Review: ‘Kickback’ by Ace Atkins

Kickback by Ace Atkins
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (May 19, 2015)

KickbackAce Atkins continues to hit all the right notes as curator of Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” series in Kickback, the 45th overall Spenser novel and the fourth written by Atkins. In this latest adventure we get to watch as Spenser connects dots that run from a private juvenile detention facility in Boston Harbor, through a couple of buddy-buddy judges in Blackburn, Massachusetts, all the way down to the sunny beaches of Tampa, Florida. Along the way we’re treated to Atkins’ flawless approximation of Parker’s style as he maintains the sharp plotting and witty banter that helped make Spenser so popular in the first place.

Kickback opens with a woman walking through Spenser’s door with a sandwich and a problem – two things guaranteed to get a response from the private investigator. Sheila Yates is looking for help for her son, Dillon, who’s serving time at a local juvenile detention facility because he set up a fake Twitter account as a prank on his vice principal. Like many of Blackburn’s youth, Dillon has run afoul of the town’s famous “zero tolerance” judge, Joe Scali. Scali believes in no free passes and no breaks, sentencing  kids to months-long stretches for the slightest indiscretions. As Spenser begins to nose around the case, he finds that Scali’s intentions may be less about reducing juvenile crime and more about increasing his personal wealth.

I won’t go any further into the plot, because the main appeal of the series is joining Spenser and his cast of supporting characters (Kickback includes appearances by Hawk and, of course, Spenser’s lovely constant companion, Susan) as they go through their paces. Atkins does a great job of exploring the ways P.I. work can go from routine to deadly with little notice. He also knows the perfect time to drop in the little details that enrich the characters and the world they inhabit – the clothes they wear, the food they eat, and, more importantly, what those things say about them as people.

Is it formulaic? Yes. Atkins is not out to upend the world Parker created. Spenser is basically the same man at the end of the book as he was at the beginning, and that’s the way we like it. It’s comfort food, and when done right, there’s nothing better than comfort food. If you prefer to see Atkins unfettered by rules he didn’t create, check out the next book in his series about Mississippi sheriff Quinn Colson (The Redeemers, out on July 21). But until then, join him as he takes a walk in the well-worn shoes of one of our best mystery writers. With every new Spenser novel, he proves that the trust placed in him by Robert Parker’s family to continue his legacy was well-founded.

Review: ‘The Acolyte’ by Nick Cutter

The Acolyte by Nick Cutter
ChiZine Publications (May 2015)

TheAcolyte-NickCutterAs “Nick Cutter,” author Craig Davidson has already built a reputation as a go-for-broke kind of horror writer; the kind that shies away from nothing, be it disturbing imagery or disturbing ideas. His latest novel, The Acolyte, is the first of Cutter’s books to tip the scales appreciably in favor of idea over imagery. Don’t get me wrong – there’s more than a dollop of blood and guts in The Acolyte, but there are also moments of almost unbelievable restraint; times in which Cutter realizes that what he’s writing about is shocking enough without rolling it in viscera to boot. It’s these moments that help make this his most powerful book yet.

The world of The Acolyte is one ruled by religion, a perversion of the Christian faith that is more about bureaucracy and judgement than love and forgiveness. Cities are ruled by government-appointed Prophets; “heathens” such as Jews are consigned to fenced-off ghettos; scientific advancement has been halted, and measurements come straight out of the Bible (furlongs instead of miles, for example); and the rules are enforced by squads of highly-trained officers known as Acolytes. Cutter has done a tremendous piece of world-building in this book, organically laying out its structure and rules, creating a society that’s both uncomfortably recognizable and completely alien at the same time.

Jonah Murtag is an Acolyte, a devout follower who is good at his job, yet has somehow retained enough of an open mind that he’s not immune to doubt. The tiny cracks in his faith begin to widen as a series of suicide bombings rock his city. When he witnesses one of these bombings in person, he realizes that the usual culprits may not be behind this particular surge of violence. His investigation into the bombings, coupled with his relationship with a fellow Acolyte, soon proves to be the biggest test of faith Murtag will ever encounter.

