The Last Days of Jack Sparks, by Jason Arnopp / *****

2016-06-29-1467216519-3739835-28765598I am a complete sucker for unreliable narrators in books. There’s something so exciting about realizing that what you’re getting is a subjective account of things, not an objective one; it tells you that not only are you in the hands of a talented author who’s managed to fully create a rich voice that’s drawn you in, it sets you up to engage with the book more, questioning its conclusions and events, which only makes the book more gripping and interesting. And even better is when the unreliable narrator combines with an antihero or a deeply flawed hero; the English teacher part of me finds complex, morally gray (or even dark) characters fascinating, if only for the burst of interest and uncertainty they add to a story.

So it’s really not a surprise that I loved The Last Days of Jack Sparks, which gives us a thoroughly subjective account of its title character’s final days, as written in his posthumously published manuscript Jack Sparks On the Supernatural. Jack Sparks is a larger than life figure – a bit of Richard Dawkins, a lot of Hunter S. Thompson, a bit of Russell Brand – you get the picture. He’s a journalist, but one who thrives on his cult of personality; at their core, every story Jack writes is more about him than the nominal subject. And so, as Jack started writing On the Supernatural, it should be clear: this book was more about Jack bringing his skepticism and doubt to bear, mocking everyone involved in the process.

But given the fact that Jack died while writing the book – and given how…unusual…the second half of the book gets, it’s safe to say that things didn’t go as planned. But, as Jack’s brother Alistair explains in his foreword to the book, publishing the book seems like the best way to deal with all of the questions raised by Jack’s death, and the doubts that people have raised about what happened. Not only that, but Alistair has added in some footnotes that allow him to add some “context” to things that Jack says, as well as a number of interviews with people from Jack’s book that re-tell the stories he told from a very, very different perspective.

In other words, what we’re getting is a book written by an author who’s got a personality to sell and a grudge to work out, edited by a brother who’s protecting his own reputation, and with characters from the book constantly undercutting what we’re being told.

And did I mention that it’s a) often very funny and b) scary as all hell? Because, man, is it ever both of those things and then some, particularly in the book’s wilder, less contained second half.

So much of the joy of The Last Days of Jack Sparks comes from author Jason Arnopp’s conception of Jack’s voice. Admittedly, more than a few people have commented that Jack’s ego and obnoxious attitude can make him hard to take, and that’s undeniably true; on the other hand, Arnopp’s decision to constantly undercut Jack by showing us different perspectives after each chapter gives us a hint early on that not all should be taken as literal truth here, and that Jack is far less cocky – and far more troubled – than he’s letting on in his book. More than that, it forces us to filter everything we’re reading, and question how much of Jack’s running monologue is fact, how much is bias, and how much is willful self-delusion, as Jack constantly tries to wave away things that are clearly terrifying him.

And all of that is before the book takes some seriously wild turns in the back half, as Arnopp starts twisting and turning the narrative in on itself, making connections I had never guessed, hinting at conclusions that he never explicitly draws, and making you realize just how densely plotted this book has been from the get-go, even when you didn’t think it was. Add to that some genuinely nightmarish, disturbing scares – there’s a seance in a recording studio that’s one of the scariest sequences of its type I’ve read in a long time, and that’s nothing compared to a hellish vision granted to Jack near the story’s end – and you’ve got a book that’s wild, unpredictable, hard to categorize, incredibly inventive, and so well-told. In other words, all things that I couldn’t love more if I tried.

The Last Days of Jack Sparks isn’t, as you can probably tell, anything close to a conventional horror novel. It’s postmodern in some ways, telling a version of ghost stories and demonic possession for a modern age, and using some of the tropes of “found fiction” stories in novel form. (In so many ways, it’s a great counterpart to Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, which I read recently, and engages with similar concepts in very, very different ways.) It hinges on an obnoxious, unlikable hero, and forces you to constantly assess how much truth there is in anything you’re reading. And it goes to dark places, but finds something wholly new and odd there to do, telling a ghost story with a ghost that’s very unlike almost any other one that I know. That it does all this while moving like a rocket, being generally funny and light, and creating such a rich character, and scaring the crap out of you? That’s more than enough for any one book, and it makes for an incredible debut novel. I’m sold, Jason Arnopp – bring on whatever else you’ve got.

