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 org½anizations, 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.

Amazon

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.

Amazon

Red 1-2-3, by John Katzenbach / **** ½

51izfw22bq1l-_sy344_bo1204203200_John Katzenbach, I’ve long argued, is one of the more underrated/overlooked suspense writers out there. He’s had a couple of brushes with mainstream fame – two of his books, Just Cause and Hart’s War, were turned into films – and more than that, he has a strong bibliography, despite a couple of flaws that dogged him for a long time (weaknesses with dialogue, as Stephen King pointed out in On Writing, and a tendency toward iffy endings). And yet, over the years, Katzenbach has gotten better and better, turning out some genuine all-time great thrillers like The Analyst.

And now, right alongside that one can sit Red 1-2-3, a gleefully relentless, gripping psychological thriller that finds three women being pursued by a killer who calls himself “the Big Bad Wolf”. As Red 1-2-3 opens, our three targets – one a doctor, the second a former teacher spiraling out of control after a tragedy, and the third a high school student increasingly isolated from everyone around her – each get a letter in the mail informing them that the Wolf has targeted them and two other women, and that he plans on killing all three on the same day. And from there, the book hits the gas and never looks back.

Katzenbach carefully paces out his tale, alternating between the perspective of the Wolf and the three Reds, and doling out his revelations and information carefully. What unfolds is a psychological screw-turning, as the Wolf slowly ratchets up the fear in each woman’s life…but also, as the women begin to find a way to connect, and possibly fight back. It’s a gleefully entertaining chess match, with each side playing blindly against the other and hoping against hope that they’re making the right moves – and that’s before the story gets more complicated than we originally assumed, as we begin to see the Wolf for who he really is.

What makes Red 1-2-3 so engaging, apart from that wonderfully put-together plot and the perfect pacing, is the richness of all four of our main characters. Each Red feels very much like her own person, with each dealing with her own traumas, pains, fears, and reactions to this nightmare. Moreover, as Katzenbach himself points out at one point (via one of the Reds), it’s not as though they fit onto a spectrum easily, where one is fearful, one aggressive, one in the middle. Instead, the three women don’t easily categorize themselves, and it makes their efforts to fight back more complex and interesting.

And then there’s the Wolf, a serial killer who manages to not feel like another tired, brilliant Hannibal Lecter rip-off. Instead, the Wolf, we learn within the first few chapters, is a thriller writer, one who’s done his own “research” over the years. That makes him literate, yes, and intelligent, but not brilliant or omnipotent. He’s just a guy, one driven by his own needs and his own desires, and he’s fallible, in a big way. But that only makes him more interesting – far from the usual shadowy figure with a vast secret lair, we start seeing that the Wolf leads a camouflaged life, and one that requires some work on his end.

How all of those threads come together should really be experienced for yourself; suffice to say, Katzenbach has a series of twists, reveals, and nightmarish plot beats to hit, and the tension is going to rise constantly. And just when you think you know where it’s all going to go, Katzenbach gets to his ending, and upends our expectations in a fantastic way, delivering a truly fantastic ending that feels both appropriate for all of the characters, satisfying from a plot perspective, and genuinely surprising at the same time.

All in all, Red 1-2-3 is a pretty fantastic thriller, and the kind of great psychological thriller that would be a huge hit if more people knew about it. So don’t miss your chance – this is one worth checking out, and pushing onto other people. You won’t be sorry.

Amazon

The Handmaiden / *****

the-handmaiden-posterOver the past decade or so, I’ve become more and more of a fan of Korean cinema, which seems to approach genre boundaries as suggestions at best, and more commonly, as outdated and pointless. Whether you’re following the insane twists and turns of Save the Green Planet!, in awe of the astonishing kinetic energy of The Good, The Bad, and the Weird, spending your time torn between laughter and horror at Memories of Murder, gleefully watching as Snowpiercer swings from black comedy to political allegory to horrific violence, or digging through the devious (and deviant) world of Oldboy, there’s something incredible about the way that Korean filmmakers defy easy categorization. And for me – as for many – my gateway into the country’s cinema came in the films of Chan-Wook Park, who helmed Oldboy and the rest of the so-called “vengeance” trilogy. Sure, Oldboy was the breakthrough, but as I saw Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, I found myself realizing that what Park was turning out was unlike much else I had ever seen, and in awe of the surprises they could pull off. And so, when I started to hear the praise and reaction The Handmaiden was getting, I got even more excited than usual for a new Park film.

