Some authors have it all: a PhD in science or medicine, good looks, a gift for story telling, a sense of humor, a fresh voice, and a fan named Carol Kean. Okay, just kidding about that last part, but seriously, it takes a lot to make one Indie Author stand out from a gazillion others out there. Every day I scan the daily newsletters for new talent. Most books don’t survive my page-one test. Some make me wish I hadn’t read all the way to the end. Maybe one in every 300 strike me as The Real Deal – a great writer whose name should be a household word.
Sean Costello got me with “Alaskan bush pilot” in the synopsis. Never pass up a story about a pilot, even if it’s a genre I avoid, and thriller is just not my genre. The authorbio however, reeled me in: “In the real world he’s an anesthesiologist, but, if asked, he’d tell you he’d much rather be writing.”Despite 35 years of working full time in hospitals, he managed to write eight novels and numerous screenplays. His novel “Here After” has been optioned to film by David Hackl, director of Saw V. I read “Squall” first:
Bush pilot Tom Stokes sets out in his Cessna 180 to do some repairs on a remote hunt camp, leaving his five-year-old son and very pregnant wife snug in their beds. On the return trip, a squall forces him into an emergency landing and a peculiar predicament with petty criminal Dale Knight, brother of a merciless drug lord, boyfriend (boy toy?) of a wild young woman who shoots to kill and steal, but poor Dale just didn’t see that one coming. One bad decision after another spirals out of control. Two hit men from India provide comic relief and sheer, stark, raving terror as well. SQUALL is a fast-paced, darkly comic tale of murder and gang-style retribution that does something most thrillers don’t: it delivers ridiculous, over the top, crazy characters who are believable and authentic. It’s the Quentin Tarantino with a heart, the Stephen King of the Indie realm.
My review of Squall:
The prose is good too, and that shouldn’t be *news* but it is. There’s confidence and *competence* in this author’s voice. Line after line is a pleasure to read. Not once did I suffer the tortured syntax of the “under-age-50” writer. Yesterday I set aside a really good story because of too many muddled sentences. It never used to be such a rare treat to stumble across an honest, simple, good sentence like this one: “Then, almost without noticing, Dale was driving on center-bare blacktop under a white sky, the moon burning through like a dull beacon, guiding them north.”
Normally I avoid the thriller genre, especially those page-turners where one ludicrous disaster after another piles up, but throw “humor”, irony and wit into the synopsis, and “screenwriter” to the author bio, and I’m willing to take a look.
From page one, I was hooked. Never mind the profanity and how little sympathy I have for coke-snorting drug runners. These people just seem *real,* and I’m drawn into their world.
Ronnie is a woman with a past who keeps falling for “puppy dog” guys – “stronger men always ended up treating her like property. Dale, at least, showed her respect.” Her pride, her determination not to be exploited again, or imprisoned again, is rivaled only by her audacity.
Dale, the puppy dog, wins my sympathy even though I normally dislike protagonists who come across as losers. Somehow a light of hope shines under his cowardice and caving to peer pressure and trying so hard not to disappoint others– in particular, his drug-lord brother Ed.
“Two weeks’ pay at minimum wage in a couple hours. All he had to do was follow the rules.” Sounds so simple – and so much like the tsunami of trouble that spiraled out of such a simple scenario in “Breaking Bad,” the best TV show ever.
Crime didn’t pay and he didn’t have to turn out like his brother if he didn’t want to, Dale’s uncle used to tell him. “What Uncle Frank never understood was that in those days Dale wanted nothing more” than to be like his brother. “Nobody messed with Ed.” Ed is the smart one, the cool one; Dale is the one who’s afraid of everything. The brother bond brings to mind another classic, S.E. Hinton’s ‘Rumble Fish’.
In the second chapter, we meet All-American bush pilot Tom, his wife, and their son. Step by inexorable step, the path from Ronnie and Dale to Tom and Mandy builds. Just as inevitably, two scary hit-men from India (!) follow the same path to that obscure cabin in the frozen wilderness up north.
Small, ordinary details bring Tom and his family to life. Any good parent who checks on a sleeping child knows this feeling: “An irrational fear, maybe–Steve was a healthy, active kid who, apart from those few routine illnesses of early childhood, rarely even caught a cold–but it was a dread that abated only when Tom rested his hand on that tiny chest, as he did now, feeling the rhythmic passage of air that signaled precious life.”
One hilarious disaster after another finally puts Tom in the same room as Dale, in the most ludicrous and improbable way an author could think of. It gets even more ludicrous when the hit men arrive on the scene.
What blows my mind is not that I willingly suspend disbelief to accept the craziness of this story. It’s that even the villains have their human side. How does an author get us to care about a heartless hit man? Sanj regards Sumit as “the smartest, funniest, most fiercely loyal human being Sanj had ever had the privilege of knowing. And by far the craziest.”
I’m pretty sure almost nobody reads my Kindle Highlights (even I am hard-pressed to find them) so I will collect here a few of my favorite lines:
— “Most of those parking lot attendants you’re talking about have degrees in physics or engineering.”