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The Croning, by Laird Barron / *****

thecroningFor all of his influence on a generation of horror writers, there may be no writer who’s inspired more lackluster imitations – or whose followers so often miss the point – as H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft specialized in horror on a cosmic, utterly alien scale – a world just beyond ours, where angles didn’t align, where colors we had never seen might exist, and where horrific elder gods slumbered – luckily for us. They were stories more about dread and unease than anything else, which has made it more and more difficult for modern writers to mimic his style – we need our payoffs, we need our plotting, we need our confrontations, and Lovecraft had no interest in any of those.

But one of the rare exceptions to that rule lays in the work of Laird Barron, whose work is undeniably Lovecraftian, yes, but also wholly his own, bringing Lovecraft’s command of tone and unease into the modern world, telling more “conventional” stories without ever compromising on the alien, malevolent force just beyond the range of our vision. But while Barron cut his teeth on short story collections, the question raised by The Croning – his first novel – is whether he could manage that same feat in a longer, full-length story?

Oh, yes he can. Make no mistake, though: The Croning demands your patience. It will keep you uneasy for a long amount of time, even anxious, but it’s going to make you wait for the payoffs – but when they come, there’s no holding back. Mind you, the payoffs don’t only come at the end of the novel; in keeping with his short story roots, Barron writes The Croning almost as a series of eight connected short stories, albeit ones which tell a single, ongoing story.

None of which, however, will prepare you for the opening chapter, which finds Barron retelling the legend of Rumpelstiltskin as something more haunting, something darker, something more nightmarish and primal in its intentions. It’s an odd opening to a book that’s otherwise set in the modern day, telling the story of an academic named Don whose relationship with his wife constantly skirts the edge of darker, more sinister mythologies. For Michelle, his wife, is an anthropologist, and her fascination with some ancient tribes seems to have had an impact on Don’s whole life – something that he is only beginning to understand. And as Barron leaps back and forth throughout several key incidents in Don’s life, we start to understand the wider pattern, but only as we also realize that there won’t be much to be done to prevent any of it from unfolding.

Barron’s pacing here is a thing of beauty. Yes, for some readers, The Croning may feel slow and lethargic, but for those who can appreciate his work, The Croning unfolds like a nightmare – relentless, uncertain, and indescribable. Barron’s patience makes his payoffs and resolutions all the more powerfully effective, giving them an anxiety and a tension they couldn’t otherwise have. But helping that along, in no small way, is Barron’s incredible writing, which is literate and thoughtful in a way that few genre writers bother with:

Neither light nor heat could withstand it; to gaze into that nullity and to comprehend its scope was to have one’s humanity snuffed. Only the inhuman thrived in out there in deep black.

For they were the stuff of nightmares; maggoty abominations possessed of incalculable and vile intellect that donned flesh and spines of men and beasts to shield themselves from the sun and enable themselves to walk upright instead of merely slithering.

Those quotes give you a sense of Barron’s writing, but can’t quite convey what it’s like to lose yourself in his words – and, more importantly, in the nightmarish visions he can convey. More than anything, Barron’s prose builds a world – both a real one and one beyond the veil – that has a way of overwhelming you, suffocating you with horrors until there’s no escape.

In short, it’s horror for horror connoisseurs. It’s not for casual readers, and it’s not for those who can’t handle their horror unflinching, unblinking, and nightmarish. But for those brave enough to handle its pages, you’re in for something unforgettable. Just don’t plan on having easy dreams for a while.

