mystery

Review: Best American

The Best American series has designed such a unique identity that I can recognize a volume through the thickest wrapping paper. The symmetry of the books is soothing, Best American Science 2013and they look dynamite aligned on the shelves. A friend recently stared in awe of their arrangement on my bookcase (thanks OCD).

But it’s the content that really makes Best American stand out.

My three favorite editions are the science, essay and mystery writing editions, with lots of love for the sports, short stories and nonrequired reading, but that’s part of what makes the series so successful: everybody has a favorite, but is usually willing to take a gander at the others.

So when I see a Best American beneath the tree, I’m not worried about which one it is. I know I’ll enjoy it no matter what.

Here is a sampling of what you’ll find in this year’s editions:

For me, the 2013 headliner is The Best American Science and Nature Writing, edited by Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies). Standouts include Kevin Dutton’s “What Psychopaths Teach Us About How to Succeed,” adapted Best American Essays 2013from his book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, as well as Oliver Sacks’ “Altered States,” and Gareth Cook’s “Autism Inc.”

The Best American Sports Writing is edited by J.R. Moehringer, whose magazine feature, “Resurrecting the Champ,” inspired a wonderful fictionalization on the big screen. Must-reads include Rick Reilly’s “Special Team,” Paul Solotaroff’s “The NFL’s Secret Drug Problem,” and Erik Malinowski’s “The Making of ‘Homer at the Bat,’ the Episode that Conquered Prime Time 20 Years Ago Tonight.” For top-shelf nonfiction, look no further than The Best American Essays, featuring Zadie Smith, Michelle Mirsky and Alice Munro.

Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Connolly and Hannah Tinti headline The Best American Mystery Stories, while Junot Diaz, George Saunders and Steven Millhauser take the spotlight in The Best American Short Stories. Elizabeth Gilbert guest edits The Best American Travel Writing.

Once again, The Best American Nonrequired Reading slays us with its Best American Comics 2013combination of literati and irreverence. Case in point: there are pieces by Walter Mosley, Sherman Alexie and Kurt Vonnegut, while the “best of” categories include “Best American Poem About a Particle Accelerator,” “Best American Apocryphal Discussion Between Our Nation’s Founding Fathers” and “Best American Comic That Ends in Arson.”

Speaking of comics, one of my favorite new editions is The Best American Comics, featuring fiction and nonfiction art work, from the “funny pages” to graphic novels. There’s now even The Best American Infographics. With an introduction by David Byrne. Go figure.

Review: Skull in the Ashes

Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America

by Peter Kaufman

University presses aren’t usually known for producing pot-boiling thrillers, but that’s Skull in the Asheswhat the University of Iowa Press has done with Skull in the Ashes. In 1897, the quiet eastern Iowa town of Walford was awoken by a fire at the general store. When the flame had died, they discovered a charred corpse with some belongings of the store’s owner, Frank Novak, who often slept there.

The timing was curious as Novak, heavily in debt, had recently purchased multiple life insurance policies.

Oh yeah, and the skull they found in the ashes had been bashed in, which is atypical behavior for your run-of-the-mill house fire.

Here, the lives of three men intertwine: Novak; M.J. Tobin, the new county attorney; and Red Perrin, a near-superhero whom we’ll discuss later.

There may have been a time when folks wouldn’t have asked too many questions about the fire, odd though it was, but Tobin utilized emerging forensic tools—such as dental records—to identify the corpse as someone other than Novak. Tobin’s quest crossed multiple state lines and even involved the famed Pinkerton National Detective Agency. But the trail went cold in the Pacific Northwest.

Enter Red Perrin.

Perrin was a detective in Arizona who had a reputation for tenacity and toughness. He was the only one trusted to venture into the Yukon and return Novak alive.

The amount of research that went into this book is evident. Kaufman worked his butt off on this book, and he does a good job of balancing information with narrative. Where he is strongest, though, is following Perrin—which, ironically, was probably the toughest to recreate. The trek through the mining territory is difficult. Perrin hires a team, hikes for days through the mountains and brings along with him a boat builder.

That’s right, a boat builder.

