This book starts off with the death of a university administrator at a retirement party. A retirement party for a staff member who isn’t there. Not physically, anyway–James Crawford is the guest of honor, but he is monitoring the events remotely. As an IT manager, he is able to watch as his boss abruptly collapses just as he is about to give a speech.

The late boss, Sean Thomas, is not exactly missed by his former subordinates. The title of the book refers to him, and this sentiment is shared widely by the staff. Nevertheless, no matter how much he may have deserved it, there’s still a great deal of suspicion surrounding his death, and when his chief lackey also turns up dead, the provost recruits Crawford to investigate.

Crawford is a likable protagonist; a southern gentleman who takes his time about things, and muses his theories on the case to his dog, Tan, and cat, delightfully called “The Black.” Usually, he does this while preparing a meal, which is described in mouth-watering detail. Sometimes, he meets with his colleagues Stan and Bobby to discuss things, and more than once, the gruff but goodhearted police officer assists him in solving the case.

The book is slow-paced, but that’s not a bad thing at all. It captures the feel of a Southern college campus perfectly, right down to how life in the university town has to be carefully planned around whether the collegiate football team is playing at home that week.

While I enjoyed the denouement, I will say that I pretty much guessed how the mystery would be resolved long before it ended. But that’s okay. This book is more about the journey than the destination, and it’s a fun one. More than a mystery, it’s really about getting to know the character of Crawford, and his reflections on life at the university.

The book even has a theme: centralization and power. This can be seen everywhere from the late Dr. Thomas’s management of the media center, which ends up being critical to the plot, to a minor detail like Crawford’s description of a popular football commentator:

“A couple of years ago, the radio station he’d been on had been bought up by one of those conglomerates that try to homogenize the stations so they all sound the same, from coast to coast. I guess the idea is eliminate any but essential staff, but that kills the local color as well.”

The university’s buying up of the surrounding properties to create a carefully-manicured off-campus “shopping experience” is another example of this. For me, the real fun of the book is hearing Crawford’s sometimes cynical, sometimes sentimental views on the place where he has spent his career.

Another striking thing about the book is the way it shows the university from the perspective of administrators. Students hardly register except as obstacles to be avoided on the drive in. Classes are scarcely mentioned; the world of college administration is a world unto itself.

While the mystery of Thomas’s death gets cleared up, the book ends on a cliffhanger introducing another mystery for Crawford to solve. I’m looking forward to the second book, and recommend this one to anybody who enjoys a nice, leisurely mystery.

Having a PhD probably sounds pretty glamorous, right? You think of a PhD as a scientist in a lab making amazing discoveries, or maybe, if they’re in humanities or social sciences, as someone sitting comfortably in a nice room full of books, poring over the Great Texts of their field.

Yeah, well; if Campus Confidential is any guide, that’s not quite how it works. The protagonist, Dr. Rowena Halley, can barely manage to scrape by after landing a one-semester job teaching Russian at a university in New Jersey. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, Rowena is named after the character in Ivanhoe. And her Marine brother, although he goes by John, is named for the titular character of that novel.)

On top of navigating all the challenges of starting a new job in a strange city, dealing with faculty politics, and the constant nuisances caused by university bureaucracy, Dr. Halley finds herself caught up in trying to help her students, many of whom are still affected by the recent suicide of a popular student in the Russian program.

This suicide is part of the mystery at the heart of the plot. The book is after all a thriller, which involves drug-dealing, mafia, and all sorts of shady goings-on that we would normally never think of associating with an institution of higher learning.

But for all the thriller elements, I don’t think of this book as a mystery in the normal sense. Because the core of the book isn’t just in finding out how the plot unfolds, but in seeing these characters interact in the context of an often hypocritical, almost always absurd university whose administrators espouse noble beliefs, but all too often betray them by their actions.

The real charm of the book is in little details, like the way Dr. Halley has to start teaching classes before her official employment starts, due to some arcane rule of Human Resources, or the way the unctuous Department Chair tries to use a simple conversation with Dr. Halley to ingratiate himself to the Provost. Like Geoffrey Cooper’s novels, this book is not just a good thriller, but a window into the politics of academia.

And then there are the characters. They all feel well-rounded and believable. Even the “villains” are human beings. All of them are revealed to have flaws–sometimes very, very bad flaws–but there are no cardboard cut-outs here. They are all fully-realized people. Even the most minor characters have backstories and personalities.

