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”

What an excellent day for an exorcism

My Best Friend’s Exorcism: A Novel ★ ★ ★
Grady Hendrix
Quirk Books, 2016

 

“What an excellent day for an exorcism.”
~The Exorcist (1973)

bfexorcismThis is an okay book. Fair. Acceptable. But it takes too long to really get humming (I’m all in for foreplay, but Hendrix really pushes the limits to impatience here). More than three-quarters of the novel is essentially an angsty teen, coming-of-age high school drama about a group of girls and their growing pains with each other and with the world around them. It could very well be Gossip Girl or One Tree Hill — except that one of the main characters might be demonically possessed (instead of merely being a catty bitch). Sometimes it’s nigh on impossible to tell the difference.

Here’s the thing — this book suffers by comparison to a lot of other things. Nobody writes the mysterious, dark and turbulent interior lives of teenage girls better than Megan Abbott. Seeing Hendrix attempt to do the same thing here as he explores the iron bonds of friendship forged by Abby and Gretchen when they were children pales in execution and gravitas to Ms. Abbott’s vast talents with her mighty quill.

scariest-movie-exorcims

“What an excellent day for an exorcism” ~The Exorcist (1973)

The demonic possession and exorcism angle is adequately covered — but again suffers by comparison to 2015’s Bram Stoker Award winning A Head Full of Ghosts. And no matter who you are, if you’re writing about this subject, your book is always going to be compared to Blatty’s classic horror novel The Exorcist and Friedkin’s enduring film adaptation of the same name.

Hendrix might have thought he was doing something new and clever here by mashing-up a coming-of-age teen drama with the horror tropes of demonic possession stories, but he doesn’t quite make it. Some scenes are definitely creepy and unsettling, there just weren’t enough of them (too few of them coming too late in the story) to sustain any kind of coiled tension and impending sense of doom in the reader. And boy, is it really hard to write an exorcism scene that chills, rather than have it feel like a spoof out of a Scary Movie sequel, or a daytime soap opera.

Who’s old enough to remember Marlena Evans? Me!

Confessions of a true crime addict

True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray ★★★★
James Renner
Thomas Dunne Books (May 2016)
Available Now!

truecrimeaddictI came to know author James Renner through his wacky, engrossing, bewitchingly unique novels – The Man from Primrose Lane and The Great Forgetting. And while he has a noteworthy talent spinning wild and crazy tales of speculative fiction, Renner is also a dedicated true crime writer. In fact, the journalism and true crime writing came first. And now he’s returned to these stomping grounds in a big way with his new release True Crime Addict.

What sets this true crime book apart from most is not only the exceptionally sharp, punchy, lucid writing, but that Renner very much writes himself into the story as an observer, participant and one could even argue collateral damage to the unsolved Maura Murray missing person case. We realize almost from the opening paragraphs, that this is going to be a very personal journey for Renner, where he not only loses himself down the addicting, obsessive rabbit hole of trying to solve the mystery of a young woman’s inexplicable disappearance into seemingly thin air, he also lays bare his own personal demons, that include his young son’s struggle with uncontrollable violent outbursts (and quite possibly prescient abilities). This book really is one man’s unflinching look into the abyss, and what stares back at him.

Maura Murray in 2003

         Maura Murray in 2003

Renner is not the only person to have fallen down the rabbit hole of the Maura Murray case (a quick Google search will prove that), but given his personality and dark obsessive tendencies that he comes by quite honestly, Renner is arguably the one who’s fallen the hardest and most completely. The publication of this book is the culmination (and hopefully for him) an emotional catharsis of a very long journey that Renner has recorded in detail on his Maura Murray blog that he launched in June 2011.

This book really could not have come at a better time. We seem to be in the midst of a true crime renaissance with recent cultural watershed phenomena like Making a Murderer, The Jinx and the first season of Sarah Koenig’s podcast Serial which I became obsessed with when it ran in the fall of 2014. And you might as well throw The People vs OJ on that pile too, because it was also fantastic and drew a huge viewing audience.

I want to thank karen for putting a copy of this book in my hands and it is with great enthusiasm I write this review in the hopes it brings even more much deserved attention to what Renner has accomplished here.

Book Review: All The Missing Girls

All the Missing Girls ★★★
Megan Miranda
Simon and Schuster Canada
Release Date: June 28, 2016

missing_girlsHeaded to the beach or cottage this summer? Got a long plane ride ahead of you? Just hanging out by the pool with a pitcher of margaritas? Yeah, this is the book you’ll want to have with you. It’s one of those unreliable narrator psychological thrillers that once you start it, you will be utterly compelled to keep turning the pages until you get to the end to find out what the hell really happened? As these kind of books go, it’s a satisfying resolution. There are enough sleights of hand, and red herrings, to keep a reader on their toes and guessing until the last page is turned.

The author is trying something a little tricky with her narrative too; she tells the story backwards over the course of fifteen days. This is a neat little fun trick, but really, at the end of the day, I don’t think it added much to the tension of the novel, or its structure. Had she just adhered to a straight linear narrative approach I don’t think anything would have been lost in the overall impact and delivery of her story.

There are also a few scenes that genuinely had me feeling creeped out and uneasy, because for most of the novel you’re really not sure where the threat is coming from (and even if there’s any threat at all). Miranda conjures up a heavy and pressing atmosphere that’s practically claustrophobic at times, always welcome in a book like this. The setting is suitably small town and insular, carrying its secrets and guarding them closely to the peril of those who wish to turn over the mossy rock and expose the dank underbelly to the glaring sun.

None of the characters are very likeable, but I think because out of necessity, Miranda has to create an impenetrable distance between them and the reader to keep us off kilter and guessing. At their core however, most of their motivations are very relatable and when you finish reading and put the book down, you’ll find yourself questioning what you would have done in the same circumstances.

