It Comes at Night / **** ½

it_comes_at_night_xlgLast year, at the Chattanooga Film Festival, I caught a phenomenal film named Krisha, written and directed by a newcomer named Trey Edward Shults. Telling the story of a family’s Thanksgiving that gets crashed by a long absent relative, it was a searing piece of drama, filmed with a natural talent that blew me away and telling an emotionally powerful story in an exceptional way. In short, it was one of those debut features that leaves you knowing that you just saw the birth of a new talent, and someone worth keeping an eye on.

Now comes Shults’s second film, It Comes at Night, which offers up no end of surprises, even before you actually see the film. For one, I wouldn’t have expected Shults to make the jump to bigger budget, wide release films so quickly; even more surprising, though, is the fact that Shults has left behind domestic drama for the tougher genre of horror. That’s a tough genre, and while Krisha was undeniably tense and emotionally fraught, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a horror film from Shults.

What I got, though, was superb, marrying the “family under pressure to the breaking point” themes of Krisha with the paranoia and isolation of Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, and using shadows and silence to phenomenal effect. It Comes at Night is the story of a family who’ve isolated themselves in a cabin in the woods; while the specifics of what’s happened to the rest of the world never become entirely clear, it’s obvious that a disease has wiped out much of the population, and left the rest fending for themselves. But when the family gets discovered, questions of trust and loyalty come into play, and the characters are forced to deal with a simple question: how far do you go to protect your loved ones?

Shults’s strengths as a writer and director are evident from the get-go here, especially as regards the performances, which are uniformly excellent, with nary a missed step in the batch. Joel Edgerton is one of the only “names” you might recognize, but he’s rarely been better, getting a role that befits his masculine practicality and gruffness. And Kelvin Harrison, Jr., the film’s de facto lead (as much as there is one), uses his youth to phenomenal effect, internalizing the horrors around him as he attempts to make his peace with the violent world he’s forced to live in, and figure out his own moral compass.

But as great as the performances are, what really floored me here was Shults’s command of mood and tone. This feels like a low- to mid-budget film; the scares are few, with more reliance on an atmosphere of dread and unease than on jump scares. More than that, Shults keeps us in the head of his characters more than we realize, leaving us questioning people’s motivations and understanding the stakes at any given moment. The result is maybe more of a psychological thriller than a true horror film, but the lines are blurred, and the film’s use of night and darkness leave no doubt as to where its genre roots lay. And it’s in keeping with Shults’s independent-film roots all the way to the film’s ending, which is destined to leave some mainstream audiences grumbling and unhappy, but which floored me pretty well.

It Comes at Night is going to be one of those cult horror films soon, one held up alongside The Witch and The Babadook and others as a reminder of how the decade was home to a rich new burst of creative, interesting horror movies. And more than that, it’s a sign that Shults is a talent to be watched; with his first two films, he’s hit two home runs. You better believe I’ll be there for attempt #3.

IMDb

Vacation Reading

We’ve been on vacation for the past week or so, which means that I’ve had a little more time than usual to get some reading in, including two review copies and a fun little twisty thriller. So, with so much to talk about (to say nothing of the movies and TV I’ve been ingesting), let’s do a few shorter reviews than usual.

894645323Evan Marshall Hernandez’s Breaking the Skies is an ambitious piece of work, especially for a more independent author. In broad terms, it’s a science-fiction war novel, opening its action with the final stand of a revolution set to end the reigning Queen on this planet. Hernandez’s heroes are largely on the side of the Queen for this novel, and yet Hernandez doesn’t necessarily make either side noticeably better or worse than the others. Indeed, many of the book’s pleasures come from the way it navigates moral complexity so well, establishing its heroes and villains clearly while letting everyone by fully realized, complex creations. More than that, Hernandez handles his action well, leaning both into the chaos of the war but also the morality of such violence, grappling with questions about who we ally ourselves with, the tactics we use in war, and humanity’s relationship with this alien planet.

