Abbott sticks the landing and delivers a perfect 10

You Will Know Me ★★★★★
Megan Abbott
Little Brown, 2016

 

“Take my hand when I falter, for I cannot make this journey alone. I do not know you, but you will know me.”
~Nadia Comaneci, Letters to a Young Gymnast

youwillknowmeIf, like me, you’ve lived a life of inexplicable obsession fascination with the world of competitive gymnastics, this latest by the Mighty Megan Abbott is going to rock your world. If you’ve never given competitive gymnastics a single thought what is wrong with you — this book is going to rock your world anyway.

In recent years, Abbott has taken the domestic thriller, suburban noir and made it her bitch. She’s often writing about the interior lives of adolescent girls because she’s proven time and again what deep, murky waters run there, what unsettling truths there are to be found when innocence is lost and a sexual awakening is found.

You Will Know Me is more focused on the family unit this time, though its teen protagonist — 15 year old Devon Knox — certainly plays a major role. Devon’s compulsive, all-consuming journey to be the best, to be a champion, has also consumed her family — mom Katie, dad Eric, and little brother Drew (who just about broke my heart). Most of the book unfolds from Katie’s viewpoint as she strives to be the perfect support and anchor for her prodigy daughter, while keeping the domestic front of chores, groceries, wifely duties and a freelance job on track. Katie also has a quiet, patient, introverted little boy to nurture who sees much but says very little.

nadia2

Nadia Comaneci, 1976 Olympics

Down into the rabbit hole of competitive gymnastics Abbott takes us, the sacrifices required of a family to raise an Olympic competitor, because the young female gymnast could never get there on her own. But Devon’s quest to reach Olympic level competition will be threatened by the tragic death of a handsome young man, a death that comes like a nuclear bomb dropped into the middle of a perfectly, rigidly balanced life of discipline and routine. The Knox family are left reeling, seeking answers, and fearing truths. Secrets will out, and in the light of day they will come to realize that those we often feel we know the best, we don’t really know at all.

This is a twisty book, and Abbott has a few surprises up her sleeve, but not of the Gone Girl variety — that’s not what she’s up to here. I figured it all out several times, and knew where she was headed, but that in no way diminished from the sense of tension and inexorable suspense. If anything, knowing amped it all to eleven. As readers we’re watching the train leave the tracks in slow motion as the main characters move closer to unbearable discovery. And I felt the point wasn’t really figuring out what happened, the point becomes what characters do now that they know.

Abbott is at the top of her game here — I had no hesitation awarding all five stars. This one you will not want to miss.

Recently, Abbott wrote an article for Elle in which she attempts to answer: “Why Are We So Obsessed With Gymnasts?” As a companion piece to this book, it’s worth checking out.

“Because now, of course, these gymnasts are girls but also, and foremost, powerful and blazingly talented women. Perhaps that is the paradox that keeps us rapt. Biles, four feet nine inches tall, in a pink, crystal-studded leotard and with that cherubic face, radiates girl. And yet the instant she takes glorious flight, she is beyond reckoning, defying gravity, logic, reason.
~Megan Abbott, “Why We are So Obsessed With Gymnasts”

A long love affair with a long walk: Re-visiting classic King

The Long Walk ★★★★★
Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)
Signet, 1979
thelongwalk

“They’re animals, all right. But why are you so goddam sure that makes us human beings?”

“They walked through the rainy dark like gaunt ghosts, and Garraty didn’t like to look at them. They were the walking dead.”

How much do I love this book? There are too many ways to count actually, which is why no matter how many re-reads I’ve done of it (and there have been many over the years), The Long Walk has always left me too intimidated to review it. I managed a brief blurb of something when I listened to the audiobook a few years back, but never a “real review”. So heaven help me, here’s my real review.

RichardBachman

Richard Bachman

According to King, he wrote The Long Walk while in college in 1966-67 and it became one of those “drawer novels” that got put away to gather dust when he couldn’t get it published. King wasn’t a household name yet of course. First, he had to publish Carrie in 1974. Then Salem’s Lot in 1975. Followed by The Shining in 1976. In three short years King became a household name. So much so that he got the idea to become Richard Bachman.

