find in this country, good luck with THE IRON HEART. For reasons that I cannot figure out, it is still not readily available here. Browne is an Australian writer and unfortunately not all his books are sitting in wait at local bookstores, online or in libraries. The reasoning continues to eludes me.

Really a shame, because if you can get your hands on Browne's books you'll discover a wonderful writer with an inventive mind, a knack for telling exciting stories and a gift for creating memorable characters. Grab whichever book you can find. This is one time when it isn't necessary to read them in order.

While I keep hoping for a third installment in the Franz Schmidt saga that will be available in this country, I'm not holding my breath. A while back I exchanged some emails with Marshall Browne and he hinted that a third book might be in the offing. So we'll just have to wait and see.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to head on over to author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Forgotten Film: THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1948) starring Gene Kelly, Lana Turner, June Allyson, Vincent Price, Van Heflin, Angela Lansbury

I don't do forgotten films much anymore primarily because most of the movies I wanted to write about I've already written about (or forgotten), if you know what I mean. Plus I don't have a television anymore so it seems that TCM movies are, for me, a dream of the past. Still, now and then I remember a movie that somehow I'd overlooked and so here I am today, writing about an old favorite of mine.

Lana Turner, Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, June Allyson and Angela Lansbury. La Turner looks as if she was added to the shot at some later time.

Haven't seen THE THREE MUSKETEERS in a while but it's one of those films that stays vividly in memory even for those of us whose memory is, shall we say, not exactly sparkling fresh.

When MGM (and Technicolor) was in its heyday no one could touch it for sheer over-the-top 'artistic' exuberance. Colorful extravaganzas were the studio's meat and potatoes. Even in memory, the brightness of the color stands out almost like a separate entity. Not to mention the costumes, the California scenery (mostly greenery filled studio backlots), the lively sound effects and music. And oh, yes, the actors.

You might not think so, but Gene Kelly makes a splendid D'Artagnan. Not my idea of a Frenchman, but hey, nobody's perfect. And he doesn't even have to dance in this one, except that he's so gracefully athletic and so energetic (willing to sling and swirl his body around the screen as no other actor I've ever seen then or since) that it's almost as if he's dancing anyway - just watching him move is a joy, not to mention his fencing, dueling, riding or whatever. Just a sheer manly delight.

Celebrated director George Sidney doesn't tamp down the flash since obviously he was of a mind that the more frenetic activity the better.

Based on the Alexander Dumas book (this time with screenplay by Robert Ardrey), THE THREE MUSKETEERS has been filmed many times over many years with many different actors in the cast, all with varying degrees of success. (Even the Ritz Brothers got into the mix at one point, not to mention cartoon duo Tom and Jerry.) However, this MGM version remains my favorite. Simply because it doesn't try in the least little bit to be realistic - even if there is a cruel murder in a castle prison. (And that particular scene, when it happens, seems to be happening in a different film.) Still, it works somehow because Lana Turner is really quite superb in her evilness. So evil that she is even photographed without make-up. Well, as 'without make-up' as MGM got, at any rate. Even then, she is exquisitely beautiful - especially when praying.

Oh yeah and there's a matter of the chopping off of a certain head near the end - but not to worry you don't see anything gory - just a very VERY chilling scene vibrating with portentous drama and nice costumes as two figures walk away into the sunset - one to return, one not.

Ah, the costumes (this time by Walter Plunkett). They take your breath away. Lana Turner, especially, as the villainous Lady De Winter who is in cahoots with the equally villainous Cardinal Richelieu (Vincent Price) and  struts around in gorgeous satins and feathery overkill (She, not he. Though he looks pretty spiffy in red satin robes.).

Frank Morgan as the nincompoop King Louis XIII, Angela Lansbury as his intelligent but none too heart-wise Queen and Vincent Price as the always disagreeable Cardinal Richelieu.

And Angela Lansbury as the Queen looks every bit the way a queen should look - regal and majestic even when cheating on her hubby, the King. (The plot hinges on those pesky diamond studs given her by the king and passed on by her to her special 'friend', the Duke of Buckingham (played elegantly by John Sutton).

Lana the glamorous and Vincent the vile, plotting their evil deeds.

Said diamonds must then (to save the Queen's reputation) be returned and just in the very nick of time delivered to the Queen to wear in time for the King to see them being worn at a grand court event. Phew! Lots of running back and forth between England and France.