The Acolyte is a spiritual cousin to another dystopian novel, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Like Bradbury’s fireman Guy Montag, Murtag (the name itself a nice nod to Bradbury’s work) is an appointed official tasked with keeping the peace through means that he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with. Both men have been raised and trained to think a certain way, but neither of them is able to fully suppress the idea that this certain way may not be the “right” way. And, like Montag, once Murtag begins to break away from the pack and act on his newfound ideals, he finds that his position within the system offers little in the way of protection.

I don’t know a thing about Cutter’s personal faith or his views on organized religion, but he does not paint a pretty picture of either of those concepts here. In the world of The Acolyte, religion is one big tent revival, a flashy show that keeps the rubes in line, keeps the church coffers lined with cash, and dispenses little in the way of actual salvation. Mix that with Cutter’s gut-punch style of writing, and you’re left with a book that is going to be a difficult read for some. It’s also an excellent read for those that can handle it. As with his previous books, Cutter heartily embraces horror fiction while pushing it beyond its limitations. The Acolyte is highly recommended.

Review: ‘Nothing Lasting’ by Glen Krisch

Nothing Lasting by Glen Krisch
Cemetery Dance (November 20, 2014)

nothinglastingComing-of-age stories have long been fertile ground for horror writers – if “The Body” by Stephen King and Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon don’t immediately spring to mind when you hear the term “coming-of-age,” then you have some reading to do. But those are just two examples out of a mountain of stories and novels that feature young characters learning hard truths about life, family and self amidst difficult, often horrific, circumstances.

When you add Glen Krisch’s Nothing Lasting to that mountain, be sure and add it somewhere near the top. Featuring richly drawn characters, complex family dynamics and the requisite unsolved small-town mystery, Nothing Lasting doesn’t reinvent the coming-of-age story, but it does delivers a fresh take on the material.

Our young hero is a boy named Noah Berkley, he of the life recently turned upside-down. His parents have split up, his beloved grandfather has died, and he’s being taken back to his father’s hometown to live. To make matters worse, Noah’s mother isn’t putting up much of a battle to keep him, and it looks like his father has a second family already on standby:
Erin Dooling, his high school sweetheart, and her brooding son, Derek.

Derek immediately grabs the upper hand in their forced relationship, dragging Noah into some criminal mischief and then gleefully holding it over his head. As Noah tries to find some corner of this new life to fit in, he becomes aware of a long-ago tragedy that continues to cast a shadow over the town. Further complicating matters are a series of revelations about his own family that force him to confront the idea that his childhood has never truly been the ideal situation he believed it to be.

There is a lone bright spot for Noah, and her name is Jenny Sparrow. Jenny has never had the chance to believe her life was ideal, and these two wounded children gravitate toward one another, finally finding someone else to share in their once-private confusion, anger and resentment.

Krisch does a great job of building these characters and their relationships while slowly – but not too slowly – pushing the story forward with a series of expertly-timed reveals and revelations. Add a few red herrings and at least one monster of a twist, and you’ve got a
thoroughly satisfying page-turner of a mystery that doubles as an enjoyable character study. The book’s big reveal might be straight out of any number of serial killer stories – and might, in fact, be seen from a mile away by those playing particularly close attention – but it
doesn’t diminish the impact of the story as a whole.

In the end, you’ll be rooting for a happy ending for Noah and Jenny, because by the end you’ll have come to care for them. Whether that’s what you – and they – get is up for you to find out on your own.

