Thousand YesteryearsA Thousand Yesteryears is a crime thriller, set in 1982. A young woman named Eve Parrish returns to her hometown of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Eve, and everyone in the town, are still haunted by the tragic collapse of the Silver Bridge 15 years before. Eve’s father and her best friend Maggie Flynn were among the victims of the collapse.

Eve is in town to deal with the estate of her recently-deceased Aunt Rosie, which includes selling the family hotel. She reunites with Caden Flynn, her girlhood crush and Maggie’s older brother, who is still haunted by survivor’s guilt that he lived through the bridge collapse when his sister did not.

Eve begins settling in town and reconnecting with old acquaintances, including Katie Lynch, a friend and confidant of her late aunt. Katie is also haunted by a lost sibling–her sister Wendy, who disappeared shortly before the bridge disaster.

Soon, strange things begin happening to Eve. Her late aunt’s home is vandalized, and soon she is plagued by threatening notes and mysterious phone calls. Caden and his brother Ryan grow fearful for Eve’s safety.

As the disturbing events escalate, the four begin to uncover strands of the past that all lead back to that horrific night in 1967 when their lives–and the whole town of Point Pleasant–were changed irrevocably.

It’s a fascinating blend of literary novel, romance, and thriller. Gradually, the thriller aspect takes over as they put the pieces together, but there are also plenty of atmospheric interludes that tell us about the characters and the strange mood that hangs over Point Pleasant. I especially enjoyed the relationship between Katie and Eve. It starts off sort of on the wrong foot, but then Eve gradually realizes that a lot of what she assumed about Katie from when they were in school isn’t true, and once she accepts that, they start working together. I really liked that.

As I mentioned, this is at least partially a crime novel, and the crimes in question are truly horrific ones. Readers should go in expecting to deal with dark subject matter. It’s actually much grimmer than the sort of story I normally like to read, but it was so well-written I just had to know where it was going, and it certainly reaches a very satisfying conclusion. I don’t often read gritty crime novels, but this is one I’ll definitely recommend for its well-paced plot, its relatable characters, and most of all its memorable, haunting setting.

Ah, okay… and there’s another reason, too. I wasn’t totally up front with you in describing this book, but most readers probably already guessed from the time and the place that there’s another element to this besides crime and romance. Because if we’re doing word association, I’m betting that for 99 out of 100 people, the words “Point Pleasant” instantly call to mind the word “Mothman.”

The legend of the Mothman is one of the most fascinating stories of modern folklore, in my opinion. For those who don’t know, the story is that, beginning in 1966, a strange winged creature was sighted repeatedly throughout Point Pleasant. Eyewitnesses describe a monstrous thing with red eyes making horrible screeching nosies.

Some people believe it was a monster, wreaking havoc. Others believe it was trying to warn people of impending disaster–specifically, the Silver Bridge disaster. John Keel’s book The Mothman Prophecies links the creature to all sorts of strange phenomena, including UFOs, “Men in Black,” and so on. The story was further popularized by the 2002 film inspired by Keel’s book.

Like the headless Hessian of the Hudson or the witches of New England, the Mothman is intimately tied to the landscape. Anyone who has been to Appalachia recognizes the mysterious and slightly otherworldly quality of the region’s hills and forests. Traveling the Ohio/West Virginia border, you can’t help but feel a sense of eerie wonder. My own opinion is, if the Mothman did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

Clair clearly did her research on the legend, as the book is filled with references to all the classic concepts of Mothman lore, from the eerie voices on the phone to the eternally ambiguous motivations of the creature. Because, oh yes; to be quite clear–the Mothman is very much a character in this book, portrayed carefully and thoroughly, yet preserving the proper degree of mystery.

If you love the Mothman legend as I do, you have to check this book out. It’s a dark, unsettling visit to that legend-shadowed river town, and the enigmatic being that reputedly haunts its lonely roads at night.

