Book Review

WE WERE KINGS – UK reviews

We Were Kings featured on Kirkus’ 20 Summer Crime Novels

Great article about this summer’s crime releases. Honored to have ‘We Were Kings’ listed alongside such great novels as Michael Harvey’s ‘Brighton’ and Megan Abbot’s ‘You Will Know Me’. Cheers to J. Kingston Pierce and Kirkus Reviews.

“Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy’s initial historical grabber, Serpent in the Cold (2015), somehow escaped my radar. The same won’t happen with its equally Boston-based sequel, We Were Kings. After the icy, desolate winter that back-dropped Serpent, we’re offered here the skin-peeling heat wave of 1954, when “currents of lightning sparked and raced” across the sky without inciting rain, and Scollay Square—a once-vibrant urban quarter, fallen on seedy times—was being razed in a racket to make room for today’s Government Center. Tipped off that a ship bearing contraband intended for Irish Republican Army partisans will land at the Charlestown docks, local police lock down the harbor, only to turn up an empty vessel and an unidentified body tarred and feathered, perhaps left behind as a warning to other prospective IRA “rats.” Homicide detective Owen Mackey, worried about Beantown turning into a conduit for Ireland-bound armaments, asks his widowed cousin, Cal O’Brien—a former cop, now heading a private security outfit—to infiltrate the Irish community, see what can be learned. O’Brien, in turn, recruits his ex-heroin addict friend, piano player Dante Cooper, and together they dig among the city’s clubs, funeral parlors, and underworld dives until they expose a terrorist scheme of no small import…”

Read the full article here.

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Serpents in the Cold – paperback out tomorrow (5.24)

SERPENTS IN THE COLD paperback comes out tomorrow, May 24th.

Noir meets historical crime fiction in a dark tale of redemption during the worst winter on record.

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Critics and authors praise SERPENTS IN THE COLD:

“Brutally realistic . . . The authors give us one last, lingering look at the good-bad old days.” Marilyn Stasio, New York Times

“This is a bone-crunching, gut-wrenching novel.” Kirkus Reviews

“Serpents in the Cold is a startling work of art, a beautifully rendered, atmospheric tale of crime and punishment set in mid-twentieth century Boston.” Reed Farrel Coleman, award-winning of Robert B. Parker’s Blind Spot

“[The authors] have delivered a love-letter to a Boston that’s long gone.” Publishers Weekly

“Serpents in the Cold lovingly revisits the hardboiled noir.” Stewart O’Nan, author of West of Sunset

“Serpents in the Cold is a great addition to the canon of gritty Boston street fiction, a no-punches-pulled look at a bygone era.” Chuck Hogan, author of The Town

“Melancholy as a lonesome train whistle, beautifully written, as well as thrilling, Serpents In The Cold is a tight little gem of characterization and suspense.” Joe Lansdale, author of The Thicket

“Purdy and O’Malley resurrect the neighborhoods of 1950s Boston in faithful, brutal detail — and in language so lush and gorgeous that you’ll fall in love with reading it all over again.” Elisabeth Elo, author of North of Boston

Serpents in the Cold paperback release

In one week, the paperback of ‘Serpents in the Cold’ comes out – 5/24/16. With a sweet new cover, I hope the novel pulls in some new readers. Noir is a term thrown around a lot these days, but Thomas O’Malley and I think our novel justifies the term (or at least we hope so).

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Alan Glynn (author of Limitless) says, “There is a classic noir sensibility at work in Serpents in the Cold, complete with its uncannily rendered sense of time and place, but the novel is also suffused with a thoroughly modern understanding of loss, pain, damage and the price of loyalty. It’s not often you get to pair gritty with lyrical, but you certainly do here.”

Order here

Gravesend: Some Kind of Sad

‘Gravesend’ is a sad, downtrodden ballad to Brooklyn. No tongue-in-cheek subversive commentary about the new trendified and gentrified borough – that self-mocking shit can take a hike. This is hard life in earnest: stories of losers, chumps, and failures. The tales within come from a place where Hubert Selby and David Goodis inhabit – the no-exit school of storytelling – but Boyle makes the tragic template his own. ‘Gravesend’ is a deceptively simple novel that spits in your face, layers in a heartfelt desire of becoming somebody you’re not, whether abandoning your neighborhood in hopes of bigger and better things, or trying to make an old high school crush fall in love with you. But second chances don’t reach that far into the grid of Boyle’s Brooklyn, where certain corners, blocks and storefronts slightly change, but the characters stay the same – lives of stasis and carrying the same hand-me-down funk from one generation to the next.

And that in itself is what makes ‘Gravesend’ modern noir – the absence of full light, hope, chances of success. It’s noir wearing an oversized Yankees jersey, eating a $1 slice of corner-store pizza, one stop away from oblivion under the rusted rails of the El. And in the end, all it takes is one bad decision to lead to a lifetime of hurt.

