Tag Archive | murder

Book review: June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

JuneJune by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summer 2015: A persistent knock on the door and a ringing bell rouses 25-year-old Cassie Danvers from an alcohol-induced haze. Cassie, grieving a number of things — the end of her engagement, the demise of her photography career, and, most recently, the death of her beloved Grandmother June — stumbles to the dusty foyer and opens the door of the decaying family mansion to be greeted by handsome young Nick Emmons, who promptly informs her she is the sole heir and, allegedly, the granddaughter of Golden-Age Hollywood movie star Jack Montgomery, and would she mind giving a DNA sample to verify?

Summer 1955: Hollywood comes to St. Jude, Ohio, to shoot a movie. Lindie, age 14, is determined to get involved somehow; and she wants her best friend June to come along too. June is a few years older and already engaged, but Lindie disapproves of her fiancé — he’s too stodgy and undeserving of June’s beauty. June reluctantly agrees to visit the movie set, where she meets Jack Montgomery. And all manner of complications arise from there.

I’m a sucker for stories that take place in two separate time periods. I love seeing the connections, and how long-ago actions affect present-day circumstances. Add a dreaming house, visions of ghosts, back-stabbing intrigue, murder, and quiet heroism to the mix, and you’ve got a fabulous page-turner of a story that satisfies right up to the surprising conclusion.

Excellent story. This is Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s fourth novel. I’ll certainly be looking for the other three.

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Thank you to LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewers program for the opportunity to read this book.

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Book review: The Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry

The Fifth PetalThe Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

25 years after she witnessed the murder of her mother and two other women, Callie Cahill returns to Salem to aid her Aunt Rose, who is suspected of being involved in the death of a teenager. Callie, raised in foster care after the events of that fateful night, had thought Rose dead, and rushed to her side the moment she saw a news report.

In the years between Callie’s childhood tragedy and her return, Rose Whelan, once a noted historian, suffered a mental breakdown and became homeless. Rose is well-known to the Salem townfolk; while most of them ignore her, a few look out for her, and a few see her as an easy target. The boy who died was one of the latter. The circumstances linking Rose to the boy’s death are damning, and her freedom is in jeopardy.

Callie tries mightily to help Aunt Rose recover her memory of the night of the boy’s death while she herself is slowly recovering her own memories of her childhood. And in the meantime, she finds herself falling for Paul Whiting, the son of one of the wealthiest families in town.

Behind all of this lurks the still-unsolved “Goddess Murders,” as they are known, for which Rose was also briefly a suspect. What part did Rose play? How does Rose’s obsession with the legend of a banshee connect? Where does Salem’s history of witch trials fit in? And why do links to those long-ago murders keep turning up in the current investigation?

Brunonia Barry’s third novel is better than her second, but still not as good as her first. I appreciated being back in Salem with some familiar characters, and meeting some new ones. And the story moves along well enough. Still, the final twist to the mystery was too abrupt and, to me, completely out of left field. (Look, I understand authors don’t want to telegraph who the “bad guy” is and lay red herrings in the reader’s path as diversions, but this reveal was totally unexpected. Did Barry write herself into a corner and only belatedly realize she had to come up with a villain? Don’t know.) Also, major quibbles with how Paul’s character turned out.

Look, it’s a good read. And if I hadn’t ever read The Lace Reader, I’d probably give it four stars. But I have, and I know Barry is capable of much better.

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Book review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

2003 Review

Neil Gaiman is one of the most original writers currently publishing. He defies category: how does one classify an author whose work ranges from SF to horror to social commentary to parable and back, all within the pages of one book? His style is reminiscent of Clive Barker and Harlan Ellison, perhaps with a touch of Lovecraft thrown in for seasoning.

AMERICAN GODS tells the story of the war brewing between the “old” gods of the United States — the piskies and brownies and vrokolaks brought over from the Old Country by immigrant believers — and the “new” gods of technology and progress worshipped by the descendants of those immigrants. One human, an ex-con called Shadow, is enlisted by a man calling himself Wednesday to help unite the old gods in resisting the new. Shadow, at loose ends after the sudden loss of his wife, agrees to work for Wednesday, and is plunged headlong into intrigue and strangeness, where people are not who they appear, time does not track, and even the dead do not stay in their graves.

