We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

A girl with a guitar never has to apologize for anything.

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Edition: Quirk Books, 2018, 336 pages.

In the 1990s, Kris Pulaski was the guitarist of a heavy metal band called Dürt Würk, and even though the band gave their best to succeed, Dürt Würk didn’t get their big break, so, twenty years later, we see Kris, who is now in her forties and broke, working as a hotel receptionist at a Best Western, where she has to deal with annoying, drunk guests.

The premise of We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix immediately appealed to me because of the heavy metal aspect and, in essence, the novel is a fast-paced, supernatural story that reflects on modern-day consumerism and looks at how far some people would be willing to go in the name of fame and success?

“Now, people sell their souls for nothing. They do it for a new iPhone or to have one night with their hot next-door neighbor. There is no fanfare, no parchment signed at midnight. Sometimes it’s just the language you click in an end-user license agreement. Most people don’t even notice, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care. They only want things. So they sell their souls, and they go to sleep, and the Special Ones crawl out of the dirty corners and lap them up. They control everything, they keep us hungry, they keep us in pain, they keep us distracted. Have you noticed how soulless this world has become? How empty and prefabricated? Soulless lives are hollow. We fill the earth with soulless cities, pollute ourselves with soulless albums. When the soul is removed it leaves a hole, and we try to fill that hole with so many things—the internet, and conspiracy theories, and CNN, and drugs, and food, but there is only one thing inside that hole, Kris, and that is Black Iron Mountain. It is our jailer, and this is our jail: an eternal, insane hunger that can never be satisfied, a wound that can never be healed, an unnatural desire to consume. Our hunger traps us inside a prison as big as the world.”

As the story develops, we find out just how close Dürt Würk was to making it big, and how it all came crashing down when their lead singer, Terry Hunt, decided to betray his bandmates and go solo, while continuing to use the band’s old material. Terry goes on to achieve phenomenal fame with his metal band Koffin, and the announcement of Koffin’s epic farewell tour sparks Kris’s determination to reconnect with her old bandmates and confront Terry about the events that lead to the dissolution of Dürt Würk. Along the way, she gets involved in a conspiracy, which suggests that Terry’s stardom might have come from some kind of Faustian deal, as suggested by the title of the book. Kris sets out to uncover the truth and races against time to stop an evil force from taking over the world.

The story takes some time to gain momentum and the horror elements really start to appear only around the midpoint of the book, but, overall, We Sold Our Souls is an engrossing and spooky love letter to heavy metal music, and Kris’s passion for the genre made me quite nostalgic to revisit some of the bands that are mentioned in the book. As expected, metal music plays a significant part in the narrative and each chapter heading is a fun reference to a song title. The book also makes some strong statements about the meaning and appeal of heavy metal music, and it obviously comes from a place of love for the genre. If you’re looking for a fun, spooky Halloween read with a strong female lead, I suggest giving this book a try.

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Kill ‘Em All by John Niven

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Edition: Cornerstone, 2018, 352 pages.

…or The Art of the Deal by Stephen Stelfox.

Kill ‘Em All will appeal to fans of novels such as High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, the Vernon Subutex series by Virginie Despentes, and the film 24-Hour Party People (2002), directed by Michael Winterbottom.

Kill ‘Em All is the sequel to John Niven’s most well-known 2008 novel Kill Your Friends, that was adapted into the 2015 film of the same name, directed by Owen Harris, and starring Nicholas Hoult in the role of the main character Stephen Stelfox, a filthy rich, cynical, and cunning A&R rep. Whereas Kill Your Friends was set in the music industry at the height of the Britpop craze in the 90s, this book is set in 2017 and feels very of the moment since the events unfold on the backdrop of Brexit and the Trump era, and Stephen Stelfox feels like the poster boy of late-stage capitalism – an immoral playboy that uses any opportunity and measure to accumulate more personal wealth, and is aware of the inequalities that exist in society, but doesn’t really care about the struggles of the poor. At the same time, the  author manages to make the cynical inner monologues of a professional troll darkly comedic and fun to read, like, for example, this passage when Stephen is at the airport, preparing to board a private jet:

