Monday, February 19, 2018

THE PUNISHER: THE COMPLETE MAX COLLECTION VOL. 2 by Garth Ennis

This continues Garth Ennis's famous run on The Punisher, and saying he stepped his game up in this one is an understatement. I enjoyed the three story arcs in the first collection but this volume seems like it could've even been written by a different person. Frank Castle's personality and character shine brighter darker, I felt much more connected to him, the action is even crazier, and all of the stories are even more compelling. While at times the first book and it's character's and events felt a little cheeky, especially with some of the supporting characters, everything here seems way more genuine and confident and didn't feel like it was playing for jokes.

It begins with the "Mother Russia" story, which sees Castle on a rare mission to save a kidnapped little girl from a silo in Russia, a girl who happens to be carrying a deadly retrovirus in her bloodstream. It's like a blockbuster action movie that had me on the edge of my seat, with a lot of it due to it's breakneck pacing and the cutting of parallel action between Castle, the American generals, and the Russian generals. And it guest stars Nick Fury, who pretty much steals the whole show.


It then moves on to the insane "Up is Down, Black is White," which brings the return of crazed Mob guy Nicky Cavella, who has the dumb-as-nails idea to dig up The Punisher's dead family and piss on their skeletons just to draw him out. So you can obviously guess the violent insanity that happens subsequently. There are many returning characters here that really bring flavor to this one. Agent O'Brien and her relationship with Frank is one of the highlights of this story.


And finally we get to "The Slavers," the best story in the collection and considered by many to be one of the best Punisher stories ever written, where Frank stumbles onto a sex slave trade in New York and decides that he can''t stand around and do nothing about it. The story of the girls, the two well-meaning uniform cops, the nasty villains, and the morally-torn social worker are all richly-written and really make this story stand out. It's gripping stuff and very memorable, not only with the action but also with the reverence with which Ennis tackles the issue of sex slavery. And it's all topped off with a powerful ending.

This really impressed me and I hope the subsequent collections keep this same quality. And if not, both this volume and the first one (6 stories in total) will be collected in a complete omnibus which will be released this summer. If you're a fan of the well-received Netflix show, do yourself a favor and read this. This one's a stunner.

GRADE: A

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

PRETTY MARYS ALL IN A ROW by Gwendolyn Kiste

Mary Mack. Mistress Mary. Mari Lwyd. Resurrection Mary. Bloody Mary. They’ve been the subjects of terrifying legends or strange nursery rhymes for ages. Have you ever wondered what’s beyond their creepy songs and sightings? In her haunting new novella, talented, on-the-rise author Gwendolyn Kiste aims to explore their stories more, not necessarily their origins mind you, because that’s boring, but explore where they go and what they do when they’re not disturbing us.
Once upon a time, the darkness stole my life from me. Now it's stealing my hereafter too.
Kiste uses the same twisted fairytale style that I loved in her fantastic debut collection, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, to tell a story of the Mary’s as a reluctant family of spirits who must feed on the fear of the living for sustenance and what they attempt to do to break their curse. She twists these urban legends in a new way and once again gives us a memorable story wrapped in lovely prose and potent imagery. The action and resolution in the book might be a bit vague, but its emphasis is more on mood and atmosphere and it has that stuff in spades!
The voice will be there again in the ballroom, my unlikely partner as I dance to music no one else can hear. And I won't run from it. I'll stand here, firm and stubborn against the night. If the darkness wants me, I'll make it wait.
GRADE: B+

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

FIRES THAT DESTROY by Harry Whittington

Pulpy Tagline: "A relentless, revealing search into the soul of a sinful woman."

Back in the 50's, the pulp paperbacks were filled with seedy noir tales of doomed men moving toward their own destruction through bad choices and usually as a result of the charms of a sexy and irresistible harpy preying on their sad weaknesses. With Fires That Destroy though, prolific pulp writer Harry Whittington turns this trope on its head. He focuses on the femme fatale herself and reverses the roles a bit, telling the story of a meek, mousy secretary named Bernice (think the Hitchcock secretaries, like Midge from Vertigo), who ends up killing her blind employer with the hopes of absconding with his 24,000 bucks, make herself over, and have everything that sexy girls have. So naturally she falls for the first pretty boy that winks at her, leading her down the path to hell.

