Love bites and growls and howls at the moon: a review of Sharp Teeth

We are all china barely mended,
clumsily glued together
just waiting
for the hot water and lemon
to seep through our seams.

Sharp TeethI’ve never been the biggest fan of poetry. I think it’s beautiful, but I’m not a big reader of it, and I don’t write it. Sharp Teeth is that wonderful exception.

Written in free verse, Toby Barlow’s debut novel combines the mysteries, passion, and eloquence of poetry with the accessible storytelling of prose. The Wall Street Journal likened it to “Romeo and Juliet, werewolf-style,” which is partly accurate. The different lycanthrope packs of Los Angeles are like the familial houses that rule the city, the members brothers and sisters, bound by the magic in their blood and the secrets of their transformation. Between them are a pair of unlikely, star-crossed lovers: the dogcatcher and the wolf. Only he doesn’t know what she is, and that ignorance rubs against her bottled-up knowledge and heats the friction between them.

There’s tragedy, like with Romeo and Juliet, though not all is lost. The book is part modern crime drama. A cop named Peabody investigates a murder: the evidence a river of blood and the unmistakable trail of red paw prints that leads him into the heart of gang rivalries that are only human some of the time. An old pack, a wild pack, and a rebel pack. All three with different outlooks on life but one insatiable hunger to own the town, to devour it.

These werewolves don’t change by the cycle of the moon: “That’s as ancient and ignorant as any myth.” Rather:

The blood just quickens with a thought
a discipline develops
so that one can self-ignite
reshaping form, becoming something rather more canine
still conscious, a little hungrier.
It’s a raw muscular power,
a rich sexual energy
and the food tastes a whole lot better.

That’s Sharp Teeth in a nutshell. These people have reasons for turning wolf. They were recruited because of their strength and loneliness, the sense that the world had wronged them, abandoned them, and now is the time to rip its throat out. That desire turns to blood lust, as primal as the sexual drive that burns with it. Sex and love. Canine and human. Almost one and the same, and the beauty is how they flirt and intermingle, that violence and passion spilling out like guts on the page.

It’s a dog’s world. Barlow ponders the tameness of man’s best friend as much as he does the wolves those mutts might be as they wait and watch with knowing, human eyes. Blending in as regular dogs is how these packs stalk the town, how they get away with murder, how they infiltrate the enemy’s forces and convert and initiate or betray. They operate by animal rules and live by human needs for revenge and companionship and possession. Barlow weaves these two sides together with grace and sadness and a just a lick of happy-ever-after.

You’ll never look at your dog the same way again.

Grade: A

You got vampires in my ghost story: a review of Where the Dead Fear to Tread

“The dead are the past and we cannot escape the past. Without the past there will be no future.”

Where the Dead Fear to Tread by M.R. GottTake a look at the cover for Where the Dead Fear to Tread by M.R. Gott (sequel forthcoming) and you pretty much know what to expect. It looks like it could be an action movie poster, right? Unfortunately, that’s what the book most resembles — a movie. Maybe the author is in the wrong business because as a popcorn movie, this story might work. It doesn’t as a novel.

Where the Dead is about an antihero who punishes child abusers and tangles with ghosts, vampires, and werewolves. That might sound like a sensible, collected premise, but that’s not how the book reads. It wants to be both a detective story and supernatural fiction, and the result is a mangled hybrid between the two. There’s no consistency to its world — you have no idea what to expect next not because the plot is fascinating and unpredictable but because it feels like Gott is making it up as he goes along.

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Ghosts, vampires, and werewolves—oh, please

When it premiered, Being Human struck me as something a little too British for my taste. I have nothing against British television per say. I find IT Crowd downright hilarious, but I’m not so much a fan of the cheesy intergalactic drama of Dr. Who or Hugh Laurie dressed as a woman. Ich, no thanks.

I figured a show about ghosts, vampires, and werewolves would probably take itself too seriously just like every other show or movie about ghosts, vampires, and werewolves (except for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of my all-time favorites).

By now you might be wondering, “What the Dalek does this have to do with books?”

The other night I was watching (and surprisingly enjoying) the first episode of Being Human on Netflix (all twenty-two available episodes are staying in my Instant Queue now), and I started thinking about how difficult it is for a generation so desensitized to those monster groups and more (especially zombies) to write fresh material about something that’s been done a million times.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve read Bram Stoker or Anne Rice. Everyone knows a vampire by those two little dots on the neck, their miserable fashion sense, and their love of London.

And speaking of London: werewolves. The only good werewolves are running around Europe, but I’ve never seen one that doesn’t look sillier than a cat wearing pajamas.

And lastly, ghosts. Ghosts got lost somewhere along the way (err), but they’re still a big fascination thanks to reality shows like Ghost Hunters, movies like Paranormal Activity, and pretty much any Japanese horror movie out there. (I recently watched Ju-on, by the way, and it was much better than the American version, The Grudge. No offense Sarah Michelle Gellar, but you’re Buffy through and through.)

A show rarely mixes all three together, which is part of what makes Being Human so interesting. We get to see how these monsters interact as they walk all over each other’s territory.

But the real sell is in the title: “being human.” The main characters—the ghost, the werewolf, and vampire—don’t think of themselves as monsters. It’s everyone they have to deal with outside who is. And it’s that humanity, or lack of it, that has always made the fantastical a little more accessible—a little more human.

Basically writers are set for eternity. They can write about these popular monsters for as long as they please (or until they drop dead), but only if they can a) emphasize the human traits in the good characters and the inhuman ones in the bad and b) put them in interesting situations that challenge their feral nature.

What do you think? Is it time to retire the big bads, or is it impossible to get enough?