A haunting tone poem of a novel. Highly recommended.

2017 Re-read

Although I had been intending to re-read this book for years, the impending debut of the Starz series (April 30!) finally got this book down from the shelf and into my hands in mid-April.

Seasons of ReadingIt’s funny how time can distort the memory of a once-read novel. I remembered this story as being mostly a road trip with Shadow and Wednesday. While there is definitely a great deal of travel involved, I had completely forgotten the events that take place in sleepy, quiet, wintry Lakeside. I had also forgotten the outcome of Wednesday’s machinations, and how truly noble Shadow turns out to be.

Now I’m prepared for the TV show. It better not be awful.

2017SFFReadingChallenge(Side observation: I expect researching this novel is what eventually led Gaiman to write Norse Mythology.)

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Read as part of the Spring Into Horror read-a-thon.  This is the only book I managed to finish during the time frame.  Join us next time!

Also read for the 2017 Award Winning SF/F Challenge.  You can still join in on that one.

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R.I.P. XI Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad, #5)The Secret Place by Tana French

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Holly Mackey, a 16-year-old student at St. Kilda’s School in Dublin, walks into the police station early one morning and hands a PostSecret type card to Detective Stephen Moran. The card — actually, a photograph — showing a candid shot of Chris Harper, a young man who had been murdered the previous year, had been pinned to a school bulletin board with the caption “I know who killed him.”

RIP 9 Peril the Second

Detective Moran immediately takes the card to Antoinette Conway, the detective who had been in charge of the fruitless investigation into Chris Harper’s murder. Conway reluctantly decides to include Moran in her renewed investigation and together they descend upon St. Kilda’s in the hope of turning up something more concrete than a blurry photograph and an enigmatic caption.

Once at the school, Moran and Conway quickly narrow down the list of students who had opportunity to place the photograph on the bulletin board to two sets of cliques: the “mean girls”, Queen Bee Joanne and her minions; and the “weird girls”, including Holly Mackey herself. Throughout a long day and well into the evening hours, the detectives interview the girls, one at a time, digging and probing and prodding, doing their best to penetrate a shield of teenage obstinacy and purposeful misdirection.

In between the present-day interviews, the story pops back in time to detail the events leading up to Chris’s murder, with a chilling countdown to death each time the young man makes an appearance on the page.

RIP 11Who placed the card? Who killed the boy? Tana French kept me guessing right up to the last moment, and did so in a spectacularly well-written fashion. I have yet to read one of her novels and be disappointed.

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Reviewed for R.I.P. XI “Peril the Second” Challenge. Click the badge to find out more about this annual event.

Book review: A Murder In Time by Julie McElwain

A Murder in TimeA Murder in Time by Julie McElwain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kendra Donovan, FBI agent, darts into the secret staircase of an English manor house to escape an assailant. Woo, oh, I’m so dizzy and nauseated, and my god my head hurts, let me open this door, and ta da! Now she’s in the 19th Century.

I hate time travel novels that have no explanation for the time travel other than woo. It’s one of the reasons I stopped reading the Outlander series. Also, for all the smarts Ms. Donovan supposedly possesses, it takes her forever to figure out and accept that she’s no longer in the 21st century.

Those caveats aside, this is a well-written, fast-paced mystery that kept me guessing the identity of the bad guy right until the reveal. I won’t go looking for further volumes of this series as they’re published, but all in all, not a bad way to kill some commute time.

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Book review: Sometimes the Wolf by Urban Waite

Sometimes the WolfSometimes the Wolf by Urban Waite
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had put this on a list of “must reads” and requested it from the library, but to save my life, I can’t remember why. The only thing I can think of is I must have read a highly favorable blurb somewhere from some person or on some website I respect. It’s probably a good thing I don’t remember because that respect would be diminished.

“As muscular and laconic as anything by Cormac McCarthy” says the cover blurb. I’ve only read one book by McCarthy (The Road) and I did not enjoy it. This should have been my warning when I picked it up.