 

King decided he would use this pseudonym to resurrect a few of those dusty “drawer novels” and rescue them from obscurity. He believed they were good (for me, two of them are better than good, they are outstanding — The Long Walk and The Running Man — according to King written in a 72 hour fugue in 1971). But King wanted to know readers thought the books were good because they were good, not just because his name was on the front cover in giant letters. His publisher at the time also didn’t want to flood the market with more King books when he was already churning them out one a year.* Hence, Bachman was born.

*(these were the days before James Patterson decided it was okay to publish 20 books a year and only write one of them yourself).

 

longwalk

Original Signet paperback cover, 1979

The Long Walk is easily, hands-down my favorite Bachman book, but it also ranks as one of my favorite King books period. Top 5 without even blinking an eye. It’s lean and mean, with a white hot intensity to it. What I love about The Long Walk is what I love about King’s early short stories collected in Night Shift: There is a rawness in these stories that reflects the drive and hunger of a young man consumed with his craft. For me The Long Walk has always burned bright as if King wrote it in a fever. There’s a purity in these pages, a naked desire to tell the tale that still gives me chills every single time I pick up the damn book and read that opening sentence: “An old blue Ford pulled into the guarded parking lot that morning, looking like a small, tired dog after a hard run.”

 

Clumsy? Sure. A bit of an awkward simile? Absolutely. But what a hook. And the hook only digs itself in deeper as each page is turned. Until finishing becomes a matter of have to, any choice or free will stripped away. It’s one of those books that grabs you by the short hairs and doesn’t let go until it’s finished with you.

Before the dystopian craze spawned by The Hunger Games trilogy, before the rise of reality TV with shows like Survivor, King imagined an alternate history American landscape where an annual walking competition would become the nation’s obsession. One hundred boys between the ages 16-18 start out walking, and continue to walk at 4mph until there’s only one remaining — the winner. Boys falling below speed for any reason get a Warning. Three Warnings get you your Ticket, taking you out of the race. Permanently. It’s walk or die. And as someone who’s done her fair share of walking, the idea of that much walking without ever stopping makes my feet and back ache just thinking about it.

But King will make you do more than think about it, he will make you walk that road with those boys, to experience every twinge of discomfort, to feel the rising pain and suffocating fear, to suffer with the boys in sweat, and cold, and hunger, and confusion, as they walk towards Death and consider their own mortality. You will hear the sharp cracks of the carbine rifles and your heart will jump and skip beats.

One theme that King has revisited over the years is writing about the human body under brutalizing physical duress, at the body in extremis and what humans are hardwired to do to survive and go on living another day. Excruciating physical peril undeniably comes with a psychological component and no one writes that better than King. We see it in books like Misery, Gerald’s Game and the short story “Survivor Type”. King uncovers all the nitty-gritty minutia of human physical suffering and asks the question: How far is any one person willing to go to keep on taking his or her next breath? Stephen King knows pretty damn far. Just ask Paul Sheldon or Ray Garraty. Or the castaway in “Survivor Type” — him most of all. King also knows that the human body has an amazing capacity for trauma. It can withstand a lot — so much so that the mind often breaks first.

Each chapter heading of The Long Walk quotes a line from a game show host, but the one that really sticks out (and presumably gave King his idea in the first place) is this one by Chuck Barris, creator of the The Gong Show — “The ultimate game show would be one where the losing contestant would be killed.” And isn’t that the truth? Certainly, the Romans knew this as they cheered for Gladiators to be mauled to death by wild animals (or other Gladiators). Just ask the French who cheered and jeered as thousands were led to their deaths by guillotine. There is an insatiable blood lust that lingers in humans that I don’t think we’ll ever shake completely, no matter how “civilized” we think we’ve become.

Violence as entertainment is part of the norm, so I have no problems believing that under the right (terrifying) conditions, death as entertainment could become just as normalized. Outwit, Oulast, Outplay on Survivor suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.

One of the things I’ve always loved about this book is how King handles the audience as spectators, complicit in this cold-blooded murder of its young boys. When the novel first starts, the spectators are individuals, with faces and genders and ages. As the story progresses, spectators increase in number to “the crowd”, loud and cheering, holding signs. By the novel’s climax, spectators filled with blood lust have morphed into a raging body of Crowd (with a capital C). It is an amorphous and frightening entity that moves and seethes with singular purpose obsessed with the spectacle, and baying for blood like a hound on the scent. It’s chilling because there’s such a ring of truth to all of it. Were it to ever happen, this is how it would happen. When King is writing at his best, the devil is always in the details.