This is like the "ANTI-feminist" novel, where Bernice spends so much of the novel pining and groveling after an asshole that does nothing but take advantage of her. But I loved that Whittington doesn't pull punches in making sure that a female noir protagonist back then would be just as sad and flawed as their male counterparts, falling ass-over-elbow for a dangerous man that will no doubt lead to her destruction. Bernice is an interesting character, guided by her insecurities and her expectations that money will buy her all the happiness that she believes you get when you're more attractive. But she soon realizes that murder money can only take you to one undeniable destination. And in this book, that destination is an ironic ending that I really adored. Time to read more Whittington!

GRADE: B+

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

THE NOBODY by Tom Piccirilli

Cryer is a man with no past. His previous life and his memory were taken when a man broke into his house, brutally butchered his wife and daughter, and left him with a knife in his forehead. Now all he has left is an obsession with finding the man who did it. As with most Piccirilli novellas, it's not a happy tale, but it's still a powerful and affecting one. It was riveting to see a man attempting to sift through and piece together a life he doesn't remember having, and it was pretty interesting to learn about him as a character as he learns about himself. And what a character he is; a man with nothing left but solving the murders of a family he doesn't remember, not necessarily because it would solve anything, but because revenge is the only purpose that remains.

This is powerfully written stuff (especially in that final chapter) and Piccirilli once again proved why he's the king of contemporary noir.

GRADE: A-

BLACK HAMMER VOL. 2: THE EVENT by Jeff Lemire

I enjoyed this second volume of Black Hammer even better than the great 1st volume! An unexpected visitor from the outside world has appeared on the farm, not only sparking a bit of hope for escape in our heroes but also sparking old memories. Similar to the first installment, it's structured by cutting back and forth between the present times and flashbacks to the past in our heroes' lives. But while in the first book, the flashbacks were used as introductions to our characters' origins, the ones here give us a bit more depth and insight into their present-day emotional state on the farm. And we find out more about who Black Hammer was and what led up to The Event!

I've really fallen in love with the world and the characters that Lemire has conjured here, you can really feel the love he and Dean Ormstom have for the classic age superhero stories. But there is also a modern feel to the way he tells the present day story. There's some great new character details here that I really enjoyed, like a look into the early relationship of Colonel Weird and Talky-Walky, and a really fascinating love story with Golden Gail, the nature of which I feel we've never seen before. There are also some great moments with Gail and Barbalien. I also loved seeing life in the town from an outsider's perspective, and focusing on how some of our heroes have given up trying to escape and have accepted their new lives...and some haven't.

I was truly bummed to find out that the series was cancelled by Dark Horse, especially after that cliffhanger! But then I got happy again when I learned that it was just part of a reboot and the story will continue this year with Black Hammer: Age of Doom.

GRADE: A

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

BLOOD ALWAYS TELLS by Hilary Davidson

In my review of Davidson's collection, The Black Widow Club, I sort-of compared her to Hitchcock. Yep, I did that. And I'll probably do it again here. Davidson impressed me again with this book, with her skill with plot and character, and the melding of the two. She tells a crafty story about a former supermodel who's plot to blackmail her married ex-boyfriend is thwarted by a bigger, deeper, and ultimately more deadly conspiracy. To say more would betray to joy of discovering the Hitchcockian plot reversals and twists that always keeps you on your toes. And she really sucked me into caring about the characters in no time!
"At some point, you have to be more than a collection of all the rotten things that ever happened to you."
While reading, I realized how appropriate the title of the book really is, because the running theme through its entirety is how every character's motivations and decisions are ultimately informed by the effect of family and its legacy; family secrets that have affected the rest of their lives. Fans of the classic mysteries of Ross MacDonald will enjoy this one. Another thing I found surprising was how much the main character is constantly informing the cops about the case, when usually in the mystery genre, the amateur detective is almost always trying to work around the inept or corrupt police.

Another hit for Davidson!