A heartbreaking, top-shelf novel.

A Meaningful Life, L.J. Davis

There is no other novel like it.

A Meaningful Life is a seething assault on what it means to live in New York City, how a life of little substance gets absorbed into the great melting-pot mass and slowly loses its shape, its purpose, its meaning. This is urban existentialism and dread narrated with acidic reflection, brimming with metaphors that are ugly, mean-spirited, but downright hilarious in how they skewer the ruined psyche of the main character, Lowell Lake. How Davis manages to be so bleak and so damn funny at the same time is truly a marvel. He peoples his world with characters who are all unlikable. They come in and out of the narrative like demented caricatures, indifferent losers, miserable blowhards. Nobody likes living in the city yet nobody can escape.

Read this as a parody lined with razor wire, a biting commentary on gentrification, or a scalding critique of the WASP mindset, but also read it for the playful cruelty that Davis indulges his descriptions with. On every page, he’s like a cat playing with a crippled mouse. There is so much to love about this grotesque little book. Parts Bruno Schulz and Hubert Selby, Joseph Heller and Gilbert Sorrentino, this book will change the way you look at real estate and home renovation, as well as marriage and family. A major book about a minor apocalypse, this one goes to my top shelf.

Excerpts:

‘Not even the spectacle of his wife coming in the door at her usual time could rouse him from his torpor; his psyche was in limp tatters, like an old kleenex dredged up from the bottom of a purse.’

‘The little girl and an even smaller boy were seated rigidly side by side on an enormous, spavined, yellowish sofa that was much and questionably stained and which stank to high heaven with an odor that resembled a superhumanly protracted fart.’

‘He regarded the bag of shit that was about to fall on him with a kind of fatalism. He’d always known this was going to happen.’

‘The drunks next door never said a thing. Lowell had a bad moment the first time he had to pass them, but they just sat there and looked at him with a very total kind of indifference as if he were a traffic accident or a fly.’

David Goodis and his Blonde on the Street Corner

Goodis%2C+Blonde+on+the+Street+Corner%2C+LionOne of the lesser novels in the Goodis canon. Not much happens here, and while I was frustrated with its bare-boned approach, I soon realized that is the point Goodis was trying to make. ‘The Blond on the Street Corner’ is a book about stasis, boredom, big dreams gone to shit. Set in the usually downtrodden Philadelphia, four layabouts try to find work during the hard times of the Depression. But instead of writing and striving for the epic narrative — Ayn Rand’s rags-to-riches, or Steinbeck’s loving ode to the misfits with hearts of gold — Goodis weeps out this little novel (at 150 pages) that reads like a minimal discourse in loser-speak and street-corner prose. Poorly-written at points, dare I say, lazy and repetitive. But in free-wheeling spurts of eloquent desperation, there is the usual brilliance associated with Goodis. In some strange way, I imagined this as a black & white sitcom about depression-era losers, ghost-written by Sam Beckett, staged by a young John Frankenheimer, and with a set designed by a skid-row misanthrope born & bred in the tenement burbs outside of Philly. Floors are bare, walls are cracked, jackets are torn and pockets are weighed down with a penny and not much more. In the end, the cast of character’s dreams skitter and twitch, and then resume their static state. Even sex-starved blondes hang their heads in defeat, and that usually doesn’t happen in the stable of Goodis’ femme-fatales. It’s a dismal world not worth taking advantage of. The message, just give up now so it hurts less later. Read the other Goodis novels before this one (‘Street of No Return’ or ‘The Burglar’), and then give this one a chance. It’ll cement your view that Goodis is one of the most misanthropic authors out there this side of Selby Jr. and H.P. Lovecraft.

Bird Box – A Quiet Apocalypse

bird-box-by-josh-malermanTales from the Apocalypse!

These days, what was once a sub-genre is practically a genre in itself, and a lucrative one at that. Some literary darlings have succumbed to their agent’s wishes and carved out their own apocalyptic tales, while on the other end of the spectrum, starry-eyed writers continue to self-publish their end-of-the-worlds and rush them out on-demand; most of the time with cover art reminiscent of Photoshop 101 circa 1992 – clip art catastrophes. So with the proliferation of the doomsday in today’s literature, my wonder at whether the world ends with a bang, or a mere whimper, has lessened – almost to the point of me hitting the proverbial snooze button again and again. Question is, could anybody write a book that busts the mold, put me in a place where I didn’t think ‘oh wait, this is like so & so’s book’, or say to myself, ‘wow, this here aftermath rings quite familiar’.