Another aspect of the story that has always engaged me is the boys’ compulsion to join the Walk and be complicit in their own execution. I’ve always wanted to ask King if he meant this story to be an allegory for young boys signing up to die in Vietnam (considering he wrote it as Vietnam was heating up and on the nightly news). I think naivety and ignorance got a lot of the boys to The Walk, including Garraty. I think young people (especially young men) believe themselves to be invincible, that death is not something that can happen to them no matter the odds or circumstances. I’m sure no boy went to Vietnam thinking he would come home in a body bag, though many of them did.

If it’s not obvious by now, I could talk about this book until the sun burns itself out, or the zombies rise up. If you haven’t yet, read this book. If you have a reluctant teen reader in your life, give them this book. If it’s been a long time since you’ve read this book, don’t you think it’s time to read it again?

Noir classic still thrills and chills

The Killer Inside Me ★★★★★
Jim Thompson
With an introduction by Stephen King
Mulholland Books, 2014 (1952)

Mullholland Books edition (2014)

Mullholland Books edition (2014)

I tip my hat and pretend I don’t hear
grinning like a half-wit from ear to ear
I can think of a thousand ways to say hello
so I start through ’em all, and go real slow.
They listen hard, and act like they care.
How can they be so completely unaware
of the truth the answer is always denied me
So I introduce them to the killer inside me.
(MC 900 Ft. Jesus, The Killer Inside Me)

*****

First of all, a warning: if you happen to pick up the edition I did that includes an introductory essay from Stephen King, make sure you read it after you finish the book. Goddamn it, either the entire principal of *spoiler* completely flies over this man’s head, or he just loves being a bastard about these things. After 2014’s Twitter controversy where he spoiled a major death for fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, I’m pretty certain it’s the latter.

It’s not that he doesn’t get it — he just doesn’t care!!!

Stephen King: tossing out spoilers like live grenades since 1972

Stephen King: tossing out spoilers like live grenades since 1972

And he does it here too, spoiling a MAJOR scene from Thompson’s classic noir novel. Thanks a lot, Uncle Stevie!!! I don’t care that the book was published in 1952 — it’s not the same as revealing the Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks or that Janet Leigh gets stabbed in the shower in Psycho! And it’s especially not the same as revealing that Romeo and Juliet die in Act 5. Now you’re just being an asshole, asshole!

Anyway, all wrath and chagrin aside, Uncle Stevie gives great introduction (heh) and this essay is particularly inspired dealing as it does with Jim Thompson, his mark on dark literature, and the enduring legacy of his psychopathic, unassuming small town Deputy Sheriff, Lou Ford.

Told in the first-person, The Killer Inside Me is as close as you’re ever going to want to get to the inner thoughts and irrepressible urges of a psycho killer. The most chilling part? On the outside, Lou Ford is a regular, down home good ol’ boy, with charm and even some wit. But underneath his methodically constructed facade lurks a steel-trap mind and inexplicable violent compulsions. First published in 1952, I can only imagine the impact this book would have had on its original audience. Even to this jaded 21st century reader The Killer Inside Me still holds within its ruthless prose the power to shock and unsettle.

Original cover, 1952

Original cover, 1952

And despite Ford’s obvious dark passenger — his “sickness” — you still find yourself rooting for the guy (that is when you’re not screaming at characters to run for their fucking lives far, far away from the crazy man). It made me consider who I’d take my chances with in a locked room — Lou Ford or Annie Wilkes? ::shudder:: There’s a Sophie’s Choice I’m glad I never have to make.

Without Jim Thompson — and especially without Lou Ford — I can only believe ‘country noir’ would not be what it is today. Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill, Daniel Woodrell, Ron Rash all owe a debt to Thompson. And as readers, so do we.

Who will survive, and what will be left of them?