This is more than just a mystery story; it’s an astutely-observed depiction of modern academic life. I recommend it highly, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the next one.

H.R.R. Gorman has a wonderful book review site I recently discovered. I urge my readers to check it out, because Gorman reviews all sorts of books, including lots of indie titles.

Gorman has also written a novel, American Chimera. I am reviewing it here, and you will note I am doing it in a slightly different style–that is, I am following the typical format Gorman uses for reviews. I’m doing this partly for fun and partly as a respectful tribute to what is quickly becoming a favorite book review site. If the author happens to read this, I want to make it clear that this is intended purely in the spirit of an homage from a fan.

On to the book itself.

THE BOOK

American Chimera
Author: H.R.R. Gorman
2020
Available for free at the author’s blog here.

And before we even dive in to the story, I have to pause to talk about the cover. What a masterful piece this! You know, perhaps, that I love yellow/gold on book covers, and combined with the lovely Art Deco aesthetic, it made me instantly interested. That this is a science-fiction book set in the future makes me like the retro-futuristic touch all the more. For that alone, this belongs to the canon of what I call early 21st-century techno-decadent art.

NON-SPOILER REVIEW

American Chimera is set in 2087 in the aftermath of a horrific war. It combines the elements of multiple genres, including sci-fi, horror, political thriller and a healthy dose of dark comedy. It is also told in an unusual style–much of the story comes in the form of the testimony from prisoners held at a secure government facility, relating their own perspectives on what happened as a result of a remarkable discovery a couple of them made one day.

Like all dystopian sci-fi, American Chimera uses its surreal premise to explore political and philosophical issues. There are dark themes woven throughout the story: prejudice, militarism, religion, climate change and more are all addressed in these pages. Most prominent of all are the ethics of experimentation on living beings: the central premise of the story has to do with bio-engineered super soldiers, in a world where populations are already suppressed through forced sterilizations. This book takes the reader to some dark, dark places.

But it’s never done in a heavy-handed way. The characters in this book, (with one minor exception) all feel like real people. Even the ones who appear at first impossible to relate to–from the seemingly-soulless government interrogator to the central character, who is the product of a perverse experiment–all become human and relatable as they tell their stories. At times, the book has a Rashomon-like quality, as the same events are told from different perspectives, revealing different facets and details.

The plot moves along nicely and comes to a fairly satisfying conclusion. There were a few sub-plots I wished could have been tied up more neatly, mostly because I loved the characters so much I wanted to hear more about what happened to them, but nevertheless, the overall story comes to a definite resolution.

MY RATING

Ah, now this is a feature of Gorman’s reviews that I don’t use: a numeric rating system. It would be a step too far to appropriate Gorman’s Discoball Snowcone scale. There’s a fine line between paying admiring homage and shameless copycattery, but that would cross it.

And yet… the form does demand a number be assigned, even though that’s not my usual style on this blog. I struggle to reduce my feelings for a book to quantitative terms. I would give both The King in Yellow and Right Ho, Jeeves five out of five stars or whatever, and yet this does not imply that I think anyone who enjoys the one would necessarily enjoy the other.

Besides, is there any such thing as a perfect book (5/5), or a perfectly imperfect book (0/5)? I had a few minor quibbles with American Chimera (see below)–what implications should that hold for its numerical score? While every single element in the book might not be exactly what I’d choose, the overall impression is of a magisterial, brilliant, thrilling and surprisingly poignant work of genius that quickly proved impossible to put down. What score, exactly, reflects that?

Enough of this navel-gazing! “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without,” as Confucius said. As a special, one-night-only event–my rating, in classically Gambrellian terms:

5/5 Jack-o’-lanterns

🎃🎃🎃🎃🎃

SPOILER REVIEW

The story begins with two poor rural people discovering a mysterious egg that has fallen out of the back of a truck. The couple, Brett and Janie, are under the influence of some mind-altering substances, and suppose that what they’ve found is a dragon’s egg. However, it soon hatches, revealing not a dragon, but a gigantic spider–a spider that wails like a human baby.

Desperate for help, they take the creature to the local vet, who, against her better judgment, helps them treat the being they ultimately name Daenerys–Dani, for short.

Dani soon makes it clear that she has the mind of a human girl trapped inside the body of a spider. Brett and Janie do their best to raise her by painstakingly convincing the local community of her friendliness. It helps that Dani is a sweet, good-natured soul–but even that doesn’t win over everyone, such as the local preacher.

