Monthly Archives: June 2014

Review: The Cormorant, Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig will abuse you.

Wendig will break you. Not you “the person,” but you “the reader,” via his character Miriam Black. In The Cormorant (Angry Robot, 2013), Wendig puts Miriam through the wringer, beating, stabbing, and otherwise traumatizing her–and by proxy, you. And you’ll let him, because you like it. You’re as sick as he is.

The Cormorant, Chuck Wendig

The Cormorant, Chuck Wendig

The Cormorant continues the story Wendig began in Blackbirds and Mockingbird. Miriam is living in Philadelphia, testing the limits of her powers. But fate still has its rules: Blood for blood. When Miriam intervenes in a robbery, saving the victim and dispatching the mugger, she invites in the mysterious “Trespasser” and is wracked with guilt. Evicted from her apartment, Miriam heads to Florida to make some money by using her powers to tell a man how he’s going to die. She didn’t expect her vision of his death to include a note from the killer–addressed to her. Miriam faces off against someone from her past.

Readers familiar with the Miriam Black series will find in The Cormorant those elements they enjoyed in previous installments: Energetic prose, a briskly paced plot, violence, profanity, and spookiness. Rather than merely being “more of the same,” though, The Cormorant extends the overall arc of Miriam’s story in important ways.

Miriam, drifter for nearly a decade, tethered to no one, and preferring it that way, inches toward acknowledging that she needs other people. Louis, Miriam’s love interest and protector, isn’t present here, but Miriam dwells on their relationship, promising further developments in Thunderbird. More surprising to readers, perhaps, will be Miriam’s encounter with her mother, Evelyn, whose religiosity was partly responsible for Miriam’s decision to run away from home. Evelyn and Miriam have both changed, becoming versions of themselves that neither quite recognizes. Their relationship is fraught, and Wendig wisely chooses to leave it unresolved, a satisfying tension that denies the reader a simple conclusion.

Wendig also drops more hints in regards to Miriam’s powers. Readers are already aware that trauma appears to be the engine that imparts “psychic” abilities (for lack of a better term) upon Wendig’s characters, a nugget of darkness embedded in their psyches. We learned in Mockingbird that Miriam is not alone, that there are other people with powers similar to hers. In The Cormorant, Miriam further exercises her “connection” with birds, culminating in a particularly gory scene near the end of the novel. Setting the stage for Thunderbird, Wendig teases us with the possibility that Miriam may be able to transform her power in a way that would utterly change her life.

On a par with Blackbirds and MockingbirdThe Cormorant is not only a extension of Miriam’s overall story arc, but also a successful novel in its own right (as its predecessors were,). Wendig’s prose is muscular and his storytelling brisk, his characters and settings well drawn. As with previous entries in the Miriam Black series, readers uncomfortable with profanity and violence are unlikely to enjoy these novels. If, on the other hand, you’ve read Miriam’s previous adventures, you’ll want to read this one, too. Even as you wince at each at each punch Wendig throws Miriam’s way, you’ll find yourself thanking him and asking for another. Highly recommended.

Review: Mockingbird, Chuck Wendig

The trouble with series, especially those that begin with a “bang,” is that they risk a decline in quality with subsequent volumes. Further entries in the series often aren’t as good as the first, that one that grabbed our attention. Maybe it’s the speed with which an author is expected to churn out new books. Maybe it’s fatigue, weariness of the same material. Or maybe the author tries to mimic what made that first volume successful, but in doing so writes a timid imitation of a story that was once unique. Maybe the 100 monkeys with the 100 typewriters are on strike.

I’m pleased to report that Chuck Wendig’s Mockingbird (Angry Robot, 2012) is a worthy successor to Blackbirds. Wendig suffers from none of the faults I name above, with the possible exception of the monkeys. (I really don’t know Wendig’s stance on primate labor.)

Mockingbird picks up, as readers might expect, where Blackbirds left off: On Long Beach Island, New Jersey. A year has passed since Miriam and Louis faced down fate. Not only has Miriam avoided using her ability to see people’s deaths, she also, miraculously, holds down a steady job. Which she blows in the first chapter.