The studs! Those damn troublesome diamond studs!

And lots of attempts by the bad guys to stop the good guys from carrying out their appointed task. I know, makes little sense, but what the heck - the Musketeers to the rescue. A QUEEN'S REPUTATION IS AT STAKE!! Remember when reputations meant something? Ah, the good old days.

The very swoony Gene Kelly sans dancing shoes.

In the beginning, D'Artagnan (Gene Kelly) shows up as a country bumpkin (complete with beret) set on making his way in the world, namely joining the Crown's musketeers and cutting a swash and buckle swath in Paris. (I believe his father had been a musketeer but not sure). By chance he meets up with Athos (Van Heflin), Porthos (Gig Young) and Aramis (Robert Coote) and before you can say, 'All for one and one for all!', he's proven himself with some well-timed rough and tumble swordplay.

Soon he's hanging out with the three musketeers (of the title), getting the lay of the land, learning the ins and outs of court life, the difference between friend and foe, the tricks of giving and/or not giving offense, and meeting and falling for the sugary sweet Lady Constance (June Allyson), the Queen's lady in waiting. And let's not forget, that he later gets embroiled in a plot to rid the King of the Queen's steadying influence and garner even more power for Richelieu.

Phew! Lots for an ambitious country boy to take in. But he's willing and able and off we go.

Of the regulation musketeers, Van Heflin as Portos is the anguished one. Well, that's because he carries heavy baggage and a cruelly broken heart. Athos (Gig Young) is the twinkly-eyed one, a dandy for the ladies. And Aramis (Robert Coote) is the older, boisterous one who's seen it all and probably done it too.

They take to D'Artagnan like ducks to water, and soon they're Three Musketeers + One, in search of a lark worthy of their talents.

Lots of fun to be had with this version, lots of visual firecrackers (you know what MGM was in those days) and lots of stars at the height of their allure. Though Price was older by this time, he was still, in a vile and evil way, alluring.

Good movie. It's a wonder to me that Neflix hasn't bought the MGM vault. But that's probably because somebody else has. Maybe Turner? I wish TCM had a streaming service. Surprised no one's thought of it.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: SLEEPING GIANTS by Sylvain Neuvel

Actually this isn't a forgotten or overlooked book since it was just published this year to some nice reviews, but I'd never heard of it until I stumbled across it online somewhere - 'Forgotten (or Overlooked)' is just a loose interpretation anyway.

This is the first book in a planned trilogy, (trilogies are big now) but far as I'm concerned this can be read quite nicely on its own even if tagged with an ending that surprises and sets us up for the next chapter. Not exactly rocket science, but I am eagerly looking forward to see what happens next. (Yes, yes, I know some of you don't like this sort of story-telling, but I say, pretend it's a very thick book and you are, for some reason, only allowed to read it in thirds.)

The plot:

When 11 year old Rose goes riding her birthday bike across the landscape near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota she (and her bike) fall down a deep hole in the ground. When finally found by searchers, the girl is alive and sitting in the palm of a gigantic hand.

Many years later, the perplexing riddle of the hand has still not been solved. How old is it?What do the glowing symbols? Who built it? What is it made of? What is its function? Is it merely an ancient work of art? Are there any other parts or is the hand a singular creation?

Naturally enough, after the hand gives up a few of its unsettling secrets, the government gets involved.

Rose Franklin grows up to be a physicist in charge of the riddle. Because her childhood accident seems predestined, she is deemed the perfect person to get to the bottom of the mystery. The hand is thought to be thousands of years old and actually seems to have some sort of functionality. Soon, other parts of a colossal metallic warrior woman are found buried underground at various sites around the world.

To try and figure out the why and the what and the how, Rose is aided by three other people. Two pilots (a woman and a man) and a language expert (a man). Why pilots? Well, you'll have to read the thing to find out. I can't give you everything. Same answer for the language guy.

This seems a small band. But the metallic figure apparently has an eerie propensity for only specific humans. The whole thing is supposed to be a secret, so the less who know the better. I can say no more.

Best of all, the story is revealed bit by bit from journal excerpts, mission logs, official reports, news articles and interviews with a 'Mr. Big' - a kind of all-knowing honcho behind the scenes who may or may not be a government mucky-muck. I am a major fan of this type of story-telling and I was won over almost right away.

