Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Hiro and the Failure: thoughts on Snow Crash and Timmy Failure

I recently finished reading two books virtually simultaneously. I would like to claim that this is because I’m an incredibly dedicated reader with amazing time management skills, but actually I cheated. One of them was an audio book. Which, while we’re on the subject, is it appropriate to tell people you’re “reading” an audio book? It feels like a lie, but the absolute truth feels clunky and awkward to explain.

ANYHOO.

Book one was Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephen Pastis.  It is a book with pictures. It is a book for children. It is amazing.

Book two was Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. It is a seminal work of science fiction with high action mixed in with history, philosophy, and comparative religion. It is…okay.

Now at this point I’m thinking I sound kind of shallow, but hear me out. Because you know what Timmy Failure had that Snow Crash didn’t? A polar bear named Total.* No wait, I’m sorry. What I meant to say was, “internal conflict and character development.”

In Snow Crash Hiro Protagonist is trying to save the world from an virus that infects your mind. In Timmy Failure, our eponymous (I love that word) hero is trying to get back his mom’s Segway which he was not supposed to be riding around before his mom finds out he’s lost it.

Now here’s the thing. In Snow Crash, that’s it. That little snippet I just gave you encapsulates the entire plot in a nutshell. None of the characters, and I mean none, ever have to deal with any kind of internal conflict, never have to overcome any personal failings. It’s all swords cutting people’s heads off and Gatling gun duels, interspersed with long conversations about Sumerian mythology and hacking. Which is fine as far as it goes. I really did like the bits with the mythology, and it was nice to have the spoonful of fictional sugar to help them go down. But in the end the story had very little depth.

In the case of Timmy Failure however, there was nothing but depth. Timmy claims he does not live up to his last name. Timmy lies. In fact his detective agency doesn’t actually solve any of the cases he’s given in the book. But the charm of the story is in the layers, in the way we see the world through Timmy’s eyes.

Timmy Failure is an entirely unreliable narrator, because he’s seeing the world through a egotistical, child-sized lens. Through that lens we see the troubles his mom is having with the bills, and how she’s dating a guy who’s a bit of douche in the hopes of bringing some stability back into her and Timmy’s lives. We see how Timmy’s nemesis is really just a girl who wants her dad to spend more time with her.

In other words, the story is about more than what the story is about.

Is Snow Crash a bad book? No. But it’s utterly flat. It makes the mistake of thinking that what the readers really care about is whether or not the world is saved.

Screw the world. Let it burn. What readers really care about is personal. It’s the inner journey that brings power to the story. Without that, all you have is spectacle.

 

*Seriously, how hard would it be to have a polar bear in a book named Snow Crash? Talk about your missed opportunities.

Bizzaro Book Review: Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon

A couple weeks ago I picked up a book called Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. The story was about a young man hired to work at a mysterious bookstore which is home to a very strange collection of books. The mystery gripped me drawing me further and further into the book, page after page spent in breathless anticipation. I finished in less than a week.

No, you read the title right. I’m still reviewing Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon. But I bring up Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore for sake of comparison. Because when reading Boy’s Life I was not gripped with a burning desire to forage further into the book, an unquenchable need to turn the page to see what happened next. I would put the book down for whole weeks at a time, reading other far more demanding tales in the gaps between. And yet, in retrospect, I can unequivocally say that Boy’s Life topped them all.

Hang around writers on Twitter for very long, and you’ll inevitably find them linking to blog post with titles like “How to Create Tension on Every Page”. There’s this drive to hook the readers right in the gut and pull them to the edge of their seats. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that.

But I think we’d be wrong to dismiss the story that doesn’t turn up the heat beneath your feet to keep you dancing from one chapter to the next. There is more to art than tension; there is more to beauty than anticipation.

Boy’s Life is a story of the kind of magical childhood that can only truly exist in the mind, long lazy summers, daring adventures in the woods, unbreakable friendships, and the promise of a world filled wonder. It’s the story of a town, a safe familiar place where life is slow and easy. It’s the story of loss, of death, of an era fading into memory. In short it is Robert McCammon’s love letter to his boyhood.

