Odd Men Out, by Matt Betts

Odd Men Out, by Matt Betts
Publisher: Dog Star Books
(Raw Dog Screaming Press)
ISBN: 1935738461
224 pages, paperback
Published July 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

“The Civil war has ended but not because the South surrendered, instead it’s on hold while both sides face a new enemy—the chewers, dead men who’ve come back to life. Cyrus Joseph Spencer didn’t fight in the war and couldn’t care less about the United Nations of America that resulted from it. His main concern is making money and protecting his crew from all manner of danger. But when tragedy strikes he’s forced to take shelter onboard a dirigible piloted by the U.N.’s peace-keeping force. It’s soon apparent that many more dangers are lurking and Cyrus must decide whether to throw in with strangers in a desperate bid to protect the country or cast off on his own.” – publisher description

A quick read that surprised me in how much I enjoyed the ride. “Odd Men Out” largely works positively because Betts appears to have had so much fun writing it, and such an endearment for fun pieces of genre fiction from sci fi to horror. Mention of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the introduction to the novel got me excited and hopeful; entering into the story fulfilled those emotions, Betts manages to keep the story serious enough in tone while still having a lot of fun poking at troupes and throwing in amusing references. One lovely pun in reference to “Jaws” made me chuckle for a while.

As others note, the novel is a hodgepodge mix of genre elements from apocalyptic to alt history, to steampunk, to B movie monster movies, and on and on. What makes this work is that Betts keeps the same tone throughout and above all the same style. Despite many elements, the book at heart is a simple adventure story, full of action and crisp writing. The story, and its execution are just simply fun.

What disappointed me about the novel was firstly that it is too short. Some portions seem rushed, with action taking place off-screen that I would’ve been curious to ‘see’. Betts could have also used some more room to get in better characterization (without losing the story’s pace and pulse). At the end of this I have a vague sense of who the characters were – as in their ‘role’ to the story. Their identities, however… What really makes them tick and unique… not so much. In addition their interactions – particularly in the romance aspect – is predictable, clichéd, and thus kind of lifeless. Obviously though, these sorts of issues aren’t what’s at the forefront of a book like this, so while I could imagine it being better, these disappointments didn’t seriously detract from the entertainment at its core.

Despite how much I enjoyed it, this isn’t the type of book I’d normally first go to and pick up cold without knowing the author or trusted reviews. I had entered a previous giveaway from the publisher, Raw Dog Screaming Press, a title I actually was more interested in from the blurb. Failed to win that, but at the time I had looked into the publisher and their entire independent catalog I was intrigued. When I saw this from the same publisher I signed up more to see one of their titles moreso than this particular novel. I’ll gladly seek out future works by Betts though, hoping they’ll keep the fun and magic with improvements to boot.

I could never afford to get lots of their releases, (being independent small press, they aren’t likely to be easy to find second-hand) but I would also be willing now to try ones at full price that did look good. Normally I wouldn’t comment on price and construction like this, but this book is also one of the sturdiest and nicest paperbacks (trade) that I’ve had, and for once I’d consider the full price of a trade paperback to be worth it. I carry books around all the time, on the bus reading to work, etc, and usually they become bent, scarred, creased, despite my best attempts at keeping them pristine. This kept its corners rigid, had no easy creasing, etc. I was so impressed I thought I should say something.

It should be easy to tell if you like this kind of book: the genres, the easy reading, etc. If you do, definitely try getting ahold of a copy. Then watch some MST3K, you’ll be in the mood assuredly.

Four  Stars out of Five

While merging this review from Goodreads and adding a publisher link I noticed that Odd Men Out has garnered some award nominations. Check out the news here.

Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

10112885Night Film, by Marisha Pessl
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 140006788X
602 pages, hardcover
Published August 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

A novel that combines cult cinema with a literary thriller, I had high hopes when winning this one and it didn’t disappoint. I hadn’t read Pessl before or even heard of her previous novel, which received many accolades, but after this I’m excited about reading more of her.

I intentionally read this one slowly, savoring it in the darkest hours of night, relishing the mysteries and eerieness of its pages. For its length, it’s actually a quick read, but I found that leaving the story at various points despite wanting to know the truth behind it all as much as the protagonist only added to the novel’s haunting power.

Night Film is hauntingly real, yet on the fringe of bizarre and disbelief, much like the films of the fictional director the story centers around. Having watched cult films for years, even searching for those rarities that are spoken of with reverence and whispers of warning: a film banned for being too intense, a film surrounded by stories of oddities and curses. This is the world of the characters of Night Film.

The mood and realism of Night Film is augmented by the novel’s inclusion of faux web pages. letters, and other items that are interspersed in chunks at various points. At first I looked at this with wariness that it was a gimmick, and it is arguable that their inclusion is unnecessary – that the information within them could have been conveyed within the ‘normal’ text of the novel. Yet, I realize not without the same effect on the reader. Nothing compares to a chilling phrase ending a paragraph followed by turning the page to a creepy photograph.

The plot you can gather from the blurb, and to give any more details would spoil the book. Suffice it to say the novel proceeds on several levels through layers and layers of partial truths and shadows. At the end the protagonist and reader are given an answer, but much like the films of the fictional director in the story, those answers will have a certain measure of ambiguity. What is important, is the journey to them.

While Night Film is dark, and creepy, it is not scary. It is not pessimistically dark, it is not sad. It is just an extremely effective atmospheric thriller that resides on the edges of the supernatural and the unknown. In some ways it is like a Stephen King story – though a very different writing style. The absolute highlight of the novel comes toward the end in a series of chapter-less pages describing a harrowing journey into the heart of the novel’s themes and structure. The rest of the novel was enjoyable, this part was just utterly wonderful.

With mysterious characters and subtle revelations made throughout the novel it is also a book that could be reread with a fresh take and appreciation. It’s curious to wonder how filmable the book would be, given its subject. It may be possible, but I think it could take a director like the one invented here to pull it off.

I hope Pessl writes future novels like this one, or that she is just as talented dealing with other themes or styles. Heartily recommend.

Five Stars out of Five