Thursday, April 19, 2018

TRILLIUM by Jeff Lemire

"My father used to tell me that we were all made of stars. That each of us had one inside us and when we die, that light goes up and mixes with all the other stars. That way we never have to be alone. 'Cause no matter what happens, we all end up together."
Jeff Lemire continues to impress me with his complete control over the comic book medium and his refusal to be constrained by its conventions, limitations, and what people have come to expect. What he does here is assemble a romance between a scientist in the year 3797 who's looking for a cure to prevent a sentient virus know as The Caul from exterminating what's left of mankind and an explorer in 1921 searching for a secret Incan temple in the jungle. It's a mind-boggling, millennia-spanning love story that crosses galaxies, parallel universes, and the limits of time, while somehow still managing to be grounded in character. And it's all told with Lemire's usual expressive watercolor art and creative paneling that favors the story's structure. It's like Interstellar meets The Fountain, and thoroughly enjoyable.

GRADE: A-


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

WOLF HUNT by Jeff Strand

If you're looking for a wild ride, you've come to the right place! Author Jeff Strand is known for his outrageous and bizarre horror comedy and this book is one of the best examples of what he can do. It follows two thumbbreaker thugs on an epic adventure through Florida as they try to transport a werewolf to a mysterious client.

George and Lou are great protagonists, who start out as your usual dickish thugs but quickly become lovable and memorable heroes that are trying to do what's right. And what's right is stopping a damn werewolf from slaughtering innocent people. Their constant bickering and increasingly apparent moral code really make them a pair to root for. You especially want to stand on their side when you see the crazy shit they're up against. The werewolf is one of the most nasty and sadistic villains I've read in a long time; unpredictable and ruthless, making any scene with him crackle with intensity.

And a Jeff Strand book is anything but boring. He writes with a manic urgency and a lightning pace that makes it hard to look away. One thing I'm always worried about when I start a book like this is that the comedy would weaken the impact of the horrific. But that's not the case here. Strand impressively finds the perfect balance, where I genuinely laughed out loud at times but it didn't lessen  the discomforting shock I felt at certain sequences, scenes that I'll remember for a while.

If you're looking for an ultra fast-paced, action-packed novel written by a natural, I would highly recommend this one!

GRADE: A-

Monday, April 16, 2018

GRAVESEND by William Boyle

I've heard many people refer to New York City as a "small town disguised as a big city." This novel really touches on that theme as we watch our main characters constantly circle each other as they all navigate their Brooklyn neighborhood and try not to get sucked under by it's pull of family and past sins. The novel has the soul of Pelecanos's best but with the nihilism of David Goodis at his most downhearted. It's definitely one of the more depressing novels I've read, with some scenes coming close to making me cry because of the sheer disappointment and desperation that the characters feel as well as the actions they take to escape their situations. It's a violent book, but not in guns, blood, and guts kind of a way, but it's an emotional violence that turned out to be even more affecting and relatable. A constant theme in Gravesend is mistaken perception and how that's wrecked by the truth. Whether it's in the way everyone has viewed Ray Boy Calabrese as one thing once he gets out of prison but he's actually something else, or the way Conway believes that he's capable of vengeance, but in truth he's just a coward, or the way that people see Alessandra as this beautiful actress who found success in Hollywood and has it all figured out but in truth it's just the opposite; every character gets a rude awakening that shatters that perception.

It's a slow novel that is heavy on character, but it's all told through Boyle's sharp, direct gaze that feels full of honesty and compassion. It was previously released by Broken River Books (the version I read) but is seeing a re-release in hardcover from Pegasus Books later this year.

GRADE: A-


Monday, March 26, 2018

THE LISTENER by Robert McCammon

McCammon is one of our most naturally gifted storytellers. There's a folksy quality to his work that is charming and enchanting and I can't help but love it. When it's paired with a strong story he's among the best of the best. His new novel is one of the better standalone books he's written in a while and a great showcase for his style and the qualities that make him stand out. It's a 1930's Depression period piece that begins as an awesome pulpy sleaze noir about a morally shifty grifter, the cutthroat harpy he gets tangled with and the kidnapping scheme they concoct, but then the story morphs into a magical adventure thriller about the telepathic New Orleans redcap that gets in their way, and somehow it all works!
He didn’t doubt that Hell wouldn’t claim Ginger LaFrance before the count got to a mere three. For the moment, though, he had first dibs on her. And boy, did he mean to get his Satan’s share of payback.
Also, even though I've got a thing for dark and gloomy crime stories with morally flawed characters, I also really do appreciate characters that are undeniably likable and that's also something McCammon excels at, this time giving us the character of Curtis Mayhew, a genuinely nice guy you can't help but care for and root for immediately.