Mockingbird, Chuck Wendig. I confess that I don't like this cover.

Mockingbird, Chuck Wendig. I confess that I don’t like this cover.

Miriam is addicted not just to nicotine, but to her visions and to life on the road. Life with Louis is just too predictable. In a bid to satisfy Miriam’s cravings, Louis arranges for her to foretell the death of a teacher at an all girls’ school in central Pennsylvania. Of course, Miriam encounters trouble; the phrases “all girls’ school” and “central Pennsylvania” predict that. (As a former resident of central PA, I’m allowed to say that.) Someone’s been killing students, and it’s up to Miriam to stop them.

Much of Mockingbird will be familiar to readers of Blackbirds: The characters; the dialog, especially Miriam’s; the dark tone and violence. What makes Mockingbird unique–and, ultimately, successful–is Wendig’s decision not only to continue the story he began in Blackbirds, but also to further develop it. In other words, Mockingbird isn’t a sitcom treatment, in which the status quo is reset at the end. Rather, Wendig transforms his characters and their relationships to one another, and hints at the broader vision that will tie together each entry in the series.

Wendig is especially strong here in terms of imagery and setting. Wendig makes his home in central Pennsylvania, and it’s clear that he’s familiar with its landscape. His descriptions of both the lushness of the Pennsylvania countryside and the decrepitude of the towns that stubbornly squat in its midst are spot-on. There is a general air of gloom and decay that suits Mockingbird. Rain, the product of a hurricane coming up the coast, never ceases to fall, and lends urgency to the dire warnings–“the water is rising”–Miriam receives from her spiritual “advisers.”

Blackbirds. But I really like this cover!

Blackbirds. But I really like this cover!

Mockingbird sees Miriam learning more about her “power.” It should not surprise readers to learn that she’s not alone; there are other damaged people out there who can also “see things.” Wendig wisely keeps these larger developments cryptic, hinting at what’s to come. He has you on the hook, and he’ll play with you a bit as he reels you in. Miriam engages in conversation with “the Trespasser,” the force or forces with whom she communes, and begins to learn some of the “rules” that govern her power and its place in the world. Suffice it to say that there may be more to it than merely seeing how people might die–but the reader knows only as much as Miriam, and is just as frustrated and confused.

Miriam and Louis’s relationship changes by the end of Mockingbird. The romance that developed during Blackbirds is supplanted by something at once more mundane and stranger. Louis and Miriam appear bound together, but not necessarily in the kind of “lovers-friends” dynamic that (usually) defines “normal” couples. Louis, having dropped Miriam off at the Caldecott School, heads south on a delivery, only to experience a vision that tells him Miriam needs his help. He immediately turns around and, on the drive home, plucks a feather from the socket of the eye he lost a year earlier. (Wendig employs similar gruesome scenes to great effect throughout Mockingbird.) Clearly, this is not your average boy-meets-girl relationship.

If there is a weakness in Mockingbird, it may be in the identity of the murderer. Intuitive readers will key in on the culprit almost as soon as he or she is introduced. That said, Wendig has a few tricks to play on his readers, and, to that end, uses Miriam’s visions to great effect. Of course, Mockingbird isn’t really a mystery, at least, not in the sense of a “whodunnit.” The mystery here isn’t so much “who is the killer” as it is “what the hell’s going on with Miriam’s powers,” and there, at least, Wendig holds all the cards.

Mockingbird is a successful follow-up to Blackbirds. It stands well on its own and, if it lacks some of the manic energy of its predecessor, that may be because Wendig is taking the time to develop Miriam’s story, her past and future, both of which readers glimpse. Readers may expect more of the same and, in this case, I mean that in the best possible way. More profanity, more graphic violence, more spookiness, more Miriam. If you enjoyed Blackbirds, you’re almost certain to enjoy Mockingbird. Highly recommended.

See also: My review of Blackbirds.

