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.

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.

A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere

Revival, Volume One: You’re Among Friends (Revival #1) ★★★★
Tim Seely (Story), Mike Norton (Graphic Art)
Image Comics, 2012

Revival 1This is a re-read for me, in preparation of hitting up Volume 2, and I gotta say, I’m still excited about what this series has to offer. It’s a claustrophobic tale set in a quarantined Midwestern town that has recently fallen prey to a rash of re-animations. The dead are coming back to life, but not in the way you think, or with the same dramatic gore and apocalyptic consequences we have come to expect from the walking dead.

This isn’t a traditional zombie tale. First and foremost it’s a story about a cast of characters thrust into a very unusual and distressing situation. What happens when the dead and gone who have been grieved and laid to rest suddenly barge back into our lives again, not just walking, but talking? With needs, and fears, and memories?

What happens when the outside world beyond the borders of your sleepy little town becomes fearful and paranoid and only wants to contain whatever mystery is unfolding in your backyard, holding you under scrutiny and behind roadblocks leaving your town to not only fend for itself but ride out whatever traumas yet to unfold?

Officer Dana Cypress is caught right in the middle of the inexplicable “revivals” along with her sister Martha (or Em) who has a terrible secret. Then there’s the rookie journalist May who senses there’s much more going on in the town than meets the eye.

revival 1 sceneThis is a story that takes its time, and by the end leaves you with way more questions than answers. But the pull of the mystery is so addictive, you’ll be desperate to get your hands on the next volume. It’s a story that’s rich in atmosphere, a creepy-crawly sensation of impending doom, but doom that’s on a more personal scale of individual tragedy, rather than unleashing a free-floating anxiety for the fate of the entire human race.

The graphic art is crisp and clean and terrifying where it needs to be. The nature of small town life is realistically portrayed and the panel after panel of snow and cold had me thinking of Fargo and that a lot can happen in the middle of nowhere. My one complaint is that the three main women characters (Dana, her sister Em, and reporter May) are very similar in appearance, at least at first glance. I was better equipped to tell them apart this time around, but it still took some practice. It’s a shame that they should be artistically rendered so similarly, because as characters, each woman is very different with her own distinctive voice and personality.

Do yourself a favor and give this one a try.

Review: A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash

A Land More Kind Than Home ★★★★★
Wiley Cash
William Morrow, 2012

Trade Paperback

Trade Paperback

This book has everything I love — a Southern setting, secrets, family tragedy, religious zealotry run amok, and strong narrative voices. If I had read it, it would have been an easy four stars. But because I listened to it, and the audio version is one of the best I’ve ever heard, it’s getting five stars.

This is a debut novel — is it flawless? No. But you know what? I didn’t care. I don’t think you will either. I got so swept up and carried away by the story I was being told I was living it. I was right there in that small town watching it all go down with a flutter of anxiety in my stomach, and a lump of sadness in my throat.

What really made me love this story as an audiobook is that we have three narrators read by three different readers– 1) Jess Hall, a precocious nine year old who has a penchant for spying and will eventually see something he wishes he hadn’t that will change his life and the life of his town forever 2) Adelaide Lyle, a feisty old woman who has born witness to much of the town’s history and dark secrets and 3) Clem Barefield, seasoned Sheriff with a painful past who must confront the evil that has taken hold of his town like a cancer.

Getting the story from these three very distinct voices and points of view is fantastic. It makes what is essentially a simple and straight forward story feel richer, more layered and emotional. I loved the reader for the Sheriff. What a fantastic performance. That voice married to the author’s prose is a match made in heaven. In the best ways it reminded me of Tommy Lee Jones’s performance in No Country for Old Men.

A Land More Kind Than Home is set deep in the heart of snake-handling country where you better hope that when the preacher arrives in town, he ain’t the devil in disguise.

Read this book — and if you do the audio thing — listen. You won’t be able to stop, I promise.

And since I have a thing for book trailers, this one does a great job of capturing the edgy, southern Gothic mood of this novel that’s so portent with revelation, betrayals, and tragedy.

This review is also posted to Goodreads.

Recommended Readalikes:

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter | Tom Franklin
The Devil All The Time | Donald Ray Pollock
The Scent of Rain and Lightning | Nancy Pickard

Review: The Burn Palace, Stephen Dobyns

The Burn Palace ★ ★ ★
Stephen Dobyns
Blue Rider Press, 2013
Available Now

Surely fear is the oldest emotion. Not love, not pride, not greed. The emotion urging you to run is older than the one telling you to embrace. ~The Burn Palace

burn palaceLet’s get the Negative Nelly rant out of the way first: I may have just taken too damn long to read this book (it was a hellish work week, and I couldn’t seem to find the time needed to just attack the book and submerse myself in it the way it demands). It starts out really strong — with a great premise — but somewhere along the way, Dobyns has created so many colorful characters and so many plot threads that the book begins to unravel and stall, rather than gain momentum and tightly coil for the final climactic reveal.

I am officially diagnosing this novel with Attention Deficit Disorder. Because there are so many leads to uncover and investigate, as well as so many people to get to know within the borders of this sleepy little Rhode Island town, the narration flits about quickly often jerkily with no discernible pattern, from character to character, plot point to plot point — a busy bee desperate to pollinate ALL the flowers in the garden.

Dobyns almost pulls it off. Parts of this novel work extremely well, but it is messy and misdirected in too many places and dare I say a little bit of the investigation starts to feel like an episode of Scooby-Doo. Alright, that’s harsh. I should retract that.

Dobyns has proven in the past he has the writing chops to create memorable characters and capture the psychology of small towns besieged by fear and paranoia. What didn’t work for me here, worked exceedingly well I thought in The Church of Dead Girls. The difference between that book and this one comes down to narration. While Dead Girls introduces almost as many characters, I feel the story benefits tremendously from the voice of a single narrator telling the story in first-person. It gives the novel a cohesiveness and determined direction that this one seems lacking in.

Okay, those are my complaints. Here are some things I enjoyed, because overall, I did like this book very much. When I did get the time to sit with it for a few hours, I found it casting a spell over me. The descriptive prose sucked me into the streets and lives of Brewster, Rhode Island. Stephen King has been very supportive of Dobyns in the past, blurbing his books, and this time is no different. King writes:

“I entered the small-town world Stephen Dobyns creates with such affection, horror, and fidelity….Dobyns has always been good, but this book is authentically great. The characters are vivid originals, not a stereotype among them, and the story pulled this reader in so completely that I didn’t want the book to end, and actually did go back to re-read the first chapter.”

Super generous, yes? Reading Dobyns you can definitely sense a “King vibe” going on and it is not a stretch to say that Dobyns has been influenced by King’s New England tales of the macabre and small town sinister shenanigans. Dobyns appears to be paying homage to King specifically here with such references as:

  • The novel opens with a baby being stolen from hospital room 217. Later, an abusive father states: “No boy likes to be corrected.” (The Shining)
  • One of the lead detectives is named Bobby Anderson. (The Tommyknockers)
  • Another main character describes reading The Shining, Cujo and The Dark Half.

Okay, small things to be sure, but they jumped out at me despite that and made me smile.

I also really enjoyed how the kids are written in this story. They are quirky and precocious without coming off as bratty and annoying. They are King-worthy kids, the highest compliment I can pay. I just wish there had been more of them and less of some of the other plot threads.

So that’s it. If only I had more glowing praise to offer. This is a dense book that demands your attention and patience. If you like a challenge, and lots of colorful characters, you may just love this. Dobyns is a great writer and I would never discourage anyone from picking up one of his books.

***Review of ARC provided by publisher through NetGalley.

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