15 February 2020

Books: The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek By Rhett McLaughlin & Link Neal (2019)

“It's 1992 in Bleak Creek, North Carolina, a sleepy little place with all the trappings of an ordinary Southern town: two Baptist churches, friendly smiles coupled with silent judgments, and a seemingly unquenchable appetite for pork products. Beneath the town’s cheerful façade, however, Bleak Creek teens live in constant fear of being sent to The Whitewood School, a local reformatory with a record of putting unruly teens back on the straight and narrow—a record so impeccable that almost everyone is willing to ignore the mysterious deaths that have occurred there over the past decade. At first, high school freshmen Rex McClendon and Leif Nelson believe what they’ve been told—that the students’ strange demises were all tragic accidents. But when the shoot for their low-budget horror masterpiece, PolterDog, goes horribly awry—and their best friend, Candice Boykins, is sent to Whitewood as punishment—Rex and Leif are forced to question everything they know about their unassuming hometown and its cherished school for delinquents. Eager to rescue their friend, Rex and Leif pair up with recent NYU film school grad Janine Blitstein to begin piecing together the unsettling truth of the school and its mysterious founder, Wayne Whitewood. What they find, with Candice’s life hanging in the balance, will leave them battling an evil beyond their wildest teenage imaginations—one that will shake Bleak Creek to its core.”

For the most part The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek is fun, fast-paced thriller that features a lot of nostalgia. It’s also a semi-autobiographical novel about the authors lives growing up in North Carolina in the 90s. McLaughlin and Neal have been friends since first grade and a lot of what happened between Rex and Leif parallel the boys life. They are also, apparently, now a comedy duo known for creating the Internet’s most-watched daily talk show, Good Mythical Morning (which officially makes me old, as I never heard of), along with a weekly podcast Ear Biscuits, and penned bestseller Rhett & Link’s Book of Mythicality. I also amused in their bio it mentions “they share an office at Mythical Entertainment, the company they cofounded, but live separately with their respective wives, children, and dogs in Los Angeles.” Why this needed to added is beyond me.

As for the novel, it is enjoyable, even if a bit uneven –we go well over 160 pages before the supernatural aspect is introduced (and then there is only very little in an explanation as to what this all is). The boys have a good relationship which is suddenly being threatened by them both seeing their other long time friend, Candice Boykins in a new light. Yeah, we’ve seen this before. Even the mysterious Whitewood School, designed to take rebellious teens and turn them into White, Conservative Christian Good Folks has been done a million times before (even though the authors no longer believe in a God). A lot of what this book seems designed to do –even though written for modern teen audience- is talk about growing up in the late 1980s early 90’s. Both Stephen King and Peter Straub excel at this in their tales, but here it just seems to be more inside-jokes and nods at nostalgia for the two writers.

The book, ultimately, feels empty when it should’ve shinned. Its supernatural aspect is vague and never really fully develops into horror novel one might expect. In the end, if you like R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series, this book might be for you.

13 February 2020

Books: The Conference of the Birds By Ransom Riggs (2020)

"With his dying words, H—Jacob Portman’s final connection to his grandfather Abe’s secret life entrusts Jacob with a mission: Deliver newly con­tacted peculiar Noor Pradesh to an operative known only as V. Noor is being hunted. She is the subject of an ancient prophecy, one that foretells a looming apocalypse. Save Noor—Save the future of all peculiardom. With only a few bewildering clues to follow, Jacob must figure out how to find V, the most enigmatic, and most powerful, of Abe’s former associates. But V is in hiding and she never, ever, wants to be found."

People are going to love or hate The Conference of the Birds, the fifth book in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series by Ransom Riggs, as it moves slowly towards what should be book six sometime in 2021. Much like JK Rowling’s movie prequel series to the Harry Potter franchise, which has divided the fan base, one has to ask if this series was needed. Sure, it’s set in America, which opens a whole new universe of new Peculiar’s, but does it add anything to the first three books, which came to a satisfying conclusion in The Library of Souls? 

Part of the problem is the book lies flat, and is often dull between some remarkable violence for a kid’s book. Picking up shortly after the Map of Days, this one introduces a prophecy that brings back (spoiler) the villain from the first trilogy. Who was trapped in a loop he should NOT be able to get out of. Can’t say this is a great development. 

The book, as noted, has a bunch of savage-like violence mixed in and leaves a lot of the charming humor aside. There is a forced romance between Noor and Jacob, and it’s written very awkward-like (not in a good way).

Overall, The Conference of the Birds is the weakest book of the five, which maybe the reason Random House released the book three weeks after Christmas. They knew the reviews would be savage.

02 February 2020

Books: Nobody's Perfect By Donald E. Westlake (1977)

“The priceless painting is titled ‘Folly Leads to Man's Ruin,’ and its owner, the rich and careless Mr. Chauncey, wants it stolen for the insurance payout. That's why he hires Dortmunder, who has a foolproof plan. Just in case, Chauncey also recruits a hit man to make sure he gets the painting back. Too bad Dortmunder doesn't take the painting's message to heart. He gets stuck in an elevator, and the painting vanishes. Now he's got a few more days to live, unless he comes up with the painting -or another foolproof plan.”

After being caught in the act of stealing TVs out of a repair shop he –and facing more jail time -a high-priced defense attorney suddenly shows up and does the kind of court room magic that keeps the criminally rich out of jail and running around loose for years. But while John Dortmunder is astounded at his luck, he knows that his freedom came with a job. And for once, this job (not coming from Andy Kelp, who John is starting to believe is a jinx) seems simple and easy to pull off.

Of course, as the saying goes, the best laid plans seemly go askew. And this time, a simple unplanned trip in an elevator, sets off a chain of events that has Dortmunder and his Band of Misfit Toys scurrying around New York and England in search of a painting that seems not want to be stolen.

