God is Disappointed in You, by Mark Russell and Shannon Wheeler / ****

may131278-_sx360_ql80_ttd_Whatever you might think of it, and despite it being one of the most influential books ever written (and how many people name it as their “favorite book”), you would be hard pressed to argue that the Bible remains one of the least read “important” books ever written. That’s not to say that people don’t study it, or dig into certain passages or sections – but the idea of actually studying the text, of reading the book from cover to cover, rarely seems to happen. And that’s understandable, given how often the Bible reflects its ancient roots, diving into the intricacies of scriptural doctrine, long family histories, historical records, and more.

All of which makes God Is Disappointed in You such an interesting idea. What author Mark Russell (along with contributions from cartoonist Shannon Wheeler) has done is retell the Bible, reducing each book to a few pages and summarizing it as though it were a story (or, in the case of Psalms, a greatest hits album; meanwhile, Hebrews becomes an FAQ about doctrinal changes). Moreover, he does so with a sharp sense of humor, telling the stories with a flair for the comic, up to and including a bit more profanity than you might expect from a telling of the Bible (where, honestly, you would assume a level of pretty close to “zero”).

The outcome is undoubtedly “irreverent,” but never to the level of “blasphemous” or “disrespectful”. What makes God Is Disappointed in You so interesting is the fact that Russell treats the Bible with admiration and respect; his humor comes from his dialogue, his phrasing, and the text itself, not from assuming a mocking tone towards the text itself. Rather, he conveys the anger and frustration that God and/or the prophets so often feel, turning the book into the history of a people loved by a God that they cannot remain faithful to. It’s equal parts comical and profound, allowing Russell to grapple with the major questions and ideas of the book while removing the sidebars and extra details.

The result, no doubt, will still offend purists, and those who feel, to quote a bumper sticker I once saw, that “if it ain’t King James, it ain’t the Bible.” But that’s a shame, because God is Disappointed in You is more respectful, thoughtful, and heartfelt than you might expect from the summary I’m giving you. Yes, it’s done with humor; yes, it has some profanity in there. And yet, it’s also a faithful recapping of every single book in the Bible, conveying the stories, the lessons, the parables, and the meanings, all in a modern dialogue and with a sense of fun. That’s an admirable goal. And if God Is Disappointed in You doesn’t always seem to know what it’s trying to do – if it can’t always strike that balance between humor, religion, and seriousness – that’s okay. (Same goes for Wheeler’s drawings, which are fun but feel like they’re thrown into the book without much purpose.) It’s a pretty daunting task that Russell has taken on, and the fact that it works as well as it does – and might lead to people actually reading this “most influential” book – makes it a worthwhile endeavor.

The fact that it’s pretty entertaining and enjoyable? Even better, and the main reason I recommend it.

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Little Heaven, by Nick Cutter / *****

little-heaven-9781501104213_hrI’ve been telling people that Nick Cutter’s new horror epic Little Heaven reads as though Cormac McCarthy was inspired to write a horror novel after reading Stephen King’s It, and while that seems like I’m being hyperbolic, I assure you, that’s not the case. Little Heaven finds Cutter mimicking McCarthy’s voice in many ways – including old-fashioned, uncontracted dialogue, baroque descriptions, and more – but also aping the master’s content. Because in no small way, Little Heaven feels like a neo-Western, the story of three hired guns who get brought in to rescue a boy in distress from a hostile compound, only to end up far out of their depth as horrors emerge. The fact that the book takes place in the 1960’s and 80’s is irrelevant; this feels like the story of hard men (and women) on the verge of normal civilization. More than that, as is the case so often with McCarthy, these characters live in a morally complex world, one governed by violence, their own internal codes, and their own bleak, vicious worldviews.