Bone HungerThis is the second book in Rubin’s Benjamin Oris series. Oris is a medical resident in Philadelphia, working as an orthopedic surgeon. His strange experiences in the series’ first entry The Bone Curse are behind him, and he is well on his way to a successful career in medicine, as well as having a pleasant domestic life, being good friends with Sophia, the mother of his young son, Maxwell.

Unfortunately, he again finds himself caught up in bizarre events when he and Sophia discover a severed leg in the park one frigid January day. It’s especially horrifying to Ben because he recognizes the limb–it belongs to a patient he himself recently performed knee surgery upon.

Once more, Ben is drawn into a macabre mystery. Soon, patients begin vanishing and more severed limbs are discovered. With the help of his friend Laurette and a forensic psychiatrist, Ben slowly pieces together an incredible theory–one that implicates a member of his own surgical team, possibly even his attending surgeon, who is also accused of ethically-questionable medical practices. Although, complicating things further, the accuser is also far from being a reliable source.

Speaking of unreliable sources, sprinkled throughout the book are chapters told from the perspective of the killer. Readers of Rubin’s earlier novel Eating Bull will be reminded of the glimpses into the twisted mind of the murderer in that novel. It’s done just as effectively here.

There’s a great cast of suspects here. Of course I kept trying to guess who it was, my suspicion shifting among 3-4 characters. In the end, none of my guesses were correct. The supporting characters in general are fantastic–I particularly liked Derek, the forensic psychiatrist, and Fisher, the chairman of orthopedic surgery and a former Army doctor. He has a penchant for creative swearing that I found very entertaining. “Holy bastard on a birthday card” is one of the more mild examples.

There are many memorable lines throughout–“No one’s willing to discuss the severed elephant in the room,” Ben muses at one point. And the pacing is great. After a gradual build-up, in the second half, the book turns into another of Rubin’s signature fast-paced, tension-filled thrillers, with a new twist coming every chapter. Mark Paxson once compared the pace of The Bone Curse to a hockey game in overtime, and the same could apply here.

And, by the way, while I don’t think it’s absolutely essential to have read The Bone Curse before reading The Bone Hunger, it will help a lot to familiarize yourself with Ben and his friends and family. Also, there are references to the events of the earlier book throughout.

All in all, this is another terrific medical thriller. I suppose a word of caution is in order for those squeamish about references to surgery, and of course, as the title suggests, the killer’s motives are based in some very unsettling desires.

I read this book in a little over one day from when I first got it. It is a fast-paced page turner, and by the second half, I just had to know what happened next. It’s a Carrie Rubin classic, full of clever lines and an intense climax delivered at breakneck speed.

[NOTE: This review is based on an ARC. The Bone Hunger releases today.]

ForeverThis is Geoffrey Cooper’s best thriller yet, and if you’ve read my reviews of Nondisclosure and The Prize, you know that’s saying something. All his books are gripping page-turners that offer fascinating glimpses into the politics of academia. Forever includes all these signature elements, but the plot is even more layered, and consequently, the mystery even more exciting to piece together.

The two lead characters from Nondisclosure, Dr. Brad Parker and investigator Karen Richmond, are back and just as likable as ever. Their relationship is one of my favorite things about this series. There is an easy give-and-take between them that makes them feel like a believable couple.

Brad is on sabbatical, working on research at a Harvard lab, when two FBI agents–one of whom is a friend of Karen’s–approach him to ask for his help solving a case of academic espionage being carried out by one of his colleagues. He’s annoyed at having to take time away from his research so soon after having his career was temporarily-but-spectacularly derailed by the events of Nondisclosure, but as a favor to his partner, he agrees to help.

In doing so, however, he and Karen find themselves once again caught up in a complicated tangle of death and double-crossing. In addition to the spy in Brad’s lab, Karen and her friend are also investigating a disturbing string of serial murders. And in the midst of all this, Brad finds himself tempted–in more ways than one–by a fellow colleague, offering him a chance of securing lucrative private funding, as well as some other benefits.

It all builds to a dramatic and satisfying climax that forces Brad and Karen to use their respective skills to the utmost if they are to have any chance of putting the pieces together and solving both the espionage and the murders.