If you read the synopsis of this book on most of the websites I’ve seen it’s spun as a murder mystery, but I take issue with that, and I’m pretty sure Robert McCammon would too. There’s a scene in Boy’s Life in which the protagonist-narrator, a boy named Cody, meets with the son of the richest man in town, a young man who’s not quite right in the head. He tells Cody about the book he tried to write about their hometown, Zephyr, how he just wanted to capture the people, the feel of how wonderful it was like to live there. He tells how he went to the publishers with his vignettes and was asked to add a murder mystery, told that people liked murder mysteries, and so he did, added in the gruesome telling of a tale of murder, feeling every moment as if he was murdering someone he loved more than anything.

And then you realize Robert McCammon is putting his words in this man’s mouth, that you’re reading a story of a small down, nothing more than memories and wishes with the sole narrative thread tying them together is a murder mystery that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the book.

Because you’ve got to have that hook. You’ve got to have the narrative tension pulling you forward through the pages. Love and memories and magic aren’t enough. So they say.

But the strength of Boy’s Life isn’t in the murder and the mystery. It’s in the wonder. It’s in the beauty. It’s in the magic of childhood filtered through the rose-colored lens of nostalgia.

It’s in showing you the joy of boyhood so perfectly and completely that when you’ve finally turned the last page you cannot help but weep for its loss.

Bizzaro Book Review: Frank Sinatra in a Blender by Matthew McBride

Let’s start with the obvious, okay? This is a book called Frank Sinatra in a Blender. I want you to let the pure wonder of that sink in for a second. I am a massive sucker for a catchy title. This probably has something to do with being raised on science fiction short stories with titles like “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” or “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”. You don’t often get titles like that in novels, which right off the bat had me rooting for Frank Sinatra in a Blender to knock it clear on out of the stadium.

And from the outset things look very promising indeed. Matthew McBride commands a powerful and distinct voice, and his hard-boiled prose sucked me in immediately. There’s a kind of magic in this style of writing, a kind of siren song that calls out to the writer in me and says, “Maybe you should try to write like that.” By this point I know such forced emulation can only end in frustration and fakery, but this powerful and evocative style wielded so fearlessly still excites in me a certain awe and perhaps the slightest tinge of envy.

But then the other shoe drops. Actually that’s probably not the best metaphor to use here. For me the problems in this book became visible, not in a single flash of insight, but instead crept in like shadows cast by a slowly sinking sun, a sense that there was something off here. I tried to shake the feeling at first. By this point, I was more than a little invested; I was enthusiastic even, but something kept nagging at the back of my mind refusing to let me give myself over wholly to this story.

Why? Well, for a proper explanation it might do to examine what Frank Sinatra in a Blender actually is. Frank Sinatra in a Blender is crime fiction. And when I say crime fiction, I’m not talking about the kind of story where a crime is committed  and someone is trying to solve it (though there is some of that present in the narrative.) When I say crime fiction, I mean this is a story about criminals. Both protagonists and antagonists are decidedly bad guys.

Now let me be clear here: this kind of story can work. As a reader I am perfectly capable of rooting for someone on the wrong side of the law. Bad guys fighting against worse guys make for some great stories. Probably the best known example of this in popular culture would be Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction, which follows a couple of hit men and other assorted criminals through a twisted and unpredictable series of events. Very few of these characters are dudes you’d want to sit down and have tea with. And yet, Tarantino goes to great lengths to show us that these guys aren’t wholly defined by their work. He paints them as characters rather than criminals, giving them long tracts of meandering dialogue, prodding us to remember that these aren’t caricatures defined by their crimes, but real people with deep layers of personality. He helps you to connect with these bad guys.

This connection is what is missing in Frank Sinatra in a Blender. The protagonist is a coke-snorting, stripper-loving, corkscrew-crooked P.I. and all of his friends are worse. The lack of likability here is frankly staggering. The only attribute you might argue gives him a twinge of humanity is his relationship with his dog (who happens to be named Frank Sinatra, and —I don’t want to give too much away here, but— it turns out the title is functional as well as aesthetic.)

