Here's something that's definitely not normal: a serial killer as a sort of bumbling hero. Maybe "hero" is too strong, but the unnamed protagonist in British author Cameron's debut is, outside of kidnapping and murdering girls, darkly funny and even likable. His lifelong killing spree kicked off when he took out his bad dad, and now he's moved on to prostitutes and other girls, sometimes killing them and burying them in the woods, sometimes keeping them in a cage on his property. Add in some real, non-sociopathic feelings about a few of his victims, plus cops circling about a disappeared hooker, and you've got one strange story on your hands.
Erica regarded her new cellmate with a mixture of elation and disdain. Whilst a problem shared is a problem halved, she clearly wasn't overjoyed at the prospect of sharing hers with a bleeding, screeching harridan.
The hooker had told me that her name was Kerry. Then again, she'd told me that she was clean in every respect, where both her profession and her trackmarks suggested otherwise.
I'd picked her up a mile from Jeremy's house on a foolish and immediately regrettable impulse fueled by raw adrenaline and the sheer bloody-minded need to catch something, so to speak. She'd directed me to a remote riverside picnic area on the south side of the city, and had been only too eager to jump into the back of the van, the false promise of mattresses and pillows offering a welcome relief from the repeated prod of a gearlever in the sternum.
Until that point, this, in a nutshell, was the reason I never interfere with ladies of the night: it's just too damn easy. It's a game for impotents and bed-wetters. These women queue up to get in the car with you, for Christ's sake. They actually expect you to take them somewhere dark. That they exercise free will in putting themselves in harm's way only makes obligingly slaughtering them all the more cowardly.
What are you reading?
It's the middle of winter, and Francis Falbo is depressed, despondent and he hasn't changed out of his long johns and blue terrycloth bathrobe—the "uniform of a Life in Default"—for nine days. In the wake of his mother's death and his recent divorce, 30-something Francis has taken refuge in his father's creaky Victorian in his hometown of Pollard, Illinois. He could write some songs about all of this, except his moderately successful rock band, the Third Policeman, has also fallen apart. But as he slowly starts to venture outside his attic room, he comes to know his increasingly offbeat tenants and becomes more entangled and invested in their complicated lives than he ever expected.
I am also now sporting a beard, and have developed a very real anxiety about it smelling gamey, like a wet squirrel or coon. Beard pong can be and acute social/hygienic problem and when I encounter my tenants at the front porch mailboxes or in the basement laundry room I make an effort to keep at least an arm's length between us. Though I twiddle and stroke the beard compulsively, in fact I don't know what it looks like, as I've been doing my best to avoid mirrors and reflective surfaces of any kind out of fear of what I'm liable to see staring back at me. I'm starting to imagine the beleaguered Civil War soldier. Or the banished indie record store warlock. Or a derelict from the northeast United States. Like one of those Olympia, Washington, societal dropouts who eat only frosted Pop-Tarts, living out a Nineties grunge fantasy. The beard mangy and random with riptides and lots of wiry rogue strands.
The word wayward comes to mind.
But I'm a musician, so doesn't this fact make my current state okay?
What are you reading today?
Fans of best-selling author C.J. Box expect a lot of action and suspense, delivered in clear prose and paced expertly. The author has won a number of awards for his satisfying high-country thrillers, including the Edgar for Best Novel (Blue Heaven, 2009), but his 15th Joe Pickett novel, Endangered, is a cut above. It's darker, tighter and proof that even though Box's a seasoned thriller writer, he's still a writer to watch.
Joe is out surveying a field of massacred, engangered sage grouse when he gets a call about a woman found in a ditch. She's alive, but badly beaten. The victim is Joe's adopted daughter, April, who ran off with a rodeo rider in Stone Cold. Joe's ready to hunt down the rider—until an anonymous tip points Joe toward survivalist Tilden Cudmore as April’s abductor. All this is going down when Joe's old pal Nate Romanowski, who has just been released from prison, is found dead. And the twists just keep coming.
Blunt force trauma.
The very words were brutal in and of themselves, Joe thought as he and Marybeth trailed April's gurney down the hallway. He could hear the helicopter approaching outside, hovering over the helipad on the roof of the hospital.
April was bundled up and he couldn't see her face. He wasn't sure he wanted to. Joe was grateful Marybeth had positively identified her earlier.
He was unnerved by the number of suspended plastic packets that dripped fluids into tubes that snaked beneath the sheets. An orderly rolled a monitor on wheels alongside the gurney. Her body looked small and frail beneath the covers, and she didn't respond when the orderlies secured her to the gurney with straps.
Joe reached down and squeezed her hand through the blankets. It was supple, but there was no pressure back.
"Let me know how it goes," Joe said to Marybeth, raising his voice so as to be heard over the wash of the rotors.
"Of course," she said, pulling him close one last time before she left. Her eyes glistened with tears.
Joe watched as the gurney was hoisted into the helicopter. A crew member reached down from the hatch and helped Marybeth step up inside. Seconds, later, the door was secured and the helicopter lifted.
Joe clamped his hat tight on his head with his right hand and silently asked God to save April, because she'd suffered enough in her short life, and to give Marybeth the strength to carry on.
