Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin

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Grade B-

Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter is epic, spanning centuries and the north and south poles, and it’s part of the problem I had with the novel. The story is both a mystery and a history lesson, loosely following two strangers who struggle to find common ground as they untangle an enigma of missing explorers, possible family connections, cryptic artifacts, and many, many other loose ends. In between their sleuthing, O’Loughlin introduces the reader to a host of characters, from famous Arctic and Antarctic explorers to native peoples of the Arctic Circle. Some just pop up for a chapter, some for merely a page or two. It’s hard to keep track of the scores of intertwining narratives here and it makes for a frustrating read, especially when the history lessons dispersed throughout the book that render vivid, exhaustively researched tellings of famous northern and southern expeditions are so rich. O’Loughlin must be commended for the scope of the story and he assuredly knows the real life tales of the explorers who appear like ghosts throughout the novel, but the story goes nowhere nearly down to the last page.

Minds of Winter available March 7, 2017.

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The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

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Grade C-

While there’s no denying that Pulley is gifted writer and that the premise of this book sounded magical and adventurous, I found little magic or adventure here. While there are bits I loved, like the vividness of the pollen trails that permeate the Peruvian forest, or the white wood trees, I just didn’t connect with the characters and I found that many threads of the narrative just didn’t tie up together enough for me to find the story or its resolution satisfying.

The Bedlam Stacks available August 1, 2017.

The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge

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Grade B-

Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean is a puzzling, esoteric novel about a struggling writer and his wife in New York City told from the wife’s point of view after Charlie, the writer, mysteriously vanishes after spiraling into a sort of madness after investigating an obscure, possibly fake biography of HP Lovecraft telling of his relationship with teenage writer Robert Barlow in the 1930s. As Charlie then his wife Marina begin to peel away the layers of the alleged illicit pairing of Lovecraft and Barlow, nothing is what it seems and the validity of the tale is never to be fully trusted. Or is it? La Farge sometimes conjures the otherworldly mystery of Lovecraft’s prose mixed with a Rashomon level of contradiction of the truth. This is a story about the reality of fiction and also the fiction of our reality. It’s about perception, personality, the darkness of McCarthy-era witch hunting and the unspeakable shame of homosexuality in the past. I enjoyed the uniqueness of the story and admired how it jumped from eras and locations from Mexico City to Canada and included everyone from William Burroughs to Issac Asimov to Diego Rivera within its narrative, but ultimately I felt it a bit slow and redundant. There’s much here to recommend, though, as The Night Ocean is a fascinating, possibly true or most definitely not novel.

The Night Ocean available March 7, 2017.

The River of Kings by Taylor Brown

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Grade B

An ambitious, centuries-sprawling tale of discovery and death, expeditions and defeats, fathers and sons, brothers, a river that holds myth, monsters, murder and mystery. A story of snaking streams and stormy seas and the tragic lives, family ties, and lost loves of the men and boys who struggle to tame land and water. The history of a region that holds a millennium of Southern Gothic stories within its muddy banks and tribes. This is Flannery O’Connor meets David Mitchell, and a long read that is an adventure which doesn’t pay off in ordinary ways, rich with prose as foreign yet specific as the renderings of the eras they travel. Sound like a lot going on? There is. Worthy of a read and your attention to the skill it takes to craft such a novel.

The River of Kings: A Novel available March 21, 2017.

Kill The Next One by Federico Axat

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Grade B

This is one hell of a mind-bending novel that’s more of a Rubik’s Cube than anything I’ve read in recent memory. The labyrinth on the cover couldn’t be more fitting. As masterfully complex and head-spinning as it is, I’m still scratching said spinning head from the last two pages, pages that make the 400 plus that come before it even more mind-bending. Perhaps this is due to the translation, but I have to give it up to the translator who tackled this puzzle. My review will take a while to figure out as this book lingers. Certainly recommended, but you’ll have to really commit.

Kill the Next One available now.

