Fiend, by Peter Stenson / **** ½

9780770436322You could easily be forgiven for passing on Fiend as soon as I tell you that, yes, it’s a zombie novel. And yet, Fiend is the reason we never write off genres: because there’s always a chance that someone can do something wonderful, new, and fresh with it. Because while Peter Stenson has, nominally, given us a zombie novel, Fiend is also a novel about drug addicts – specifically, it’s a novel about meth addiction, with all the bluntness, black comedy, and unapologetically awful behavior of something like Trainspotting, married with the nightmarish reality of a world in which anything even close to “normal” society is gone.

Indeed, it takes a little bit to realize that Fiend isn’t just a drug novel in which our characters are hallucinating the horrors as a result of their meth habits. But very quickly, it becomes obvious that Fiend is a marriage of books: it’s a bleak, unrelenting portrait of addiction and what it does to people and their relationships; it’s a twisted, broken love story between two irrevocably damaged human beings; and it’s a post-apocalyptic zombie story, full of zombies that emit mad chuckles instead of groans. And if you’re wondering exactly how Stenson ties all of these things together, it won’t take long to realize that Stenson is using the zombie apocalypse as a metaphor for the devastation of addiction, which turns you away from other human beings and into a self-destructive spiral in which all you care about is the next big score.

And make no mistake here: Fiend pulls no punches in its recounting of the methhead lifestyle. Stenson is a recovering addict himself, and every page of Fiend feels like the voice of experience is pushing through, depicting addiction with honesty, a certain black humor and self-reflection, and a refusal to pretty up any of the details. The result is a book with absolutely abhorrent characters, ones with whom it’s almost impossible to empathize, even as we recognize the poor choices that led them down this path. Again, it’s hard not to make comparisons to Trainspotting, which does so much of what Fiend does – depicts both the appeal and the bleak reality of addiction, all without judgment being passed except by the characters themselves…except that Stenson plunges these characters into a world where their drug habits might just be the only thing worth living for anymore, and where the pockmarked skin and rotting teeth of the addicts pale in comparison to the cackling dead outside in the dark.

In other words, Fiend is two books in one, and lets them play off of each other beautifully, letting the horrors be underlined by the selfishness (and self-destructiveness) of the characters, just as the realities of addiction are played out on operatic scale in the background as the world crumbles. And best of all, Fiend finds a grounding, investing us in our main character’s last grasp at a healthy relationship in the midst of all of this – and giving us one thing to actually hope for in the midst of all of the awfulness.

Let’s be blunt: Fiend is full of unsympathetic characters, lots of profanity, graphic violence, explicit drug use, and unblinking looks at how far people will go for drugs. It’s scary, violent, brutal, nasty, and incredibly bleak. It’s also darkly funny, incredibly thoughtful, reflective, unapologetic, and beautifully literate in a counter-culture sort of way. It’s a book that is undeniably not for everyone. But if you’re open to what it offers, it’s a fascinating read, one that tells an honest story about addiction by fictionalizing it, and one that finds a new window on a classic horror by turning it into something even scarier. I absolutely loved it; it’s not like anything else, and that’s undeniably a good thing.

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The Two Faces of January, by Patricia Highsmith / *** ½

highsmith_januaryThe more work by Patricia Highsmith that I read, the more that two things become very clear. The first is that Highsmith had a fascinating mind for suspense, immersing readers in minds shaped by guilt and perverse impulses that they themselves didn’t understand, and using simple premises to play people against each other. The second fact, though, is that Highsmith is, at best, a decent author, one whose prose often failed to elevate the material around it, and sometimes made it feel as though her books aren’t as good as they really can be. (In other words, Highsmith has a bit of what I’m going to call “Philip K. Dick Syndrome” – great ideas, phenomenal complexity, iffy writing.)

