A Slew of Snow Week Reading

When you get stuck in the house for an unexpected week of snow days – and, more importantly, when you don’t have any grading or planning that you need to do – that just means it’s time to catch up on your reading. But, given that I read a lot over those days, I’m defaulting to some shorter reviews for this batch. After my reading post today, I should have a quick roundup of some family viewing I did over the days as well.

51qwwmse4bl-sx316-sy316Sarah Pinborough and F. Paul Wilson have both written some books that I really enjoyed on their own, so the idea of them collaborating seemed like a promising one. And, indeed, there are some interesting ideas at play in A Necessary End, a book set as a disease spread via insect bites has begun to wipe out much of the population of the planet. Set after the plague has already spread throughout the globe, A Necessary End starts off well, following a journalist as he tries to track down the origins of the plague, and tracking his wife’s attempts to reconcile the plague with her own fervent religious faith. But as the book goes on, you can’t help but feel that it should have been shorter, or maybe even a series of connected short stories. There are plotlines that feel entirely unnecessary (I’m thinking mainly of a revenge-driven man desperate to punish those he feels are responsible for the death of his family), and ultimately, it all feels like a book designed to explore how we grapple with the disconnect between science and faith. That’s rich, promising material, but A Necessary End doesn’t seem to know what to do with it, giving us an interesting final scene but otherwise spinning its wheels throughout, tossing out odd moments and details that don’t add up to enough. There are some interesting threads here, but it feels like something that’s far too long – and considering that it’s less than 200 pages already, that’s not great. Rating: ***

ATWQInspired by the Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events (more on that later), I decided to finally jump into All the Wrong Questions, the second series by Lemony Snicket. (Technically, yes, “Lemony Snicket” is the pen name of Daniel Handler, but given how idiosyncratic and fleshed out Snicket is, it’s worth keeping the pen name as the creative force.) Comprised of four volumes – “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”“When Did You See Her Last?”“Shouldn’t You Be in School?”, and “Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” – the series features all of the wordplay, literary allusions, skewed narration, and great writing that you came to expect from Snicket’s Unfortunate Events. But while that series was Handler’s efforts to capture the tone of an Edward Gorey illustrationAll the Wrong Questions finds the author moving into the realm of hard-boiled noir, complete with rapid-fire one-liners and dialogue, femme fatales (femmes fatale?), double-crosses, and more. Snicket/Handler makes the transition look effortless, keeping his dryly cynical tone intact while making the twisty detective tale work. The subject matter, too, finds Snicket changing tack; rather than the distant observer of the Unfortunate EventsAll the Wrong Questions is about Snicket at age 13, working with a chaperone assigned by his secret organization, and trying to figure out what’s going on in a dying town named Stain’d-by-the-Sea. There’s a villain working behind the scenes, a mysterious statue that everyone wants, a librarian named Dashiell who’s trying to get information out to the people, and a lot of adults who are absent/useless in any meaningful way, leading the young people of the town to band together to solve disappearances, thefts, and even murder. Each of the All the Wrong Questions books stands alone, but they work best as a single story, as clues overlap between the books, characters develop, and you gradually realize how each of these cases connects into a larger master plan. 61uokarjc2lAnd it all comes together in a fantastic way, with Snicket making a decision that justifies the series’ noir tendencies and finds the series, in much the same way its predecessor did, diving into morally gray and uncertain territory.  In other words, it’s a worthy successor to its predecessor in every way, and I can’t recommend it enough; once again, Handler shows how tone, smart writing, and clever craft can be accessible for young audiences and adults alike, all without ever feeling condescending or pandering. Rating: *****

A side note: I also read a companion book to the series entitled File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents, which feels like Handler’s homage to Encyclopedia Brown books. 13 mysteries, with the solutions left to the end of the book. They’re a lot of fun, with at least one solution being laugh-out-loud funny; and, as you’d expect from Snicket, there are some fun hints throughout, with multiple red herring solutions tossed into the final section. It’s a fun read, if fairly inessential, but if you’re a fan, you’ll enjoy it. Rating: ****