My quibble is not with the story.  The story’s fine: A disgraced sheriff is released from prison to the custody of his adult son, now the deputy sheriff of the same small town, but the FBI agent who investigated his previous crime still doesn’t believe justice has been served; family drama ensues.  All the twists and turns are quite well done.

My quibble is with the writing itself, most especially with the constant incomplete sentences that make up the majority of the paragraphs. At times I found myself saying, out loud, “For crying out loud, just put a verb in there, would ya?” I also rewrote sentences in my head as I read them, adding punctuation here, joining clauses and making complete sentences there, so the paragraphs weren’t so choppy and disjointed. This is not “muscular and laconic”, this is lazy writing and turn-a-blind-eye editing.

Look, I’m all for authors developing their own style, and use of the occasional subordinate clause in place of a full sentence is fine for effect — emphasis being on “occasional” — but generally speaking, the conventions of sentence and paragraph structure must still apply, or else why bother?

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Book review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Sharp ObjectsSharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although Sharp Objects is my third Gillian Flynn novel, it’s Ms. Flynn’s first, for which she won a well-deserved Edgar. It’s beautifully written, deeply disturbing, and knock-your-socks-off holy-cow-what-the-hell-just-happened good.

Camille Preaker is sent by the editor of the tiny Chicago daily where she works back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, which is little more than a wide spot in the road, to cover the story of two murdered girls and the potential story of a serial killer. Camille left Wind Gap years ago to escape her toxic family and save her own life. She’s not sure she’s managed to do either; in Chicago, while she may have been suicidal, at least she wasn’t carving words into her own skin. Still, Camille is severely damaged. When we meet her mother and stepfather, we begin to understand why.

Because her newspaper doesn’t have the budget to put her up in a motel while on assignment, Camille must stay in her family home while she is in town. Her mother Adora, with an eye to “what would the neighbors think?”, grudgingly grants Camille shelter but insists she keep “all that unpleasantness” out of her house. All that unpleasantness encompasses not only the murders of the two girls, but anything unpleasant that has ever happened, up to and including the death of Camille’s younger half-sister Marian when Camille was 13. Camille has another much younger half-sister, Amma, whom she barely knows, who at times seems just as sickly as Marian was, but at others is robust enough to excel in her “Mean Girl” “Queen Bee” role at the local middle school. Throw in Alan, Camille’s ineffective and virtually silent stepfather, and this dysfunctional family is complete.

We see all this through Camille’s eyes; we are privy to her inner dialogue with all its twists and turns and justifications and attempts to make sense of how she ended up back in the same hellhole she tried to escape. As she reacquaints herself with Wind Gap, she recalls incidents from her past associated with each place. In the park where one girl, Natalie, was last seen alive:

The dirt from the baseball field hovered a few feet above the ground. I could taste it the back of my throat like tea left brewing too long…Garrett Park was the place everyone met on weekends to drink beer or smoke pot or get jerked off three feet into the woods. It was where I was first kissed, at age thirteen, by a football player with a pack of chaw tucked down in his gums.

And getting ready for Natalie’s funeral:

My mother was wearing blue to the funeral…She also wore blue to Marian’s funeral, and so did Marian. She was astonished I didn’t remember this. I remembered Marian being buried in a pale pink dress. This was no surprise. My mother and I generally differ on all things concerning my dead sister.

Camille is more resilient than she knows, but not quite as strong as she needs to be. She drinks too much and too often. She writes the names of the murdered girls and other words on her skin, using ballpoint pen and lipstick instead of a knife. She has questionable judgment in sex partners. And investigating these murders eventually leads her deep into her own history with devastating consequences.

In Camille, Gillian Flynn has created a deeply flawed protagonist who makes bad decisions out of weakness, out of trauma, out of a desire to flee from raw emotion, and she makes us cheer for her even while we shake our heads in dismay at her poor choices. And in the end, I loved Camille and wished her the very best future she can possibly make for herself.

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Book review: Let’s All Kill Constance by Ray Bradbury

Let's All Kill Constance: A NovelLet’s All Kill Constance: A Novel by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My favorite author in the world can write clunkers, or so it seems. How else to explain why it took 11 days to finish a novel that barely cracks 200 pages?