What are you reading?
Neil Gaiman's Trigger Warning has the feel of a fairy tale collection. But these strange and haunting fairy tales are not recommended for bedtime stories. As he warns in the intro: "There are things in this book, as in life, that might upset you . . . . Consider yourself warned."
Gaiman cuts a fine line between fantasy and reality, with each story plopping you into another dark world that is so similar, yet so disturbly dissimilar, from our own. There are ghoulish old ladies, ominous hounds, rolling fogs and monarchs—there's even a "Doctor Who" story. It's pretty clear that Gaiman's creativity is in no short supply; I can only imagine what having him around a campfire would be like.
This excerpt comes from "A Calendar of Tales":
My mother had a ring in the shape of a lion’s head. She used it to do small magics—find parking spaces, make the queue she was in at the supermarket move a bit faster, make the squabbling couple at the next table stop squabbling and fall in love again, that sort of thing. She left it to me when she died.
The first time I lost it I was in a café. I think I had been fiddling with it nervously, pulling it off my finger, putting it on again. Only when I got home did I realize that I was no longer wearing it.
I returned to the café, but there was no sign of it.
Several days later, it was returned to me by a taxi driver, who had found it on the pavement outside the café. He told me my mother had appeared to him in a dream and given him my address and her recipe for old-fashioned cheesecake.
What are you reading this week?
It's Oscar Season, and if you have Hollywood on the brain, it's the perfect time to dive into Kate Alcott's new novel. In A Touch of Stardust, the author of The Dressmaker turns back the clock to the 1930s and puts readers on the tension-filled set of Gone With the Wind.
We see through the eyes of Julie Crawford, a would-be screenwriter who's still somewhat starstruck by the personalities she encouters during her work at the studio's publicity offices. But when Carole Lombard—who is currently involved with Clark Gable—hires Julie as her PA, the Midwestern girl starts seeing celebrities in a whole new light. But the magic of the movies persists.
Each morning, she pulled herself from bed and joined the cleaning ladies and the plumbers and other sleepy travelers on the 5:00 a.m. bus to get to the studio early. That way, she could step onto the back lot alone and be in the old South and feel the magical world of Gone with the Wind come to life. In front of Tara, the trees that had been fashioned over telephone poles looked real, and if she hadn't known the dogwood blossoms were made of white paper, the illusion would have been complete. It just took believing. She loved watching it grow—over fifty building façades now, and two miles of streets. It didn't matter that she walked in a landscape of glued plasterboard, a place of fake structures held together by little more than Selznick's frenzied dreams. It was vividly real.
What are you reading this week?
Valentine's Day is coming up this weekend, and regardless of how you're celebrating (wine and Netflix, natch) it's a great time to read a romantic book. If traditional Romance isn't your cup of tea, then check out Roger Rosenblatt's short and playful look at love through a series of fictional vignettes in The Book of Love. The best-selling author (Making Toast and Unless It Moves the Human Heart) offers an often poetic and captivating exploration of the subject without running into cliché or sappy territory. This just might be the book on love for the cynics and romantics alike.
I thought of you tonight, as the moon was turning its face, the way you turn away at one of my contrived displays of wit. Embarrassed for me, who lacks the wite to be embarrased for myself. What is that? Why are you prepared to bear my slightest burden? I, the tropical ceiling fan, wheeling in my faux aristocratic self-confidence. You, with the serene sense to look beyond the slats of the casa shutters to the mango trees, the bougainvillea, and beyond those, to the sea. So steady, you eyesight. But tonight was different. The past had changed, as it does sometimes, and instead of the self-regard I have worn like a white linen suit, I saw only you, and the strawberries, and the windfall of light on your hair.
What are you reading today?
The plot of Sharma Shields’ The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac sounds pretty bizarre, but it’s worth the suspension of disbelief. Eli Roebuck is certain that when he was 9 years old, his mother carried on an affair with a sasquatch and ran away with him into the woods. He vividly remembers meeting the sasquatch, or Mr. Krantz as he is introduced, and his giant furry feet. Eli, who grows up to be a podiatrist, becomes deeply obsessed with hunting down the Big Foot who carried off his mother. Unfortunately, Eli’s onerous quest to find the monster of his childhood is a heavy toll on his family. And he’s not the only one in his family dealing with very real demons. And unicorns. And lake monsters.
Finally the visitor arrived. Agnes raised to the door and stood very still before it, her hands on the belly of her apron, taking a deep breath, as though to calm herself. She swept the door open.
There stood her guest, “the most interesting man.”
Eli tried not to stare. He did not see a man at all. What he saw was an enormous ape crushed into a filthy pin-striped suit. He remembered a book from school about exotic beasts, the giant apes who lived in the savage countries of the world, and the guest resembled those creatures: deep hooded brow, small blank eyes, thin-lipped mouth like a long pink gash. And the hair! The guest was so hairy that Eli was unsure of the color of his skin: Beneath the thick brown fur, his flesh—tough and charred, like strips of dried deer meat—appeared red in some places, purple in others. The guest even smelled of hair, badly, like a musty bearskin rug singed with a lit match.