But it’s that planet that makes for the most interesting material in the novel, which leans more heavily into the fantasy genre and brings out the best elements of the novel. Not content with just having complex human characters, Hernandez fills his planet with several animalistic races, each of which has its own personality, culture, and approach to the world. Even more interestingly, Hernandez offers his own variation on Philip Pullman’s daemons, pairing many of our heroes with creatures that are their partners and friends, which often tells you much about the people themselves. And Hernandez spends just as much time on these creatures as he does his human characters, investing them with backstories, culture, personality, and every bit as much richness as the others.

The end result is a rich, well-realized novel, one with enough complexity to the story to keep readers satisfied while never neglecting the world-building and detail that makes a fantasy world come to life. Breaking the Skies definitely feels like the first entry in a series, with sections that feel a bit drawn out at times, and some pacing that could use just a little more momentum at certain points. The sheer number of characters can be a little overwhelming at times, even while Hernandez makes them all work, and it ultimately feels like the book could be a bit shorter and lose little of its strengths. And yet, it’s a solid book that I don’t hesitate to recommend; its sheer imagination and solid storytelling, its great character work, and the fascinating world all work together wonderfully. The shortest, most focused recommendation I can give? I’m more than ready to read the second novel in the series at any time. Rating: ****

the-passenger-lisa-lutzLisa Lutz’s The Passenger kicks off with such a great opening that it’s almost a relief when the rest of the book lives up to it. It’s the story of a woman named…well, honestly, that’s complicated, given how many names she has over the course of this book. So let’s just say that it’s the story of a woman whose husband falls down the stairs and dies in a genuine accident. But she’s a) not that upset to see him go, b) worried that people might think she did it, and most importantly, c) seems awfully nervous for the police to go digging around. So she packs up and hits the road, calls a mysterious benefactor, and gets a new identity. And that goes well…for a few pages, at least.

Honestly, that’s about all I want to say about The Passenger, which is one of those books that are far more fun to read if you don’t know anything about them. Suffice to say, our heroine is on the move, constantly shifting identities based on the events around her, and only gradually revealing to us, the readers, exactly why she’s on the run in the first place. Even better, Lutz constantly raises the tension and the stakes, with dangerous run-ins, suspicious friends, and a kindred spirit who might be using her for nefarious means. It’s a gloriously twisty plot, one that uses every twist for maximum impact, whether to increase our unease or to stun with revelations.

But even better is our heroine, a complicated figure who lives comfortably in a world between villainy and heroism. Not a good person by any means, Lutz’s heroine also isn’t the antihero we might suspect; she’s a survivor, through and through, and as we learn more about her, her actions become more and more understandable. Her narration and pragmatic worldview make for a great aspect of the book, and the perfect companion for the twisty plot. The result is a great read, especially for the summer; it’s light but compelling, twisty but never unfair, dark but never horrific – in short, it’s a complete blast for anyone wanting a great thriller. Rating: **** ½

29468624Christopher Fowler’s Spanky was apparently originally released in the mid 90’s, a fact that feels right, given its central theme of a man who feels that his life has gotten off track and been far from what he hoped for. That was in the zeitgeist in that time, a fact that shows up in so many films of the time (American Beauty, Magnolia, Fight Club, and so on), to say nothing of other books (again, Fight Club, but more notably, Susan Faludi’s Stiffed). And so, in its broad strokes, Spanky‘s idea to marry that male anxiety to a modern riff on Faust, as a twenty-something Briton named Martyn gets offered a chance to turn his life around by a daemon named Spanky? That’s nothing too surprising, in hindsight.

That being said, what makes Spanky so much fun is how it uses its supernatural elements, first with a sly sense of humor, and then for absolutely horrific effect. Spanky starts as typical male wish-fulfillment stuff, but the titular daemon makes for a wonderfully anarchic figure in the midst of it all, playing Tyler Durden to Martyn (in his foreword, Fowler remarks that Fight Club, which came out after this, definitely feels like it’s almost the same book). As Martyn goes through his image makeover, dives into family trauma, and tries to meet women, Fowler keeps everything darkly funny and engaging, letting Martyn’s unease with some of it poke holes in the potentially toxic worldview.

