Brawl in Cell Block 99 / *****

7801760-5With his first movie, Bone Tomahawk, director S. Craig Zahler made a name for himself, creating a compelling vision of the Old West before turning his True Grit-flavor abruptly into brutal and violent horror. It was a movie I liked a lot, even if at times I made the comment that it felt a little overlong and shaggy at times. And, to be sure, the comment could easily be made that the film feels intentionally disjointed and disconnected, but it still makes for an odd viewing experience.

But with his second film, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Zahler makes a huge step forward, creating something tonally unified, unfiltered, and absolutely effective. It’s unmistakably a 1970’s grindhouse revenge film tribute, but one that makes use of Zahler’s willingness to take his time in his films, letting the characters develop to make the payoffs all the more effective. And please trust me when I tell you that  the payoffs here are effective – but they are also brutal. At times, this makes the violence of Bone Tomahawk seem like a dry run; it’s shocking, horrifying, and undeniably disturbing.

But that’s fitting for Brawl, which takes the form of a 1970’s revenge film, more or less. It’s the tale of Bradley (Vince Vaughn), a man trying to get his life on track, but struggling to stay employed. Through a complicated set of circumstances, Bradley finds himself going to a minimum security prison, when something happens that changes his whole plan. (If it sounds like I’m being vague, that’s intentional; while this isn’t a plot heavy film, it’s best enjoyed relatively cold, to savor Zahler’s brutal and unexpected machinations.) That, of course, leads to the titular brawl…which lives up to expectations and then some.

But as much as the film’s violence is effective, jarring, and nightmarish, what lingers more than anything else is the mood of the film, which gives even the happiest scenes a feeling of dread and inevitability, and makes the film’s slow progression to its looming conclusion all the more intense. From the blue-tinted lens work to the lived-in feel of the dialogue, it’s not hard to feel that Zahler’s work has stepped up another notch from his already outstanding work in Bone Tomahawk, creating something even more intense and gripping.

For all of that, there’s no way to talk about the film without talking about Vince Vaughn, who may have never been better in a film than he is here. Gone is Vaughn’s usual swagger and ironic charm; his Bradley is a hard man, shaped by a troubled past that we only get hints of and the vagaries of a difficult daily life. There’s none of Vaughn’s usual motormouth tendencies, none of his ability to talk his way out of situations. His Bradley is all physicality – tense, dangerous, coiled. (It doesn’t hurt that Vaughn bulked up so much for the role; he’s big enough to seem like a threat that’s ready to pop at any moment.) And yet, we get glimpses of the man underneath it all; even as he’s doing horrifying things, there’s no joy in it, no savage delight – it’s just survival. That’s especially relevant, given how much Zahler turns the plot on Bradley’s need to protect his family; for all of Bradley’s physicality and violence, he’s a deeply loving man whose only priority is to provide for those he loves.

There are other great performances here – Don Johnson makes the best of a small role as a prison warden, turning a role that could easily turn into camp into something more threatening and hard – but truly, Brawl works so well due largely to Vaughn’s incredible performance here, one in which he fully commits to the part. That he’s matched – or forced into stepping up his game – by Zahler’s outstanding direction…well, that combo makes Brawl as good as it is, turning pulpy revenge into something more gripping, effective, and tense than it might be on paper. It’s not for the faint of heart, but for those up for it, Brawl is an absolute knockout of tension, mood, and performance. Just be prepared for what you’re getting into.


Quick Reading Roundup

28965131Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes was exactly what I wanted: a pulpy, twisty read more interested in delivering thrills and keeping you off balance than in worrying about exploring deep thematic resonance. That may sound like a slam, but it certainly isn’t intended as one; after diving through His Dark Materials and dealing with holiday stresses, there was something great about having a book about nothing more than playing games with the reader. The plot starts simply enough, following two women as they go through their lives. One is a doctor’s wife, struggling with some mental health issues and dealing with a tense, fraught marriage; the other is the secretary where the doctor has recently been hired, who has started up a flirtation with the doctor while unaware of his marriage status. Flicking back and forth between the two perspectives, Pinborough lets us think that this is merely going to be a story about two women and the tensions between them, only to drop the rug out from under us with a casual aside that reveals that there’s a much more devious game going on, and one of our narrators isn’t as innocent as she seems. What follows from there is a gleefully twisty read, one that rapidly chews through being a Gone Girl-esque mindgame before evolving into something even wilder (an evolution that will no doubt either make or break the book for some people, depending on how open they are to books that gearshift into a whole other novel at some point). And it all leads up to a series of wild twists that managed to fool me, and I think I’m a pretty seasoned thriller reader; every time I thought I was getting ahead of the book, it managed to trick me again. I had a blast with it, and while I have a couple of minor misgivings related to the very end of the book, all in all, it’s a blast of a read – a wonderful little piece of pulpy psychological manipulation. Rating: **** ½

