nothin' but the good stuff, books-wise

I went back through my book review notebooks and pulled a few reviews for books I gave 4 stars, at random. By no means a complete list, and I think I already put reviews for some of these up already a while back, but I already typed them up again before I remembered that, so, what the hell, maybe somebody missed them the first time. I don't know if history really repeats itself, but sometimes it sho' do rhyme.
Anyway, if you run across these in a used bookstore somewhere, they're well worth yer bucks.

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
- Walter Mosley (WSP, 1998)
Absolutely excellent short story collection that adds up to what is basically a loosely-jointed episodic novel about dirt-poor black ex-con Socrates Fortlow, who's strong enough to break rocks with his bare hands and still sees himself as an evil man, although he has more heart than just about any character you're likely to find in crime lit. While fighting his tendency toward violence, Socrates makes the most of a heartbreakingly hopeless existence and manages to help out a street kid, a dog, a dying friend, and sometimes even himself. This book may just tear you up at certain points, and will definitely make you less quick to dismiss any homeless bum you see standing on the corner. Powerful and thought-provoking, strips truth town to its core. Very highly recommended.

And The Ass Saw The Angel
- Nick Cave (Harper 1992)
This is what might happen if Flannery O'Connor had tried to write Wise Blood during a bad acid trip. Weird pseudo-punk musician Nick Cave (of The Birthday Party and Bad Seeds fame) mixed some ink with pure rotgut moonshine to write this baby, I think, but whatever he did, this is some potent 100-proof allegorical stuff and some great, original writing. Starting with his birth (where he lay in a box screaming "tit!" while listening to the flies eat his stillborn brother) through his Christ-like coming of age, this is the narrative of Euchrid Eucrow, the shunned mute son of a drunken hog of a mother and a crazed father who traps and maims animals so he can watch them fight in an arena he made out of a water tank. Euchrid grows up confused and scornful of the primitive backwoods cretins around him, all Ukulites (a bizarre Christian sect) who find the mute Euchrid almost demonic. In his alienation, Euchrid becomes a demented messiah who may destroy them all if he doesn't pay for their sins instead. Very weird but also very brilliant -- one of those books that you know you're gonna want to read again and that will become a classic some day if it gets the attention it deserves.

The Blonde on the Street Corner
- David Goodis (1954)
One heckuva downer, just like you'd expect from Goodis. A bunch of unemployed thirty-something losers with big dreams hang out on street corners, buying cigarettes and vending-machine nuts with the spare change their parents give them, call wrong numbers in hopes of putting together a party, and try to pass the time while they watch their hopes go down the drain. Depressing, but true and full of godly-great writing.

Choice of Evil - Andrew Vachss (Knopf, 1999)
The thickest Burke novel at the time also proves to be one of the best. After being rousted from his old dwelling, Burke has to get his life back together while hunting down a master-killer (reminiscent of notorious death-machine Wesley, but Wesley's dead... right?) who targets people who harm homosexuals. Burke has no problem with gay-bashers being wasted, but some members of the homosexual community want to make sure their avenger gets away safely. Burke learns that the guy may have a different agenda entirely, however. Yet another welcome addition to the Burke canon, and, like all of them, very much recommended. In a weird way, reading Burke novels are like hanging out with some very cool (yet shady) friends... which is always a good thing, even if you have to follow 'em into some pretty dark places.

Geek Love
- Katherine Dunn (Knopf, 1989)
Weirdly excellent novel about a carnival family who, through drugs, insecticides, and other things given to the pregnant wife of the family, creates their own freakshow attractions. Narrated by bald albino dwarf Olympia, this follows the bizarre rise and fall of her brother Arturo, the Aqua Boy, and her Siamese-twin sisters and telekinetic brother. Arturo, who is limbless, starts a religion that inspires followers to have their arms and legs amputated to achieve earthly bliss. Meanwhile, the twins are becoming prostitutes, and Olympia is planning an immaculate incestuous birth. Some chapters are set in the past and others in the present, where Olympia tries to protect her daughter from a woman who wants to nullify her freakishness... when Olympia knows that freakishness is true salvation. A Flannery O'Connor-esque vision from way left of normal, and definitely a masterpiece of strangeness.

Harvest Home - Thomas Tryon (Knopf, 1973)
Very well-written gothic horror in which a painter and his family move to a small New England town where people take their corn-planting seriously and have a lot of rituals connected with it... rituals better left unexplored by outsiders. This appears to have been an inspiration for Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn,” which spawned way too many movies, but this was turned into a two-night miniseries in 1978 starring Bette Davis, and that ought to be on DVD. The movie’s good but the book’s even better, since Tyron is a master of technique; this should be carefully read by anyone who wants to write horror. Top notch.

