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.

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.

How many lives could you stand to live?

Life After Life ★★★★★
Kate Atkinson
Reagan Arthur Books, 2013
Available Now

lifeafterlife1An Advanced Reader Copy was provided from the publisher through NetGalley.

I’m pretty sure the idea of being forced to live my life over and over again is something plucked from my worst nightmares, but who among us hasn’t been at least tempted to dream of it occasionally with a wistful sigh. Please, please, please, just one more chance to live the best moments again and when necessary, to make different choices? But I would imagine if any of us were actually tasked to unravel all the “right” and “wrong” choices from our life and to relive the bad with the good, we’d go screaming into the night like raving banshees.

For what is a perfect life? How many kicks at the can would it take for you to answer that question, if it is indeed answerable at all? Change one thing, change everything, change nothing, change all the good, change all the bad. Round and round and round. It’s exhausting just thinking about it. What’s the saying? If I only knew then, what I know now…what? What would you do different? And would different choices always translate into better choices?

Ursula is a normal British girl except she’s pretty certain she’s lived her life before, maybe many, many times. The older she gets, the stronger these feelings of deju vu become, hounding her like ghosts in the night. Her prescience is rarely crystal clear, more like moods or instinct. Do this. Don’t do that. Run away. Run toward. Stay still.

Life After Life starts slow and unassuming. The story is teasing, the pacing a dawdling, scenic walk through the English countryside. But from the very first page I was enthralled and little did I realize what a powerful spell Atkinson was casting on my reader brain. Because as you continue to read, the book picks up gravity and speed and texture. Each life after life reinforces the tender bonds you have been working on with each of the characters. Your acquaintance with them is not one brief life, but many, many lives. Like Ursula we are both cursed and blessed with the long view, the big picture. We come to know all the various permutations of death, cruelty, love and loss. We bear witness through two World Wars and how some forces, no matter how forewarned, are unstoppable, greater even than the hand of time.

(more…)

Everfound: Neal Shusterman’s Skinjacker Trilogy a triumph

Everfound (Skinjacker Trilogy #3) ★★★★★
Neal Shusterman
Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 2011

BRAVO! OUTSTANDING! EPIC ADVENTURE! SHEER DELIGHT! HEART STEALING!

HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION!!!

***An open letter to Neal Shusterman (please pardon me while I squee my head off):

Dear Mr. Shusterman (or may I be so bold as to call you Neal?) After completing the Skinjacker Trilogy I do feel like we are old friends and maybe even knew each other in a previous life. Also, I could kiss you smack on the lips and that seems to call for a first-name familiarity.

everfoundMy first introduction to the Everlost realm charmed me to the very tips of my toes and to the very ends of each strand of my hair. The tale’s sheer originality enthralled me from beginning to end. You could say I got lost in Everlost (and loved every nail-biting, white-knuckled moment). There is sadness in this story of dead children who lose their way “into the light” and find themselves stranded in this in-between place. Their journey of discovery is filled with child-like wonder, fear, and yes, even horror. Sometimes, especially horror.

Could the sequel ever live up to its predecessor? I approached it with caution and much trepidation, but what the hell was I worried about? For you, Neal, had so much more in store for your readers yet. What joy to be swept up in an epic adventure! More delectable characters are introduced while the ones we have come to know are pushed even further to their limits. The fascinating world-building continues, the details delicious, the page-turning pace sublime. The tension of Book 2 builds to a crackling crescendo and a maddening cliff-hanger. How long would you make us wait for Book 3???!!!!

Fortunately, not that long (you could teach Mr. George R.R. Martin a thing or two about deadlines I daresay). Everfound is everything it should be and everything I hoped it would be. I don’t say that lightly (though I’m still feeling a little giddy and light-headed in the glow of having just turned the last page). You sir kept such awe-inspiring momentum going through all three books only to ramp it up OFF THE CHARTS in this final installment.

You really were saving the best for last weren’t you, you magnificent bastard? Not once did you have to repeat yourself, not once did you have to milk a great idea for extra points, you STILL had new stuff to show us, you STILL had places to take us that we’ve never been or imagined. I could not guess how it was going to end, I couldn’t even be sure you wouldn’t break my heart. “Edge of my seat” seems too trite and overused an expression, but that’s where I was Neal — on the edge of my seat.

Before I close I would like to sneak in here some of the other elements that make this trilogy so great — how it tackles the meaning of life and what makes life so precious in the first place — that it’s memory and remembrances of things past that make us who we are. Yes, you’ve given us a grand adventure Neal, but you’ve also given us a part of your heart I think. For I feel much love went into these novels, and that I am certain is what makes each of them worth loving right back.

And just in case there was any doubt left — I do love them, all of them, very very much. My sincerest thanks for introducing me to Everlost, taking me on this marvelous adventure, and getting me home safe again.

Forever yours,

Trudi (should we ever meet, you can definitely call me by my first name)

Now for something really different

The Pilo Family Circus ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Will Elliott
Underland Press, 2009 (First published 2006)

“You have two days to pass your audition. You better pass it, feller. You’re joining the circus. Ain’t that the best news you ever got?”

piloWhat a wicked, intoxicating combination of weird, creepy, horrific and funny; the last thing I expected when I picked up this book was to laugh my ass off in parts, doing so was such a bonus. So I can’t say this book is going to be for everyone, but if you’re looking for something truly different, that’s well-written and a bit depraved, then this just might be for you.