What are you reading today?
A novel about female wrestlers in the 1950s? Sign this jaded fiction editor up—that's not a summary I read every day. In Angelina Mirabella's winning (ha) debut novel, 17-year-old Leonie is stuck in Philly, waiting tables and caring for her aging father. But then a wrestling promoter walks into her diner and her life is changed forever—she's off to Florida to train at Joe Pospisil's School for Lady Grappling.
Mirabella tells her story in the second person, allowing the reader to fully step into Leonie's shoes, like a choose-your-own-adventure. Here's Leonie in the ring for the first time, with a fellow trainee and friend, Peggy.
"I'm sorry. What do you want us to do?" [Peggy] ventures.
"What do you mean, what do I want you to do?" Joe asks, his hands extended in front of him. "This is a match. You are opponents. So wrestle, damn it."
"Oh," you say, blinking back at Peggy. The two of you stare at each other for a while, each waiting for the other to begin, to offer up some clue as to how this might go. Thankfully, Peggy steps forward and takes you by the soulders, granting you permission to do the same. It is a strange sensation, to be locked in ref's position with her—not just another woman, but a buddy. It is a decidedly tentative press, and it makes you tentative, too. How real should this be? What are the boundaries? And what is she to you, exactly? Is she your colleague, or your rival?
"Well, this is boring," says Joe. "Would either of you care to do anything that might keep a paying customer from walking out?"
"Like this?" says Peggy, and she drops down and grabs your legs out from under you.
What are you reading this week?
Thomas Pierce's debut short story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, is sometimes strange, sometimes fantastical and manages to perfectly balance between tragic and hilarious. Within this collection, a mother is saddled with a cloned baby mammoth by her selfish son; two siblings are trapped in a pantry and very confused; and a father and son blunder through a cliqueish, vaguely cult-like community of campers. Ultimately this collection shines a light on the pain and beauty that can be found within all close relationships. If you enjoy George Saunders, Karen Russell or J. Robert Lennon, you might want to pick up this book.
Here's an excerpt from the title short story, "Hall of Small Mammals":
“I think the pace is picking up,” the woman behind me said, and when I looked up, I saw that she was right. We were really moving now. I could see the entrance ot the Hall of Small Mammals, its brown double doors open wide to receive us. But where was Val? I scanned the crowds. Had I been wrong to let a twelve-year-old go off on his own at a public zoo? I was beginning to suspect that I’d made a poor decision. My experience with children was and is fairly limited. I have two grown nieces that I rarely see in person, though my fridge is plastered with their childhood photos and printed emails. My older brother, the girls’ father, once said that being a parent is the most important thing he’s ever done with his life. I’ve never had the nerve to ask him what that says about my life.
What are you reading today?
Right off the bat, this debut from British writer Seskis displays impressive control and pacing. Hints are doled out at just the right time, with Seskis' excellent prose keeping her reader's attention.
Emily has run away from her husband and children and started a new life as "Cat." But Seskis isn't so careless as to allow the reader to pass judgement on this abandonment; rather, she jumps back and forth in Emily/Cat's story, as well as in the story of her parents', to reveal what's really going on. One of the first elements of the mystery that readers learn is that Emily/Cat has (had?) a twin, named Caroline, who was wholly unexpected to her pregnant mother:
The doctor tried again. "Congratulations, Mrs. Brown, you're soon to be the mother of twins. You have a second baby to deliver."
"What d'you mean?" she'd screamed. "I've had my bloody baby."
Now she lay there in shock and all she could think was that she didn't want two babies, she only wanted one, she only had one crib, one pram, one set of baby clothes, one life prepared.
Frances was a planner by nature. She didn't like surprises, certainly not ones this momentous, and apart from anything else she felt far too exhausted to give birth again—the first birth may have been quick, but it had been fierce and traumatic and nearly three weeks ahead of schedule. She shut her eyes and wondered when Andrew would arrive. She hadn't been able to get him at his office, he'd been out at a meeting apparently, and once the contractions had quicked to every minute and a half she'd known her only option was to call an ambulance.
So her first baby arrived in a gush of red and a gash of loneliness—and now she was being told to deliver a second and still her husband was absent. Andrew hadn't seemed too keen on having one baby, so God knows what he'd think of this development. She started sobbing, noisy snot-filled gulps that rang through the little hospital.
"Mrs. Brown, will you control yourself!" the midwife said. Frances loathed her, with her mean features and squeaky, grating voice—what was she even doing in this job, she thought bitterly, she'd suck the air out of any situation, even the beauty of birth, like a malevolent pair of bellows.
"Can I see my baby?" Frances said. "I haven't even seen her yet."
"She's being checked. Just concentrate on this one."
"I don't want to concentrate on this one. I want my real baby. Give me my real baby." She was screeching now. The midwife got the gas and air and held it over Frances's face, pressing hard. Frances gagged and finally stopped screaming, and as she quieted the fight went out of her and something in her died, there on that hospital bed.
One Step Too Far goes on sale in a few weeks. Think you'll check it out?