23208397Ben H. Winters came to my attention with his incredible The Last Policeman series, which followed a policeman struggling to stay true to the cause of justice as the world around him ended. Fascinating though that was, it pales in comparison to the ambition of Winters’ Underground Airlines, which is set in a modern-day America in which the Civil War was never fought, and slavery still exists. (To get in front of the obvious critique: yes, there’s something problematic, to be sure, about a white author taking this on, but Winters approaches his material honestly and thoughtfully, and his responses to such critiques have been strong and admirable.) And, as the title implies, there’s still an underground movement to get slaves out of the Hard Four (the four states which still have legal slavery) – a task made more complicated by the way the country, and indeed, the world, has tried to adjust to the presence of this evil still existing in our world. But rather than giving us an easy hero, Winters instead gives us Victor, an escaped slave who’s now working for the government, tracking down other escapees. That’s morally rich territory, especially as we come to understand what drives Victor, and Winters makes the most of it, filling Victor with internal loathing, questioning, and uncertainty. As you might expect, Winters uses his alternate history as a way of commenting on racism and separation in our modern world, from low-class labor and wages to isolated communities given no support by government – in other words, totally outlandish ideas with no relevance whatsoever. (Sigh.) Winters does all of it while giving the book the momentum and structure of a tight thriller, complete with double agents, espionage, organizations within organizations, and more. But what really haunts about Underground Airlines isn’t the plotting; it’s the glimpse at a world that’s depressingly similar to ours, where slavery and racism are legal and tolerated, where races are subjugated through policy and governance, and where people are forced to serve against their own interests. If that doesn’t hit home to you, well, you’re luckier than I am. Rating: *****

Amazon: A Necessary End | “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” | “When Did You See Her Last?” | “Shouldn’t You Be in School?” | “Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” | File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents | Underground Airlines

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden / *****

CoverThere is an art, I think, to writing about magic. To have a story that features magic is one thing; to have that magic feel truly, well, magical, is a whole other thing. Having characters able to do wondrous, incredible feats of supernatural ability is all well and good, but the best books about magic make it feel truly remarkable and powerful, like something primal and incomprehensible that we are on the verge of comprehending. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell does this, as do many of the works of Neil Gaiman; Lev Grossman’s The Magicians often does as well.

And now, onto that short list, I can add The Bear and the Nightingale, a captivating, haunting, moody, enchanting debut novel by Katherine Arden, who blends Russian folklore and fairytales with a historical novel, and creates something truly remarkable – a blending of fantasy and coming-of-age novels, a reflection of how the growth of Christianity covered up ancient beliefs, a ground-level view of history, and most of all, a fantastic story that swept me into its rich world and left me hungry for more.

In some ways, The Bear and the Nightingale is a rich meal that should be savored, letting its pleasures reveal themselves over time, so I won’t say much about the plot other than the basic setup: that the book is set in medieval Russia; that it follows a rural family with connections to the Royal Prince of Russia; that its focus is the family’s youngest daughter, whose love of the natural world – and the folkloric creatures who inhabit it – is leading to her independent and willful spirit, which may not bode well for her future as a dutiful wife. How the story becomes something more ambitious – a parable for the replacement of myth with religion, how the magic of nature and history begins to manifest itself, how the old gods begin to awaken…I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own.

What I will tell you that The Bear and the Nightingale is a dazzling mix of fairy tale,  coming of age tale, and historical fiction, one that blends the three effortlessly and in a constantly exciting, unpredictable fashion. Arden’s prose is luminous, feeling both like a translated Russian fairy tale and something more poetic and beautiful, finding the beauty of snow-swept forests and of forgotten gods, of frozen rivers and religious icons. More than that, she brings her characters to rich life, letting all of them thrive in their complexity. Each trades off of archetypal roles – there’s even a wicked stepmother, to say nothing of a strict priest who finds witchcraft at a glance – but Arden refuses to let any of them be so simple, giving even her villains pathos, depth, and sympathy.

Most excitingly, though, Arden makes her story feel thrillingly alive in every single way, from the awe inspired by magic to the immersion in folklore, from the complicated personal relationships to the details that bring medieval Russia to life. The Bear and the Nightingale is my favorite kind of book – one that feels so immersive that taking a break from its story feels like a shock to the system, as you’re thrown out of Arden’s world and back to our reality. (Reading a book about the frozen woods of Russia in the middle of an icy cold winter? Even better for the immersion.)

