I haven’t posted a review for some time, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t found some good reads. Holed up because of the Ohio cold, I returned to a couple of my favorite writers this winter, and discovered a new favorite as well.
First up was Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King. The first thing you should know is that this is one of those rare King stories without any hint of the paranormal or the fantastic. It’s a straight gumshoe detective yarn about a retired cop trying to track down a deranged killer. I always love returning to King. I can hear his voice when I read and his pacing is maddeningly suspenseful. But this feels like one of his in-the-middle books, the kind that come between greater works of his, transitional. There were parts I really liked. The love affair was sweet and honest. And knowing who the killer is from the beginning was daring. I wanted one more… something.
Next up was Anne Rice’s return to the Vampire Chronicles, Prince Lestat. I devoured her books the year after I graduated from Kent State. I have always been fascinated by how she can write such tender characters so full of life who happen to also be undead. Beautiful writing at times. Just poetic. This book is like the Avengers of the Vampire Chronicles, with every major and minor character coming together to fight the Big Bad. As such, it gets a little weighed down with introductions and at times feels a little Old Testmenty with the lineage stuff. Whatever. It was great and I read it with a smile on my face the entire time.
Finally, Wolf in White Van. Very short novel by a great lyricist about a kid who attempted to commit suicide but only managed to blow his face apart. Since then, he has constructed an elaborate fantasy world in a text-adventure game which people play the old fashioned way – by mail! Very cool concept. Cold and nihilistic. And yet it is somehow also about the beauty of the world and of surviving it. Each sentence is a gem but I need to read something more cheery next (alas, I’ve finally picked up The Corrections and can’t put it down.)
What is it with post-apocalyptic novelist feeling the need to go all Cormac McCarthy with their voice? Nobody will ever do it as well as ol’ Cormac did in The Road. And here, it feels a little too artificial. Just tell me a story, dammit.
The Dog Stars has something in it. Something I rather liked. There’s a kind of naturalist sensibility in the description of the world after the flu or some kind of genetically-engineered disease has killed off just about everyone. The relationship between Hig and his dog, Jasper, was a cool new twist on the genre. Nobody needs another father/son tromp across the wasteland. The prose, though distracting, was often prayer-like in a decidedly Terrence Malick way, especially whenever Hig goes looking for trout.
I want you to know I recommend this novel. I do. But it really flirts with the line for me, sometimes. There’s a point where Hig encounters a woman and his immediate sexual response to her kind of diminishes the love story the author as set up in flashbacks between Hig and his wife (whom he may have murdered to keep her from suffering).
I don’t know, man. A good book, I think, to keep in a hunting cabin or vacation home, to pick up when it’s raining outside.
ENORMOUS STORIES by James Renner
A collection of a bunch of short nonfiction stories I wrote as a reporter in Cleveland. 250 pages worth of profiles, scandals, and strangeness for $1.99
33 pieces of short nonfiction. Includes profiles of famous/infamous Ohioans like Bill Watterson, Tom Batiuk, Jeff Krotine, Louis Stokes, Calvin Blocker, Dave Chappelle, Dr. Robert White, Lawrence Krauss, Bill O’Neill, and Tim Russo. There is a section devoted to scandals, featuring articles about Marc Dann, Kevin Coughlin, Ross Verba, Tim Timken, and a kickback scheme at Hopkins airport. Another section delves into secret societies, including Pipestone, TEAM, and the cult of Scientology.
I’m writing this new yarn for the StoryShift app, called EXPEDITION Z. It takes place 20 years after the zombie apocalypse and follows a young cadet ordered to travel across the former United States to see if anyone else survived. Here’s the first chapter to get you started (click on the title page). Chapter 5 just went up today but you need the StoryShift app to catch up and to vote on the direction of Chapter 6.
Do it. It’s fun. There’s lots more cool comics and stories on StoryShift and the best part is, it’s totes free and available on all your devices.
When I was a kid, I loved comic books. But my family lived way the hell out in the country. The closest store, Spellbinders, was a half hour drive, in Kent, and trips were few and far between. Thanks to my six year old son, I’ve become addicted to them, once again, this last year. We live in Akron, now, and there’s a great comic shop in the Falls, J.C. Comics and Cards. I started just buying Spongebob comics for Casey, as a reward for good behavior. Aaaand now I’m hooked on a bunch and spending way too much money each month to support my habit.