On a dark and stormy night (literally — that’s how the novel opens), circa 1960, Constance Rattigan bursts through the door of our narrator’s rustic beach house — panicked, incoherent, completely rattled — and tosses two phone books at him. Ominously, some of the names in the phone books are scratched through, and some are circled. Those scratched-through names are already dead. Those circled, our narrator surmises, soon will be. But Constance is gone too quickly to be questioned, and thus our narrator sets off on his quest to (a) solve the mystery of the circled and scratched-through names and (b) find Constance. This quest takes him from his peaceful retreat in Venice Beach to the rattletrap Grauman’s Chinese Theater projection room, to the depths of the storm drains running beneath the City of Angels, and many odd points between.

Along the way, our narrator picks up various cohorts, including a police officer, a film producer, and a blind man, and involves each of them in his quixotic search. Copious quantities of alcoholic beverages are consumed, clues are gathered, and Exclamation! Points! That! Don’t! Make! Sense! Pepper! All! Dialogue! (Admittedly, as much as I usually admire the man’s writing, this is a Bradbury trademark that I’ve never liked.) All is revealed in an homage to Agatha Christie locked room mystery, with our narrator as Hercule Poirot and all the players gathered in one room for the dénouement.

The pacing is breathless and breakneck, and much of the story seems to rely on a subtext that I just couldn’t get. I will give The Great Man this much credit: flashes of his customary brilliance shine through here and there, in character descriptions, in some of our narrator’s internal musings, and especially in the “locked-room” bit near the end of the story. Mostly though, I was thoroughly confused.

Thus only two stars for “It was OK.” And I can’t tell you how much it pains me to give my beloved Bradbury only two stars.

P.S. In reading through some of the other reviews of Let’s All Kill Constance, it appears this is the third book in a series, which may explain why I was left scratching my head at times.

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2014 in review: Books

I got much more reading done this year than I expected. Part of that was due, I believe, to acquiring a Kindle and being willing to take a chance on Amazon freebies, some of which were hits, others misses. It’s easy to read the Kindle on the train; that extra uninterrupted 40+ minutes of reading time each day added up to a lot of pages. 31,567 pages to be precise.

Goodreads said I read 83 books in 2014. I actually started 83 books. I finished 76. Seven books were set aside before finishing because they were just too awful to continue. (I told you some of those Amazon freebies were misses.) However, one of those set aside was The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, so even Pulitzer Prize winners are sometimes misses for me. Anyway, out of those 76 finished, five were re-reads. So 71 new-to-me books in a single year. I call that a win.

Several of those 71 books were stand-outs.

The Many Deaths of the Firefly BrothersThe first five volumes of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire cycle consumed a goodly portion of the first quarter of 2014. I expect I’ll start re-reading them as soon as I hear of a publication date for Volume VI. I’m hoping that publication date will be later this year.

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen was a roller-coaster ride through the Depression with a pair of bank robbers who just won’t stay dead. This is one of those books that grabbed me first because of its enigmatic cover art but kept me intrigued by its premise and execution. I read this one on the plane during a flight to California.

Perdido Street StationPerdido Street Station by China Miéville astonished me, sickened me, disturbed me, and amazed me. I seldom give five stars to any book, but this one deserved top billing without doubt. As I said in my review, Perdido Street Station isn’t for everyone — it’s a challenge in both language and content — but I’m going to recommend it to everyone regardless. Seriously. Don’t miss it.

Max Barry’s Lexicon, which deals with a secret government entity that uses the power of words and knowledge of certain personality traits to manipulate people into particular actions, cured me of taking any more Facebook quizzes and posting them Lexiconto my wall. Barry has a gift for plot-driven stories that move forward at Warp 10 but still manage to give the reader decently-realized characters and generally plausible Night Filmstorylines. Lexicon is a fast fun popcorn novel that scared the bejabbers out of me.

I read Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl in 2013 and thought it was excellent. Based on that experience, I grabbed Night Film as soon as I found it in my library’s catalog. I was not disappointed. Night Film explores the aftermath of a suicide, the power of film, and the boundaries of obsession. It’s dark and dreamy and enigmatic and twisted and a disturbing pleasure to read.

