Wednesday, November 15, 2017

INJUSTICE: GODS AMONG US - YEAR ONE by Tom Taylor

Remember that shitty Batman vs Superman movie from a couple of years ago? The most interesting part of that movie was also its most random, a dream sequence where Batman is the leader of a resistance in a dystopian America led by a villainous Superman. You see, contrary to popular opinion, I love seeing Superman as a villain, I think he's too powerful of a hero, leading to a lack of a sense of danger in many of his stories. I love the idea that he's an all-too-human god among men that is as susceptible to corruption as the rest of us. I keep telling people that that dream sequence was what Batman vs Superman (or the new Justice League movie) should've really focused on; it would've made a much more interesting story. So this Injustice series of graphic novels is right up my alley!

In one of his most ambitious ploys, The Joker succeeds in creating absolute chaos by manipulating Superman into accidentally killing Lois Lane and their unborn baby, and nuking Metropolis. Superman understandably goes a bit bonkers and decides to enforce peace in the world with an absolute iron fist. Many of the more powerful Justice League members, including Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Green Lantern, and The Flash, stand to support him. But Batman can see how forcing people to be good can lead to disaster and gathers a small group of lesser heroes to stand against him.

I love this idea but I was admittedly hesitant in reading a comic book based on a video game, thinking that it would just be a cash-in adaptation. But this book is way better than it has any right to be, and it's one of the better superhero stories I've read recently. Similar to Marvel's Civil War, you can understand both sides of the debate. The book also did a great job at showing the downfall of the relationship between Batman and Superman, and the increasing contrast in their worldview. And although it still suffers from much of the usual superhero comic bloat (there's yet another Darkseid invasion that lasts about 19 seconds, and a random Lobo issue), it's one of the more exciting graphic novels I've read recently, a very well-paced compelling tale, and everything that Batman vs. Superman should've been.

GRADE: A-

Saturday, November 11, 2017

THE FEVER KILL by Tom Piccirilli

He wanted to kill somebody, but everyone who mattered was already dead.
I'm sure everyone is tired of me gushing on and on about how great Tom Piccirilli is. But I've yet to read a bad book from him and the guy's writing really illustrates the complexity of his characters in such an impressively efficient way. The Fever Kill is no different. Here we focus on a narc cop so deep undercover he doesn't know what side he's on anymore, returning to his hometown to confront his family's past.

I love the complicated gray area of morality that the book and it's protagonist Crease lives in, as well as the High Noon-style of the inevitable confrontation between Crease and the violent drug dealer he's involved with. The book was one of the first straight crime novels that Piccirilli wrote, and even though it's a gritty noir that takes place in modern-day Vermont, with it's structure and themes it could've been written as a classic Western. It's an intense tale about a man trying to figure out where he lands on the morality scale.
"Go on and get yourself shot. Do it close to the gutter so no one else has to clean up after you."

GRADE: A-

Sunday, November 5, 2017

THE PUNISHER: THE COMPLETE MAX COLLECTION VOLUME 1

I've always been fascinated by the character of The Punisher. Have you ever been frustrated when the more popular heroes keep capturing the bad guys over and over even though they must know they will escape again and hurt more innocent people? Sometimes wonder why they don't stop them in a way that they can't hurt anyone else? Well, the Punisher is the hero for you! An angry Vietnam vet named Frank Castle gets some guns and makes it his mission to permanently do away with the bad guys.

I've been wanting to read good Punisher stories before the Marvel series premieres this month, and this Garth Ennis run with the character is one of the most well-received. First, Ennis opens with Born, the tragic and haunting miniseries that gives us a peek at Frank's final Vietnam days, showing us that there might've been something within Frank already, even before the Mob killed his family; demons in his nature that were simply simply let loose after personal tragedy. It's a near masterpiece. In the next two stories in this first volume, Ennis does a great job here at resetting the Punisher world. He focuses more on the Punisher as a symbol and legend. Frank Castle has been punishing for over 20 years and has built up a bit of a reputation, and whether it's dealing with a CIA conspiracy or Irish gangs in Hell's Kitchen, we see Frank Castle mostly through the supporting characters' eyes.

The books collected here are:

The Punisher: Born - Grade: A
The Punisher: In The Beginning - Grade: B
The Punisher: Kitchen Irish - Grade: C+


GRADE: B

Monday, October 30, 2017

AND HER SMILE WILL UNTETHER THE UNIVERSE by Gwendolyn Kiste

This is one of the most consistently creative story collections I've read this year, second only to The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett. Every story is inventive and original, whether conceptually or in the way they're presented. I went into this book expecting a scary story collection to jump into during my Horroroctober reading, but this collection is less horror and more of a compilation of dark fairy tales and magic realism, all written in gorgeous, passionate prose.

