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.

—–

4 Stars

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The Lost Child of Lychford by Paul Cornell

The Lost Child of LychfordThe Lost Child of Lychford

by Paul Cornell
Series: Witches of Lychford, #2

Kindle Edition, 144 pg.
Tor.com, 2016

Read: November 2 – 3, 2016


It’s been a few months since Reverend Lizzie Blackmore, Judith (the elderly witch), and Autumn (now her apprentice and her employer) fought off the supernaturally corrupt megastore (and probably mundanely corrupt, too, come to think of it) and life has moved on in a relatively normal way. The three have forged some sort of alliance — easy for Autumn and Lizzie, already close, but learning new things about each other; not so easy for Judith to be accepted and to accept them, I don’t think. Autumn’s learning from Judith, while getting some help in her shop (which seems like a small town version of Atticus O’Sullivan’s and Alex Verus’ shops combined). Judith’s got something to do, a way to pass on her knowledge, and Lizzie is super-busy with pre-Christmas activities in the church.

But given everything we learned about Lychford, it’s not terribly surprising that things won’t stay that way, it’s just a question of what kind of other-worldly strangeness will come calling first.

In this case, it’s a ghost — or ghost-like apparition — that came to Lizzie at church. A small child looking frightened and worse for wear, with a simple request of: “No hurting.” Now, our trio can’t all agree on what the apparition is, but they can all get behind the idea of “No hurting.” They just have to figure out if that’s something they can stop — and then they’ll worry about the how. Neither piece of that plan works the way that it’s supposed to, but it seems these three are pretty good at improvising. Autumn, in particular, seems particularly adept at that.

I appreciated the fact that each of these women make one significant mistake (and probably some smaller ones) — two that come from inexperience, one that proves that experience doesn’t equal infallibility. They’re all believable, they do more than just advance the plot, they are honest with the characters and situation. Too often in novels you’re left wondering why a protagonist would be so stupid as to do X — when really it comes down to they have to do X or the really cool Y thing can’t happen at the end. That doesn’t happen here — sure, the attentive reader might be able to see the blunder coming around the corner, but there’s no reason to think that our protagonists should until it’s too late. Because while these three are fictional characters, Cornell imbues them with a genuineness, a substantial-ness that’s fitting for a real person (sadly, not always present with them, however).

Man, I had to use DuckDuckGo a lot to get all the cultural details in these pages — I know next to nothing about Anglican Christmas festivities, and less about British Christmas Pop Music. I’m not sure how much I’ll benefit long-term from this research, but it was interesting. I might have been better off not knowing anything about Greg Lake and his song, though.

If there was such a thing as magic, it wouldn’t look like anything from Harry Potter, Harry Dresden or some other fantasy series starring a Harry. It’d look like this, I wager. Quiet; shadowy; right out in the open, yet somehow unseen. All substance, no flash. Oh, yeah, and creepy — can’t forget creepy and inexplicable. Which is pretty much everything that happened in this book — up to and including most of the things the trio does to prevent things from getting really out of hand. It’s hard to talk about realism in a fantasy novel, but Cornell’s one of those that make you do that.

The Witches of Lychford was thoroughly entertaining and did a great job of establishing this world. This novella took full advantage of that to tell a more compelling story. I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to read Witches first, but it’d help a lot. “I Believe in Father Christmas,” notwithstanding, I thought The Lost Child of Lychford lived up to its predecessor and left me eager to return to this little village.

—–

4 Stars

This Damned Band by Paul Cornell and Tony Parker

This Damned BandThis Damned Band

by Paul Cornell, Tony Parker (Artist)

Trade Paperback, 160 pg.
Dark Horse, 2016

Read: October 12, 2016


I’ve struggled for a couple of days now trying to figure out what I can say about this. It’s all about the premise when it comes to this book (a collection of issues from a limited-run series).

This is a comic about one of the biggest bands of 1974, Motherfather, on what could be their last world tour — complete with a documentary crew, a gaggle of groupies, and a manager who could be the hybrid of Wilson Fisk and Colonel Tom Parker. Like many rock artists of the time, Motherfather makes a big deal about worshiping the devil as part of their stage persona. While on this tour (possibly with some psychopharmacological help), they discover they’ve actually been worshiping the devil.

Oops.

Things don’t go all that well from there.

If you like that hook, you’ll like this book. Otherwise, just skip it.

Paul Cornell wrote this, so right off that tells you this is going to be well-written. A little humor, some real people and real emotions, and some seriously messed up supernatural elements. Cornell delivers on the promise of the premise — and a little more. It’s exactly what you want to read given the hook.

As for Tony Parker? I don’t think I’ve seen his stuff before — but I’m going to keep an eye out for it. I honestly can’t think of anyone who could’ve matched the style and story of this book like he did — either in the film sections, the visions/hallucinations, or the rest. Really great work.

I should throw in a quick note here, if it’s not obvious from the subject matter, this is not for kids.

