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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fate's a Bitch (and Then Someone Dies)


Being able to read another person's mind... it sounds like the sort of thing that could come in handy, doesn't it? “What would my friend like more than anything else on her birthday? Is that cute guy into me? Is the boss about to fire me, or give me a raise?” Knowing the answers to such things would be useful.
The sticking point with an ability like this, however, is the matter of control: being able to read someone’s mind on command... but no more. The opposite situation--having zero control over what or when you picked up another’s thoughts--would hardly provide the same usefulness. 
Now, imagine if instead of channeling someone's thoughts (fears, hopes, dreams, whatever), what you could read was his or her future... more precisely, the exact day, minute, hour--even method--of that person's death. Such is the life of one very unlucky soul, in author Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds.
Miriam Black is just a regular twenty-three-year-old girl. There’s nothing particularly striking about her; she’s a little on the scrawny side (from genuine hunger rather than from trying to achieve the emaciated model look), she’s passably pretty (but in truth not much more), and she’s smart enough to get by (but won’t be appending any fancy letters like “PhD” or “CEO” to her name in the foreseeable future). She drinks (a lot), smokes (whenever she can), does the occasional recreational drug, and gets a little wild as often as possible. (Put it this way... if there were such a thing as a “right” side of the tracks, she was born and raised--and is content to remain--on the other side.)
As with most people, though, there’s more to Miriam than meets the eye. For her, it only takes a touch--the merest skin-on-skin contact--and she instantly sees the other person’s moment of death. There’s no blocking it; she’s forced to watch it all play out in her mind’s eye. From car crashes to cancer, heart attacks to murder, suicide to death from sheer old age, she’s seen it all, hundreds, even thousands, of times.  
It’s a unique ability (curse, really) that she’s already lived with for several years. (Consider for a second what havoc touching a friend, a relative, a love interest--and seeing his/her death--would wreak on a teenager’s state of mind, and Miriam’s actions become a whole lot easier to understand, if you’re feeling judge-y.) She doesn’t even have the consolation of being able to stop some of the deaths--say, the accidents--from happening. Fate has proven to her time and again that it just doesn’t work that way.
So, she’s built up her defenses as best she can. She has no friends. She doesn’t stay in any place too long. She even uses her ability to her advantage, sometimes. When she sees that the loser who’s been hitting on her in the honkytonk bar will be dying within the next couple of hours after an epileptic seizure, it’s only natural that she sticks around long enough to see it happen (and to relieve him of his cash once it does). A girl has to survive, right?
Everything changes, though, when Miriam hitches a ride one night with a truly nice man. Trucker Louis Darling is an imposing hulk of a man, the sort who can look after himself, if need be... but he’s also kind and gentle and quietly funny. He looks at her and sees someone interesting and worth knowing (and it’s been a long time since anyone looked at her like that). 
There’s just one huge problem: the death she sees for him is, perhaps, the worst she’s ever witnessed. In only one month’s time, Louis will be tortured then horribly murdered... right in front of her... and Miriam knows there isn’t a damn thing she can do to stop it from happening. 
Or can she...?
Blackbirds is that rare book which gleefully defies pigeonholing. It’s almost certainly not quite what you expect. It’s cold and brutal, grim and oh-so dark (seriously, the shade known as “pitch-black” seems downright happy next to this)... a relentless, take-no-prisoners thrill ride on the seediest side of life. (What, you wanna get off? Tough. This ride ain’t for pussycats, baby.)
So, did I like it? Nope. I loved it. (What can I say? Intense, dark, and disturbing are my bag.) Blackbirds is so much more than just a trippy road story, though. Wendig writes with an eye for realistic settings and an ear for the way people actually talk. He gets the tortured souls, and is content to let them do their thing. He also grasps the natural hilarity which is usually present in even the grimmest of scenes (gallows humor, anyone?), and colors every page with black whimsy. It’s almost as though he lets this story happen the way it wants to; there’s no tidying up the ugliness or toning down the meanness, no diluting of the visceral elements... or of the surprisingly-touching heart at its (very grim) core.
Blackbirds isn’t for everyone. If it sounds like something in your wheelhouse, though, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll feel its impact... long after you’ve turned that last page.


GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  So many gnarly, chewed-up mousies (it isn't even funny)

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