It’s a fast-paced story, although Cooper skillfully includes some pauses for the reader to catch their breath. The descriptions of the lovely New England locales (and restaurants) that Brad visits make it easy to picture the setting. I wished I were there; albeit in some cases, under very different circumstances than the ones Brad and Karen find themselves in!

As with Cooper’s previous books, there’s a fair amount of references to real-word medical science, and it’s done in a way that is accessible for the layman. In fact, it’s so well-written that it informs as well as entertains–I learned a few things from reading it.

If you like medical thrillers, or just thrillers in general, this is for you. And be sure and read Nondisclosure too. While this book certainly can stand on its own, it’s really best if you are familiar with Brad and Karen’s previous work together.

[Note: This review is based on an ARC of this book. Forever releases today.]

 

HyperlinkThis book

This book…

I mean to say, folks: this book!

Sorry, I’m having a bit of trouble getting started. Where exactly to begin is not obvious here. Normally I give a book’s genre, and then maybe an outline of the plot.

What genre is Hyperlink from Hell? I have no idea.

The story begins with a psychiatrist named Dr. Stapledon being given a manuscript to read, care of Dr. Albert Montclair, the former director of “The Haven”– the mental institution where she works. Montclair is now himself a patient, and the manuscript is by James “Jimmie” Canning, a now-missing former patient of Montclair’s.

Jimmie was a reality TV star with good looks, a photographic memory, and attention-deficit disorder. He is also believed to be the only patient ever to have escaped The Haven.

The only way of understanding what afflicts Dr. Montclair, he tells Dr. Stapledon, is to read Jimmie’s manuscript. “To get to me,” he tells her, “you must go through him.” Desperate to help her former mentor, Dr. Stapledon begins to read.

This book-within-the-book is indescribable. A surreal, impossible tale that begins with Jimmie’s apparent death at the hands of kidnappers, and his return to Earth as a ghostly presence, along with the kidnappers, with whom he embarks on a quest to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend, Jenny.

If that sounds weird, just wait. What follows is a madcap chase to track down Rick, the man who has stolen Jenny away from Jimmie. But that hardly does it justice. There are wacky dream sequences and mile-a-minute references to characters from famous old television shows (Referenced with amusing variations on the names: “Logan’s Heroes,” “Battleship Galaxtica,” “Milligan’s Island,” and so on.) 

Have you ever been sick with a fever, done nothing but sit around watching TV, and then fallen asleep? This is like the dreams you have when that happens. 

There are also tons of puns, sex humor, bathroom humor, and recurring conversations with “Al”—a godlike presence who toys with Jimmie and his friends while simultaneously aiding them on their quest. Oh, and there’s also an invisible, smelly dog named Louie.

Lowbrow, crude humor rarely amuses me. Jokes relating to bodily functions are usually just stupid, in my opinion. But it works for me here. It’s a mixture of crude and sophisticated comedy, similar to Monty Python. That makes it… ah, well I hate to say “palatable,” but you see what I mean.

This book is very funny. But I would not classify it as a comedy; not at all. Jimmie’s manuscript might be a comedy—a very dark, absurd, existential comedy—but remember, it’s just the book-within-the-book. Dr. Stapledon’s experience of what for lack of a better term I’ll call the “real world” is the other part of the story. And it’s not a comedy at all.

Don’t let the cover or the fact that it has tons of humor fool you: this book is not light. It goes from weird to unsettling to downright disturbing—all the more so because the darkest elements are referenced subtly at first, almost in passing, gradually setting up the conclusion when we finally learn what went down at The Haven.

I have trouble with stories that involve violence against women, children, or animals. All three are referenced in this book. Not too graphically, or for extended periods, mind you, but when these and other grim things enter the narrative, they hit you right in the gut.

