Friday Reviews: Purgatory by Ken Bruen

Purgatory by Ken BruenPurgatory

Ken Bruen

Jack Taylor has been through hell. He’s had fingers chopped off. He’s going deaf. Alcohol and Xanax threaten to do him in despite fits of sobriety. He’s even had a run-in with the Devil. or so he thinks.

And now, someone calling themselves C33 is pretending to be Dexter, a serial killer who targets bad guys. And C33, who, in certain POV scenes, freely admits to being a psychopath, wants Jack to play a game. Jack doesn’t bite. He’s come into some money and, in the wake of the Celtic Tiger’s collapse, just wants to sit out the austerity that has come to Galway. But Zen pal Stewart wants to take out C33. So does Ridge, Jack’s cop friend who, despite being a lesbian on a male-dominated force, has made sergeant. Meanwhile, a tech mogul named Reardon comes to Galway intent on buying and squandering the city. With him comes his assistant, Kelly, an American woman who takes a shine to Jack.

Bruen paints a bleak picture of Ireland as it reals from the euro crisis during the Great Recession. Gone is the vibrant, booming Galway of previous Taylor books. In its place, a city of people worried about losing their homes and with a seething hatred of their government. Not the British government. The Irish government.

Ridge and Stewart have major scenes here and are POV characters, as is the mysterious C33. The transitions are sometimes confusing as Jack’s scenes don’t always start with “I” in the first few lines. However, spiritual co-author of this book seems to be Oscar Wilde. Kelly, Jack, and even Stewart constantly quote or talk about him. Even C33 is a Wilde reference, the number of the playwright’s cell at Reading Gaol.

As with the previous Taylors, I keep wondering how much more Jack can endure. This one has an ending almost as harrowing and sudden as The Dramatist.

The Compleat Winter: And on the Seventh Day…

cover-smallThe Compleat Winter kicks off with a story set in the same fictional city as the still-fermenting Holland Bay takes place. The decision to set the story there actually came last. The incident that inspired it took place on a frigid January morning in Cincinnati.

As I recount in the print version, I had gone into work on Saturday morning to clear my plate without the phone ringing constantly. It was only 12 degrees F outside when I left. My car was in the Fountain Square garage, which is best accessed through the Westin Hotel on Fifth Street. So I braved the cold and made my way from the late, lamented Skywalk to the Westin. Inexplicably, a street corner preacher was out, shouting at the few people venturing out downtown.

Under my arm was American Skin by Ken Bruen. I generally ignore the street corner preachers, and I have to question the sanity of someone who would go out in such weather – hatless and gloveless, no less – to deliver a message to a sparse audience more interested in getting to the next warm space than any street corner theater.

Well, he seemed to realize he had an small, apathetic audience, which made me easy to spot. “You! With the red book! You’re reading the wrong book!”

In the story (which takes place on a city square that looks suspiciously like Cleveland’s Public Square), the unnamed narrator loses his cool, walks over to the preacher, and whacks him in the face with his book, its author named for the protagonist in American Skin. In reality, I saluted him the way many of us salute those who show the courage to cut us off in traffic. I wanted to go back and take a swipe at him, but 1.) I’m not violent, 2.) I’m not anti-religious, just anti-dogma, and 3.) there was a mounted cop trotting up the street anyway.

This episode would probably have been little more than a story to tell my wife or over a few beers. But as I sat in the Westin’s lobby restaurant drinking Starbucks and restoring the circulation to my limbs, it bugged me. I was pretty good friends with Ken and knew his history. I also thought it was pretty arrogant of the man to suggest that, since I wasn’t a dogmatic asshole, that I was somehow bad. Sitting at the table, I decided it was going to become a short story. On the way to the car, it was going to end differently. Getting on the freeway home, the book’s name came to me, something someone had said to me once in much warmer situation, with the name of Ken’s main character fixing itself to the fictional author’s name. I had Stephen Blake’s backstory by the time I got home. When I sat down to write, I already decided it would be set in the same city as Holland Bay, becoming an exercise in fleshing out the city.

US – Print | Kindle
UK – Print | Kindle
Canada – Kindle
Australia – Kindle

All Kindle editions my books and collections are now on sale for 99 cents until the end of January. Get yourself some Winter here.

