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review 2018-07-21 14:36
Experimental, challenging, touching and funny at times but not a crowd-pleaser.
Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

I thank NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

First, in case you have not read the book or anything about it, and wonder what the bardo of the title refers to, it is a Buddhist concept (in Tibetan Buddhism, it seems, and I’ve read that Saunders is a Buddhist) referring to an intermediate state between death and rebirth (between two lives on Earth).

Now that we’ve cleared that out, if you follow my blog, you might remember that I reviewed some of the books that had made the long and the short-list of the Booker Prize. I enjoyed some of them more than others, but I had not read the book that actually won the Prize, and when I saw it come up on NetGalley, I could not resist. I had heard and read a great deal about it, and I felt I had to check it for myself.

This is not a standard novel. It is composed of fragments, divided into chapters, some that appear to contain extracts from a variety of written historical documents (diaries, newspapers, books, memoirs) which provide background to the events, Lincoln’s presidency and the tragic death of his son, Willie, victim to typhoid fever. Other chapters, also fragmented, contain first-person observations by a large variety of characters that ‘live’ at the cemetery where Willie is laid to rest. Call them ghosts, spirits, or whatever you prefer, they seem to have been there for a while, some longer than others, and they interact with each other, while at the same time talking about themselves and taking a keen interested on little Willie Lincoln and his father. We have the spirits of black and white characters, young and old, men and women, well-off citizens and paupers, people who had lead seemingly morally exemplary lives and others who had gone down the wrong path, some who had taken their own lives, others who had died by accident or in bed. There are some actively atoning for their sins while others only seek entertainment. They are a motley crew, and although we hear mostly from three of these characters (Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and the Reverend Everly Thomas) and from Willie, they all make important contributions and help create a whole that is more than its parts.

The structure of the novel is puzzling and intriguing, and although it made me think of postmodernism and pastiche, the methodology used to construct the novel is not an attempt at emptying it of meaning or making us reflect upon the artificiality and futility of seeking truth and understanding. The death of a child (even if we are not parents, most of us are close enough to the children of relatives and/or friends to be able to imagine what it must be like) is a terrible tragedy and although there are light moments in the novel, there are touching and moving ones as well. Some of the fragments emphasise the diverse opinions and judgements about Lincoln and his presidency (by the way, although some of these fragments are real documents from the period, others have been created by Saunders, and it is not evident while reading which ones are which), but everybody agrees on the devastating effect the death of his son had over the president. The hopeful ending might feel somewhat surprising but is open to interpretation, like the rest of the text.

There are fragments that will make readers wonder about religious beliefs, others that question the social order, racial ideas, and the Civil War. But I fully understand the puzzlement of many readers who leave negative reviews on this book (and the negative reviews are many) stating that they don’t understand anything, it goes over their heads, and it is not really a novel. Some readers, familiar with Saunders’s short-stories, prefer those to the novel, but as I have not read them, I cannot comment.

Here some examples of the style of writing in the book (in this case, I definitely recommend prospective readers to check inside or get a sample to see if it suits their reading taste).

…only imagine the pain of that, Andrew, to drop one’s precious son into that cold stone like some broken bird & be on your way.

Mr. Collier (shirt clay-stained at the chest from his fall, nose crushed nearly flat) was constantly compelled to float horizontally, like a human compass needle, the top of his head facing in the direction of whichever of his properties he found himself most worried about at the moment.

The money flows out, tens of thousands of men wait, are rearranged to no purpose, march pointlessly over expensive bridges thrown up for the occasion, march back across the same bridges, which are then torn down. And nothing whatsoever is accomplished.

Blame and Guilt are the furies that haunt houses where death takes children like Willie Lincoln; and in this case there was more than enough blame to go around.

The book collects a large number of endorsements and reviews at the end, and I’ve chosen this one by James Marriott, from The Times, for its briefness and accuracy: ‘The book is as weird as it sounds, but it’s also pretty darn good.’

In sum, this is a highly experimental book, for readers who enjoy a challenge and don’t mind a non-linear narrative, who enjoy literary fiction not focused on plot, and are intrigued by new writers and what makes critics tic. It is not an easy read, but it is a rewarding one and I, for one, hope to catch up on some of the author's previous books.

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review 2018-07-18 21:00
DARKEST HOURS by Mike Thorn
Darkest Hours - Mike Thorn

On top of having this super cool cover, within these pages I discovered some of the best short, dark fiction I've read in a long while! Let's talk about it, shall we?

 

When I was young and couldn't afford bookstores, I often went to the library. (I still do, actually, because I love them, not because I have to.) I developed a love of horror back then, but our library's collection consisted of about two shelves. Once I read those, I started reading all of their anthologies and collections, in the hopes of finding new authors. In this way, I discovered Richard Matheson, Steve Rasnic Tem, Dennis Etchison, Ray Bradbury and other writers that I still love to this day. DARKEST HOURS brought me back to that time of discovery-horror and dark fiction in all of its glorious, different forms. Reading this collection made me feel like a kid again. 