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Gwendy’s Button Box, by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar / ****

34430839From what I’ve been able to gather, Gwendy’s Button Box started life as a Stephen King short story, before the horror maestro ended up getting stuck with the plotting. He reached out to fellow author Richard Chizmar, who worked on the story and sent it back to King, who in turn, did some work and sent it back. After a few swings back and forth, what emerged was Gwendy’s Button Box, a novella set in King’s infamous town of Castle Rock. And while Gwendy’s Button Box still has the feel of a very long short story more than a novella (the plotting here is pretty linear and streamlined), there’s still plenty of enjoyment here for King fans to be had.

The story is simple enough: a young woman on the verge of puberty is out for a morning run (she’s desperate to shed some pounds and take care of some cruel nicknames she’s gotten recently), when she’s stopped by a man in black who wants to “palaver”. (Constant Readers, no doubt, have guessed this man’s initials by now; would it shock you if I said they were “R.F.”?) The man offers her a box covered in buttons, as well as a couple of switches, and explains that the box can take care of her – it will help her with that weight loss, yes, but with so much more…and all it needs in return is a caretaker. Because were those buttons to be pressed – the buttons that seem to line up with each major continent, as well as an ominous black one at the end…well, things would go bad. So why not give it to a responsible, careful caretaker, one who could prevent such things?

This is classic King – there’s a bit of Needful Things here, sure, but also a bit of Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button” on display as well. But where to take the story that feels fresh? It’s to that end, presumably, that King brought in Chizmar, and together, the pair creates a coming-of-age story that finds our young heroine thriving, succeeding…but always, constantly worrying about that box, and fearing what it might unleash. Yes, Gwendy is losing weight; her grades are great, her life is wonderful…but there’s always that fear, that unease about the button, and that constant sense of pressure as to when she might be called in.

If that sounds like meaty, heavy fare…well, it’s not, really. The biggest issue with Gwendy’s Button Box is that it always feels like a short story stretched to novella, not a short novel. We watch as Gwendy grows up, as she grapples with the responsibility of the box, as things build to a couple of critical moments…but it all ends up feeling like the sort of material King would use for act one of a story, not a story in of itself. And by the time the story ends on a cryptic, uncertain note, there’s a definite sense of “wait, is that all there is?” There’s little closure, little explanation – just a strange, uncertain end for a strange, uncertain story – which is something that works much better in a short story than a novella, where we need a bit more of a climax.

Still, you could do far worse than Gwendy’s Button Box for an afternoon’s entertainment. As always with King, it’s well-written; the patter and rhythms are exceptional, and his gift for choosing the critical moments of adolescence and bringing them to life is, as always, a joy. Even better is the way he constantly gives just enough information about the box to keep us wondering, but never enough to make it all clear. It’s an engaging little tale; just don’t be surprised if it feels slighter than you’d hope, as though it’s not quite capable of sustaining all the pages in its brief time.

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A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay / **** ½

23019294Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts has been greeted rapturously by not only horror fans, but by more “mainstream” critics, which isn’t something that normally happens with horror novels. Normally, horror is a bastard stepchild of a genre, something that most reviewers are “above” reviewing. And in the rare cases in which a book manages to overcome that barrier, it normally does so by being so “literary” that it loses the very things that appeal to horror fans. All of which is to say, it’s notable that A Head Full of Ghosts manages to walk a very thin line, giving us something genuinely scary and creepy, but also something inventive and postmodern enough to make it appeal to those with a more literary bent.

It doesn’t take long for Tremblay’s ambition to make itself known. A Head Full of Ghosts opens with Merry Barrett returning to her childhood home, accompanied by a writer who’s helping her tell the “official” version of her story and what happened to her sister Marjorie. See, a lot of people know the story already, because Merry’s childhood ended up being used as a reality television series called The Possession, a huge hit up until…well, you’ll see. So what we get in A Head Full of Ghosts isn’t exactly an “objective” account of what happened to Marjorie and the Barretts; what we’re getting is mostly Merry’s memories, some of which, she admits, may have been influenced by the TV show, or may be things that she’s lied about for so long she’s struggled to remember the truth. And if that’s not enough, Tremblay throws in some blog post analyses of the episodes of The Possession from a horror fan, discussing the story not only as it was presented on television, but picking at all of the tropes Tremblay is tossing out.

