Flushboy by Stephen Graham Jones

16057396I know. It’s a book called Flushboy and there’s a toilet on the cover. You pay close enough attention to me, by which I clearly mean, give me a passing social media glance, and you’d think that I was sponsored by bodily functions; or at the very least, receptacles of said waste. Really though, if you let your eyes drift downward, you’ll clearly see in pee-yellow that the author of this fine book is none other than Stephen Graham Jones. So, what do you have to say for your assumptions now, smartypants?

I’m not going to sit here and pretend that the toilet, the clever yellow fonts, and the title wouldn’t have me gaze at the book a little longer than most. If I were ever able to find a bookstore cool enough to carry Jones’s books, I might even flip through the pages a bit. However, what sold the book, and what should sell you this too, is Jones. It is nearly impossible to keep up with his output, as it is well documented that he probably isn’t human with the rate which he’s published. So, let’s not beat that horse. And let’s cut the crap and talk about this book.

Combine the charm of those summer coming of age flicks, with being crammed inside a drive-thru facility that collects your urine, utilizing the whimsy of a fast food restaurant and scrap from an automated car wash. Our hero, inside one unbelievable day, suffers the woes of teenage life. All of them. His girlfriend disappears with some strange dude, there’s a mystery engaging our hero that involves the local sports mascot, his parents are on the the verge of divorce, and he gets paid to take people’s pee. That’s a lot to weigh on a kid’s mind, especially in one day.

Stephen Graham Jones uses his abilities best here. Slashes of conversation punctuate the action, framing the plot, such that the story moves along – the story lives and breathes, making all of this easy to swallow. Part of you wants to stop and disbelieve, but there is no time, because if you stop to ponder, you’re going to fall behind. You’re going to miss something and then you’ll be lost forever. Flushboy is a fun read, easy and short enough to be digested in one sitting. What it lacks in surprising impact, it more than makes up for with that comfortable familiarity of something you would read or watch dozens of times, because you can relate. You get Flushboy and Flushboy gets you.

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Federales by Christopher Irwin

FederalesI feel like I’m constantly chasing this imaginary thing. There’s for sure a hole inside that I can’t seem to fill with my own self, so I’ve tried just about everything else; tattoos, drugs, alcohol, women, and the beat goes on. Sometimes it’s books. For the last couple years I whine that I’m not reading enough. I’ll bolt through a handful of titles, life happens, and then “Fuck everything.” Then I decide to get back into books and I go go go. Federales is attempt number infinity to fill that void with books.

We find Marcos Camarena at his desk doing Mexican Federal Agent stuff. He’s that grizzled, “getting too old for this shit,” kind of flatfoot with a few days worth of stubble and a rampant hatred for sunlight. Through a pretty dramatic set of events, he gives up his badge, goes into hiding, and then starts working a protection detail for a politician. Camarena has a hole in him, too. He tries his damnedest to fill that hole with booze. There are many sentences devoted to thinking about, purchasing, spilling, smashing, and storing alcohol. However, Marcos finds that human connection, no matter how destructive that connection can be, to be the most rewarding. That human condition, man, what we want and need the most ultimately reigns down our own destruction. That thing in all of us is put through its paces, here.

In one-hundred-four pages, Christopher Irvin drops us off in sweltering, crime-riddled Mexico. We’re following his hero through alleys and isolated beaches, navigating this godforsaken life. At first, admittedly, it all feels kind of cliche until we get to that human connection. Camarena is less of a flat protagonist, and he becomes more human when he and his uncle are being real with each other. That’s where the real tension of the story begins, because Irvin gives us a reason to be committed to Marcos’ well-being. From then on, we’re hooked.

The language is fast-paced and clean. Yet, despite the small page count, there’s a heft to the story. Whether it’s the transition from climax to conclusion, which I will leave for you to experience for yourself, or if it’s the fact that the story is based loosely in reality, Federales hold’s enough weight to leave you wanting more. It’s a debut effort that encapsulates perfectly the frustration of merely being human in a world that needs us to be so much more, to be less broken, to fill those holes within us.

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Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

Mockingbird-144dpi1Say it isn’t so! The second novel in the Miriam Black series opens with our heroine jockeying the register of some terrible shore-store on Long Beach Island. She now spends her days swiping cheap flip-flops, bags of pretzels, and plastic shovels across her register, before going home to her trailer park of meth-head misfit neighbors and derelicts. The job is something Louis was able to garner for her in an effort to possibly domesticate Miriam, to bring her into the calm that he once enjoyed before all of the fall out in Blackbirds. It’s endearing, somewhat, but when you cage a wild animal, one of two things happens. Either that animal bends to your will, becoming a shadow of its former self, or it rages until it either dies or is free.

Fear not! Miriam escapes her cage within the first few pages. Otherwise, it would make for a rather boring book, considering what happened in the first. And of course, this freeing shit show that author, Chuck Wendig, uses as the catalyst for Mockingbird‘s story is something straight out of horror’s nightmares. It isn’t long before Miriam finds herself on the grounds of a school for girls, using her psychic ability to, once again, save the day, much to her chagrin.