While I enjoyed Westlake’s Parker book I recently read (which is a more hard-core heist theme, with death and violence replacing the humor), I do find myself enjoying the Dortmunder books a bit more (even if they’re a bit formulaic). There is not much in the way of laugh-out-loud hilariousness in Nobody's Perfect, but like the previous ones I’ve read, it does eventually turn into outright farce. But Westlake’s often perfectly-timed dry wit (which I’ve always loved) makes up for some the silliness that sometimes happens towards the end. Still, as always, I love John Dortmunder, who is a principled thief afraid of change and the future -he's like some relatives I once knew. It’s this low-key charm that makes me want to pick up the next volume in the series just to find out what sort of good trouble he’ll end up next in.

Also with this fourth book in the series, I noticed that the first three took place a year apart form each other, as John is 37 in The Hot Rock and 40 by the time Nobody's Perfect begins. This brought up an interesting thing for me, as Westlake wrote Dortmunder (and Parker as well) over a 40 year period. I did a bit of research and discovered after this fourth book, Westlake kept Dortmunder and his crew at relatively the same age. He would do this for his Richard Stark persona as well, as Westlake wrote 16 Parker books in a twelve year period before taking a twenty-two year hiatus before the next Parker tale, 1997's Comeback.

23 January 2020

Books: Dead Voices by Katherine Arden (2019)

“Having survived sinister scarecrows and the malevolent smiling man in Small Spaces, newly minted best friends Ollie, Coco, and Brian are ready to spend a relaxing winter break skiing together with their parents at Mount Hemlock Resort. But when a snowstorm sets in, causing the power to flicker out and the cold to creep closer and closer, the three are forced to settle for hot chocolate and board games by the fire. Ollie, Coco, and Brian are determined to make the best of being snowed in, but odd things keep happening. Coco is convinced she has seen a ghost, and Ollie is having nightmares about frostbitten girls pleading for help. Then Mr. Voland, a mysterious ghost hunter, arrives in the midst of the storm to investigate the hauntings at Hemlock Lodge. Ollie, Coco, and Brian want to trust him, but Ollie's watch, which once saved them from the smiling man, has a new cautionary message: BEWARE. With Mr. Voland's help, Ollie, Coco, and Brian reach out to the dead voices at Mount Hemlock. Maybe the ghosts need their help--or maybe not all ghosts can or should be trusted.”

In the second book in Katherine Arden’s series, Dead Voices is just a bit creepier than Small Spaces but it’s still a wonderful middle grade horror story. Arden is able to capture the innocence of childhood friendships that have a troubled and shared history and mash that up with the spooky supernatural world that exists in the haunted ski lodge (perhaps a cousin to the Overlook). The book borrows a lot of themes from other haunted house stories, along with the Upsidedown from Stranger Things, but what Arden is able to do here is pretty neat. It’s still an atmospheric tome, filled with cold, dread, and deception, but at its core is the friendship between our three main characters that is the warming heart of the book.

It’s also clear we’ll get at least one more book with our charming cast of youngsters, but I don’t feel this is the “filler”, it works as a continuation, really. Still, the smiling man is not done with our triumvirate kids and I fear that the real battle for Ollie, Coco, and Brian is about to begin.

15 January 2020

Books: The Hunter By Richard Stark (1962)

“You probably haven’t ever noticed them. But they’ve noticed you. They notice everything. That’s their job, sitting quietly in a nondescript car outside a bank making note of the tellers’ work habits, the positions of the security guards; lagging a few car lengths behind the Brinks truck on its daily rounds; surreptitiously jiggling the handle of an unmarked service door at the racetrack. They’re thieves. Heisters. They’re pros, and Parker is far and away the best of them. If you’re planning a job, you want him in. Tough, smart, hardworking, and relentlessly focused on his trade, he is the heister’s heister, the robber’s robber, the heavy’s heavy. You don’t want to cross him, and you don’t want to get in his way, because he’ll stop at nothing to get what he’s after. In The Hunter, the first volume in the series, Parker roars into New York City, seeking revenge on the woman who betrayed him and on the man who took his money, stealing and scamming his way to redemption.”

Ever the prolific writer, Donald E. Westlake used the pen name Richard Stark for 28 novels published over some 46 years. Of the twenty-eight, twenty-four featured Parker, the unapologetic and ruthless antihero. However, when he wrote The Hunter, Westlake was not seeing a series of novels. When he turned it in, his editor told him that if he would rewrite the ending so that Parker escaped, he would be willing to publish up to three books a year about Parker. Even though Westlake was prolific, he knew he could not do that. Still, he produced sixteen Parker novels under the Richard Stark name between 1962 and 1974 before letting Parker take an extensive hiatus, finally returning to the character in 1997. He would write eight more between then and his death in 2008. The structure he used for the novels did not vary during its run, making them somewhat formulaic in nature, however, Westlake’s razor-sharp prose-style always won fans over. In some ways, it has been odd no film studio has successfully brought the character to the big screen. I mean beyond the inherent violence, the stories are not that complex and follow a straightforward plotting. However, there was several adaptations of the Stark books, including two versions of The Hunter, one called Point Blank (1967, starring Lee Marvin) and the 1997 Mel Gibson version, Payback (none of the films versions were able to use the Parker name, though). Still, the character does have a somewhat merciless and lopsided moral code: he had a streak of professionalism and efficiency in him that most people would not expect and he only took his fair share of the capers money –but crossing him meant death.

Even though it was written nearly 60 years ago, The Hunter is taunt, well-paced thriller. It’s a rare novel written at a certain time in history that can still work today –and that is a talent few writers had.