32796253Any serious horror fan will probably be intrigued by the title of Final Girls, Riley Sager’s debut thriller novel that toys with elements of slasher films. In horror parlance, a “final girl” is the one girl who survives a slasher movie, usually getting the best of the killer by the end; there’s a lot more to it than that (especially in more critical analysis, where the “final girl” trope has some sexual and moral connotations), but in the end, it’s about a survivor – the one who outlasts Michael Myers, or Jason Voorhees, or whoever. Sager’s novel is a play on that trope, following the story of Quincy Carpenter, the sole survivor of a lakeside cabin killing spree that left her alone, scarred (both mentally and physically), but alive. Over the years, the media has linked Quincy with two other girls who survived similar events, dubbing them the “Final Girls” – which means that, when one of them is found dead, Quincy finds all of her old trauma resurrected. Sager cuts back and forth between Quincy’s modern day life, with all of the emotional trauma and baggage left behind from that horrific night, and flashbacks to the night itself, gradually revealing what happened as Quincy herself slowly remembers and clears out the fog of traumatic amnesia. Meanwhile, a long lost Final Girl shows up at her house, forcing Quincy to deal with her trauma in, let’s say, a more direct and dramatic fashion than she’s used to, and things start going very, very bad. Final Girls is generally a lot of fun, riffing on the “final girl” trope while treating the events with every bit of the horror that would result if they really happened; even so, Sager gets to have her cake and eat it too, staging the actual massacre with a lot of love for 80’s slasher flicks. The ending of Final Girls sank it a bit for me, though; as much as I was enjoying it, the end felt far weaker and more contrived than the rest of the book, scrapping all of the things I was enjoying about the book in favor of a lot of labored plot twists that feel a bit forced and shoved in. For all of that, it’s a fun read, and I’d still like to read more from Sager; there’s a lot of promise here, and a lot to enjoy. It just doesn’t pay off well in the end. Rating: *** ½


Joe Hill made his name in comic books, so it’s no surprise that Wraith plays so well, giving us a nightmarish side story set in the world of NOS4A2, Hill’s horror novel about a vampire that feeds off of the emotions of children. Serving as a sort of prequel to that book, Wraith gives us a glimpse of the origins of Charlie Manx before following an escaped group of convicts who find their way into Manx’s dream-constructed Christmasland, an amusement park where it’s always Christmas, and a happily smiling moon lays overhead. That all sounds great, but as anyone who’s read NOS4A2 knows, the reality is far more twisted and disturbing. And as drawn by Charles Paul Wilson III, Christmasland is the stuff of nightmares. Wilson mixes just the right amount of surrealism and unreality into Manx’s “happy” place, making everything just the right amount of uncomfortably unreal, and keeping the reader off balance until the horror elements truly turn loose. And trust me, turn loose they do; Wraith is truly a horror comic, maybe even more so than Hill’s justly revered Locke & Key series – there’s violence, horrific characters, but more than that, there is some truly unsettling nightmare fuel in here, as Wilson finds a way to put Hill’s boundless imagination on paper and bringing Charlie Manx’s thoughtscape to life. From a plot perspective, fans of NOS4A2 will enjoy finding out about Manx’s backstory, as well as truly seeing Hill’s conception of his characters, but even the uninitiated will find this a wild ride – the plotting isn’t anything truly rich, but the experience works like gangbusters. Just remember, it’s not for the faint of heart. Rating: **** ½

Amazon: Behind Her Eyes | Final Girls | Wraith

A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly / **** ½

71mvwmg4azlThere are basically two ways to review A Game of Ghosts: one is by comparing it to just about any other thriller out there, and the other is by comparing it to the rest of the Charlie Parker series. On the former scale, as usual, John Connolly reminds you that he’s one of the greatest thriller writers working today, and blows just about any of the others out of the water; on the latter, it’s a solid, engaging entry, but not among the best of the series.

As usual for the Parker series, A Game of Ghosts blurs the lines between the crime genre and supernatural horror; while the book opens with Charlie Parker being tasked with tracking down a missing private detective, it doesn’t take long before the story spirals outward into a malevolent cult whose female members are in touch with vicious, dangerous spirits. And, as usual, Connolly doesn’t just deliver gripping action set pieces and a complicated crime saga; he’s also genuinely terrifying throughout, giving even the hardiest readers chills and unease as he plunges deeply into what he’s called “the honeycomb world”. As for the question as to whether his supernatural entities or his villains are more evil and horrifying…well, that’s up for debate.