Re-Reading King: ‘The Shining’

The Shining by Stephen King

Doubleday | January 28, 1977

'The Shining' (Doubleday Hardcover, 1977) (First Edition)

‘The Shining’
(Doubleday Hardcover, 1977)
(First Edition)

I bought my first copy of The Shining at a sidewalk sale my favorite (then and now) used bookstore was having. It was the paperback edition with the metallic silver cover that has the faceless head of a child front and center. The top right corner of the cover had been clipped off, and the bookstore’s name – Trade ‘n Books – was stamped on the side opposite the spine. I was in the early stages of discovering King, those heady days when I had lots of books of his to catch up on, and this was one of a batch of paperbacks I bought that day – I think it also included Different Seasons and maybe Firestarter – for something like fifty cents apiece.

Did I read it before seeing the movie? I honestly don’t remember. Those days are a blur of discovery now, some 30 years later, and the order of things has been irrevocably shuffled about. But I know I blazed through it at the same rate I blazed through King’s other works, and that while it left certain indelible images behind (the hornets in Danny’s room, the thing that Jack became smashing its face in with the roque mallet), I didn’t feel the full force of its impact until the readings that came much later.

Reading it again over the past couple of weeks, I’m struck at just how much tension King was able to work in from page one. Jack is a man very much on edge, and he’s already teetering when we meet him. At first, he seemed to me like the kind of guy that I should feel bad for, except that I couldn’t get over how many of his unlucky breaks have come because of his own terrible decision making. But King’s gentle touch with characters rescues Jack, forcing you to see that, although this is the kind of guy who could very easily be the author of his own undoing, he’s really fighting hard against those destructive impulses.

'The Shining' (Signet Paperback, 1978) (Reading Copy)

‘The Shining’
(Signet Paperback, 1978)
(Reading Copy)

I firmly believe that if Jack Torrance had gone to work as the winter caretaker for any other isolated hotel, he would have been fine. He would have completed (as much as anyone can) his recovery from alcoholism; he would have repaired and rebuilt his relationship with his wife and son; he would have finished his play; he would have emerged from the Colorado wilderness refreshed, re-energized, creatively motivated and newly confidant. He was so close.

But he went to work at The Overlook. And The Overlook, as the host to something twisted and insidious, went to work on Jack, digging its fingers into the healing cracks of his psyche, widening the schisms he was working so hard to repair. The Overlook won because it picked on a man that was weak, even though he was trying to be strong; The Overlook won because, in Jack’s son, it found a psychic amplifier that boosted its considerable powers to the point where hope was forever lost to Jack.

That, to me, is the saddest part of re-reading The Shining. Every time I go back I find myself identifying with Jack, rooting for Jack, more and more. But now, unlike that first reading all those years ago, I understand that Jack Torrance never stood a chance.

There’s a reason this one stands tall on so many “My Favorite King” lists. The strength of the characterization, combined with the genuine scares King evokes, has not faded with time. Thought-provoking, sad, tense and scary, The Shining would be a crowning achievement for many writers; as it stands, it’s but one of many such accomplishments for King.

Re-Reading King: The Index

Review: ‘Sing Me Your Scars’ by Damien Angelica Walters

ScarsSing Me Your Scars by Damien Angelica Walters
Apex Publications (March 9, 2015)

Sing Me Your Scars is a gripping collection of short stories that provides a number of deeply-felt chills without relying on the crutches of common horror clichés and tropes.

In this mix of new and previously published fiction, Damien Angelica Walters focuses less on the boogeymen in the shadows and more on inner demons like doubt, insecurity, and dependance. Don’t get me wrong – this is no mundane collection of inner monologues; we’ve got a snake-headed woman you might recognize from Mythology 101, and a robot model of Henry VIII that lives with a stripper, and women who can sing buildings into existence, and many more such wondrous creations. But every single story,
now matter how outlandish the window dressing may seem, is grounded in the
very real foibles and frailties of human existence.

There are a number of standouts in Sing Me Your Scars. Among them is the title story, a fresh take on the Frankenstein story in which each “contributor” maintains a voice in the increasingly crowded headspace of Victoria, the mad doctor’s tragic creation. “Melancholia” is another strong entry; in it, a woman watches her mother slowly unravel due to Alzheimer’s, tragically unable to see the very real magic her mother is leaving behind. “Scarred” sees a woman with those fabled voices in her head, urging her to cause pain to people around here; when she cuts herself, her hate is manifested as a dangerous, physical thing, but she only uses it on those who deserve…at least, those who the voices say deserve it.