I truly loved this book; maybe there’s no more obvious tell of this than the fact that, as soon as I finished the final page, I immediately ordered book two in the series and began it without even taking a break. And I already know that having to wait a few months for book 3 will be excruciating. It’s wonderful fantasy, immersive history, and a brilliant story of a young girl keeping the spirit of her homeland alive, even before it was a homeland. I loved it, and am excited that this is only the beginning of Arden’s career.

P.S. How refreshing is it to get a fantasy novel, especially one that’s part of a trilogy, that serves as an entirely self-contained story, with a true ending all of its own, even if the story continues? What a treat, especially in this age of endless series without a conclusion ever in sight.


The Amber Spyglass / **** ½

51ibhcoarolThere are times when I think the only proper way to review a book is to read it twice, and that goes doubly when it comes to a series. Years back, when I first read The Amber Spyglass – the concluding volume in Philip Pullman’s astonishing His Dark Materials trilogy – I found it sprawling to a fault. The ambition was undeniable, and the thematic weight powerful…but it all just felt like a bit too much, as though it had lost track of the things that made me love the series in the first place.

Now that I’m re-reading the series – and more importantly, now that I know what Pullman is going for – The Amber Spyglass works far better. Yes, it’s still sprawling, far more so than its predecessors; it loses the intimate, tight focus on Lyra and Will, in favor of a war on God Himself and the conception of Good and Evil that anchors the Church. It’s darker, more philosophical, and far stranger; while The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife are pure adventure novels, The Amber Spyglass is about something far more abstract – it’s a book intended to prove a point that only gradually becomes clear as the goal of the series itself. And the fact that the book, in order to do this, needs to tell the story not only of the war against God, but of the Land of the Dead, and so much more…well, that can be overwhelming.

And yet, realizing that The Amber Spyglass is the book in which Pullman’s intentions become clear – that this is a book that wants to grapple with the central concepts of Christianity not simply by denying them, but by arguing with their intentions and assumptions – it’s not hard to see why the book feels the need to go so big. That’s a big ambition, and even more so when you consider that it’s done as a part of a YA trilogy. That Pullman succeeds is no small feat; by the novel’s end, he’s taken on complex theological and philosophical questions in the guise of a fantasy novel, and made it work, handling them carefully and thoughtfully. And the lessons that he’s working to impart are great ones – humane, logical, and important.

None of which would matter, though, if it weren’t also so well-told and exciting. The Amber Spyglass is every bit as imaginative, wild, and surprising as its predecessors – maybe more so, as its ambition takes hold in the novel’s second half. From angelic warfare to a bleak vision of the afterlife, from creatures who’ve evolved into wheel-mounted quadrupeds to our old friends the armored polar bears, Pullman packs his novel with details that could sustain whole other entries, but here function as just pieces of the whole. It’s a dizzying array of spectacle, all of which fits together into this fascinating, complicated world, and all of which is used to draw the reader along with constantly building tension.

But more importantly, at the end of the day, this is still a series about Lyra and Will, our two young protagonists on the verge of adolescence, struggling to find their own place in the world and figure out who they are. Pullman has done a wonderful job of using Lyra’s constantly shifting daemon as a metaphor for her childhood, and it comes together perfectly here, tying the overarching questions of the series to her coming of age. It could so easily be on the nose, or a step too far; instead, it all comes together perfectly, combining the plot and the theme effortlessly.

Look, there’s undeniably some arguments that The Amber Spyglass gets away from Pullman. I’ll concede that the book loses track of Mrs. Coulter’s motivations, turning one of the most compelling characters into something a bit baffling; I’ll give you that I feel like the book gives short shrift to its dazzling supporting cast, focusing on Lyra and Will perhaps to a fault at times. (Look, I love Iorek Byrnison. Is that so hard to understand?) And as much as I find the book’s larger ideas and messages compelling, I’ll even grant that it loses something in its scope, some sense of the rollicking adventure that drove the first two books.