But it’s really the novel’s second half, where Fowler lets the horror side of the story run wild, where Spanky shines. Fowler sets some tough boundaries on Spanky’s abilities, which could easily rob the horrors of their punch. Instead, they only make it better, as Martyn – and the reader – aren’t just subjected to twisted creatures and brutal violence, but thrust into an increasingly unreliable reality where we’re never sure what’s actually happening. It’s a great final act for a wonderfully nasty, fun read, one that holds up even twenty years (!) after its original release. Hopefully its American release will find it a new audience that enjoys it as much as I did. Rating: ****

Amazon: Breaking the Skies | The Passenger | Spanky

Horror Triple Feature

mpw-39550One of my favorite auteurs of 80’s trash horror is Frank Henenlotter, director behind the wonderfully gonzo Basket Case and its equally twisted, entertaining cousin, Brain Damage. But as much as I love those two, I hadn’t managed to see Henenlotter’s famous follow-up Frankenhooker until today. Luckily, it was worth the wait; while it may have leaned more heavily and clearly on comedy than the other two films, it’s no less wonderfully silly and demented than any other Henenlotter I’ve seen. A very loose retelling of FrankensteinFrankenhooker follows a mad scientist who decides to resurrect his girlfriend after a gruesome lawnmower accident. The problem? There’s not exactly enough of her left…which means it’s time to hit pre-Guiliani Times Square and find some women of the night to use for parts. The result is gorey, splattery insanity, with self-induced cranial pressure relief (in other word: drilling into your own skull), electrified kisses, and, oh yes, exploding hookers. It’s all done with tongue firmly in cheek, with Henenlotter steering more overtly into comedy, but the result is absolutely entertaining as anything, from the mad scientist’s constant self-encouragement to the ludicrous facial expressions on the reconstructed girlfriend. I don’t think Frankenhooker is as good as Basket Case or Brain Damage – I enjoy those film’s ability to balance horror and comedy more than this – but I had a blast watching it anyway. Rating: ****

poster_thirstTo say that Thirst is easily the weakest film I’ve seen to date by Chan-Wook Park sounds like a harshest criticism than it necessarily should be. After all, this is the director behind such films as OldboyLady VengeanceStoker, and The Handmaiden, just to name a few – it would be awfully hard to make it to the top tier of that kind of filmography. And even with Thirst‘s flaws – which largely spring from the film’s pacing issues – there’s little denying that Park brings his usual flair, bizarre sensibility, and beautiful style to bear to this vampire story. After all, who else would let his vampire film largely render its vampiric elements almost irrelevant, instead turning it into a twisted love story about a priest who becomes a vampire thanks to a medical experiment gone wrong, and who then falls in love with the unhappy wife of a childhood friend. If that doesn’t sound like your typical vampire film, well, Thirst really isn’t typical in any way, apart from using vampirism much as Bram Stoker did back in Dracula: as a metaphor for repressed desire, lust, and a wish to break beyond the social and religious strictures that are governing one’s life. Of course, this being a Korean film, exactly how far the characters are willing to go…well, let’s just say that things escalate quite a bit from the early scenes where our “hero” is trying to stick to stolen blood from hospital patients. Thirst is too long by at least twenty minutes, and it doesn’t quite make its lead female character work as well as I wish it did; she feels more simplistic than Park tends to let his female characters be (especially in something like The Handmaiden). Still, even with those flaws, Thirst is rich, interesting fare – a more thoughtful, complicated take on the vampire tale than we often get, and one with enough substance to keep thoughtful audiences satisfied while still delivering violence and horror (and style) to spare. Rating: ****