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeTell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt introduces us to a grieving 14-year-old June Elbus after the death of her beloved uncle Finn. June’s mother, who is Finn’s sister, doesn’t seem to care much that her only brother has died, and June doesn’t know why. Then June meets Finn’s roommate, Toby, and discovers hidden aspects to her uncle’s life. This novel works on a number of levels: an exploration of society’s reaction to AIDS in 1987, a not-so-typical coming-of-age story as June realizes her uncle had an entire life that didn’t include her, and a dissection of family dynamics when one member of the family is considered an untouchable by the others. Plus it’s gorgeously written. So, yeah, if you haven’t read this one, put it on your list.

WoolFinally, I want to mention a couple of trilogies. First, the Silo Trilogy by Hugh Howey, consisting of Wool, Shift, and Dust. I’ve read a lot, and I mean a lot, of post-apocalyptic stories, and the Silo Trilogy was hands-down one of the most original explorations of that theme I’ve seen in a lifetime of reading. In the not-so-distant future, thousands of people, survivors of an unnamed apocalypse, live underground in a silo. They don’t know how long they’ve been there; they don’t know how long it will be before they’re allowed to live above ground; but in the meantime, there’s work to be done, repairs to be made, and people to feed. Discontent is brewing, though, and revolution is in the air. This trilogy, while very well done, is not without its flaws, especially in Book 3, but its overall excellence makes those flaws worth overlooking.

The Last PolicemanThe other trilogy worthy of mention is technically “pre-apocalypse”, because the world-ending event hasn’t yet happened, but it’s post-apocalypse in the sense that global societal structure has already collapsed. In The Last Policeman Trilogy by Ben H. Winters — The Last Policeman, Countdown City, and World of Trouble — a previously unknown asteroid has been verified to be on collision course with Earth, and the date of impact is approaching. Detective Hank Palace of the Concord, New Hampshire, Police Department keeps showing up for work while more and more of his colleagues and fellow citizens bail out of their jobs, their marriages, and their lives to fulfill lifelong dreams or, as is all too often the case, to kill themselves in despair. Each novel takes us closer to the impact date and deeper into Hank’s efforts to find meaning and purpose in these last months and weeks and days. He clings to his humanity, to his belief in goodness, and to his life itself, despite recognizing that everything he knows and everyone he loves is gone. Hank is a gorgeous, generous, determined character, and this trilogy, although deeply sad, is a testament to the beauty of life even in the face of extermination.

You can see the entire 2014 list on Goodreads here.

R.I.P IX applies to movies and TV, too!

RIP 9 Peril on the Screen
I almost forgot I pledged to join “Peril on the Screen” too. Luckily, spouse’s and my general TV/movie viewing choices tend to fall into the mystery/horror/thriller/suspense categories anyway. I can’t recall all the way back to September 1 by myself, so we’ll check the Netflix “recently watched” list and get started.

Actually, no. First, let’s talk about TV!

Walking Dead Banner
Naturally, The Walking Dead season premiere was avidly consumed this past Sunday, and it took up almost immediately where last season left off. I was rather surprised by the way the episode turned out with regard to a certain threat, but I’m awfully happy to see Rick putting the band back together. I’m so glad this show is back, even if it’s more gory than ever! Yeah, I usually watch a good third of each episode through my fingers. Love the story but the blood? Not so much. But I’m looking forward to the rest of the season, regardless.

Sleepy Hollow TV Banner 1
Then there’s Sleepy Hollow, back for its second season. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are still approaching: what will Ichabod and Abby do next to thwart their plans? Spouse and I both love this show not only because of a distant family connection with its source material, but because it’s so well done! The storyline is utterly implausible, of course, but the acting is wonderful, the stars very easy on the eyes, and all the supporting players are superb. I don’t quite know what to think about the newest character, Nick Hawley the “antiquities” hunter, but I’m sure his loyalties will be revealed soon. And let me just say this: I’m extremely happy to see a mainstream network (which Fox is now) series featuring a woman of color in a powerful leading role without making her a racial stereotype (at least, not so far as this middle-aged Caucasian woman can discern).

