Sunday, September 21, 2014

Who's Your Daddy?

Cry Father
by Benjamin Whitmer
Gallery Books

4 out of 5 stolen Corvettes.

(I won a copy of this from a Goodreads giveaway.)

I really want Benjamin Whitmer to become a wildly popular writer, but not because he deserves to be recognized for his talent, which he does.  Instead I’ve got more selfish reasons.  I met Mr. Whitmer a few years back at Bouchercon in St. Louis and bought a copy of his book Pike (Click here to see my Goodreads review.) that he was nice enough to sign for me. Pike was a very good novel that far too few people have read.  If Mr. Whitmer turns into The Next Big Thing, then I’d have a signed first edition copy of something that I can sell on E-Bay.

So if you people would think of somebody besides yourselves for once, you could help me out (And I guess it’d be good for Benjamin Whitmer, too.) and go get  a copy of Cry Father.   In addition to doing a good deed, you’d be getting a damn good book in the process.  It’s win-win for all us!

Need another reason to read it?  How about this terrific opening line:

"Patterson Wells walks through the front door to find Chase working on a heap of crystal meth the size of his shrunken head."

Still not convinced?  OK, maybe telling you a little about the book will win you over. Patterson Wells' working life involves trying to clean up disaster zones by clearing trees after devastating storms.  His personal life is a disaster zone that he most certainly does not want to clean up that is based around his grief at the loss of his young son.  When not working, Patterson retreats to a cabin on a remote mesa of the San Luis Valley in Colorado where he can drink and write letters to his dead child.

One of Patterson’s few friends out on the mesa is Henry who is sometimes visited by his son Junior who prefers to give Henry regular ass kickings rather than Father’s Day cards.  Junior runs drugs for some people in Denver, and his idea of a good time is starting a bar fight. Patterson takes it on himself to try to stop Junior from beating on Henry, but the two men end up in an unlikely quasi-friendship based around their mutual love of self-destruction, liquor and cocaine.

Whitmer does a superior job of putting the reader inside the heads of Patterson and Junior so that both men are understandable and relatable. Patterson is the father who feels like he failed his child and Junior is a son who feels like his father failed him.  However, their behavior may be less about than the things they’ve suffered and more about the way they’re wired.  Both men have opportunities to change their lives for the better but prefer to hold onto grief and grudges even as they acknowledge the futility of them.

Another aspect that makes this book work is the atmosphere of it.  From lonely hermit cabins to polluted housing developments to dive bars with blood on their floors, Whitmer paints a backdrop of blue collar settings that are filled with tweakers, bikers, strippers and other assorted upstanding citizens.

Because the story involves drug dealers and a bit of gun play, the easy classification would be to call it a crime story, but like writers such as Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollock, Whitmer is proving himself to be someone who can have several deep layers in his depictions of the places and characters of rural America.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Magic Man

The Magician's Land

by Lev Grossman

4 out of 5 stars falling out of the sky.

For being a genre-fusing deconstruction of the fantasy novel, this sure had me on the edge on my seat.

It all started with teenage Quentin Coldwater attending a magical school, finding out the fantasy land from his favorite novels was real and then journeying there. Following various quests and a whole lotta heartbreak, Quentin is back in the real world and gives himself a very personal mission to complete even while his friends back in Fillory learn that the end of that world is very nigh.

Quentin has been a Rorschach test of a character since the beginning. Is he a spoiled ass who can never be happy or appreciate the amazing opportunity he has? Or maybe he’s a dreamer so sensitive to all the ways that the world and people in it fail us that he can’t help but constantly look for someplace better? Or is a potential hero tripped up by the expectations that his fantasy nerdom have instilled him with?

There’s some truth in all of those and no shortage of readers who couldn’t stand Quentin or his friends. I had problems with him, too, particularly in the first half of the second book where it seemed that Quentin had regressed, and I would dearly have loved to give him a slap to the back of the head.

However, I always had the feeling that Lev Grossman was taking us somewhere with Quentin, and that I couldn’t really know the guy until I knew how he turned out in the end. Here’s where that belief paid off for me with Quentin, now 30 years old, finally acting like an adult, and there’s some genuine sadness in the idea that Quentin may have finally outgrown his childish things.

While he’s more mature, he’s still a magician and one thing Quentin hasn’t lost is the wonder and possibilities of the fantastic. Now it’s just tempered with the realism of a guy who is a crusty veteran of many battles and seasoned interdimensional traveler. Grossman also shifts perspective to several other supporting characters in a variety of circumstances from an attempt to steal a magically protected object to witnessing a final apocalyptic battle in a world tearing itself apart. 

The other characters have gone through similar arcs so that they seem less like hipsters tossing around ironic comments about being in a fantasy story and more like magicians fighting for things they care about who are still capable of throwing out some one-liners about being in a fantasy story.

This final book in the trilogy pays off on a lot of levels and manages to wrap up most of the loose ends without seeming so tidy that it came in box with a bow on it. All of it feels rich and detailed, and best of all, it feels like it mattered.

Also posted at Goodreads.