Okay, so this has violence and crude humor and an incredibly confusing plot. Anything else that might alienate readers? Actually, yes: thematically, the book addresses religion frequently—it might even be the core of the story. I wouldn’t say it’s anti-religion. In fact, it might even be pro-religion, in the sense that it’s pro-faith. But nevertheless, the way the “God” figure is portrayed and certain religious motifs are used might be a turn-off to religious readers.

Oh, and of course there’s swearing. Did I even need to mention that?

Normally, this is where I say something like, “fans of [x] will like this.” I can’t say that here, because I honestly have no idea what other books to compare this to. Other reviews compare it to Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, but having not read them, I don’t know how or in what way this book may be similar. The only remotely comparable book I’ve read is Richard Pastore’s The Devil and the Wolf. It was a hilarious fantasy with religious themes as well, but what makes Hyperlink different is the frenzied, sometimes almost physically exhausting pace of its weirdness.  

The closest analogue I could think of was not a book at all, but a video game: Spec Ops: The Line. I realize that sounds bizarre—how can I compare this humorous mystery novel to a military action game? Well, that’s just it: neither Spec Ops nor Hyperlink from Hell are really what they seem to be. Just as Spec Ops surprises the player by revealing that, far from being a standard military shoot-‘em-up, it’s a complex and layered examination of the psychological toll of violence, Hyperlink from Hell ultimately reveals itself to be not simply a madcap comic adventure, but a meditation on grief and coping and God and the nature of reality itself.

This book lives up to its billing as an “in(s)ane mystery” and then some. I’ve read parts of it multiple times, and there are still things that puzzle me. I discovered it thanks to Lorinda J. Taylor’s review, which I strongly suggest you read, because she does a better job analyzing certain elements than I did. 

I think everyone should buy this book and give it a try. I say that fully aware that some of you will hate it. I know I sometimes say, “This isn’t for everybody,” but that’s extra-true here. Some of you will be turned off by the crude humor. Some of you will just be like, “What the hell even is this? What does Gambrel see in this thing?” Some will make it all the way to the end and feel a bit angry, just as I did, that things didn’t resolve themselves in the way we would hope they would.

But the thing is, this book is an incredible achievement. I can’t imagine how someone could come up with and execute this idea so perfectly, and yet Moone did it. Creative people owe it to one another to be supportive, and for that reason alone, you should at least give it a try. If it seems too weird for you at first, you should probably stop, because it won’t get less weird. But if you get hooked on the ingenuity of the concept and the witty prose, as I was, you’ll feel like you’ve discovered a hidden treasure.

You know how so many forms of entertainment seem to suffer from severe copycat syndrome? That’s because the publishing industry, like many industries, tends to play it very conservative with what they decide to send to the market. Great work is rejected all the time because publishers can’t just ask Is this a good book? but instead have to ask Will it sell enough to make us a profit? And so they’re more likely to only publish books that are similar to other books that have made a profit before.

Indie publishing is changing this, but only to the extent we’re willing to reward people who take big creative risks, and Hyperlink from Hell is about as big of a creative risk as there is. The imagination and effort it must have taken to create this book is simply staggering to contemplate, and the fact that it only has eleven reviews on Amazon (all glowing, you’ll notice) is a tragedy. Yes, it’s a twisted and surreal roller-coaster that not everyone will want to take, and from which no one will emerge emotionally unscathed, but it’s also a literary masterpiece and a daring work of creative genius—yes, I said it—that deserves to be widely read and discussed.

EBTI have seriously dialed back the politics on this blog. New readers might not realize that at one time, this blog was almost purely political. But I said good-bye to all that when I realized that (a) I wasn’t changing any minds, (b) book reviews are way more popular and (c) way more fun to write. 

Today’s post, though, is going to be something of a throwback to an earlier era in the history of A Ruined Chapel by Moonlight, even though it’s a book review. Because there is no way to talk about Kevin Brennan’s novel Eternity Began Tomorrow without talking about politics. Long-time readers will recognize some of the old standbys. Maybe, if you hold up your lighters and chant, I’ll even do charisma-is-making-political-discourse-superficial. We’ll see.