And yet, for all of that, I can’t help but love The Amber Spyglass partially because of its ambition, for its desire to do so much, and to do more than be just a fantasy adventure series. As always, I’d far prefer an ambitious failure to a boring success, and while The Amber Spyglass isn’t a failure, I can admit that it’s not the perfect ending to the series. But it’s good enough – exciting enough, thrilling enough, powerful enough, and fascinating enough – to more than make up for whatever small shortcomings it might have.


The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman / *****

efbc574d33807f47c01eaac2124374c8Middle books are infamously difficult. They lack the originality of the first novel, but the satisfaction of the finale; they often are piece-setting books, a chance to get things in place for the final volume. And yet, every so often, you get a middle volume that’s every bit the equal of its predecessor – and such is the case with The Subtle Knife, which follows The Golden Compass in a way that both expands on the original’s world and builds on it, continuing the story while still somehow feeling like its own unique entry in the series.

Much of that comes from the decision to, at first, make The Subtle Knife entirely disconnected from the first entry. We don’t open on the cliffhanger on which we left; we don’t even open on Lyra, or her world, at all. Instead, we open on our world, with a new protagonist: a boy named Will, who has been desperately trying to cover up for his mother’s mental illness, only to discover that there might actually be men out to get her. It doesn’t take long for things to get out of hand, putting Will on the run and on a collision course with Lyra, as the two start finding gateways and windows between worlds. Meanwhile, back in Lyra’s world, Lord Asriel’s plan to do nothing short of battling God is coming together, with Lady Coulter still serving as the wild card in the mix.

In short, then, a lot happens in The Subtle Knife, which moves every bit as fast as The Golden Compass but takes on even more, diving between worlds, moving in and out of world-building, and taking on scientific concepts like dark matter and theological questions such as the nature of Original Sin. All of which could easily sink a lesser book, but somehow, Pullman juggles it all successfully, investing us in the characters and their plight first, and using his philosophical underpinnings as a way to drive the story, while never making them feel tacked on or thoughtless.

It also ends up making the series fairly weighty fare for its YA audience, but in a way that the best YA books manage, addressing its ideas thoughtfully but never condescendingly, explaining them in clear ways that never feel as though the author is talking down to his readers. Yes, by The Subtle Knife it becomes clear that Pullman’s idea of writing the anti-Narnia is more complicated than we might have expected; instead of simply arguing that there is no God, Pullman is grappling with the philosophical and theological assumptions of Christianity (and Catholicism in particular), arguing as much with the execution of the Church as the idea of it. That’s a fascinating take on things, and makes the series more than a simple atheist screed; instead, it works as a coming-of-age story that questions a belief system in thoughtful ways.

Mind you, if the book was simply a theological argument, it wouldn’t be this fun to read. And yet, again, on this front, Pullman succeeds wildly, pulling out action sequences, diving into the world of the polar bears, building to a massive war, cranking up the suspense, and delivering plot reveals that will drop your jaw. It really is easy to forget just what an incredible accomplishment this series is, and just how engaging, fun, exciting, and compelling it all is – and the fact that it’s not just surface sheen, but something richer, is even better. In short, it’s every bit as good as The Golden Compass, and maybe even better – and that’s no small feat.


The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman / *****

Screenshot 2017-12-06 09.41.45I first read The Golden Compass (known originally in Great Britain as Northern Lights, but retitled for its American release) in college, for a course in children’s and adolescent literature, and I was immediately swept up into Philip Pullman’s incredible, imaginative, astonishing world. I didn’t know anything about the series – not the controversy that it had attracted, not Pullman’s goal of making a children’s series that served as a response to C.S. Lewis’s allegorical Narnia novels, not even how many books the series would be. All I knew is that I loved this world, these characters, and the imagination on display, and before I had even finished the novel, I rushed out to the bookstore and bought the concluding two volumes in the series (wonderfully, I was assigned the book right after the long wait for volume three finally ended).

