Book Review: The Fuck-It List

Some people read for the purposes of escapism. The Fuck-It List by John Niven will not provide you with that, as his scathing brand of satire is all too realistic. It’s not a casual read that’ll take you out of the discomfort of our moment in history. The year is 2026, the troubles that burden America have only gotten worse, and Frank Brill has terminal cancer. The diagnosis doesn’t come as a surprise, and allows Frank to give himself permission to go on a murder spree. Does this sound similar to Breaking Bad without the crystal meth? Sure. But the unique perspective that Niven offers maintains my investment in the protagonist.

My favorite thing about Niven is his ability to stir empathy by creating flawed characters that are all too relatable.  Frank Brill is at the end of his life and decides to carry through as much of a hit list as he can manage. It sounds like a violent romp for the sake of it and I’d be a liar to claim it’s not, but the motives, sense of loss, and weight of the past that Frank reflects upon creates a believable portrait who gains my support. That probably says more about me than anything else.

I’ll admit, this book isn’t for everyone, but if you want an all too real satirical reflection of America in the filthiest mirror one could find, The Fuck-It List delivers. It kept me turning pages. The stakes get higher with each name Frank Brill stalks down. I enjoyed this immensely, as I do anytime Niven puts out a novel.

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The Girl Who Lived Twice: Book Review

The Girl Who Lived Twice by David Lagercrantz is the sixth installment in the Millennium Series. While I’ve enjoyed the Lagercrantz contributions to the Stieg Larsson trilogy, this novel brings the larger story arch full circle that has left me satisfied. Lagercrantz has proven himself to be worthy of carrying this torch. I’ve stated before that I’ll continue to read as long as Lagercrantz writes the series, and with this book he succeeds in establishing his name with the greater story world. It’s his series, now.

In the novel, Lisbeth Salander gives chase to ghosts of the past while they simultaneously haunt her. Her twin sister, Camilla, remains Lisbeth’s rival. Bad blood simmers until violence emerges at the surface. The potential for chaos spills over and into the life of her friend, Mikael Blomkvist, and forces that are out to destroy them bring them together again.

Blomkvist spends his time chasing a story about a climb up Mt. Everest where life was lost some dozen years prior to. A homeless man who used to be a Sherpa had wanted to tell his story, but madness and murder brought only questions to Blomkvist.

Themes of a haunting past as it complicates the present is central to the novel, and only by breaking those ties are we capable of moving on and reclaiming ourselves. This story plays with such elements in ways that kept me turning the pages and missing out on sleep.

The side characters that have been central to the previous five novels are pretty well left on the sidelines this time around. Berger and Bublanski exist and contribute within the confines of their established roles, but they’re much further in the background compared to earlier stories. Erika Berger is in the middle of a divorce, but beyond that surface detail there’s little of her, and Bublanski is there to serve his purpose as a police officer, and little else. If there’s anything I thought the novel could’ve used more of, it’s the secondary characters.

Other side characters are brought forward to reveal more about Camilla’s world, and the intricacies of her criminal network. Hackers and a hit man loyal to the memory of Camilla’s father fill the spaces left vacant by those who’ve made more regular appearances.

That’s the long and short of it; I enjoyed this book. I’ve enjoyed this series. Without spoiling anything, this would be a fine place to end the series, or pivot to some new direction. I’m hoping for the later, as the central cast of characters keeps me coming back. It’d be nice to see Larsson’s initial vision of ten novels through to the end, though the path there is much different with Lagercrantz at the helm.

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Death Among Us: Short Story Anthology

Disclaimer: I am a part of this project.

Now that that’s out of the way, Death Among Usis a collection of short stories that are all somehow rooted in the murder mystery genre. The authors weren’t tethered by any other stipulation, aside from a request to not be gratuitous in our use of violence. The resulting anthology includes cross genre stories that venture into the historical, science fiction, and supernatural, in addition to contemporary stories of greed, revenge, and the most sordid of our shared human condition.

As it should be with any anthology, I owed it to the other writers to give their works a spin. I started at the beginning, and read the award-winning The Rose Slayer by Stephen Bentley, and the conclusion hit home for me in a way I can only describe as delightful. From there I branched out, helped myself to a sampling, and found that I’m in the company of quality.

The science fiction take on the theme, as crafted by Greg Alldredge, offered a bit of something different. As a lover of science fiction, I’m pleased with what Alldredge brings to the table.

Red Solo Cup, by Kelly Artieri stood out, as she is excellent at creating characters that come to life, a quality I find difficult to achieve in the short story medium.

Robbie Cheadle’s historical murder mystery, Justice is Never Served, is filled with a prose style that is so wonderfully crafted, I read it twice to let her lines settle in.

Michael Spinelli takes you to the desert, and leaves you there to die. His story, No Man’s Land, establishes the killer as a monster of sorts, using this language to distance killer from “normal” people, but the twist left me with the conclusion that in the grand scheme of things, we’re not so different from those we try to label as the horrific other.

The work of L. Lee Kane is gritty fun. The murders were not the main event for me, as casual violence exists throughout her narratives, and shows a world where such violence is all too normal.