All of this means that by the time the novel was over, I wasn’t invested in what happened to anyone (except perhaps our eponymous canine cutey). Who will get the money from the bank heist? Who will take the rap for the turd on the mob boss’s pillow? Who will survive the ensuing carnage?

Who cares?

However. This complete failure of likability wasn’t enough to make me stop reading, which says a lot for McBride’s impeccable style and twisted plotting. But by the end my excitement about this book had waned considerably.

I’m not going to make a recommendation one way or another on this one. Obviously these kinds of opinions are highly subjective at the best of times; I’m fully prepared to consider the possibility that this story just wasn’t for me. After all, Charlie Sheen liked it. So if you’re looking for a fresh an interesting writer with a powerful voice, and you can stomach a despicable protagonist, then you could do worse than giving this one a look-see.

Bizzaro Book Review: The Abyss Above Us by Ryan Notch

Many times when I set out to write one of these reviews I worry about how it’s going to impact you guys at the other end. I’m a critical kind of reader, someone who obsesses with stories and how they could be made better. So naturally, its exceedingly rare that I’m going to gush about a story without saying something negative.

That said, I want you all to understand that these days I almost never write a review for a book that I wouldn’t recommend to someone else.

And there are times when the part of me that wants you to read the books I recommend really worries that the analytical part of me making its critiques and criticisms will convince you that they really aren’t worth your time or money. This is one of those times.

The Abyss Above Us has its flaws; and you should read it anyway.

I suppose I should say right from the get go that this is a nerd’s book. That is neither criticism nor praise, by the way. It just is. There is jargon in this book, abstract concepts, references to computer programming and black hat hackers, and — to top it all off — a throwaway reference to the idea that beautiful women only want to date jerks. And yet somehow very little of that gets in the way of the actual story. If you get the computer programming and networking references, great; if not, there’s plenty here to keep your interest. I like to think that I’m a reasonably intelligent individual and even I wasn’t able to follow some of the jargon and technical talk.

That said, it never came across as talking down to the reader. Much like the unbelievably convoluted time travel film Primer you don’t actually have to be able to understand what the characters are talking about, to understand what’s happening. And rather than take away from the story, the use of jargon adds a gripping air of authenticity to the tale.

The tale is this: a young IT professional named Shaw is called in to solve a problem with the local university’s radio telescope. As it turns out the ancient computer network that runs the telescope overrides the whatever the equipment is supposed to be doing every night at one in the morning and points it at the same seemingly random patch of sky. Only it turns out there’s something special about this particular patch of sky: it is dark, utterly devoid of stars or anything else.

Our intrepid IT hero traces the problem through the network until he discovers something amazing. A room with a single computer inside, walled up for years, a thick matt of black hairy mold growing over every surface in the room. And every night at one in the morning, the computer receives a signal from that dark point in space.

The signal becomes the focus of interest among the astronomers and scientists at the college, all of them enthralled by its strange sound, a sound that resonates just on the edge of understanding. And then…

Well I don’t want to spoil too much for you. But suffice it to say that what I just described was only the opening of this story. It gets weirder. Lots weirder.

The greatest strength of The Abyss Above Us is the way it maintains a sense of mystery. There is almost never a moment in which the reader is not compelled to ask himself, “Yes, but what happens next?” I’ve come to believe that mystery is the greatest driving force of fiction — weirdly enough the stories that get this wrong most often are actual mysteries — and it’s clear that Ryan Notch gets it.

Now for the bad. I haven’t mentioned up until this point that this is a self-published book. And I’m only mentioning it now because the problems The Abyss Above Us has aren’t problems that most traditionally published books have to deal with.

For one thing: typos. Now let me moderate that. There aren’t misspelled words on every page, okay? I will not put up with that kind of laziness. It’s clear the author worked hard to make his work look professional. Unfortunately it’s also clear that he didn’t know the difference between the spelling of “dying” and “dyeing”. He gets that one wrong literally every time, and in a story where characters dye left and right it got to the point where I was joking with myself about how this story should have been set in a textile processing plant. That’s not the only mistake, just the most prevalent, and it’s a great example of why authors need competent beta-readers. We all make mistakes. An extra set of eyes never hurts.