GRADE: A-

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

CRY YOUR WAY HOME: STORIES by Damien Angelica Walters

Damien Angelica Walters is an author that's been on my radar for a while. She's a Bram Stoker Award nominee, a constant presence in the dark fiction community with her consistent short stories popping up in almost every dark literary magazine, and I really wanted too jump into her work. This collection, her latest release, is my introduction to her. Similar to Gwendolyn Kiste's fantastic And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe from last year, Walters collects a bunch of great dark fantasy stories and twisted fairytales. Aside from a few of the stories (including one narrated by a circus elephant), most of these are tales focusing on young girls and/or their parents dealing with some sort of transformation or transition. What I enjoyed about this book, and what makes this more than just a bunch of cool scary stories is Walters's focus on tackling a variety of real-life emotional issues but through the lens of the weird and the supernatural.
Through tears, she glares at the boxes piled in the corner—a sandcastle built by sorrow's hands.
She touches on topics like dealing with the death of a child ("Falling Under, Through the Dark"), sibling jealousy ("Deep Within the Marrow, Hidden in My Smile"), postpartum depression ("Little Girl Blue, Come Cry Your Way Home"), as well as bullying ("On the Other Side of the Door, Everything Changes"and my favorite, "Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice"), and skillfully uses fantasy and horror to parallel the emotional turmoil of her characters. And to the reader's who avoid short stories because of the constant story reset? Fear not, because Walters's prose grabs you quickly and holds you and she knows just when to end each tale, making for a smooth read from story to story. If you want your horror to be about more than just ghosts and goblins, if you enjoy it when dark fiction provides us with a way of confronting real-life horrors, then make sure to pick this collection up!
Is this magic or madness or something undefinable? Perhaps a bit of all three.


GRADE: A- 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

THE FADE OUT by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Yet another masterpiece by the Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips creative team. It might get a bit old now, all this praise I keep heaping on these guys. Like Criminal and Velvet before it, The Fade Out is an indelible piece of art not just in the comic book world but in crime fiction in general. Many crime writers have tried to recapture the feel of old "seedy-underbelly" Hollywood noir intrigue and this book does it with ease and without feeling forced and disingenuous like many others. Part of the reason is is how they prioritize placing compelling and honest characters in this world instead of focusing on playing up the time period.
I'm so impressed with the amount of detail in the book and how many different story elements are included here in such a relatively short page-count. Brubaker touches on the Red Scare/McCarthyism, Pearl Harbor, the changing studio system, the casting couch, cut-throat publicity, alcoholism, the price of stardom, and even the psychological effects of war, all in just three acts, without it feeling overcrowded or diluted. The creators have a real grasp of this material and it's on full display here. It's an engaging and dramatic classic crime story that feels of-the-time but avoids feeling dated at all. The Fade Out stands up alongside the work of James Ellroy, Dorothy B. Hughes, or  classic Megan Abbott. And damn, this hardcover edition is gorgeous!

GRADE: A-


Friday, December 29, 2017

THE SOUND OF BROKEN RIBS by Edward Lorn

I just love a simple story told extremely well. The premise here is simple: a terrible car accident causes the lives of two very different women to tragically intersect, and author Edward Lorn has such a confident grasp of character, theme, pace, and the juggling of multiple viewpoints, that it became one of my most enjoyable reads this year. The characters of Lei Duncan and Belinda Walsh instantly grew familiar to me. I was invested in them from the first few pages and they will stay with me for a while even now that I've finished the book. Belinda Walsh in particular is handled very well; I loved the fact that the way I expected her to act after being introduced to her evolved subtly as I learned more about her character. At first I saw her as this clueless pushover, but by the end, I realized that she's much more aware and sharp than I expected in the beginning.
"But that's how insanity works. When you break, you don't hear the snap."
The reason I didn't rate it higher is because I'm not a fan of the kind of ending found here, which I won't go into detail about. It was a near perfect read for me right up to that point. But it's really a personal preference and many others might love it. I've been learning to judge something based on what it is and what it sets out to do rather than what I want or expect. And what Lorn does here, he does it very well. It was one of the smoothest and quickest reads I've experienced this year.

GRADE: B+

Saturday, December 23, 2017

ROYAL CITY VOL. 1: NEXT OF KIN by Jeff Lemire

In what seems like a trademark for Lemire, this new series is a pensive, melancholy family drama that examines regret, death, relationships and a reckoning with the past. It follows the Pike family as they deal with the near-death stroke of the family patriarch, while each family member is haunted by the youngest brother Tommy, who drowned in an accident, something the family has never gotten over.

Once again, Lemire is so efficient here in his visual storytelling, that it packs more of a punch in it's 160 pages than many of the prose books I've read this year. It's very cinematic in the way he uses imagery and this juxtaposition of images. The whole graphic novel has a beautiful structure. I love the way each family member interacts with Tommy in a way that they each would prefer to remember him;  in ways that suit their present predicament. In a way, it reminded me a lot of one of my favorite TV shows: the HBO classic Six Feet Under, in it's magical realism and in the way it approached tragedy. So if you enjoyed that show, you will love this one: yet another memorable piece of art by Jeff Lemire, and one of the best graphic novels this year.



GRADE: A