cronos-mondo-criterion-posterI’m a big, big fan of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, whose fantastical sensibility – and how it blends together with his grasp on horror – has led to some truly great cinema, including Pan’s LabyrinthThe Devil’s Backbone, and most recently (and one of my favorites), Crimson Peak. But somehow, I had never gotten a chance to see del Toro’s feature debut, Cronos, until my wife bought me Criterion’s new Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro box set. Even here, as he’s just getting started and working under a limited budget, there’s no denying del Toro’s rich visual style, his astonishing imagination, nor his unique approach to creatures and horror. The tale of a Mexican antiques dealer (played by Federico Luppi) who stumbles across an ancient invention said to hold the secret of immortality, del Toro brings his usual mixture of fairy tale and horror to bear here, spending equal time establishing the charming relationship between Luppi and his granddaughter and the surreal horrors that this invention can unleash. Like many of del Toro’s films, it slides between fantastical visions and bloody horror  without warning, which makes for an even better watch for the daring viewer (and that doesn’t even get into the genre elements that del Toro allows the film to slowly incorporate). Even better, there are signs even here of del Toro’s astonishing imagination, as he dives into the gears – and weirdly organic elements – of this invention, turning something simple into something arcane and eldritch in the process. That Cronos is a solid, inventive, strange piece of horror goes without saying, knowing del Toro’s involvement; that it largely holds its own against his later work, even with its lower budget and learning curve, is all the more impressive and wonderful. Rating: **** ½

IMDb: Frankenhooker | Thirst | Cronos

Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman / *****

61ydlztifql-_sx326_bo1204203200_There is no logical reason that Anno Dracula should work, honestly. To call Anno Dracula “overly ambitious fan fiction” wouldn’t seem like a bad idea, based off of the description of the novel. After all, this is a book in which Bram Stoker’s Dracula ascends to the British throne by marrying the Queen, resulting in the emergence of vampires out of the shadows. Oh, and it also means that Bram Stoker has been arrested for trying to write the book – which is better than what happened to Abraham van Helsing. But not content with just writing a sequel to Dracula, Newman turns Anno Dracula into a positive maelstrom of cultural, literary, and social references, with Sherlock Holmes (and his brother Mycroft, as well as more than a few other Holmesian supporting characters), the good doctors Moreau and Jekyll, Gilbert and Sullivan characters, opera icons – oh, and Jack the Ripper, of course. Indeed, it’s such a dense web of allusions both fictional and factual that this anniversary edition has a multi-page guide to some of the more obscure ones after the book ends.

And yet, not only does Anno Dracula succeed, it’s an absolute blast of a book, focusing on telling a great story rather than just playing an elaborate game of “spot the reference”. Using the Ripper’s crimes as a framework, Newman dives deeply into his alternate history, exploring how Victorian England might have shifted with the introduction of vampires, diving into the mythology of vampires (as well as the politics, given that they might not all be fans of the famed Count), exploring how class politics might change with the possibility of “turning”, and more. Rather than just telling a simple vampire story, in other words, Newman builds a whole alternate universe, and takes his time exploring it, following every small change and watching as it ripples outward, and investing us in disputes ranging from paid murder to broken engagements.

More than that, Newman invests us in his characters, letting the sides of his book be populated with the allusions and giving us his own original takes for our heroes (and some of the villains). From the outwardly mild-mannered Charles Beauregard (who covertly works for Conan Doyle’s infamous Diogenes Club) to Newman’s fascinating elder vampire Genevieve Dieudonne (older, indeed, than Dracula, and somewhat disgusted by the violence and depravity of the Count), Newman doesn’t just create an interesting, rich world; he gives us characters that we enjoy and care about, and makes their stories every bit as important as the macro story going on behind them. Indeed, despite the title, Dracula himself is barely in the book as a character, instead mainly working as scene-setting – although his eventual appearance is well worth the wait.

Yes, Newman has some great ideas about vampires (my favorite is the “murgatroyds,” vampires who wear capes and act like, well, stereotypical vampires in an effort to appear fashionable); yes, his use of the Ripper makes for a great hook for the book, particularly with the identity of the Ripper in the novel and his motivations. But more than anything else, every single page of Anno Dracula is just dripping with imagination and surprises. From obscure allusions to surprising cultural shifts, from character evolutions to horrific violence, Anno Dracula is, first and foremost, a fantastic piece of storytelling. I got swept up into this ambitious, wonderful world, and I’m glad to know that Newman kept it going – I’m guessing that he’s like me, and just didn’t want to have to leave it.