 

This volume begins with the story HAIR. I knew right then that this book was going to be a force to be reckoned with. Coming unapologetically out of left field, Thorn hits you with this tale of unstoppable hair and then moves on to something out of right field, just to keep you off balance.

 

THE AUTEUR It's important to know who you're talking to when you ask for horror recommendations from people. You may find out a little too much about them otherwise, but by then it might be too late. Hair plays a role in this story too. (P.S. Always feel free to ask me for horror recs. You're safe with me. But employees from Verne's Video? Watch out for them!) 

 

CHOO CHOO This story felt like it came out of one of those early collections that I loved so much. With an ending so unexpected that it felt like I got hit by a train, this tale made me laugh out loud with glee.

 

LONG MAN I never thought anything could compete against the Long Walker in my imagination. (Thank you to Nick Cutter's Little Heaven for that.) But now, now we have Long Man. He's even scarier-trust me on this. 

 

ECONOMY THESE DAYS Here again is another story, completely different, completely unlike any other story here. How much physical abuse would you be willing to take to pay your bills? What would that abusive job look like? Of what would a promotion consist? This tale proposes answers to all of those things and oddly, I don't think it's that far out of the realm of possibility. 

 

SABBATICAL If I hadn't felt the spirit of Stephen King in this story, the main character's names of Thad and Gage would've put me in mind of him anyway. I cannotdescribe this story, but it was just so much fun it made me want to do some kind of dance-the dance of my dark fiction people. The dance is delightful and it's only brought on by the best and most twisted of tales. This is one of them. 

 

Stars will collapse and new lights will prick through the sky,

and screaming will not help. 

 

SCHLUTER The most disturbing story I've ever read was written by Michael Blumlein who is a doctor. (Trust me when I say I have read some VERY disturbing stories.) I found it disturbing because in some universe it could happen. SCHLUTER has now taken THE MOST DISTURBING STORY EVER medal. What that medal would look like, I don't want to know, but Mike Thorn owns it. Take this one little harmless sentence for instance:

 

 His mind screamed, but his sutured lips twitched noiselessly.

 

If that sentence doesn't bother you, okay then, to each his own. However, if that sentence makes you want to run out and buy this book, heed your feelings, man! You won't be disappointed.

 

There are a few themes that became apparent throughout this book, academia being the one that surprised me the most, but also: hair. I don't remember ever reading a collection where simple hair is used in such a menacing, disgusting, or just mentioned in passing but still in a creepy-as-hell- kind of way. 

 

 

Okay then-to sum up: disturbing tales? Check! A wide-ranging variety of stories? Check!

Extremely well written? Check! It almost seems like this collection was written with me in mind-it was so perfect for me that I don't even know what else to say. Well, other than this: I think Mike Thorn is an author to watch. I think he's going to do great things in the world of horror and dark fiction, and I for one, will be there to watch it. Will you?

 

My highest recommendation. Period. Get a copy here: DARKEST HOURS

 

*I was provided an e-copy of this book in exchange for my honest feedback. This is it.*

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review 2018-07-11 11:22
Review: “Little Boy Dead: A Boystown Prequel” (Boystown Mysteries, #0) by Marshall Thornton
Little Boy Dead: A Boystown Prequel - Marshall Thornton

 

~ 3.5 stars ~

 

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review 2018-07-10 17:55
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Strange Highways - Dean Koontz

I do re-read this one mostly in the month of October. Koontz really sings in this short story collection. Maybe he should think about publishing more short stories since even some of his shorts he has written lately have been better than the full length novels that have followed.

 

All in all the books showcase the good with Koontz. He can spin a sentence and also scare you at the same time. You get some religious musings here and there, but honestly everything in most of the stories works. I kept wishing after I first read this, that Koontz would think about spinning off some of the characters that we meet here. Too bad he never did.

 

"Strange Highways" (5 stars). The anchor of the collection this one was really good. We follow a man named Joey who is in essence a failure. He tried to be an author and is pretty much dead broke. He returns to his hometown in Pennsylvania to attend his father's funeral. His brother is successful and Joey doesn't know why, but he can't stand to be around him. When a second chance has Joey back in the past to fix a mistake that can lead him down a different path. This one had a lot going on with it, but it all works. Most time travel stories make me go hmmm, but Koontz plays with it in a good way and the reveal about what happened to Joey in the past and who was behind it was actually scary. I think Koontz also smartly incorporated the town. We find out this is a dying former mill town (there are lots in PA) and due to that many people had left it when he was a teen, when Joey goes back as an adult you feel like time stopped there. I loved this story from beginning to end.

 

"The Black Pumpkin" (4.5 stars). An almost perfect Halloween tale. A young boy named Tommy is in a terrible family. His mother and father are pretty awful and his brother is a potential serial killer. When Tommy and his brother get to pick out a pumpkin, his brother picks the black one that has Tommy scared to death. He can sense something evil about it. In the end though there is a definite surprise about the pumpkin. The ending was okay, but just didn't gel with the scares that came before it.

 

"Miss Attilla the Hun" (3 stars). Among my least favorite in this series. Probably because we get another uber perfect woman for Koontz to fawn over. Mrs. Laura Caswell is a teacher who one day realizes that something funky is going on at her school. A classic alien story which in the end didn't really work for me, probably because it didn't seem quite finished.

 

"Down in the Darkness" (3.5 stars). We follow a good man (Jess) who is excited about moving his family into their new home. When Jess finds a mysterious door that he doesn't recall being there during the house tour, he realizes that the door is hiding something potentially evil. When we (readers) find out what the door is for and how it comes into play with Jess's background as a former POW it was intriguing. In the end though I thought the ending (pun intended) wasn't that great. I think because it ends up leaving things a a moral question when we see what happens with Jess and the door and I don't think that Koontz needed it to be that deep.

 

"Ollie’s Hands" (4.5 stars). A sad story but very good. We find out about a man named Ollie and what his hands can do. I had nothing but pity for the character named Ollie when we come to the end of his story.

 

"Snatcher" (5 stars). This is really a fun and scary story. A man that is a purse snatcher and just all around terrible person has the tables turned on him.

 

"Trapped" (3 stars). I honestly feel like I read this story before somewhere. A woman and her son are on the run from some scary rats. Not a bad story, but like I said, I think that I read this or a similar idea of it somewhere before. Drove me up the wall because I can't figure out where.

 

"Bruno" (5 stars). I laughed and always laugh reading this one. No spoilers, I just think you will enjoy a story about a time traveling bear (seriously) and a private eye named Jake. Jake is asked to help Bruno out with catching a time traveling criminal (as one is these days apparently). this is one of the stories I wish we had seen a follow up about since it was so interesting.

 

"We three" (3.5 stars). Not bad, just fairly short. Murderous triplets maybe ushered in something that will be the end of them.

 

"Hardshell" (5 stars). So good. Another one I would have loved to see a spin off or larger novel about. We have a LAPD detective chasing a killer. We find out though that neither man are what they appear to be.

 

"Kittens" (5 stars). The main reason why I gave this one five stars is that for once Koontz didn't back away from a scary/terrible ending. Reminded me a bit of King with the ending and what we realize must have happened as readers. Shudder.

 

"The Night of the Storm" (3 stars). My second least favorite story in this collection. I can't even go into how boring I found this, but it was boring.

 

"Twilight of the Dawn" (3 stars). A very preachy Koontz book that also had no horror elements in it so it doesn't really fit with the rest of the book. That said, it works because Koontz manages to draw you in with his writing. The story is about an atheist who ends up being pretty much an asshole to his young son and his own wife when the question of religion comes up. We know why he is that way (he had very religious parents) and doesn't want his son growing up thinking there is a God. When he loses his wife though his son starts to question his father's lack of faith and grows even stronger in his belief of a God. When his son eventually gets diagnosed with a fatal cancer, the question of faith becomes even more of divide between them. I went back and forth on this rating a lot. I eventually ended up with a three since I thought the father character was an ass.

 

"Chase" (5 stars). This and "Strange Highways" were the longest stories in the collection and this one really packs a punch. It's a good way to end the collection. Benjamin Chase has a complicated history. Returned from Vietnam and having to drink to forget his memories he is welcomed at a dinner for a Guest of Hero thing. I was a bit nonplussed at first since I thought most of the US was terrible to returning vets. Chase is given a new car and while driving ends up saving a young girl who was about to be raped and murdered. This puts Chase neck in neck with a killer who is determined to end Chase.

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review 2018-07-08 12:49
TO LIVE IS TO ENDURE - AND PREVAIL
You Don't Look Your Age: And Other Fairy Tales - Sheila Nevins

Several weeks ago, I happened to see Sheila Nevins speaking about this book on CSPAN's BOOK TV program. I was so taken in with her presentation that I decided to buy "YOU DON'T LOOK YOUR AGE: And Other Fairy Tales" at the earliest opportunity.

In essence, the book is an amalgamation of short stories and poems through which Sheila Nevins shares with the reader "the real-life challenges of being a woman in a man's world; what it means to be a working mother; what it's like to be an older woman in a youth-obsessed culture; the sometimes changing, often sweet truth about marriages; what being a feminist really means; " the need to identify and be wary of 'frenemies' (enemies pretending to be your friend); "and that you're in good company if your adult children don't return your phone calls." 

I fairly breezed my way through this book and - as a middle-aged man - appreciated the insights Sheila Nevins gave me from her own life. 

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