The Girl With All the Gifts Not-Quite-Review

It might be folly, as I’m sure many other reviews have already given away the first reveal of M. R. Carey’s new novel, The Girl With All the Gifts, but I’m going to try and avoid detailing it here. This makes my thoughts on the book a little more difficult to form, but hopefully they’ll still make sense.

My reason for not exposing that first twist is to hopefully preserve for you the genuine moment of being struck dumb by it, and fully enjoy the compulsion to see how the rest of the story unfolds from there. There are very few stories I sincerely wish I could experience again for the first time, and this one shot straight to the top of that list. Carey does an incredible job, very similar to the way Shirley Jackson often did, of coaxing you in with his strange, off-kilter depiction of a world before you find yourself unable to resist continuing deeper into it. He builds a desperate desire to know what happens next by employing a genuine empathy with, and fascination for, his characters.

Those opening pages form a skillfully crafted trap. Not only do they present a fascinating lead character in Melanie, the young girl we’re initially introduced to, but they provide the perfect setup for the horrors that unfold as the book continues. Carey builds a delicious air of dread, presenting the reader with a situation that isn’t remotely tenable, and teasing it out with immense care for as long as possible until that tenuous balance is shattered. This is a violent book at times, with furious bursts of action. Those scenes are orchestrated and executed with skill and precision, enhanced by the emotional investment we’ve developed for the characters through the intimate details he’s built into them during the quieter moments.

The entire story builds to an incredible crescendo, and a satisfying and strangely (unsettlingly) hopeful conclusion. The only thing stopping me from going immediately back and rereading the book again is the knowledge it won’t be exactly the same experience, which is why I sought to give as little away as possible. That makes this piece more my general impressions rather than a complete review, but I hope it still convinces you to try it, and have that first-read experience for yourself. Because those first few pages are most assuredly a trap, but they’re an enticing one you’ll deeply enjoy stepping in to.

Afterlife With Archie 1-5

I think the last time I read an Archie comic I was in middle school. Even then, it may have only been cursory, flipping through the book because it was a gift and it was there rather than really getting into the story. In the intervening years, Riverdale has changed a lot.

While Afterlife with Archie is a special case, it’s built on the frame of that reinvigorated Riverdale. The Archie line’s picture of everytown America is a place where class, race, gender, and faith differences aren’t whitewashed. They’re all woven into the adventures of the characters, a part of the total picture that enhances the story, rather than ignored or tacked awkwardly on out of a socially conscious sense of obligation.

As a result of that solid foundation, Afterlife is able to hit the ground running. The first issue snaps into the action, focusing at first on Jughead and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and their attempts to save and then revive his beloved Hot Dog. The characters in this series have, for the most part, been around since the Forties in one form or another, so even if you don’t know them from reading the comics themselves, they’ve become an ingrained part of pop culture. That allows Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla to waste no time revisiting who these people are and how they overlap.

That keeps the scripting razor-sharp, and the pacing breakneck. Aguirre-Sacasa establishes early he’s applying the traditional horror story law, that anyone can die at any time. Adding to that intensity is the flat out gorgeous artwork from Francavilla. From covers that evoke classic era monster movies to interior art with rich motion, the cells practically deserve framing. Each issue is a work of art.

The first three are all kinds of wonderful, but for me their perfect convergence is in the fourth issue. Here they’ll break your heart twice when Archie is first saved by a loved one, and saves a loved one at great cost. It’s a beautiful, crushing installment. The fifth issue’s focus on the Lodge’s loyal butler Smithers is both moving and clever. It ranges from a pragmatic accounting of which survivors remain in the group, to presenting a lovely tribute to his devotion and care of Veronica, to reminding us why these characters still work after seventy plus years. It also sets them on the road from the town they love and know so well, as it burns and is overrun.