If you haven’t visited the comics store since you were kid, you really should head back. There’s a lot going on. My personal favorites: X-Files Season 10 (Joe Harris brings back everything we loved about the series, including the Lone Gunmen, CSM, and the black goo); Walking Dead (duh. the cool thing is, the comics are about two seasons ahead of the show); Ghostbusters (this month, they’re revisiting the Zuul storyline); Letter 44 (cool conspiracy stuff).
And whenever I’m in there, I’m also digging through back issues of Powers (excellent early comic by Clevelander Brian Michael Bendis), Swampthing (mostly for the excellent artwork), and the Dark Tower stories.
Somehow, I also missed out on some big contemporary classics, which are prohibitively expensive to buy in pieces so I’m reading them via my library card. Must reads: Sandman (of fucking course), Locke & Key (by Uncle Steve’s kid), and for any Cleveland native (or true-crime fan) Torso.
Find the comic shop in your area and drop twenty bucks. Get caught up.
I’m part of the debut lineup of authors for an exciting new venture. It’s a new app called StoryShift, where readers help shape the narrative of genre stories. Think Choose Your Own adventure, only the story is being written as you read!
It seemed like the perfect platform to try out this idea I’ve been thinking on for a while about a young cadet who is sent on a mission into forgotten lands, 20 years after the zombie apocalypse.
StoryShift is available as a FREE app just about anywhere you get apps. Or you can click on the link and read it online.
My story is titled, EXPEDITION Z.
I haven’t been this excited in a project for a long time. This is something new and fresh and the kind folks at Evil-Dog Games were cool enough to let me be a part of it.
Get the app. Read the story. VOTE! And let me know what you think!
A handful of stories have changed my life and every time I find one I worry that it might be the last.
These are stories that inspired me to write better or to look at the world differently or to look at myself differently. The first was Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. Later came Cloud Atlas and Garp. I just finished a new one: A Visit from the Goon Squad. I was so taken by this novel that, halfway through, I had the university bookstore order a bunch of copies so I could teach it in the Fall.
What’s it about? Like the other books that fall into this category, it depends upon the reader. On the surface, it’s the story of several people’s lives and how they intersect with each other through a span of forty (or so) years. But, it’s also about: music; writing; love; compulsion; obsession; destruction; time; grace; insanity; sanity; city life; blondes; sex; regret; empathy…
Each chapter is from the point of view of a different character, someone you’ve met in passing in an earlier chapter. And each chapter is told in a different voice, or style (including second-person and power-point). Most of the people we encounter are caught in orbit around two people: Sasha (a young kleptomaniac) and Bennie (an aging music mogul). Though, it could be said Bennie finds himself in orbit around Sasha, too (I suppose he’s Jupiter).
The novel is structured like an album, complete with A and B side and chapter titles that gives us the feels of good song titles. Music (and art) is a thread that weaves these stories together, after all. There are harmonies and dissonant cords. You get the picture.
There’s just so goddamn much meat on the bone. The only thing I can think to compare it to is Ulysses. But it’s not that pretentiously dense. It’s accessible (I think). There are enough allusions and connections and themes to get lost in for a long time.
In the end, this is a book that does an impossible thing: it approximates the elegant complexity of life, and how our path veers off course in mundane moments, and how we are all kept on notice by the goon of time.
The premise of this story is pretty amazeballs: What would happen if David Lynch’s daughter committed suicide (or was murdered…) and Mikael Blomkvist took up the case? Essentially, that’s Night Film, the second novel by Pessl. Disgraced journalist (is there any other kind these days?) Scott McGrath is kicking around Manhattan trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life after having been sued by Stanislas (you can’t spell “stanislas” without “satan”) Cordova over a bad piece of writing. McGrath suspects Cordova, a reclusive film auteur who has driven a few actors insane, may be doing naughty things to children on his palatial estate. When Ashley, Stanislas’ daughter, is found dead, McGrath becomes obsessed with proving she died because of her father’s dark habits.
The novel is about the journey and how McGrath figures out the mystery. Like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this journalist teams up with a willful and strange young woman who is attracted to the silver fox. Also on their team is Ashley’s former beau, a troubled young man who just can’t stand still. But the story is also a noir novel about film noir, a meta-study of the tropes of the most bizarre filmmakers, people like Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowski or Dario Argento. If you’re a film buff you’ll love it.
There are some cool scenes in here. My favorite was McGrath’s drug-addled run through Cordova’s film studio, where sets from his old movies have been preserved for all time. And the creepy Oubliette sex club on Long Island.