Amazon

 

Get Out / *****

get-out-new-posterThere’s a lot that I love about horror, but one of my favorite aspects of the genre is the way that it so often reflects the fears and worries of a society. From the way that Vietnam influences so many horror films of the sixties and seventies to the way that technology becomes a source of influence into itself in modern times, horror is often a response to our worries, and a way of making clear fears that we’re already suffering. That’s led to a burst of great horror novels as of late that grapple with racial fears in the guise of horror novels, from Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom to Matt Huff’s Lovecraft Country.

And now, you can add to that mix Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a superb, taut piece of horror filmmaking that’s not always as scary as the best horror, but manages to wring astonishing tension and unease out of its premise, beautifully satirizes and makes explicit its commentary and worries about race relations, and does it all while telling a fantastic story and delivering a brilliant, tight script that only floors me more and more as I pick it apart.

In its early going, Get Out is only a horror film in terms of the discomfort and awkwardness it raises, as it follows an interracial couple home to meet the (white) girl’s family. Once they arrive, things get uncomfortable quickly, although not in the way you might expect. There’s no overt racism here; indeed, the girl’s parents are liberal, and go out of their way to make her African-American boyfriend feel comfortable. They praise Obama, they talk about Tiger Woods, they bring up NBA…in other words, they end up being every bit as racist, condescending, and uncomfortable as more overt racism might be, and the discomfort and awkwardness is so thick you could cut it with a knife. And in the able hands of Jordan Peele, who’s making his feature debut here, we’re immersed in the perspective of Daniel Kaluuya’s calm, exasperated male lead, giving even (and maybe especially) well-meaning white audiences a taste of what it’s like to put up with this sort of garbage. It’s a bravura piece of directorial work, and does a bang-up job of making its points clearly and carefully, and using its unease to maximum effect.

Because there’s more to Get Out than just this racial discomfort. There’s also the few other African-Americans Kaluuya sees in his time with the family, all of whom are unfailingly kind, and servile…and strange. There’s an awkwardness to them, an unnaturalness that’s hard to pin down. But it adds to the discomfort, as we, like Kaluuya, are forced to wonder, is this just a truly awkward, really bizarre, ultra-white family get together? Or is there something else going on here?

Peele has been vocal about the way he’s using The Stepford Wives as a tonal inspiration for the film, and it shows here, giving us a weirdly placid society that seems like it would be utopia for some people, but truly unnatural for others. And like Stepford Wives, much of the film’s unease comes from that careful balancing act, where we’re never quite sure if the film is going to become a true horror film, or if the horror is more personal and less actual, if that makes sense. That’s a tough balance to strike, but Peele does a masterful job here, foregrounding his character’s unease, answering questions satisfyingly but leaving doubt, and turning the screws carefully but unrelentingly.

Because, yes, Get Out isn’t ever quite truly scary, but it’s monstrously tense and unsettling, with some true knockout scenes that work like gangbusters (my favorite is the bizarre image of one of the servants doing his running at night, although Peele’s visualization of the therapy session with his girlfriend’s mother is a beautiful, spectacular image). More than that, Peele has a gift for pacing, letting our discomfort and unease with the racial tensions build, then pushing into more and more upsetting moments before finally giving us some elements that feel beyond what could easily be explainable.

I don’t want to get into what is or isn’t going on; suffice to say, though, that Get Out ends up being a thematically rich film, one where there’s so much metaphorical and thematic depth that you could unpack it for days. Even beyond the satire of well-meaning liberalism, there’s material here about cultural appropriation that’s pretty stunning, to say nothing of the way the film engages with historical and contemporary racial flashpoints. That the film does all that is spectacular; that it does so while never forgetting that it’s telling a story, and a thriller, is even better. The film holds its metaphor together tightly, trusting the audience to pick up on the themes it’s laying down without ever feeling the need to hold our hands. That goes doubly for some of the film’s rich, complex foreshadowing, which delivers payoff after payoff, often so subtly that you won’t realize them until afterward.

(At this point, I’d like to pause and say how much I recommend The Next Picture Show podcast’s episode about Get Out, which features not only some incredible analysis and discussion of the film, but unpacks much of the script’s cleverness, and left me sitting with my jaw agape half the time at the brilliance of it all. And as I read more and more about the film, I realized not just that every single moment is weighted with meaning, but that it’s the rare film that never hammers home its points, trusting its audience to unpack its secrets and be rewarded.)