It’s not for everyone, but it’s pretty entertaining. If the concept strikes you as up your alley, it probably is — give this one a shot.

—–

3 Stars

Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell

Witches of LychfordWitches of Lychford

by Paul Cornell
Series: Witches of Lychford, #1


Kindle Edition, 144 pg.
Tor.com, 2015
Read: September 8, 2015

You ever get nervous about starting a new work by an author? Sure, in retrospect, it may seem silly to doubt, but for every Jesse Stone, there’s a Sunny Randall. As much as I like his Shadow Police series, I wasn’t sure I was up for something else by Paul Cornell. Thankfully, my apprehension was silly, because whether he’s writing about London or a small town, Cornell knows what he’s doing.

The town of Lychford is on the verge of dealing with a major assault by evil forces and for reasons you should discover for yourself, that is not something that can be allowed, because if they are allowed to invade, these supernatural forces will carry the day. So they must be stopped before they can begin in earnest.

These forces are, naturally, a large supermarket chain. What else? They’re called Sovo, and I’m sure they resemble no actual chain (or that Cornell has really good lawyers). But it seems that there’s more to them than low prices and a knack for ruining the lives of small business owners.

Now, your middle class activist types might get riled up by this, but there’s only so much that their petitions and flyers can do against the supernatural (not that they realize they’re going up against powers beyond their ken). Even when the supernatural are primarily using things like empty promises, bribes, and the allure of new jobs, there’s only so much that well-off Muggles can do (to borrow a term from some other series).

It’s going to take people able to see the otherworldly aspects of the PR Campaign that Sovo is waging to win the hearts and minds of the citizenry to thwart them. Now, typically, this is where we’d get someone like Rachel Morgan, Harry Dresden, or Peter Grant to come in and kick a little supernatural butt. Instead, we get such obvious heroes as a crackpot old lady and vicar who’s on the verge of losing her faith. Thankfully, the crackpot is actually a witch of sorts, so they’ve got a fighting chance.

For something a mere 144 pages long, this is an incredibly rich and well-developed world. The magic system seems pretty thought-out and realistic (for lack of a better word). The characters (those mentioned and a couple of others) are sharply defined and could probably carry a story by themselves.

Really, really impressive work — I’d love it if the work were longer, but honestly, I’m not sure if it’d have been as effective if it had another 1-200 more pages to develop everything. I think this ensures Cornell’s place on my “grab anything you see by” list without really caring what the subject matter is.

I was about to hit “Publish” on this when I had this thought — this reads just like one of Bledsoe’s Tufa novels would if set in England. For my money, that’s a pretty high mark.

—–

3.5 Stars

Audio from The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell

Recently, I received an email from someone at Audible.com:

I saw your great review of THE SEVERED STREETS and I wanted to make sure that you are aware that the book is also available as an audiobook from Audible Studios. I’d love to offer you a clip from the audiobook to post on the website alongside the review as multimedia content for your readers.

Seems like a good idea to me! I wasn’t aware that they had the book — but if asked, I’d have guessed they did — what don’t they have? Still, it sounds like a good idea (and hey, she called my review “great”). I added it to my review, but thought I’d throw it up, here, too. Seems more likely that people would see it.

The Severed Streets was one of my favorite books last year (see my review, and my 2014 Honorable Mentions), and I’d strongly recommend you trying it.

Anyway, here’s the clip, sounds pretty good to me. If you’re an audiobook person, listen to the sample. If you’re not an audiobook person, you still might want to give it a try — maybe you’re an audiobook person but don’t know it.

Some Honorable Mentions of 2014

The Day of Lists continues:

Here are the books I wanted to include on my best of, but something kept me from it.

Honorable Mentions should go to (in alphabetical order):

He Drank, and Saw the Spider (Eddie LaCrosse, #5)He Drank, and Saw the Spider

by Alex Bledsoe
My Review
You could substitute Wake of the Bloody Angel here. This series has long-surpassed the gimmick of a hard-boiled detective novel in a generic fantasy setting. Pigeon-hole it however you want, it’s just a good book.
4 Stars

The Lives of Tao (Tao, #1)The Lives of Tao

by Wesley Chu
My Review
Despite the buzz around this, I wasn’t sure I was terribly interested — nor did I really know what to expect. So, so glad I took the chance. A barrel full of exciting, gun-blazing, snarky fun.
4 Stars

Bad Little Girls Die Horrible Deaths and Other Tales of Dark FantasyBad Little Girls Die Horrible Deaths and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy

by Harry Connolly

My Review
I’m not normally a short story reader, but more collections like this might make me one. Different types of fantasy, all well written, even in the stories that aren’t my cup of tea I found something to enjoy.
4 Stars

The Severed StreetsThe Severed Streets

by Paul Cornell
My Review
Audible.com has provided a sample of the audio book version. Give it a shot, I’m betting 30 minutes won’t be enough.
I was impressed by the first in this series, London Falling, but this kicked it into a different gear. It’s about London as an entity as much as it is about these characters and their opponents — it’s dark, twisted and a little hopeful. Some fine writing here.
4 1/2 Stars