And, apparently Blackbirds is coming to TV.

Review: Blackbirds, Chuck Wendig

Profanity. Sex. Violence. This is the depravity a reader must enjoy in order to appreciate Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds (Angry Robot, 2012).

I loved it.

Miriam Black is like that creepy kid from The Sixth Sense if he were older and more inclined to dropping the f-bomb. Miriam is more macabre, too: Instead of seeing dead people, she sees how they die. The merest touch imparts to Miriam knowledge not only of how a person dies, but also when, information that comes in handy to a drifter living by the seat of her pants. (Think scavenger.)

Blackbirds, Chuck Wendig

Blackbirds, Chuck Wendig

Blackbirds opens with Miriam moving from one encounter to the next, a glutted vulture seeking out her next meal. She’s picked up by Louis, a kindly truck driver, after she encounters two rednecks. (Whom Miriam roundly beats. Thanks, Louis, but she don’t need no man.) Miriam accidentally touches Louis and receives a vision of his death in which he appears to be calling her name and looking at her over the shoulder of his murderer. Thus Wendig sets Blackbirds‘ story in motion.

If its premise is straightforward–urban fantasy chick with special powers gets into trouble–Blackbirds is anything but simple. In a postscript interview with Adam Christopher, Wendig admits that Blackbirds went through seven or eight drafts, including from a book manuscript to a film script and back again. (The visual style of the book is indicative of its time as a script.) And it shows. There is nothing rough or extraneous about Blackbirds. Wendig distilled the story down to its essence, and then sprinkled it liberally with profanity.

The care Wendig put into telling this story shows. His prose is whip-smart, each sentence a revelation in its own way, whether it’s creative vulgarity or unexpected observations, for instance, the “chemical stink” of Philadelphia (a smell this reader knows all too well). Each sentence builds upon the last, lending the story a propulsive feel. Readers will find themselves impatient to know what happens next. Blackbirds is the definition of a “page turner.”

Chuck Wendig. Don't call him "Charlie."

Chuck Wendig. Don’t call him “Charlie.”

Wendig’s prose is punchy, conversational. (If he speaks in any way resembling his writing voice, I would love to have a beer with him.) His dialog is natural; readers will recognize the rhythms of characters’ speech. If there is an exception, it might be Miriam herself, whose incessant patter sometimes reads as forced, or, perhaps, too clever, almost as if she’s a Gilmore Girl gone to seed. Still, Miriam’s dialog is in character. She isn’t stupid, and the endless string of wisecracks, vulgarity, and observations speak to her nervous energy, a trait indicated, too, by her chain smoking, drinking, and, ultimately, rootless lifestyle.

Wendig is at his best (and that is saying something) when it comes to characterization. Miriam is a compelling and charismatic protagonist, of course, but it’s with the characters that revolve around her that Wendig really shines. Wendig can summon up a sense of character with just one or two sentences. Consider Ashley Gaynes, a conman whose whole being is summed up in his shit-eating grin. Or Frankie and Harriet, a pair of odd couple cutthroats who make small talk about crazy old cat women. Their reactions to a story about a particular cat woman, something told almost in passing, points to their very natures.

Readers should be warmed: This is not a PG book. You will have by now noted that I’ve mentioned profanity several times, and there is a lot of it. If you don’t crack a smile at creative cursing, if you find such language tasteless, Blackbirds isn’t for you. Blackbirds is violent, too, practically from the first page, and it is graphic. I wrinkled my nose a few times, and I’m not squeamish; indeed, I like my stories bloody. Readers with weak stomachs should consider themselves warned.

Those concerns aside–and I don’t consider them my concerns–Blackbirds is a wonderful book. The story is well plotted, the characters, even the minor ones, fully drawn, and Wendig’s prose is outstanding. A sense of “writer’s craft” permeates the entire book. A dark urban fantasy, Blackbirds will be best enjoyed by readers who like their fantasy to have elements of mysteries and thrillers, and for fans of the quirky and offbeat. Highly recommended.

