Audiobook Review: Aftershock by Andrew Vachss

2 07 2013

Aftershock by Andrew Vachss

Read by Phil Gigante and Natalie Ross

Dreamscape Audio

Length: 11 Hrs 2 Min

Genre: Crime Fiction

Quick Thoughts: Aftershock is crime fiction at it best built around a solid cast of characters, with an intriguing mythology. Vachss covers many of his classic themes yet in a way that seems to have invigorated his writing, allowing him to explore these themes in new and fascinating ways. As always, there is a brutal reality to Vachss writing, with unapologetic characters and real human evil, yet Aftershock also contained an element that I haven’t always felt in Vachss writing, hope.

Grade: A

Over the past year or so, I have heard more and more talk about our "rape culture" and the "war on women." Now, in no way do I believe that these concepts weren’t discussed before, perhaps in just as much detail, but the past year I have become more and more attuned to this discussion. I’ll be honest, I*’m not someone who is overly qualified to discuss such issues. I had a grand total of one class in college on woman in politics, and it was more of a historical analysis, and that took place nearly 20 years ago. Yet, I do have feelings. Not many answers, but feelings. I know I have lost faith in our criminal justice system to deal with sexually based crimes. Years ago, I had a friend who was quite upset with me that I wasn’t a strident supporter of Megan’s Law, and the sexual registration of offenders. Not that I didn’t believe in what it was trying to accomplish, I just couldn’t get past the idea that if we need to set up such measures to protect ourselves from habitual sexual offenders, why were we letting them out of jail? I believed then, and I still do that no matter what laws we pass to protect people from predators, those predators will find a way not just to beat but to use it to their advantage. I find sexual predators more insidious, more harmful to our society than murderers. Sexual Crimes cause waves that rip through families, communities and history even more so than any other violent crime. I am not a supporter of the death penalty, but I would much rather see it used on those who exploit children and perform violent sexual assault then those who kill. One thing that truly bothers me is it seems that our criminal justice system is set up more to protect those who perform these acts, then the actual victims. I understand the need for this. I understand that it’s better for 100 guilty to go free than for 1 innocent man to be found guilty. Yet, how many victims of these horrific acts are we willing to accept to make sure we stay true to this founding precept. I have no answers. I just have questions.

When the star softball player, Marylou "Mighty Mary" McCoy walked into her high school with a gun, and shot and killed one boy and wounded two others, people were quick to view it as just another school shooting. Yet, Dolly, a former nurse who worked in war zones around the world, knew there was more to the story. She asks her husband Dell, a former Legionnaire in hiding with a past so mysterious even he can’t remember it all, to look into it. What Dell uncovers is an evil so insidious it has corrupted their seemingly idyllic town, putting everything he loves at risk. I have to say, Aftershock surprised me. When Vachss introduces us the Dell, and his violent back story, I expected this to be another tale of a dark vigilante exterminating a human evil. While this plays into Aftershock, it is far from its overriding theme. Vachss explores the corruption of the legal system that places more value in maintaining its reputation than is punishing evil, and how a few warriors for justice can make a difference.  Dell was a fascinating and complex character. He was unsure and awkward socially, but also able to inspire people to break away from what they believe was expected of them, and do what they believe was right. There were times when the fact that the story was filtered through Dell’s perspective that I became uncomfortable. Not with brutal yet clever solutions to problems, but in his quickness to slap labels on people based on physical and emotions shortcomings. Yet, there was a balance to this. While Dell was quick to label people he found reprehensible as things like "Pigface" he was often able to see past labels people had slapped onto others and discern their true nature, just not often in a polite socially acceptable manner.  The true beauty of this novel came in his other characters. Dell is a warrior, yet, Vachss doesn’t highlight the kind of warrior who can kill a man twenty different ways with his pinky. He highlights a woman who takes time to truly give girls a safe place to discuss issues that their teachers or parents would instantly judge them for. He shows us victims who were brutalized and humiliated, finally taking a stand against a system seemingly designed to marginalize them. He shows us warriors fighting within a corrupt system, whose exposure to violent crime can have extremely horrific affects. From psychologists and social workers, to victims and those who love them whether they are connected through DNA or not, these are the people who could win the fight. Vachss did something that I didn’t expect, he made me feel a little bit of hope that there are good people fighting the fight. On top of these themes, Aftershock is a solid legal thriller. I love legal thrillers, but I have been sick and tired of the down and out lawyer who finds redemption through a case, Here, instead, Vachss shows us a lawyer who finally discovers himself when he is willing to begin believing that he can make a difference. There is just so much I loved about Aftershock, and am quite excited that it’s the start of a new series. Dell and Dolly are two characters I really want to see more of. Aftershock is crime fiction at it best built around a solid cast of characters, with an intriguing mythology. Vachss covers many of his classic themes yet in a way that seems to have invigorated his writing, allowing him to explore these themes in new and fascinating ways. As always, there is a brutal reality to Vachss writing, with unapologetic characters and real human evil, yet Aftershock also contained an element that I haven’t always felt in Vachss writing, hope.

Part of me is really glad that I listened to Vachss’ anthology Mortal Lock before I listed to Aftershock, because it prepared me for the dual narration style of Phil Gigante and Natalie Ross. What I didn’t expect is how effective it would be in Aftershock. Phil was brilliant as always, and his interplay with Natalie was natural and flowing that I didn’t experience any of the dissonance this type of narration often gives me. What truly amazed me was Phil’s handling of the French scenes, which he spoke as if he was fluent in that language. I’m not sure if he is or not, but anyone listening to Aftershock will be more than ready to call him Le Gigante. Ross brought so much to this production, that for those small stretches where she wasn’t contributing I truly missed her. There are so many strong female characters in Aftershock, including Dolly, MaryLou, and a social worker who contributed highly to the defense, and Ross brings them all alive in vivid fashion. Yet, my favorite of her performances was that of Danielle, MaryLou’s sister. Ross helped create a character that simply gave me chills, for many reasons. Aftershock was a brilliant production and one of my favorite listens so far this year. If you have yet to experience the work of Andrew Vachss, Aftershock is a great place to start.

