Wild Thing by Josh Bazell

Published: February 8, 2012
Publisher: Hachette Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller, Comedy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hours and 46 minutes

Wild Thing, by author and physician Josh Bazell, is a sequel to his thrilling debut Beat The Reaper, which introduced former mob hitman Pietro Brwna as he tried to make up for his crimes by working as a doctor. Beat The Reaper was essentially Brwna’s origin story, and spent much of its time flashing back over his life up to that point. It was simultaneously an intensely personal story and a breakneck thriller full of black-as-night gallows humor. For example, in one particularly nerve-wracking scene, Brwna uses one of his own bones as a weapon. As soon as I finished reading it, I wanted more, but I also couldn’t quite picture where the story might go next. Beat The Reaper would be a hard act to follow for any author, and I’m glad that Bazell took up the challenge even if I don’t think the results quite hit the mark.

We catch up with Brwna on a cruise ship three years after the events of the first book. Now he is going by the name Lionel Azimuth and pulling rotting teeth for crew members as part of his catchall position as ship’s doctor. Brwna hates life on the boat, so when his old mentor hooks him up with a job working for a reclusive billionaire (referred to only as Rec Bill), he jumps at the chance. At least, he does until he finds out that the job involves going to Minnesota and hunting for a mythological lake monster as part of what may or may not be a scam or criminal operation. Softening the blow is the fact that his companion for the trip will be Violet Hearst, a paleontologist who is both a knockout beauty and a firm believer in the inevitable apocalypse due to ecological catastrophes. Much to Brwna’s surprise, Rec Bill is willing to pony up a steep payment for his cooperation in the trip, and soon enough he gives in despite his misgivings and Violet are on their way.

A lot of Wild Thing’s reviews focus on the fact that the subject matter is so different from the first book that it feels strange that it has the same main character. However, I don’t agree with the argument that this doesn’t feel like a Pietro Brwna book; I think Bazell just does as good a job with Brwna’s voice and sense of humor in Wild Thing, and I couldn’t picture any other character taking the lead. I love the character, and definitely laughed out loud more than once. I also don’t necessarily think that the cryptozoological angle doesn’t fit with a story about Brwna, although I could see how hints of possible fantastic elements might raise the hackles of people who like things to stay “realistic”.

What I do think is that Bazell actually wrote himself into a corner with Beat The Reaper. How do you write another book about the same character when you’ve a) revealed his entire backstory and b) established that he can’t keep working in a big public hospital? Any kind of follow-up would have to shake things up. I think the real reason people say that Wild Thing doesn’t feel like a Pietro Brwna book is that it isn’t actually about him as a person. Beat The Reaper was entirely focused on Brwna’s fall and redemption. All of the action and tension in the first book originated from events in his life both past and present, which meant that the stakes were exceedingly high and very personal.

In Wild Thing, the personal connections are more tenuous, although they are still present to some degree. Brwna has a fear of open water and sharks because the only woman he ever loved was killed in a shark tank, and he also has a fear of intimacy for much the same reason. Naturally, being in close quarters with a beautiful woman as they search for a lake monster means that some of his issues are going to come to the forefront. However, the stakes never feel very high in Wild Thing – either they find the lake monster or they don’t, and Brwna can probably get on with his life either way. Maybe he goes back to the cruise ship, maybe he makes enough money to take care of his problem with mobsters trying to kill him. Compare that to Beat The Reaper, where Brwna is fighting for his life and for personal redemption all while trying to save patient’s lives and barely sleeping, and it just doesn’t sound quite as compelling.

However, my biggest problem with Wild Thing is that the plot basically unravels near the end of the book. A lot of time is spent building up to the camping trip and search for the monster, but when it finally gets to that point, everything is over and done with in no time flat, and it feels very anticlimactic. It doesn’t help that the camping trip feels vague and unmotivated once the characters are actually in the middle of the wilderness; after so much time spent discussing the length and dangers of the trip, very little time is spent on the actual trip itself.

There are also several characters introduced early on that never end up amounting to anything. A fundamentalist couple arrives at the camping lodge for the trip only to have a one-sided argument about religion with Violet Hearst and storm off-stage, never to return in any meaningful fashion. A Las Vegas magician is mentioned and then subsequently forgotten about until the end of the book, when he is used as an offhand explanation for a plot point. Bazell misses a great opportunity to have these characters interact with each other and Brwna on the trip, and it’s a damn shame.

