Review: ‘Where All Light Tends to Go’ by David Joy

LightWhere All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (March 3, 2015)

It’s hard to discuss the impact of a book like this and remain spoiler-free when so much of what separates it from the pack is that last gut punch David Joy throws at the end. It’s something we should see coming, and it’s definitely something the book’s main character, Jacob McNeely, should have anticipated. But by the time the endgame plays out, Joy has us all – readers and character alike – so enraptured by the first real bit of hope we’ve seen since the story began that we’re blinded to the sad reality he’s been preparing us for all along.

Let me backtrack a bit. Jacob McNeely is the 18-year-old son of a drug-dealing father and a drug-addicted mother. As you might expect, his home life is a bit lacking, and nobody bats an eye when he drops out of school in the tenth grade. Jacob knows that everyone around him has a preconceived notion of what his future holds, and he’s resigned himself to a life of fulfilling those low expectations.

The lone bright spot in his life is long-time friend/girlfriend Maggie Jennings. She sees things in Jacob that he can’t bring himself to believe are really there, so when he cuts ties with school he cuts ties with her as well, reasoning that he’d rather be alone than drag her down with him.

Joy does an excellent job at capturing the frustration and hopelessness any young man would feel when faced with the idea that such a stark, lonely future has been laid out for him. There are times when Jacob tries to embrace the life he feels destined for, and he’s such a broken young man that he often squanders opportunities for escape; not because he doesn’t want them, but because he doesn’t feel he deserves him.

When Jacob talks about the precious few bonding moments he’s shared with his dad, those moments that don’t involve his dad trying to integrate him into the family business, it’s shattering because you can see how those small sips of “normal life” come back to haunt him time and time again. When it comes to his mother, Jacob mostly seems to hold her at arm’s length, disgusted at the way she’s let her addiction grind her down; and when Joy does allow them one small moment of real togetherness, it’s a glimpse at what could have – should have – been the reality between them that makes the truth of what they are all the more devastating.

Caught in what he feels is a hopeless situation, Jacob continues to allow his father to manipulate him deeper and deeper into into the muck, until he’s finally pushed far enough that he begins to push back. An unexpected helping hand appears, and Jacob, caught at just the right moment, grabs for it. Eagerly. Too eagerly, and that’s when Joy takes his last swing, and I’ll admit I kind of hated him for it, even as I told myself I should have seen it coming.

There’s very little light in Where All Light Tends to Go, and what little there is doesn’t do much to brighten the mood. Joy’s novel is grim, and bleak, and powerful, and wonderfully written, and it will wreck your day. It’s a strong debut, and well worth your time.

2014: The Year in Reading

Cover design2014 was another in a long line of good reading years for yours truly. It wasn’t exactly full of surprises; if you compare this year’s list of favorites to that of previous years, you’ll see a lot of duplication: Ace Atkins, Stephen King, Joe Lansdale, and Robert McCammon are among the most common denominators. Atkins, King and Lansdale together dominate this year’s list, contributing two books each. That’s not something that will necessarily change in the coming year: Atkins will be bringing new entries in his Quinn Colson series and his continuation of Robert Parker’s Spenser series; King has a new novel (a follow-up to this year’s Mr. Mercedes) on deck, as well as a new short story collection; and Lansdale has a new Hap and Leonard book on the horizon. Factor in Clive Barker’s Pinhead/Harry D’Amour novel The Scarlet Gospels and I can damn near give you my top ten for 2015 right here and now.

All of these familiar faces may make it seem like I’m in a rut, but that’s far from the truth. I found several new authors in 2014 that I’m going to be watching closely in the future, Nick Cutter chief among them. His debut novel The Troop was narrowly edged out of this year’s top ten; I was lucky enough to get an early copy of his second novel, The Deep (which comes out on January 13) and that one made the cut – I’ll be posting a review early next week that explains why. I was also deeply impressed by Jedidiah Ayres and Mark Morris and several others that I’ll be reading from here on out.

ForsakenCoverOne thing I’ve always struggled with is ranking these year-end lists in any kind of order. Traditionally I’ve gone numbers one through ten, but this year I abandoned that concept. It’s just too hard to pick one favorite out of this group. So, this year’s list is ordered alphabetically by author, and as I look back on it now I see ten books that I’ll happily revisit in the future.

Here are the books that sunk their hooks deep in my brain in 2014. I hope you’ll take a moment to share your own favorites in the comments – I’m always looking for suggestions for something good to read!

Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
The Forsaken by Ace Atkins
The Deep by Nick Cutter
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Revival by Stephen King
Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale
The River of Souls by Robert McCammon
Obsidian Heart Book I: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris

And here, if you’re interested, is the complete list of what I read this year:

pwoodUndisputed by Chris Jericho
And the Night Growled Back by Aaron Dries
Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece by Jason Bailey
Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road by Brian Keene, Jack Ketchum, Edward Lee, J.F. Gonzalez, Wrath James White, Nate Southard, Shane McKenzie, Ryan Harding and Bryan Smith
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
The Way of All Flesh by Tim Waggoner
Horror Library Volume 5 edited by R.J. Cavender and Boyd E. Harris
Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres
Dust Devils by Jonathan Janz
Alien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon
The Troop by Nick Cutter
Wonderland by Ace Atkins
City of Devils by Justin Robinson
The End is Nigh edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey
Joe Ledger: Special Ops by Jonathan Maberry
Rose of Sharon and Other Stories by Gary A. Braunbeck
The First One You Expect by Adam Cesare
Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates
BorderlineThe King of the Weeds by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
The Quick
by Lauren Owen
A Place for Sinners by Aaron Dries
Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
Borderline by Lawrence Block
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
The River of Souls by Robert McCammon
The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty
Deep Like the River by Tim Waggoner
Piercing the Darkness edited by Craig Cook
Sunset and Sawdust by Joe R. Lansdale
Carrie by Stephen King
Down by Nate Southard
Brainquake by Samuel Fuller
Scream Along With Me edited by Alfred Hitchcock
The Forsaken by Ace Atkins
Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
TheHalloweenChildren-HC-mediumDisease by M.F. Wahl
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Fangoria: Cover to Cover edited by Anthony Timpone
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Jackpot by David Bernstein, Kristopher Rufty, Shane McKenzie and Adam Cesare
Obsidian Heart Book I: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris
Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale
Revival by Stephen King
Dark Screams Volume One edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar
Exponential by Adam Cesare
The Deep by Nick Cutter

Review: ‘Brainquake’ by Samuel Fuller

BQBeing a bagman for an organized crime outfit would require, one would assume, nerves of steel. When you’re delivering money for the mob, you don’t want to be late, you don’t want to be light, and you damn sure don’t want to drop a package off at the wrong address. So, you may not have to be the smartest guy to be the bagman, but you want to be reliable, quick on your feet, and steady under pressure.

Paul is all of those things, except when he isn’t. Sometimes Paul has attacks – he calls them brainquakes – during which everything in his field of vision turns pink. During these attacks hallucinations mix with reality, but Paul can’t tell which is which. His reactions are swift and sometimes violent. It would be a tough situation for anyone to deal with, but it’s especially brutal for Paul, who is surrounded by the kind of people looking for any kind of weakness they can exploit.

In Samuel Fuller’s Brainquake (out this month from Hard Case Crime and Titan Books), Paul finds himself at the center of a converging group of intriguing characters, each with his or her own agenda. All of the ingredients for an engaging piece of crime fiction are present: a recently widowed mob wife; ten million dollars of missing mob money; a sadistic hitman who poses as a priest and crucifies his victims; a driven, determined police detective; and a mentally distressed bagman with strong moral center. Fuller expertly winds these threads around and around one another until the tension becomes nearly unbearable.

The novel moves at a fast clip. The emphasis is more on plot than on character, but Fuller manages to flesh out each of the main players to varying degrees. There are several standout scenes in the book – one involving a bomb in a baby carriage comes to mind, as well as another dealing with some urgent battlefield-type surgery while trying to extract some important information from a witness. Fuller’s storytelling style is lean and uncluttered, and his pacing is rapid without feeling rushed.

The author is best known as a film director, with titles like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss and The Big Red One to his credit. He also wrote a number of novels, with Brainquake being the last one. It’s been something of a “lost novel” for Fuller fans – he published it during a self-imposed exile in France, where he retreated after a dispute over one of his films, and before now it wasn’t available in English. Kudos to Hard Case Crime‘s Charles Ardai for once again going to great lengths to uncover a valuable piece of crime fiction and sharing it with the world.

 

Review: ‘Mr. Mercedes’ by Stephen King

MrmercedesWith Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King continues to show that his greatest strength as a writer is his character work. For proof, look no further than the opening section of the novel, in which we become acquainted with three people among the hundreds standing in line waiting for a job fair to open. In a handful of pages King makes us care about a man, a single mom and her baby; care enough, in fact, that there’s a real sense of loss when the three fall victim to a lunatic in a car.

But he’s not done making you care; in fact, King is just getting started. What follows this shocking opening scene is a tightly-woven chess match between retired detective Bill Hodges and the car’s driver, Brady Hartfield, an all-too-real monster whose human mask is beginning to slip. Taunting Hodges, who spends much of his retirement pondering the ones that got away, is the first sign that Hartfield is growing tired of his anonymous existence. He says he doesn’t plan to attempt another massacre, but a basement full of homemade plastic explosives indicates otherwise.

Hartfield’s taunt serves as a wake-up call for Hodges, who puts aside thoughts of suicide to begin looking into the case again. It’s wonderful watching Hodges transition from merely existing to actually living again. Even better is that Hodges, who was a very good cop but not infallible, doesn’t suddenly become Sherlock Holmes. Like every other human he has his blind spots, and those return to him as readily as his instincts. His new (secret and barely legal) investigation into the Mercedes killing is fraught with the same kind of assumptions and questionable decisions he made during his initial active investigation, and while he manages to overcome most of them they do often lead him – and those around him – into dangerous territory.