‘Bird Box’ by Josh Malerman was a book that did otherwise. Actually, it turned me on my ass. It’s a stellar, haunting debut, sparingly told and without unnecessary flourish in style and characterization. Instead, the apocalypse here is redefined with subtlety and suggestion. Far from the ‘epic horror’ of a 1000-page roach-killer with a huge ensemble cast (‘The Stand’, ‘Swan Song’), and avoiding the pyrotechnics and balls-out hysteria of the last day, ‘Bird Box’ instead relies on the sensations of sound, memory and touch. Malerman slow-builds the tension and keeps the action restrained, so in the end, it resonates like horror should – germinating and then slowly creeping under the skin. Taking a cue from a far different apocalyptic novel, ‘The Day of the Triffids’ (John Wyndham), blindness cripples the main characters in this Michigan suburban setting, but in this case, it is self-inflicted and preventative. Blindfolds are worn. Windows are covered with black sheets. The outside world is forbidden. A walk through your neighborhood could take days. A noise at nighttime could be a feral animal, or a neighbor seeking safety. Make sure that door is double-locked and if something comes a-knocking, hold your breath and don’t make a sound.

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The evil here is the unseen – this is not horror fiction where the evil steps right up to you and repeatedly slaps you in the face. Far from it. ‘Creatures’ from an unknown dimension have infiltrated our own. And with one look, madness and suicide are the inevitable outcome. Or is it something else altogether? Something manufactured by human hands and therefore human error? With so many questions forming in the reader’s mind, author Josh Malerman holds back the reigns and diligently tosses in some suggestions of the surrounding dangers without showing/telling too much (one sequence along a river is played out in a long, gut-wrenching tease – the end result, a cold piercing stab to the spine – most brilliant). In a world blacked-out, Malerman stays true to the thematic world he’s created – the world has always been blind and now there’s no turning back.

A strange hybrid that evokes the widescreen damage of John Wyndham’s ‘The Day of the Triffids’ mixed with the claustrophobic confines of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Sundial’. Some may be eager to describe it as Cormac McCarthy doing Lovecraft. Either way, top-notch, top-shelf horror literature. More proof that horror is headed in the right direction.

Fun With Your New Head

FNWTHRNWHD1971Within the rebellious, free-wheeling canon of the SF New Wave (Spinrad, Aldiss, Ellison), I find that Thomas M. Disch’s work had a more sinisterly absurdist, yet humanistic slant than most of his peers. And while some of his stories are playful, many of them contain a dark core, a nebulous yolk, if you will. He exposes the frailties of the dirt-poor and the delusional, the maligned and the forgotten. His interest doesn’t focus on the successes of technology, nor the constructions of the operatic hard-sci-fi opus. His work is about failures in the grid, in and out of the body, and most importantly, the failures of America and its delusional inhabitants. The work in this 1970s collection touches on such disastrous themes, while not so much rooted in SF as it is in the horror genre. Saying it simple, this is damned good shit, humorous and dark.

The most memorable stories in the collection:

‘The Roaches’ – living in New York City can be quite awful for those struggling with the low payroll. Amidst tenement living, loud neighbors and a series of dead-end jobs, the main character here is befriended by a cockroach. No longer suicidal, and no longer feeling alone, she creates a telepathic bond with more and more roaches each day. And  soon they become her own horde of assassins. (David Hartwell selected this one in his fine collection, ‘The Dark Descent’ – well deserved).

‘Come to Venus Melancholy’ – a first person account of an off-world computer losing its mind to jealousy and loneliness.

‘Linda and Daniel and Spike’ – a revolting tale about an imaginary lover who impregnates a schizophrenic woman in Manhattan. Up there in the high regions of literary ‘nasties’.

‘Descending’ – a loser maxes out his credit card in a department store, only to find himself stuck on a never-ending descent on an escalator. To some consumer Hell skipping on a sad time loop? Or just a bad dream? Sam Beckett in the shopping mall; Kafka goes to Woolworths.

‘Now is Forever’ – a regeneration machine gives you anything you want, but when there’s no more desire and you can have what you want by the press of a button, events take a turn for the worst. This one reads like an apocalyptic version of ‘Groundhog Day’, the snake eating its own tail, again and again and again….

‘The City of Penetrating Light’ – the last man of Earth, an astronaut who was in space when the bombs were dropped on earth, now contemplates suicide, but he keeps getting interrupted by some stranger calling him on the phone.

‘Casablanca’ – Disch here is channeling Paul Bowles in fine fashion. While the nuclear bombs are dropped on America, an elderly American couple on holiday try to figure out what to do. As the anti-American hatred takes hold, the couple go through a series of mundane horrors that eventually turn nasty as they try to find safety. Written in 1967, this story is far from dated, and probably stings much more to the reader today than in the year it was written.

I hope some reputable publisher puts this one out in a brand new edition. Searching the web, it feels as though this collection is one step away from being completely forgotten. Disch wasn’t for everybody. But damn, to me he was something special, a glorious madman who not only had imagination, but lots of heart too.