It’s frustrating that the book ends up basically trailing off at the end, because until that point I was definitely enjoying it. I actually liked it more when I first finished it than I did after thinking about it for a few minutes, which is always particularly disappointing. To me it’s a sign of a great writer who perhaps bit off more than he could chew; once I was no longer distracted by his fantastic main character, the holes in the plot were far too easy to see.

However, the end of the book very clearly sets up a sequel that could end up bringing the focus back to Brwna’s life; rather than continuing to live in hiding, Brwna decides to go on the offensive and strike back against the mob and his former employer. I’m definitely looking forward to it despite my misgivings about this book. Everything I liked about Wild Thing tells me that Bazell is a great author to watch. The problems I had may just be the symptoms of the dreaded sophomore slump that seems to affect so many great artists.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

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A Few Bad Days

Just got back from a trip to BookPeople and wanted to share these striking covers for the “Bad Day” books by Sophie Littlefield.

I love these designs. They’re eye-catching but minimal, and tell you everything you need to know about the book’s premise. You can guess that the main character is feminine but still dangerous with a weapon. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition to see a woman in a summery dress holding a handgun or a baseball bat. You can tell from her stance that she means business. The second book’s design immediately made me pick it up and read the synopsis.

Interestingly enough, the third book’s cover changes up the formula a bit:

Instead of a woman standing facing us with her feet planted, she’s turned around with her hip cocked, holding a more traditionally “female” weapon, a frying pan. Where the first two covers seem to hint at an intensity and violence at odds with the heroine’s dress, this one seems to be playing up her sex appeal and implying that this story will be more lighthearted than the first two.

The setting also appears to be slightly less country and more suburban than the first. Instead of a backdrop of peeling paint, we see a beautiful house off in the distance. In my mind, the first two covers clearly say “crime novel with a female protagonist”, whereas the third seems to imply that the story might be more like Desperate Housewives.

It’s really fascinating how they’ve used the same basic elements in the third book’s cover to market the book to slightly different audience. I wonder how the author feels about the shift in design?

LA Noire: The Collected Stories From Mulholland Books

I really don’t mean to be a Mulholland Books fanboy, I swear, but they just keep announcing such cool stuff that I can’t help myself. Their newest announcement ties in two of my favorite things: videogames and crime fiction. It turns out they’re going to release a tie-in volume of short stories involving characters from LA Noire, Rockstar Games’ upcoming game about a 1940s police detective.

I’ve already pre-ordered the game, after hearing only a handful of details. For example, it stars Aaron Staton from Mad Men, and is reported to have some of the most detailed facial animations in any game to date. It also has a fascinatingly complex interrogation gameplay system that immediately piqued my interest. I may very well end up reviewing it on GamerSushi, the gaming website run by some of my friends.

However, this announcement regarding a short story collection has cemented my firm belief that Rockstar knows their stuff. Writing is one of the areas where videogames still feel a bit anemic, but the calibre of talent assembled to write stories in the LA Noire universe makes me hope that the game will also have a robust and well-developed story.

Right off the bat, they’ve got my attention with Duane Swierczynski, who recently became my new favorite author after I read and reviewed his upcoming book, Fun and Games. However, I’m blown away to see such luminaries as Joyce Carol Oates, Joe Lansdale, Lawrence Block, and Andrew Vachss included as well. Mulholland will be releasing each story online over the next few weeks, and I look forward to reading and discussing them. I only wish all media tie-ins would bring this much quality to the table.

Fun and Games by Duane Swierczynski

Published: June 20, 2011
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller
Format: Paperback
Pages: 283

Duane Swierczynski is a name I’ve come across several times before. It’s a hard one to forget, even though I probably couldn’t spell it if my life depended on it. Amazon has been quite sure that I would enjoy his work, and has recommended him many times over. Swierczynski seems to write the kind of genre fiction I find myself enjoying lately, intense crime thrillers that occasionally edge into more speculative territories.