On the other side of the mountain pass was a treacherous waterway, which Perrin would need to traverse to get up to the mining camp where he suspected Novak was living under an assumed name. But they couldn’t carry a boat through the mountains, so once completing that leg of the journey, Perrin and his partner chopped down trees and built a craft sturdy enough for the rapids.

That’s pretty bad ass.

Skull in the Ashes is divided into three parts, and this is by far my favorite. Part one is the story of Novak and Tobin; the town of Walford; and the crime and initial investigation. It’s a bit like a murder-mystery, although we already know whodunit. The narrative here is about history and evidence, and I really enjoyed this section.

Part two is an adventure tale. Kaufman creates lavish scenery, strong characters, high tension and the thrill of a pulp wilderness expedition. I think of it as Thoreau’s The Maine Woods meets The Fugitive. The plotting is well-paced, and Kaufman rightly pulls back on the history and lets the action take center stage.

Which brings us to part three: the aftermath. Unfortunately, this is where Kaufman runs out of bullets. It’s not his doing, but simply the climax of the story. The final part covers Novak’s trial and incarceration and ties up the storylines of all involved. As with the other sections, it is well-researched and –written, but we spend too much time on the trial.

I did enjoy the sociological aspects of the book’s conclusion. Kaufman describes prison life at the time and reforms that were making it more humane. There is also the importance of the Novak trial for its use of forensics and circumstantial evidence. Kaufman clearly describes a time of transition in American history: the advance of science, the sophistication of law enforcement, and the expansion and opening of the world, such that a local crime committed in small-town Iowa would involve the federal government, multiple states, two countries and a wilderness chase.

And so Iowa, and America, looked ahead to the 20th century.

To sum up, Skull in the Ashes is a thrill ride for history buffs and fans of narrative nonfiction and an unexpected, and delightful, blend of pulp and scholarship.

Summer Horror Roundup

Though the days still blister, at night there is a welcome chill and the softest whiff of decay. It’s a beautiful smell, and within a few weeks we’ll hit full-on autumn. Though we’re excited about the fall, we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss some of the summertime horror we’ve enjoyed throughout the year.

The Hole

William Meikle

Now this is a book I can relate to: hard drinking, manual labor, mines, sinkholes, battles with subterranean evil.The Hole

Ah, to be 23 again.

From the start, this fast-paced small-town horror shudders with ominosity. (Is ominosity a word? If not, it should be.) Intense headaches and nosebleeds afflict the townsfolk, and then the earth comes out from under their feet.

Literally.

A giant sinkhole opens in a back yard (leading to a hilarious septic tank scene) and begins swallowing up the countryside like the San Andreas Fault. At first, the backwoods residents fear a natural disaster.

But then they notice the creatures rising up from the hole.

And so the horror begins…

Enjoy this quick-hit tale of small-town suspicion, working-class gumption and a long-buried secret that won’t stay dead.

Doors

Daniel Brako

Being a dorky loner, I spent most of my summers watching late-night reruns of The Twilight Zone. That certainly figured intoDoors my attraction to Doors, which concerns a psychologist working with a patient who sees doors everywhere he looks. Then, the doctor begins to see them too.

I’ve always loved the idea of another world overlapping with our own, only visible if we squint in just the right light. It has the appeal of a conspiracy theory. It’s the world, just slightly askew. All around us, invisible, with dire consequences. A world within a world. (Don’t get me started on quark theory.)

Having worked in mental health, I’ve conversed with many schizophrenics, delirious alcoholics and addicts in the throes of a psychotic break. Their storytelling has the effect of quicksand—you don’t realize how engrossed you are in their story until you’re up to your neck. They give you a plausible setting and people, then a string of plausible events occur, followed by a string of less-plausible events, then even less and less plausible, and then suddenly, boom, the narrator reveals that the gunshot was stopped by the metal plate inside his head and the rebounding bullet struck the shooter instead.

It’s a dissociative feeling. Everything seemed so normal, so sane, twisting only in slight degrees before you realize it’s all a delusion. Or is only some of it? That’s what makes it so creepy.

It’s our world, slightly askew.