And yet, there’s no denying the influence of It on Little Heaven either. Taking place across two time periods, Cutter cuts back and forth between the two. He opens in the 1980’s, years after these gunfighters’ initial confrontation with some imaginable evil, only to find that evil awakening again and coming back for them. Even early on, though, Cutter shows that he’s doing something different with the story, hinting that our characters didn’t just gain nightmares and trauma from that 1960’s encounter; they’ve gained something awful, some Faustian deal that’s hurt them more than helped. And as Cutter begins to dive into the story of what happened in the 1960’s – the effort to rescue a young boy from a religious compound run by an increasingly paranoid preacher – we start to see that this isn’t only a story about supernatural evil, but about the evil within men, as well.

Ultimately, that’s the answer to the fact of what makes Little Heaven so good, and so rich. If all the book did was ape It or McCarthy, it might be fun, but it wouldn’t be as phenomenal as Little Heaven is. Instead, Cutter’s story plunges us deeper and deeper into madness, slowly increasing the level of horror around the characters and never letting up. More than that, though, he spends as much time in the head of his human villains as he does our heroes, turning the story into something more disturbing than it might be otherwise. Is this a tale of a religious cult corrupted by a primal evil, or about an evil man who crosses an unspeakable line? It’s hard to know which would be less disturbing, and to Cutter’s credit, he doesn’t give us an easy answer.

Because, yes, this religious compound in the woods is surrounded by something dark, malevolent, and unspeakable. But what’s going on the compound itself is no less horrific, as children begin disappearing, and people turn the other way, never wanting to acknowledge what’s happening. Whether that’s because they’re blinded by faith, or something supernatural, doesn’t matter; what matters is that it happens. It says more than a little bit that it’s hard to know what Cutter’s most horrific creation is: the shapeshifting, surreal horrors in the woods, or the disturbed villains we keep seeing…or even our heroes themselves, whose lives of violence and brutality are part of their lives.

Cutter is known as a brutal, go-for-broke horror writer, and Little Heaven is no exception to that rule; this is surreal, disturbing, and truly scary, and that’s before we get to how black-hearted and upsetting the core of the book is. More than that, Cutter follows his dark story to its logical conclusion, giving us darker deeds than even Pennywise managed, and making his heroes more complicit and less of a symbol of good. Combining that with the horrific end of the Little Heaven compound, and the result is a horror novel that gets not only under your skin, but may viscerally upset you in no small way. And for me to say that about a horror novel…well, that’s no small feat.

Here’s the final verdict: this is a searing, vicious, brutal horror novel, one that marries McCarthy’s stark prose and world with an ambitious, strange story of evil, sacrifice, and faith. And, yes, it owes much to its inspirations…but it also stands on its own, turning those inspirations into something new, something more than the sum of their parts, and creating something visceral and effective. It won’t be for all tastes – it’s wonderfully literate and careful, and too extreme for many – but for those on board with its efforts, they’ll be rewarded and then some.

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Hometaker, by Dean F. Wilson / ****

33234223And so, Dean F. Wilson’s “Great Iron War” series comes to an end. This is a series that’s undeniably grown on me over the course of its length; while I enjoyed the first novel in many ways, I couldn’t help but feel that Wilson wasn’t giving us enough backstory, enough depth, to really make the series work. Yes, there was a war; yes, there was an invading race, referred to as the “Demons”, but they felt faceless and unknowable. The action was great, the world interesting, but it was hard to invest yourself in this world, given that Wilson seemed so committed to a minimum of exposition.

And yet, over the course of these six books, Wilson slowly fleshed out his world, revealing new races and characters, exploring the hidden depths of his often sprawling cast, and turning the invading race into something more complex and interesting than I ever would have expected. Even better, he did it without ever really changing his style – he writes economically, clearly, and lets the story reveal itself through the characters, their dialogue, and the necessities of the plot. And over the course of the six volumes – each named after a key device around which that section of the war revolves – Wilson broadened his scope beautifully, letting us see more and more of his characters, investing us in their fates, and grappling with the hard questions that I had often assumed he was ignoring. Just what are the “demons”, and are they all as bad as we thought? What happens when the war is over? How do you win a war when they have corrupted children? And so much more – Wilson turned out to have thought about them, and let the story slowly grow to take them all on.