But first, let me introduce EBT’s protagonist, Molly “Blazes” Bolan, a reporter for the up-and-coming San Francisco-based online news magazine Sedan Chair. The book begins with Blazes being sent to cover a rising new cultural phenomenon: a movement known as “Eternity Began Tomorrow,” led by the engaging speaker John Truthing.

Truthing’s core message is a familiar environmentalist one: we’ve got to wake up and save the planet now, before it’s too late. But Truthing is no Al Gore-type who can be mocked as an intellectual snob; he’s more like a rock star, with flash-mob style rallies and adoring followers, most of whom partake of a mysterious new drug—or vitamin, or something—called “Chillax.”

Blazes and her struggling jazz musician brother Rory head to one of Truthing’s gatherings—Blazes for her job, her brother largely for kicks. Soon, Blazes gets her story—and the promise of more in-depth scoops from Truthing if she’ll attend a big event he’s holding at his New Mexico retreat. (Calling it a “compound,” though fitting, feels like it’s leading the witness slightly.) Rory, meanwhile, becomes drawn into Truthing’s movement, though whether he genuinely is moved by the message or is simply using it as a way to meet women is ambiguous.

Blazes’ editor, BB, wants her to dig up all the dirt she can on Truthing—to make Sedan Chair famous as the publication that exposed him for the con artist that it seems he must surely be. Starting with one of Truthing’s old high school flames who reveals his true name, and culminating in a trip to Europe with her German sort-of boyfriend Niels, Blazes digs up quite a lot of troubling information on Truthing, particularly his relationship with the ominously-named Lebensraum Enterprises, the manufacturer of Chillax. 

As Blazes readies her story, Truthing prepares to make a major announcement: that he is going to run for President in the 2020 election. He intends to declare publicly in Sedan Chair, but after his interview with Blazes at his New Mexico goes sideways, his plans change rapidly.

As Blazes tries to unravel the puzzle of Truthing’s rapidly-swelling movement, Rory becomes ever-more deeply drawn into it. At the same time, Blazes’ life is further rocked by the collapse of her parents’ marriage and… well, no; I won’t spoil everything that happens in her personal life. Let’s just say the story builds to a shocking climax, with one stunning twist following another, culminating in an ending that is both as satisfying as the solution of a good mystery novel and as thought-provoking as literary fiction. I have one lingering question, but to discuss it would be too big a spoiler. So I won’t say much more about the ending, except that I kept thinking of a line from the film The Brothers Bloom: “The perfect con is one where everyone involved gets what they want.”

It’s a dark book, in many ways, but, as in his earlier novel Fascination, Brennan has a knack for clever description and witty banter. There are plenty of laughs despite the serious subject matter. Like this marvelous line from Niels (my favorite character, BTW): 

“No, darling. I’m German. We don’t sleep because we have to. We sleep to glimpse the void.”

There’s lots of wit here, even if many of the themes in the book—collapsing relationships, drug addiction, sexual assault, and, in the background, the possible extinction of humanity, are anything but light.

It’s a fast-paced story, as befits a thriller. I blazed (no pun intended) through it, and just when I thought I’d hit The Big Twist, it turned out there were still more coming. It’s a well-written page-turner with philosophical heft, which is truly an impressive feat. Go check it out.

Oh… right. The politics.

Okay, I admit it: as I read the book, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, Would a movement like the one John Truthing creates actually work? Could this really happen?

After all, we know that huge political movements can be organized around a charismatic leader. That’s been proven quite thoroughly, I think. But Truthing’s movement is a little different than, say, ultra-nationalism. For one, it concerns everyone on Earth, so it inherently has wider appeal than nationalism does. It’s also effectively a doomsday cult—except for the fact that this doomsday cult really has a lot of evidence for why the end actually might be near.

My gut feeling is that, yes, something like this actually could happen. Brennan got mob psychology pretty much right. Again, I’m veering perilously close to the Zone of the Spoilers, but I think EBT’s treatment of how a popular movement evolves and becomes almost like a new political party would earn the much-coveted approval of Ruined Chapel’s favorite social scientist, Max Weber. (And no, I don’t care that he will have been dead for a hundred years this June, he’s still my go-to authority for most political questions.)