Yes, Get Out is ultimately a little more successful as a dark satire than it is a horror film. But given how rich that satire is, how thoughtfully complex it is, and best of all, how well executed it is – from the directorial choices to the great acting, from the brilliant script to the tight pacing – it’s hard to complain too much. I loved it when I finished watching it, but as I’ve gotten further and further from it, and thought about it more, I’m all the more swept up by it, and just want to see it again to take it all in a second time. And the fact that Peele says he has several more horror films to come – as well as a TV series based off of Lovecraft Country? Even better.

IMDb

The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey / ****

the_girl_with_all_the_giftsYou could be forgiven for passing on The Girl with All the Gifts – after all, don’t we have enough zombie fiction out there already? Hasn’t pretty much every version of this story been told, to rapidly decreasing returns? And yet, I’ve been hearing nothing but positive reactions to The Girl with All the Gifts in both its film and novel forms for a while now, giving me the sense that this was something new and fresh, a zombie story that breathed fresh life into the genre. And by and large, those reactions were correct, at least for the novel; while Girl has some flaws and shortcomings, it’s gripping and imaginative, and so much fun – and so different – that it’s not hard to overlook them in favor of the great book you’re getting.

Exactly how much to reveal about the plot of Girl seems to be up for debate – indeed, many would argue that even revealing that it’s a zombie novel is a spoiler, despite it being revealed within the first few chapters of the book. But in the interest of playing cards close to the chest (even though I’ll say I knew the basic premise of the book going in, and it ruined nothing for me), I’ll simply say that Girl opens in a school setting, with a series of students going through their lessons. But it doesn’t take long to realize how much is off about these lessons – not just the lessons, but the sealed off military base in which they’re occurring, or the cells to which the children are carted – yes, carted – when the lessons finish. Yes, something is odd about this, but it certainly seems like a safer place than beyond the fences. Of course, that’s before classmates start vanishing one day.

That’s probably enough to get you started, but don’t worry – if you think you know where this is going (and again, I did before I even read it), Carey’s smart enough to never be too precious about his reveals, or to draw things out for too long. Instead, Girl constantly evolves and changes in front of you, doling out its reveals and reversals at a great pace, and letting the dynamics constantly change, keeping the reader on their toes without fail. Whatever the status quo is at any point in the book, don’t get too comfortable; Carey’s plotting is going to keep it changing and shifting, and keep the book compelling.

And yet, the book never feels episodic; thematically, it’s rich fare, with questions being raised about the nature of the zombie virus, and the distinction between us and the. That’s a classic zombie trope, but Girl echoes Richard Matheson’s essential I Am Legend in the way it approaches those issues, diving into the zombie virus with a love of scientific explanation that pleased me to no end, and giving me a biological reasoning behind zombies that was so obvious it stunned me no one had used it before that I could remember. But not content with using Matheson’s ideas about science-based horror, Carey also blurs the lines between zombies and humans, raising questions about our actions, morality, and where the line between monster and hero really comes – and delivering a knockout ending that took the book from “good” to “pretty dang great” in its perfection.

Look, for all of that, Girl undeniably has some faults, most notably in some of the supporting cast that work fine, but never great (I’m thinking especially here of the book’s chief antagonist, who needed just a little more tuning to keep her from being cartoonishly evil; as it is, you can see what Carey was going for, but it doesn’t quite work), and the action sequences are passable, not much more. But for all of that, it’s a blast to read, and more than that, it’s a reminder that even the most tired of genres can still be brought back to life with enough imagination and a fresh take.