I send a couple of pro-Trump tweets from my troll accounts (‘#godonald! #MAGA #inauguration’) to take my mind off my pre-flight anxiety while Grahame deals with luggage and the whole check-in palaver, out there in the chill January dawn. Passport and security take all of two minutes. (‘Hi, Sir! Nice to see you again.’) When I do this, I spare a thought for you out there – the dear, the gentle – taking your belt and shoes off, furiously scrabbling through your bag for that laptop or iPad, wearily walking back through the scanner, then extending your arms skywards as the guy with the wand does his stuff, the whole thing taking an eternity because, in the queue ahead of you, there are people, who, today, in 2017, seemingly haven’t been on a plane since Mohamed Atta and his lads did their thing back in 2001. Who don’t understand about the whole laptop, belt and shoes deal. Who are utterly astonished when they are asked to take these things off/put them in a tray/ whatever. By the time you stumble out of security two hours later you’re needing that pint of Tits in the Dog and Lettuce. You’re suicidal and you haven’t even left the fucking airport yet.

After making a ton of money from an American Idol-type reality show, Stephen Stelfox is semi-retired at the age of 42 and is living the high life of the ridiculously rich, while also spending some time doing consulting work in order to avoid thinking about the fact that his life is essentially empty. One day, Stephen gets a call from his old friend James Trellick, president of a big US record label Unigram, asking him for help in dealing with a potentially huge blackmail scandal that is about come to light involving the ageing pop-star Lucius Du Pre. Stephen agrees to help and comes up with an elaborate and outrageous plan to “fix” the situation, but when it becomes clear that things will not go according to his plan, Stephen is forced to improvise…

Behind the fast-paced, over the top plot, somewhat stereotypical characters, and very dark humour, the book offers a scathing critique of the misogyny, racism, populism, greed, and abuse of power that seems to be thriving in modern-day society. It’s also a very compelling satire of the modern music industry and celebrity culture, but definitely not a book for readers, who are easily offended.

Although this is a sequel to Kill Your Friends, the novel stands on its own, and I thoroughly enjoyed it even though I haven’t read the previous book, and I will definitely need to pick that one up at some point in the future.

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The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong

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Edition: Little, Brown, 2018, 322 pages.

The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim, is a psychological thriller that has been compared to American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, Misery by Stephen King and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and, since two of these novels are among my favourite books of all time, I was very intrigued to read it. Moreover, it’s a work in translation, and You-jeong Jeong is described as one of the leading psychological crime fiction authors in South Korea.

I don’t read a lot of thrillers, and, in those rare cases that I do, I find it hard to review them without giving away major plot points. I find that, in most cases, there is not much to talk about in terms of themes and symbolism, so I can only judge these books based on whether they succeed at what they essentially set out to do – to tell a thrilling and suspenseful story that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

The Good Son is narrated in the first person by Yu-jin, a 25-year old college student and former swimming champion, who lives with his widowed mother and adopted brother Hae-jin, who in many ways resembles Yu-jin’s deceased older brother. The book opens with Yu-jin waking up one day, covered in blood, and finding the body of his mother, who clearly has been murdered. We soon learn that Yu-jin suffers from a condition that requires him to use medication to prevent seizures an blackouts, but a side effect of the pills is that they make him lethargic, so he sometimes secretly goes for days without taking them. When he finds his murdered mother’s body, he quickly realizes that he will become the prime suspect of the murder investigation, so he struggles to piece together what actually happened from the fragments of his memories and his mother’s diary entries.

I think that, even if you’re not a crime fiction enthusiast, you might be able to guess, fairly accurately, how this story is going to unfold, based on just a few pieces of information provided in the synopsis. Despite the fact that this is a thriller, I found the pacing of the book to be very slow, and, apart from some truly intense and chilling moments, I felt that the narrative was going in circles between each point when some new and exciting piece of information is revealed. I must admit that I wasn’t particularly surprised by the revelations. The hints that are left throughout the book made it pretty obvious, however, I found the character of Yu-jin quite fascinating and convincing. From the very start, you get the sense that he might be an unreliable narrator, and I was intrigued to find out how he will react and deal with the unfolding situation. The story is set over the course of just a few days, and it feels like you are stuck in Yu-jin mind that gives the book a rather claustrophobic atmosphere. While I found the overall plot to be quite predictable, the book really succeeds as a dark character study.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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