What was more unusual, though, was the constant references to how “feminist” The Handmaiden was. Park is a lot of things – a master of visual style, a thrilling storyteller, a masterful director – but you’d be hard pressed to find the feminism of many of his films. And yet, when you see his most recent film – the underrated Stoker, his English-language debut – you can see a man who’s starting to empathize more with his female characters, to understand the sexual dimensions (and danger) to the twisted worlds he created. And so, I was intrigued, but not quite sold.

And yet, it all turns out to be true – The Handmaiden is a pointedly, assuredly feminist film. It’s also a period piece set in 1930’s Korea; it’s also a twisty, convoluted crime story. It’s also a glorious black comedy, and a tale full of violence and menace. Oh, and it’s a lesbian love story, with some quite explicit sex scenes that come along the way. In other words, it’s about what you’d expect from Park – and that means, in addition to all of that wildness, it’s also incredibly stylish, darkly funny, wonderfully performed, oozing with atmosphere, and constantly doing what you least expect.

Taken in its simplest sense, The Handmaiden is the story of a young Korean woman who’s hired as the new handmaiden for a Japanese heiress. (Side note: the way the film handles the dual-language issue with subtitles is a simple but effective method that I really appreciated.) Not long after she arrives, the heiress starts being courted by a Japanese count who’s been working with her uncle (who also serves as her caretaker). All of which sounds simple enough – except that, within the first five minutes, the film reveals that the handmaiden and the count are actually partners in crime, working together to scam the heiress out of her fortune.

And if you think that sounds complicated, that’s before the handmaiden and the heiress begin to spend all their time together, and maybe start falling for each other…and before the big reveals start crashing their way through the film. Because everything I’ve told you doesn’t even get past the first third of the plot, and doesn’t even begin to touch on the layers of weirdness, depravity, and violence that are lurking in the shadows. But the simple version is: if all you’re looking for is a great twisty crime story, The Handmaiden delivers in spades, with schemes within schemes, double crosses aplenty, and loads of shady people working their cons.

So, yes, The Handmaiden is undeniably a stylish, great thriller. But beyond that, it’s also a wonderfully feminist work, like so many have pointed out. Explaining how would be to give away some of the fun; suffice to say, the movie really gets going when the women fall in love, and once you realize exactly what the things are that they’re rebelling against  – and maybe why our heiress’s aunt committed suicide in that tree outside her window – it’s not hard to love The Handmaiden as a story about men who abuse women and the way they pay for their cruelty. Except, well, even that’s not quite right…but it’s close enough for the purposes of this review, and without digging too deeply into what’s going on plot-wise by the end.

The thing about The Handmaiden is that, essentially, it’s a crime thriller, one with a lesbian love story tucked into it. But summarizing the film that way is to rob it of its many pleasures – its beautiful and lush staging, its great performances, its wonderfully shifting moods, its thoughtful subtext, and its gleeful willingness to shift gears on a dime and take you wherever it feels like going. Is it pulpy, a little trashy, a little excessive? Oh, undeniably. But is it also incredibly fun, wonderfully invigorating, and excitingly unpredictable? Hugely so. And once you factor in the wonderful style and boundary-defying nature of it all, you’ve got a fantastic time in the theater. Just, you know, don’t take your mom to this one.

IMDb

Friday the 13th (1980) / **

f-13It’s time to come clean, as a horror fan. Yes, I love horror movies. I love the psychological turns of the screw of movies like The Shining. I love the visceral, inhuman terror of something like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I love the creeping unease and beautiful pacing of movies like Night of the Living Dead, which start you in a normal world and slowly plunge you into madness and nightmares. I love the impact of them, from the intensity of Martyrs to the simple, no-frills approach of The Blair Witch Project.

But apparently, I just don’t like slashers. At all.

I mean, there are a couple of notable exceptions – I think the original Black Christmas is one of the all-time great horror films, and that Scott Spiegel’s Intruder is an underrated gem that I really loved. But it’s hard for me to get into classic 80’s slashers, which mainly just bore me with their flat characters and – more importantly – a complete lack of fear or unease.

Even so, I felt like I needed to see Friday the 13th, one of the seminal and original slasher films. Even with my ambivalent – at best – feelings toward slashers, I felt like I couldn’t be a true horror fan without seeing one of the quintessential entries in the genre. And so, given the chance to see the original Friday the 13th at a local theater, I took it…and got about what I expected.

