The Fireman, by Joe Hill / *****

the-firemanIt would be so, so easy (and so unfair) to dismiss Joe Hill as operating in the shadow of his father, Stephen King. In many ways, Hill has felt like he’s been more and more consciously following in his father’s footsteps as of late, with aspects of NOS4A2 echoing the horrific mystical powers of It, and now with The Fireman calling back to elements of The Stand and The Mist. And I’m sure that in some corners of the internet, you’ll find people complaining about that very thing.

And those people couldn’t be more wrong if they tried, because to say that Hill is just copying his father is to ignore the boundless imagination on display, the willingness to push boundaries, to constantly let his stories evolve and change in front of your eyes. Because, sure, The Fireman is a piece of horror about the end of the world and the communities that spring up as a way of staying alive and maintaining hope. But that’s about where the similarities end, and where Hill’s astonishing creativity comes into play.

The Fireman is about a horrific plague spreading across the country, one that causes people to burst into flames spontaneously, and only seems to be spreading unabated. Exactly what causes this, as well as the more…unusual…effects will become clear over the course of the book; indeed, part of what makes the book great is the way Hill constantly lets our understanding of the illness evolve over the course of the book, all while never letting us forget about the nightmarish death that awaits those infected. But as the novel opens, the disease is just getting started; before long, the country is falling apart, people are in a panic, and the infected are hiding in an effort to stay alive.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot of the novel; one of the great joys of the book is the way that Hill is constantly reinventing it, changing it from one type of a story to another. It’s a horror story, and then a survival tale, and then it’s a community tale, and then a Shirley Jackson-esque tale of paranoia (and I love the nods to Jackson throughout the book, including a great reference to The Haunting of Hill House), and then…well, you’ll see. Whatever the case, The Fireman isn’t what you expect it to be, and every time you get settled into one kind of story, Hill’s going to toss you a curveball and put you somewhere else.

That willingness to blow up the story and change directions makes The Fireman incredibly engaging, absolutely riveting, and astonishingly intense. There’s a constant sense of danger running throughout the book, an awareness that Hill doesn’t seem to play by the rules, and we could lose anything at any point. It gives every scene, every showdown, an added menace and unease, and keeps the reader guessing as to what’s next. It also makes his villains truly dangerous and horrifying; it’s worth noting here that The Fireman contains one of the characters I’ve hated more than any character in recent memory, and whose death I couldn’t have rooted for more.

And yet, even those villains are given complex stories, detailed personalities, and come to life wholly. Hill makes every character come to life, no matter how minor, and creates a vivid world out of these personalities, letting the story be driven by his characters, not the machinations of the author. Whether it’s a sneering talk-radio host, a benevolent father figure, a religious zealot, or our protagonist’s husband, Hill gives every character depth, shading, nuance, and shades of gray, to where even that detestable villain is almost pathetic with psychological damage.

More than anything else, though, there’s Harper, our heroine. An elementary school nurse turned expectant mother, Harper is a rich female character, something that Hill seems to do a better job with than most. In a genre where women either become cannon fodder or the “Final Girl,” Hill brings his heroines to vivid, fully realized life, letting them be people as capable of agency as any other, and letting their gender inform the story while rarely making it pure text. Indeed, Hill avoids easy dichotomies; for every MRA-type villain, he tosses in a genuinely good man; for every religious zealot, there’s a reminder of what church and religion should be.

It all makes for satisfying fiction, not only as a reader who appreciates depth and complexity, but one who loves horror and thrills. Because trust me – when things start going bad, Hill more than delivers, with an extended showdown ending up as one of the most intense and riveting showpieces in recent memory, one that rivals the famed “Halloween Night” section of his father’s 11/22/63. How good is it? I needed a break after reading it just to catch my breath and calm down. Seriously.