Indeed, there’s little way to explain how much fun this book is to horror fans without getting into the way Tremblay picks apart his own influences and inspirations. Just as you’re thinking “this feels like a rip from The Exorcist” or “do you think anyone in this book remembers the story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper'”, Tremblay uses the blog posts to make the allusions and references clear, laying out for all to see the DNA of the story, but also turning the book and story into something muddier and less clear. Did all of this happen? Is this all a case of people echoing movies and TV shows that shaped their perception of what “possession” was? Where does the truth come in?

To Tremblay’s credit – and to the irritation of many, I bet – there aren’t a lot of clear answers here. A Head Full of Ghosts leaves a lot open to interpretation, down to the final pages, which are filled with moments that might – or might not – change everything. That could be frustrating for many, but for me, Tremblay’s earned his ambiguity; this is a story about how we perceive things, and how motives aren’t always cut and dry. There’s no arguing about the events of the story – everyone agrees on those. What’s more up for debate is what it all means, and what caused it all – and that’s far more compelling fare.

It doesn’t hurt, though, that A Head Full of Ghosts is genuinely scary, maybe all the more so for our inability to understand why some of this is happening. Is Marjorie mentally ill, or is she possessed? Neither explanation is entirely satisfying, because neither can adequately explain some of the truly unsettling, disturbing events of the story – even our blog posts, doing their best to unpack the tricks of the TV trade, struggle on a few points. But that’s okay; what makes the best horror is a degree of uncertainty, of unease as to what’s really going on. It’s just that few books make that part of the text itself, filtering the story through unreliable narrator after unreliable narrator until we’re not sure who to believe. (It’s no coincidence that Merry shares a nickname with one of horror’s great unreliable narrators, We Have Always Lived in the Castle‘s Merrycat.) All we know for sure is the horror that comes out of those primal, uneasy moments – and no explanation is going to help make any more sense out of some of it.

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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain / *****

1_192p19605_7One of my all-time favorite novels is Joseph Heller’s seminal World War II satire Catch-22, a vicious, funny, trenchant take on the insanity of war. So when I heard numerous comparisons between Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Heller’s masterpiece, it would be safe to say that my interest was piqued. I’m fascinated by portraits of war with a satirical bent – it’s no accident that so much of my bookshelf is filled with writings about and from the Vietnam War – and the idea of finding a modern take on all of that was super up my alley.

Having read Billy Lynn finally, I totally understand those comparisons; while Billy Lynn is very different from Catch-22, there’s much of the same DNA to be found there: a horror at the violence of war and the way it kills part of us; the conflict between a desire to support your friends and a disgust at the war as a concept; an unflinching look at the way war changes those who fight in it. But Billy Lynn has a very different primary target than Catch-22; while Heller was primarily focused on the insanity of war, Fountain wants to question American “patriotism,” with its easy platitudes, empty cliches, and pointless grandstanding that has little bearing or meaning on the conflict and those who fight in it.

Set entirely during a Dallas Cowboys football game, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk follows our title character and his fellow grunts from Bravo Platoon as they are theoretically being honored for wartime valor. Survivors of a battle that was captured on video that became a viral hit, especially on Fox News, Lynn and his platoon mates are on a “victory tour” around the country, which mainly means that they’re used in photo ops, forced to endure awkward handshakes and congratulatory ceremonies, and deal with an agent who’s in the midst of attempting to turn their story into a film. Meanwhile, Bravo Platoon is dealing with their own issues: an inability to fit back into the home front, a rapidly growing disgust at the disconnect between themselves and those who they’re protecting, and their increasing unease at their impending return to Iraq and the battle front.