The setup: Jamie is a bit of a wanker — a well-meaning guy, but without much ambition or direction in his life. Let’s say he’s surviving by being spectacularly dull, hoping Fate will leave him the hell alone if he keeps flying under the radar unnoticed, unnoticeable. He then makes a stupendous error in judgment when he spies on some nefarious clown activities late one evening and retrieves a small bag one of them discards and brings it home with him.

This act will get him noticed by forces so much worse than Fate — this act gets him noticed by the Pilo Family Circus and once in its clutches, at the mercy of some pretty deranged and hostile clowns, Jamie will be lucky to escape with his life, let alone his sanity. Once trapped on the circus grounds, he is forced to become a clown and he soon discovers much to his dismay that his clown alter-ego — J.J. — is a total dickwad and dangerous to boot. Suddenly Jamie is at war with himself in a twisted, sometimes hysterical battle of wits a la Dr.Jeckyll and Mr.Hyde.

I don’t want to say much more because the delight in this book is not knowing what the hell is going to happen next. Highly recommended!

The Book of Lost Things will enchant you

The Book of Lost Things ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
by John Connolly

High in his attic bedroom, twelve-year-old David mourns the death of his mother, with only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him in the darkness. Angry and alone, he takes refuge in his imagination and soon finds that reality and fantasy have begun to meld. While his family falls apart around him, David is violently propelled into a world that is a strange reflection of his own — populated by heroes and monsters and ruled by a faded king who keeps his secrets in a mysterious book, The Book of Lost Things (Product Description).

book of lostWhat an amazing journey — I absolutely loved this book! For fans of dark fairy tales, quests, and coming-of-age stories, this is a must-read. The Book of Lost Things is so hard to describe — it really does defy categorization — but the reading of it reminded me of Pan’s Labyrinth with a twist of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline thrown in.

The novel stands as a great adventure tale, full of harrowing and terror-filled moments. It also offers some delightfully twisted versions of established fairy tales, rejoices in the power of childhood innocence and celebrates the art of storytelling and the heights of human imagination. For where would we be without the stories we tell each other? Isn’t that what makes us human? While the protagonist is a child, make no mistake, this is NOT a children’s book. Connolly has accomplished something remarkable here. Bravo!

My Name is Memory — Quite the forgettable read

My Name is Memory (2010) ★ ★
by Ann Brashares

Daniel has spent centuries falling in love with the same girl. Life after life, crossing continents and dynasties, he and Sophia (despite her changing name and form) have been drawn together, and he remembers it all. Daniel has “the memory”, the ability to recall past lives and recognize souls of those he’s previously known. It is a gift and a curse. For all the times that he and Sophia have been drawn together throughout history, they have also been torn painfully, fatally, apart. A love always too short (Product Description).

memoryOh my, where to begin. Brashares has taken an amazing idea and just doesn’t deliver. My Name is Memory is supposed to be a grand, sweeping, epic love story that reaches across a thousand years, but I didn’t ever find myself relating to the lovers in any meaningful way, nor did I consider their “soulful” bond convincing. Because it really isn’t. They don’t know each other, so how can they truly love each other?

Lucy doesn’t ever remember anything and Daniel is just plain nutty. He is  consumed by a lustful infatuation that because it’s gone unrequited century after century, grows exponentially in severity (and ludicrousness). He’s a stalker essentially, having built up a centuries-old romance based solely upon a few modest interactions. Lucy/Sophia is all his soul can think about, to the point where Daniel never really lives any of his numerous lives. I just wanted to shake him!

I know sometimes in romances, it’s important to set up “an obstacle” to the lovers — a good, solid reason keeping them apart. The obstacles here are torturous!! You think it’s tough getting “the timing” right in a regular relationship? Also, Daniel’s reluctance to go to Lucy when he has the chance is maddening. His hesitation doesn’t make any sense!!! Nor does his fear and awkwardness — he’d rather watch (stalk!) her from afar than do anything sensible about it. As long as she’s on “his grid” he can breathe easily. You would think after a thousand years to get ready for this, he’d have a plan in place, something to try, rather than sitting back and trying nothing. Argh!! When he finally does make his move, it all happens so fast, and is over so suddenly, I was just left shaking my head in disbelief.

I’m giving the book two stars because while I was immensely disappointed, I did not hate it, and I can see where others who believe in soul mates might find the story enchanting. I was also taken with the idea of souls coming back over and over, and that your mother in one life could come back as your best friend in the next life. I did enjoy Brashares’ exploration of reincarnation, how some souls come back repeatedly, while others burn so bright they live just one life never to return.

Daniel’s burden is a heavy one –- it would be very difficult to live each life anew, if you could remember all the others that came before, and you’re fairly certain there will be more lives to follow. What makes this life so precious is that most of us feel it’s the only one we get, so we better make it count. In many ways, Daniel’s plight is reminiscent of vampires, who live to see centuries pass and are never really a part of the current times. They are “other”–monsters to some–and must live apart and without the connections that make us human. In essence, Daniel is living his life this way; he may die many, many times, but he lives his lives like an immortal – above and apart from the rest of us.

I have a feeling this book will be compared to The Time Traveler’s Wife. Let me tell you that it is nothing like it, and if you pick up My Name is Memory hoping for that, you will be painfully disappointed. Especially if you hate ambiguous / cliffhanger endings.  Rating: ★★

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