The short version is, The Fireman is incredible. It’s absolutely riveting, constantly imaginative, filled with rich characters, written beautifully, and surprisingly emotionally complex, all while still being a solid piece of apocalyptic fiction with elements of horror in it. In short, it’s the best thing Joe Hill has written yet – and when your works include NOS4A2Locke and Key, and 20th Century Ghosts, that’s no small feat. Miss this one at your own peril, people.

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The Twelve, by Justin Cronin / **** ½

13281368The Passage, Justin Cronin’s first novel in a trilogy, introduced us to a horrific post-apocalyptic world, one created when a military experiment went horribly awry, unleashing a vampiric plague that decimated the human race. Over the course of that book, Cronin gave us a window into the civilizations that had built back up nearly 100 years later, and watched as they began to fight back against the wave of nightmarish creatures that controlled their lives. It was thrilling, imaginative stuff, and a book that hinted at much larger ambitions than you might have expected. (I recently re-read it; you can read my review here if you like.)

Now comes The Twelve, which follows in its predecessor’s footsteps by giving us a far more sprawling timeframe than we might expect. The Twelve doesn’t just continue the story of The Passage; it also flashes back to the early days of the plague, giving us a sense of what happened after the initial outbreak we saw in The Passage, as well as helping us to understand the seeds that have been planted that are bearing fruit nearly a century later. That’s ambitious stuff, and indeed, much of  The Twelve seems like an effort to create something even stranger and more ambitious than its predecessor, as our heroes find themselves in a remarkably bizarre post-apocalyptic community, we start to learn more about the Twelve (the original hosts for the virus), and our characters develop in unexpected ways – most notably Amy, whose eternally young body is beginning to show signs of change that are troubling indeed.

Yes, it’s a fair point to notice that The Twelve feels like it’s borrowing from all kinds of books, most notably The Stand in its theatrical, showy climax. And yet, none of that really detracts from the fact that it all works – it’s exciting, scary, involving, and incredibly rich, and a lot of that is thanks to how much time Cronin spends with his characters. Even characters who have little more than glorified cameos get depth and nuance, whether they be villain or hero, and that investment makes just about every death count to us, even when they’ve only just arrived in the book. More than that, though, it elevates the stakes beyond the usual “life or death” stakes of so much post-apocalyptic fiction; there are genuine emotional stakes as well, as characters realize that there’s more to life than just living – there’s love, ideals, and hope that all matter just as much, if not more.

More than any of that, though, The Twelve also brings out some truly fascinating new characters, most notably Lila, a doctor whose involvement with the virals and nearly simultaneous mental breakdown combine to make her one of the most dangerous and tragic characters of the series. Often completely unable to distinguish her carefully constructed fantasies from reality, Lila could easily be played as a nightmarish villain, one whose deranged worldview and astonishing powers makes her a potent threat. But in Cronin’s hands, Lila becomes something more human and sympathetic, while never detracting from the danger and power she represents. In many ways, that’s The Twelve in a nutshell. What could be a simple tale of epic good versus epic evil instead becomes something more nuanced, emotional, rich, and ultimately satisfying. And if it’s a little derivative in parts, that’s more than made up for by the skill with which it’s all put together, and the characters with which Cronin populates his book.

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Hamilton: A Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter / *****

6hkj46hA few days back, I wrote a piece to try to explain how much I love Lin-Manuel Miranda’s astonishing musical Hamilton, despite the fact that I’ve never seen it. It’s not a love that’s died down over the past few weeks – indeed, it’s only continued to grow – so it’s no surprise that I picked up Hamilton: A Revolution, which tells the story of the writing of the musical, as well as providing Miranda’s annotations for all of the show’s songs and lyrics.