The Troop ★★★★★
Nick Cutter
Gallery Books
Available February 25, 2014

Find out more here!

troop-usFirst of all, when Stephen King goes out of his way to blurb a book, I pay attention. About The Troop he says:

The Troop scared the hell out of me, and I couldn’t put it down. This is old-school horror at its best. Not for the faint-hearted, but for the rest of us sick puppies, it’s a perfect gift for a winter night.”

I’m a sick puppy! Right away, I perk up like one of those Pointer dogs on the scent. Secondly, the book description refers to The Troop as Lord of the Flies meets The Ruins. Oh yeah! You just pressed two of my book buttons right there. I’m lighting up and going off all over the damn place.

So yeah, Stephen King is not lying or exaggerating. This book IS NOT for the faint-hearted. It’s for the sick puppies — it will make you squirm and gag and cringe and hold on for dear life. It will also creep you the fuck out and make your skin crawl off in self defense. Your skin may never speak to you again actually.

I usually run an image free zone in my reviews, but for this book, I’m hoping a picture speaks a thousand words.

Here are some of the faces this book made me make:

ewwww

donotwanthouse

upset

babyeyes

Get the picture? I’m a horror veteran, and let me tell you, this book traumatized me. There are scenes I will NEVER forget. If they invented brain bleach tomorrow, it still couldn’t erase the shock and ewww and WTF? from my mind.

Five stars for totally creeping me out and giving me a raging case of heebie jeebies. I could not put this book down and I will be recommending it to other sick puppies. Plus, I actually CARED about the characters. Newt!!!

***Mild Spoiler Alert*** And perhaps introducing a bonafide animal torturing sociopath into a story that already has such an extreme threat is a bit of overkill, but so what? I admire the author’s commitment to a grab-you-by-the-throat, full-throttle storytelling style.***End Spoiler***

@TheNickCutter is a great pseudonym for a horror writer. Let’s hope we hear more from him in the future. Check out my Q&A with the author!

A free copy was provided by the publisher through NetGalley for an honest review.

The beat goes on…as does the Goodreads censorship debacle

The Great Goodreads Censorship Debacle ★★★★★

GR debacle cover**Release Date: TBD**

This is not censorship – this is setting an appropriate tone for a community site. ~Kara, Director, Customer Care Goodreads

I hope you’ll appreciate that if we just start deleting ratings whenever we feel like it, that we’ve gone down a censorship road that doesn’t take us to a good place. ~Otis Chandler, CEO Goodreads

Cherry-picking what is not “appropriate” (a loaded and subjective term at the best of times) for mass consumption and subsequently making it disappear is the very definition of censorship. If Goodreads is hell bent and determined to do it, then they should at least have the balls to stand by that decision and call it what it is.

I don’t need any doublespeak with my evening cocktail thanks very much. It gives me indigestion.

No matter how you slice this pie, and which side of the argument you fall on — reviewers are being censored. Content is being censored. Goodreads has deemed reviews targeting author behavior as “inappropriate” and having no value. Way to make the decision for everybody. Those reviews have value to somebody and they should get to choose for themselves whether or not they want to read them. Ditto shelving.

You claim these reviews are not about the book, that you want all reviews to remain on topic and I quote: “in a way that’s relevant to the book.” So not only is Goodreads prescribing what is “appropriate in tone” but also what is “relevant”.

And what is relevant and “on topic”? a hundred flashing .gifs to make a person go blind or insane? a random personal anecdote? a dirty joke? an expletive-ridden diatribe? I have many favorite reviews that don’t even address the book at all. What I love about this site is that there is a corner on here for just about every taste and kink and every style of review. For Goodreads to take it upon itself to deem what “belongs” here is a slap in the face to the very definition and spirit of community run. It is overruling and denying the very thing that gives this site its relevance and integrity.

And as for AMAZON — I see you hiding back there in the weeds, perched on that grassy knoll. Consider for just a moment why your Goliath site became a toxic wasteland that no self-respecting reader or reviewer would use. Why you had to buy Goodreads in order to get back into the book reviewing community. You thought no one would leave you because you are so big and important and there is nobody else like you. But guess what? They did leave you, in droves and droves, and found a precious home in Goodreads.