Canadian author Sylvain Neuvel is quick with dialogue and plot twists and turns, so that just when you think you know the what of something, it quickly becomes something else. Though there is a bit of an unexpected bog down in the middle (emotional personal baggage shenanigans), this deftly forces the plot to turn down another unexpected avenue. And yet again, another major surprise comes about two thirds of the way through and here we go again, down yet another avenue.

(And of course, where would we be without government conspiracy and behind the scenes chicanery?)

As most science fiction stories do, this one asks itself (and us) to think about The Big Picture, about things greater than ourselves, about the universe and our place in it and this time out, about the accepted history of our world. But nothing very heavy-weight, Neuvel is too bent on telling a fabulous tale.

A delightfully jam-packed thriller (remember those?), with an odd element of creep, SLEEPING GIANTS should immediately be added to your TBR list, if you haven't read it already. Even if you're not a regular science fiction fan, this fast-moving tale has just enough thriller aspects to make up for any implausibilities of plot. And the stuff you're asked to believe is not all THAT preposterous. Well, maybe just a little.

Next book in the trilogy is titled, WAKING GODS. Can't wait.

This Friday, Todd Mason is doing substitute hosting duties for FFB at his blog, Sweet Freedom.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE LAST POLICEMAN (2012) by Ben H. Winters

Now would not seem the time for reading dystopian novels set in an alternate USA, but what the heck. Live dangerously, I say.

The Edgar Award winning novel, THE LAST POLICEMAN, by Ben H. Winters is the first in a trilogy (brought the second and third installments home from the library tonight) and though the subject matter is dicey, I was utterly fascinated and had trouble putting the book down - I know, I know, I always say that about books I enjoy. But terrific writing glued me to the page. I was also riveted by the intriguing concept.

If the definitive end of the world were near, would you bother to keep your normal day to day routine? Would you stay on the job? Do the job? Would any of it matter? OR would you take the 'easy' way out?

The setting is Concord, New Hampshire. There, Henry (aka, Hank) Palace, a newly promoted detective in a dwindling force (most have retired or simply walked away from the job) is determined to solve a case even while faced with the upcoming end of the world. Literally.

Hank is a native Concordian (is that the way you'd say it?), young, gangly and very, very tall. So much so that everyone has to comment. Though I wouldn't say that six feet four or five is THAT tall, but maybe in New Hampshire. He is an engaging, even endearing character who is determined to make his life count, determined to do the right thing even when faced with insurmountable odds.

And the odds are spectacular.

Earth is on its final countdown. A giant meteorite is directly headed our way and the world and most everything on it has six months to live. As you might imagine, societal barriers are in break-down mode. Day to day living is wobbly at best. Gallows humor is the norm. Suicide has become a routine death. Religious zealotry confronts one on every street corner. World economies have tanked. Conspiracy theorists run amok. Governments rally to strengthen their control and keep the populace from panicking.

No one cares about the suicide of Peter Zell, a hapless insurance actuary who hangs himself in the bathroom at a MacDonald's. (Well, a copy-cat MacDonald's, since that and most other fast food chains have all gone out of business - what, no Starbucks?)

But did Zell really hang himself?

Hank Palace thinks not. But since the three other cops left in his division don't care to detect anymore, it's up to Hank to solve what might be a murder in disguise. AND it is also up to him to keep tabs on his clinging sister, Nico, who is apparently willing to put up with her dolt of a hubby even if he is currently in jail, branded a terrorist.

This lively, fast-moving tale is probably meant for those of us who may not normally enjoy dystopian views of the world, even in fiction (I am not a fan of HUNGER GAMES or any of its ilk) but who do like a good detective yarn with some extra fireworks thrown in. Somehow THE LAST POLICEMAN breaks down all barriers. Resistance is futile. The main character is the first lure, terrific writing is the second. And even the inevitable world ending scenario didn't dim my enthusiasm. Probably because Winters is not a hysterically inclined writer - his page by page exposition of life nearing the end, is rather matter-of-fact and utterly believable.

I would have given this five stars except for a couple of things in the final denouement which I found a bit confusing. (Hank does do a bit of stumbling around.) That is, the way that he finally figures out who the murderer is - the reasoning seems a bit clunky. But other than that, this is a super-duper, first rate book, highly recommended by yours truly. Can't wait to read the next two.

It's Friday, so don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.