Now, with the release of a new book in this world (The Book of Dust, which I’m beyond excited to read), I decided to revisit Pullman’s trilogy, to see if it held up as well as I remember, and to focus as much on the craft and themes this time as I did the story on my first readthrough. And here’s the good news: The Golden Compass is even better than I remember, telling its original, unpredictable story with style and grace, creating a book that’s undoubtedly for young audiences without ever being condescending, and yet packed with enough nuance and thought to be satisfying for any adult reader. (In some ways, it’s the original Pixar film that way.) It’s exciting, funny, graceful, thoughtful, original, and just a pure blast to read.

To try to explain the plot is complicated, not least because so much depends on this intricate world that Pullman has built, where the Church reigns over most of the civilized world, where technology has a somewhat steampunk feel, and most strikingly, where all humans are constantly accompanied by their “daemons” – spirit animals, for lack of a better term, but ones that serve as an extension/embodiment of their souls. When you’re a child, your daemon shifts and flits between moods; as you grow and mature, it settles into a given shape that says much about you. And while that seems like a simple enough conceit, Pullman packs it with metaphorical richness, from the way it gives windows into characters we don’t fully know the truth of to the way it becomes a metaphor for aging and maturity – one of the key themes of the book.

Indeed, at its heart, The Golden Compass – and the entire His Dark Materials trilogy – is about growing up and maturing, and the accompanying changes that come with that. The series is primarily driven around the quest to understand Dust, an elementary atomic particle that seems to change its behavior based off of the age and maturity of a child. And while the exact nature of what Dust is – or, at least, what it may be – only becomes clear as the book continues, it becomes understandable very quickly that this ranges into theological territory, with questions of sin, evil, and the “knowledge of good and evil” coming into play. Which brings us to the deeper question: how do you keep children safe from the corrupting influence of sin? More importantly, should you?

If that sounds heavy, it should; Pullman’s trilogy is engaged in nothing less than theological debate, first as subtext, and then by text. And yet, while the content is evidently there from the early going, nothing in The Golden Compass ever makes the book feel preachy or bludgeoning; instead, what you get is an astonishing adventure, as our heroine Lyra – a scrappy, determined, outspoken young girl who grows up as the adopted child of Oxford University, more or less – goes in quest of her uncle. Along the way, Pullman brings in witches, aeronauts, a compass that taps into Dust to understand the reality of the world, and most memorably, polar bears, who live in an honor-bound society where their armor and battle is as much a part of them as Lyra’s daemon is.

That all of this happens in less than 300 pages shouldn’t work; that so much depends on us buying into Pullman’s world and understanding its taboos and the importance of daemons, even less so. And yet, miraculously, it does, thanks in no small part to Pullman’s rich prose, which plunges us so deeply into Lyra’s view that it’s hard not to get swept up into it. Nor does it hurt that Pullman’s imagination is so rich, and his pacing so fast; The Golden Compass absolutely moves, never shirking its characters, but never letting time pass without some new wonder, some thoughtful discussion, some incredible sequence. It’s one of the richest, most compelling fantasy settings around, and a forerunner for so much of the YA that’s become so popular in the wake of Harry Potter and Twilight.

The thing is, though? It’s almost definitely better than most of that YA, up to and including even chunks of Potter. (Blasphemy, I know. But read The Golden Compass and then come tell me it’s not better than, say, Chamber of Secrets). If you’ve never read it, you’re going to be blown away by it, I promise you; jump in and understand why this series captivates so many, and why it resonates so many years later.


mother! / *****

mother-posterNo matter what you think of mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s surreal, go-for-broke horror / black comedy / allegory / surrealist exercise / cinematic experience, you certainly can’t say that Aronofsky is phoning anything in. A director who’s almost always plunged into excess and operatic style touches with glee and abandon (the sparse, stripped-down The Wrestler aside), mother! is pure Aronofsky: stylish, mind-bending, impeccably executed, and utterly, 100% unique.

None of which is to say that you’ll necessarily like this movie, to be fair. Really, mother!’s mixed reception is completely understandable, even without taking into account the film’s completely misleading and inaccurate marketing campaign. This is a film that defies easy categorization, and one that starts off as grounded, strange drama before escalating to madness and operatic allegory without ever looking back. It’s a film that’s best appreciated as an experience, taking it all in as one would a poem, and trying to interpret it all, rather than embracing it on anything close to a literal level. And that’s not something that a lot of people are comfortable with – and that goes double if you’re expecting a conventional horror film here.

