Excellent adventures in fiction

The novels today are a varied bunch. From literary fiction that’s fairy-tale-inspired, to a dystopian fable with epic weight loss thrown in, to southern gothic with humor, and top grade crime fiction. 

The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey

Edward Carey was the author behind Little, one of my favorite books of 2018. What Carey did was take the few facts that exist about Madame Tussaud’s early life, and weaved a truly wonderful fictionalized biography. Here in The Swallowed Man, he creates what has to be seen as an essential companion piece to the Pinocchio tale. He imagines woodcarver Geppetto swallowed by the monstrous sea creature, somehow surviving, and writing from within the innards of the monster. At one go, it becomes an enchanting meditation on “fatherhood,” on isolation, on redemption, and missed opportunities. 

As he did in Little, The Swallowed Man is festooned with illustrations and archival photographs, the illustrations coming from Carey himself. The length of this work could make it be considered as more of a novella, but don’t be fooled by the slimness of the volume. There’s a lot of food for thought between the covers, and you’ll be amused, touched, saddened, and rewarded for traversing these pages. In a way, Carey has outdone himself here, as there is so much less to work on given how Geppetto is portrayed in the pages of the 19th century tale of Carlo Collodi.

Before And After by Andrew Shanahan

Here’s a fantasy dystopian fable that doubles up as a “weight loss” epic, written by an author who’s worked with the obese and psychologically compromised because of weight. Ben Stone is about to extracted from his 4th floor dwelling because at over 600 pounds, he has literally been stuck in his apartment for close to a year. He’s refused to leave the unit since his mother passed away, having all food and supplies delivered to him. His health has dipped dramatically and he needs to have half of his leg amputated to survive. Just at the point when he’ll be craned off his unit through the window, the world stops, and “wraths” appear.

“Wraths” could best be described as what happens to people subject to the radiation that engulfs Ben’s part of Manchester, and think of it like turning into zombies. In alternating chapters, we learn of Ben’s voyage to reach that crazy weight; and the other chapters chronicle his survival in this New World, along with his pet dog. It’s visceral, it’s bloody, and graphic. But behind the gore, there’s social commentary about how the obese are treated in this world, and the defense mechanisms they surround themselves with. It’s like a fairy tale gone gonzo and berserk, with strong shock value—and with Ben emerging as the unexpected hero and hope for mankind. 

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Author of My Best Friend’s Exorcism, Grady Hendrix is known for his exacting blend of horror, comedy, and character studies. If Exorcism took its perspective from college students, this time around, the POV is from a group of southern wives located in Charleston, South Carolina in the ‘90s. There’s a wonderful sense of time and place, and one could call this Hendrix’s version of The Stepford Wives vs. Dracula. Patricia is our lead protagonist, a mother of two, and aching to be the perfect southern-belle-turned-homemaker when the book opens. She joins the local book club but somehow gets waylaid to form her own with friends interested in true crime stories.

This first part is hilarious, the five women all obsessed with Ted Bundy and Charles Manson stories. And the plot thickens as the women encounter the true original, legendary serial killer—a vampire. And he’s like no other vampire, as he’s charming, acts like he wants to be part of the community, and even invests in the business scheme of the women’s husbands. Trying to insinuate himself in their lives, it seems it’s only Patricia who believes he has a darker agenda. Both humorous, then definitely chilling and gruesome, this is a great read. 

The Cutting Place by Jane Casey 

This latest from Jane Casey is crime fiction, with the author writing at the peak of her powers. DS Maeve Kerrigan is back with DS Josh Derwent, and the inescapable chemistry between the two is as much a winning factor in this book’s success, as is the inspired police procedural that forms the core of the narrative drive. It all starts when female body parts wash up on the shores of the River Thames near Blackfriars. It isn’t long before London’s finest are called in to discover who the unfortunate woman is, why she’s been hacked up, and who could be responsible. 

Thanks to DNA samples, it’s soon sussed out that the body belongs to one Paige Hargreaves, a freelance journalist, last seen talking about the expose she was writing about a very exclusive gentlemen’s club. This club is notorious for being a bastion of the very rich, entitled, and privileged. That this sense of power could lead to illegal activities, a sense of being above the law, and that anything and anyone can be bought, soon leads to Maeve butting heads with the Chiron Club. That there’s a mix of the personal lives of Kerrigan and Derwent thrown in, adds to the reality of how the book charms us and hooks us in. If you like old school procedurals, then this one’s for you.