Gotham Banner
Speaking of Fox, we’re also rather impressed with Gotham, the network’s take on the origin stories of Batman, Catwoman, Penguin, and so forth. Thus far, young Bruce (played by David Mazouz) is rather whiny and self-involved, which is understandable due to his age and trauma, and Fox has wisely limited his screen time, preferring to concentrate on the adults in the series and the events that will give rise to the Caped Crusader and his sworn enemies. The bad thing about young Bruce’s limited screen time is it also limits the screen time of the loyal Alfred, played by Sean Pertwee (yes, the son of the Third Doctor and a marvelous actor in his own right).

Gracepoint Banner
Finally on the “small screen” is Fox’s Gracepoint, a nearly shot-for-shot remake of BBC America’s Broadchurch, aired earlier this year, and featuring David Tennant reviving his Broadchurch role as a detective brought in to investigate the murder of a boy in a small town. I wasn’t sure I was going to watch this, not even for the pleasure of Mr. Tennant’s company (and his partially successful American accent), since I’d already seen the BBC America production, but then I learned it would have two or three more episodes than the BBC show, and possibly a different ending. Thus far, nothing new has been revealed, but the casting is good, the acting is very good, and the location (northern California coast, ostensibly Mendocino or Humboldt County) is gorgeous.

The Last Days on MarsOn the big screen (which, in our house, means movies we watched at home because we seldom go to the cinema), Netflix must serve as a reminder. In September, we saw The Last Days on Mars, which to tell the truth I remember virtually nothing about except that it starred Liev Schreiber (yum) and had a bunch of folks in spacesuits running around trying to kill each other. According to Netflix, I gave it three stars (for “I liked it”) so it was at least enjoyable.

A Japanese film with English subtitles caught me by surprise. The Doomsday Book is a sci-fi anthology flick: three separate stories, three separate takes on an apocalypse (actual or implied). In the first segment, zombies. Second segment, robots. Third segment, death from the skies. Of the three segments, I think the zombie story is the least successful. I loved the Zen robot in segment two; and the third story was quite good and funny, but left me scratching my head (which means I should probably watch it again because obviously I missed something). The subtitles are only a marginal distraction from the gorgeous cinematography. It’s not rated, but I wouldn’t call it family-friendly by any means.

How I Live NowHow I Live Now (based on the YA novel of the same name) was another post-apocalyptic flick that came as a pleasant surprise. Daisy, an American teenager, is sent abroad to spend the summer with her English cousins. Shortly after she arrives, nuclear war breaks out, leaving Daisy and her cousins alone in the countryside to survive as best they can. In the beginning, Daisy is clearly a bitter, self-entitled, selfish little beeyotch; she’s as unlikeable as a character can be without murdering someone. As the film progresses, though, we learn just a little about what made her that way, but more importantly, we watch her grow up as she is forced to care about someone other than herself. Some truly heart-rending scenes and lovely acting by all involved.

Solomon KaneAnd finally, Solomon Kane, an historical horror story that gets its history all collywobbled, but still manages to be entertaining. The title character is an evil mercenary who plunders and pillages and murders at will in what appears to be the Middle East (circa 1600). But when he’s confronted by The Devil’s Reaper come to claim his soul, he escapes to his native England and takes up residence in a monastery to atone for his lifetime of sin. A year later, the abbot tells Kane his destiny does not lie within the abbey walls, and he must leave his sanctuary to seek his true path. Naturally, his true path leads to encounters with witches, demons, and other types of evil. It’s actually rather silly, and I suspect the historical context is there only for the mud and the blood and the general societal belief in witchcraft, because English Catholicism is awfully conspicuous for events taking RIP 9 Portraitplace in the last few years of Elizabeth I’s reign. Still, the film stars James Purefoy (yum) and features the marvelous Pete Postlethwaite (may flights of angels sing him to his rest) and equally marvelous Alice Krige in crucial character roles.

And that’s it thus far for Peril on the Screen. Click that badge over there to be whisked away to a list of other R.I.P. IX blog entries.