Hamilton: A Revolution is unabashedly a book that’s written to capitalize on the show’s popularity, as well as the difficulty in seeing it. Filled with pictures of the production, the cast, the props, and more, the book provides a bit of soothing balm for those of us out in the rest of America who probably won’t ever get to see the show on Broadway, and definitely not while Miranda is still playing the lead role. The fact that the book alternates between short essays and songs from the show allows the pictures to nicely complement the text at all times, giving the reader a sense of how the show might play out, and giving us the chance to pair images with the songs that so many of us already know by heart. More than that, though, they give you a sense of the care that went into the staging of the show; from the set to the costuming, from the insanely detailed props to the intricate stage layout, the book conveys the fact that the show is every bit as carefully crafted and intricately constructed as the album and the songs.

The essays only serve to back this up, too. By and large, the essays serve as a chronological tracking of the birth of the show, beginning with Miranda’s initial songs, moving through the famous White House performance, and following the story all the way through the premiere and beyond. Meanwhile, the book’s structure – the aforementioned alternating between songs and essays  – allows some essays to pair more directly with certain songs, focusing on key roles, casting decisions, historical craft, and more. It all comes together to make something more than your usual “behind the scenes” book, instead giving you a rich portrait of the show, the history, the key players, and more.

But let’s be clear: the main draw for many people (myself included) are the lyrics and annotations by Miranda. Even with all the time I’ve spent on Genius reading the show’s annotations can’t replace the glee of reading the lyrics in a beautifully made book, and getting to savor all of Miranda’s wonderful prose – the wordplay, the historical allusions, the shout-outs to old school rap and Broadway staples, all of it. And better still are Miranda’s annotations, which eschew the things I already knew in favor of personal commentary, silly asides, mentions of his favorite parts of the show, and more. Rather than just being a director’s commentary sort of thing, the annotations feel more personal and engaging, giving me the sense once again that Miranda isn’t just unfairly brilliant; he’s also funny, engaging, thoughtful, and incredibly personable.

I could also mention how beautiful the book is – not just the pictures, but the beautiful cover, the intentionally “ancient” feel that makes it feel like a Revolutionary War tome – but really, here’s the thing. Do you love Hamilton? If the answer is “yes,” then you’ll really love this. If the answer is “no”…well, what’s wrong with you, then? (Acceptable answers include “I haven’t heard it” and…well, that’s about it.)

Amazon

The X-Factor: Confessions of a Naive Fashion Model, by Ivan Sivec / *** ½

510lhms1mjl-_sx311_bo1204203200_One of the advantages of getting review copies of books is that it forces me out of my comfort zone sometimes. If it were up to me, there’s a lot of books that I probably never would have read in the first place, and sometimes, being given a book that’s out of my usual wheelhouse allows me to expand my horizons, or at least take a shot on something that I wouldn’t be motivated to do. Such is the case with The X-Factor, the story of a young Slovenian woman who enters into the high-risk, high-reward fashion industry, only to be chewed up and spat out by the horrific machine that keeps the industry moving along. There’s not much about the fashion industry that interests me, and the subject matters sounded a bit lurid…and yet, I try to stay open minded, and try out review copies that I normally wouldn’t. And, to be fair, while the idea of the fashion industry isn’t really that compelling to me, the idea of seeing it through the perspective of a Slovenian woman? That’s more so.

So let’s get the bad out of the way first. As an American reader, it’s painfully obvious at times that Sivec isn’t a native English language speaker, and whether that’s evident because of the translation, or because of Sivec himself, I can’t say. What I can say is that there’s a lot of awkward language throughout the book. It’s never to the point where you’re lost, or where it sounds truly awful, but it never quite flows together in the way the best writing does. Again, maybe that’s Sivec’s writing; maybe that’s the translation. But whichever it is, there’s no denying that this is a book that feels like it needs some polishing and tweaking to make it flow more smoothly and naturally, at least from a dialect and dialogue perspective.

And yet, Sivec has a surprisingly engaging voice, one that displays a lot more confidence and willingness to play with language than many authors. Interrupting his own story to comment on it, interjecting different forms of writing, acting as his own Greek chorus, Sivec’s writing is more engaging and interesting than I was expecting, and it kept me reading the story more than I really planned on at times. The story is about what you expect, as models get used and abused, exploited, hooked on drugs, and so forth – in other words, about what you’d expect from everything you’ve heard about the fashion industry. But Sivec tells it with a good pace and some interesting characters that keep us engaged, hoping for the best even as we’re realizing the worst.