As stated in the Blackbirds review, Wendig’s Miriam is a strong female character like no other. She was compared to a very real person, trapped in the world of very unreal circumstances. Mockingbird is able to somehow achieve more, here. Not only is Miriam still this very life-like person with supernatural ability, but Wendig is able to make you care. There’s a scene about midway through the novel where she returns home and finds her uncle. Without spoiling what happens here too much, Wendig stirs in the reader’s heart emotions of hope, terror, heartbreak, and brings you safely back to hope, before Miriam goes stomping down the road to her next destination. Black plays less of a victim of circumstance in Mockingbird and more of an antihero, a bit of a detective, which makes it easier to root for her. You’re going to find yourself peering less around the next page and turning it faster in an effort to see what happens next. She’s stronger now, and you want her to moreso thrive and stand tall, than barely survive.

If this book series isn’t even on your radar yet, I implore you to make swift changes to make it so. These books have a little bit of everything: action and horror, love and suspense, sex and mayhem. Moments of unadulterated horror are punctuated with tongue-in-cheek comedy, as Wendig’s foul-mouthed Miriam wanders the highways and byways of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I look forward to the third installment, The Cormorant, and you should join me in the excitement of getting this series and reading along.

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Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Blackbirds-144dpiIt’s hard to find a well-written female character, especially when the author is a man. They’re usually these comic book amalgamations, all unnaturally curved with little personality. Sometimes they have the flexibility and fight of Kate Beckinsale’s Selene from the Underworld film series, but have the flat and wounded allure of milk left out over night. Or they’re callow victims of womanhood, waiting to be saved by some musclebound lothario with perfectly coiffed hair. Women are usually less a character and more of a plot device used as a protagonist’s motivation.

Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds stars Miriam Black, a psychic transient, able to see the death of anyone she touches. We first find her in a motel room waiting for her next victim to die of a powerful seizure. To be clear, she doesn’t cause the seizure; Miriam isn’t a murderer. She’s more of a self-described vulture, scavenging the contents of deceased people’s wallets, so she can keep moving, stay fed, clothed, and under a roof. Of course, things go awry. Con artists and assassins circle the vulture in Miriam Black, waiting to dig their claws in her so they can use her power for their own gain.

While the premise is fascinating, Wendig’s Black shines like a refurbished lighthouse. She’s beautifully trashy, damaged, and runs the emotional gamut. She feels everything like any human being would, living in turmoil, but it doesn’t cripple her like some little, fragile doll. She’s a strong willful woman doing what she has to so she can survive, armed with the mouth of a sailor, a life full of baggage, and the motto, “It is what it is.” Miriam is a fictional character as real as anyone else you have ever met, battling with her very real demons, and the idea of fate.

Blackbirds is equal parts gritty drama, dangerous action, and dark comedy. The pacing is steady with no discernible lag. Every page moves the story, making the three-hundred-plus-page novel a fast and entertaining read. The story does come to a distinct conclusion, but there’s definitely room for more, which is great because as it turns out, Blackbirds is the first of a series. Mockingbird has already been published and The Cormorant is being published tomorrow. It is also rumored that there will be more after tomorrow’s release (Thunderbird?), which is very exciting, because Miriam Black is one of those characters that stay with you.

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Pike by Benjamin Whitmer

PikeWhen you hear enough of the right voices whisper the right names, you think, maybe, there’s something to this. Pike is one of those book titles that rattle around in the recommendation and favorites lists. Naturally, you think you’ll get to it eventually. And then new stuff comes out, more flamboyant covers and titles cross your desk and fill out your bookshelves. Those titles lose their luster, the intrigue of those covers die out, but Pike still calls to you on the periphery. It calls to you. Authors praise Whitmer, and how this little book has changed them, influenced their writing.

Maybe I’m too cynical for my own good. I had a difficult time believing that this book was going to be any good. Based on what? I don’t know. The summary sounds pretty neat. Three old men connected to each other by a mouthy little girl. Blood. Violence. Gore. Enough smoking to give virgin lungs cancer. A prolific use of the word fuck. You’d believe I’d be all over this book from the second it crossed the threshold of my home. But it sat.

Yesterday, Pike used up and wore out nine hours of my life. I picked it up thinking that I’d read a few chapters and get to more later. Wrong. Dead wrong.

I read that bad bitch from cover to cover. Whitmer straps you down and force feeds you this book. That little girl walks into the diner and meets Pike for the first time, calling him a fucking pedophile. She’s twelve. At first it’s jarring, but as she continues to carry on, she’s clearly a rascal to the grizzled old Pike. You need to see where this goes, how the drama plays out. The violence is plentiful, the gore a main character.

What rings true throughout is Whitmer’s prose. The man is a poet. I haven’t been this conflicted about a novel in a long long time. On more than one occasion, I knew I should have been repulsed by what I was reading, but was more than compelled to keep going with the beautiful word choice. I can’t say enough nice things about this book. If you’re into southern gothic books, Pike is your jam. I guarantee it.