Here’s everything you’ve come to expect from slashers, in its original form. A soon-to-open summer camp, filled with promiscuous teens without much personality; a slew of inventive and graphic kills of characters you probably won’t miss; a Final Girl who makes it through everything and has to face off against the big bad herself. (And if you’ve seen Scream, you probably even know the big difference between this film and all the others in the series.) There’s even the obligatory final jump scare, the stinger that’s mandated (and clearly, clearly inspired by Carrie).

All of which is fine, I guess. There’s nothing particularly great here – nothing, for instance, on par with that amazing boat sequence from The Burning. But more than that, the biggest issue with Friday the 13th is just that it’s not well made. Horror is a genre that demands a lot of its directors – you need pretty tight control over your film, over your atmosphere, and over every other aspect of the experience. And Friday the 13th is sloppy, at best; the shots go on too long, the lighting is bad, the performances weak. (I can’t help but compare the whole thing to Don’t Breathe; even though the two films have nothing to do with each other, Don’t Breathe‘s incredible craft and technical superiority are constantly on display, and aid in the tension, unease, and horror, and you can’t help but wonder how Friday the 13th would be if it had someone who knew what they were doing behind the camera.)

And maybe I could forgive more of that if I was more into slashers, or more into the kills and inventiveness (even though they’ve been outdone over and over again by now, of course). But mainly, I was just bored by it all – and that’s maybe the worst reaction you can have to horror, short of laughter. I mean, I’m glad that I saw it, simply as a completist. And it’s hard not to be interested in seeing how the genre really got its start. But as someone who apparently just doesn’t dig on slashers, I can’t say too much great about it.

IMDb

The Girl Before, by J.P. Delaney / **** ½

28016509Ever since the release of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (a book I really love, for what it’s worth), publishers have all been trying to cash in on that book’s massive popularity, releasing twisty, nasty little thrillers with unreliable narrators, massive narrative shocks, morally complex (at best) characters, and much more. Maybe the most successful was the middling Girl on the Train, which boasted a great premise and narrator, but squandered it with a weak, overwrought plotline.

Now comes The Girl Before, which has already been picked up as a movie project for Ron Howard, and which definitely feels of a piece with Flynn’s book. It’s the story of two women, Emma and Jane, each of whom move into a most unusual house in London. It’s not just the stark minimalism of the house, though; it’s the complicated application process, the 200+ rules inhabitants have to live by, and the demanding, eccentric architect who still oversees the house’s high-tech systems. These two stories, though, take place two years apart, with author J.P. Delaney alternating between the two women’s stories with each chapter. And before long, we know that Emma’s story will end in her death, under what could charitably be called suspicious circumstances.

Delaney has a lot of plates spinning here, but perhaps the most fascinating is the way he (technically, “J.P. Delaney” is a pseudonym; many believe that the author Tony Strong is the writer behind the book) lets the two stories mimic and comment on each other. This is a book about patterns, about the way that people find themselves following in bad habits and shameful footsteps, and unable to break out of those cycles. But it’s also about the way that people can reveal themselves through those cycles, and in watching how the two women’s lives play out in parallel tracks, it’s not hard to start asking questions about what we can learn about the one man they have in common: Edward, the architect who designed the house.

Much of what makes The Girl Before work is the engaging, rich characterization of Emma and Jane. For all that these two women have in common – both have undergone a recent trauma; both are trying to rebuild; both are strong, outspoken women – there’s little confusing the two, which gives us two strong, interesting women to focus on and engage with. More than that, by letting the women narrate their chapters, we get to learn more about them than we ever could through omnipotent narrators – and, more than that, Delaney can play some games with his audience.

Because, make no mistake, this is definitely a twisty read. No, it doesn’t quite live up to the gleefully manipulative Gone Girl, but it works far better than The Girl on the Train, tossing out a slew of reveals that generally feel as though the book is playing fair but keeping you guessing. And while the major reveal of what happened to Emma isn’t perfect, it works on the whole, and feels, again, like the book is generally playing fair without going too silly or far-fetched.

Best of all, though, it’s a fast-paced and incredibly engaging read, one that’s hard to put down. I ended up blasting through it in just a few hours, and every time I’d plan on stopping, something new would come along and keep me hooked right in. And between the strong characterization, the clever two-lane plotting, and the ever twisting reveals, I had a blast reading it. It’s a great, twisty, fun little read, and done with enough writerly craft that you’ll find yourself drawn along and enjoying it without a care in the world. So read it before the movie comes along, and enjoy being ahead of the curve.

Amazon