All this is told through the framing device of a government interrogator, bringing each of the witnesses in for questioning at a remote government prison in Nevada. Brett, Janie, the veterinarian, the preacher, Dani’s best friend Stacy and more are all questioned about how this remarkable series of events occurred.

It’s a critical problem, because the United States has recently emerged from a war known as the Chimera War, in which North Korea created monstrous ape-like chimera super soldiers. The war ended with a treaty banning such abominations, but of course–as always happens–governments carried out such research anyway. After all, there could always be a “chimera gap.” However, if such research became widely known, it would inevitably spark another war.

What stuck out to me most is how real the characters are. Everyone feels so believable and so interesting. And, with a few exceptions, most of them are basically good people. Sometimes they do awful things, but it feels like they are doing them because this monstrous system they are in forces them to do it.

The best illustration I can think of is a scene where Stacy’s aunt Jen is returning home from the war. Stacy and Dani have gone to greet her, but when Jen sees the spider-girl, she is horrified; knowing it’s a chimera, and realizing that after all she suffered, all her comrades died for, their own government has cynically betrayed everything they thought they were fighting for.

What’s astonishing about this part is how you can empathize with both sides–Dani, who is after all just a normal person trapped in a fiendish form, feels bad that she’s perceived as a monster. And yet it makes sense Jen would react the way she does.

All the characters are like this, leading to a world that feels incredibly well-realized and believable.

Well, I should say almost all the characters. There’s one fairly minor character, a football player at Dani and Stacy’s high school, who is kind of flat.

I understand why he’s in the story, because on his own, he’s quite funny in a sad sort of way. He’s a completely self-absorbed narcissist who can’t even manage to reveal useful information when subjected to interrogation, simply because he’s so oblivious to anything outside himself. And there’s no question, many of his lines are grimly amusing.

It’s just that he feels like a caricature. An entertaining caricature, to be sure, but in a book otherwise populated by real people, he sticks out like a sore thumb.

That’s one of two minor criticisms. The other is that the ending–while extremely effective and generally satisfying–felt a little bit rushed and didn’t tie-up all the other characters’ arcs as much as I would have liked. Don’t get me wrong–it’s not like this doesn’t come to a satisfying end, because it absolutely does, but, because all the characters were so good, I would have liked to hear more from them. But maybe that would be true no matter how long the book was.

It’s funny–I’ve written quite a bit here, and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything that makes this book so interesting. There are so many layers, I feel like I could write a whole review focusing on just one aspect of it. So many deep themes, so little time.

It’s a dark, disturbing and violent book. Not for the faint of heart, as the disclaimer at the beginning makes clear. And yet, at the same time, I think everyone should give it a try. This is one of those supremely strange but incredibly good books you find sometimes, like The Master and Margarita or Hyperlink from Hell. Above all, don’t be put off just because one character is a giant spider. I am a card-carrying arachnophobe myself, but even I ended up rooting for Dani.

And the book is free to read on the author’s blog! Let me repeat: free! Can anyone doubt the sheer love of writing an author must have, to weave such a magnificent tale and put it out into the world for free? Oh, read it already, my friends! For this is the art of storytelling in its purest form, and should not go unrecognized. If you like sci-fi, or dystopias, or horror, or political thrillers, or just plain good fiction, please read American Chimera.

What I like best about Geoffrey Cooper’s thrillers are how they provide a window into the politics of research institutions. I’ve noted this about his earlier Brad and Karen novels, Nondisclosure and Forever, and if you enjoyed those novels as much as I did, you’ll be glad to know that Bad Medicine is more of the same.

Brad is requested–more like ordered–by the university president to chair a tenure committee at a medical research Institute in Maine. There are two candidates up for tenure: one is Mark Heller, a superstar researcher who appears to have made huge strides in cancer research, the other is Carolyn Gelman, whose work, while strong, lags behind her colleague and is unpopular with the faculty to boot.

The politics of tenure committees are bad enough, but soon, Brad finds evidence that something far more serious is going on: someone is sabotaging Gelman’s research. Beginning with the destruction of test drugs and escalating to far more serious crimes, Brad and Karen once again are drawn into a criminal conspiracy.

As usual, the pace is fast and the twists are numerous, but there are still moments for the characters to stop and catch their breath, and to sample some delicious New England cuisine, the descriptions of which are highly enjoyable.