Now you believe in the indestructibility of the GR myth in the same way you believed in your own. GR can be killed too, all in the same ways you ruined your own site. CEASE and DESIST with this complete and utter nonsense. You will sell waaaaay more books (a gazillion more) if you just leave the readers the fuck alone and let the GR community manage the site the way they’ve always done.

To the Goodreads family, in particular to Mr. Otis Chandler himself, you can offer up as much reassurance and platitudes as you want, but not one thing about this feels right. And it shouldn’t to you either.

It’s about time somebody wrote a book about this. Hurry up and release it already (though I hear the author is quite a dick)! In the meantime, to find out more about what shit shenanigans have been going on around here while you were reading, check out the following links:

Summary of GR’s New Censorship Policy

Civil Disobedience – 12 easy suggestions (and one bonus)

Giving Offense: Full on Revolt on Goodreads

By the Numbers: An analysis of the reviews deleted in the Goodreads policy change

Banned Books Week and the Goodreads Debacle

Goodreads: Who is the bully?

Censored by Goodreads

Also, don’t forget to check out the original announcement about the changes that have still only to appear in the Feedback group. Voice your opinion by leaving a comment!

Quick kisses in the dark

Night Shift ★★★★★
Stephen King
Doubleday, 1978

Signet paperback, 1979

Signet paperback, 1979

In his introduction to Skeleton Crew, Stephen King writes: “a good long novel is in many ways like having a long and satisfying affair” whereas the short story “is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.” My literary proclivities definitely lean towards those long affairs. I don’t read a lot of short stories nor am I a fan of the format (though I’m improving). At least give me a novella!

Stephen King is one of only a handful of authors who can make me a believer in the beauty and effectiveness of the short story. For a man who has been lambasted for his “bloated” novels – King himself has referred to his condition as “literary elephantiasis” – he can still write a short story like nobody’s business. Stories that will stop your heart, chill your blood, and see the world in a new way.

King has written hundreds of short stories over his lifetime but for me none can quite compare to the ones collected here in Night Shift. The majority of these stories first appeared in the men’s magazine Cavalier, written before Carrie’s publication in 1974 and the gargantuan financial windfall that followed. King has talked quite a bit about what life was like before that watershed moment:

There were some hard, dark years before Carrie. We had two kids and no money. We rotated the bills, paying on different ones each month. I kept our car, an old Buick, going with duct tape and bailing wire….

The boy who would be King.

The boy who would be King

There is a rawness in these stories that reflects the drive and hunger of a young man consumed with his craft. For me these stories burn bright and hot as if King wrote them in a fever. I can picture him now pounding them out on his wife’s Olivetti portable typewriter between the washer and dryer of their cramped trailer’s tiny laundry room. The modest sale of these early stories was often a reprieve from the poverty bearing down on the young King family, cash-strapped with two small children. That was motivation enough, but it wasn’t the only motivator. King wrote because he had to, the stories lived inside of him screaming to be born.

There’s another reason why I love the stories in this collection – they represent King’s early fascination / obsession / dedication to fear, to what haunts, creeps and crawls. King knows what scares us, because it scares him too. He gets it, it’s not a put on and these stories are as authentic as fear gets. In the introduction he writes:

The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never grab my ankle.

No waking or dreaming…but only the voice of the writer….He’s telling you that you want to see the car accident, and yes, he’s right – you do. There’s a dead voice on the phone…something behind the walls of the old house that sounds bigger than a rat…movement at the foot of the cellar stairs. He wants you to see all of those things, and more; he wants you to put your hands on the shape under the sheet. And you want to put your hands there. Yes.

I think Poe and Lovecraft would agree.

For me, this collection contains some of the best examples of the modern horror story. King has tapped an artesian well of contemporary fears and anxieties penning macabre, ghoulish tales that deserve to be called classics. Not to be missed: “Children of the Corn”, “The Boogeyman”, “The Mangler”, “Strawberry Spring”, and “Quitter’s Inc.” My deepest thanks to King who was the first to convince me that sometimes even I, can be seduced by that quick kiss in the dark from a stranger. Oh yes.

Coming of age during The Troubles

Bog Child ★★★★★
Siobhan Dowd
David Fickling Books, 2008

bogchild

Ah Jesus. This really is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story. My one piece of advice? If you do the audio thing, then that’s how to do this one. Sile Bermingham is the perfect reader, her soft lilt a gorgeous accompaniment not just to the lyrical prose that will make you shudder when it’s read aloud, but delivering on the Irish accent transporting you to a very particular time and place.