The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson (1959)
A mousey, self-absorbed dishrag of a woman, Eleanor, is invited by a professor to join a group of people who are studying the infamous Hill House, a house so haunted, evil, and "not sane" that nobody'll live within a mile of it, and few are willing to spend more than a few daylight hours there, much less a night. The geometry of the floorplan is all wrong, there are cold spots, and something unseen knocks and writes on the walls, mumbles insanely and ceaselessly in empty rooms, and holds hands with Eleanor in the dark... and worst of all it seems to want her. And Eleanor's not too damn stable in the first place -- she's hanging on to sanity by her fingernails and the spirit of Hill House is tugging on her ankles. This is a total classic that deserves its reputation (hell, the opening paragraphs alone cemented it as one of the all-time best horror novels on the strength of their prose alone). The writing is genius (although a bit odd -- Eleanor is such a freak) and this is essential reading for any serious student of supernatural (or psychological) fiction.

A Hell of a Woman - Jim Thompson (1954)
One of the more hard-boiled Thompson crime novels, this is the story of a ten-time loser door-to-door salesman who almost murders his way to a hundred grand when he hooks up with a poor, frightened girl who was being pimped out for chump change by the old lady she was living with. But the best laid plans of mice and men always go straight to Hell in a Thompson novel, and that's exactly what happens to the ruthlessly psychopathic tough guy who narrates this novel. Too damn cool and brutal, picture it in black and white.

Katie - Michael McDowell (Avon, 1982)
Riveting suspense that was apparently McDowell's take on "What if Charles Dickens had written something really vicious?" In the years following the Civil War, a poverty-stricken girl named Philomela Drax has amazing runs of both good and bad fortune as she comes into money (always the result of a tragedy) and then has it stolen from her, repeatedly. All the while, she and the Slapes -- a family of extremely violent degenerates who kill all Philo's friends and rob her -- track each other through New York and Philadelphia. A lot of the coincidences and twists of fate are pretty far-fetched -- just like in a Dickens-type novel -- but that’s part of the fun. And the violence is intense and nasty, a McDowell trademark. Very good.

The Mailman - Bentley Little (Signet, 1991)
Another excellent and unique novel from the best days of one of the most original horror writers going. After the suicide of a beloved local postman, a new, sinister mailman comes to town. At first it's nice, because nobody gets bills or junk mail anymore, just letters from old friends. But pretty soon nasty mail starts coming -- hate mail that pits everyone in town against each other, pornographic and/or snuff photos, even body parts. Everyone knows the evil mailman is behind it all, but no one is able to prove it, even when people start dying. Very strange horror that's actually scary (the mailman is incredibly malevolent and apparently unstoppable) and has some nightmarish scenes that will unsettle you for days afterward. Strong stuff, highly recommended if you want the crap scared out of you.

The Maltese Falcon
- Dashiell Hammett
Classic hardboiled detective fiction by the guy who originated it. While no one will ever do it better than Mickey Spillane in my book, it's pretty safe to say that Sam Spade is probably the father of Mike Hammer. He proves to be quite a nasty and disagreeable badass as he deals (harshly) with some sinister bad guys trying to recover a bird statue. As great as the movie is, you really need to read the book to see what all the fuss is about.

Mucho Mojo - Joe R. Lansdale (Mysterious Press, 1994)
Compulsively readable mystery-type thang about two best friends - Hap, a straight white guy, and Leonard, a gay black guy -- who move into the black side of town and discover there's the remains of a child buried under Leo's uncle's house, wrapped in kiddie porn. They do a little investigating on their own to discover what really happened. Cool characterizations and incredible writing -- the kind of can't-put-down book that makes you want to write stuff yourself. Very much recommended.

Pig - Kenneth Cook (Penguin, 1980)
Very cool, grittily-realistic novel about a conservationist hunting a giant, malevolent boar... who may also be hunting him. Kinda like Jaws set in the Australian outback. Like everything else I've ever read by Kenneth Cook, this is seriously great stuff and an excellent piece of work. Grab this if you can manage to find it anywhere; after I read a few of Cook's novels I had to go on a big search to find used copies from Australia, and they're getting pricey nowdays.

Safe House - Andrew Vachss (Knopf, 1998) Yet another excellent Burke novel, with Burke this time getting in hot water while coming down on some scumbags who stalk women. Fans won't be disappointed, and first-timers will become fans. Snag everything the man writes.

Savage - Richard Laymon (St. Martin's, 1994)
Anything this guy writes gets big thumbs-up from me. Blend some Huck Finn-style narrative with sicko psycho horror and you might get this. Young Trevor Bentley, a British lad living in 1888, just so happens to be hiding under the bed when Jack the Ripper butchers Mary Kelly on it, and in stopping Jack from snuffing another one, he slices Jack's nose off. In the chase that ensues they both end up on a boat to America. Then Trevor becomes a gunslinger and chases Jack through the wild west. Trust me, it's not as goofy as it sounds. Highly entertaining and well-written horror/adventure/Western crossover.

Song of Kali - Dan Simmons (Tor, 1985)
A guy who works for a literary magazine is sent to Calcutta, India, with his wife and infant daughter in order to pick up the manuscript of an epic poem by famed Bengal poet, M. Das, who was supposed to have died years before. In trying to meet the enigmatic poet, he runs afoul of a ruthless cult which worships Kali, goddess of death and destruction, and he lives to regret it... and that's putting it mildly. The atmosphere in this book is like no other: it breathes down your neck and has some serious halitosis. I know he's describing Calcutta, but it may as well be the Luciferian kingdom of Dis -- it's truly a hellish travelogue, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Indian Board of Tourism tried to ban this sucker. You get a strong urge to take a long hot shower after reading this book, because the detail is so rich and Simmons is dragging you kicking and screaming through one of the nastiest places on Earth. I mean, you could probably get germs just from reading this -- do recommendations come any higher? So get a tetanus shot and seek this out, because it's a must if you dig quality horror.