The Intern's Handbook: A ThrillerThe Intern’s Handbook: A Thriller

by Shane Kuhn
My Review
Hyper-violent, comic commentary on corporate cultures with heart. Or something like that.
4 Stars

The HumansThe Humans

by Matt Haig
My Review
Haig’s got this gift for making us look at ourselves with the oddest type of outsider. Ultimately, I realize I’ve read and watched this story before, but I was either finished or nearly finished before I had that insight. Either way, didn’t care, because no one had told it like this.
4 1/2 Stars

The Westing GameThe Westing Game

by Ellen Raskin
My Review is forthcoming
I’ve sat down to write the review of this one I don’t know how many times. I read this dozens upon dozens of times as a kid — loving the characters, the story, the strange little puzzle. And then walked away from it for decades. Reading it this summer was a wonderful blast from the past, and although I felt like I could recite the thing en toto I couldn’t, it still filled me with joy. Not just for nostalgia’s sake, either. This was probably one of my 3 favorite reads of the year, but it felt like cheating to put it on the main list, so here it is.
5 Stars

LandlineLandline

by Rainbow Rowell
My Review
A marriage on the rocks, a career on the brink, a magic telephone and Rainbow Rowell’s charm and heart. What more can I say?
4 1/2 Stars

Where'd You Go, BernadetteWhere’d You Go, Bernadette

by Maria Semple
My Review is forthcoming
First book I finished in 2014, and it’s stuck with me the whole year — even as I struggle to write a review. A strange, impossibly strange and entirely believable world, populated with people I’m convinced could exist — and maybe do. I don’t know what else I can say about this (probably explains the year delay). It’s good. Funny, heartfelt, tragic.
4 Stars

The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell (Updated)

Update: A representative of Audible.com, emailed me to ask if I’d like to post a clip from the audio book with this review. Sounded like a good idea to me (no pun intended). The sample’s at the bottom of this post, give it a listen.

The Severed StreetsThe Severed Streets

by Paul Cornell

Hardcover, 416 pg.
Tor Books, 2014
Read: June 11 – 14, 2014

This Cornell guy can write.

I’m tempted to let that be all I say about this book. Won’t be (because I can’t help myself), but it’s tempting. The other thing I’m tempted to do is copy and paste the first three paragraphs of my London Falling review to start this one — I am a little annoyed to see that I spoke so much about the Bryant & May Peculiar Crimes Unit series last time, because the comparison really hit me repeatedly as I read this book. I hope neither Cornell or Fowler mind that comparison.

Straightaway, Cornell creates a world rich with atmosphere — the his depiction of the tension on the streets of London is visceral, and then when the first murder occurs, you start to wish for something a little less visceral. And that’s in the first handful of pages. Once the focus turns to the team of detectives, it takes almost no time at all to immerse yourself again in this world (one that I honestly was a little fuzzy on when I picked up the book, remembering everything about these characters took a page or two back with them). There’s a bit more esprit de corps amongst them now then when we left them in London Falling, they’ve spent more time together, are more familiar with each other — and, if nothing else, realize that they share something that no one else in the London Police does.

Now they’ve got their hands full, seeking a vicious killer that only they can see. One that seems to have connections to a popular protest movement (think the Occupy movement, but with masks) and maybe to Jack the Ripper. Add all those things together, and you’ve got yourself a real mess. To that, add multiple conflicting goals on the part of Quill and his team, a looming police strike, an overly-inquisitive media mogul, a meddling Security Service, and a city on the verge of riot — and you’ve got, well, I don’t know exactly what it is, but the word “mess” no longer can describe it.

This early in a series, I don’t have any strong emotional connection to characters — particularly in this series, which (to me) seems to lend itself to a distancing between reader and character. But when one of the team makes an unthinkable sacrifice, I realized that distance didn’t exist anymore for me, and I had to put the book down for a brief moment to think about what I’d just read. But I couldn’t keep it down for long and had to pick it up quickly — only to be hit with something worse not that long after.

Which is not to say that this whole novel is an emotional wringer, there’s more humor, more hope intrinsic to this book than its predecessor, while it doesn’t lose any of it’s edge. The celebrity cameo was hilarious in a book not typified by hilarity of any kind. And then it became more than a cameo, which was pretty cool — and then it became, brilliant. I mean, truly brilliant. And I really can’t say more about it than that without violating all sorts of my spoiler policies.

I want to say more about this book, and maybe I’ll come back and revise this later, but for now I’d better leave it at this or it’ll never get done. The Severed Streets is one of those books that will make you want to cancel plans, so you can spend more time with it. From the unnervingly impossible assassination at the beginning to the truly disturbing final sentence, and almost every point in between, this is a killer book — gripping, suspenseful, with no punches pulled on any level. Please let there be more of these soon.

—–

4 1/2 Stars