Walters is not afraid to play around with established storytelling techniques, but throughout her experimentation she never loses control of the story itself. There’s nothing here that can be reduced to pure gimmickry – when she does try something out of the ordinary, it’s with a very real and specific purpose.

Sing Me Your Scars is the third entry in Apex’s “Voices” series, their attempt to spotlight new and exciting storytellers. As with the previous entries (Douglas F. Warrick and Maurice Broaddus), Apex proves they have a great eye (and ear) for talent. Walters is a writer that seems prepared to be around for the long haul, and horror fiction as a whole is likely to benefit greatly from her talents.

Review: ‘Dark Screams Volume Two’ edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar

DS2Dark Screams Volume Two edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar
Hydra (March 3, 2015)

Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar continue their mission of educating new horror readers, and enthralling old genre-reading vets like myself, with this second installment of their Dark Screams anthology series. As with the first volume, the editors have picked these tales without a definitive theme in mind, giving them free reign to choose stories based solely on their ability to evoke fear. In this they have succeeded, putting together a compilation that is, on the whole, a more satisfying reading experience than it’s very good predecessor.

Volume Two opens with a classic reprint by Robert R. McCammon, “The Deep End,” a good old-fashioned monster tale the likes of which the author built his early career on. People are dying in the local public pool, and one grieving father takes it upon himself to figure out why. What follows is a textbook example of how to build a short horror story: the father investigates the mystery, discovers something that no one will believe, and finds himself as the sole person in a position to put a stop to the madness. The resulting encounter is tense and gripping, a strongly executed finale written by a master who was just finding his groove.

“Interval” has the unenviable task of following up the McCammon piece, but Norman Prentiss is more than up to the job. A plane has gone missing, and a young airline employee works through the night, walking a tricky line between offering too much or too little hope to the exhausted family members waiting at the airport for news. There’s a man there who at first seems to be helping, offering comfort to those who are grieving, but something about him seems…off. Prentiss makes his reveal at just the right moment, transforming the story from a straightforward account of the unique hell that is waiting for bad news into a surreal, effective nightmare.

“If These Walls Could Talk” by Shawntelle Madison was frustrating in one way, because it featured a horror heroine making a classic horror heroine mistake – not suspecting the one person she should suspect of causing the trouble around her. That issue aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, a modern take on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” that contains some genuinely creepy moments.

“The Night Hider” by Graham Masterton is a dark brother to another classic tale: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. In fact, just as I was making that connection in my mind, Masterton pulls Lewis and his beloved novel directly into the story. There’s a wardrobe, yes, but instead of leading the way to a magical kingdom, it serves as the hiding place for a man; a dark, burned man with revenge on his mind. Masterton’s brutal shocker is my favorite story out of this collection.

Richard Christian Matheson closes out Dark Screams Volume Two with “Whatever,” which chronicles the rise and fall of an American rock ‘n roll sensation. Matheson tells their story (which, while not exactly horror, is – like the story of many musicians – a tragedy) in disjointed fashion, spelling out events in snippets of conversation, memos, a reporter’s notes, song lyrics and interviews. It’s a difficult technique to pull off but Matheson makes it work, mixing up voices and writing styles to great effect. Technique without story is just empty showmanship, but Matheson’s story has a strong backbone: the familiar-yet-engaging story of a rock band trying to make more than some memorable party anthems, and the many ways in which success and scrutiny can rip the tightest bonds apart. It’s not scary, but somehow it works, and it makes for a fine closer for this collection.

Freeman and Chizmar continue to showcase the versatility of horror with their Dark Screams series. I believe the duo have three more volumes in the works, but I’m already hoping the project continues after those are done.

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.