Generally, I enjoy long books (this one’s 600 pages). But it felt 75 pages too heavy, especially toward the end.
Speaking of the end, holy smokes! It was as sovereign, deadly, and perfect as one of Cordova’s films.
So I got on a little Joe Hill kick this Halloween. Seemed appropriate. I read Heart Shaped Box and really liked it. And found Horns at an estate sale. Then my wife read it in like a day and made me. And NOS4A2. What a cool title, right?
First of all, Hill is thankfully not a “Stephen King-light.” Like his father, Hill loves putting ordinary people into extraordinary situations, and you can tell he’s studied his old man’s writing enough to pick up some of his tricks (calls-backs, magic words, etc.). But Hill’s background as a successful comic book writer informs his novels and gives them a different voice. A funner voice. Earnest, but self-aware.
Horns is about a young man who wakes up with devil horns and the ability to compel people to admit their deepest, darkest secret. It’s a mystery. The guy’s girlfriend is dead and he’s the main suspect and now the horns give him some leverage in the investigation. It’s also a surprisingly touching (and honest) love story. A novel as sweet as it is depraved. I’m still thinking about two scenes in particular. One involves a tree house that may or may not exist and an alien figurine sitting inside.
Just published is NOS4A2, about a vampire of sorts that lives off the souls of the kids he abducts and hides away in Christmasland. It was a fun ride (pun intended) and had the tone of an ambitious graphic novel. This one is very King in concept (with references to Pennywise and others) but its execution is more organized. There was probably an outline. King is jazz. Hill seems to need the sheet music for now. Which is not necessarily a critique.
I dug both these adventures. But there was one thing that bugged me a bit. Both novels propelled to a climax that wasn’t really a climax, one act too soon, which gave that last part the feeling of a really long epilogue. I suspect he’s experimenting with pacing and reader expectation. Interested to see how that develops.
I loves me some Dan Brown. I do. Not because he’s a great writer. He isn’t. But because he is a great storyteller. When I get together with my writer friends (picture us playing poker like on Castle or something) we snicker and chide Brown because he’s a bit of a hack, the kind of writer who never met an adverb he didn’t like. I don’t think he even really knows what being a “good” writer is all about. But, in the end, what the hell does that matter? He’s made more money than any writer ever.
I love reading Dan Brown not for the subtle prose, but for the structure. He’s perfected a structure for storytelling that manipulates the reader into thinking they literally cannot put the book down. He ends each chapter with a little cliff hanger and he’s always teaching you new things, always leaving a bit of the mystery in his back pocket. I study Dan Brown’s writing not to be a better novelist but to steal his structure for use in my nonfiction works. I try to learn from Dan Brown so that my true crime books are palatable for a reader who loves novels and has never read nonfiction before. It’s a wonderful structure for a real mystery.
I took Inferno on vacation with me last week. It was, literally, a beach read. And I think it’s probably his best work to date. It’s certainly a more literary novel than The DaVinci Code. With a bit of whimsy, Dan Brown takes all the tropes he invented with The DaVinci Code and Angles and Demons and turns them upside-down. In this story, Robert Langdon has lost his memory. He wakes up with no memory of the last 48 hours and must piece together his own history as he tries to solve the riddles of a man obsessed with Dante’s Inferno. Kind of like The Hangover. But more Florency.
But with Dan Brown, the mystery usually serves as a device to introduce the reader to a new idea that Brown thinks is really cool. Anti-matter. Jesus’s kids. Blah, blah, something to do with mind control. In Inferno, Brown teaches us about overpopulation. And what we learn is fucking scary. Like, depressing, why take the time to finish the book, scary. Seems we’re probably not going to survive the next 100 years because people are having too many babies. The Big Bad of Inferno is going to release a new virus to “cull” the population if Langdon doesn’t stop him in time.
Without spoiling the solution, Brown took a BIIIIIIIIG risk with the ending of this one. In hindsight, I think it’s possible this is a novel with no resolution, that rare story where nothing is actually accomplished, but you still feel satisfied somehow. The ending of Inferno changes the world in which Langdon exists. Permanently. I’m very curious to see if Brown has the cajones to address this new world in following Langdon adventures or if the repercussions of Inferno will be ignored the way the Kenny’s death gets ignored in each new episode of South Park.
I’m giving him an extra star for guts this time. Well done.