Thursday Reviews: The Book Of Virtue by Ken Bruen; The Ballad Of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde; The Waste Lands by Stephen King

The Book of Virtue

Ken Bruen

I always start the year off with a Ken Bruen book. This year, I started with a short story issued by Mysterious Press. The story is about a young man in New York who is never named but narrates the story. His father has died, which thrills him beyond belief. They did not have the best relationship. All his father leaves him is a book with one word on the cover: “Virtue.” Inside, his father had written several poetic quotes in an attempt to educate himself. Our protag is not impressed. He has more important things to worry about, like running the Khe Sanh Club and banging his boss’s mistress Cici. The time is approaching when he and Cici need to take down their boss, Brady. But as he reads the surprisingly sage advice of his dead father, he finds his life spiraling out of control.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Oscar Wilde

This narrative poem was written anonymously by Wilde while he served time in Reading Prison for homosexuality. (Yeah. That used to be a crime. And America was actually the more forward thinking country on the topic back then.) During his sentence, he witnessed the hanging of a man convicted of murdering his wife. During his stay on death row, the man maintained a rather jaunty attitude for someone condemned to die. What starts out as a tale of one man’s journey from dock to gallows becomes a meditation on prison life and the effects of the death penalty on those tasked with its execution.

Though written by an English humorist (Wilde’s infamous wit is understandably absent here) at the end of the 19th century, as the tale drags on, you can almost here Johnny Cash, he of “Folsom Prison Blues” among other songs about convicts, either reciting the words or warbling them over a mournful acoustic guitar. Indeed, it might have made an interesting edition to the American recordings.

The Waste Lands (Dark Tower III)

by Stephen King

Even by Stephen King standards, The Dark Tower series is weird. We have Roland, the nearly immortal spaghetti Western gunslinger marching across time and his dying world toward the mysterious Dark Tower, which stands at the center of time and space. In Book 1, The Gunslinger, he chased a wizard named Walter across a desert and under mountains in a world that looked like a Salvadore Dali painting come to life. In Book 2, The Drawing of the Three, Roland comes to our world and picks up two new gunslingers, a recovering heroin addict and a schizophrenic woman whose legs have been cut off below the knees. Oh, and the boy Roland let die in Book 1? He saves him from his killer in this one.

Yes, King is screwing with time. And the consequences are that Roland (and the boy, Jake) remember both timelines. The paradox threatens to drive him insane. Together with Eddie and Susannah, his new companions, he retrieves the suddenly not-dead Jake from the New York of Eddie’s adolescence. And if Roland’s going mad, think about how bad Jake has it. He remembers dying. Twice.

The group presses on to Lud, a city in Midworld that bears a striking resemblance to New York in some ways, only centuries after the Apocalypse. They are in search of a train. In typical King fashion, the train is sentient. And bipolar. And a bit passive aggressive.

Thursday Reviews: Slide By Ken Bruen & Jason Starr

SLIDE

Ken Bruen and Jason Starr

When last we left computer company honcho Max Fisher and his Greek-Irish girlfriend, Angela Petrakos, they had some ‘splainin’ to do. People seem to die around Max, and Angela had a dead body slowly dissolving in Drano in her bathtub. Doesn’t help these two are not the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree. So where are they now?

Well, Max has woken up broke and hungover in an Alabama motel, apparently having been someone’s unwitting girlfriend. Angela’s scouring Dublin for a new sugar daddy. Max and Angela are survivors. How do they get out of their respective predicaments? Max becomes a crack dealer and hip hop raconteur calling himself The M.A.X. Angela takes up with a brilliant serial killer who hits on the idea of kidnapping Keith Richards. So how’s that work out for them?

Given how things went in The Bust, not very well. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Bruen and Starr tag team on this tale of two people too stupid to live who insist on doing it anyway. Raucously funny, Bruen and Starr even manage to kill each other off in the course of the story.

Thursday Reviews: Headstone, Nerve

Headstone

Ken Bruen

The Celtic Tiger that is modern Ireland is broke, and Jack Taylor wanders through the wreckage of it all. He’s battered, angry, and nursing addictions to Xanax and Jameson. Yet he’s about to be happy as he’s found a woman, an American writer, who accepts Jack for what he is – broken, flawed, but better than he gives himself credit for.

Naturally, author Ken Bruen loves to torture the poor soul. I’m convinced he sleeps with a Jack Taylor voodoo doll under his pillow. And the first needle Bruen sticks in his wounded warrior, first seen in The Guards, is the near-fatal beating of his nemesis, Father Malachy. Thus comes the opening salvo from Headstone, a gang of doped-up, privileged psychopaths who misread Darwin and see it as justification for a killing spree. And they’d like Jack to participate in their master plan – as a victim. But they don’t kill him right off the bat. They’re out to kill clergy, gays, and “the vulnerable” (as in the mentally handicapped.) Their leader is a self-styled Charlie Manson type who calls himself “Bine.” Makes him sound like a pathetic loser who thinks he’s a Batman supervillain, only Bine is dangerous as hell. His minions damn near kill Jack’s Guard friend, Ridge, and manage to shake the unshakeable Zen calm of Stewart, the one man in all of Galway who could actually save Jack from himself.