That’s what I was hoping for in Doors, and it begins promising enough. The manic patient begins his tale, and I got that tingle of dissociation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. The psychologist, David Druas, buys into the narrative too quickly. I wanted more push-back from David, mainly to prolong that quicksand effect, but also for verisimilitude: No legitimate psychologist would be convinced so quickly.

At this point I realized that the novel rushed through this part to get to the pulse-pounding events that follow. That’s unfortunate. I was hoping for more of a psychological head-trip.

Meeting the book on its own terms, this is a well-conceived novel with thrilling and engaging sequences. And I can certainly except the supernatural in horror fiction. But I wish the story hewed closer to plausibility so I could longer relish that feeling of slowly being drawn in to a nightmare.

The Last Whisper in the Dark

Tom Piccirilli

Yes, we have reviewed this book already, but it’s worth repeating. This is a tremendous book by a gifted author. Put this on yourWhisper “must-read” list.

And for anyone who missed the earlier review, here you are:

There are not enough superlatives when discussing Tom Piccirilli. The man is a brilliant and diverse writer: He’s won awards for his horror, fantasy, thrillers and even poetry—bagging the prestigious Bram Stoker award on four occasions.

Previous novels, such as Shards, A Choir of Ill Children and November Mourns, have shocked and terrified, but with his new release, The Last Whisper in the Dark, Piccirilli takes us to a far more tender place.

A tender place, it turns out, just as disarming as his nightmares.

I’ll sum it up this way: I was shedding tears by page three. I think the only other book that has ever had me crying this early in the narrative is Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Piccirilli has a knack for character development and storytelling, and The Last Whisper in the Dark, a sequel to 2012’s The Last Kind Words, may be his deepest work yet.

Concerning Terrier (Terry) Rand, a young thief from a family of small-time criminals, Piccirilli has given us a protagonist as sympathetic as he is fearless. On the surface, the story is about the disappearance of Terry’s friend Chub and the ensuing search that drives him head on into gangsters, killers and a femme fatale.

But on a deeper level, this is a tale of honor and family and the clumsy way we go about expressing our feelings to the ones we love. The Rands are a proud and tragic clan, with dementia and criminality in their blood—as well as an outlaw tendency that keeps them on the fringes of society.

But their strongest trait is honor. Terry is loyal to an estranged friend who stole the only woman he ever loved. He quietly looks out for his sister, even as she rebels against him and helps desecrate their dead brother’s grave. He remains devoted to a family that can occasionally be distant and dysfunctional, but always has each other’s backs.

You can mess with Terry, but you’d best not fuck with his family.

You’ll fall in love with Terry by the end of the first chapter, and you’ll be cheering him on the rest of the novel. And when it’s done, you’ll applaud Piccirilli for this tender bit of noir literature.

Piccirilli is an established icon within the horror realm, but he has yet to crack through to the mainstream, which is unfortunate. This is a writer worthy of notice, and hopefully this book is the one that reaps him the exposure and attention he deserves.

Review: The Last Whisper in the Dark

There are not enough superlatives when discussing Tom Piccirilli. The man is a brilliantWhisper and diverse writer: He’s won awards for his horror, fantasy, thrillers and even poetry—bagging the prestigious Bram Stoker award on four occasions.

Previous novels, such as Shards, A Choir of Ill Children and November Mourns, have shocked and terrified, but with his new release, The Last Whisper in the Dark, Piccirilli takes us to a far more tender place.

A tender place, it turns out, just as disarming as his nightmares.

I’ll sum it up this way: I was shedding tears by page three. I think the only other book that has ever had me crying this early in the narrative is Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Piccirilli has a knack for character development and storytelling, and The Last Whisper in the Dark, a sequel to 2012’s The Last Kind Words, may be his deepest work yet.

Concerning Terrier (Terry) Rand, a young thief from a family of small-time criminals, Piccirilli has given us a protagonist as sympathetic as he is fearless. On the surface, the story is about the disappearance of Terry’s friend Chub and the ensuing search that drives him head on into gangsters, killers and a femme fatale.

But on a deeper level, this is a tale of honor and family and the clumsy way we go about expressing our feelings to the ones we love. The Rands are a proud and tragic clan, with dementia and criminality in their blood—as well as an outlaw tendency that keeps them on the fringes of society.

