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Monday, January 21, 2008

"Sharp Teeth" by Toby Barlow

Toby Barlow @ RandomHouse UK + HarperCollins
Order “Sharp TeethHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Read NextRead’s REVIEW of “Sharp Teeth

Just last month I REVIEWED Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt novels which I absolutely loved. I mean the blending of hard-boiled crime noir with urban fantasy, the incredible Quentin Tarantino-like dialogue, the author’s unique take on vampires, the stylized violence, the kinetic energy of the books…I had never read anything quite like them and didn’t think I would again until the next Charlie Huston novel. Then along comes Toby Barlow’sSharp Teeth”…

Available in the UK since August, “Sharp Teeth” is making its North American debut this January and is the first novel by Toby Barlow—an executive creative director at the advertising agency
JWT (MTV, Ford, Shell), a contributor to the literary magazine n+1 and the Huffington Post, and creator of the Billy Collins Action Poetry series.

Let me cut straight to the point. If you’re a fan of Charlie Huston’s works, especially his Joe Pitt casebooks, then you’re going to want to check out Mr. Barlow’sSharp Teeth”. Like the Joe Pitt novels, “Sharp Teeth” features a cathartic mix of pulp fiction noir and the supernatural; it’s edgy, bloody & stylish; and the book reads almost like a novella—short & snappy. Of course, it also has its differences—lycanthropes (werewolves) instead of vampires; Los Angeles instead of New York; multiple point-of-views in place of the first-person; and so on. These aren’t your everyday werewolves either by the way. Shape shifting has nothing to do with the lunar cycle; infection doesn’t happen because of a bite; and you don’t transform into a two-legged monster with an unstoppable craving for human flesh. Instead, lycanthropes turn into dogs—a little larger than the average canine with a hint of wolfish traits—complete with a pack mentality that includes alpha males & females. Even in this, the author shakes things up a little bit with differing philosophies like the path of the Ukan which relies on abstinence and tension.

Perhaps the most significant distinction of all though is the unorthodox format. In short, “Sharp Teeth” is a verse novel. If you’re thinking along the lines of Homer’s the Iliad/Odyssey, Beowulf or The Canterbury Tales, think again. While the book resonates with beautiful language, evocative metaphors & similes, and various other poetic nuances, it’s still prose. For example:

So get this straight
it’s not the full moon.
That’s as ancient and ignorant as any myth.
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.

For me, it didn’t take very long to get used to the different approach, but I have to admit that I was a bit worried at how certain aspects of the novel might be handled like the characterization. Fortunately, that was a non-issue. In fact, the cast—which includes pack leader Lark, a dogcatcher who falls in love with a werewolf, the nameless female who falls in love with a dogcatcher, Officer Peabody, Mr. Venable, Annie, and various other personalities—are what drive the novel. After all, despite a noir-esque plot that involves three rival packs of lycanthropes, drug dealers, disappearing dogcatchers, a one-armed man, dogfighting and a curious cop—resulting in plenty of sharp turns, remarkable coincidences, and spine-chilling bloodshed—“Sharp Teeth” is a surprisingly profound and astute novel that explores such universal themes as love, loneliness and loyalty…

That’s what love does.
It chases the dragons away
before their claws can sink in.

As much as “Sharp Teeth” impressed me, I have to admit that it’s not perfect. Towards the end of the book the story starts to lose its kick and ventures into more conventional territory; the lack of information about the lycanthropes’ history was a bit disappointing; and a few pieces never come together like a bridge tournament and kennels that were part of Lark’s original plan. Still, between the originality of the presentation, the refreshing slant on werewolves, a healthy dose of black humor, and a story that’s as wily as it is soulful, it’s pretty easy to get excited by everything that “Sharp Teeth” has to offer. Not to mention the book is self-contained with enough pieces in place for a sequel :). In the end, Toby Barlow’s remarkable first novel is one of the few debuts whose bite is as sharp as its bark…


Anonymous said...

Interesting novel, I read a bit of a sample on the website and I'm definitly getting it along with Traci Slatton's "Immortal" and Brian Keene's "Dark Hollow" which are all coming out January 29th.

You don't happen to have a review of Brian Cullen's Seekers of the Chalice upcoming? Very hard to find advance info on that one.

Robert said...

Calibander, I'll be looking forward to your thoughts on "Sharp Teeth" :) I actually have a copy of "Immortal" sitting on my pile, but I probably won't read it for a while yet. Looks really interesting though. I haven't read anything by Brian Keene, but I haven't read any good horror for a while now, so I might have to pick "Dark Hollow" as well when it comes out...

Unfortunately, no review for "Seekers of the Chalice". I'll be featuring it in my next Spotlight, but the book didn't really catch my eye...

Chris, The Book Swede said...

This sounds really, really interesting. I will be getting this. it's a must.

Robert said...

Chris, I definitely recommend the book :) It's different, but in a good way, and is highly entertaining...

Tia Nevitt said...

This is one I would have missed! Interesting that two debut verse novels debuted in the same month.

Chris, The Book Swede said...

This turned up this morning. God, it's good! My first novel-in-verse.

I have to say (not knowing what the US design is like) that the design is gorgeous, too; I spent ages looking at it.

Really enjoying it. Excellent call on this, and cool review.

The Book Swede

Robert said...

Tia, that is interesting. I wonder what the other verse novel is like...

Chris, glad you're liking the book. I just have the ARC version, but I heard the design was pretty cool :)

Anonymous said...

Robert - I LOVED this book - thanks for recomending!

Anonymous said...

I have to go pick up this book thanks for the recomendation. I have heard so many good things on Toby Barlow my sister also read this book and told me Barlow is a genius so i wanted to see if anyone else would recommend it so thank you! and ill definitely be heading to Barnes & Noble this weekend! Ill let you know what i think!



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