Chalk by Paul Cornell

ChalkChalk

by Paul Cornell

Kindle Edition, 206 pg.
Tor.com, 2017

Read: May 5 – 8, 2017

There are kids who went through school experiences like mine who will never watch football, and there are those who end up playing for Arsenal. Okay, who will end up with season tickets. Stockholm syndrome will only take you so far.

Enough about what I am now. That comes later.

Everyone keeps talking about this as a story about bullying — sure, there’s a little bullying here. But mostly, that’s like saying that Hannibal Lecter enjoys an unconventional diet. What happens to Andrew Waggoner is so far beyond bullying — it’s flat out assault (but with a psychological component that matches bullying). After a Halloween dance, Waggoner is forced into the woods by the school bullies and is assaulted. Somehow, his trauma links him to some long-dormant forces who take the opportunity to reassert themselves. One manifestation of the mystical/magical works with (compels? coerces? convinces?) Waggoner to take his revenge against those who permanently scarred him mentally and physically.

And over the next 12 months, that’s just what happens — Waggoner and/or his mystical companion (it’s never clear exactly how much is done by each) exact their revenge — Waggoner vacillates in his commitment to this project, and comes close to stopping on many occasions. In the midst of this, he becomes a writer and makes a friend based on shared interest, rather than just being social pariahs. In short, he starts growing up.

Meanwhile, the ancient forces tied to Waggoner are in open conflict with the dominant, more modern/contemporary, forces/beliefs. The school — and the students’ lives — become the major battleground for them, the final conflict coming on the anniversary of the attack that changed Waggoner’s life forever.

I kept seeing the school as the school from Sing Street (except, in the West Country, not Dublin — but roughly the same era), which I know is inaccurate, but I couldn’t stop myself. Pop music plays a large role in the story, and as it’s set in the early 80’s I didn’t have to google most of the songs (there were a couple of tunes that didn’t make it to Idaho that long ago) — which was a plus for me, and probably most readers.

You can tell (well, you can guess) that Cornell and Waggoner had similar experiences in their early lives — the language he uses to describe the bullying speaks to that. But more than that, the way he describes how the bullying shaped him, both then and when Waggoner reflects on those events from the vantage point of adulthood, resonated with me, and will with many readers.

The characters — bullies, victims, other children, or adults — were all wonderfully constructed. I’m not sure that I liked any of them (including Waggoner), but I was drawn into this world, and was very invested in what happened to each of them.

This was intense, gripping, strangely something (I want to say beautiful, but that doesn’t seem right) — there’s a je ne sais quoi about Chalk that inspires and repulses at the same time. I know I haven’t done a good job describing this book — I’m trying hard not to ruin anything for future readers. It was one of the more affecting, compelling books I’ve read this year. Cornell does a masterful job of mixing our reality with his fantasy — as he’s shown in the Shadow Police and Lychford books — this time you add in a layer of childhood horror and wonder to that combination.

This is something special, you won’t read much like it.

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4 Stars

“Concussion Cover-Up” & “NSA Priest” by Carac Allison

Sure, in the month between downloading these and reading them, they’ve disappeared from Smashwords’ site. Oh well, I read ’em, might as well talk about them a little.

First thing to know is that when Mr. Allison says “Short Story,” he means short. This is annoying when reading both stories, but for different reasons that I’ll get to in a moment. They are, however, a great length for reading while sitting in uncomfortable hard plastic chairs while waiting for an elementary school musical to begin.

Still, both had juuuuuuust enough of good ol’ Chalk to make you want the next novel.

Concussion Cover-UpConcussion Cover-Up

by Carac Allison
Series:Chalk Short Stories

ebook, 12 pg.
Smashwords, 2014
Read: May 18, 2015
2 Stars

Chalk’s trying to track down — or at least confirm the existence of — a report from the 1980’s showing that the NFL was fully aware of concussion (and other) risks. A report that just might be an Urban Legend — or it could be the smoking gun to force the League to pony up the money to pay for medical care/damages to many, many current and former athletes. Sort of like the papers that demonstrated that Tobacco Executives knew about Nicotine’s addictiveness long ago.