The X-Factor isn’t ever going to be on my “best books” list by any means. The story is a little familiar, the writing occasionally awkward, and so forth. But it’s a book that I went into with fairly low expectations only to be pleasantly surprised by how engaging and interesting I found it; even with those flaws, I mostly enjoyed it, and it’s a novel window into an aspect of life in foreign countries that many of us never consider.

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The Passage, by Justin Cronin / **** ½

6690798I first read The Passage back in 2011, not long after it had come out. You can read my original take here, but the short version is, I was blown away. This was Cronin’s first foray into the horror genre, and he was taking a big risk; not content with doing a simple horror story, he instead decided to create a horror epic, one in which the world ends and humanity’s very survival is at stake. That’s a gutsy move; the fact that he chose to make the novel about vampires even more so, given how vaguely weary so many people were/are of them. And if all that isn’t enough, Cronin ups his own difficulty by the sheer scope of what he’s attempting: he’s telling not only an apocalyptic tale, but a post-apocalyptic one as well, and beyond that, frames that post-apocalyptic tale with hints of a world yet to come looking back at that story as it unfolds (“unfolded,” perhaps?)

I never got around to reading the second book in the series, The Twelve; it wasn’t a lack of interest, just a matter of time. But with the third (and final) book in the series soon to come out, it seemed like the perfect time to catch up on the series, after I took the time to re-acquaint myself with Cronin’s world.

In most ways, The Passage holds up incredibly well. The opening third of Cronin’s novel sets up its characters wonderfully, creating a world and establishing its dynamics carefully, and often indirectly, with asides about major events, throwaway remarks about political situations, and more. It makes it all the more impressive when the book transforms into something wholly else midway through, becoming a post-apocalyptic tale that basically skips the apocalypse. It’s here, in the main thrust of the book, that Cronin’s tale really soars, for many of the same reasons that the beginning works so well – his ability to create characters, his knack for world-building that avoids exposition dumps, his gift for dialogue and complex interactions. Indeed, much of the joy of The Passage comes from realizing just how intricately Cronin has thought out his bizarre, fractured world; there’s a true sense of coming in halfway through the story, and Cronin’s willingness to trust the reader pays off beautifully. (That goes double for the hints about the “future” world that’s looking back on this one, which offers even more implications and hints.)

Cronin’s episodic plotting generally holds up nicely as well, although there are some aspects that show the hand of the author at work than I remember. The Passage is narratively tight to a fault at times; there’s a late-novel revelation about a particular viral (the book’s name for its bestial, horrific version of vampires) that feels a bit much, and at least one character’s collision with her past feels a bit out of nowhere. And yet, it makes for compelling drama, as Cronin allows the characters and their emotions to often drive the action beyond the mechanics of plot. Yes, he may put people where they need to be, but beyond that, it’s their emotions and reactions and drive what unfolds from there.

More than that, though, The Passage is effectively, genuinely scary, creating a rich version of vampiric lore that leads to some truly haunting moments, maybe none more memorable and disturbing than a series of nightmares that begins hitting everyone in a colony after a mysterious arrival. Cronin tailors each nightmare to individual characters, and that choice makes them all the more distressing, as we see reactions ranging from erotic to childlike, from mature to terrified and beyond. Those are matched every bit as well by some of his more “action” oriented sequences, which remind you when you least expect it of why these monsters are such a threat.

The Passage is gripping, fascinating stuff; if I’m more aware of a couple of small flaws than I was on the first read, that’s balanced out by reading it knowing that this is the first book in a trilogy. It’s more clear now that Cronin is both telling a compelling, complete story and setting up something larger, and that’s hard work; to do so while creating a world, interesting characters, an epic scope, and make it all scary? That’s almost unthinkable. But he succeeds, and then some; now, let’s see how he handles the dreaded “middle book” syndrome with The Twelve.