From what I’ve been reading, it’s been a successful run, enough so they’ll be doing the same thing with Sabrina the Teenage Witch beginning in October. It’s a welcome reinvention, and a reminder of how the appropriately-maligned concept of a “gritty reboot” is supposed to work. For all the violence and horror in these issues, they never lose the heart that made Archie an icon in the first place. These five issues conclude the first wave of a series I hope goes on for a while.

John Hornor Jacobs’ The Shibboleth

First and foremost, if you’ve not picked up The Twelve-Fingered Boy you need to go and do that, and quickly. Seriously, the book is one of the best books I read last year, a truly stunning work. It’s also essential to read it before picking up the recently released second book of Jacobs’ trilogy, The Shibboleth.

And you’re going to want to pick that up, because The Shibboleth is amazing. Jacobs picks up shortly after the events of TFB, with Shreve Cannon back in Casimir Pulaski Juvenile Detention Center. His friend Jack is in the clutches of Mr. Quincrux, training with a secretive group to face the mysterious force gaining strength on the East Coast.

That force is affecting people worldwide now. An epidemic of insomnia is eating away at society. Violence is up, people are falling apart, and the world’s on the edge of burning. The other wards of Casimir Pulaski are being effected as much as anyone, and they’re directing a lot of that violence towards Shreve. He’s under near-constant assault from those around him, who all seem to believe he’s a thief. He’s not afflicted like the others, a result of him using his powers to pry into people’s minds. This allows him to soothe himself with their happier memories. He soon learns that he can now “eat” people’s memories, taking thoughts out as well as manipulating their actions.

It’s a tool he can use to help, removing their pain and taking away their insomnia. It also puts him back on Quincrux’s radar, now that he might be useful to his cause. With this new understanding of both what he can do and the continuing threat Mr. Quincrux poses, Shreve sets out to find and free Jack. He’s captured, and forced to join Jack in training as Quincrux and his operatives refine a group of super-powered children they’ve taken to calling “extranaturals,” or “Post-Humans.”

The Shibboleth is darker by a fair margin than TFB. Jacobs doesn’t shrug away from the more painful fallout when Shreve chooses badly, or when more powerful people assert themselves on him or his friends. This is still a young adult book, but on the decidedly more intense end of the YA spectrum. No punches are pulled, no quarter is given. Shreve still has his humor, but it’s taken a world-weary edge. His voice as a character just as strong as it was in the previous book, but also more interesting in the way he “borrows” turns-of-phrase or cultural references from the minds he delves into. He carries not just his experiences, but the emotional toll that accompanies the memories of those he’s near.

Once he’s taken into Quincrux’s clutches, he finds a group of allies and friends among the other kids being trained. Their mix of powers are being honed to face a terrible evil, and failure is not an option. Severe consequences await those who aren’t up to snuff. The mix of new allies takes some of the weight off Shreve; he’s much less isolated than in the first half of the book, but no less aware of how much danger surrounds those he loves. Widening that circle of people he cares about becomes both a blessing and a curse. Not being so alone also means having much more to lose, after all.

By the end we’re left with more of a cliffhanger than the first. This is in all ways a middle portion. In the same way The Subtle Knife or The Girl Who Played with Fire suffer if you haven’t read The Golden Compass or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it’d be difficult to jump in here without having read the first part. Also the end will definitely leave you eager to read the conclusion, which is thankfully due next year.

John Hornor Jacobs is fearless in his execution, taking the fascinating world-building of the first book and guiding it deeper into a dark and dangerous world. You’re anxious going so far down into the pitch black territory he goes. It’s completely worth it, and you’ll be left desperate for more.

Waiting Vs. Binge-Watching

I mentioned recently how much I’ve been enjoying True Detective. I binge-watched the first five episodes, and watched the last couple within a day or two of their debut. Sunday is the finale, the capper to the impressive first season. Sunday also happens to be the day the new iteration of COSMOS debuts, at the same time.

