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!

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!

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.

Green River Killer: A True Detective Story

greenriverGreen River Killer ★★★★
by Jeff Jensen, Jonathan Case (Illustrator)
Dark Horse Originals, 2011

My reading/reviewing year is really getting off to an excruciatingly, abysmal slow start. I blame my Netflix addiction that includes a recent binge viewing of The Shield (from which I’m still recovering). In November, I became obsessed with Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast and literally lost weeks. Archer is back in full throttle splendor — “We need a minute Captain Shit Nuts!” — soon to be followed by the return of Season 3 of The Americans on the 28th.

Throw in work, sleep, eating, alcohol consumption and Words With Friends, and it’s no wonder I’ve fallen way behind.

Zodiac_DVD_WS_Front_Final

Zodiac (2007)

I don’t have a real penchant towards reading about serial killers. I don’t even like them in my movies usually. However, like most things, there are exceptions. One of my favorite films of all time is David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). It’s an incredible movie that takes a cold case with a million moving pieces that went unsolved for decades and distills it down into this cerebral and frightening coherent narrative about obsession and loss of self. To this day, the Zodiac killer remains unidentified and the lingering torment and regret laid on the shoulders of the men who chased him in vain cannot be underestimated.

The Green River Killer was another notorious serial killer who almost got away. Gary Ridgway was eventually convicted of murdering 49 women but it’s believed his kill count is much higher. The Green River murders began in 1982 and hit their peak in 1984. However, Ridgway would not be identified and arrested until 2001 thanks to DNA evidence.

Gary Ridgway

Gary Ridgway

The lead investigator for The Green River Killer was a man by the name of Tom Jensen. When the Green River Task Force was eventually disbanded, Jensen became the sole investigator. It was a case that would continue to haunt and obsess him right up until the day of Ridgway’s arrest. It’s a story that Jensen’s son wants to tell, an intimate look at his father’s entanglement with evil and desperation, frustration and determination.

I never would have believed this story could be contained in the black and white panels of a 200 page graphic novel. But contained it is. Jensen’s version is a remarkable example of gritty police procedural balanced with a son’s touching tribute to a father he obviously respects and cherishes deeply. The storytelling is sharp and rhythmic, bouncing back and forth from past to present in a seamless montage of events that is impressive. There are hardly any visual or textual clues to orient the reader in time; nevertheless, I was rarely left wondering ‘where’ and ‘when’ in the story I was.

This is one graphic novel that packs an emotional wallop. Not just because of the subject matter, but for the way in which the story is told.

A major work from Stephen King (in the key of E)

Revival ★★★★
Stephen King
Scribner, 2014

revivalThis is how we bring about our own damnation, you know—by ignoring the voice that begs us to stop. To stop while there’s still time.
-Revival

The three true ages of man are youth, middle age, and how the fuck did I get old so soon?
-Revival

****

What the hell do you read next after you finish a book like this!?

While not a full on frontal assault horror novel in the tradition of The Shining or Pet Sematary, Revival definitely ranks as one of the darkest, most unsettling books King has written in a long time. It’s a slow burn that touches on a lot of themes we’ve come to expect from King in his golden years — family, nostalgia, grief and loss. King turned 67 this year and he seems to have reached a point in his life where the “big questions” about what it all means Alfie, and where we all end up are weighing heavy on his mind and heart. It’s inevitable, right? I turned 40 this year, and I know those questions have already started to weigh on me.

This is one of those books I want to peel back layer by layer and dig down deep into its beating heart. King has moved past penning coming-of-age novels to now tackling what happens when we get old. What do our relationships look like to friends, lovers, siblings, parents when we start to lose hair where we want it, and gain it where we don’t? What does a life of regret look like? What does redemption look like?

Stephen King

Stephen King

There is this exploration in Revival in a luxurious, patient way that could only be written by an author of King’s maturity and discipline. It’s been a humbling, emotional experience for me as a Constant Reader to watch how this man’s work and art have aged with him, have reached places only possible because he’s lived this long to keep telling the tales.

I get frustrated sometimes with certain fans (with hearts in the right place) who still want King to be churning out the kind of books he was writing in the 80’s. Some of the best stuff the man has written happened in that decade. No doubt. He was a writing machine. With young kids and a coke habit to boot. But he’s not that man anymore. Decades have come and gone and the writing should be changing to reflect that. Not just the style, but the contents. What King cares about, what he’s come to realize and believe to be true, these are some of the passions that he injects into his writing now. There is a self-awareness and self-reflection that just wasn’t apparent in his earlier novels. I’m not saying one is better than the other, just different, with different rewards to be found and had.