— with the cool detachment of a farm woman snapping the neck of a hen,
— The whole object of a con, any con, was to convince its intended victim to believe, no matter how outrageous the premise and no matter what the cost.
— His demons were awake now, capering and hungry as hell.
Plot spoilers keep me from saying more, but even the most minor character, a WWII vet and former fighter pilot, sounds so authentic, I would bet the author took this guy straight from real life. The vet’s dialogue with his wife is spot-on. His stoicism, his mere *competence* even at almost age 90, has me cheering for sheer joy.
Now, if more of Dale’s generation were more like the WWII vet’s…
This is a fun story. It’s improbable, it’s sad, it’s fraught with tension and peril, but hope reigns supreme. Just in time for Christmas or Hanukkah, this is the go-to read I was needing. No religious conversions here – but for anyone who thinks a loser can’t change or a killer can’t reform, the founder of half.com wrote a book about ten murderous, drug-dealing tough guys who turned over a new leaf – “Sons of Grace: Ten Tough Men Who Went from Hell to Happiness” by Mark Hughes:
How Ten Tough men went from organized crime, heroin, murder & motorcycle gangs and more, to peace and happiness. After living tough, checkered, and murderous lives, these are the real stories of conversion:
the Motorcycle gang leader serving 50 years for murder,
the Mafia Associate and friend to the highest levels of the east coast Cosa Nostra,
the ego-driven corporate executive, the former heroin addict now a pastor,
the Marine who tried to commit suicide with 375 pills.
Their lives and five more changed … sometimes immediately, and sometimes slowly.
These are their stories, questions, and journeys from hell to happiness.
Should Costello get four instead of five stars for rushing the growth of his most despicable characters? Well, look at that animated film, “Despicable Me,” and tell me that there’s no hope for humanity. I want hope!
I’d recommend this story to fans who are waiting for more from Sam Neumann (“Emails from Heaven” – also with two brothers and “The Call of the Mountain” – also a story of how easy it is to fall into drug trafficking and how hard to get out of it).
And I hope to discover more where this comes from. Are all Costello’s books this good? If so, I’m long overdue in finding him.
After posting my 5-star review of Squall, I heard from the author himself. He sent me a copy of “Here After,” somehow intuiting that it would hit close to home – but he had no way of knowing just *how* close this tale of missing children is for me. My sister vanished at almost-19 and was found dead a few months later, so I know all too well that the agony of not knowing is worse than knowing a loved one is dead. I also know the lack of closure when one never gets to see the body, never knows who killed your loved one or why, never sees justices served or a killer apprehended before he kills again. “Here After” delivers some good old-fashioned vigilante justice, along with a reminder that when citizens go after criminals because the police are under-staffed (or corrupt), they may end up injured, paralyzed for life, or dead.
Amazon reviewer “Here After” is more than a thriller. It’s how three different people react to the loss of a child. Costello’s “depiction of those reactions is so spot-on, real, and believable that it’s very difficult to believe that he hasn’t had such a loss in his own life. It’s heart-wrenching … There are no one-dimensional cardboard author’s pawns here … Costello writes solid, clean, clear sentences, which he assembles into effective and well-structured paragraphs. His style is smooth enough that it doesn’t call attention to itself. The characters speak like real people.”
My Review: a taut, well-crafted story, haunting and gratifying, bittersweet and believable, January 10, 2016 By Carol Kean
Erika is a group member who’s psychic, and Peter seems to be descending into madness or entering the psychic realm himself. Erika is the only person who’d believe Peter has seen evidence of his son communicating from beyond the grave–and that this son has an urgent message for his dad. If the dead could just speak, rather than offer nudges and hints–!
My sister’s cold case turned 40 years old in November 2015, and I can attest that Sean Costello nails the sense of loss.The opening chapters are brutally honest, pitting the reader in the dark depths of a despair known only by those who’ve lost a child or suffered the not-knowing: who abducted the child, and is he or she alive or dead? I know of parents who’ve gone to their grave not knowing. Others never know who killed their child.
The first half of the novel is near and dear to my heart. I wish I could attest to the paranormal (psychic) aspect, but I’ve never sensed my sister’s presence or that she ever tried to nudge us to learn who killed her. The second half of the novel is an action-packed thriller with casualties, big surprises and unthinkable horrors. Any time I consider trying to find my sister’s killer myself, I think of novels like this, and how often innocent people end up dead trying to solve a crime.
It’d take me ten pages to list the ideas, thoughts, feelings, memories, experiences, outrage, shattered hopes, and undying optimism that one author manages to cover in a short novel. So many details about friends, forgiveness, and small daily incidents ring true.
This is a taut, well-crafted story, haunting and gratifying, bittersweet and believable.
Sean Costello has been practicing anaesthesiology in Sudbury since 1981. Previous novels include Eden’s Eyes, 1989; The Cartoonist, 1990; Captain Quad, 1991 (reprinted, Scrivener, 2011);Sandman, 2000; Finders Keepers, 2002; and Here After, Scrivener Press, 2008. Here After and Squall have been optioned for films.