When we heard that COSMOS was being relaunched, we immediately decided it would be perfect for family viewing. My son loves science in general, and space in particular, and so this is a perfect opportunity for us to sit down together and watch the same show at the same time. So I’m delaying watching that last episode of True Detective. It’s not even a hard decision, given why I’m delaying it. (I did the same thing with the seventh, attending a yearly Oscar party with friends instead of holing up with Marty and Rust). I’m anxious about spoilers for the conclusion, but not nearly enough to skip watching COSMOS with the family.

Last week Hannibal also returned to television. That is a show I’d struggle more with giving up (still not really a struggle, just slightly more difficult), though not because it’s necessarily better than True Detective. I feel that way in part because it’s been a while since the first season ended, and I’ve had to wait to watch this particular story continue. And, now that it’s back, I still have to wait, week after week.

I like the experience. I’ve actually missed it, as I’ve fallen more into binging shows. Even House of Cards – which is excellent – doesn’t hold the same kind of pull because I can watch all of it now if I chose. I know that, as an original Netflix show, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Hannibal, on the other hand, only has so many episodes on demand at a time. Then there’s a lag between the show’s end and DVD release. I could stream the episodes, but I seem to find it easier to pause or stop a streaming movie or show and walk away, whereas when I watch on disc or while it’s being broadcast I give a show more attention. Hannibal, like True Detective, benefits greatly from that attention. It’s filled with details and entendres and implications that tease the viewer, all in service of drawing out the tension exquisitely. It’s that feeling I crave. That sense that the inevitable is waiting, but I’ll have to wait longer for it to play out.

Binge watching is still entertaining, but it feels more like speed-reading. Like I’m doing it to catch up, rather than savoring an unfolding story for myself. I know where the larger plot of Hannibal is going, everyone does. Lecter’s going to end up in a cell. At some point Francis Dolarhyde may arrive, possibly even Agent Starling will appear down the road. Even with this season, the show runners opened with a brutal fight between Lecter and Jack Crawford before jumping back in time twelve weeks. Now the run of season two will be about seeing the bulk of those weeks unfold, and not knowing the resolution of that battle until the season finale.

I appreciate that we’re in an era where we can save up episodes, and descend deeply into a show for days. It’s comforting to know missing or skipping an episode doesn’t mean it’ll be months before getting the chance to see it. But none of that detracts from the opportunity to watch as a show brilliantly teases out a story. Sometimes waiting can be difficult, but sometimes that anticipation is just what I’m looking for.

Reviews of Two Novellas: “Fierce Bitches” and “The Burning Men”

You have to know when to stop—and it’s a lot harder than you think. I’ve read several books that made me wish I had stopped at the actual satisfying conclusion instead of following the author into a hellscape of epilogues. This problem sometimes leaves me preferring short stories and novellas, in large part because the slim form keeps authors from rambling.

Two recent examples are Christopher Farnsworth’s “The Burning Men” and Jedediah Ayres’ “Fierce Bitches.” The Farnsworth is a newly released Kindle Single featuring Nathaniel Cade, while Ayres’ is an original short that got a lot of praise last year.

Taking Ayres first, “Fierce Bitches” represents my introduction to him as a writer. The thrill of discovering a new author usually has a tendency to raise their perceived value, but it’d be hard to overstate how talented and sharp he really is. In this novella, Ayres presents three linked stories that are as burned-black as noir gets. Set just over the Mexico/U.S. border, Politoburg is nothing more than a bar around which some shacks have been erected to form a makeshift town. It exists as a place for a crime boss in the U.S. to send his hired goons to disappear, where he then helps them burn through whatever he paid them buying his booze and drugs and prostitutes. The action kicks off when one of these goons tries robbing the bar and running away with the woman he’s gotten pregnant. Their flight leads into a story about how she ended up in Politoburg to begin with, which then flows into a tale about how the man tasked with running the town finds the tattered remnants of his humanity.

Ayres is a fearless writer who effortlessly swings between points of view and points in time. He even writes a section in second person without coming across as cute. He keeps his focus sharp and his words biting. None of these characters are anyone you’d want to spend time around in real life, but each one is engrossing to read about. There’s ample ground for more stories about Politoburg, so a return on Ayres’ part is possible, but this book as a whole is so clean and efficient it’d be a shame to pad it out. Thankfully Ayres doesn’t.