The second issue I had with The Abyss Above Us is more fundamental. The first half of the book is phenomenal, but later, particularly the latter part of the second act, the story starts to feel repetitive. More than that, I almost got the feeling that the author was beginning to get tired of the story at that point. The prose grows weaker, “be” verbs water down sentences, the whole thing has this sense of sagging. That’s the best way I know how to put it.

And again, a another pair of eyes could have helped. A decent editor could have helped the author tighten up those sagging sentences, and break up the monotony the plot falls into near the end of the second act.

I want to reiterate: you should read this book. It’s not perfect, no, but it’s fresh and compelling, in spite of any faults it may have. It blends science fiction and horror beautifully, pulling the best traits of both genres together in a way that I’ve seen very few stories pull off.

In the off-chance that Ryan Notch should happen to read this review let me just say, “Dude, “dying” =/= “dyeing”. Do a find/replace and you’re golden on, like, 90% of your typo issues.

The rest of you, go buy The Abyss Above Us. Seriously. It’s awesome.

Bizzaro Book Review: Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Landsdale

READ. THIS. BOOK.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why are you still here? Did you not hear? Go. READ!

But no, of course that isn’t enough. You want more. “Why should I read this book, oh great and mighty reviewer?” you ask. “What is its premise? What are it’s strengths and weaknesses? Where were you on the night of April 19, 2011?” Oh, wait, probably not that last one.

But the thing is, I’m pretty sure I can’t do this book justice simply by reviewing it. It’s a bit like showing someone a picture of the Grand Canyon, and knowing that they’re going to look and nod their head and say, “Why yes, that does look rather impressive.” But they don’t really get it. Because some things can’t be summarized. Some things have to be experienced. But, for what it’s worth, here’s my puny three-by-five glossy overview of Joe R. Landsdale’s Edge of Dark Water.

This is a story of death, and ashes, and a raft floating down an endless river. This is a story of chance encounters, of people, good and bad, and often both at the same time.

This is a story about a girl. A girl who dreamed of going to Hollywood, of breaking free of her rural Texas life and living in a place where she could really be somebody. A girl of rare and cruel beauty. A girl who is dead, before our story even begins.

She is pulled up out of the dark waters of the river, her hands and feet bound, and weighted down with a sewing machine. There are few to mark her passing, no one who cares enough even to pry into the mystery of her murder. But there are three; three friends who know it isn’t right for a life so full of promise to end so unceremoniously. Three teenagers, two girls and a boy, who set out to make things right in the only way they know: by burning her body, and bringing her ashes to Hollywood.

This quest grows from its conception into a fully Odyssean  journey. It takes our heroes  on a chaotic, and sometimes, seemingly aimless journey of self-discovery and survival.

And through it all one simple idea echoes through the pages like a distant drum beat: people are more complicated than you think. The characters you want to hate twist and turn in the story, revealing deeper and more nuanced traits that force you to rethink your perspective. And the ones you start out cheering for, show themselves to carry deep flaws and fatal faults that challenge you to reassess your notions of what a “good person” really is.

And in the middle of all the dramatic tension, all the deep and nuanced characters, this book is frequently hilarious. I found myself stopping time after time as I was reading to say to my wife, “Okay, you’ve got to hear this.” I would have finished the book a week earlier if I hadn’t gotten bogged down going back and reading the funny bits to her.

If the book has one flaw it’s this: it seems to me that it wants to be To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a story with a young female narrator from the South told in a powerful and unique voice that addresses the issues of bigotry. Sound familiar? I only bring this up, because the similarities have been niggling at the back of my mind. And yet, if Edge of Dark Water is trying to emulate To Kill a Mockingbird, it does it really well.

In summary: READ. THIS. BOOK. Really. I don’t know what else I can do other than coming to your house and dragging you bodily to the library or bookstore. And I will do it. You’ll wake up in the middle of the night and I’ll be towering over your bed, a hulking shadow with wild eyes. And I’ll growl in a low and sinister voice that send chills down your spine, “You still haven’t read Joe R. Landsdale’s Edge of Dark Water.” Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon.

