Express Reviews 

Slasher movies, missing prodigies, and earthquakes are all covered in this month's book reviews.

Legacy of Blood
By Jim Harper
Headpress, $17.95

This guide to that most maligned of film genres, the slasher flick, is written by a true gorehound who appreciates campy low-budget blood and guts -- the kind strewn by chainsaw wielders, escaped mental patients, and cannibalistic hillbillies -- and isn't ashamed to admit it. Slasher flicks might seem to lack the depth for a full psychoanalysis, but Harper manages to ferret out deeper meanings. (His insights into the similar psychologies of surviving heroines and vanquished killers are especially interesting.) He shies away from bold declarations, qualifying his theories with a steady stream of "in some cases" and "there isn't enough information to say..." But such hesitancy seems strange in a genre this formulaic: Really, how many variations can there be on the killer-hunting-nubile-teen storyline? The book's final third is devoted to reviews -- from Halloween and other classics to forgotten trash such as Slumber Party Massacre (the world's first -- and thankfully only -- musical slasher, with a screenplay by Rita Mae Brown). Harper holds no illusions, and he rates movies based not merely on hoity-toity criteria such as plot and character development, but also on what matters most: violence and nakedness. -- Mike Rosen-Molina

The Shadow of the Wind
By Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves
Penguin, $15

All decrepitude and gilded cobwebs, this Spanish mega-best-seller is a ramshackle wonderland. Against the backdrop of mid-20th-century Barcelona -- a city struggling to maintain its identity while firmly under Franco's boot -- Daniel Sempere is obsessed with a book: The Shadow of the Wind, by a deceased young author named Julián Carax. Never popular to begin with, nearly all of Carax' works have been bought and destroyed by a faceless creep. And this is where it gets complicated. People begin to remark on Daniel's resemblance to young Carax, and his life starts to mirror the author's. The populous story includes a trio of women that stir Daniel's loins; a slightly unhinged but brilliant Sancho Panzaesque sidekick; and a fascist psychopath of a police inspector. Ruiz Zafón turns out to be a master of scene-setting: You can feel the slime dripping from the walls of a mental institution in one scene, and hear the cries of the grand, maltreated city throughout. Unfortunately, all this gothic detail is a lot more memorable than the mystery at the heart of the story: what really happened to Carax, and who wants to obliterate his memory, and why. -- Nora Sohnen

Josie and Jack
By Kelly Braffet
Mariner, $13

They say every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but when it comes to debut novels this rarely seems to be the case. Serve up a little alcoholism as an appetizer, follow with an entrée of parental neglect and a hearty beating for dessert, and soon it's hard to tell one sad-sack fictional kid from the next. While the titular Josie and Jack don't miss a serving at that buffet, they nonetheless pull off a creepy dysfunction that feels entirely unique. Abandoned by their mother, the siblings are under the occasional care of their father, a leering, drunken astrophysics professor. Brother and sister essentially raise each other, drinking their way through adolescence while rubbing up against each other in a sexual way that Braffet leaves maddeningly vague. About halfway through, it becomes a road novel as the kids trade the seedy desperation of their backwoods holler for the seedy desperation of Manhattan. Though the plot stalls out a bit -- the reader keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop -- the characters are easily quirky enough to carry the novel. When the story finally reawakens, the mayhem seems perfunctory, a side dish for the obsessive sibling relationship that is the novel's meat. Josie and Jack are a sickening pair, but a transfixing one. Braffet's triumph is that she makes dysfunction fun again, adding the right touch of levity to what could be just another humdrum tale of alcoholism, abuse, incest, and murder. -- Zac Unger

Earthquakes in Human History
By Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and Donald Theodore Sanders
Princeton University, $24.95

This scarily timely work on the quakes that have literally shaped human history -- and the societal aftereffects following the aftershocks -- almost perfectly slices the baby in half. Its seismological sections will lose historical-minded readers, while its historical sections read like summations of more complete works and will bore the scientifically inclined. The authors -- a geologist and a science writer -- trace seismic crises in seven different regions of the world, including, of course, our own Big One in 1906. For good or ill, the chapters grow increasingly more formulaic than a VH1 Behind the Music segment: warning signs, retellings of the destruction, rescue efforts, and then an epilogue. And it can be illuminating. For example, it was not wars or rebellions but a huge quake that sapped Sparta's army of its strength and led to the Golden Age of Athens. What's scariest, however, are the lessons not learned. As you read this, perhaps on BART, you will be pleased to learn that portions of the system's tunnels pass directly through the Hayward Fault. Well, have a nice day! -- Joe Eskenazi

The Idea of Home
By Curtis White
Dalkey Archive, $12.95

Look down into the matted tules just moments before the bulldozer breaks ground for yet another subdivision. Or examine the goo of the old salt marshes approaching the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, where opera star Enrico Caruso, already in flight from the Great Fire of 1906 across the bay, lost his shoe fleeing vampires in San Lorenzo. Just look around any postwar suburb, and see if it's not the home of failure and tragedy -- that's the urgent cry of San Lorenzo-born social critic Curtis White's newly reissued 1992 novel The Idea of Home. More a group of pieces in wildly varying styles, some spilling -- or oozing -- characters over into another, it's most successful as a weird and irreverent take on local history. Oddly, the only dated parts of the book are its academic deconstructionist tics, and the bits that don't work at all are the ones that were previously published in literary journals. But as literature of the suburbs, the best of The Idea of Home is haunting, beautiful, and charged with rightful anger. People move to the suburbs so their kids won't grow up to be the kind of person to write a book like this -- and this is the thanks they get. -- Robin S. Tanner


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