The Best Books I Read in 2016

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  1. The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis. A stunning, vivid horror adventure about a young girl being stalked through an apocalyptic wilderness by a madman who was her guardian. Equal parts thrilling, terrifying, and unexpected with elements of The Road, The Revenant, and Little Red Riding Hood. A masterpiece.
  2. The North Water by Ian McGuire. McGuire’s Man Booker nominated thriller is so chilly that you can feel the frostbite and so brutal that your racing heartbeat matches the characters who are at the mercy of a psychopath on a ship while on an Arctic voyage. It’s the writing here, though, that raises this from genre to masterwork.
  3. The Fisherman by John Langan. Langan’s character study quickly turns into a surreal nightmare that straddles two worlds; one about overcoming grief as two men find solace together after their wives die by fishing together, and another world where nothing is as it seems as the grief is replaced by hope and ultimately fear and terror. Ambitious and mind-bending.
  4. The Lightkeepers by Abbi Geni. Abbi Geni’s Lightkeepers is a quiet character study about a group of scientists isolated on the Farallon Islands off the San Francisco coast. What starts as a richly detailed, you-are-there story about a woman finding herself in a remote, hostile environment turns into something a bit darker. So well done that I could feel the cold and the dampness of the fog.
  5. Loner by Teddy Wayne. Loner is a surprising story about obsession, outcasts, sociopathy, and duplicity where everyone is being played, or playing each other. The novel takes place on a college campus and the streets of Manhattan, but is ultimately a claustrophobic, very uncomfortable puzzle that feels like Salinger and Easton-Ellis have collided.
  6. Neon Green by Margaret Wappler. Reminiscent of both the classic Twilight Zone episode The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street and Close Encounters, Wappler’s novel about a family that “wins” an alien craft that lands and remains in their backyard is more about a suburban family that unravels as the mysterious visitors quietly and mysteriously remain in their backyard. Wholly original and a family drama that manages to be creepy and suspenseful.
  7. The House of Writers by MJ Nicholls. Nicholls’ The House of Writers is a surreal mix of Ballard and Charlie Kaufman about a skyscraper that houses some of the last remaining writers in a future where authors are exiled on the fringe, only working with the benefit of donors who want custom books. Each floor holds a different genre, and a different set of perils and very weird challenges. The most original read of the year.
  8. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. Crouch’s dystopian sci-fi thriller is on the surface a standard fare time travel puzzle, but it’s incredibly smart and a page-turner from beginning to end, and it sticks the landing almost better than any book I’ve read this year outside of Drew Magary’s The Hike. Entertaining and cinematic.
  9. I Am Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. Was this the best written book of the year? Debatable. Was this the most original thriller/horror book of the year? Not particularly, but Reid’s unsettling, swift, dark tale where nothing is as it seems haunted me the whole year and it’s why it’s on this list. A new couple on the rocks visits one of their parents home and things start getting creepy.
  10. Stranded by Bracken Macleod. Like McGuire’s North Water, Stranded is a nautical tale of Arctic horror that has elements of The Thing, but becomes a mind-warping tale of dual realities. Full of tough-as-nails characters in a harrowing predicament(s), Stranded was riveting, tense and imaginative. A satisfying thriller.

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

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Grade B

Oscar-winning screenwriter (The Imitation Game) Graham Moore’s newest novel The Last Days of Night imagines a fictionalized account of an epic battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse for supremacy in the war of who invented the lightbulb. It’s a delicious premise that Moore admittedly takes liberties with, but the accuracy and pitch-perfect telling of the tale creates a world and a yarn—told from the perspective of the protagonist Paul Cravath, a novice lawyer taking on a case seemingly too vast for his inexperience—that feels so detailed and researched that you’d think you were reading non-fiction. Moore has a tendency, perhaps rightly so after winning said Oscar and developing The Last Days of Night into an upcoming feature film, to structure the story almost like a novelization of his forthcoming screenplay, but it doesn’t necessarily detract from the richness of the novel, nor does the abundance of electricity lessons. A witty, entertaining read.

The Last Days of Night: A Novel available now.

The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood

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Grade B

Benjamin Wood’s beguiling, cryptic second novel The Ecliptic explores perception and memory, and—most hauntingly—how they relate to and influence art, specifically but not limited to painting. The story is told from the voice of Elspeth (or Ellie or Knell…more on that in a moment), a Scottish painter who, like most great artists, is tormented by and in love with the act of creation. As the tale switches back and forth from her initial mentoring by established painter Jim Culvers to her introduction to the vapid London art scene in the 1960s to her fateful Atlantic voyage after a unfortunate encounter with a snobby art critic, Ellie’s rise is bookended by a decade spent on a remote Mediterranean island off of Turkey where artists secretly and anonymously (hence her given name Knell) retreat to in order to focus on their various creative endeavors. The characters are colorful, the island is mysterious, and the creative process is richly rendered and detailed. You’d think Wood was a seasoned painter with his attention to detail. The story takes a dramatic turn when a young man arrives on the island who may or may not be connected to Knell in the past. As the novel progresses, the story becomes more and more dreamlike, an experience that feels more like a trance than a mystery. The Ecliptic never takes the reader to a place that is expected and it’s all the more effective for it. Wood captures not only the idiosyncrasies and insecurities of artists but, most astutely, the voice and inner life of a young female painter in the swinging London 60s. It’s a tremendous achievement for a budding author and it marks Wood a writer and artist to watch closely as he continues to evolve.

The Ecliptic: A Novel available now.