Headstone even manages to wound Jack physically in a way so horrific it still makes me cringe to think about reading it. Meant to scare Jack and corner him for the “big event,” Bine miscalculates. Because backing Jack Taylor into a corner puts him in the path of the most dangerous force in all of Ireland – Jack’s blind, unrelenting rage.

I’m not sure how much longer Jack Taylor can go on. There’s considerably less of him left at the end of the book. A couple of subplots drag him across lines one would swear he’d never cross, and of course, Bruen is never one for the happy ending. However, his poetic style is very much intact here, and the story is as much about Ridge and Stewart as it is Taylor, showing an evolution to the series.

Nerve

Taylor Clark

Taylor Clark, an admitted neurotic journalist, has undertaken a study of fear. Why do we choke? Why do we worry? Why do we lose our cool? And one thing Clark learned in the process is that those who appear to be cool and calm under pressure, to somehow summon superhuman poise and concentration in the face of danger are just as scared as those who have curled up in the fetal position to whimper.

What Clark shows us, with the help of neuroscientists and combat instructors, is that the biggest mistake anyone can make under extreme duress is to fight fear. Because while you’re fighting your fear, the building is on fire and the bear has time to slice you into People McNuggets. What separates the heroes from the rest of us is embracing the fear. You’re in danger. You’re supposed to be afraid.

Clark also breaks down fear. The actual emotion, fear, is an automatic response to a sudden threat. There are two small sections of the brain called the amygdala that seize control to make us fight, fly, or freeze, depending on the circumstances. The amygdala are amazing in their ability to store instinctive and remembered fears. However, they’re very user unfriendly, not relinquishing fear memories easily. And some of the response defy logic. It’s why some people have bizarre phobias, like the color orange and so on.

Anxiety, which gives rise to obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, and anxiety disorders (hence the name), is really the brain’s reasoning center trying to process and plan for a danger. Used properly, our impulses for anxiety help the amygdala automate desired responses to threats. It’s why some police officers can shoot a suspect when threatened yet not remember it. On the downside, anxiety causes us to worry about things like asteroid impacts and acts of terrorism that likely will never happen to us.

The third and final component is stress, which is simply the brain overloaded by various stimuli. Like fear – which keeps us from getting killed – and anxiety – which makes us think ahead, stress is not always a bad thing. Some people thrive on it. Others just shut down.

Clark goes through the mechanics of fear step by step and shows how some overcome performance anxiety or perform admirably in the face of extreme danger. It helps to embrace the fear and recognize it for what it is, to face what causes anxiety (which is anxiety’s evolutionary purpose: Hey, stupid, you might want to do something about that saber tooth tiger that’s been eyeing you for the last hour), and manage the stress. When that happens, some people discover that they perform better. Clark’s point: Avoidance, bad; confrontation (of the cause of fear), good. (But do please still run when the bear decides you’d make a nice chew toy.) He also shows how a sense of humor can diffuse a situation, such as when astronaut Gordon Cooper had to guide his dead space capsule back to Earth with no instruments long before Apollo 13 took a lifeboat to the moon.

For anyone paralyzed by fear and anxiety, this book is a must.

The Devil By Ken Bruen

Pity Jack Taylor.  He’s landed in America, the land of promise, only to be turned back.  In the bar, waiting for his flight back to Ireland, he meets a strange gentleman with a French accent calling himself Kurt.  Kurt seems to know too much about Jack’s life for comfort.  Jack shrugs it off and lands back in Galway, resigned to his old life.

But Kurt, calling himself Mr. K now, is waiting for him.  And he’s insinuated himself into the life of Ridge, Jack’s frenemy in the Guards.  Ridge has married a rich man with a daughter to make herself respectable.  The thought depresses Jack since Ridge is a lesbian and hardly the marrying kind.  Mr. K has attached himself to Ridge and her husband with big plans.

Meanwhile, it seems a number of people Jack talks to about this mysterious Mr. K die under strange circumstances.  It seems he’s got a hankering for Jack Taylor’s immortal soul.  Even the Devil, as Jack suspects he is, thinks more highly of Jack than Jack does.  The only person who seems to be immune to Mr. K’s malevolence is Stewart, the former dope dealer turned Zen philosopher who helps Jack out.  The concept of the Devil doesn’t play into Stewart’s world.  Stewart describes him more as “bad karma,” which isn’t as powerful as a supernatural boogey man.

Bruen’s sparse poetic style is very much in force here.  And there’s a certain mourning over Jack’s failure to come to America that permeates the book.  It’s the object of desire Mr. K uses to tempt him.  Previous Taylor novels have been pure noir.  This one flirts with horror.  I say flirts because Mr. K, even when he comes out and says he’s very much whom Jack thinks he is, never does definitively prove it.  Is he really the Devil himself?  Or just a clever bad man who uses smoke and mirrors to homicidal effect?