The Thoughts of Emily Morales in Old Age, by Kay Castaneda is a page long train of thought that moved me in ways beyond that than I had initially expected. The quick piece is to be savored and thought upon.

The Neighbours, by Aly Locatelli is her writing debut, and a solid one at that. Her work as a book reviewer serves as a solid foundation for her own narratives. She knows what the reader wants, and how to get you there.

The posthumous works of ‘G’ left me intrigued about the mind of the author. I was especially interested in/entertained by the religious questions of Next.

 

I kind of fell into this project. I responded to an invitation on a message board, and ended up in the company of some impressive authors. This cast of international talent isn’t a group to whom I owe the above praise, and I will refrain from reviewing it on any platform where it may be deemed unprofessional. I just wanted to use my space here to say I’m touched to be among such company, and have been entertained by their work. You can find the Death Among Us here!

 

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Dark Places: Book Review

Dark Places is a dark novel. I came for the bleak style-backed up with substance I’ve come to expect from Gillian Flynn, and I was entertained. Libby Day survives the traumatic murder of her mother and sisters by her brother, and half of our time is spent with her present-day narrative, twenty plus years after the killings. Every other chapter bounces in time between Libby’s modern misanthropy to the day her family was violently torn from the world. Old assumptions are reexamined in the pursuit of money, and Libby is pressured into questioning her memory.

A group of people obsessed with obscure murder cases is willing to fund the down and out Libby Day. The group is driven by an agenda that rejects the narrative that Ben Day murdered his family. They offer to pay Libby for each figure from the past she can track down and interview. She confronts the past in a way she hasn’t considered since the event. Her coping mechanisms are hot garbage, and the pity driven donations have dried up. Libby is desperate for money, and accepts the most fruitful gaslighting campaign I’ve ever read. None of the characters are particularly likable, but those characters make up my kind of book.

As Libby closes in on the truth she finds herself running for her life. She opts not to leave the past alone, and discovers it’s an all-consuming void that doesn’t allow for growth or the healing properties of closure. Libby is damaged, and I find joy in her  narrative.

The novel concludes in a manner that left me conflicted. Without giving too much away, it felt like a plethora of coincidence packed into the smallest possible window. The pieces come together in a way that supports the ending, but I’m still frustrated.

Dark Places is fun. If the narrative styling of Gone Girl or Sharp Objects suits your fancy, this novel offers another trip through the quality storytelling of Gillian Flynn. I’m looking forward to her next release.

 

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Trashed: Graphic Novel Review

Solid entertainment coupled with documentary style insights makes for a quality read. Backderf is no one-trick-pony, as Trashed is his followup to ‘My Friend Dahmer’ that tells the story of young men doing a dirty job out of necessity. The characters are genuine in a relatable way that makes me want to share a pizza with them on a night out. They gripe about their role as thankless cogs that contribute to life as you know it. They’re a brand of people who I’d call ‘chill.’ Take this conversation for example:

“What are you doing here in th’ dark?”
“Meditating.”
“To Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood?”
“Fred is the light and the way… neighbor.” (70)

Backderf had a year of experience as a garbage man, and his knowledge on the topic shows that experience beyond the bits that are composed of research (facts and statistics are strewn throughout for context). The story is brought out of the 70’s and into a contemporary time, but one theme that hasn’t changed much is the exposure of our throwaway culture. There’s a point in the story where the crew is burdened with all that is abandoned in a foreclosed home. They pop open a shoebox full of photographs, and take a moment to flip through the sentimental memories of the people who had once inhabited the house. A materialistic culture finds no comfort or value in the commodity with which one fills their life, and thus it’s all potential waste. While one character voices a sadness over the pictures, another offers his own take, “Think of the economy as a giant digestive tract. And we’re here at the rectum of the free market to clean it all up.” (203)

Showed up for the Dahmer story, stuck around for the quality. Backderf should keep making full length graphic novels. Trashed kept me turning pages to the point where I went through it in one sitting.

 

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Blood Chill: Book Review

L.M. Bryski delivers a thriller that has every element necessary for great storytelling. Characters with elaborate backstories are revealed over time via tasteful use of flashbacks. A prop triggers the memory of a detective and leads him in the right direction. Medical/scientific backdrop is used in a way that suggests the author knows a thing or two on the topics she writes about. It’s a tightly woven narrative with realistic characters with whom I empathize.

Blood Chill takes place in the city of Janus, and the novel spans throughout a great deal of the community. Ranging from those who inhabit the newly renovated homeless shelter to the rich who run the show, there’s no class or age group left unaddressed.

These characters have the greatest pull in the story. They’re so well fleshed out and realistic, flawed and funny, weighed upon by the past and other regrets. Commentary between police officers is the main source with comic relief, and I found myself enjoying the banter of Roy Fletcher whenever he’s on the page.

I find it difficult to review thrillers of this nature because I want to delve into the details that hooked me, the feeling when there’s an epiphany regarding a narrative arc, and my thoughts on the villain(s). The fun of these reads is in unraveling the mystery, and I loathe to give anything away.