Mind you, it’s possible that I’ve just been picking some of her lesser work since knocking out most of the Ripley books. But The Two Faces of January undeniably fits into this realm; there’s a lot of great psychological tension being built into this story of a trio of Americans whose lives get entangled when they meet over the course of a quick body disposal, only to find things get far, far more complicated. A middle-aged swindler; his much younger, attractive wife; and a young man running from a shadowy reputation and a complicated family life – Highsmith brings them to life and plays them beautifully off of each other, constructing their minds so carefully and intricately that everything feels inevitable, horrifyingly unstoppable, and unrelentingly tense as it unfolds. The plotting is simple but effective, much in the way that so many of Highsmith’s works revolve not just around a crime, but around the repercussions and the way they ripple outward for far, far longer than you would think.

And yet, for all of that tension and craft and psychological insight, The Two Faces of January sometimes feels like a bit of a drag, perking up every so often as Highsmith turns the screws again. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason why, but what I came back to again and again was that Highsmith, for all of her thoughtfulness, so often lived so deeply in the mental lives of her characters that she forgot to keep things in motion. More than that, the hand-wringing and internal debating is fascinating up to a point, but ultimately, it takes until the book’s halfway point for things to really take off, when Highsmith plays her hidden ace and we see what the book is really about – at least, until a somewhat disappointing, rote ending that feels like a fizzle.

And so, appropriately enough (given the title), we have a strangely divided book. The characters are rich and intriguing, and when the book is at its best, watching Highsmith pit them against each other as they play their horrifying game, it’s wonderfully taut. But when Highsmith dives too deeply into Freudian motivations or internal waffling, it can feel glacial and overwrought, belaboring material that works best when it’s tense and uncertain. It’s well-crafted, intricate, carefully paced…and also overlong, a little flat at times, and fizzles towards the end. On the whole, there’s more good than bad, but there’s definitely a sense that this isn’t her best work.

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The Girl with Ghost Eyes, by M.H. Boroson / ****

25159239There’s something exciting about reading a book that draws on traditions you’re unfamiliar with, and that goes double when you’re dealing with supernatural forces and old folklore. Telling a story about feuding gangs with supernatural trappings set in the 1800’s is a good hook, but M.H. Boroson’s The Girl with the Ghost Eyes goes further by diving into Chinese folklore, spiritual warfare, and ancient traditions, telling a story that doesn’t feel like anything else I’ve read. And though the book’s writing isn’t the best, the propulsive story, fascinating cosmology, and great characters all make for a great read well worth your time.

Trying to explain the plot is difficult; there’s a lot going on here, even before you dive into the complexity of the cultural traditions being explored. Suffice to say that it’s the story of Xian Li-lin, the only child of a prominent Daoshi exorcist (a man who seems constantly disappointed at the fact that he’s left with only a female child behind). Li-lin is not only in training to succeed her father, however; she has yin eyes, which allow her to see the spirit world around her. Li-lin finds herself being used as part of a plot to get to her father, but the question is, why? Is it a power play by a rival tong? A threat from a malevolent entity? Or something far greater and more dangerous?

The Girl with Ghost Eyes follows Li-lin as she dives into the spirit realm, fights dangerous bodyguards, grapples with ancient incantations, and tries her best to save her father and understand what’s going on. In many ways, it’s pure noir; from the shadowy alleyways of Chinatown to the numerous characters on all sides of the moral spectrum, from the dangerous world of Chinese tongs to a struggle for power, M.H. Boroson plays it all with a heavy (and well-used) glaze of noir toppings.

But in the end, The Girl with Ghost Eyes is most memorable and exciting for the richness of the culture it evokes, and the astonishing visions we get along the way. Back alley marketplaces of demons and spirits. Midnight parades of unimaginable beings. Dark spells carved into skin. Passports that assist in moving beyond the ghost realm. Ancient incantations based on conceptions of death far outside of the Western mentality. An emphasis on saving face, on honor, on gender roles, on ancestry. The Girl with Ghost Eyes doesn’t just slap on a few ethnic ideas and assume that’s good; instead, it immerses you in its well-researched and understood world, bringing it to life on every page, every social interaction, every question of motivation. From the necessary spells to the conflicts between rivals, from family histories to job titles, Boroson brings the era to life phenomenally, giving us a way to experience a mythology and heritage far outside what most of us ever get to.