It’s a stretch for Bruen, and I’ve missed Jack.  The past two Taylor novels had a certain finality about them, particularly Sanctuary, where Jack leaves Galway for America.  He does make a brief appearance in Once Were Cops, but in a story spotlighting Bruen’s more evil protags, Taylor’s giving the psychopath hell is not the same as, say, a thinly disguised version of Taylor giving Sergeant/Inspector Brant a few pointers.

Welcome back, Jack.  And don’t be a stranger.

And Two More On Mt. TBR

Since last my post two weeks ago about my summer reading list, two more arrivals have joined the stack.

The Devil by Ken Bruen – Jack Taylor comes to America.  And is sent back to Ireland.  While waiting at the airport, he meets a man who seems to know more about Jack than even Jack knows.  And he’s waiting for him in Galway, where a series of murders begins.

Delta Blues – Ben and Alison have really stepped things up since going it alone with their new Tyrus Books venture.  A collection of short stories centered around the blues written by authors from performance artist Nathan Singer (who wrote what I believe was the best story in Expletive Deleted) to John Grisham, into by Morgan Freeman.

Review: London Boulevard By Ken Bruen

Mitchell is a recently released convict who finds Billy Norton waiting for him on his first day of freedom.  Billy’s arranged an apartment and a job for him.  At a welcome home party his first night back, Mitchell meets a reporter who hooks him up with some honest work.  Her aunt is a faded theater star who needs a handy man.  Mitchell takes the job and finds himself servicing Lillian Palmer, the actress, in more ways than just fixing her mansion.

When Billy’s boss, Tommy Logan, offers Mitchell a job, Mitchell turns him down.  Suddenly, bodies start piling up around Mitchell.  He doesn’t react with fear.  He goes out to get even.

London Boulevard is an early example of Ken Bruen’s sparse poetic style.  There are flashes of the later Jack Taylor novels here, including Bruen’s love of lists and some of his trademark unspoken zingers.  With Bruen still polishing his style, it becomes more obvious what disappears seamlessly into the Taylor novels, that even the lists are poetry.

The story itself twists enough to keep the pages turning, which is good.  The book is about to become a movie.  On film, it will be impossible to catch that lyrical quality that raises even Bruen’s weakest work above the fray.  On the screen, the story will be more about the characters, Mitchell, Billy, Mitchell’s loopy sister Briony, the sadistic Logan, and the deluded Lillian.  Hopefully, the film’s director will focus on those parts of the story.  In the meantime, Bruen’s narrative is still pure music, laced with cigarettes and whiskey like Rory Gallagher and Tom Waits.

Review: Tower By Ken Bruen & Reed Farrel Coleman

Nick and Todd grew up together in Brooklyn, working for an Irish thug named Boyle.  Nick can’t believe how ruthless Todd has become.  Todd tries to reign in Nick’s blind rage.  Most shocking of all, Todd’s actually a cop.  And Boyle wants Nick to kill him.

Does it happen?

The opening scene depicting Todd dumping Boyle’s right-hand man, an ex-IRA shooter named Griffin, into the East River, suggests no.  What happens leading up to that final confrontation is pure Bruen-driven rage laced with Coleman’s poetic lines about sorrow and loss.

The tower in the title is the North Tower of the World Trade Center, where Nick’s father is a security guard.  The tower looms over the story the way it once loomed over Manhattan, its end marking the end of the story as well.  The climax is a classic Bruen punch in the gut rivaling the ending to The Dramatist.  The denouement echoes Coleman’s reflections on loss and carrying on after the fact.

Review: Sanctuary By Ken Bruen

Jack Taylor is back and so is the booze he thought he’d beaten.  At the end of Cross, Jack was on his way to America to restart his life when his pal Ridge, a lesbian Guard, is hit with breast cancer.  It’s not his problem.  He can still hop his plane to America.

But did he?

Frak.

And so Sanctuary picks up where Cross left off.  Jack hasn’t left Galway, but he has started drinking again.  With a vengeance.  He also is receiving some very disturbing letters from a killer going by the name Benedictus.  Benedictus plans to mete out justice.  She will kill two Guards, a priest, a nun, a judge, and a child.  Jack has no illusions who the second Guard is, a drunken ex-Guard named Taylor.

As Jack tries to track down Benedictus between blackouts, he learns something else that kicks him in the teeth.  The tragedy that has come to define him, the death of a baby name Serena May, was not his fault.  It only makes matters worse.

Sanctuary is Taylor at his rage-fueled best.  He takes a case in the course of the story, a missing pony.  As usual, it gets solved without his help.  Taylor, meanwhile, manages to push away everyone around him and get them hurt.  Bruen’s writing is as lean and poetic as ever.  Like most good series authors, Bruen leaves Taylor at a point where we can walk away from him, but leaving the door open for more.

Though one has to ask just how much more Jack Taylor can handle.