Hometaker is a satisfying ending to the series – have no worries for a vague or cryptic conclusion to things here. There is a decisive final confrontation, a conclusive ending to things, even while Wilson lets his world exist beyond the boundaries of the page. For all of that, it sometimes becomes a bit rushed; for the first time, the “Hometaker” device feels less critical to the plot, more of a plot device to get our characters where they need to be. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – especially not when it delivers on a gripping three-pronged battle plan that takes up much of the book, brings great action, and constantly ramps up the tension – but what it means is that the stakes of this book are a little harder to grasp. Yes, this is the final book, and the final battle – but what, exactly, are they hoping to accomplish with this final raid? We’re never quite told, not clearly. More than that, while the final confrontation is deeply satisfying and nicely concludes the story, it feels like something our characters lucked into, not planned for; for the first time, Wilson’s plotting feels a bit rushed and vague, as though there are machinations and manipulations we weren’t present for. In other words, sometimes it feels as if the final confrontation happened not because the story led to it, but because Wilson needed it to happen, and that’s a bit frustrating.

None of that, however, really prevents the book from being gripping and exciting, as I’ve come to expect from this series. The action, as always, is riveting throughout, and told beautifully, and Wilson has invested us enough in these characters that the deaths throughout this book, the sacrifices, and the reveals hit us more than I would have ever expected from the first book, two years ago. More than that, there’s a genuinely satisfying ending, as Wilson leaves us time to see where the story is beginning to lead after this has all ended, letting us feel like there’s a world that will continue after this series ends. Is this final entry a little bit more rushed than the rest, a little more forced? Yes – but just a little. In general, it’s a satisfying, solid entry in a rich steampunk war series that I’m far more glad I read than I ever would have expected at the beginning of it all.

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The Sandman: Overture, by Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III / *****

51mk9h-qq4l-_sy344_bo1204203200_It’s been several years since I read Neil Gaiman’s astonishing, sprawling, ambitious The Sandman – long enough that even though much of it instantly impressed itself on me permanently, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to properly appreciate his long-awaited prequel, The Sandman: Overture. Many prequels rely so heavily on dramatic irony – on us knowing where the story goes – that to approach them as an independent tale is folly and absurdity. Moreover, that over-reliance on foreshadowing and setting things up is often their undoing, as there’s little sense of life or spirit to a prequel; instead, it’s all inevitability and putting things into place.

Luckily, Overture suffers from none of that delivering an exhilarating, surreal tale that manages to set up the opening of the landmark series while still functioning as its own exciting, unpredictable story. Indeed, one could almost approach it before you read the series, and it would work fine; then again, that means being thrown into Gaiman’s complex, labyrinthine mythology without much of a guide, which can be a little much to take in.

2017-01-08-11-20-45Because, make no mistake: this plunges you back into the world of Dream and his siblings, avatars of ideas such as Desire, Delight, Death, and others. Much of the joy comes from the way Gaiman slowly reveals the nature of his story, of course, but suffice to say that Overture revolves around a crisis that threatens the nature of the universe – a crisis that Dream himself may have caused, through an act of mercy. Now, he has to face the consequences of that action – consequences which could quite possibly lead to his own death.

As always with Gaiman, the ideas here are astonishing ones, and a joy to explore. Gaiman’s magic has always lay in his 2017-01-08-11-20-13own expansive mythologies, and Overture allows him to dip back into one of his greatest accomplishments, simultaneously playing in it and expanding it in subtle ways. And every bit as complex is Gaiman’s approach to morality and story-telling. There are no easy answers, no clear cut villains or heroes. Everyone is flawed; everyone is noble in their own mind. Sacrifice costs; duty matters; good deeds can haunt us. It’s wonderfully complex, thoughtful material – as though Gaiman is capable of much else.