The first book I picked up by Swierczynski was his fourth, Severance Package… and I couldn’t get into it. Not sure why, it just didn’t click. I made it a few chapters in and took it back to the library. I wasn’t so sure that Amazon knew what it was talking about. Even still, every new book of his that I came across had an intriguing description. Sometimes I’m just not in the right mood to read a particular book, and I figured I might just need to give Swierczynski another shot.

And what a shot it was. The kind that picks you up off your feet and tosses you across the room. Little blue birdies dancing in your vision the whole way down. I don’t know what kept me from getting into Severance Package, but there was no such hesitation when I started reading Fun and Games today over my lunch break. Within 20 pages I knew I was going to finish it this evening, and within a few short hours I’d torn through the rest in a mad rush. In my considered opinion, Duane Swierczynski has arrived, and just careened right up my list of Must Read Authors.

Fun and Games is the first in a trilogy, which, thankfully, will be completed promptly over the next two years (book two this winter, book three in 2012). The main character, Charlie Hardie, is a former police consultant whose life was ruined in a tragedy three years earlier. Ever since then, he’s drifted through life in an alcoholic haze, making ends meet by house-sitting for the rich and absent. He wants nothing more than to drink himself into a stupor while watching old movies and forgetting that his life ever happened.

However, he gets more than he bargained for when he starts a job housesitting for a movie composer who lives in the Hollywood Hills. On his first day, Charlie is assaulted by a crazed woman who is squatting in the composer’s bathroom. The woman, Lane Madden, wallops him with a microphone stand and then starts babbling about a mysterious “them” who are trying to kill her and make it look like an accident. At first Charlie thinks she’s just a washed-up drug addict, but then he realizes that Lane is Somebody Famous, and that she may actually be telling the truth.

Charlie gets all the proof he needs when “they” – sometimes referred to as “The Guild” or “The Accident People” – try to kill him. Once The Accident People make their move, Fun and Games sets off at breakneck speed and only slows down long enough to let you catch your breath before the next white-knuckle action scene. Most of the action takes place in a very short amount of time, maybe 24 or 48 hours, as the protagonists are cornered, escape, and then get cornered again. The story is full of twists and turns, misdirections and reveals, all neatly doled out with masterful pacing that kept me glued to the page.

One of the great things about Fun and Games is that it’s very much a Hollywood thriller that could only be set in Hollywood. There’s a generous dose of satire layered over the proceedings; The Accident People are exactly the sort of assassins that someone would dream up for a movie, but they’re also the sort of the assassins that people who make movies might use to knock each other off. They are always concerned with the “narrative” of their kills, wanting to ensure that no hint of the true story peeks through. That Charlie Hardie will not die does not fit into their neat little storyline.

It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a book this much, and it’s certainly been a few months since I’ve read something in one sitting. I’m definitely sold on Swierczynski now, and can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of this trilogy, not to mention his earlier books. Mulholland Books just added another one of my favorite authors to their roster.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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Warren Ellis: Crime and Science Fiction are the Same Thing

First off, the good news is that Warren Ellis has a new two-book deal with Mulholland Books, who are also the new home of one of my all-time favorite authors, Charlie Huston. I read Crooked Little Vein last year and thoroughly enjoyed that vulgar little volume, which alternates between dark humor and varieties of sexual weirdness normally found only in the darkest corners of the web. I haven’t read anything else by Ellis yet, but I may start in on some of his graphic novel work soon.

As part of the announcement of his book deal, Ellis wrote a blog for the Mulholland Books website, wherein he discusses the similarities between the crime and science fiction genres, and why he writes both:

[W]hen I write science fiction I’m a crime writer, and when I write crime fiction I’m an sf writer.  I’m talking about our lives, and the way I see the world.  I’m writing about the new thing, the disruptive event that enters that world, its repercussions and the attempts to deal with it.  But I’m talking about where I think I am today, and what I think it looks like.

Ellis’ argument is that both genres, while nominally about strange worlds (either sfnal or criminal), are actually social fiction, wherein authors discuss the ills in our society, either real or potential. It’s a fascinating argument, and made me think about what draws me to both genres.