Taking a different tack, more towards the thriller and definitely into the supernatural. “The Burning Men” is Christopher Farnsworth’s latest adventure featuring Zach Burrows and Nathaniel Cade. I’ve written about the Cade books before, but to summarize: Nathaniel Cade is a vampire, bound by blood to serve the President of the United States, and tasked with defending the U.S. from supernatural threats.

I really loved writing that summary, because it sounds totally ridiculous distilled that way, and therefore leads to the inevitable follow-up “why would you read that?”

Because they’re remarkably entertaining. Farnsworth excels at writing political thrillers, and the supernatural underpinnings give them the perfect popcorn-like snap. Cade has the amoral, single-minded drive of Jack Bauer tinged with the sociopathy and brilliance of Sherlock Holmes. He’s smart, cursed with preternaturally sharpened senses and physical attributes, and unrelenting in his commitment to his oath. His partner, Zach, is a classic political shark, sidelined from a promising career into handling a powerful creature who’s natural predilection is to kill, not maneuver.

The Burning Men” is a standalone, a placeholder until the next full adventure. Here, the broader political intrigue of the others in the series gets dialed down as Cade and Burrows investigate a case of human combustion that seems decidedly less than spontaneous. That leads them to a domestic terrorist group using dark magic to pass through any security, stand in a crowd, and engulf their victims in flame. This outing is a standalone, a satisfying taste of what the series does well. “The Burning Men” lacks the historical asides intimating Cade’s long history of service in the shadows, but it deftly shows off how effective – and to us, entertaining – he is. If you’re already a fan of these books, you’ll be satisfied, but probably eager for more. If this is your first taste, just know there’s three more excellent novels waiting when you finish, and hopefully more to come.

Both “The Burning Men” and “Fierce Bitches” are fast reads, and while Ayres and Farnsworth are very different in terms of style, but both are well written and damn entertaining. Both authors know how to get to the point, satisfy without wearing out their welcome, and leave the reader eager for more without feeling cheated or shortchanged. I already knew I liked Christopher Farnsworth, so “The Burning Men” just reinforces that knowledge. I had no idea what to expect from Ayres, but after reading “Fierce Bitches,” I’m absolutely going to be on the lookout for more.

Thoughts on True Detective

Like many, many people, I’ve fallen down the “True Detective” rabbit hole. The series, which runs a scant 8 episodes in its premier season, is only just over halfway through. It’s hypnotic to watch the labyrinthine story unfold. There’s so much to enjoy here, beginning with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s jaw-dropping talent. Watching them embody two sharp takes on tough, guarded men has been a joy. McConaughey’s Rust uses philosophical rambling and an almost zenlike calm as armor, defending a corroded husk of a man, while Harrelson’s Marty imposes a compartmentalized simplicity on his life, often punctuated with explosions of rage. They both stand on the edges of different emotional cliffs, and a big part of the tension is waiting to see who falls, and when, and what sends them all the way over (assuming they haven’t already cracked, and we’re just waiting to see the true impact revealed).

I’ve also really enjoyed how, to date, Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Joji Fukunawa have written and directed each episode, rather than handing the series off after the pilot. The best series television doesn’t usually suffer too much from different writers and directors taking episodes, but watching a cohesive vision executed does make a difference I hadn’t really noticed before. Normally, the effect is only noticeable in the inverse, when someone truly notable steps in for a pass, such as when Stephen King or William Gibson wrote “X-Files” one-offs. Having a show with no deviations from the style and voice of these two really adds a tightness to the entire affair.