But what may be the most astonishing part of Overture is not Gaiman’s prose; no, that honor belongs to the mind-blowing, convention-defying, utterly original art by J.H. Williams III. 2017-01-08-11-21-10Gaiman’s world is magical one, where time can stop and start, reality can bend, and our perceptions cannot always be counted on. And Williams matches that in every way, eschewing traditional panels, rotating frames to emphasize surreal moments, plunging you into shadow before overwhelming you with explosions of color, and more – and that doesn’t even touch on his forays into the worlds of dreams. I’ve truly never seen art like what Overture has to offer, and, by definition, words can’t convey their impact. But rest assured, its ambition and surreal (but comprehensible) nature matches Gaiman’s world perfectly.

2017-01-08-11-22-26The result is the ideal, perfect union of artist and writer, combining Gaiman’s ambitious, sprawling universe with an art style that pushes against the very boundaries of the form whenever possible. It’s beautiful, unnerving, surreal, a little mind-bending, and oddly evocative – and every single one of those words could apply to Gaiman’s story as well. All of it combines to make a truly remarkable, interesting prequel, one that expands the universe, tells one last story in this incredible world, and explains a little while leaving a lot more unsaid. And the story it tells is nicely self-contained, giving all of the feel and scope of a typical Sandman arc while feeling like its own saga. It’s a joyous return to one of the great comic sagas of all time, and a worthy follow-up to a series that changed comics, delivering a great story, incredible art, and imagination to spare.

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Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang / *****

51fhqvpotulLike many people (I assume), I had never heard of author Ted Chiang before seeing the remarkable film Arrival, based off of his story “Story of Your Life”. But given my deep love of that film – and the heady, complex concepts it covers – I was intrigued to see what kind of story could have inspired such a complex piece of work. That only deepened as I heard more about Chiang – his astonishing reputation, the comments that the film was much more like the story than you might expect, etc.

Chiang isn’t exactly a prolific author; he mainly writes novellas and short stories, and it’s notable that this collection represents a large percentage of what he’s written, period. And yet, almost every one of these stories was released to astonishing acclaim, awards, and praise; what Chiang may lack in quantity, he more than makes up for in quality, given than this collection features some of the most fascinating, astonishing, thoughtful pieces of science fiction writing I have ever read, period.

Much like you might expect from Arrival, Chiang takes on complex, heady ideas, and runs with them in imaginative ways that push them to their utmost. The opening story, “Tower of Babylon,” is essentially a retelling of the Tower of Babel story…at first. But in Chiang’s rendition, the tower has reached Heaven. Entire communities exist at various points on the tower, adjusted to life at that point. Plants grow downward, in an effort to reach down to the sun, which the tower has surpassed. Stars crash into apartments. Bricks fall from the tower and are more heartbreaking to lose than people, simply because of the time to replace. And if all that’s not enough, there’s what’s waiting for them at the top, which is both astonishing and inevitable, adding even more complexity to Chiang’s rich world.

Or take “Seventy-Two Words,” in which Chiang imagines an alternate history in which the idea of the golem – an inanimate object brought to life by a sheet of paper with its name – becomes a field of study and a way of life. The nature of names becomes its own science, as automatons are shaped and reformed throughout generations. And what’s more, by understanding how these automatons work, we come to understand how human beings work, on a biological and spiritual level, in ways that we never imagined. Perhaps you’re more intrigued by “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” an oral history of a movement to shut off the parts of our brain that perceive physical beauty, and the social ramifications that follow. And if those aren’t enough, there’s the incredible “Hell is the Absence of God,” set in a world where divine appearances happen often, divine powers are applied inscrutably, and one man struggles with whether or not to believe in a God he perceives as cruel and heartless.