But for those who are open to what Aronofsky is doing, mother! is gloriously insane and  gleefully anarchic – a reminder of what cinema and film can do that no other medium can do. Even in the early going, Aronofsky’s control of staging and mood is impeccable, but as the film hits its astonishing, chaotic final act, it becomes something wholly else: wild, careening, ambitious, surreal, terrifying, exciting, and overwhelming. And, most importantly, in Aronofsky’s hands, it becomes something captivating and unforgettable – a surreal nightmare turned real, an escalating portrait of madness, mania, and selfishness.

Much has been made out of the question of what mother! “means,” which is simultaneously a compelling question and a fully inadequate way to describe what makes the film great. Yes, there’s no denying that in many ways, the film is a religious allegory, one concerned with how our relationship with the divine is still eternally selfish and driven by our own needs; that the film deals with climate change and the way we abuse the gifts of nature is all a part of that. And yet, at the same time, couldn’t it all be a scathing look at the life of celebrities and public figures, and the difficulty in drawing a line between private and public? Or couldn’t it be a portrait of codependent relationships and what happens when you invest everything in someone else and have nothing left of your own? To which I’d say: yes, and yes! Or maybe no! So much of the joy of the film comes from the way its meaning, like so much art, is in the eye of the beholder. mother! won’t hold your hand, it won’t give you a guide; it’s up to you to decide what it means to you, and really, I’ve yet to hear a take that didn’t resonate with me.

But even though mother! all but demands you spin time unpacking and understanding it, doing so doesn’t get me any closer to unpacking the experience of watching this movie, and conveying the astonishing impact it has on a viewer. It doesn’t capture Jennifer Lawrence’s incredible performance as she reacts with confusion, bewilderment, unease, and horror at the unfolding insanity around her, nor does it capture the way Javier Bardem can embody both wrath and beneficence perfectly. It doesn’t come close to giving you a sense of the film’s gloriously dark sense of humor, as scenes constantly go in unexpected directions. (The brilliant crew at The Next Picture Show podcast did an amazing episode about the way the film evokes the work of Luis Buñuel, focusing on The Exterminating Angel; I can’t recommend it enough.) It doesn’t give you a sense of the unease as people reveal their darkest sides, as brotherly squabbles turn bloody, or movements of love become all out battles to the death. And most of all, nothing I can write can explain the excitement, uncertainty, and sheer wildness of the film’s final act, which is one of the boldest, gutsiest, and most astonishing sequences I’ve seen in years.

mother! isn’t for all tastes, pure and simple; as my friend Adam said, I bet a lot of CinemaScore people would have gone lower than F if allowed. But I’m so glad it exists; at a point where it feels like almost every movie is a reboot, a sequel, or a franchise, mother! is defiantly unique – a middle finger to easily quantifiable films and a love letter to what cinema can accomplish. No, it’s not for everyone, and that’s what makes it great. Because if it’s for you, trust me, you’re in for an experience you will never forget, and a film that helps remind you of why you fell in love with film in the first place.


A Time of Torment, by John Connolly / *****

A brief note: I actually read A Time of Torment a year ago, when it was first released, but apparently my review never actually published, or perhaps was eaten by some Internet goblins. Since I just finished Connolly’s newest novel, I figured this would be as good a time as any to get it put back up here.

     “I used to think this was all about good and evil,” said Rickett, “but it’s not.”
     “There’s a kind of evil that isn’t even in opposition to good, because good is an irrelevance to it. It’s a foulness that’s right at the heart of existence, born with the stuff of the universe. It’s in the decay to which all things tend. It is, and it always will be, but in dying, we leave it behind.”
     “And while we’re alive?”
     “We set our souls against it, and our saints and angels, too.” He patted Parker on the shoulder. “Especially the destroying ones.”
     Parker walked to his car, got in, and started the engine. The past is more real than the present, he thought, and we carry our histories with us.