The Girl with Ghost Eyes isn’t flawless at all; the writing, while never bad at all, often feels functional at best, and occasionally can get a bit too heavy into “telling” instead of “showing”. And yes, that complicated plot sometimes gets to be a bit too much; there are times where it feels like the book isn’t just this one story, but every other idea Boroson had thrown into the background. By and large, though, the book works, keeping you completely hooked into its compelling world and incredibly fleshed out mythology, and investing you in the fate of a young woman who’s desperate to prove herself in the face of every obstacle. It’s a compelling, fascinating story, one whose world and characters are so good that it overcomes the small, forgivable flaws along the way. Here’s hoping there’s more books in this world to come, and a lot more of Li-lin’s story for me to enjoy.

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Standard Hollywood Depravity, by Adam Christopher / **** ½

31216087Last year, I picked up Adam Christopher’s Made to Kill on a whim, and was delighted I’d done so; marrying the hard-boiled PI stories of Raymond Chandler with science-fiction trappings, Made to Kill was a treat, telling an old-fashioned story in a wholly unique and interesting way. Its protagonist, Ray Electromatic, was the last robot left working after a brief boom in the industry, and now, he was left investigating cases – oh, and murdering for hire, too. It was a great hook for a pulpy tale, and if Made to Kill never really moved beyond its pulpy roots, that’s fine; it was enough fun that it more than justified its existence and then some.

Now comes Standard Hollywood Depravity, a follow-up novella to Made to Kill that finds Ray being brought in for the killing of a young go-go dancer, only to find the club full of very dangerous made men – a situation that makes his life far more complicated, and the job far more complicated. And making things worse is the way that Ray is no longer content to just follow orders and his programming; no, Ray is getting curious about things, and questioning the situations he finds himself in, and feeling a little more reluctant about killing without reason.

In pretty much every way, Standard Hollywood Depravity is an improvement on Made to Kill; the story is more complex and interesting, Ray more complicated as a hero, the writing sharper. But best of all, Christopher seems to have eased into his world more comfortably, digging around in the weird world that he’s been shaping. What’s it like to be a huge robot and not have people surprised to see you? What happens when you’re becoming aware, as a programmed creation, that your coding might be antithetical to your rapidly growing consciousness? Depravity deals with all of this and more, and does so in a tighter narrative – all the more impressive.

There are still a few issues, mind you; it feels like Christopher elides out a pretty significant scene towards the end of the book, but not in a way that would lead to interesting ambiguity; it just feels incomplete and off-balance in a way, and makes it feel like the book gets rushed right at the very end. And that’s a bit of a disappointment, considering how good the rest of it is. But in pretty much every other way, this one is a knockout, and has me even more excited to check out the next entry in the series.

(Side note: Standard Hollywood Depravity also features a short story entitled “Brisk Money,” which serves as a bit of a prequel to the series. “Brisk Money” is a great story; that being said, the story relies so much on Ray not having information about his life that we already have that it doesn’t always entirely work, especially since the story never really makes it clear when it takes place. In other words, it took me most of the story to realize that this was a prequel that takes place before Made to Kill, and sets up the series to come. There’s still a pretty fascinating detail included here, and it’s a good story; it just feels like it would work better if it was clearer when in the series it took place.)

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Two Novellas by Laird Barron

Before The Croning, his first novel-length effort, Laird Barron was known for his short work, with a number of award-winning short fiction collections that demonstrated his gift for literate, inventive, nightmarish, Lovecraftian horrors. So it’s not really a surprise to find that two novellas Barron has released, Man With No Name and X’s For Eyes, are probably even better and stronger than The Croning in many ways. They’re tighter, more focused, and no less terrifying and surreal when they want to be. What is surprising, though, is how much they each find Barron dabbling in other genres, all while never leaving behind his horror roots.

28604328Man With No Name is subtitled “A Nanashi Novella,” a line that certainly implies this is the first in a series. Exactly how that will work is something I’m quite curious about, because, without spoiling anything, to say that this doesn’t exactly lend itself to a traditional sequel is an understatement. That being said, the setup here undeniably feels like the first in a long-running crime series, revolving around a man named Nanashi, a loner adopted into the Japanese Yakuza. Nanashi is a man of action, and a valued employee, but little more; he often feels more like a mascot than a made man, despite the fact that he’s more controlled, and more dangerous, than many of those he works for.