It should have been the Irish history content of this novel that brought it to my attention (more on that later), but it wasn’t. It was its author – Siobhan (pronounced She-von) Dowd. I discovered Ms. Dowd the summer of 2011 when I read A Monster Calls. That book shattered me on a cellular level. The author of A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness – describes his collaboration with Dowd this way:

She had the characters, a detailed premise, and a beginning. What she didn’t have, unfortunately, was time.

Siobhan-Dowd-002

Siobhan Dowd (author)

Dowd was diagnosed with breast cancer and succumbed to her disease in 2007 at the age of 47. Ness courageously took on the project and the completed novel is both exquisite and a lasting tribute to its progenitor.

So I went looking for something else to read by this woman and came across Bog Child. There was a time in my life when I was marinating in a stew of Irish history. I took an interest in it at University and it became my declared major. My BA Honors essay was on the IRA’s guerrilla tactics during the Irish War of Independence. By the time I hit grad school I was practically obsessed. I knew my next step was an even bigger research project and a trip to Ireland, hence my Master’s thesis which you can read here if you’re ever really desperate for reading material or have a love of the subject yourself.

the-troubles5Even though my subject area was late 19th, early 20th century Irish history, it was unavoidable that I would become consumed by the on-going Troubles that exploded again in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s. I eventually did get myself to Ireland on a work/study visa in the fall of 2000 lasting until April 2001, which by pure coincidence coincided with the 20th anniversary of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike.

I witnessed a candlelight vigil along O’Connell Street and listened to Gerry Adams (and the sister of Mickey Devine) speak at a public gathering. It was an emotional affair, but at the same time I remember feeling removed from the entire experience. It felt too raw and personal for me to be looking on like that, a Canadian girl who was only seven years old when ten young Irishmen starved themselves to death in political protest.

It’s easy for anyone on the outside of any event to have opinions of it one way or the other — whether those young men really knew what they were doing, or were just desperate and confused by dehumanizing prison conditions, or whether they had been brainwashed and/or intimidated to “the cause”. Some consider their actions a waste and abhorrent, while others see their deaths as an important political event worthy of commemoration as we do for soldiers who die in battle. For me, it isn’t the Strikers I think about (as sad and frustrating as their stories are), but their families. How excruciating and traumatic must the whole process have been to watch a son die slow like that.

The ten men who died on their Hunger Strike.

The ten men who died on their Hunger Strike.

The worst part? It’s within your power to take them off the Strike, against their will, so that the doctors hook them up to an IV saving them from certain death. How does any parent make that choice? It seems easy, right? Of course you would save them. It would be mad to let them die. But ten families made that choice. Other families did not, and ended their son’s hunger strike. I’ve always wondered how each family survived the very different choice they made. Is there bitterness? Doubts? What about the men taken off the Strike by their families…did they forgive them? Did they suffer from survivor’s guilt for living when others died in their place? Or was it relief? Relief that they were saved from themselves and the insanity that had taken hold of the times. For a cinematic portrayal of what the families faced I recommend Some Mother’s Son.

I haven’t thought about Irish history in any shape or form in years. I left grad school in 2005 and I was done with all of it. I had been supersaturated, I had overdosed on it. No more! I cried. Then this book.

In Bog Child, the late Siobhan Dowd is not romanticizing the Hunger Strike. It’s not a political book, for or against the Strikers. It’s just a simple story of an eighteen year old boy facing manhood. His final exams are in full swing and his dreams of becoming a doctor have never been so close, yet so out of reach. He’s falling in love for the first time. He’s getting pressured from the local IRA goon to run packets across the guarded border. But most devastating and confusing of all, his older brother Joey is on Hunger Strike in Maze Prison and it’s tearing his family apart.

Fergus stole and then broke my heart. All he wants to do is the right thing, but in a messed up world during a messed up time what the right thing is isn’t always clear. It’s not all doom and gloom. There’s light and laughter and hope in these pages too, and an abiding love for the affirmation of life and all the joy and pain that living brings.

This review has also been posted to Goodreads.

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