As Hodges digs in, he accumulates an unlikely support crew that includes Janey, an attractive younger woman with tragic ties to the job fair massacre; Jerome, the Ivy League bound teen who does yard work for Hodges; and Holly, an emotionally unstable woman who latches on to Hodges because he’s kinder to her than her own family ever managed to be. King brings this crew together in ways that is totally organic and believable, creating a strange sort of family that we can all root for.

Hartfield, on the other hand, is totally irredeemable as a human being. Kings gives his killer a backstory that might elicit some sympathy along the way, but make no mistake: this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Brady Hartfield feels no remorse and no regret, and when he does suppress his impulses its strictly for his own survival. He’s intelligent, resourceful, and completely barking mad.

The bulk of Mr. Mercedes is peaks and valleys; moments of discovery and excitement followed by periods of consideration and reconsideration. Hodges and Hartfield poke and prod each other along, each hoping the other will slip and open the door for their respective endgames. The tension is there but it’s manageable – until the last 80 or so pages when King stomps the pedal to the floor. Just try and put the book down at that point…

I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction lately, and it’s no secret that crime writers love a good series. As I neared the end of Mr. Mercedes I realized I’d grown quite fond of the central trio of Hodges, Jerome and Holly, and I wondered if King would consider revisiting them somewhere down the line – perhaps, I dared to think, Mr. Mercedes could be the beginning of a series of King’s own. As if hearing my thoughts, King took to Twitter right around that time to announce that said trio would be back next year in Finders Keepers, the second book in a proposed trilogy.

“Well then,” I thought, “that’s all right, isn’t it?”

Review: ‘Borderline’ by Lawrence Block

Borderline

Lawrence Block’s Borderline is over 50 years old, but it’s as raw and visceral as anything you’ll find in bookstores today. It’s a lean, straightforward tale of four people, each wallowing in their own kind of desperation, most of whom are bound for an unhappy ending.

Truth be told, you’re not likely to feel sorry for any of them. Block has assembled a group of interesting but unlikeable characters: there’s Marty, a self-centered gambler; Meg, a young, recently divorced woman on the prowl for some – any – kind of excitement; Lily, a 17-year-old runaway willing to use whoever crosses her path to get her to a more comfortable life; and Weaver, a psycopathic rapist and murderer. The four meet and mingle at the border between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, with almost universally disastrous results.

Block was in his early 20s when he wrote Borderline, and it’s full of the kind of unrestrained energy you’d expect from a talented writer just beginning to explore the depths of his ability. He holds nothing back – the violence is graphic and the sex is explicit, and Block isn’t afraid to mix these elements together when the story deems it necessary. The result is a short novel that fulfills all the lurid promise of its Michael Koelsch cover, and then some.

Hard Case Crime unearthed the book (originally published as Border Lust under Block’s pen name “Don Holliday”) and published it this month as its 115th title. They’ve also included two early Block short stories and a longer, almost novella-length tale to round out the package.

Review: ‘King of the Weeds’ by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

KingWeedsShortly before his death in 2006, author Mickey Spillane left instructions for his friend and literary executor, Max Allan Collins, to complete the various unfinished manuscripts he anticipated he’d be leaving behind. Among them were six novels in various stages of completion featuring Mike Hammer, Spillane’s famous private investigator character. Eight years later Collins has completed that portion of his task with the publication of King of the Weeds, the book Spillane conceived as the last Mike Hammer novel.

King of the Weeds is a sequel to Black Alley, the last Hammer novel Spillane finished and published in his lifetime. Collins assures readers in his opening note that a familiarity with Black Alley is not necessary, and as someone who has not read Black Alley, I can attest that this is true. Spillane and Collins do a good job of filling in the important details so that this novel stands on its own just fine.

At this point in his career, Hammer has made a lot of enemies, so he’s not exactly surprised when someone takes a couple of shots at him as the story opens. It seems as though there’s about $90 billion (yes, billion) in mob money that’s been hidden away, and a few people have an idea that Hammer might know its whereabouts. As Hammer tries to fend off interest from a variety of groups, including the U.S. Government, he begins to suspect that his current troubles have roots going all the way back to a series of murders from 40 years ago – murders that have suddenly been thrust back into the spotlight. Topping things off is a series of accidental deaths involving police officers, each of which looks less and less accidental as the body count begins to climb. These disparate threads could become a convoluted mess in less sure hands, but with Spillane and Collins at the helm what you get is a tightly wound page-turner that continues to build steam chapter by chapter.

Confession: this is my first time reading a Mike Hammer novel. As such, I can’t really comment on how true to the series – and to Spillane’s voice – Collins’ contributions are. Other reviews I’ve read are largely complimentary in that regard. I can say that this does not feel like a novel written by two people; if there are seams, I can’t see them. I can also say that this has been a good enough introduction to the character that I’m eager to go back and read the rest of his adventures. If the tough and resourceful guy I read about here is in the twilight of his career, then I can’t wait to see what he was like when he was just starting out.

King of the Weeds is out now from Titan Books.

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.