Of course, there is one issue with the book that Brennan had no control over, and Blazes herself acknowledges throughout: that is, after everything that has gone down over the past few years, John Truthing, his fanatical followers, the sinister corporation, etc. don’t feel that extreme or dire. 

I wrote a somewhat-humorous poem about this a few years ago, but it really is true that writing good thrillers is hard these days because it’s tough to come up with something that’s more outlandish than reality. Truth has long been reputed stranger than fiction, but lately, truth has become stranger than a fever dream after watching an Oliver Stone film marathon. 

But that’s not Brennan’s fault. And the direction that he takes the story, especially in the last quarter or so of the book, raise compelling and relevant questions about human psychology—both individual and collective. How far will someone go for a cause? And why do they feel the need to have a cause in the first place?

Eternity Began Tomorrow is a timely, topical thriller that will make you think. I recommend reading it sooner rather than later, since most of the action takes place in late 2019-early 2020.

[UPDATE: It turns out that Eternity Began Tomorrow is free on Kindle today, tomorrow and Sunday, 1/31-2/2, so if my review intrigues you, this is a good chance to check it out.]

thekitchenbrigade_ecoverI admit to suffering from dystopia fatigue. I love the classics of the genre, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the last decade has seen so many bleak future/post-apocalyptic/totalitarian government-type stories that it takes a lot for me to pick one up. But after reading Lydia Schoch’s interview of Laurie Boris, I had to give The Kitchen Brigade a shot. And within pages, it won me over.

The Kitchen Brigade is set in 2049, in the remnants of a United States torn by civil war and occupied by Russian forces. Valerie, the daughter of the former U.S. Secretary of State, has been captured by the Russians and forced to work in a kitchen, serving a Russian general and his officers. 

All the women serving in the kitchen are assigned numbers instead of names. Valerie is Three. Gradually, she gets to know the other women, all of whom came there by different routes, and who have different perspectives on the situation; from the foul-mouthed but good-natured Four to the aggressively unpleasant Two, who resents Three and sees her as a threat to her relationship with the main chef, the tough-but-fair Svetlana.

As Valerie gains the respect of Svetlana and the brigade (with the exception of Two) she also begins to realize that the situation is far less stable than it appears, and soon discovers that there are multiple factions jockeying for power, among both the Americans and the Russians, and, as in any good thriller, almost everyone has a hidden agenda.

The prose is clean and the dialogue witty—especially Four, who I think deserves her own spin-off story. Her scenes were a real highlight.

I also loved how Boris gradually tells us the backstory of how the United States collapsed—it’s done in bits and pieces; scraps of information picked up here and there, but at a certain point, it becomes very clear not only what happened, but just how disturbingly plausible the seemingly-unthinkable scenario really is. It’s an all-too-believable vision of how a cyberwar could work.

A few minor gripes: there were a few times when it was hard for me to keep track of where all the characters were during the climactic sequence. It was effective, don’t get me wrong, but I still felt a little confused. It’s a not a big flaw, though; and it could just be that I haven’t read enough thrillers to get the hang of it.

Also–and I’ll be vague here rather than risk giving too much away–there’s one scene where people are oddly reluctant to kill a particularly vile character. Boris did a really good job making this character unlikable, and provided realistic motivation for why the character behaves the way that they do, so major props for that. But this person is so unrelentingly hostile, it’s hard to feel any sympathy, although some characters do anyway.

All in all, this was a very well-crafted dystopia. And Boris has a real knack for describing the elegant dishes the brigade prepares over the course of the book. I probably haven’t given the food preparation scenes their due in this review, because I’m not much of a gourmet myself, but even I could tell they were well-done. (No pun intended.)