Son of the Endless Night - John Farris (Tor, 1984)
Veteran horror writer Farris turns out some truly unnerving stuff in this Exorcist-like tale of a man who kills his girlfriend because he's possessed by Zarach', the brother of Lucifer. He's brought to trial pleading Not Guilty By Reason of Demonic Possession. O' course, this is almost laughed out of court... until he proves it. Well-written, hardcore, no-fucking-around horror, a must for anybody into demonic possession stories.

The Store - Bentley Little (Signet , 1998)
Oh, I betcha Wal-Mart doesn't have the balls to stock this book. A small town is invaded by The Store, an all-powerful discount chain store that people are all excited about at first, since it'll bring in new jobs and stock new items, cheap. But soon The Store is bankrupting all the locally-owned businesses because they can't compete, and if the small businessmen take too long to knuckle under, they may get a visit from The Night Managers -- pale zombie-like clones dressed in black and carrying knives. And The Store undermines the moral fiber of the town with the sleazy things it sells -- there are M-80 firecrackers in the toy department, racist video games in electronics, and kiddie-porn snuff films in the videos. And the employees are forced to join The Store's strange cult, worshipping the founder and taking part in demented, sadistic rituals. One man who doesn't like The Store, a stand-up guy named Bill Davis, sees his town going to Hell as The Store gradually takes over control of the local government, the police department, and everything else. To make matters worse, his two daughters both work for The Store and The Store doesn't allow employees to quit. Then they offer bill a Store of his own... Absolutely brilliant, and the more you know about Wal-Mart the more satire you'll find (although it works just fine as a plain ol' horror novel, too).

Sympathy For The Devil - Kent Anderson (1987)
The descriptive level of the writing in this Vietnam novel beats just about anything I've ever read. The vividness is truly incredible and I am in awe at the skill displayed. You can see, smell, and hear everything exactly, like virtual reality; it's quite an achievement. The plot itself is pretty loose, just following a guy named Hanson through Vietnam as he becomes fit for nothing but war, learning to survive and damning himself because of it. The novel is episodic and sometimes hard to keep track of (it's semi-hallucinogenic), but that's okay; the strength is in capturing the moment and the experience, and I've never seen a novel do it better.

Tietam Brown - Mick Foley (Knopf, 2003)
Sometimes-crude but always-powerful coming-of-age story is professional wrestler Mick Foley’s first novel, after proving he could write (and damn well, too) with his first two autobiographies. Turns out his skills work even better in fiction, because this is a can’t-put-it-down book that manages to be sweetly-sentimental and mean-spirited, moral and obscene, and romantic and hateful all at the same time. Teenager Anteitam “Andy” Brown is a smart but not terribly popular high school kid who’s tortured by mean coaches and steroid-jock classmates, but much-beloved by the Christian-but-horny head cheerleader. Andy’s dad, Tietam, is an apparently-insane maniac who’s been away most of Andy’s life and seems to be much more complex than his womanizing/exercising-while-naked redneck surface persona would lead one to believe. Turns out he used to be a very dangerous wrestler (a “shooter”) and is a secret scholar... and his emotional life is maybe even more secretive and complex, able to love every strongly, but with a love that can snap and turn into mind-boggling hate. Andy has to try to grow up in this completely-insane, contradictory world where he can never rely on anything, and try not to turn into his father while he does it. Often funny, often extremely nasty, and very surprising, both in what happens in the storyline (like wrestling, it’s not always the most probable stuff, but it works in the context of the novel) and in the skill Foley shows in a first novel. Here’s hoping he turns out many more.

War of the Rats - David L. Robbins (Bantam, 1999)
Excellent war novel about two top snipers - the best the Russian and German armies have -- stalking each other through the rubble during the hellish battle of Stalingrad. The Russian sniper (known as "the Hare") teaches Russian soldiers (including a girl from New York) to be snipers, while the German grooms a young German soldier as his assistant. As the two snipers hunt each other, they become symbolic of the struggle for Stalingrad and war in general. Countries may clash, but in the end it's individual against individual; in the end, it's personal. Very well-written and based on historic fact, and you'll get a strong portrait of the hell (for both sides) that was Stalingrad. You'll have a battle of your own if you try to put it down.

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
Dark classic Gothic romance that defies categorization. It's a ghost story where there may not be ghosts, a vampire story with no blood-drinking, and a love story where everyone hates each other. Essentially, it's a sadomasochistic love story that's more true to the form than a DeSade novel, even though there's no sex of any kind. It's the tale of the classic dysfunctional duo, misanthropic bastard Heathcliff and manipulative vindictive witch Catherine, and their love so intense that it's the worst kind of hate. One of those classics that I put off reading for years, only to kick myself when I finally did read it, because I could have been re-reading it instead. Very, very good.

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