But their strongest trait is honor. Terry is loyal to an estranged friend who stole the only woman he ever loved. He quietly looks out for his sister, even as she rebels against him and helps desecrate their dead brother’s grave. He remains devoted to a family that can occasionally be distant and dysfunctional, but always has each other’s backs.

You can mess with Terry, but you’d best not fuck with his family.

You’ll fall in love with Terry by the end of the first chapter, and you’ll be cheering him on the rest of the novel. And when it’s done, you’ll applaud Piccirilli for this tender bit of noir literature.

Piccirilli is an established icon within the horror realm, but he has yet to crack through to the mainstream, which is unfortunate. This is a writer worthy of notice, and hopefully this book is the one that reaps him the exposure and attention he deserves.

June Recommendations

In another day we’ll be heading off to London, and around this time Transgress will publish its annual summer book preview/review. In the coming days, we’ll be dishing out smaller portions of the issue, beginning with today’s blurbs about some books you may have missed this past month.

Joyland, Stephen King

I plan on devouring this little beauty on the first leg of the transatlantic flight. As joylandyou know, we at Ensuing Chapters and Transgress Magazine are all about funhouses and noir. So, a Stephen King paperback original about a funhouse for the imprint Hard Case Crime?

Bring it.

King’s previous offering through Hard Case was The Colorado Kid, a wonderfully creepy tale about an unsolved murder in a small Maine town. Some of you may also know it as the SyFy program, Haven.

I’ve got my ticket, and I’m already chilled thinking of the horrors that await in Joyland.

Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself, Adam Rutherford

I recommend Adam Rutherford’s Creation for any fan of science writingcreation. However, my endorsement comes with a disclaimer: The electronic review copy I downloaded was corrupted and difficult to navigate. The result is that I didn’t read this book front to back, as I normally do. However, I was able to access about half of it, and what I read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Of particular interest to Transgress readers are the graphic details of surface cuts when explaining how the skin recovers from a wound. The squeamish reader might want to tag this book as horror for this reason alone.

Though I doubt there are any squeamish readers this blog.

Stylistically, Creation blends wit and storytelling with fair doses of hard science. Fans of Sam Kean, Mary Roach and Malcolm Gladwell will find much to love in its pages.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

Not since Joseph Campbell has an author had both a profound understanding oceanof mythology and the ability to present it to a general audience with such passion. I see Gaiman and Campbell as two sides of an intergenerational coin: the academic who deconstructs myths and the author who creates them.

His new novel, his first for adults since 2005’s Anansi Boys, concerns a young boy returning home–and reconsidering odd events from summers past.

 

The Hole, William Meikle

And what summer would be complete without a subterranean adventure? This twisted treat comes from one of my favorite publishers, DarkFuse, and concerns a chasm (literally, not figuratively) snaking through a rural town. What comes next promises to be delightfully morbid. I’ve got this on my to-read list and can’t wait to descend into its depths. A review will come later this summer.

Come back tomorrow for a review of The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories by Saki, illustrated by Edward Gorey.

Hilary Davidson: Evil in All Its Disguises

If I were writing a one-word review of Hilary Davidson’s Evil in All Its Disguises, released March 5, that word would be: incongruous. And it would be a massive compliment.Evil Cover

In this subtle crime novel, the third in the Lily Moore series, Davidson drops us in an Escher-like room of distorted realities. Everything looks normal, just slightly askew, and it’s these atmospheric incongruities that make Evil such an enjoyable read.

For series initiates, such as myself, Lily Moore is a travel writer with a checkered past: a mentally unstable family history; a deceased, junkie sister; a quasi-gangster business tycoon ex who will do anything to get her back. This is the baggage she takes with her to Acapulco to review the once-glamorous Hotel Cerón.

It’s nothing unusual: just another press junket with a circle of travel writers, and a PR flak, she’s known for years. Yet, when she arrives at the hotel, Moore is surprised to find it in disrepair, and disturbed to learn that one of her closest friends on the trip, Skye, is in over her head on an investigative piece. During their brief and baffling conversation, Skye expresses concern for her safety, and then steps away to take a call.