Review: Authority, Jeff VanderMeer

There is a scene late in Authority (FSG Originals, May 2014) in which one character explains to another the manic gyrations of a beetle the two them are observing: The pesticide with which the insect came into contact is suffocating it, causing it to stumble about in panic. It’s dying. The character ends the beetle’s suffering by crushing it beneath her heel. That scene is an apt metaphor for the experience of reading Authority: The reader is the bug writhing in the shadow of Jeff VanderMeer’s foot.

Authority, Jeff VanderMeer

Authority, Jeff VanderMeer

Authority is the second book of VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy. While not exactly essential to follow the story in Authority, it’s recommended that readers begin with Annihilation, published in February. And, although I hate to have to say it: Spoiler alert. Whoop, whoop, sirens go off.

Authority picks up less with where Annihilation lets off than it does more with a different thread. Here the story remains firmly outside of the mysterious “Area X,” into which readers ventured in Annihilation. The setting is Florida, in a containment zone that comprises and cushions Area X from its surrounding environs. The Southern Reach, an obscure government department attached to Homeland Security, presides over Area X, investigating in a desultory fashion. The Southern Reach has learned very little about Area X over the previous two decades, and is still smarting from the loss of its most recent expedition. The organization is rudderless, its director having joined the expedition as the team psychologist. It’s this situation that disgraced agent John Rodriguez, AKA “Control,” inherits as the new director of the Southern Reach, perhaps due to the influence of his mother. (Control has serious mommy issues.)

Control immediately begins investigating the latest expedition, his efforts focused on (surprise!) the biologist, who returned from Area X just before his arrival. Between interrogating the defiant biologist, who insists that she is not herself, despite having memories of her life before her time in Area X, the director engages in office politics with the Assistant Director, Grace, and encounters some of the oddities that Area X generates, for instance, a plant in his desk drawer, placed there by the previous director, that just won’t die. And, of course, there are the words scrawled in his closet: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…” Bad juju.

Don't you set foot in Area X. Don't you do it.

Don’t you set foot in Area X. Don’t you do it.

Ultimately, then, if Annihilation is something of a “journey into mystery,” Authority is more of a spy novel, albeit one that is a comedy of errors. Rodriguez’s choice of “Control” to serve as his handle is ironic; it’s clear that he’s out of his depth. The superior to whom Control reports, “the Voice,” ineptly screams obscenities at him. Control visits the gateway to Area X, but the guards inform him that the commanding officer has stepped out. Control vomits into a toilet after a confrontation with Grace. My guess is that, for all the surreal goings-on, this is a more accurate portrayal of the life of spies than readers have otherwise encountered.

Of course, it isn’t spycraft that interests VanderMeer, it’s “the Weird.” As with Annihilation, VanderMeer masterfully establishes an unsettling atmosphere. Nature itself seems to conspire against Control and his subordinates: The air is always muggy, and rains come and go every day. Then, too, there is the catalog of strangeness that builds up around any bureaucracy and in any office: The infighting, the awkward attempts at conviviality, the depressing tones of the carpets and trim, the smell of the wrong disinfectant. Area X is just miles away, and, after the scene in which Control watches footage of an experiment in which scientists forced rabbits across its border, the presence of that strange land looms like a threat.

Comparisons between Authority and Annihilation are inevitable. On the whole, Authority has been very well received, moreso than its predecessor. Still, individual taste being idiosyncratic, I have to admit that I liked Authority less than Annihilation. Part of it is temperament, of course; I liked being “on the ground” in Area X in Annihilation, and, as an office drone, some of the setting of Authority struck too close to home. In my opinion, though, Annihilation was the stronger of the two books because it was so compressed; VanderMeer distilled the Weird down to its very essence. Where Annihilation was tightly coiled, Authority meanders. It is a longer book, and, at times, seems to be unspooling: Scenes go on too long, or VanderMeer is more verbose than this reader would prefer. Because Control knows so little about Area X and even the Southern Reach, the narrative is told from his point of view, which involves a great deal of speculation. VanderMeer devotes considerable space to Control wondering along the lines of, “What is this? Could it be this? But then, it could also be this.” The sense of uncertainty is palpable, but it becomes a thicket through which the reader must force his or her way, and, at times, it becomes exhausting.

