After I read Robopocalypse by Daniel Wilson, I couldn’t really face reading something “serious” like Moby Dick, Michael Ondaatje, or, I don’t know, any of the other countless books on my shelf that I haven’t gotten around to yet. (Hello, Lorrie Moore.) So, naturally I picked up Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf. A natural progression, to be sure. This is no Twilight, teen-angsty, light-horror beach read. Duncan’s edgy prose is surprisingly literary and the well-wrought story has an infinite number of twists & turns that keep you guessing and rooting for the wolf. Jake Marlowe is just a 200-year old man who happens to turn into a wolf with an amped-up libido once a month. He’s tired of running from the goons who’ve hunted down all the other werewolves on earth, but just as he’s prepared to go out in a hail of silver bullets, his life is turned on its lupine ear and he desperately wants to stay breathing. In the end, a tale of love, survival, prejudice, and the finer points of living a life well lived.
After that I was on vacation & had my family in town, so, naturally, I read Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill – a series of linked short stories that showcase the horrible shit that people in rural Indiana do to each other. (I’m just funnin’, Mom.) As a way of introducing you to his stunning debut, Frank Bill grabs your hand & leads you into the pitch-dark, flooded basement of America where he proceeds to force your head down into the dark, pungent depths. The resultant interlaced stories are gritty, mean, awful, & flat-out brilliant. The characters of Bill’s Indiana are deplorable, miserable wretches – brawlers, drunks, meth-heads, & scumbags – yet this is what lends them such a vitality that makes them all the more real. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from them – I kept thinking “Just one more story & I’ll stop this madness,” but I never did. Ah, let’s admit it: I never wanted to. (On sale August 30. Also, visit Frank Bill’s House of Grit, where he has given me an unprecedented couple of shout-outs. A thousand thanks, Frank!)
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch was a book that I admittedly first picked up for its cover art. That’s where that element of my early musings over why we choose what we choose comes true. I’m a sucker for the ocean-scene woodcut cover art, apparently. (See We, the Drowned.) Much to my surprise, the inside of the book was far, far better than the packaging. Set in Victorian England, this is the bizarre tale of Jaffy Brown, born in the darkest, dirtiest slum of Bermondsey, London. After being nearly eaten by a tiger on the street one day…he is taken in as hired help by the tiger’s owner, Charles Jamrach, “Naturalist and Importer of Animals, Birds, and Shells.” Jamrach imports and sells exotic beasts from all corners of the world, housing them in a vast menagerie at his house in London. With his best friend Tim Linver, Jaffy eventually finds himself on an ocean voyage with Jamrach’s “finder,” Dan Rymer, in search of a dragon in the Java Sea. What they find sends them all on a much different kind of journey – one laced with insanity, unreliable narration, thirst, starvation, and the dark turns in the inner workings of the souls of men. At turns a playful, whimsical story combined with a little Heart of Darkness, Carol Birch turns in a brilliant, wholly original book that I just loved every word of.
Which brings me to today, where my secret nerd comes out: in anticipation of the release of George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, I went back (yes, back) and read book #4 in his Song of Ice & Fire series, A Feast For Crows. Then, a week later, began Dance, another 900+ pager, which I am currently still tearing through. I first encountered these books when #3 came out – so long ago that I had yet to work in a bookstore at that point. (There was a painful 5 year wait between #3 and #4, followed by another six year wait for the current book.) Nowadays, GRRM is the hottest author around – the HBO adaptation of the first book in this series, A Game of Thrones (written & produced by David Benioff) has been nominated for an Emmy and Dance sold 298,000 copies on its first day. So, where’ve you been? The best endorsement I can offer for Martin’s books is this: I have read all of the first four books twice, clocking in at somewhere in the neighborhood of 4000 pages. And I’ll read them all again.
So there you have it.