Earlier this year, I reviewed the novella Number Seven and the Life Left Behind, by Mayumi Hirtzel. This is another tale of espionage, intrigue, nefarious Russian agents, and people with numbers instead of names. As a fan of old Cold War spy stories like Secret Agent, it’s pretty exciting to me that people are telling stories like this again. If you liked Number Seven, I predict you will also enjoy the Kitchen Brigade. And if, like I was, you’re reluctant to check out another dystopian story, just know that this doesn’t feel like a random tyrant has been inexplicably installed, as is so often the case in dystopian fiction, but is carefully thought-out and well-described. Give it a try.

NondisclosureNondisclosure is a terrific, fast-paced thriller. When a student at Boston Technological Institute is assaulted, Dr. Brad Parker and investigator Karen Richmond are assigned to work together to find the perpetrator. But what they uncover is a confusing, sometimes seemingly contradictory set of facts. When the crimes escalate further, they find themselves struggling to unravel a web of corruption concealed by the political machinations of academia.

As is generally the case when I review thrillers, I’ll refrain from discussing too much of the plot, other than to say it is well-constructed and fast-moving. Fans of Cooper’s first novel The Prize will instantly recognize and enjoy the same engrossing writing style. The two lead characters are both very likable, and the story takes them on plenty of twists and turns along the way.

I highly recommend this book to fans of thrillers–not just medical ones, although there is plenty of interesting medical science interwoven with the plot. But even someone like me, with next to no knowledge of medicine, chemistry etc. will appreciate this gripping tale. 

And that’s not even the best part. What really stands out about the book is its theme. It shines a light on how corruption can happen even in institutions that we normally think of as forthright, honorable, and respectable. As the old adage says, “power corrupts,” and this is no less true of power wielded by people in science and education than anyone else. This is best illustrated by Richmond’s line to Dr. Parker: “You’ve got a lot to learn about how big institutions work. Why do you think universities have their own police forces?”

A word about the book’s subject matter: As many readers know, I don’t like reading stories that involve violence against women, and  so I was a little nervous going into this. But while Nondisclosure does indeed contain some very dark scenes of exactly that, Cooper avoids making it even remotely lurid or sensational, unlike many thrillers. It is not played for shock value, but simply as a horrible consequence of what can happen when people entrusted with moral authority choose to protect themselves and their own interests instead of doing their duty.

[Note: This review is based on an ARC of this book. Nondisclosure releases on July 15, 2019, but you can pre-order it now.]

fireMy Father’s Fire is a well-constructed and clever mystery novelette about a man uncovering dark secrets from his family’s past. If you’re already familiar with Phillip McCollum, all I need to say is that this is a classic example of his work: a fast-paced story which packs a lot of developed characters and plot into a fun and readable package. Despite the short length, there’s plenty of atmosphere, backstory, and conflict here.

If you’re new to McCollum’s work, this is the perfect introduction to his style. Check it out, and I’ll wager you’ll want to pick up his collection of 52 short stories as soon as you finish.

I was just thinking the other day about how much fun these kinds of “bite-sized” tales–what Mark Paxson calls “long short stories”–are, both for readers and writers. For readers, you can gobble them up in a single reading session. And for writers, you get the pleasure of telling a tale and seeing readers’ reactions without having to toil with little or no feedback for the length of time it takes to write a novel.

51DyswFSq-LThere are a couple of small things to note before I get to the substantive part of this review. First, there’s a smattering of typos and spelling errors in this book. I know firsthand that this is practically inevitable in indie books–my loyal readers alerted me to some in my own work when it was first published. But I know it’s something that will bother some people.

The book also hit a pet peeve of mine: the protagonist and narrator of the story is a former U.S. Army Ranger. At one point, he refers to a weapon’s “clip” when he obviously means its magazine. You might excuse this by saying (a) this is a pretty common mistake and (b) sometimes soldiers say “clip” simply because it’s shorter and easier to bark in battle than the three whole syllables of “magazine”. These are fair points, but it still grated on me. (To be fair, the rest of the descriptions of weaponry are quite accurate and logical.)

