Tuesday, December 4, 2018

THE HOOK by Donald Westlake

The plot master Donald Westlake does it again by weaving a tale of two writers: Bryce Proctorr, a widely popular author with marriage problems and serious writer's block, and Wayne Prentice, a failing mid-level writer with money problems; and in the vein of Strangers on a Train, Bryce allows Wayne to use his name on his next book and split the profits, in exchange for getting rid of Bryce's wife...permanently.

I didn't realize how fun it would be to watch two nerdy writers try to pull off a murder and get away with it, but this is Westlake of course. He makes it all really believable and engaging as the two deal with committing a crime the way writers would: crafting motivations, red herrings, and plot twists in order to not only get away with murder but navigate the publishing industry, all while Westlake is doing the same thing with us. Fun times!

GRADE: B+

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

KNOW ME FROM SMOKE by Matt Phillips

"Does the past ever stay where it should?"
This started out as an A-book for me, with writing and subject matter that was right up my alley, telling the story of a lounge singer who's got the blues because of her murdered husband and the .45 caliber bullet in her hip, an ex-convict trying to go straight after being in prison for 20 years, and their efforts to pull each other out of the muck they've found themselves in on the streets of San Diego. I love reading about troubled characters like this and these two were particularly compelling. It was bittersweet seeing them fall in love with the knowledge that soon I would have to watch it all fall apart when the kept secrets between them begin to blow things apart in true noir fashion. But the final half of the book dropped a grade once it started to get a bit repetitive and I also couldn't understand why someone that seems as smart as Royal is would allow himself to get so caught up and controlled by someone like Phoenix. But maybe that's the point...maybe Royal not as smart as he should be, and destined to go down the bad path again.
"The fishmonger smells like fish and the bartender smells like sex. And what is it, Stella asked herself, that the devil smells like? 
Like a match struck and shaken back into darkness—that old devil smells like sulfur."
GRADE: B

Saturday, November 17, 2018

FATALE: DELUXE EDITION VOLUME 1 by Ed Brubaker

I shouldn't even need to review or recommend this. If you see a book written by Ed Brubaker with art by Sean Phillips, you should just get it and read it because it more than likely is awesome. At this point it's like preaching to the choir. But this is so enjoyable that I want to talk about it so it might as well be with you!
The way he felt about Josephine...it was out of touch with the world. It was unfair to everything and everyone else.
Brubaker focuses on the archetypal "femme fatale": that stock character in so much of noir fiction, the seductive woman that helps to lead the hapless protagonist down a destructive path. But in an original and inspired turn, Brubaker has the awesome idea to focus on the fatale herself and explore the notion that the femme fatale title might be supernatural in origin, a curse on the woman bearing it. In a potent mix of noir and horror, Brubaker tells of the cursed Josephine, the creepy cult that hunts her, and the men that fall in her path, in parallel stories set in 1950's San Francisco, 1970's Los Angeles, and the modern day.

As usual, Phillips's art is moody and expressive, and Brubaker never spoon-feeds the reader, peeling back the layers of his story at just the right pace. I loved seeing the femme fatale trope turned on it's head and into a sympathetic woman who doesn't want the influence that she has on men, but it's also cool to see that the tragic inevitability of noir is still there as she can only watch as these men destroy their lives. Memorable writing, great characters, and atmosphere to burn prove once again why Brubaker and Phillips and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser are three of the best creators in comic books today. And as usual this Deluxe Edition from Image is simply gorgeous.

Collects the first two story arcs: "Death Chases Me" and "The Devil's Business"

GRADE: A-

Friday, November 9, 2018

COUNTRY DARK by Chris Offutt

This is a striking novel with a potent sense of place, surprising narrative momentum, memorable prose, and most impressive, a sense of humanity and authenticity that sets it apart from other more run-of-the-mill stories in a similar vein. Throughout the book, you can feel the love that Offutt has for each and every character that populates these small Kentucky hollers. Every character is very well-drawn, no matter how small, almost immediately getting a sense of who they are, all due to Offutt's storytelling talent. The main characters, Tucker and Rhonda are honorable people with a way of life that is tied to the land on which they live and without concern for outside trifle. And Offutt's lean, simple, but effective prose is a great fit for these characters and makes for an affecting read.
"People don't know they're lucky until the bad luck comes along"
GRADE: A-

Friday, November 2, 2018

POINT & SHOOT by Duane Swierczynski

*Book 3 of the Charlie Hardie Trilogy*

This is the slam-bang finale to Duane Swierczynski’s Charlie Hardie trilogy! At this point, if you thought that Swierczynski had already put ex-badass/house sitter/super-prison escapee Hardie through every insane situation his twisted mind could think of, you will discover immediately how wrong you were when the book opens with Hardie stuck on a satellite in freakin' outer space. When a familiar face visits the satellite, this sparks Hardie on one last adventure to finally defeat the shadowy organization that’s been plaguing his life once and for all. 