Bizzaro Book Review: Carpathia by Matt Forbeck

[You will notice that this review is a little…different. An explanation will follow.]

The cowbow regarded the fleeing vampire through the lenses of his infrared binoculars. “He’s taking the bait,” the cowboy said.

The five foot tall black-skinned velocirapter at his side clicked his serpentine tounge against the roof of his mouth. “Of course he’s taking the bait.” The response came, not from the raptor’s mouth, but from a pair of speakers set into a metal collar that hung around his neck. “He’s C-grade, barely a background character. Frankly I’m surprised he was able to manage this kind of job at all.”

“Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched,” the cowboy replied. “We haven’t got this one in the bag yet. Maybe he is just a C-grade, but if he was able to pull this off he might be more trouble than we’re expecting.”

The cowboy mounted his horse, and he and the velociraptor followed the receding footsteps through the desert sands. There wasn’t much in this world. It was just a fragment of a story that had been floating aimlessly through the Well of Lost Plots. The desert around them was full of bones, but up ahead there was a plane of waving grass, and right on the border between the two, sat a small farmhouse. Overhead the moon filled a full third of the sky shining a perfect pale glow over the landscape.

“I wish writers would take the time to learn a little about geography,” the velocirapter said. “Why on earth would there be a prairie right next to a desert like this?”
“You’re from Speculative Fiction,” the cowboy pointed out. “They get a lot weirder stuff than that in there.”

“Yes, but there’s a reason for it in SpecFic. That’s the whole point. Even if you’ve got a world where light works differently than it does in the Real World, the writer is using it to make a point about science or possibly to create a metaphor for the problems of society. This…this is just lazy writing.”

The cowboy grunted.

Ahead of them the vampire fled into the farmhouse.

“And you were worried he wouldn’t take the bait,” the velocirapter said. “Typical.”
“Hey, I just don’t want to screw this up okay? I’m not really itching to go back to Grammasite detail any time soon.”

They approached the farmhouse, careful to stay out of the line of site of the front windows. The cowboy dismounted and drew his revolver. The raptor clicked his teeth together and an electric whine emanated from the lasers mounted on his collar. The two nodded briefly at each other and then charged into the room, weapons at the ready.

They found the vampire, leaning against the far wall, examining his fingernails by the light of an oil lamp that burned on the table. “I thought you’d never get here,” he said casually.

“Abraham Holmwood. You’re under arrest, by the authority of Jurisfiction for the crimes of impersonating a A-grade character, collusion to polute the general quality of fiction, and the attempted murder of the A-grade character, Dale Chase.”

The fugitive vampire raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Sorry to burst your bubble, but Dale went into the water. He didn’t come out. And unless he learned to breath underwater very quickly, I expect you’re going to have to drop the “attempted” from those charges.”

“You seem awfully calm for a man who could be facing textual disintigration,” the velociraptor said.

“Don’t panic,” replied the vampire. “That’s my motto.”

“Actually, that’s the motto of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,” the raptor replied. “You’ve got nothing of your own Abe. Everything borrowed or stolen. You face, your mannerisms, even your name. Did you think you were being clever? A character in a vampire story calling himself Abraham? Professor Van Helsing would not approve.”

“We covered that,” the vampire replied angrily, his cool demeanor cracking for the first time. “We made sure the dialogue-”

“Oh, yes that line about how your parents knew Bram Stoker?” the raptor replied. “Not to mention the worn-out idea that somehow Dracula was a nonfiction account of Real World events? Suspension of disbelief only goes so far, Abe. Even in a story about vampires feeding on the survivors of the Titanic.”

“Hey, you wanna give it a rest?” the cowboy said. “We’re here to bring him in, not pick apart his mistakes.”