While each story stands out on it's own, author Gwendolyn Kiste uses each imaginative premise to tell a tale of unique women, whether it's the woman who gives birth to birds in "Something Borrowed, Something Blue," the encased, persecuted girls in the heart-rending "The Tower Princesses," the scorned woman of the clever "By Now, I'll Probably Be Gone," or the neglected stage actress literally immortalized on screen in the sublime title story. These women are all outcasts or outsiders, the unwanted and forgotten, who ultimately free themselves from the limitations the world has placed on them. Every story here is special and I was especially touched by the final story, "The Lazarus Bride," a sad, but deeply romantic story about holding on to something that you ultimately need to let go of.

I loved this. I was unfamiliar with Gwendolyn Kiste before but she made a real impression on me with this book. She seems to have a few more things coming down the pipeline so I'm excited to read more from her!

GRADE: A

Thursday, October 26, 2017

THE TROOP by Nick Cutter

When people talk about the different "types of horror," one of the examples that always comes up is "gross out horror." Nick Cutter's The Troop is solidly in that category and is definitely not for the squeamish. It follows the five boys of Boy Scout Troop 52 and their Scoutleader camping on a small island and the tragic events that occur once a sick stranger joins them.

Normally this type of horror wouldn't really be up my alley as it's the least effective, but there are a few major reasons why it works so well here. First is Cutter's dedication to taking the time to economically flesh out every character just enough that you're fully invested and game for anything as the book went on. It proves that you can do anything you want in a story as long as you can get the reader to buy into the characters. The next thing was the book's structure and the way that Cutter weaved in court documents and newspaper/journal articles in an epistolary format that runs parallel to the main action to give the reader a tiny sense of what was happening before, during, and after the events on Falstaff Island. It actually works even better than I expected, doling out just the right amount of info to make it fascinating but not revealing too much. And another reason why the novel is so effective is Cutter's writing. It's inventive, descriptive, and memorable.

There's some stuff in here that some readers might find hard to take but the reason why it's so terrible is because you've connected with these boys and have to bear witness to what happens to them. In the end, the horror in this book is tragic and pretty damn visceral, something that will stick with you for a while, and the book doesn't apologize for any of it.

GRADE: B+

Saturday, October 14, 2017

ASTONISHING X-MEN OMNIBUS by Joss Whedon

I've never been a big Joss Whedon fan-boy. I've never really understood the hype. But after reading this...man, he can write a mean X-men story! It can be tricky writing for the X-Men, especially these days, with tracking so many characters and trying to keep it fresh and interesting, but Whedon does an skillful job here in this 25-issue run that he had with the heroes.

Whedon shows a real love for the characters here, and the book features some of the most creative sequences I've seen in an X-Men tale. Whedon takes these well-known characters, consolidates all of their best attributes, and lets it all fly in this epic story. He not only has a great sensitivity to each X-Man's personality, but he takes their specific powers and explores all of the possible ways to showcase them, leading to massively entertaining sequences. One great example is the way the book shows how powerful skilled psychics can be, especially in the amazing sequence in the third volume, Torn, when the mansion is attacked by the Hellfire Club and telepathically manipulated by Cassandra Nova and Negasonic Teenage Warhead.

You can also tell the love that Whedon (as with many other writers) has for Kitty Pryde (Shadowcat). She has many fans but Whedon really showcases all of the aspects of her powers here and it's all very fascinating. What happens when Kitty has an orgasm? One of the reasons why the X-Men are some of my favorite heroes to read is because of the specificity of their individual powers, so I had a blast with all these little moments. And the book also features one of the coolest character entrances ever with the appearance of Colossus.

And of course the witty dialogue and entertaining  set-pieces that Whedon is known for is on full-display here, showing that he might be one of the best candidates to tell superhero stories, which he's proven here, and with his popularity with the big superhero movie franchises. And with this book run, he set a good standard for X-Men storytelling!



GRADE: B+

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

BLANKY by Kealan Patrick Burke

Kealan Patrick Burke has rocked it again with his latest novella and lands an effective balance of sadness and terror in this story about a man who loses his infant daughter to crib death and struggles to move on. But things take a darker turn when his daughter's blanky reappears, the blanky that was buried with her.

