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.

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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”

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.

Book Review: HUSK by J. Kent Messum

Husk ★★★★
J. Kent Messum
Penguin 2015

husk_messumOctober Country 2015 #1

Eeek! I’m already behind on my October reading (let alone reviewing) but wanted to make sure I drew this one to your attention.

HUSK (which every time I see that title I’m overcome with the urge to shout “Tusk!”) is not horror per se, but it is a thrilling, page-turning nightmare vision of the near future. Reading this I couldn’t help be reminded of King’s early Bachman books, especially The Running Man. Both are set in a bleak future where people are struggling to eat and live, so much so that it is driving them to do desperate, dangerous things for money.

In HUSK’s case, people are being driven to “rent out” their bodies to the very, very rich — the 1% of the 1% — to inhabit and do with as they please for periods of up to 72 hours. I don’t even like to lend someone my jacket or use my bathroom. Imagining someone taking over my body and using it up in any porny, germy, physically punishing way they can think of gives me the heebie jeebies. Unclean! Unclean!

As if all the drug-fueled orgies and exposure to all kinds of STD’s isn’t bad enough, not to mention the cuts and bruises and dehydration and sheer exhaustion from lack of sleep (talk about being rode hard and put away wet), our protagonist Rhodes begins to suspect his body is being used for more sinister and nefarious purposes. ::cue ominous music::

It’s especially worrisome when other Husks begin to show up dead or missing.

All the elements are present and accounted for here to make for a gripping read. Messum — author of the unputdownable BAIT — has a keen sense of where the pressure points of tension live in his story and how to exploit them. This isn’t as fast or burning a read as BAIT — it takes its time a bit more with world-building and character development and unraveling the mystery at the heart of the story, but these are all good things.

It wasn’t surprising for me to read then that HUSK’s been optioned by a UK company to adapt into a television series. The tone and themes are very similar to another show I adore and can’t wait to get more of — Black Mirror. That HUSK would make a great Black Mirror episode is probably the highest praise I can give it.

***The author was gracious enough to provide me with a free copy for review.

About the author:
Official Website
Twitter: @_JamieK_

Also available:

bait

New Nick Cutter book is a mad mélange of literary ingredients

The Acolyte ★★★★
Nick Cutter
Chizine Publications
Available May 5, 2015

The Acolyte (2015), Chizine

The Acolyte (2015), Chizine

Maybe there’s a God above,
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

It’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not someone who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and broken Hallelujah

~ Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen

I don’t know how to describe the mad, dark, mash-up genius contained in the pages of Nick Cutter’s upcoming release The Acolyte — but I’ve found myself in a similar state of speechlessness with other titles released by the incomparable ChiZine Publications. Their motto is Embrace the Odd and embrace it they do with abandon. ChiZine’s book covers alone are enough to send this bibliophile into paroxysms of delight. Here are a few of my favorites:


ChiZine has also recently gotten into the graphic novel game and I adore this cover too:

Let me wrap up the fangirling over cover art to conclude that ChiZine is a wickedly weird and dangerous publishing house ruthlessly seeking out unique voices in speculative fiction. There is nothing safe or sanitized or boring about them. And while I’m not always in the mood to enter into the wacky landscapes they pimp, I’m very grateful that they exist, and very proud that they are Canadian.

Craig Davidson (aka Nick Cutter)

Craig Davidson (aka Nick Cutter)

Nick Cutter (a pseudonym for Craig Davidson) blasted onto the horror scene in 2014 with The Troop — the book Stephen King declared scared the hell out of him. For the record, it scared the hell out of me too. In January, Cutter followed up with an equally gripping and richly written sci-fi horror novel The Deep.

Fans of either or both of those books should not expect the same kind of story in The Acolyte. I’m not surprised it was ChiZine who published it for him because it is an odd, intense mixture of horror, police procedural, dystopia, and noir. It is violent, contemplative, thematic, and disturbing. It’s not a book you ‘enjoy’ or ‘savor’: it is one you endure and survive.

And that’s all I’m going to say about it. Read the plot summary if you want, but it’s not going to help prepare you for what lies in wait in its pages. If you are feeling adventurous and brave, and want a taste of something not so mainstream that will take you off the beaten path into a darker part of the forest, then by all means take The Acolyte home with you.

An advanced reading copy was provided by the publisher for review.

Check out more horror from Nick Cutter:

troop-usthedeepcutter

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.

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