“No I do not want to ‘give it a rest’,” the raptor replied, the tone from his voice box growing more angry. “His actions weren’t just criminal, they were offensive. The very idea that readers would overlook his odious manner, his superficial charm, the unbelievable way in which his friends continued to trust him even after he had proven himself to be nothing more than a selfish lout time and time again-”

“They didn’t know how good they had it,” Abe interjected. “I’m better off without them.”

The cowboy shrugged. “Apparently they felt the same way about you. Quin and Lucy gave themselves up, made a plea deal, turned loads of evidence on you. I hear that with good behavior they’ll be back on the pages in six months. Maybe if you don’t make this any harder we can make this go easy for you too.”

“NEVER!” the vampire screamed. His form started to shimmer and then he vanished into a grey mist. The cowboy and the raptor watched stoically as the mist settled to the ground and tried to seep down through the cracks in the floorboards to no avail. It wafted up to the window and then to the door, each time finding not even the smallest crack through which to escape. Abe re-materialized and screamed, “What did you DO?”
The cowboy reached into his back pocket and pulled out a caulk gun. “On loan from Do-It-Yourself Nonfiction,” he said grinning.

Abe lunged at the cowboy, but the buck and roar of the ranch hand’s revolver sent the vampire sprawling back against the wall.

“Is that the best you can do?” the vampire spat, climbing to his feet. “Don’t you know you can’t kill me with that thing?”

“Yes,” replied the velociraptor, “But if I recall either sunlight or wooden stakes should do the trick, yes?”

“The sun isn’t due to rise on this world for three hundred years,” Abe said mockingly. “And neither of you seem to be carrying stakes.”

“No,” said the raptor. “Neither of us is. However I believe Mr. Chase was carrying a few.”

The vampire’s already-pale face went whiter still. “He’s dead,” he said. “Dragged down by one of the vampires during the attack. I made sure of it.”

But behind him the door creaked open revealing a huge hulking black man, with sweat glistening on his muscles and a wooden stake in his hand.

“Technically of course you are correct,” the raptor explained as the A-grade character advanced on the cowering vampire. “However someone in the story caught wind of your plot and warned us. It gave us enough time to request the assistance of the remarkable Captain Nemo and his underwater boat. We managed to pick Mr. Chase up without anyone noticing.”

“No,” the vampire pleaded. “Its not fair. I beat you. I WON.”

Dale Chase snarled and brought the stake down hard into Abe’s chest. For a moment a look of pure terror crossed the vampire’s face. Then he dissolved, face and all, into a pile of dust.

For a long moment they were all silent. Finally Dale Chase asked, “What happens now?”

“We’ll have to patch things up as best we can,” the raptor said. “Unfortunately the damage done to Carpathia is fairly expansive. It might collapse the framework of the book if we tried to restore it to the way is was before.”

Chase kicked at the pile of dust, sending it billowing along the ground like a cloud. “So in the end he got what he wanted.”

“His character has been replaced ovbviously,” the raptor explained. “Hopefully we can get someone to do more justice to it than he did.”

“But I’m out,” Chase said.

“There’s plenty of other stories in the world,” the cowboy said, opening the door. “Who knows? Maybe you could do something with this one.” He gestured to the world around them with its strange geography and hulking moon.

“And if you’re looking for a change,” the raptor added, “We’d love to have you in Jurisfiction.”

One by one the characters vanished out of the story world and into the Great Library. And under a goliath moon, the passing wind picked up the pile of grey dust and swept it out into the desert sands.

[So…yeah. Here’s the deal. I don’t like to say negative things on my blog. I know negative reviews are big on the internet, but I generally don’t like bashing other people’s stuff. As an author I know how much it can hurt to have someone say they didn’t like your work, so I try hard not to be the kind of guy that just rails about how much he hates stuff. I’m not against saying something negative, but if I do I want to be able to contrast with something positive, or at the very least I want to say the negative things I have to say in a positive way.