Note: Thanks to Dreamscape Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

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Audiobook Review: Mortal Lock by Andrew Vachss

26 06 2013

Mortal Lock by Andrew Vachss

Read by Phil Gigante and Natalie Ross

Dreamscape Audio

Length: 10 Hrs 12 Min

Genre: Short Story Collection (Multiple Genres)

Quick Thoughts: A solid short story Anthology featuring the Vachss signature noir style, fascinating if unlikeable characters and an authenticity you rarely find in the pages of books. Fans of Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard will be excited to see this duo show up for a great story, as well as a few other of Vachss characters. The anthology ended with a high concept screenplay that may not suit even hardcore Vachss fan’s tastes, but has moments of hidden gems.

Grade: B

There are two kinds of experts in our world. There are the kinds that study something, that break it down to its intricate details, who speculate, postulate and theorize. They use this knowledge to develop opinions, join think tanks, become talking heads on TV news programs and teach courses. Then there is the kind of expert who simply lives something. They may not know why something work, or develop their theories based on intangible concepts of instinct, and heart, but while the studios expert is working on the textbook, they are out applying their knowledge, living and dying by their expertise. Andrew Vachss often writes about that second type of experts. One of the reasons I enjoy single author short story collections is to see how an author takes the central themes of their writing, and explores them through different situations and even genres. Mortal Lock is no different. Vachss inhabits his stories with his signature characters. Vachss’ characters are truly what sets him apart. They are never loveable, and often lot even close to likeable, but they bring a perspective that it seems even the most research oriented author often misses. There is something authentic in their reality, even when they are in situations the push plausibility. In Mortal Lock, Vachss’ applies his themes and characters to 20 different stories, some quite short, while others more detailed, giving us a glimpse into worlds that us everyday tourist rarely ever see.

It is really hard to evaluate and recommend a short story anthology, without going into detail about every story. Like in most anthologies, there is a hit and miss quality. There were some stories that were simply quick slices of life, that seemed to serves as buffers between larger tales. This is something I haven’t seen as often in anthologies, and for the most part I liked it. While I didn’t LOVE every story, three of the larger tales truly make this anthology worth the time and money of any Andrew Vachss Fan. For me the highlight of this short story collection was Veil’s Visit, which Vachss cowrote with Joe Lansdale featuring one of my favorite literary dues Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. Add to this the fact that the story was a Courtroom tale where Leonard is on trial for burning down his neighborhood crackhouse, and the legal theory used by the Defense was priceless. The two other stories that I thought were exceptional were As The Crow Flies, which features the protagonists from his upcoming novel Aftershocks and Profile, which has another of Vachss characters, Cross, hunting an online predator. Yet, these stories were far from the only gems. Vachss starts it off with Ghostwriter, featuring a brilliant writer who was completely unlikeable and sociopathic and did whatever it took to see his works come to print. One of my other favorites was A Piece of the City where rival gangs come to blows over and incident that may be more that it seems. Along the way, Vachss gives his twisted take on Crime Fiction staples like spurned husbands and serial killers. Vachss even breaks away from his typical crime noir to expand into other genres, most notably a tale of a Hit Man searching for a cure for AIDS for his dying sister, who encounters monsters of legends. The only downside of the collection comes in the form of the long screenplay that is the finale. Not that it wasn’t interesting and full of some excellent themes and fascinating explorations. I have never been much of a screenplay reader, and experiencing one in audio was interesting. The tales is definitely high concept, extremely visual and very avante guard. It is more of a series of intertwined vignettes told in a Dystopian World were society is now underground. Vachss creates a disturbing system where the establishment allows many types of evils to flourish, the family structure to break down, and truths told through graffiti painted on walls. If such a movie was ever made, it would be more at home next to the subtitled foreign films at The Ritz than at your local Movie Hut. I think Underground is something I enjoyed more considering the aspects he explored later than during the actual exercise of listening. There were some moments where the story was truly fascinating, some hidden gems in the screenplay, but at times it was hard to stay focused on it.

I am typically not a fan of multi-narrator productions where the male narrator reads the male lines and the majority of the prose, than a female narrator pops in for the female dialogue lines. It just never seems to feel natural for me. This process was used often in Mortal Lock, and while effective, I often cringed when it happened. Luckily, the two narrators had an obvious rhythm down, and made it as natural as possible. That really isn’t a surprise, since the narrators were Phil Gigante and Natalie Ross. Phil handled the majority of the work, and was wonderful as usual. In fact, when Veil’s Visit began, I had a huge idiot grin on my face as the familiar voice of Hap Collins filled the cavern within my skull. Gigante has a knack for knowing when to go low key, and when a bit of over-the-top is appropriate. He is the perfect narrator for Vachss, able to capture the dark humor and noir stylings of Vachss writing, while giving his characters a realism that just feels right. This was my first time listening to Natalie Ross, and I enjoyed her work. Surprisingly, I think some of her best work was done during the screenplay, as well as one particularly creepy serial killer tale. She offered a nice counterbalance to Gigante. Overall, Mortal Lock is a must listen for fans of Andrew Vachss. For those interested in getting a taste of Vachss style, Mortal Lock gives a nice spectrum of indulge in.

Note: Thanks to Dreamscape Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.