All of which sounds like heavy fare, and in lesser hands, it could be. But in Fountain’s hands, Billy Lynn is rapid-paced, funny, moving, and just plain incredible. From the pitch-perfect depiction of every platitude every soldier hears to his capturing of the vulgar, violent repartee of the soldiers, Fountain gives us a picture of barely controlled anarchy, as Bravo jeers at the civilians who don’t understand them, leers after the members of Destiny’s Child (from a distance, of course), comments on politics, and find a way to make peace with their largely symbolic role in everything around them. Plunging us into the title character’s running commentary, Fountain gives everything a perfectly arched approach, both understanding the awkwardness of all of these events but also the distance between Billy and a world that only loves the idea of him, not the reality. Lynn isn’t some warrior poet, some complex philosopher; he’s a roughneck, albeit one smart enough to see through the pomp and circumstance and roll his eyes at the ridiculously contrived patriotism on display, and see how it’s all about theater, not true love of country.

But more than that, Fountain never lets his themes and ideas overtake the characters and the emotional rhythms of the story. Yes, this is a book about how American patriotism has become a political necessity, and a ticket for grandstanding; yes, it’s a book that’s entirely focused on how soldiers are often only thought of in theory, of how we cope with war by imagining it as a movie, and of how we so often forget our wars or only think of them in abstract terms. But even with all of that, what sticks out in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk are the small moments – the trauma as the PTSD kicks in for our soldiers during an absurd halftime show, the rhythms the soldiers have developed in dealing with older men who have their own stories, the profane but hilarious banter between men who have long since quit caring about social norms, the dead-on capturing of every single cliche (my favorite is Fountain’s repurposing of 9/11 as “nina leven,” a meaningless phrase without clear impact anymore)…it’s these moments that make Billy Lynn so effective. Like Catch-22, its targets are clear, its humor sharp, its chaos perfectly controlled – but more than that, it’s the book’s humanity and heart that makes it so great.

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Pump Six and Other Stories, by Paolo Bacigalupi / *****

pumpsixandotherstories-paolobacigalupiOne of my favorite little things about picking up a science fiction short story collection by an author I’ve never read is figuring out what kind of sci-fi I’m getting into. Is this going to be the hard, science-focused work of an Arthur C. Clarke or Robert Charles Wilson? The softer, more adventurous style of something like Star Wars or Dean Wilson’s Coilhunter? The darker, slightly satirical cyberpunk worlds of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson? Am I getting steampunk or post-apocalyptic, philosophical or scientific, satirical or exciting? Or, best of all, will I get some weird blend of all of them?

In many ways, that last one is what I got with Pump Six and Other Stories, my first exposure to the work of author Paolo Bacigalupi. There’s no small amount of cyberpunk to this world; in most of these stories, there’s a sense of a world ruled by corporations and technology, one in which the world and society have changed as a result of the two blending together. From the living organic skyscrapers of ”Pocketful of Dharma” to the bioengineered crops of “The Calorie Man,” from the genetic supermen of “The People of Sand and Slag” to the human art projects represented by the title of “The Fluted Girls,” Bacigalupi is fascinated by the directions that technology is taking us, and where it could go if it’s unchecked by humanity or morality.

And really, that’s more where Bacigalupi’s voice comes through. For all of his fantastical (and often nightmarish) visions, Pump Six is ultimately a series of stories about situations in which humans have allowed their morals to be subjugated by the world around them – a theme that makes for a bleak set of stories indeed. Clans grapple with legacies of violence and xenophobia, and a priest is forced to think about what must be done to end it. A man murders his wife and finds that the world moves on just as merrily as it did before. The last thinking man in a city realizes that the world around him has no interest in knowledge, work, or survival, and no one minds. People are treated like commodities, societies are left to starve in the name of corporate profit, genetic engineering makes monsters in the name of progress – but whatever the situation, the world seems to move on without a single worry.