That being said, I didn’t like this book. At all. I could have just left it at that and went on my merry way without saying anything, but the thing was I wanted to like this book. The concept seemed like it was right up my alley, the kind of book I almost certainly would review. So I came up with this compromise. I’ve been wanting to write some Thursday Next fanfiction for some time now, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to air my grievances with this book (specifically that the Abe character was obnoxious and that the most awesome character in the book, Dale Chase, got killed off in a single chapter) in a creative and at least somewhat positive manner. If you’re not familiar with Fforde’s Thursday Next series, some of this might seem a little confusing, but I hope I’ve given enough basic information to give you an idea of how the Bookworld world is supposed to operate, and if what you’ve read here piques your interest even a little I highly recommend you check out the Thursday Next series for yourself.

In closing, if you’re Matt Forbeck and you’re reading this, no hard feelings man. Chuck Wendig respects you, which tells me you’re doing quite a number of somethings right, but Carpathia just wasn’t for me.]

Bizzaro Book Review: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Let’s start at the end. For those of you just tuning in this is not my usual methodology, but for this book I thought it was important not to give my thoughts on the ending of this book at the end of the post. Because the end, by definition, is the last thing you read. The end of a book, the end of a blog post, whatever it is, the last thing we experience colors our memory of the piece more than anything else.

And here’s the thing: the only negative thing I have to say about this book is about the ending. And because this book is truly exceptional in every other regard I don’t want to risk leaving you on a negative note at the end of this review.

It’s not even a bad ending per say. It wraps up all the pieces of the story pretty neatly, but in my opinion there’s something missing. Here’s the deal: a number of scenes in the book cast shadows toward a particular kind of ending. They hint about sacrifice and the nature of justice, weaving religious iconography (strangely detailed religious iconography for a man who’s so well-known for his love for profanity) into dream-visions featuring a weird specter who claims to be more than the simple product of Miriam’s deranged subconscious.

But when we actually get to the ending, it seems too easy. No, “easy” isn’t the right word. Miriam Black goes through something close to hell before she finds her peace. She’s beaten to a pulp, pushed to the edge of sanity, forced to confront something within herself she didn’t know existed.

But what the ending is missing, the true and final ingredient left out of this otherwise perfect recipe is sacrifice. Miriam Black has to fight for her ending, but in my opinion she never reaches that crucial point where she willingly gives up something truly precious to her for the sake of someone else. That was the capstone I felt the story needed the final piece that would have made the puzzle complete.

Now. On to the good stuff. Of which there is plenty.

The premise of the book is this: Miriam Black knows how you’re going to die. She sees it played out in her head like a movie (often an exceptionally gruesome movie) whenever she makes skin to skin contact with you. And as you might imagine this power makes her just a bit…unstable.

It is the character of Miriam Black that drives the heart of the book, a cynical and sardonic loner using her foresight to pick over the bodies of the newly dead like a blackbird (why yes, in fact that is the title of the book) scavenging for scraps of flesh. Her biting wit warns the world to keep its distance, and her heart seems to be covered in prickles like a cactus. But inside there’s something far different, a scared and scarred girl whose life has brought her to a place where she’s afraid to love or even trust anyone else. Her mocking wit is a shield she puts up lest anyone see her pain, and the more she tries to convince herself she doesn’t care the harder it becomes to believe.

The story properly begins with Miriam having a vision. She’s used to this by now, long since learning to deaden her feelings about the ever-looming specter of death. Only this time is different. This time as the death scene plays out in her head, she sees the trucker she’s only just met calling out her name as he’s brutally murdered by a man she’s never seen before.

Miriam knows there is nothing she can do about this. “Fate gets what fate wants,” she’s fond of saying. Intervention is pointless. Any effort to stop the death she has seen will only help to bring it to pass. She knows this. And yet she finds herself drawn to this man, this innocent, who will die in a few short weeks, and all because of her.

What follows is a tangled web of con men, killers and villains, all leading inexorably to a final showdown with the most powerful enemy of all: fate.

Blackbirds is plotted beautifully, drawing you in from the first page, and making you care deeply about this wounded and lonely soul named Miriam Black. It never falters for a moment. Every page, every sentence, every word work together to create a nearly perfect whole. In short it is an example of what truly great writing should be: fearless, powerful, effortless.

Don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself. It’s available in print and for ereaders from Amazon.com, and probably some other places too.