But overall, I’m in the camp who’s most drawn to “The King in Yellow” implications. The slight hinting at something more sinister than even the extensive human evil the show’s explored is fascinating, in large part because it feels much more true to what makes Lovecraftian horror tick. The monsters there lurk, spreading madness to the unfortunate souls who brush past them. “True Detective” is most likely not about to go into a full-on horror freakout, Cthulhu and all, but the way it teases that possibility adds a whole additional level to the storytelling. It functions in a very similar way to the opening of Jaws, or the root idea of what might shamble up from R’lyeh. The horror isn’t in seeing the creature crawling out of the abyss, it’s in the realization that something is moving in the dark water, just past your vision.

In spite of this, I find myself hoping they don’t go over that edge. I’m interested in how long they can preserve that sense of something terrifying out there, just past our reach. We’re plagued with a curiosity that demands we keep looking for it, even though we fear what we might find. Often, when movies and shows cross that line, and reveal the unknown, the fear seeps out. We have a tendency as readers and viewers to adjust quickly to things once they’re presented as “real” in their context. I’m as curious to see how long they can stretch out that tension, as I am to see what happens when – or even if – they finally pay those ideas off. The plan is for next season to follow a different story, with a different cast, similar to “American Horror Story.” Whether the show reaches the overall level of great HBO programs will have to wait for those future installments. For now, though, “True Detective” has shown itself the master of many things, and the art of teasing the audience irresistibly is right at the top of that list.

Shovel Ready

Adam Sternbergh’s debut novel, Shovel Ready, is a lean, dark thriller nestled in the heart of a dystopian New York not too far in the future. In the aftermath of terrorism, the city’s been left a shell of its former self, degraded to the level directors like John Carpenter and Walter Hill imagined. To survive in this brutal environment, some people have simply receded; they hide behind security doors and security guards, lost in immersive online worlds that became popular just before everything went to hell. Others huddle in camps resembling something between Occupy Wall Street gatherings and Hoovertowns, trying to build some kind of community among the forgotten.

Then there are those who need to keep working and moving, and the antihero at the center of this book is one of that group. Calling himself Spademan, he transitioned from legit garbageman to killer for hire in a world where that’s become a viable way to make a living. In his own words he’s “just the bullet”, it’s up to the people who hire him to live with the consequences. You give him a name, pay him his fee, and the job’s done, normally with his weapon of choice: his trusty box cutter.

The job at the center of this one is a problem for him, though. Normally hands off once the target falls into one of the few categories he won’t kill, Spademan finds himself stepping in to protect the girl he’s been sent after, and that leads down a dark and painful path. She’s tied to powerful men who view everyone around them as either sheep to be fleeced or roaches to be crushed, and have no qualms slotting Spademan into the latter category.

Which brings me to a brief aside, wondering what makes us follow antiheroes down these paths? Spademan is an anonymous killer, who won’t even tell us his real name. He’s upfront about what he is, we know it walking in the door. Why do we stay? In Sternbergh’s book it’s largely because of his voice as a character. In the maw of a crumbling world, he’s pragmatic and honest. There’s a dark, wry, cynical humor in his delivery. He doesn’t approach his work with ruthlessness; he’s a blue-collar guy. His world is brutal, and he’s just doing what’s necessary to function in it.

His opponents put a sheen on what they do, and in contrast Spademan’s honesty seems more trustworthy. Of course he’s also the narrator, and it’s always fun riding shotgun with a narrator who sounds trustworthy, even while behaving in ways that should make you question him. Donald Westlake mastered that trick in The Ax, and Adam Sternbergh does a pretty good job executing it as well.

Sternbergh keeps everything brisk; you know the weight on and around Spademan, but you don’t feel it, until you’ve gotten too close to get away. Peppered within his story, Spademan teases and hints, and each little breadcrumb leads you a little further into who he really is. There are heartbreaking moments hiding under the tough exterior, and Sternbergh, like his narrator, knows that the best way to draw blood is to get you in really, really close before striking.

Along the way there are a couple of extra twists that didn’t really seem necessary, but those are minor considering they’re mixed in with some beautifully executed ones you’ll have a tough time shaking. There’s also a very welcome door left open for additional installments, and I’m glad for it. I’m eager to spend more time with Spademan.