With that in mind I’ll keep it short. If you’re looking for a smart, funny, and at times culturally satirical thriller with a scientific backdrop then you must check out Blood Chill by L.M. Bryski.

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Kill ‘Em All: Book Review

Steven Stelfox returns in the new John Niven novel, Kill ‘Em All. It’s been twenty years since the rampage that takes place in the pages of Kill Your Friends, and if anything Stelfox is all the more sordid and bloodthirsty. Monetary success has driven him beyond excess, and to new lows at every pass. He muses that the world is, “A place where ambition still outstrips talent… Where the kind and weak are ripped apart like loaves of bread” (327). He admits early on that regardless of what’s to come he will not grow from the experience. His heart isn’t in the right place, if there’s a heart at all.

The year is 2017. Trump is taking office in the opening pages while Stelfox is presented with a job opportunity. He has settled into the luxuries of light retirement, with the occasional gig as a consultant for music industry big wigs. On this occasion a pop star is being blackmailed for his activities as a sexual predator who preys on children. With the dawning of the era of ‘fake news’ Stelfox takes control of the situation, spins it into something much darker, before he burns everything to the ground… all while making himself a profit.

I don’t want to give much away, so I won’t. Kill ‘Em All is the most wretched fun I’ve had in a long time. Niven never disappoints, and Stelfox is his most satirical creation, a modern vice figure who tells the audience just enough to keep them guessing. It’s blatantly offensive. I can’t recommend this book to everyone. It’s not for everyone. But if you’re looking for something ugly I’d start with Kill Your Friends, then move on to Kill ‘Em All.

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The Devil’s Lieutenant: Book Review

Best consumed in one sitting, The Devil’s Lieutenant by Shervin Jamali isn’t for everyone. It’s violent, full of foul language, and plays with time in such a way as to leave the reader dizzy… so it’s right up my alley. It’s a good verses evil story where the main character takes up arms for the devil in an attempt to save his family. I kind of saw where it was going before we got there, but I’m a sucker for stories that have the devil among the cast. Too much description and I’ll give it away, so I’ll leave it with the notion that I had fun with this quick adventure. I felt that the ending pulled the rug out from beneath my feet, which in this case didn’t leave me satisfied, but it seemed the most reasonable way to go without a conclusion that went full tragedy. If Jamali keeps with the craft he’s going to write books I want to consume.

 

I did find a singular word that felt out of place in terms of editing, but aside from that it was a solid read.

 

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Cat’s Cradle: Book Review

Vonnegut is one of those authors I’m surprised was never assigned during my time as an English major. I did spend a good deal of time studying Renaissance drama and folklore, but I thought my time in classes that emphasized novels of the 20thcentury would’ve provided me with the likes of him and Atwood. As with Atwood, I would delve into their works after my time in the classroom.

Cat’s Cradle entertained, as I found the ride to have gone through unexpected turns. Even with science as an underlying subject I wasn’t expecting the sci-fi elements that emerged later in the book.

The juxtaposition of science fiction elements with the political/religious commentary allowed for some delightful satire. Some of my favorite passages involved the folly of American prejudice as human condition, and capitalism gone too far. One such passage reads,

“I guess Americans are hated a lot of places.”

People are hated a lot of places. Claire point out in her letter that Americans, in being hated, were simply paying the normal penalty for being people.” (98)

Another passage that caught my eye…

“The hand that stocks the drug stores rules the world. Let us start our Republic with a chain of drug stores, a chain of grocery stores, a chain of gas chambers, and a national game. After that, we can write our Constitution.” (285)

The book contains casual racism and sexism, which I’ve come to expect from male authors of that era. If you can get past that it’s a brilliant read. Much like Atwood, I’ll be reading more Vonnegut.

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Sharp Objects: Book Review

Gillian Flynn delivers with her debut novel. Sharp Objects stands on its own as a solid literary thriller. I read Gone Girl at the height of the film’s popularity, and after this book it’s safe to say I’m a fan of Flynn’s work. This novel is a story about a damaged journalist working in Chicago who is sent back to her small town to write on the murders of two young children. Wind Gap is the kind of town where the population consists of those who couldn’t escape after high school, so our narrator, Camille, visits a past that still haunts with vibrant life.

To save on travel costs Camille stays with her family, a group wrought with dysfunction. She has a teenage sister she hardly knows, and a stepfather who exists in the background world. Her relationship with her mother consists of a great cold distance where affection has lacked for the better part of a lifetime. When Camilla’s mother reacts to the murders with emotion it is interpreted with resentment,

“Every tragedy that happens in the world happens to my mother, and this more than anything about her turns my stomach. She worries over people she’s never metwho have a spell of bad chance. She cries over news from across the globe. It’s all too much for her, the cruelty of human beings.”

It’s written with wit and insight, and flows with ease. Flynn has the chops to keep me coming back. I’m hoping to check out the film rendition at some point. Flynn recently tweeted out that there’s a book on the way, so in the meantime I’ll be looking forward to that.

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