The core of the book is the relationship between Brad and Karen, which ends up being tested in a surprising way. I liked the way this was handled, too–it makes sense that what happens would put some stress on them, but it doesn’t create needless drama or tension. Sometimes authors go too far in creating fissures in a relationship, in a way that feels forced. But that didn’t happen here.

If you enjoyed the other Brad and Karen books, you’re going to like this one. Besides being a good thriller, it’s another fascinating glimpse behind the curtain at the highest levels of medical research.  As soon as I finished it, I found myself hoping to read another one soon.

[Note: this review is based on an ARC. Bad Medicine releases today, February 17, 2021.]

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.]

Cruise shipI’ve never been on a cruise. I probably never will now–I was a germaphobe even before the pandemic hit, and I’m guessing the industry won’t be as popular for the foreseeable future. But for some reason, I’ve always liked stories set aboard ships, and reading this book was a perfect way to take an imaginary cruise in the British Isles.

Sheila and Shane McShane, a couple in their mid-eighties, are worried for their daughter, Shanna, who has gone missing during a cruise. When the cruise ship line and the security forces in her last known stop are unable to locate her, the couple take it upon themselves to find her, retracing their daughter’s steps along the same cruise ship, The Celestial of the Seas.

The couple makes an absolutely wonderful pair of protagonists. Sheila is a gregarious, intuitive person, with a natural gift for reading people. She has a sort of sixth sense for a person’s “aura,” and this more than once helps her figure out people’s motives.

Shane meanwhile is a cool, logical type. An organized and precise engineer who likes everything to run like a well-oiled machine. My kind of guy. Together, they make a perfect match, and the way their skills complement each other, not to mention their easy and obvious affection, makes every step of their adventure a real treat to read.

The book is charmingly funny. One early exchange with a waiter on the ship made me laugh out loud. There are plenty of entertaining crew members and passengers aboard, from the good-hearted and unfairly mis-treated Raoul to the puckish amateur magician, Carson Quick.

Eventually, Sheila and Shane piece together what happened to their daughter, and in so doing are drawn into quite a tangle of sinister events. While the tone of the story is light for the most part, towards the end, there are some moments of legitimate tension. It’s not  ultra-gritty in the way that, say, a Carrie Rubin novel is, but it still felt high-stakes all the same.

In a note at the end, the author mentions that inspiration from the book came from a real-life family cruise. It’s easy to see–the descriptions of the ship, and locales they visit, from Dublin to Ghent, are rendered in great detail, so much so that I felt like I was there, whether “there” was the extravagant ship’s dining room or the gloomy dungeon at Blarney Castle.

This is a really fun mystery, filled with plenty of humor and some fantastic settings. I don’t know if the author is planning to do any more, but I know I’d cheerfully read another Sheila and Shane story.

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.]

 

Sweet & SourThis is a fun, humorous detective story. I say it’s a detective story rather than a mystery, because while there is some mystery-solving that goes on, it’s not like there’s a wide cast of suspects or a number of motives explored. No, this story is about the fun of reading Jade Stone’s witty narration as she tries to track down a missing young woman named Tanya.

Detective Stone is a memorable character, with a biting wit and a love for fashion. (I admit, some of the fashion terms she’ll use to describe outfits were totally new to me.) As she travels through small English villages to track down the missing woman, Detective Stone casts trenchant observations on everyone she meets. But, when she finally does discover what happened to Tanya, she’s also forced to reveal a more vulnerable side of herself.

My only real trouble with the book–besides the fact that I am completely unfamiliar with the fashion references–was that the conclusion felt a little rushed and difficult to follow. Clearly, it’s setting the stage for more, but it felt a little muddled, at least to me.

Does this book break new ground and revolutionize the genre? No, not really. But would I cheerfully read more like it? Absolutely! Stone is a memorable character, and I enjoyed her voice very much. I’d read a story narrated by this character even if there were no plot, and it was just her acerbic assessments of random people and places.

It’s funny–a couple weeks ago, I blogged about the book Calmer Girls, and how relieved I was that it didn’t have a cynical, snarky narration. And yet this book distinctly does, and I enjoyed it immensely. I think the difference is who the protagonist is–it’s jarring in YA books, when kids or teenagers are cynical and sarcastic. But for an adult detective, who has presumably seen quite a few ugly things, it seems right and proper.

I haven’t read Raymond Chandler, although I know a lot of his famous lines, and I get the sense that the really impressive thing about his detective books was the way his characters talk. Same thing here. I enjoyed this book very much, and plan to give the next installment a try.

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.