Chiang is a truly astonishing author, one whose ideas and worlds are so rich that they could sustain whole series of novels, not just short novellas. Even his shortest work, a faux scientific journal article that’s only a couple of pages long, gives hints about an entire alternative history of the world that he’s created in just a few pages. And yet, he never loses the chance to invest us in his characters and their worlds, filling his pages with moral questions, minor details, emotional beats, and more. That, of course, is much of what makes “Story of Your Life” so rich, as anyone who’s seen Arrival knows; that story marries rich, complex, thought-provoking ideas with an emotionally resonant, devastating hook that makes the story all the more powerful.

Chiang is that rarest of things: an incredible author who, like George Saunders, seems happiest working in short bursts, and yet one who constantly leaves you wanting more. The stories in this collection are, no exaggeration, some of the finest, richest storytelling I’ve read, leaving me thinking about their images, ideas, worlds, and characters long after I shut the book. It saddens me that there’s not much else out there of his to discover, but I’m excited to go see what I can find, and then join those who wait for his every new release.

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The Love Witch (2016) / **** ½

the-love-witch-poster-2I had never heard of writer-director Anna Biller before The Love Witch came out, but it turns out there’s a reason for that. See, it can be hard to be a prolific, one-a-year director when you’re as invested in your production process as Biller is. Because, in addition to writing and directing (and producing) her films, Biller handles her own set and costume design work, often making parts of the sets and costumes herself. It’s a true labor of love, a film in which even the tiniest aspect bears Biller’s mark. And that comes through in the film, which feels fussed over and created in a way that few films do.

And yet, all of that, to steal a word from critic Scott Tobias, is “extratextual”. Yes, it’s part of what made me want to check out The Love Witch, and there’s no denying that it gives the film a rich texture. But the more important question: is The Love Witch any good? Luckily, the answer is a wildly enthusiastic “yes” – for all of the film’s minor flaws, it’s wonderfully odd, engaging, and unlike just about anything else you’ve ever seen. Even better, it makes use of Biller’s rich sets and costumes to fill in its world and themes in satisfying, engaging ways.

Mind you, The Love Witch is more a movie about its style and themes than it is a plot. The film is about a witch (in the pagan, Wiccan sense of the word) named Elaine (played by the arresting, captivating Samantha Robinson), who’s moving to a new town after her last relationship went very south. Elaine is gorgeous, flirty, and wants love in her life, and starts making a potion to help herself out. Only thing is, that potion maybe works a little too well…

the-love-witchReally, that’s about all the story there is. The Love Witch could almost be three episodes of a forgotten, strange 1970’s television show; the film follows Elaine through three separate relationships, each building off of the mistakes and successes of the past. But what engages you so much about the film isn’t that story; it’s Biller’s incredible evocation of 1970’s horror, bringing in the vivid, excessive colors of someone like Argento, the soft lighting that was so ubiquitous at the time, and the slightly campy style that never insists upon itself. It’s an unbelievable love letter to those sort of films, and the result is absolutely stunning to watch, simply from a visual perspective – it’s saturated, moody, funny, and just a joy.

But more than that, there’s the wonderfully odd, idiosyncratic themes of the film, which offer musings on feminism, gender roles, relationship goals, and more. Biller’s film is undeniably feminist, but in surprising ways, exploring the way women’s emotions cause them to approach relationships differently than men, to say nothing of how they deal with breakups and the like. More than that, there’s musings on religion (specifically pagan and Wiccan beliefs), fidelity, and more, all mixed into this strange black comedy film with wonderful touches of psychological lovewitchhorror throughout. And every bit of loving craft on costumes, makeup, and the memorable sets only underlines all of Biller’s thoughtful, off-kilter world.

The result is a wonderfully odd, unique film, and one that’s intentionally and lovingly crafted for a niche appeal. It’s meandering, campy, feminist, silly, and moody; it’s got fun performances that fit its retro mood and atmosphere to a T; it’s got an iconoclastic sensibility that never compromises but never turns into absurd navel-gazing art house fare. And more than anything else, it feels like little else I’ve ever seen – it’s undeniably an homage to an era, but manages the task of creating that homage while never being anything less than its own film. I thoroughly enjoyed it; it’s not perfect, a little too long, and occasionally self-indulgent, but almost always entertaining and engaging. And even when it’s not, what a joy it is just to watch and lose yourself in that color-drenched, saturated technicolor world. Biller’s films may take years, but if they’re this engaging and fun, I’m totally on board with that.