That’s a good, pulpy setup, and Barron continues that feeling as the men get orders to kidnap a once-famed wrestler with ties to another gang and hold him hostage. Then the wrestler shows Nanashi his famous magic trick, one that allows the viewer to see the face of a deity – or perhaps, something darker. And then things start to go off the rails, as time becomes unhinged, and reality begins to fold up around Nanashi…

Man With No Name is deliberately confounding, often leaving the reader a bit in the dark intentionally, since Nanashi is left equally confused. It’s an effective technique, but one that can make the story sometimes difficult to parse, as we try to piece together what’s happening from our knowledge of horror tropes, elliptical clues, and late revelations. The idea that Barron might be setting up some longer story here is fascinating, although I’m not certain that he is; it’s quite possible that this is just a standalone horror tale, one whose weirdness will never be satisfactorily explained. As it is, though, Man With No Name is compelling, weird stuff; it’s crime fiction that becomes a surreal nightmare, all without losing its crime roots, and all while being told in Barron’s solid, craftsman-like prose. If it’s a little confusing and strange, well, it earns that strangeness and makes it work for the mood of the whole thing. (Oh, and if that’s not enough for you, there’s a pretty great bonus story attached to the ebook of Man With No Name that finds Barron playing around with Frankenstein in ways both funny and truly original. It’s a great capper to the book.) Rating: ****

81k0wkleemlBut even better than Man With No Name is X’s For Eyes, which finds Barron writing an elaborate homage to Jonny Quest and/or The Venture Bros. that also manages to dabble in his usual cosmic horrors. Now, if you’re thinking that that sounds like an uneasy marriage, or one that might lead to some weirdly comic juxtapositions…well, you’re right. X’s For Eyes is offbeat and funny even before things beyond the veil of sleep start appearing, and even then, Barron makes his horrors wholly more entertaining and odd than you would expect from a traditional story.

Of course, it goes without saying that X’s For Eyes has all the usual writerly craft and astonishing prose that you normally expect from Barron; what works so well about X’s, though, is that he marries that to the tale of two brothers raised by a brilliant father, taught by educational pods, protected by wisecracking explorers, and constantly immersed in corporate espionage. Indeed, for a bit, it’s not even clear that X’s For Eyes is going to become a horror story; for a while, it’s about these boys and a confusing rocket experiment gone wrong. But Barron is just throwing you off balance, because when he kicks off the horror elements, trust me, he does so quickly, brutally, and nastily.

From there, things get stranger indeed, in typical Barron fashion. But, again, what makes X’s work is that it never feels like his other works; yes, there may be nightmarish beings beyond our own dimension, but the creatures of X’s feel…more human, somehow. Or, perhaps, just less inscrutable – but no less horrifying. Then again, things have a way of sneaking in under the surface…

Whatever the case, none of it keeps X’s from being a blast – it’s fun, then it’s unsettling, then it’s horrifying, and yet somehow always feels of a piece. And that it does all of this while never losing its grip on that Venture Bros. feel? Just fantastic. Rating: *****

Amazon: Man With No Name | X’s For Eyes

The Grifters, by Jim Thompson / ****

grifting_away_01There are numerous varieties of noir out there – your hard-boiled detectives by Hammett and Chandler, your neo-noirs by Lehane, and so many more, creating a massive spectrum of darkness. But even in the depths of dangerous, flawed protagonists, there’s something especially nasty about the “heroes” of Jim Thompson, who gives us twisted killers, con artists, helpless saps, and throws us into worlds where everyone is corrupt, sleazy, and in it for themselves. It’s noir in its purest, most unflinching sense, and done without even a hint of judgment or morality to filter it all out.

And even with all of that, The Grifters manages to stand out from the pack, giving us a queasily incestuous tension between a con man and his grafting mother, two figures who only care about the world inasmuch as it can give them what they want. No, Roy and Lilly may not have the depraved sense of violence to them that Thompson gave us in Pop. 1280 and The Killer Inside Me, but they’re equally broken, nearly sociopathic characters; these are people who have divided the world into grifters and chumps, and chumps are only as good as what you can get out of them. As Roy makes his way through women (always somehow comparing them to his mother), or as Lilly cold-bloodedly manipulates everyone around her, we get the sense that these people could care less about the world around them, and feel like empathy and compassion are for the weak.