A Game of Ghosts is the 15th novel in the Parker series, and it’s not an ideal spot for new readers to come in, even though the plot is entirely self-contained. But the best parts of A Game of Ghosts come as Connolly adds to the complex ongoing mythology of his world, whether it’s the increasingly odd aspects of Parker’s daughter Sam, his tenuous and uneasy relationship with federal authorities, or some unexpected developments with regard to that strange, tobacco-stained figure only known as The Collector. Even better, though, are the character beats; while the ongoing saga draws me in, the horror unsettles me, and the writing moves me, it’s the characters that I love, and that wonderful trio of Parker and his friends Angel and Louis continue to bring out life and friendship in wonderfully strange, dark ways.

For all of that, though, A Game of Ghosts often feels like Parker barely needs to be in the book; indeed, near the end of the book, Parker makes the comment that he feels like he’s constantly playing catch up with everything that’s going on. It reminds me of the earlier entry in the series The Whisperers, which again felt as though Parker was merely an observer – or maybe “witness” is a better word. Much happens here, and there’s little denying that Parker is a central part of it all, but it almost feels as though he’s reduced to a passive role in the novel rather than driving the story along. That this is perhaps intended by Connolly (and, given that Parker frequently comments that he feels that much is being kept from him in all of this, it seems likely) doesn’t quite stop it from being a bit frustrating.

Even so, A Game of Ghosts is a Charlie Parker book by John Connolly. And what that means is that it will be riveting, darkly funny when you least expect, intense, morally complex, terrifying, and disturbing – often all at the same time. And while all of that is happening, you’re also getting beautiful writing, complex characterization, and fantastic plotting. In short, it’s another brilliant read by one of the best authors that a lot of people aren’t reading. And if it’s not quite my favorite in the series, that’s okay; I’d still read even the weakest Parker book multiple times, and hold it up as a knockout.


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.


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

Blackout, by Marc Elsberg / *** ½

514fntzhxyl-sx316When I was much younger, one of my favorite authors was Tom Clancy. It wasn’t necessarily that Clancy was the best or tightest author; no, what I think I enjoyed was the way Clancy told stories, giving you a sense of the global perspective of events, letting them play out through different lenses, and doing enough research to give all of it a plausible, realistic feel. The result managed to always be gripping, giving even simple stories an epic, outsized feeling, and more than that, making them feel plausible and compelling (to teenage me), as though “this could all happen.”

I thought of Clancy a lot during the novel Blackout, a runaway bestseller in its nature Germany making its way to American bookshelves after several years. Like Clancy, author Marc Elsberg tells his story through a large cast of characters, ranging in nationality and status, and diving in and out of governmental organizations, intelligence groups, and computer geeks both legal and less-than-legal. More than that, like Clancy, Elsberg has done his research, telling not only the story of a covert terrorist attack that kills power across Europe, but diving into power infrastructure, IT security, government alliances, and more to show both the potential and the danger of such an attack. Indeed, it’s not just the original blackout that causes problems; it’s the civil unrest, the difficulties in getting started again, the lasting damages done to a society that relies on electricity, and so forth. And Elsberg’s research gives it all a queasily realistic feel that’s hard to shake off.

So, like Clancy, Elsberg has a knack for big picture storytelling, for research, and for carrying the novel through sheer momentum and kinetic energy. But also like Clancy, Elsberg struggles bringing his characters to life. That’s not to say that anyone here is a bad character; rather, everyone is a bit archetypal, fulfilling their function, and existing nicely within the confines of the plot. But much beyond that, the characters never really live and breathe. We’re invested in them as far as this story gets us, and that’s about all. Whether the villains of the novel and their overwrought philosophical arguments or the greedy executives, by and large, the cast of Blackout functions about like they do in any disaster movie – to be the human face of all of this. That’s not necessarily something that destroys the book, but it does keep it from ever really gripping you the way you would hope. (It also can get to be confusing keeping people straight at times, given that so many of them are similar.)

What’s more, Elsberg works best when he’s got some grounding and some research. His material about the blackout, the attack, and the rebuilding? Fantastic. The rioting, the civil unrest, the random arrests that hold back our heroes? Less so. Again, there’s never anything incredibly egregious or awful. But it can get to be a bit much at times, and the human elements never ground it quite well enough to make it all work.

For all of that, Blackout is still a solid read, and one that scratched that same itch for me that Clancy books did in my youth. It’s a gripping, propulsive narrative, one anchored in enough research and detail to come to life and feel all too plausible. And if the plot gets a little silly sometimes, well, that’s fine; it’s a pulp novel, and that’s allowable, as long as it can keep you reading. And this one definitely did.


Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch / **** ½

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

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

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

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

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

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