IMDb

Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch / **** ½

27833670At this point, I’ve read a handful of books that Blake Crouch either wrote or co-wrote, and by and large, I’ve enjoyed them. Crouch is undeniably a pulpy author, and his prose is basically fine but unexceptional; for all of that, though, his ideas are rich and compelling, and Crouch has a knack for zigging when you think he’s going to zag (a talent that served him incredibly well in Pines, but less so in Eerie). With all of that being said, it’s been surprising seeing Dark Matter gain a more mainstream success – much more so than any other Crouch book, as far as I know. Crouch has always seemed like a fringe figure, a cult favorite, but never someone who could attain big, mainstream success.

But having read Dark Matter, I get why this has been his breakout novel. Between the gripping idea, the rich characterization, the surprisingly strong prose, and the emotional ideas that Crouch is playing with, it’s undeniably his most successful, intriguing, thrilling, and inventive novel, and one that makes the best use of his talents. It’s mind-bending, exciting, unpredictable, but best of all, it’s emotionally and thematically rich, delivering a surprisingly thoughtful tale out of a pulp premise.

Exactly what that premise is should best be learned slowly (although if, like me, you know the basic idea, don’t worry – Dark Matter has some surprises still coming your way). Suffice to say that the book opens in a typical night in the life of Jason Dessen, a physicist turned college professor who has a satisfying, if unexceptional, life with his wife and teenage son. But as he’s leaving a bar after celebrating a colleague’s success, he’s kidnapped and drugged, and awakes in a strange place where his life seems to be entirely different from the one he remembers. Was he dreaming? Is he dreaming now? What’s going on?

Again, I don’t want to dive too much into the basic premise of the book; if you’re an avid reader or science-fiction fan, you may have a good idea where this is going. But rest assured, even if you think you know, you don’t know exactly how Crouch is going to run with this premise, pushing it way further and more inventively than I’ve ever seen an author take it. More than that, though, Crouch uses his idea not as an end – as he did in Pines, whose primary fun came in its bizarre revelations – but as a means to explore his characters, letting it all play out like some nightmarish version of It’s a Wonderful Life, where Jason gets to see how his life could have turned out had he made one critical decision differently. Crouch invests us enough in Jason that we’re right there alongside him as he debates the merits of this new life, and we find ourselves exploring the same heady questions as he does – the way our decisions shape us, the way our priorities and experiences can make us into the person we are.

Mind you, this is still undeniably a Crouch book, which means it moves at a breakneck pace, keeps you guessing, and constantly evolves in front of your eyes. Dark Matter is as much a thriller as it is anything else, and although it’s rich with subtext (and text, really), that doesn’t mean that it’s not exciting and thrilling. It’s one of those books that’s going to be incredibly hard to stop reading once you start it – I basically read it in two sittings, and that one break was just because I had to force myself to go to bed. And while I was reading, I was absolutely riveted; Crouch knows how to keep a reader hooked, and manipulates you into keeping on turning those pages well past the point when you should stop.

The result is a real treat, and a deserved breakthrough for Crouch – not just in terms of success, but in terms of his talent. It’s easily the richest, best book of his that I’ve read, and the first time I’ve seen him push beyond the pulpy roots that have defined most of his works for me. And yet, Dark Matter keeps those pulpy roots – a great hook, an exciting plot – intact, all while marrying them to more thoughtful, intriguing material. It’s a really fun, engaging book; a fun thriller that’s got some substance to it, some genuinely shocking moments, and a willingness to go for broke that results in at least one of the most memorable reveals I’ve read in a thriller in recent memory. It’s a blast, and I can’t recommend it enough.

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