I just didn’t get enough to justify Chalk’s reaction at the end, not enough meat to chew on during these 12 pages. This one felt incomplete. I’d need to see more of it before I could really get a handle on it.

NSA PriestNSA Priest

by Carac Allison
Series:Chalk Short Stories

ebook, 11 pg.
Smashwords, 2014
Read: May 18, 2015
3 Stars

This one starts with a nice little paranoid (unless they are out to get you) description of the NSA’s work, and sets up a need for Chalk to get some of that information. He knows how to get it, but it comes with an unusual price — and as Chalk sets off to get what he needs to pay that price, things get interesting.

This was great, this was everything I wanted it to be. Except I wanted more. This feels like the bare bones of something — not an entire novel, but a good setup for one. It’s condensed, it’s the synopsis of something — powdered fiction, just add water. Whereas Concession Cover-Up felt like it was missing a lot, this was complete, it just would be better if there was more detail, more time spent with it all.

Still, glad I read it.

Dark Digital Sky by Carac Allison

So . . . here’s where I talk about what a jerk I can be. Last September, I get this email from a pretty friendly author asking me if I’d like a copy of his book in exchange for a review. I said what I always say when offered a free book, “yes, please,” (or words to that effect). I read and enjoyed it — we exchanged a couple messages about the book, he answered a question or two. And then because: 1. it was a little more difficult than I’d think and, 2. I got distracted, I never got around to reviewing it. I noticed this yesterday, while looking for something else and felt horrible — which is the way I should feel, over half a year late with this. Can’t do much to make it up to Allison other than put this up now and promise to buy the next book as soon as it’s possible.

Dark Digital SkyDark Digital Sky

by Carac Allison
Series: Dark Pantheon, #1


Kindle Edition, 302 pg.
Crime Planet Press, 2014
Read: October 02 – 03, 2014

“Your real name is Chaucer?”
“My father was an English Professor. I’m not. Call me Chalk.”

In a genre where the names Marlowe and Spenser cast such huge shadows, of course it’s time for a Chaucer. Better yet? He hates the name.

Allison frequently begins chapters with a lengthy info-dump about something — a mini-essay from Chalk’s perspective. Sometimes the info-dumps these work, other times they’re pretty jarring. The information about say, medical insurance, prior to meeting the analyst for Blue Shield? That one worked for me. The listing of Chalk’s tattoos? Eh, not so much.

This starts off with a new client with a very 21st century kind of case, but still proceeds like something out of Chandler. The further that Chalk gets into it, the stranger and twistier it gets. But in the background, we keep learning about a spree of atypical robberies. The way that the various threads start to integrate is something I didn’t expect. And once integrated? The whole thing gets even more unexpected.

The action of the novel belongs to the present — to Chalk’s case, the drug crimes — but the heart, the grounding of the character? That belongs to the flashbacks, the doomed marriage, the child he doesn’t get to see, the hunt for a serial killer that no one else believes exists. The more outrageous parts of his character, the outlandish abilities, activities — that’s the fun, that’s the fantasy. The book as a whole is a great mix of the two.

Chalk is damaged, an outsider, an underdog in classic noir-style (see also: his name). At the same time — he’s very successful and impossibly gifted, something out of a science fiction novel, really. Giving this sort of a cyberpunk feel — but instead of being set 15 minutes in the future (which is how I see all cyberpunk), Dark Digital Sky is a cyberpunk novel set 15 minutes ago.

I’m not convinced these elements work on their own — but even if they do, this is definitely a “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” kind of thing, somehow this all works. I’ve never read anything like this before — which is probably good, because most people would make a wreck of it. Not Allison, this is a strong vision told with a sure voice. Can’t wait for more.

—–

Note: I was provided a copy of this by the author, who seems like a pretty cool guy — which made the fact that I really enjoyed even better. I like it when pretty cool people write pretty cool stuff.

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4 Stars