As usual with Thompson, plot is almost beside the point here, maybe to a fault for a novel about con artists; yes, there’s a thread about Roy beginning to question this lifestyle after a con goes bad, and Lilly struggling with a very different bad situation, but both of those are far less integral to the book than you might expect. No, Thompson specialized in creating his worlds and immersing his readers into the minds of his characters, and The Grifters features that in spades. From walking you through dice cons to seeing how they react to human kindness, from careful manipulation to instinctive self-preservation, Thompson’s writing excels at creating characters and depicting their thoughts, no matter how fundamentally broken they may be.

And it’s there that Thompson makes his bid to be considered among the all time greats. It’s not his stories, which are thin and more about the internal decisions of the characters. No, it’s his unflinching, unapologetic look at cruel, heartless, despicable characters cut loose in a world that’s unprepared for them, but deserves whatever it gets. That’s what noir is at its best, and trust me, just about any Thompson is among that category. The Grifters maybe isn’t as good as Thompson’s best (for my money, of the ones I’ve read, Pop. 1280 runs away with that) – it could use a little more complexity, just a tad more fleshing out – but it’s still a lean, nasty, pulpy, fantastic read.

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The Wrong Side of Goodbye, by Michael Connelly / *****

9780316225946I’ve been reading Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series for nearly 20 years at this point, a fact that’s driven home not only by each new book, but by the character himself, who has aged in more or less real time along with the series. What’s more, Bosch has continued to evolve over time, not just as a character, but as a policeman; indeed, over the course of the last couple of books, Bosch finally retired from the Los Angeles Police Department, leaving him to find a new way to define himself. Because what is Harry Bosch without the need to pursue justice and right wrongs?

And so, in The Wrong Side of Goodbye, which is not just a great Harry Bosch novel, but just a plain great police procedural by one of the best in the business, we find Harry working for the San Fernando Police Department part-time, helping a smaller community with its more minor issues, assisting in clearing some older cases, and picking up occasional side gigs that call for investigatory work. What that means is that, at any given point, Harry Bosch has quite a bit going on – in this case, a private gig helping a business legend track down a possible illegitimate heir, an active police investigation into a serial rapist, and his private life as a father. And once you add into this the way that the private gig means diving back into the memories of Vietnam for Harry, that complicates things even further.

In lesser hands, this could easily feel overstuffed or cluttered, but Connelly makes it work, turning Bosch’s juggling of all of these threads into part of the text, and (thankfully) resisting the all-too-common urge to make them all connected to each other. Yes, some of the stress from one can bleed into the other, but this isn’t one of those thrillers where the serial rapist is secretly working against the heir or something; instead, it’s a book about police work, as Bosch runs down his leads carefully and methodically, talking to witnesses, running the tapes, and checking his evidence, and using his experience to help him read the situations. It’s easy to forget how satisfying that can be as a read – just the act of following someone as they do their job running down a case – and The Wrong Side of Goodbye is a reminder that Connelly hasn’t been a bestseller for all these years for no reason whatsoever. Indeed, The Wrong Side of Goodbye is one of the best books he’s written in a while, given how it plays with the cold case aspects of the recent books, dives into Harry’s emotional past, immerses you in police work, and lets each play out in an intelligent and interesting way.

The result is a great read, by any standards; the search for the heir plays to the “cold cases” aspects of the series that were so gripping, to say nothing of seeing the long shadows of Vietnam casts over even the second and third generations out. The rapist section of the book is gripping and fascinating, diving into complex police work and showing how a simple intuition can turn everything around, and giving us some nice dramatic reveals along the way. And Bosch’s personal life, as always, is a joy to read, as we see this lone wolf who’s become the parent of a college-age woman. Add to that Connelly’s gift for tapping into the zeitgeist – here, playing with racial politics both personal and economic – and you have a truly great entry in the series. How many authors could be on their nineteenth book in a set and still have it be this good?

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