The first three-quarters of this book represent some of the most literary writing King has done over the span of his incredibly long (and hopefully even longer) prolific career. Yes it feels familiar — there is the small Maine town and the coming-of-age elements of young children navigating a threatening and perilous world. But the writing is so rich this time, lyrical even. The doom is laying on the horizon, you can almost glimpse it, but you don’t really know where it’s going to come from. Or when.

One of the things I’ve loved about King over the years is his profound ability to assemble a world and characters that are so very, very normal. They are us. They are him. They are who we know and love. And the world they populate is normal too. Small town USA. Baseball games, apple pie. Rock and roll on the radio. But into this normal world creeps something slimy and sinister. While ordinary life of first loves, car accidents, weddings, births and tinnitus march ever onward, the sinister stays hidden in the shadows, watching and waiting to make its move. It’s all so very fucking normal, until it isn’t.

It’s the rat trap waiting in the dark hole that you just had to stick your hand into. *SNAP*

The last quarter of this book is the snap! and it’s either going to work for you or not. King has written a beautiful dedication (he often does) paying his respects to all those legendary writers of the dark who helped “build his house”. In the pages of Revival the long shadow of their influence live and breathe in Charles Jacobs’ obsession with electricity and his unnatural lifelong quest for answers and revelation. The Bible says: seek and ye shall find. But we must be prepared for the unraveling of the mystery and realize that we are just as likely to fall to our knees in horror as wonder.

To catch a killer

The Shining Girls ★★★
Lauren Beukes
Mulholland Books, 2013
Available June 4th

shininggirls

THE GIRL WHO WOULDN’T DIE HUNTS THE KILLER WHO SHOULDN’T EXIST.

Book Description: A time traveling serial killer. He’s the ultimate hunter, vanishing into another time after each murder, untraceable–until one of his victims survives.

My review: This just might be the hype / ‘it’ book of the summer. Only time will tell. I can say that there’s a lot to love:

1) The main character Kirby is fantastic. She is a survivor (literally), independent, courageous and determined, a bit of a smart ass with a smart mouth. But she’s no mere Mary Sue, possessing vulnerabilities and flaws that make her uniquely “Kirby” and nobody else. I found her funny and totally sympathetic. Quite honestly, the entire novel pivots around her. Without her, the intricate house of cards the author builds would collapse in on itself at the slightest shift.

2) The villain Harper is a skeevy, creepy predator, a wholly horrific construct of misogyny and homicidal tendencies. There isn’t much depth or nuance to this guy — he’s just a walking talking body of hedonistic impulses and demented desires. We don’t get any personal history for him or why he should have become what he’s become. We know some of his twisted motivations derive from the magical qualities of “the House” — but not all of them. You could even argue that “the House” sees the evil in him and draws Harper to itself.

3) It’s about time travel in that tangly mind-fuck way that makes my brain itch, a pleasant buzz but one with bite. The mechanics of the time travel are not explained or explored in the ways they usually are in a sci-fi novel. The time travel just exists. There is a “House” that holds the magic and its door opens onto different years of the same city anywhere from the 1930s to the 1990s. It’s this “House” that allows for a time traveling serial killer, and for that unique premise alone the book deserves a second look.

What can I say? This book has a lot going for it, and I liked it, I liked it a lot. But not once did I free fall over the precipice in love with it. I was intrigued, I played along with the mystery of the time travel, fitting pieces together where I could and trying not to get too caught up in the logic, faulty or otherwise. While Kirby stood out bright as the sun as one of “the Shining Girls”, the rest of Harper’s victims feel underdeveloped by comparison, almost throwaways, mere plot devices. It was hard not to get them mixed up with each other.

I also felt a tad underwhelmed by Kirby’s “hunt” of her attempted killer. The uncovering and following of clues felt clunky, a cobbled together hodge-podge process where results are based more on luck and coincidence than real groundwork and actual “hunting”.

This is largely a plot driven piece and if puzzles and the snake eating its own tail nature of time travel appeals to you then definitely check this out. As I was reading it, I was struck by its cinematic qualities, and won’t be surprised if The Shining Girls gets optioned for the big screen.

There are several cover versions available for this one, and since I suffer from a raging case of cover lust I’ve included them here. The first is the Harper UK edition and the second (my favorite), the Umuzi (Random House) trade paperback.

shining girls 2 shining girls 1(

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