I would like to thank Simon and Schuster Canada for providing me with a copy to review.

Welcome to The Coliseum (or, the many faces of Craig Davidson)

coliseumThe Coliseum ★★★★
Patrick Lestewka
Necro Publications, 2011

Deep in the Canadian back country a new experiment in extreme penal punishment is underway. Although officially known as the Innuvik Penitentiary, it’s more widely known as: The Coliseum. On October 15th, 1993, the first twenty prisoners were unleashed. These were the worst of the worst. Brutal criminals, psychopaths, lunatics, call them what you will. Today there is a batch of new fish. How long will they survive? What became of the original 20 prisoners? And what the hell is breeding in the deep, dark recesses of…THE COLISEUM

SWEET UNHOLY JEBUS!!!!

I’m a self-identified horror addict and veteran of the genre. It takes A LOT to rattle my cage. This book? It is an unholy abomination – a dark, seething morass of gore and human depravity. It is not a fun read. But if you are so minded, it is a keenly compelling and profoundly disturbing one.

And now a word about this book’s parentage. What unhinged mind gave birth to such a darkling monster?

There’s this Canadian author Craig Davidson. You may have heard of him. He is a wonderful literary writer who has been nominated for prestigious awards, and one of his short stories has even been adapted into a critically acclaimed film. But Davidson has a dark side you see — an alter ego that hijacks his more literary proclivities and pushes his writing into macabre and horrific territory.

Craig Davidson (aka Nick Cutter, aka Patrick Lestewka)

Craig Davidson (aka Nick Cutter, aka Patrick Lestewka)

Meet Nick Cutter, one of the most exciting things to happen to horror in the last decade. And he’s CANADIAN. So just when you think we’re all nice and polite and spend our days drinking Tim Horton’s coffee and playing hockey, think again.

About being Richard Bachman (Stephen King’s too short-lived alter ego) King quotes the late Donald Westlake referring to his very own alter ego Richard Stark: “I write Westlake stories on sunny days. When it rains. I’m Stark.” For Davidson, I like to imagine the same rule applies. Sunny days he writes as Craig — when it rains, Cutter takes over the writing room and anything goes. Anything.

But here’s the twist (are you still with me?): before there was Cutter, there was this guy Patrick Lestewka — and let’s be clear here — he makes Nick Cutter look like Mister Rogers. In fact, I think when Davidson realized he had this sub-id consciousness living inside of him — this psycho “other” — it scared the living shit out of him so much that he created Nick Cutter TO KILL Lestewka in an act of self-preservation. Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t? It doesn’t bear pondering.

Lestewka had to die. Unlike the late, gone too soon Bachman, we will NOT mourn his passing. Instead we will breathe a sigh of relief, for it is a terrible, grotesque landscape in which he maneuvered, where he beckons us to come play, where the light never shines, where all hope is gone, and cruelty is the only currency.

Back in 2014, I shared a Q&A with Nick Cutter. I didn’t know about Lestewka then, and now really wish I had because I would have loved to have gotten Cutter’s take on the guy — maybe even a confession of murder of the pseudonym! Ah well, there’s always next time!

A new chilling vision of Hell

devils detectiveThe Devil’s Detective: A Novel ★★★1/2
Simon Kurt Unsworth
Doubleday | March 2015

All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

I picked up this book with the initial impression that I was in for an urban fantasy piece in which Hell (and angels and demons) would play a role, but that some of the story would inevitably take place in a concrete, corrupted human city. But no. This is full on, 24/7 Hell, all the time Hell, everything Hell. There is no reprieve. And very little hope. The hope is so miniscule you need a very expensive microscope to see it.

So yeah. Hell. In as much technicolor, cinematic horrorscape that you probably can’t handle. Seriously, it’s brutal. Claustrophobic and suffocating. Unsworth’s painstaking, meticulous world-building of this feared and unknown domain is

impressive to say the least. He spares no detail and isn’t shy about unleashing buckets of effluvia, viscera, despair and derangement. This isn’t your paranormal fantasy version of Hell where the Demons are sexy anti-heroes brooding about looking for bodices to rip open. Noooooo. These are deformed, mutated, merciless beasts seeking out any hole of any body to violate, and throw in some torture on the side for good measure.

Unsworth creates a Hell populated by innumerable species of Demons of varying size, hierarchy, power and cruelty. In this devilish brew, forsaken humans doomed to suffer Hell’s torment, must co-exist. They are Demon slaves. Mere chattel. With meaningless jobs and tasks to perform in the ever present threat of Demon violence.

Thomas Fool is one of those humans, and one of Hell’s Information Men. Normally, Fool’s job consists of looking the other way — of NOT investigating Hell’s crimes. But when a human corpse shows up with its soul entirely gone, Fool is pushed into an investigation he is not ready for. He must learn his Detective’s trade fast before whatever is consuming human souls turns its appetites on all of Hell itself.

This is a book extremely dense with description, and understandably so because the author has cut himself out a big job to build Hell and its fiery inhabitants from scratch missing no detail, no matter how small. There is A LOT of narrative exposition to move the story and action along too. Dialogue is minimally used. And that means the book can read heavy and slow in parts. You have to be patient with it and soak up the landscape. Let it unfurl in your mind and agree to stay with it until the tale is done.

Now that the book is done, and I’ve laid it aside, I find flashes of it continuing to haunt me — certain scenes appear to be burned onto my retinas. I can’t unsee them. This is a dark book, but for those seeking a dark fantasy set in the darkest and most fearful place, then you might want to give this one a go.

A free copy was provided by NetGalley in exchange for this review.

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.

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