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Hell on Church Street by Jake Hinkson

13418228Geoffrey Webb pulls into a convenience store and comes out to a gun pressed against him. He’s forced into his car and taken for a ride while the stickup artist decides what to do with his victim. Geoffrey is a mess of a man, clearly given up on taking care of himself, allowing him to take control of the situation by not being able to be manipulated. Firstly, Webb himself, is a smooth talker. Secondly, he’s a man that just doesn’t care what happens. So, Webb soon turns the tables on the man with the gun and then begins his story.

Geoffrey’s life serves as the second act of the novel, but that second act takes up the majority of the book. Webb is able to work his way into an Arkansas church, serving as their youth leader. He quickly becomes obsessed with the teenaged daughter of the church pastor. There’s a plot embezzle money belonging to the church and a crazy hillbilly family. Please, allow me to be clear. “Crazy hillbilly family” is what sold me on getting and reading this book, so I was super excited when they showed up.

Otherwise, the plot sounds incredibly convoluted. The power of Hinkson’s writing proves that, despite the convoluted plot points sounding even stranger when lumped together, Jake is able to weave together a fairly strong plot that advances at a solid pace. He takes all of those keywords and plot twists and tells a story that is dark and violent. He’s able to make such an absurd sequence of events and explain them through emotion and action such that the advancement of the story isn’t as crazy as one once may have thought.

The problem that Hell on Church Street suffers from is this A-B-A story structure. We start with Webb being the victim of a robbery, launch into Webb’s back story, and then jump back to the present time, with the gun at Webb’s back again. Although such a setup isn’t that uncommon, the first and last parts of the novel are larger than usual. Also, the relationship between the characters in the first and last sections are stronger than those in the middle. It’s a minor detraction, but I spent a good bit of the past tense section of the story wondering when I’d get back to the intense car ride of the opening.

Hell on Church Street is still a strong book. It’s a fast-paced crime story that takes place in rural Arkansas. There’s violence and drugs and crazy people. It’s a quick read that I was able to finish in, pretty much, a single sitting. If you’re looking for a book to clean your palate from a ridiculously huge and daunting literary monster, or have suffered from a reading drought and want to jump back in quickly, Hell on Church Street is probably the fun and gruesome book that you need to pick up.

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The Contortionist’s Handbook: Ten Years Later

20131202-005151.jpgSo much time has passed. I was climbing over stacks of magazines and flyers, books and brochures, with six books of my own tucked under my arms. I’d just finished listening to the author read from his debut novel, a book that had been published two years prior, but was seeing some action from another recommending it on his own book tour. It’s a well documented exchange of love between writers, so I won’t bore you. Ask around, my finding Craig Clevenger and his work is not a lonely tale. My story, or at least, my learning of Clevenger is quite similar to many, having a lot to do with a book tour promoting Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk. So, let’s skip ahead a bit.

My feet are hanging out the driver’s window of a medical transport van in the parking lot of a Burger King in Pennsville, New Jersey. The van is baking in the late September sun and I’m supposed to be an hour away in forty five minutes. Naturally, I decide that reading the final chapter was far more important. So, I did that, and then I stared blankly while I blew through two counties, trying to process a book I’d read in less than ten hours.

At the time, I was running and writing for a blog/magazine thing that did reviews and editorials and whatever else we could think of to entertain ourselves and share with the world. Someone even pooped on a movie. I knew I had to write about The Contortionist’s Handbook and not just because it would be new content.

You see, my newfound interest in the written word was already starting to wane. Although I liked the minimalist noir style, there was an undeniable formula that was starting to disinterest me. I gave this book a shot anyway and it saved me. The Handbook tossed the verse-chorus-verse of what I was reading and fleshed out the minimalism a bit. The focus was still the story, sure, but there was a human element here that was missing elsewhere. Rather than just being characters in a story on a page, John Dolan Vincent, Jr and those around him lived.

When I got home, what came out was less a proper review and more of a passionate and hyperbolic ranting. It was chock full of profanity and juvenile similes involving bodily functions; basically my tried and true schtick that I still use to this day. I then went on to track the author down and follow him mercilessly. I did creepy. Every time he’s come to the East side of the country, I’ve been there. I’ve read and reviewed his sophomore effort. We have been published inside the covers of two short story collections.

Somewhere along the way I’d lost my signed copy and bought more, only to have that first book returned to me the other day. It was, for sure, that long lost love come home. Reading the inscription, I immediately went back to that night, scrambling over all kinds of literature inside the long since closed Soft Skull bookstore.

“It’s not polite to stare. Never not, Craig Clevenger.”

And then I was turning pages, reliving the hospitalization and story of a man with eleven fingers and a penchant for forgery. A few short hours later and the book was closed again, and there I was still fixated on that random spot between me and eternity. Ten long years later, The Contortionist’s Handbook was still amazing, maybe even more so. As time has gone by I’ve learned of Clevenger’s meticulous attention to detail and the words he chose to use or, more and to the point, not use for his desired effects. It’s still that book that makes me want to keep going, to make books a priority above all else, even my job. I hope to make him proud with a book of my own, to make him stare off into the distance, to create something he’d still love ten years later.

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