That all makes Pump Six sound like a more overwhelming and crushing experience than it really is. No, this isn’t exactly a collection of rainbows and kittens, but focusing on the bleak themes doesn’t do justice to the sheer life and imagination on display in these stories. Within a narrow window of pages, Bacigalupi doesn’t just manage to tell a story; he creates complex ecosystems, full societies and worlds with their own history and sense of progress. And his characters get no less care, with Bacigalupi bringing them all to life with the careful sketching and outlining of an artist. Look no further than the tragic life of “The Yellow Card Man,” a man struggling to survive a world that he was once on top of, and constantly battling against the indignities and cruelties that fate has dropped on him. What could easily be a portrait of simple misery becomes more compelling and tragic in his hands, becoming as much a story about how this all happened as it this man’s life.

No, you’ll never mistake Bacigalupi for an optimist. But you’ll also realize within a page that you’re in the hands of a master, a man with ambitious, fascinating visions not just about technology, but about people and their relationships with the world around them. More than that, he brings sharp craft, careful prose, and great storytelling to bear. It all makes for a phenomenal collection, and one well worth reading. Just don’t expect a happy ride in the process.

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The Chains of War, by Dean F. Wilson / **** ½

23001356It’s almost become a fun trope of fantasy novels to see how many of them feature a dense and absurd glossary of terms in the back of them. For a long time, it was almost a requirement of the genre (I constantly used them as I read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, for instance), but they’ve fallen by the wayside over the years. And while generally I’m fine with that, there have definitely been times as I’ve read Dean F. Wilson’s epic fantasy trilogy series The Children of Telm that I could have used one. With its dense style, its huge cast of characters, and its epic scope, it’s easy to lose one’s way for a bit in Wilson’s world, or to fear that you may be missing out on some of the details.

But what makes The Children of Telm so great – and in particular, what makes The Chains of War, the final book in the series – is that not only did I follow every page of the book even without remembering every detail, but that I found myself wanting to read the entire series over again, to see how Wilson had been writing these details from the beginning and how much of the world and the story’s arc had been foreshadowed since the beginning. Wilson is playing with any number of tropes of the genre – an ancient evil released from its bonds, the gods reincarnating themselves in mortal bodies, the armies of the dead amassing, a love of the natural world that may lend itself to certain powers – and yet, The Chains of War (and the series as a whole) never feels like anything other than itself, and the characters become wholly their own. Yes, they may have started as archetypes, but they become something far more compelling and unique as the series has continued, with moral debts, shades of complexity, guilt that hangs over them, and a difficulty grappling with their own powers.

In many ways, as much as I loved Wilson’s Great Iron War series, it feels like The Children of Telm may be his greater accomplishment, in no small part because of how far Wilson pushes his writing. Consciously mimicking the formal, “ancient” diction of Tolkien and other high fantasy writers, Wilson lets his words carry some of the weight of his world-building, turning this story into a chronicle of something larger and more ambitious. That he does this while still letting the characters live and breathe, while still bringing out ambiguities and nuances, while still surprising with plot points – that’s no small feat.

Look, The Chains of War is hard to describe – it’s the final book in a fantasy series, and builds on what’s come before it. To talk about what happens in here would ruin some of the joy of the rest of this series, or of the surprises to come in its pages – the sudden realization of what’s causing the ancient evil to be unleashed, the slow dawning of how our heroes can fulfill the prophecies, the cost of the battles, and a perfect epilogue that not only concludes the story, but also gives us closure on the characters. But it manages that difficult feat of concluding a fantasy series in a satisfying way that feels both appropriate and surprising, delivering an exciting story that ends the series but doesn’t feel like it’s just the formula playing out. It’s a great read from an author whose quiet, assured talent has been pleasing me for book after book, and really pays off so well here. In short, if you like high fantasy? You owe this one a read. Just, you know, maybe read them all back to back, and don’t wait months like I did.

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