I’ve been a lifelong scifi/fantasy reader, but over time I’ve started reading more crime fiction as well. My first big exposure to the genre was in high school when I started reading Elmore Leonard after seeing Out of Sight. In more recent years, I’ve found myself voraciously reading the works of Huston, Gregory McDonald (Fletch), and others. I think I’m most drawn to crime fiction by the urgency and danger inherent in the form.

However, I think it’s what Ellis identifies that keeps me coming back to both forms. I love stories that hold up a mirror to society, that play with the nature of our world and reality. I think that works whether they’re discussing a multitude of alternate universes or a drug-ridden slum in New Jersey. I look forward to reading what comes next from Ellis and Mulholland.

Goo Book by Keith Ridgway

From the April 11, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

Goo Book tells the story of a pickpocket and occasional driver for a mysterious man named Mishazzo. Mishazzo is a businessman of sorts, terse and intense. He has his driver take him all around London, sometimes for business deals, and sometimes for what seem to be intimidations or even assaults. The driver does not quite know what it is that Mishazzo does, he only knows that he may be dangerous.

When the story opens, the main character spends most of his time smoking pot with his girlfriend while sitting on the banks of a canal or stealing wallets from tourists. They have a strange, complex relationship; instead of talking about their feelings, they leave notes in a notebook back and forth. It lets them say the words they could never say aloud, and communicate the thoughts they might otherwise keep secret.

When he gets the chance to do more driving for Mishazzo, things seem to be going well until he is picked up by the police one day. The police tell the main character that they want information on Mishazzo – where he goes, who he talks to, dates, times, everything – and in return they won’t send him to prison for theft. He acquiesces because he has no other choice, and things slowly but surely start going bad.

Goo Book is told in spare, measured prose, almost entirely free of description. It is filled with a slow-burning intensity that builds as the main character’s situation becomes more dangerous. In a way it felt like a reversal of most crime stories I’ve read, which tend to have forceful main characters that fill every page with their personalities; here the main character and his girlfriend are practically ciphers, carefully hidden from view for most of the story. We only really get a peek into the main character’s feelings at the very end, when his paranoia reaches a fever-pitch and he makes a split-second decision whose repercussions hit him like a sledgehammer.

Overall I liked this story; it has a fairly simple plot, but the style drew me in, and the heart of the story is the character’s odd relationship with his girlfriend. It seems held together by the notebook where they write notes back and forth. It’s almost as though their feelings don’t truly exist if they aren’t written down in the book, and that writing them down is the only way that a man so compartmentalized could truly communicate.

You Were Wrong by Matthew Sharpe

Published: August 31, 2010
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Genre: Literary Fiction
Format: Paperback
Pages: 192

You Were Wrong is a short book, but manages to wear out its welcome in no time at all. I was ready to throw it against the wall after two chapters, but forced myself to continue reading so that I could finish and give it a fair review. The good news is that I got used to the writing style after a few more chapters, but the bad news is that I think that may have just been Stockholm Syndrome in action.

The main character, Karl Floor, is a sad-sack twenty-something math teacher who shares his dead mother’s house with his hateful stepfather. When the book opens, Karl is beaten up by two of his students, only to stumble home and discover that his house is apparently being robbed by the beautiful and mysterious Sylvia Vetch. Sylvia doesn’t act like a normal robber, however, and tends to Karl’s wounds before taking him on a journey across town to the house where she lives. As Karl’s life becomes intertwined with Sylvia and her circle, he wanders aimlessly through a series of mysterious encounters with people who abuse and confuse him. Karl is entirely passive by nature, and spends most of the book whining, getting dragged along against his will, or just plain lying down and passing out.

The book feels a bit more like a series of rambling vignettes than a novel. There is the slightest hint of a mystery concerning Sylvia’s real motivations, and the story almost swerves into crime fiction at one point before course-correcting, but mostly it’s a shambling collection of long-winded character studies. Sharpe describes the most mundane of things in excruciating detail, often employing digressions within digressions that bloat single sentences into page-long tangents. Characters don’t speak like actual human beings; either they monologue for pages about vaguely related matters, or they utter terse exchanges full of thudding importance and implied mystery.

The best I can say about the book is that Sharpe occasionally pulls off a fine turn of phrase or throws in a decent joke. For the most part, however, I found it both overwritten and crashingly dull, and was glad to see the back of it.

HATED IT
HATED IT

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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