This is not to in any way suggest that Authority is not worth the reader’s time. Indeed, the second half of the book is briskly paced, and events unfold much faster than in previous chapters, to this reader’s delight. As with Annihilation, VanderMeer, with Authority, remains at the top of his game. If Annihilation is one of the best books of 2014–we’re halfway through, and I still maintain that it is–then Authority is a worthy successor. Highly recommended.

Review: Datura, Leena Krohn

Leena Krohn is considered one of Finnland’s finest living writers. Having read Datura (Or a Delusion We All See) (Finnish, 2001; English translation 2013 by Anna Volmari and J. Robert Tupasela), I am convinced that: 1. Such statements are not hyperbole, and 2. If Krohn is representative of Finnish character, then the Finns are an interesting people.

Leena Krohn. Finns have been known to smile.

Leena Krohn. Finns have been known to smile.

Datura presents itself as the straightforward story of two years in the life of our unnamed narrator, the editor of a paranormal magazine, The New Anomalist. While the narrator dislikes her job, due mostly to the cynical management of her friend and boss, “the Marquis,” she enjoys getting to know the oddballs and eccentrics attracted to magazines like The New Anomalist. All the while, in an effort to cure her asthma, the narrator consumes the seeds of the datura plan given her as a birthday present. Are the oddities the narrator experiences a result of living in proximity to the Arctic Circle? Is it the influence of the magazine? Or are the datura seeds have unforeseen side effects?

By keeping chapters short, typically two to four pages, Krohn creates a surreal, dreamlike atmosphere. The details related in each chapter are episodic, snapshots in the life of the narrator and her acquaintances. This is not to say that the chapters don’t build upon one another, but the relationship of one chapter to the next is often tangential, with the whole only revealed at the end of the book.

Datura (Or a Delusion We All See)

Datura (Or a Delusion We All See)

Krohn’s language is beautiful, even in translation (a testament to the skills of the translators, no doubt). Consider, for instance, this early nugget on the nature of reality: “The dead of winter is like a pocket you can hide in. Winter offers one of the best illusions: the illusion that time can stop. If nothing grows, blooms, or flourishes, nothing can wither away, either” (page 25). Which happens to be exactly the way I feel about winter. Or this: “There are moments when everything is new, as if seen or heard for the first time, even language, words that I’ve read a thousand times. People, landscapes, items, even books. Now and then I stop at a familiar word as I read, and all of a sudden it amazes me, and I savour it like a new taste. For a fraction of a second I hesitate: what does the word refer to, does it really signify anything at all?” (page 33). What reader hasn’t from time to time come across a word or phrase and thought, “But what does this really mean?”

Which, incidentally, most readers will ask themselves as they make their way through Datura. The narrator glides from one odd encounter to the next, with no apparent rhyme or reason. Consider the Master of Sound, who develops a device that can mute all noise. Or the Pendulum Man, who determines whether or not food is safe to eat by swinging a pendulum over his plate. There’s Loogaroo, the vampire, or “Otherkin,” as the narrator refers to non-humans residing in human bodies. Such ephemera make up the narrator’s day to day experience. As with the contents of The New Anomalist, or the occult shop (“parastore”) the Marquis installs in the magazine’s offices, including a singing fish that bedevils the narrator, some readers may find themselves, “What’s the point?” Which, given Krohn’s interest in perception and reality, is to miss the point entirely.

Datura is a curious book that defies categorization. Is it “weird fiction”? Perhaps, but there are no cosmic monsters here. Krohn writes with a light touch, gently poking fun at her oddball characters even as she sympathizes with them. If the story seems aimless, be assured that you will enjoy its twists and turns. Krohn’s language is hypnotic, compelling the reader ever forward. Highly recommended.