Amazon

More Brief Book Reviews

Ah, May. That craziest time of year for teachers, where every spare second is taken up with grading, graduation prep, more grading, saying goodbye to seniors, making final exams, a bit more grading, and keeping all of the students under control. In other words, it’s not exactly my best time for reading and watching stuff. But I’ve still managed to catch up on a few things, even if one was for work and one was with the kiddos…

21412284The one book I read for me was Nick Cutter’s The Deep, a horror novel that finds its setting in a confined, claustrophobic underwater sea lab set up near the bottom of the ocean’s depths. That’s a great place to put a horror novel, and Cutter makes the most of it, never letting the characters – or the reader – forget the isolation, the darkness outside, or the sheer wrongness of existing in a place so hostile to human life. It’s the plot that’s a bit messier here, and it ultimately makes the book feel a bit cluttered and messy, even if the scares and horror work like gangbusters. The Deep opens as a post-apocalyptic tale, with a disease called “The ‘Gets” wiping out much of humanity, and one possible cure found in the aforementioned lab. But once the book moves into the waters, things get complicated, diving into twisted family backstories and a more constant, omnipresent horror that feels like Pennywise from It snuck into an apocalyptic novel. It all ends up feeling a bit all over the place for a while, as if Cutter had about three different novels going and decided to jam them all together, and the book’s odd pacing (which sort of shoots off in spurts once the book gets to the lab) keeps things a bit confusing and rushed at times. For all of that, though, Cutter maintains his gift for horror and psychological screw-turning, from a journal following a mind through madness to a cavalcade of nightmarish images that defy description and reason. And while The Deep sometimes feels like too much plot for its length – and occasionally feels unexpectedly rushed – it’s still a pretty solid piece of horror, if not as strong as either of the other Cutter books that I’ve read. Rating: *** ½

6867Meanwhile, work has found me re-reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement, only to find it solidifying even further as a true masterpiece, and among the finest books I’ve ever read. I’ve written about Atonement before (about a year ago, when I first taught it); suffice to say that it’s a story set against the backdrop of World War II, telling the story of a young girl who makes an awful mistake early in life, and her efforts to atone for that mistake. Re-reading Atonement, it’s even more clear how intricately structured this book is – how well it hides its secrets in plain sight, how its themes are established in even the most seemingly pointless scenes, and how every sentence, every word, is deployed to maximum effect. And none of that even gets into the way McEwan lets his narrative deploy emotional punches when the reader is least prepared, whether it’s watching as Briony makes her awful mistake or sitting by the side of a French soldier who’s dying far from home (in a passage that left me choked up when reading it out loud in class, and had several students confessing that they cried reading it). I’m in awe of Atonement – not just the prose, not just the powerful story, but the sheer craft and technique that went into it, weaving dozens of themes and ideas and stories together in a way that seems effortless, but holds together with each successive revelation and shock. A masterpiece, plain and simple. Rating: *****

9780439139601_p0_v1_s1200x630Finally, the kids and I recently finished up our bedtime reading through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the book that’s always been held up as the major transition of the series from light, fun kids fare to something more ambitious and “older”. That observation holds up, not only in terms of the plot, but also in terms of Rowling’s writing, which really feels as though it’s on another level from what we’ve seen once the book hits its big payoff. Goblet of Fire is a long book, and while there’s an argument that it’s got some unnecessary detours along the way, it’s hard not to enjoy all of the sidebars and wonderful journeys into Rowling’s imagination and world. What other series could dedicate so much time to the question of whether magical serving races are in fact being used as slavery, and lets that debate play out? (Indeed, one could easily argue that the book’s details are better than the main story, which really makes no sense whatsoever; there’s a lot I love about this book, but the story is pretty absurd, and deeply hurts the book along the way a few times.) But really, it’s the last section that everyone remembers, and rightfully so, as Rowling’s writing becomes sharper, her control of mood becomes better than we’ve ever seen it, and the characters’ ideals – and the themes of the series – become richer and more compelling. Indeed, maybe the biggest surprise to me was how much harder I took the big death of this book; while I initially dismissed it on my first read as “well, it’s a way to raise the stakes,” Rowling does so much more with it than I remembered, turning the last part of the book into a shocking moment that drives home to the characters the stakes of their fight. In short, I had a blast with it, even more than I remembered; it’s a fun book, sure, but reading it – and, undoubtedly, experiencing it through my daughter’s reactions – has given me a fresh love for Rowling’s novels. Rating: ****

Amazon: The Deep | Atonement | Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire