Review: ‘Black Chalk’ by Christopher J. Yates

BlackChalkWhen you make friends at a young age, the bonds that are formed seem unbreakable. Often, they are – I’m fortunate to have a handful of friendships that go back more than 20 years, so those seem pretty solid. But for every one of those there are many others that were forged, burned white hot for a while, and have since faded away. Some failed because of distance, while others failed because of circumstance. Whatever the reason, I’ve learned time and time again that bonds that appeared to be invincible were actually far from it.

Black Chalk, the suspenseful debut novel of Christopher J. Yates, tells the story of six students who form a tight-knit group during their early days in college. It’s the kind of group we all at times either belonged to or wished we belonged to. It’s a group that has struck the perfect balance of personalities, forming an instant kinship that is impenetrable and accepting at the same time.

And then, with the introduction of a seemingly innocuous game, Yates makes us watch as the group systematically rips itself apart.

The game itself is barely discussed in the book; there are vague mentions of dice and cards and a complicated scoring system. But it’s not really the game that matters – it’s the consequences, a set of individualized punishments designed by the players to provide escalating levels of discomfort and embarrassment to their opponents. The more the friends get to know about each other, the more personal and vicious the consequences become, and it isn’t long before things go sideways.

Some of the group members come across as little more than stock players – the class clown, the girl who expresses her disdain for the mainstream through unconventional dress and reams of poetry - but the two young men at the heart of the game, Jolyon and Chad, are fully fleshed out. Chad is a young American who takes the opportunity to study abroad, hoping for some kind of jolt that will change his life and direction. As for Jolyon – well, there’s a guy like Jolyon on every college campus in the world. He’s the guy that knows everybody, and that everybody wants to know. While he’s the life of any party he attends (and he’s invited to them all), he’s always got a core group that revolves around him. Jolyon arrives at school at the same time as Chad and quickly sucks the young American into his orbit. Their relationship may be the strongest among the six core group members; consequently, it’s the unraveling of that relationship that causes the most damage.

Yates takes his time telling his story, letting us get to know the group, taking us through the early stages of the game, and injecting some mystery early on with the introduction of a strange trio who call themselves “Game Soc.” “Game Soc” present themselves as financial backers and unobtrusive observers, but as the game wears on its clear that they have a more vested, if closely guarded, interest in the proceedings. There’s a lot of misdirection early on, especially when it comes to the identity of the narrator of this story. Yates juggles the transition from past to present well, arranging his puzzle pieces in ways that constantly hook and re-hook the reader.

My only major complaint about the book has nothing to do with Yates, but instead has to be laid at the feet of the publisher. There’s a major spoiler spelled out in bright white letters on the cover, and while I understand its existence as a marketing tool, it strikes me as a bit of an insult to author and reader alike. The copy on the back cover does a great job of laying out the premise without giving anything away – it’s a shame they couldn’t have come up with something equally enticing but less revealing for the front.

I’d say Yates has made a nice debut with the Black Chalk, and has definitely announced himself as an author to watch closely in the future.

Cemetery Dance announces SIX new Stephen King special editions

CarrieNewSubtitle this As My Wallet Gently Weeps.

This past weekend – Saturday, April 5, to be exact – marked the 40th anniversary of the publication of Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie. Without turning this whole post into an essay on that alone, let me just say that it was a huge anniversary for me personally. King’s work is what got me into reading, and then into writing. It’s why nearly all of my “real” jobs have involved writing in some way; it’s why I write short stories and why I’m writing a novel; it’s why October Country exists today. So, yeah, the guy’s work is important to me.

I can’t think of another writer that got a better running start on a career than King. Carrie, then ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Night Shift and The Stand? A solid debut, two bonafide classics, the scariest vampire novel I’ve ever read, and a group of note-perfect horror shorts? Yeah, I’d say that’s a decent beginning. While there are other classics and favorites littered throughout King’s bibliography, it’s hard to top that opening salvo.

Cemetery Dance recognizes this as something to be celebrated. This specialty press has long been associated with King, producing beautiful special editions of a number of his works, including From A Buick 8, IT, Full Dark No Stars and many others. Now they’re turning their attention to his earliest works, beginning with the five books listed above and then skipping ahead a bit to include Pet Sematary.

First up, naturally, is Carrie, which is already available for preorder. You can read all the details at Cemetery Dance’s site, but I’ll helpfully point out the new introduction by King and the afterword by the author’s wife Tabitha King (who famously rescued the book’s first pages from a trashcan). If you’re gonna order one, you might want to hurry – these things tend to sell out quick.

I’d love to get ‘em all, but the one I absolutely plan 100% on ordering is Pet Sematary. That’s the one that started the journey for me, and I was bummed when I missed out on PS Publishing’s 30th Anniversary edition of it last year. I don’t plan to miss out again.

Review: ‘Peckerwood’ by Jedidiah Ayres

pwoodWhen author J. David Osborne announced he was starting his own press, Broken River Books, devoted to crime fiction, and teased titles like Gravesend and XXX Shamus, I was immediately intrigued. I wasn’t familiar with Osborne’s work – Low Down Death Right Easy and its sequel, Black Gum Godless Heathen, among other things- but I loved those titles and
enjoyed the excerpts I found online. I checked out the Broken River Books Kickstarter page and read about the five books he already had lined up for release, and got an eyeful of the gorgeously insane covers he’d prepped, and I was sold. I could tell this guy’s sensibility was going to walk hand-in-hand with mine.

After reading Peckerwood, part of the first wave of Broken River titles Osborne released last year (which included the aforementioned Gravesend and XXX Shamus along with The Least of My Scars and Street Raised), I can say my instincts were dead on. Peckerwood is a heavenly slice of hardboiled country crime, a raucous mix of crooked cops, rural thugs, hot-headed women, blackmail, deceit and double-crosses. Best of all, it’s loaded with characters that are more than quickly sketched cannon fodder. Not all of them are worth a damn, but they’re all worth getting to know a little better, and Ayres thankfully gives each of them time to breathe and shine.

There are a lot of twists and turns in the plot as events and relationships become messily intertwined. Take Terry Hickerson’s situation, for example. He’s a local thug who engaged in some tawdry activities with a girl who, turns out, is the sheriff’s daughter. Terry and his pal Cal are in the midst of blackmailing a televangelist, so the extra heat is really not something he needs right now. The sheriff, by the way, is in a partnership with another local criminal, Chowder, and the two of them have had the local drug and sex trade locked down for a good ten years now. Unfortunately, Chowder is receiving some unwelcome overtures from outside interests who are looking to invest in said trade, so things are getting heated there, too. Oh, and someone has been talking to the district attorney’s office, so they’ve sent a representative to the county to poke around.

At times it feels like a scorecard might have come in handy to keep everything straight, but Ayres is a good storyteller and doesn’t let anything get lost in the shuffle. The story moves forward smoothly, and each character and storyline is engaging enough that you don’t find yourself wishing for more of one over the other.

Peckerwood is brash and rude, and a good omen for the quality of working Osborne will be bringing us via Broken River Books. Keep an eye right here, ’cause I have a feeling we’ll be talking about more of these down the line.

Book Review: ‘Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece’ by Jason Bailey

PulpFictionPulp Fiction hit me like a sucker punch when I sat down for my first viewing back in 1994. Up to that point my cinematic tastes were fairly mainstream, with a heavy lean towards big budget Hollywood fare. I still love that kind of stuff, by the way, and won’t apologize for it; but, back then, I wasn’t a very adventurous moviegoer. If it tells you anything, the main reason I wanted to see Pulp Fiction was because Bruce Willis was in it.

By the time Quentin Tarantino’s movie was over, my taste in movies had transformed. I was stunned, excited, and curious. What the hell had I just seen? Were there other movies out there like this one?

In the 20 (!) years since that first viewing, I’ve watched Pulp Fiction too many times to count, and I’ve quoted Pulp Fiction too many times to count. I’ve anticipated – and, so far, enjoyed – each of Tarantino’s subsequent releases. And I’ve read everything I could get my hands on regarding the director’s work (and on Pulp Fiction in particular).  In Jason Bailey’s Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece I think we have – short of a making-of book penned by Tarantino himself – the definitive word on this highly influential film.

Bailey wraps a serious, thoughtful examination of the movie in a brightly colored, beautifully designed package. Don’t let any of those phrases fool you – this is neither a dry, academic paper nor is it a picture-laden puff piece. Bailey covers all the bases: essays that delve deeply into the movie’s characters, themes and influences; chapters on writing the film, casting it, and the nuts-and-bolts of shooting it; and sidebars on the minutiae that fans love, like a chart listing the events of the movie in chronological order, a look at the recurring use of diners and cafes in Tarantino’s movies, and charts of the many homages and cinematic references in the movie. Also – and this is one of my favorite things about the book – Bailey peppers the book with artwork inspired by the film.

Like the movie it covers, Bailey’s book has a ton of layers, and repeat visits will be rewarded. I don’t typically read books like this straight through, but I couldn’t put this one down until I’d read every article and pored over every picture. It’s available right now, and I can’t put a high enough recommendation on it.

Oh, and here – just for fun – is what Pulp Fiction would look like as an old video game. If only it were real….

Top Ten Reads of 2013

Although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from looking at my Top Ten list this year, 2013 was a good year for me in discovering new writers. Those new discoveries aren’t completely unrepresented here – both Gary McMahon and Aaron Dries made the list – but there would be a lot more unknowns if it hadn’t been such a strong year for established authors. The King family dominates the first three spots, and may have been even more of a presence had I had the opportunity to read the releases by Owen King (Double Feature) and his wife Kelly Braffet (Save Yourself), both of which I hope to get to in 2014. Ace Atkins has become a perennial favorite with dual releases each of the last couple of years in his own Quinn Colson series and his continuation of Robert Parker’s Spenser novels (this year’s Spenser, Wonderland, is another unfortunate victim of didn’t-get-to-it.) Tom Piccirilli is a mainstay on my yearly list of favorites, as are Daniel Woodrell and Justin Cronin in the years they release books.

If I have any reading goals for 2014, it’s simply to read more. More variety. More volume. Catch up on the ones I missed last year and stay ahead of the curve this year. Revisit some old favorites and seek out new talent. Chop down that massive to-be-read pile. Yeah – good luck with all of that. The great thing, and the cursed thing, about books is they just keep coming.

So, without further adieu, here’s my Top Ten Reads of 2013. I’ve linked to full reviews of the books when appropriate. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the list, as well as your own top reads of 2013 – the comments section is at your disposal. Thanks to all of you for visiting October Country in 2013 – Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

1. Joyland by Stephen King
2. 
NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
3. Doctor Sleep by Stephen
King
4. The Broken Places by Ace
Atkins
5. The Maid’s Version by Daniel
Woodrell
6. Turn Down the Lights edited by Richard Chizmar
7. The Last Whisper in the Dark by Tom
Piccirilli
8. The Bones of You by Gary McMahon
9. The Fallen Boys by Aaron Dries
10. The Twelve by Justin Cronin

Book Review: ‘Hot In December’ by Joe R. Lansdale

HotInDecemberAll Tom Chan wanted to do was grill up a little supper for his family. He was just doing what he’d probably done a hundred times before – standing at the grill, looking out at the quiet suburban street he lived on, thinking of nothing in particular. But instead of the usual calm, forgettable scene, what he saw was a neighbor run down by a speeding car – a car that kept on going while the woman lay crushed and bleeding in the street.

From that point on, things in Tom Chan’s life turn upside-down.

Joe R. Lansdale spins another unforgettable tale in Hot In December, available now in a variety of editions (from ebook to deluxe limited) from Dark Regions Press. Nobody writes better blue collar, “regular joe,” down-to-earth characters than Lansdale, and Tom Chan is the kind of guy we can all relate to. He’s done his time in the military and had hoped that all of that sort of conflict was behind him. He’s got a strong moral center, though, and when he gets a glimpse of the hit-and-run driver he knows he has to help the police bring him in. Unfortunately, the man he saw at the wheel is in deep with the Dixie Mafia – deep enough that even the cops are willing to let Chan off the hook should he “forget” the face of the driver altogether.

Caught between what he knows is right and the potential danger doing the right thing could bring to his family, Chan turns to a couple of his military buddies for advice and assistance. One of his buddies is Cason Statler, an award-winning journalist. The other is a guy called Booger, a cold, remorseless killing machine. The three hash out a plan that will protect Chan’s family even as it puts him square in the sights of some of the baddest men in LaBorde, Texas.

This is a novella with roots in a lot of Lansdale’s other works – the Dixie Mafia is a prominent player in the “Hap and Leonard” novels Vanilla Ride and Devil Red, and Cason Statler’s grandmother is none other than Sunset Jones from Sunset and Sawdust. I love it when authors weave their various stories into a single world, and Lansdale has a lot of fun dropping these little tidbits throughout Hot In December without pulling the focus away from the business at hand.

It’s a dark story, but Lansdale brings his trademark wit to the table, providing plenty of needed levity even as Chan falls deeper into a rabbit hole of danger and violence. His prose is sharp and lean, and his characterization is spot-on as usual. If you’re a Lansdale fan, I don’t need to sell you on this. If you’re not, this short book is as good a place to jump on as any.

Book Review: ‘Odds On’ by Michael Crichton (writing as John Lange)

OddsOnHard Case Crime seems to be one of those rare instances where a singular vision is allowed to thrive under a corporate umbrella. Charles Ardai took his pet project over to Titan Books once Leisure Publishing dissolved, and he hasn’t missed a beat in curating his impeccable mix of crime reprints and originals. He still gets guys like Max Allan Collins and Stephen King to write originals for him, and he continues to unearth hidden treasures.

Ardai’s latest gift to crime fans is a re-release of eight early novels written by Michael Crichton under the name of “John Lange.” This is a project that was underway before Crichton’s death; HCC had already released Grave Descend and Zero Cool with his input – and with the Lange pen name intact. Now they’ve re-released those two along with six more Crichton/Lange novels, and all will appear under Crichton’s name for the very first time.

Odds On, a hotel heist suspense novel written in 1966, was among the first wave of titles released back in October (the rest came out in November). In it, a group of experienced thieves descend on an isolated luxury hotel in Spain called the Reina, where they plan to pull off a complicated plot that involves room-by-room robbery, the hotel safe, and a few pyrotechnics for good measure. The plan has been meticulously laid out with all possible variables run through a computer (the talk of punch cards is just one of the many quaint technological references you’ll enjoy throughout the novel) in order to calculate the odds of success. The computer says they’re good to go… but of course there are always variables one never expects.

Crichton paces the novel to match the crime. It gets off to a slow, deliberate start as the thieves move into the hotel, getting to know the layout, the routine, and many of their potential victims (readers expecting a cliffhanger in each chapter are going to be disappointed). However, when the day of the heist arrives everything begins to accelerate, both for the thieves and for readers. Odds On doesn’t have the kind of explosive, thrill-a-second climax that modern readers may be expecting, but the story is wrapped up nicely and patient readers will be rewarded.

As far as characters go, the thieves themselves are a somewhat bland group, but there are a couple of colorful hotel inhabitants that make up for them. The real draw here, of course, is the success or failure of the robbery, and Crichton does a good job of maintaining interest and suspense as events unfold.

I’ve not read enough of Crichton’s later, more popular work to say how this compares, but I can say that it is a fairly confident novel considering how early in his career it was written. Crichton’s attention to detail and fascination with technology are on full display here, and I look forward to working my way through the rest of the “John Lange” books to see how he progresses.

Book Review: ‘The Stranger You Know’ by Andrea Kane

the-stranger-you-know-by-andrea-kaneAndrea Kane’s The Stranger You Know is the third book in the Forensics Instincts series. Forensics Instincts is a crack investigative group that draws on top talents in disciplines like surveillance and behavioral science, headed up by its tough, intelligent founder, Casey Woods. I’ve not read either of the previous F.I. books but it wasn’t much of a disadvantage, as Kane finds ample opportunity to bring new readers up to speed on the skills and relationships that inform the team’s dynamic.

The Stranger You Know centers around a character from one of those previous F.I. books, The Girl Who Disappeared Twice. In that book, serial killer Glen Fisher was caught and locked away by the team, and even though he remains in jail he’s found a way to go after them, and Woods in particular. Girls with physical similarities and deeply-buried connections to Woods are dying, and somehow Fisher is pulling the strings from prison. The body count is mounting on a daily basis, and the man responsible is making it clear that Woods herself is the intended endgame.

Much of this is going to be familiar ground to regular thriller readers. Serial killers seeking revenge on their pursuers, the prisoner manipulating events from his cell, the “random” victims who aren’t random at all – it’s all standard thriller fodder. Kane does introduce a supernatural element to the proceedings in the form of F.I. teammate Claire, an “intuitive” (i.e., a psychic) whose abilities help the team hone in on the killer. Claire’s presence is a strong asset for the F.I. team, but Kane is for the most part judicious in her use of the character, resisting the urge to let the convenience of psychic ability pave over every difficult plot point.

Overall, The Stranger You Know isn’t breaking any new ground. As far as I’m concerned, though, familiarity doesn’t automatically breed contempt. You can tell me a story I’ve heard before as long as you tell it in a compelling way, and although I never got deeply invested in these characters or this story, Kane did at least hold my interest throughout.

The main stumbling block for me in this book is the dialogue. Achieving a natural conversational flow in dialogue is essential in building compelling characters, and Kane really struggles with this in my opinion. For example, when describing a crime in progress to a police officer, one character says, “It could be a fait accompli already.” Later on, someone says, “I’ll be doing yoga in the third-floor office where I store my mats.” It’s too stilted, too specific when compared to the way people actually talk, and lines like this popped up multiple times, pulling me completely out of the story each time.

Misgivings aside, I found The Stranger You Know to be a solid thriller. It’s got the convoluted plot and brisk pacing that you want, but it lacks the strong characterization and innovative approach that would elevate it for me. As it stands, Kane’s new novel is a fine diversion and fun, if ultimately forgettable, read.

Subterranean Press to release limited ‘Books of Blood’ set in 2014

The_Books_of_Blood_by_Clive_Barker_Volume_SixStart saving your pennies, kids.

Subterranean Press has announced plans to publish a six volume signed limited edition set of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood in 2014. This will mark the first U.S. publication of the set in six separate hardcover volumes. Previously we’ve only gotten them separately here as paperbacks, with the first three volumes going under the Books of Blood banner and the last three titled after individual short stories (volume four was The Inhuman Condition, volume five was In the Flesh, and volume six was Cabal, which lumped the short stories together with the title novella).

The set will also feature Barker’s original dust jacket art from the UK first edition hardcovers.

Books of Blood is one of the most important and influential collections in modern horror fiction, and it launched the career of one of our most treasured creators. Subterranean (which has released a 25th anniversary edition of Barker’s Weaveworld and has Chilead: A Meditation in the works) does beautiful work, and I have no doubt they’ll craft a worthy vessel for Barker’s stories.

Book Review: ‘The Last Night of October’ by Greg Chapman

LastNightOctoberHorror stories set on Halloween night are a dime a dozen these days, particularly among American horror authors. It makes sense; many of today’s active authors grew up in the time when Halloween was still a rite of passage. It was a night when you set out on your own, just you and your pals, seeking out candy and mischief. Sure, you were only out for a little while, and you were in the relatively safe confines of your own neighborhood, but for many it was the first taste of real freedom.

But that freedom often came tinged with the first taste of real fear as well. It was the first time out in the night, alone, without the comforting (if slightly annoying) backup provided by Mom and Dad. Everyone was clad in costumes that might look like cheap rubber and plastic in the light of day, but were much more effective in the shadows of night. That mix of exhiliration and uneasiness is wonderful to look back on, and countless authors try to capture it year after year with decidedly mixed results.

Greg Chapman is from Australia – a country for which Halloween has had very little significance in the past – but with The Last Night of October he’s quite successful in his efforts to invoke that mix of fear and wonder associated with the holiday.

Gerald Forsyth is a man who feels genuine terror each time Halloween approaches, and for good reason: what started out as a typical night of trick-or-treating for him many years ago took a sudden, tragic turn, and the old man has been dodging the consequences ever since. As the book opens he’s going through his typical Halloween night routine, which is to lock the house down tight and sweat out the hours ’till dawn.

One of the reasons this novella works so well is the way Chapman slowly doles out the backstory. We’re in the dark for much of the first half of the story as to why Forsyth is so scared. The same can be said for Kelli Pritchard, the young home health care attendant who shows up just as night is falling to check on the sickly old man. Kelli is subbing for Forsyth’s regular nurse, and her stubborn commitment to her job is a broken cog in the man’s carefully orchestrated routine. It’s Kelli that answers a knock on Forsyth’s door, inadvertantly letting in the one thing Forsyth is desperate to keep out and setting off a chain of events that has been a long time coming.

Chapman weaves his story with cold, economical precision. There’s very little fat here, especially once Forsyth, Kelli and their strange visitor are locked in together. Even as he takes us back in time to relive Forsyth’s worst Halloween he keeps the story moving forward. The result is a quick read that will linger much longer than a bag of cheap Halloween candy. Don’t wait until next Halloween to give this one a shot – The Last Night of October will deliver chills all year ’round.