Burke takes one of the most horrific things that can happen to a parent and punches it up even more with the idea that there might be something much darker behind it all. And like most of the writers I love, his writing is deceptively simple, where you believe for a while that you're reading a simple horror tale because it has all the regular trappings, but then Burke sneaks up and punches you in the nose with genuine emotion and you realize that you're reading something else entirely. It also works in the reverse as well, where you think you're comfortably reading simply a well-written melancholy novella about the loss of a child, but then Burke turns your head and shows you something that creeps the crap out of you.

Can't wait to read even more of his work.

GRADE: B+

Monday, October 9, 2017

THE LAST WHISPER IN THE DARK by Tom Piccirilli

"You're a killer Terrier  I don't know who you've murdered but I can see its taint on you. You're my kind. We know about the disappeared, you and I. We know where the vanished are hidden."
I'm so happy I discovered Tom Piccirilli. It's so awesome when you discover writers who seem to write work specifically for you, books that are exactly what you want to read. 

This novel, which I believe was his final full-length one before his death, takes up several months after the events in The Last Kind Words, and features cat burglar Terrier Rand coming to terms with his actions in that book while still struggling with his place in his criminal family and still pining for the woman he abandoned. 

While the plot here isn't as focused as The Last Kind Words (he cast a wider net in this one, focusing on a number of different plot threads), Tom Pic outdoes himself here in his prose. He's a real writer's writer and has an almost perfectly-honed way with words that's really impressive to me. This is a crime novel more about the characters than about the crimes themselves and the book continues to effectively illustrate Terry, his family, and the rest of the supporting characters in a way that sets it apart from so many novels of its kind.  

In both this book and its predecessor, Terry struggles with avoiding the burden of his family's reputation and legacy but must confront the possibility that he must come to accept it, like it or not. One of the most interesting ideas is that his whole family is fucked up in a variety of ways, but the only one that seemed to be completely at peace was Collie, his late brother from the previous book that gave up the struggle fighting his urges and went on an unapologetic killing spree. Is that the answer...that Terrier just has to give in to his nature to finally be at peace with himself?
The underneath called to me and begged me to fire, to murder, to die. It promised me the end of anguish and a proper understanding of purpose.
It's not a feel-good read at all, so stay away if you're looking for something lighter. But as usual the author really knows how to nail poetic and powerful catharsis and like most of Pic's work it is a melancholy look at loss and a heritage you just can't shake. 
He had organized a hundred escape routes before, but now when he needed only one more, there weren't any left for him.
GRADE: A- 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

THE SEVENTH by Richard Stark

*Book 7 of the Parker series*

The Parker books have no business being this good seven books into the series. The stories are so simple that one would expect them to be too formulaic and repetitive. But with plot master Richard Stark at the helm, this is not the case. He's always so effortlessly creative when it comes to weaving a plot and he makes this book the best Parker novel so far in the series.

In this one, rather than detailing the setup of a complicated heist, we begin after the crime, as Parker holes up with the money and a woman he can bone until it's time to split the take. But when he goes out to get some beer and comes back to find her stabbed to death with a sword and the money stolen, he sets out to track the thief down and make sure he gets his cut. One of the things that really makes this one standout (aside from having an even faster pace than the others) is the fact that some of the obstacles that push the story forward is caused by Parker's mistakes. Parker is usually shown as an efficient, emotionless man who's always right and is always the one with the best judgement. But he fucks up a couple times here and it's interesting seeing him dedicated to fixing the situation.

So far, Stark's Parker novels are pretty dependable and enjoyable and The Seventh is the best one so far.

GRADE: A-

Saturday, September 23, 2017

THE SNAKE HANDLER by Cody Goodfellow and J. David Osborne

"I could never repent, because that was not my role, any more than it's yours. Heaven needs Hell. And Man needs a scapegoat for all the lies he tells himself."
Although the narrative lacked the momentum I was hoping for, this book is nowhere near safe or formulaic. This story of serpent handling evangelist preacher and small town drug dealer Clyde Hilburn being forced to confront his sins after he's bit by a snake someone put in his mailbox is still pretty memorable and has lots of things to say about sin, God, and morality. The tone of the novel really works to parallel Clyde's slow succumbing to the snake venom that he should be used to by now. I loved the writing and the fact that it's written as a prayer to God. It's an unflinching and savage collaboration between two great authors. And the redneck shootout in Walmart will probably go down as one of my favorite scenes in any book this year.

This is yet another brave and unique piece of work from Broken River Books, one of the best publisher's out there.

GRADE: B+