And so the unraveling begins. Skye doesn’t return from that phone call, and nobody at the isolated resort seems concerned. Through her exploration, Lily learns that the hotel is a recent acquisition by her ex’s company, manned by his henchman, Gavin, and before long she realizes she’s been lured to the Hotel Cerón under false and deadly pretenses.

There is a breathless quality to the prose that I enjoyed. The action is tightly contained (the plot unfolds in around 48 hours), and, from one chapter to the next, I couldn’t put it down. Aside from a superfluity of internal dialogue and redundant flashbacks, the writing is well-paced and tightly organized, and Davidson manages to give us a tour of the resort, including the unfinished bungalows, the empty wings and even the rotting interior, without feeling like a travelogue—probably due to her actual background as a travel writer. (To my fellow gluten-intolerants I recommend her Gluten-Free Guidebook blog.)

But as with a travel review, the pros must be weighed against the cons. Evil suffers from an overload of plot twists. The phrase “trust no one” certainly applies. This isn’t all bad, as the finer twists reveal character complexity (and that delicious incongruity). But as the plot turns pile up, they begin to lose credibility.

Evil diverges from the transgressive and brutal horror literature usually reviewed in this space. There’s a cozy quality to the story that is actually kind of refreshing. The book kept me up at night not because it was disturbing, but because it was engaging.

I predict big things for this book, and I’m sure it will earn a deserved place on the best-seller list.

Peter Clines: 14

If I’ve learned anything from my lifelong obsession with horror, it’s that:14

  1. If someone introduces you to an opportunity too good, and too convenient, to be true, you probably shouldn’t take it because it can only mean trouble. And,
  2. If someone introduces you to an opportunity too good, and too convenient, to be true, you definitely should take it because you are guaranteed adventure—most likely one shadowed with conspiracy and gore.

So it goes in 14, by Peter Clines, in which an apathetic data-entry temp (Nate) is referred to a cheap apartment, where rents are suspiciously low, utilities shockingly free and the neighbors… well, the ones who stick around are… interesting.

The setting for this quasi-Lovecraftian, quasi-apocalyptic story is the Kavach building, which seems odd even by L.A. standards. Early in his stay, Nate notices some curious features of the old building: all the units have different dimensions; the plumbing is an inefficient web of pipes; there are discolored lights; green, mutant cockroaches; and, best of all, certain apartments are padlocked shut.

Among them, apartment 14.

This is where Clines truly excels. He develops a chilling atmosphere and social dynamic within the walls of the Kavach, and I absolutely devoured the first half of the book. The dialogue is shallow in spots, but the characters are as mysterious as the building, and as more secrets unfold, we follow a resilient crew of tenants into the deep tunnels beneath the Kavach.

Of all that I loved about the first half of this book, the tunnels were by far my favorite. The subterranean setting is magnificently drawn, and it’s that sweet spot in the book where the characters are fully realized and revealed, and the reader is absorbed in their struggle.

The second half of 14 is very entertaining, particularly the third quarter, but lacks the literary muscle of what came before. The first half was tight, focused, suffocating. It narrows until we get to the bottom of the tunnels, but then we begin expanding and things get a bit turbulent. Clines does a solid job of planting intriguing clues to be sussed out later, but the ending suffers from too much revelation.

I’d like to illustrate this with an anecdote.

My first apartment was a crumbling duplex on Tamplin Street in Sharon, Pennsylvania. It was dumpy and narrow, but the perfect incubator for two eventual writers (me and my roommate, Todd).

Particularly inspiring was the basement.

There was a biohazard sign on the basement door, with the words “Fallout Shelter.” The house was old enough that the sign could have been legit, though we suspected it was decoration. The basement itself was a throwaway slab of concrete—functional, boring, filled with spiders. The only thing scary about it was the rickety set of stairs.

And the unexplained, nailed-shut door on the northern wall.

The mystery door was almost a square, shaped more like a large window than a door, and rather than starting at the floor, the bottom edge was two feet off the ground. The top edge was only a few feet higher. It was the size and shape of a cupboard or a crawlspace. But why was it nailed shut?