– John Connolly, A Time of Torment

a-time-of-torment-9781501118326_hrI’m going to be straightforward here: John Connolly is one of the best writers working today. Period. Full stop. His prose is astonishing – it displays a poet’s ability with words, a gift for finding beauty even in the most nightmarish of places. (That quote above? It’s an aside – not even a major moment of the book. That’s how good he is.) But he also has the soul of a horror writer, creating some of the most disturbing, unsettling, and truly nightmarish characters, settings, and entities that I have ever read – and I am an avid horror fan, to put it mildly. And in book after book, Connolly has delivered gripping plotting, unsettling horrors, a great sense of humor, and a gift for writing that is unparalleled.

And even with all of this, A Time of Torment may be his best work to date. And that is no small feat.

A Time of Torment is the latest (#14!) in the Charlie Parker series, an ongoing series which defies easy description. Nominally, it is a crime series, one that finds Parker investigating cases and dealing with horrific crimes, often accompanied by his friends Angel and Louis. But that quick overview doesn’t quite prepare you for the darkness and true evil that lurks at the core of the Parker books, which have become an examination of good and evil, of morality, of the nature of human cruelty, and more than that, an unblinking look at human depravity and insanity. And as the series has continued, the lines between “reality” and the “supernatural” have blurred, often overlapping until there’s no clear distinction between the two.

But A Time of Torment is different from the rest of the books – and that difference lies in Parker. Parker’s inner war with himself – his nature, his choices, his actions – has anchored every one of the Parker novels to date, and Connolly’s willingness to engage with his character’s guilt (and lack thereof) has been part of the series’ greatness to date. But the events of the last few books have changed Parker irrevocably, forcing his hand and turning him from an unwilling member of this battle and into a hunter. And A Time of Torment finds him embracing that role, searching for the source and heart of the evils that have beset him, and using those around him in an effort to cleanse this world.

It’s a dangerous, ruthless new version of Parker – and given that Parker wasn’t exactly weak to begin with, that’s saying something. And yet, he’s undeniably the same man; A Time of Torment opens with Parker tracking down a man who is responsible for a series of murders, and rendering his own judgment against him. But that’s only the start-up for A Time of Torment, which finds Parker helping a man who worries that he has angered a small West Virginia community known as The Cut – and perhaps an entity known as “the Dead King”.

From there, A Time of Torment unfolds with the relentlessness of a nightmare, as we see not only what the Cut is capable of, but the evil that it seems to inspire in those who inhabit it. More than that, though, we see what Parker looks like when he is on a mission, as he, Angel, and Louis slowly focus in on the Cut with the precision of a laser, but the devastation of a force of nature.

A Time of Torment is part crime story, part thriller, and part unsettling horror novel. The crimes and murders at the core of the book are horrifying beyond words, and the glimpses Connolly gives us into the hearts of these men disturbing. But even with that, what grips you about the Parker books is the riveting plotting, which displays Connolly’s incredible gift for starting with a simple incident and letting it expand until you feel that you’ve entered into a whole second world, one filled with shadows and creatures best left unseen. And his depiction of the Cut ranks among his best examples of this, bringing to life a community that defines itself in opposition to the world around it, and enforces its own rules with ruthless force – all while being infused with the constant presence of some thing at its core that corrupts everything around it.

Indeed, it’s that incredible sense of atmosphere and dread that makes Connolly’s books so strong and stand out so much. Yes, his books can be surprisingly funny – there’s a recurring plot thread involving Angel’s obsession with restrooms that never stops being hilarious every time it pops up – but what lingers is the sense of a world, one where evil is very real, where there is a corrupting influence in our reality…and yet, also a world where there is a force of good. But when that force of good comes in the form of the violence and destruction that Parker brings, that becomes a source of ambiguity – a shade of gray where Connolly excels.

Here’s the thing, in short: A Time of Torment just may be the best book Connolly has written yet, and that’s in a career where he has written some of the best thrillers I’ve ever read – and I am a voracious, obsessive reader. To miss this book is to miss a masterpiece, plain and simple. Should you start at the beginning of the series? Almost definitely – but whatever the case, read this book, and be scared, excited, moved, and terrified.