Amazon

Green Room (2015) / **** ½

green-room-poster1If you’ve read my reviews for any length of time, you’ll be aware that I have a tendency to bring up Roger Ebert’s first rule of movies: “A movie is not about what it is about; it is about how it goes about it.” It’s an essential rule for any serious film fan or cinephile to remember, and one that often shapes my reactions to films. After all, how many action films have the same story? How many YA films, especially these days, mirror the same tropes? But the execution, the way the story is told, the way it’s all put together and acted and filmed – that’s what makes a movie good or bad, ultimately.

Which brings us to Jeremy Saulnier’s tense, unnerving, brutal little gem, Green Room. I’ve yet to see Saulnier’s previous film, the acclaimed revenge flick Blue Ruin, but I’ve been waiting eagerly to see Green Room ever since I first heard the description. Inspired heaving by John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13Green Room follows a young punk band as they find themselves trapped backstage, surrounded by a group of neo-Nazis who are, let’s say, concerned about this band’s presence. And it becomes clear very quickly that the safest way for this to all end, if you were to ask the skinheads, is for all of this band to simply…disappear. Permanently.

That’s a great setup for a film; add in Saulnier’s already impressive reputation and a great cast – most notably Patrick Stewart as the leader of the skinhead group – and you’ve got something that sounds absolutely fascinating and compelling. And all of the early buzz had me even more excited to check it out.

So why did I bring up Ebert’s rule? Because ultimately, what makes Green Room great isn’t the story. The story isn’t much more complex than that general outline I gave you above. Sure, there’s the inciting incident, and there’s one minor revelation that comes about halfway through the film…but really, Green Room is pretty simple. The band is trapped backstage. The skinheads are violent, and armed. The band has nothing. And they need to survive.

In Saulnier’s hands, the tension builds and builds until we just about can’t take it anymore. Saulnier slowly puts us into the life of the band, letting us get a sense of their personalities in a broad sense, the banter, the characterization. In short, he makes us like them – but more than that, we get a sense of who does what in the band, and who might be able to hold their own if and when things go bad. And even once the skinheads enter the film, Saulnier lets things simmer, teasing us with flare-ups and issues, then letting tensions build and people start digging into position. It’s carefully, cautiously paced, and it may lead you to wonder if this is going to be House of the Devil all over again – tons of buildup, no payoff.

And then the knives and box cutters come out.

I’m not going to sugarcoat this: Green Room is brutal, gang. It’s not non-stop brutality, but it’s pretty constant, and it establishes the stakes very, very quickly, and then never backs down. This isn’t sugar-coated violence; people die, and they die real badly, and the efforts to survive end up escalating things in horrific ways that are hard to forget. And Saulnier builds the unease, tension, claustrophobia, and desperation expertly, using the geography of the club, the constant threat, the calm iciness of Stewart’s leader, and so much more to just keep things unrelentingly tense and unbearable, all the way to the end.

And yet, that’s what makes Green Room so effective. Saulnier has a simple but effective story, but the joy – and success – of this film lies in the execution. His cast delivers fantastic performances, all of which convey the threat, the terror, the calm, or the bravado of each character, and adds to the complex game of chess that’s unfolding in front of us. More to the point, though, there’s Saulnier’s careful, effective direction, which neatly established the geography and geometry of the scene, so that we’re always aware of who’s where, who’s got the advantage, and so much more. It’s a simple thing, but one that could easily be this film’s undoing, and instead becomes one of its greatest strengths.

Look, Green Room is genre fare, through and through; it’s a thriller that’s borderline a horror film, and a relentlessly intense one at that. But if that sounds like your kind of film – if you’re up for something that’s equal parts Die HardThe Raid, and Panic Room – you’re going to love this thing. Nasty, brutal, smart, and brilliantly made.

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