Even though his Matthew Corbett series is top-notch, this sports some of McCammon's best prose in a long time, stirring and touching writing that feels like it's told around a campfire or at bedtime. And although I feel like he still can be long-winded and the some of the third act overstays it's welcome a little, it's all brought to a close with a really moving conclusion.
They stood in the beautiful room, neither speaking, each uncomfortable in their unaccustomed freedom, both waiting on the other like shadows soon to pass.
Read this. Now.

GRADE: A-

Monday, March 12, 2018

FUN & GAMES by Duane Swierczynski

*Book 1 of the Charlie Hardie Trilogy*

Damn, talk about a thriller! This thing comes guns blazing right out the gate and maintains it's fast pace all the way through. One thing you definitely can't say about Swierczynski is that he's boring. He really knows how to keep the reader interested. He tells us the story of Charlie Hardie, an ex-police "consultant" who is trying to distance himself from mistakes in the past by enjoying the exile and solitude of house sitting. On his latest job in the Hollywood Hills, he stumbles onto a beautiful woman claiming to be hunted by a connected network of professional assassins, and the action only rises from there.

One thing I've noticed about Swierczynski's work is that he's not afraid to go over the top. But he does it with so much gusto and confidence that I totally go with it. Sometimes that walk on the tightrope of ridiculousness is what makes things really engrossing. The book also doesn't ignore the important stuff either, which sets it apart from your usual forgettable action thriller. Instead of slow-paced exposition at the beginning, the backstory and character development is cleverly laced into the action throughout, so not only do we get discoveries and twists amidst the real time action, but we're also constantly learning new twists about the history of the characters. In my opinion, this is one of the smartest things a writer can do to keep a reader engaged.

If you're curious about how to write great thrillers, check out this and Swierczynski's other work, to see how clever plotting and structure, humor, relatable characters and fearlessness can leading to pure entertainment.

GRADE: A-

Thursday, March 8, 2018

THE WARREN by Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson has a knack for mood setting in his stories, and he delivers atmosphere for days in this existential psychological sci-fi portrait. It's a fascinating little mind-fuck that I'm not sure I fully understand but it definitely kept my interest. It defies description a bit but think of it in the same vein as the movies Solaris or Moon. But, you know how it can get super annoying when someone keeps answering your serious questions with other questions? That's also what this book felt like.

GRADE: B-

Friday, March 2, 2018

GOTHAM CENTRAL OMNIBUS by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka

You know that Gotham City is a pretty screwed up place when a story focusing solely on the city's cops is just as compelling as the ones focusing on it's cape-wearing, billionaire vigilante. That's the case in this multiple award winning series by now superstar writers Brubaker and Rucka (splitting the writing duties between the day shift and night shift, and rotating story arcs). The detectives of the GCPD Major Crimes Unit are the stars here, in a constant struggle to navigate the dangerous criminal world of Gotham, all while dealing with sometimes playing second fiddle to a crazy person that runs around in a bat costume, overshadows their efforts, and undermines their authority, leaving them to constantly clean up his damn mess.

I loved seeing the Bat-world from this point of view of regular Joe's just trying to make a living: whether it's seeing the lasting effects that a super-weapon like Mr. Freeze's gun would have on a person, the day-to-day bureaucracy behind who will turn the switch on the Bat-Signal, or seeing how the mad chaos caused by The Joker could put the fear of god in a whole town.



Although I wish all of them got equal attention, all of the characters are enjoyable and well-drawn, lending to further ground the comic book atmosphere. Most of the story arcs were great but the standouts to me were:

"Soft Targets," about the unit trying to hunt down the Joker as he holds Gotham hostage during Christmas.

"Dead Robin," about the investigation of a serial killer dressing up his victims as the Boy Wonder.

"Corrigan," where Det. Renee Montoya must clear her partner's name after evidence is removed from the scene of an officer involved shooting by a corrupt forensics officer

And of course, the award-winning "Half a Life," in which Montoya's life gets turned upside down after being targeted by an unknown stalker.



This series is a must-read, and you don't need to be a Batman fan or reader to really enjoy this. The character is barely in this and only once in a while makes an appearance. It's less of a Batman book and something closer to NYPD Blue or Homicide: Life on the Street. So get on this quickly, especially if you love police procedurals!

GRADE: A-

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+