This whole series of books have been a joy to read because of Swierczynski’s sheer audacity in storytelling and his talent for riding the line of absurdity and almost never falling off into silliness. And although it’s not as well-structured in its approach and some of the ideas don’t land as well as the other books, this is still a fun conclusion to a series and a story featuring not only a man having to confront an unstoppable organization but a man having to confront himself ;). 

GRADE: B-

Sunday, October 28, 2018

THE SWITCH HOUSE by Tim Meyer

The concept here is a cool modern haunted house spin that follows a couple recovering from a family tragedy that decides to star on a house swap reality show for a few months and come back to discover that their house isn't quite right.
"Don't you see what she's doing? Don't you see what she did in our house?"
I appreciated the focus on the pain of loss and the effects of ignoring it. But, unfortunately, I found this to be pretty "meh." It was entertaining to read on a surface level but it didn't have much more impact than that for me. I found the writing to be a bit pedestrian and on-the-nose, and because all the horror bits were pretty predictable and filled with things I've seen before, it just felt as if horror-trope boxes were simply being checked off rather than creating something special. I did really enjoy the last act and the way that the truth of the tragedy was revealed. But, this is another recent read that I found pretty forgettable and another one of my opinions that seem to be in the minority.

GRADE: C

Sunday, October 14, 2018

WOLF HUNT 2 by Jeff Strand

The same way that Ellen Ripley in the Alien movie series is destined to always do battle with the alien, George and Lou in the Wolf Hunt series will always be forever linked to werewolves for our sadistic entertainment. This sequel picks up soon after the first adventure and George and Lou are on the run after botching the last job, watching telenovelas and trying not to get killed by bounty hunters. But their luck runs out and now their only way to save their butts is to take a job kidnapping another werewolf, this time a young girl, with bloodthirsty parents.

While this sequel doesn't have the novelty or quite the same relentless pace as the first, it still has the same great humor, suspenseful and scary moments, and pretty well-written action scenes. There are twists galore here, and I'm constantly impressed by how well Strand can handle it all juggling the changing tones and keeping it all entertaining.

GRADE: B

Sunday, October 7, 2018

PUPPET GRAVEYARD by Tim Curran

I'm really curious to find out whether or not this story was written very early in Curran's career. Because it reads like it. It feels like it was written as a first draft in a college freshman writing class. Not only is the prose messy with too much telling and not enough showing, Curran also doesn't seem to have much of a grasp of his main character Kitty Seevers (Seavers/Seever). He doesn't even keep her name consistent from page to page. There also doesn't seem to be much consistency even in what little personality is there, and she seems to mostly exist solely because of the need to have a protagonist. There's a big jump in the tone of her character halfway through this novella that was so jarring that it distracted me throughout the whole last half.

And this is sad because there's potential here, with the creepy subject of a ventriloquist doll, and the fact that some of Tim Curran's other work is great, such as The Underdwelling. So it seems like I'm in the minority here, but this one really didn't work for me. It really needed a few additional drafts to make it more polished.

GRADE: D

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

JACK & JILL by Kealan Patrick Burke

Kealan Patrick Burke knows horror. In this novella, he once again shows us that real horror lies in tragedy, and is at it's strongest when it's tied to emotional pain rather than just in the physical. I don't want to say too much about the plot other than we follow a woman still struggling to cope with childhood trauma. Burke pulls the rug out from under us and the ending is as horrifying as you can imagine, immediately making you want to read it over again just to see if you read it right.

But part of the reason why this works so well is how much of a grasp Burke has on the characters and the interactions. Gillian and her husband. The way they interact with their children. Everything is so recognizable that it hurts even more when it all begins to crumble in an epic way. Kealan Patrick Burke is definitely an author you can depend on.

GRADE: A-

Monday, September 24, 2018

THE LINE THAT HELD US by David Joy

"A man's mind is its own kind of hell."
I've been interested in reading David Joy's books for years but there's only so much time in a day and I'm only now getting to them. It's now time to make his work a real priority. It's been a while since I've been truly impressed with a writer's wordplay. The last time was probably when I discovered the work of the great Tom Piccirilli. But David Joy is up there now. There were passages that I really wanted to read again just to simply savor. But I was also surprised by how fast of a read this was, given the heavy content.

The story begins with an accidental killing deep in the woods, with deceit and cover-up eventually leading to an exploration of murder, redemption, true love, sacrifice, and primal justice. The story isn't necessarily original but it's classic storytelling with rich characterizations and a powerful, commanding voice.
The tears would wane only when something greater found him. Only one feeling could mask that kind of sadness, only one emotion he knew more powerful than suffering. In time, it would fill him.

GRADE: A-