Horror fanatic that I am, I tried to pry it open at least enough to glimpse what was on the other side. Thankfully, I wasn’t able to. Most likely, it was just a collapsed storage space (this was a mining/steel town, and it was fairly common for back yards to become ravines). It contained probably nothing more than the earth-packed remnants of a sinkhole.

But because I never got a look behind the mystery door, it has never lost its magic. Instead of a sinkhole, in my mind that door seals off a series of tunnels that burrow beneath our town, perhaps an old Prohibition-era bootlegging route, or perhaps it connects with the old cemetery two blocks away. Instead of storage space, there is a cache of forbidden scrolls. Or, befitting my Poe-obsessed youth, this is the subterranean vault where our slumlord buries alive his tenants.

Who knows, maybe even a bomb shelter.

The point is, I’m still fascinated by that shuttered basement door.

And that’s why the first half of 14 is an absorbing read. This is literature for anyone who has searched every new apartment for secret passages, hiding spots or trapdoors. Crawled through cobwebbed eaves, the musky underbelly of mobile homes and believes, always, that every building has a secret history to tell.

But unlike that basement door on Tamplin Street, we do learn what’s inside those padlocked rooms at the Kavach building. What we find there is original, for sure, but it dispels the magic. Each new revelation takes us further away from believability until 14 enters camp territory. And I’ve got nothing against camp. Truly, this part of the book is fun.

But it doesn’t mesh with the earnestness of the setup.

The action-packed finale further untethers the reader. The sequences are rushed, and where dialogue and observations from the characters should anchor us, we get snarky quips and CGI visuals. There is a nice homage to Lovecraft throughout, but HPL’s great trick was that we seldom saw what his creatures did. Rather, he hinted at what they could do.

Clines is a hell of a writer and storyteller, but here, he opens one door too many.

But that’s not entirely a bad thing, and certainly not a deal breaker (I just have a preference for more existential horror). This is a book I highly recommend. It’s fun, engaging, and I only give it four stars instead of five because of the overload of revelation at the end.

I’d prefer to leave a door or two shut. I want to imagine what’s behind it. A body? A tunnel? Treasure? Or nothing?

The best part is that I’ll never know.

Stephen Dobyns: The Burn Palace

Stephen Dobyns‘ new novel, The Burn Palace, is a difficult book to deconstruct. TheDobyns narrative is a tangle of shifting perspectives and sharp turns, and stylistically, is a bit disarming at first.

However, we’re in the hands of an old master. What Dobyns does better than most is capture the quirks and suspicions of small-town America, and similar to his 1997 masterpiece, The Church of Dead Girls, The Burn Palace offers us an eagle-eyed, warts-and-all perspective of residents of Brewster, Rhode Island.

As with the loose-ended Church, the horror lives not so much in the conflict, but rather in how the residents respond to the conflict. In this novel, Dobyns’ first in more than a decade, the catalytic event is a dramatic kidnapping. A newborn has been stolen from the local hospital, replaced with a corn snake, and thus, the town of Brewster is shrouded in mystery and controversy.

And fear.

From the local diner to holistic healing centers, Brewster is that odd amalgamation of new age/old age found in many small towns. It is also a town of secrets and tragedy and disaster. Dobyns brings to life the town’s diverse personalities, going to door to door in a literary trick or treat.

It’s kind of like Winesburg, Ohio—if Sherwood Anderson had grown up on Stephen King’s street.

Of course, the prose is excellent, and only someone like Dobyns could reconcile this many narratives and POVs in one book. That said, this is a dense work, more so for the constant shifting of perspectives, never setting us on stable ground.

But then again, isn’t that the point? Rather than simply using his words to construct a referent, Dobyns, with his background in poetry, uses the words themselves to disorient, to make us confused, uncomfortable and always uncertain, but excited, about what comes next.

Recommended Reads: Jan. 22

Nevada Barr: The Rope. In Anna Pigeon, Barr has created one of the most oThe Toperiginal  and enjoyable protagonists in the mystery genre. With each book set in a different state park, fans have followed Pigeon’s adventures through more than a dozen novels. This time, Barr takes us back to 1995, where it all began for Pigeon. First published in 2012, the audiobook edition, released today, promises a thrilling wilderness adventure.

