So let’s start the New Year with a review on a trio of books I read recently.
First up is Mockingbird, by Chuck Wendig. This book follows the continuing adventures of Miriam Black, the flawed heroine who has the unique ability to see how people die. She is a distant cousin to John Smith, Stephen King’s hero from The Dead Zone. Indeed, there are many nods to King in this story, but Wendig takes them, twists them, and makes them his own. John and Miriam wouldn’t get along, mainly because Miriam doesn’t really get along with anyone.
Mockingbird finds Miriam semi-settled, living in a trailer with her truck driver boyfriend Louis, and working a dead end job at a tacky beach store. This doesn’t last, of course, and Miriam gets fired and decides to light out. But Louis talks her into speaking with a friend, a teacher at a boarding school who wants to know if she has cancer. Miriam reluctantly takes the gig, and from there is sucked into a nightmare of dead young girls and long-kept secrets that go far deeper than she ever expected.
This book is chock full of Wendig’s excellent writing, with characters you care about despite their flaws, and one tense situation after another that keeps you turning the pages (or in my case, hitting the “next” button on my Kindle). His books are not for the prudish or faint of heart, since Miriam cusses like a sailor, and Wendig’s prose style lends itself to colorful adjectives. But if you like your stories raw, your descriptions graphic, and your situations the type to make your fingernails ragged, then Mockingbird is for you.
My only complaint is Miriam’s mother, who we meet in flashback. Right now, she is really a pale imitation of the crazed religious mother from Carrie, and offers only the most superficial explanation for Miriam’s messed-up personality. However, I have faith that Chuck will give the character more depth in future outings, and this is a minor complaint in an otherwise excellent book. Rating: 8/10
Next I read Wicked as They Come, by Delilah S Dawson, a fine lady I had the pleasure of meeting at the Crossroads Conference in Macon, GA. I initially bought the book simply to support a fellow writer and a genuinely friendly person, thinking that I really wouldn’t care for the book. Do we really need another vampire romance?
Well, as it turns out, I was dead wrong in my assessment. This is an outstanding book. It tells the story, in first person, of Tish, a young woman in our world who is a hospice caretaker. Recently divorced and trying to figure out her path, she is at the estate sale if one of her recently deceased charges. In an uncharacteristic act, she steals a strange locket filled with a red liquid. Trying to open it at home, she spills the liquid on her hand. When she goes to sleep that evening, she awakes in the world of Sang, a steampunk land of men and animals who live on blood, but who aren’t undead. They simply require blood to survive. There are also “normal” people in the world, and there is currently an uneasy truce between the two species.
The first person Tish encounters is Criminy Stain, a Bludman and master of a traveling caravan of performers. He is also the one who created the locket, and he believes Tish is the one destined to be his true love.
From there we are taken on a rollicking adventure full of fights, magic, religious zealots, spurned lovers, and ravenous bludbunnies, who die like flies throughout the book. This is grand storytelling that is fun and enticing. Tish wants to go back home, but when she’s home, she yearns to return to Sang. And so do we, because Dawson draws the world so beautifully. It is like Earth, but oh so different, and Dawson has given herself plenty of room to expand her world. Her descriptions are vibrant and draw you into the landscape. We learn about the world along with Tish, and like her, we want to know more. There is romance, but it is well-handled and not overly done. And we care about the characters and want them to fall in love. All in all, this was a well-crafted tale and a pleasant surprise. I definitely look forward to returning to Sang in future novels. Rating: 8/10
The last book is Hell Comes With Wood Paneled Doors by Christopher Gronlund. Another first person story, told by Michael, who is 13 at the time the story takes place. He recounts the tale of the ultimate bad road trip, when he and his family head cross country to the Grand Canyon in order to dump his grandmother’s ashes into the big hole. Michael’s family is a dysfunctional mess, a fact further heightened when Michael’s father buys a new station wagon, the Inferno, which actually turns out to be possessed by Satan. Michael is the only one who realizes this, and it falls to him to save his family before the car destroys them or they destroy themselves.
This is a great concept, sort of a Vacation meets The Omen story, and at first it seems it will live up to its promise. The prose is light and humorous and Michael is an engaging narrator, a typical teenage boy stuck in a bad situation.
Unfortunately, as the story goes on, it becomes less charming. Michael’s family includes a whipped father with a penchant for tacky souvenirs and roadside attractions, an overbearing mother who smokes and cares only for her Chihuahua Lucky, and the twins Olivia and Elvis, who speak in unison and hate Michael. The characters are so unlikable that I found myself not really caring what happened to them. I think they were meant to be quirky, but only came out as annoying. There are some interesting set pieces in the story, but I couldn’t get past the characters. Only Michael’s father seems to care for him, but he’s so ineffectual it doesn’t matter. And no one is really changed by the end of the story, which makes it even less interesting. Indeed, Michael even makes a point to explain that nothing much changed, other than the family got along a little better. This should be a life altering experience, but it comes across as just an odd summer in a life of many.
There’s also a pacing problem. There’s no real buildup to the end, it’s just a series of adventures until finally the car decides to make its move. There’s also an indication that Michael will have to do something spectacular to save his family, but in the end, it’s really not that special.
Apparently this was once written as a script and then adapted to a book. I would love to see this as a movie because the right actors might be able to bring out character nuance that really seemed to be missing in the novel. I wanted to like this story, because I love supporting independent authors and I like original ideas. But this one didn’t quite make it. Rating: 4/10
So that’s it for this week. Catch you next time. Consider picking up my e-book, Godchild, if you haven’t already.