Now that’s out of the way and I can tell you how much I enjoyed this book, because it really is terrific. The protagonist’s voice is instantly engaging, and his sardonic humor fits the grim circumstance in which he finds himself–a brutal war between rival drug gangs in Mexico.

Make no mistake; this book is extremely dark. I praised Goats’s mystery novel Houses on the Sand for its memorable blend of witty prose and violent subject matter, but this book takes it to another level. The protagonist gets plenty of opportunities for gallows humor–as well as gun humor, knife humor, helicopter gunship humor and so on; because implements of death abound in these pages, and they are put to use frequently.

The style reminds me a bit of Chris Avellone, whose name long-time readers may recognize as one I always mention when discussing all-time favorite fiction writers. Like many an Avellone plot, On the Other Side of the River involves someone trying to play rival gangster factions against one another, and the prose consists of dark musings on mortality and morality, written with tremendous wit.

And the pacing! The pacing is incredible. It’s fast, but not too fast, and there wasn’t a moment when I felt bored. Even during the relative “lulls” in the story, there was tons of tension as I wondered what would happen next. A few times, I got so nervous that I skipped ahead a page or two to see how the situation would be resolved. I just couldn’t take the suspense. I do most of my reading while I’m on the bus to and from work, and when I was reading this I’d get so absorbed I nearly missed my stop more than once.

It’s true that part of this is due to my personality as a reader. I’ve come to realize that I’m incredibly easy to manipulate when reading fiction. Put somebody in danger, and I just have to know how it works out, even if it seems a bit contrived. And if it’s a woman, then I’m really hopeless; the woman-in-peril trope gets me every time.

What’s funny is, I was thinking about what an easily-manipulated reader I am when this very topic came up in the book itself. One character mentions to another how he feels about being manipulated by movies. It was an interesting meta-moment. Incidentally, this scene reminds me of another thing I loved about the book: the repeated references to classic films, including two of my favorites, Lawrence of Arabia and Jason and the Argonauts.

It’s the little touches like this that make On the Other Side of the River so engaging. Goats is great at going the extra mile to really lavish detail on small things. I’m rather in awe of his skill at this, actually, because I’ve often been guilty of impatience in my writing. I don’t want to spoil anything here, but I’ll give a brief and fittingly macabre example of what makes his writing so good: there’s a scene in this book where some people are in a confined space and moving around a corpse that’s lying on the ground. If I had written this scene, I would have treated the corpse as merely an obstacle to be mentioned briefly and then dealt with only as the living characters needed to navigate around it.

But Goats lavishes more attention on it than just treating the deceased character as part of the scenery–he has his narrator describe him almost as a character in his own right. And that adds something to the story–granted, it’s something very grim, but it’s important to give the reader these details. “Meat on the bones of the story,” as my friend Patrick Prescott would say. (And see; didn’t I tell you this thing is dark?)

This is one gripping page-turner, and I say that as someone who normally doesn’t go in for those types of books. This one worked for me; and all the double-crosses (and triple-crosses, and etc.) kept me guessing right up until the last page as to who was good, who was bad, and how it would all end up.

So how does it all end up, you ask? Well, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that! Even after I thought I was ready for anything after all the twists that had come before, the ending still surprised me, and while it’s not the direction I thought it would go, it absolutely works in the moment. I don’t want to say any more than that, but just know that it’s the kind of ending that you can talk about at length with your friends after you all read it.

And this brings me to an important point, which is that people need to read it. Seriously, according to the author himself, this is his least popular book, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. I would have expected it to be a great hit–it grabs you from the first page and just keeps building the tension from there. I could easily see this being made into a big-budget movie; it’s not like Hollywood has any qualms about violence or dark plots.

Oh well, the book’s usually better than the movie anyway. So I suggest you “get in on the ground floor”, as they say, and check this one out before it becomes such a hit that some studio snaps it up and makes a film of it. They might be able to do the dialogue and fight scenes all right, but they’ll never be able to capture Goats’s witty descriptions on the big screen.