 

Jeremiah Ostriker and Simon Mitton: Heart of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe. In a time of dizzying scientific discovery, it’s hard to keep up with the latest information. And sure, dark matter and dark energy sound cool, but what the hell is it? Well, for starters, it’s what makes up most of our universe. Never mind the dark side of the moon. Ostriker, a Princeton astrophysicist, and Mitton, a science historian, chronicle the ongoing trek into the ultimate dark.December's Thorn

 

Phillip DePoy: December’s Thorn. On a cold, snowy night, a strange woman shows up at Fever Devilin’s door claiming to be his wife. He offers her a seat by the fire, brews some tea… and the seventh installment of the series, centered around a Georgia folklorist, begins.

Review: Legion

Author Brandon Sanderson is one evil dude. That was my reaction to finLegionishing his novella, Legion, concerning the peculiar (and haunted) Stephen Leeds. To be clear: Sanderson is a master storyteller, and this is one of the greatest works of short fiction I’ve read in years.

What makes Sanderson evil (in that bad-ass writer sort of way) is the fact that the story came to an end.

In December, Audible offered a free copy of Legion, which I greedily downloaded and enjoyed in one sitting. This story is compelling on so many levels that when it ended I needed complete silence to process everything.

Leeds is a peculiar man with a mental condition akin to dissociative identity disorder (a dubious diagnosis; see Debbie Nathan’s Sybil Exposed). However, Leeds doesn’t have multiple personalities. He has what he calls “aspects,” sort of like imaginary friends with benefits — meaning they sleep in their own rooms, require seats on a plane and bail you out of jams.

In truth, the aspects are the manifestations of Leeds’ genius. He is smart to the point of insanity, and, in my opinion, his aspects allow him to maintain his self-view as a “regular guy.” For example, he doesn’t perform critical analysis of arguments. He leaves that to Ivy. He isn’t a skilled marksman, so he leaves the self-defense to his munitions expert, J.C. And when he attempts to learn Hebrew during the course of a transatlantic flight, he manifests a new aspect who is already fluent.

This is a master stroke, in my opinion. A functioning protagonist who had all these skills wouldn’t be credible, unless they were super-human. And a functioning human who had all these skills would be, well, dysfunctional if they had to store all this knowledge and know-how in their brain.

So Leeds, in cerebral self-defense, delegates the multi-tasking to his apparitional A-Team, and they are a source of depth, humor and revelation. This is a great device, but something of a literary high-wire with little room for error.

Sanderson deftly manages the narrative so that it never becomes silly or gimmicky. In fact, the presence of the aspects deepens the protagonist, as his inner conflicts and contradictions play out before us.

This is played to maximum effect when the novella takes a philosophical turn. The premise of the story is that a scientist has invented a camera that can photograph the past — and now he has gone missing. Leeds determines that the scientist has gone to the Middle East in search of photographic evidence to confirm or deny Biblical history.

The nature of this quest, by a scientist in particular, leads to an interesting discussion among his various aspects, each offering a different take on religion. Here, Sanderson captures the internal struggle that comes with asking the big questions: How does one reconcile science and spirituality? Theological desire and empirical evidence?

No matter your conclusion, I’m sure we’ve all had similar conversations in our heads.

In Leeds, the discussion is thoughtful and entertaining, and enriches the story with a pensive undertone. And mention must be made of the terrific narration of Oliver Wyman.

Featuring compelling action, organic dialogue and complex characters and situations, Legion is a must-read (or must-listen).

I’m not surprised. As a longtime fan of the podcast Writing Excuses, which Sanderson co-hosts (along with Dan, Howard and Mary… who are that smart), I’ve joked that I’ve learned more from Sanderson and company than I did during my three-year MFA.

And I’m only sort-of kidding about that.

But I’m serious when I say that we need more Stephen Leeds adventures. And soon. A full-length novel, series of stories, film, TV… all of the above.

Leeds is a character brilliantly devised and fully realized. I didn’t want this story to end, and I hope to read more of Legion in the (near) future.