Monday, October 12, 2020

THE HOUSE ON ABIGAIL LANE by Kealan Patrick Burke

There is something terribly wrong at 56 Abigail Lane.

The seemingly unremarkable house is now infamous due to a large number of unexplainable events that have occurred there and this novella details its mysterious history; yet another attempt to unlock its secrets. Much of this book's effect comes from its cold, academic tone, as if we were reading an impersonal thesis paper researching the subject and its 60-year history. It adds to the creepy factor because it presents these hair-raising events without emotion and it feels almost like watching a documentary.

I was home, in the dark, but not alone. The living room was a conspiracy of shadows and among them I could hear a man speaking backwards in a low voice.

I love how subtle much of the horror feels. Instead of floating ghosts or monsters chasing characters down the stairs, we get small occurrences, like mysterious disappearances, weird sounds, and creepy figures staring out of windows. It's enough to definitely raise some goosebumps. It's also impressive the way that Burke weaves American history in with the house's legacy, and the horror moves right along with it, giving us different lenses through which to study the house in each era, from the 1960's to present day. 

Another home run by a consistent author and a great way to kick off Halloween season!

We stepped over the threshold of an ordinary house in an ordinary neighborhood and over the threshold of modern knowledge. It is not a place steeped in old evil. It's a calamity of physics. There's a fissure, a gaping cosmic wound, a door to places we can't begin to fathom.

GRADE: B+

Monday, September 28, 2020

THE FAMILIAR DARK by Amy Engel

This book is dressed in the trappings of a mystery novel, following the heinous murder of two little girls in a tiny town in the Ozarks. But at its heart, it’s a thoughtful, moody tragedy where we witness a mother work out her grief while dedicating herself to finding her daughter’s killer. 
Little girls were never safe. I should know; I used to be one of them.
A reviewer described this book as Sharp Objects meets Winter’s Bone, which is a pretty accurate description, but I’ll also add that it also has the atmosphere of Mystic River, and that’s pretty high praise indeed. More than just a murder mystery, it’s also an exploration of grief and a sharp critique of the unfair expectations of women during times of mourning. All of this is written with real skill and a memorable, complex protagonist in Eve Taggert. But the most fascinating thing about this story is its look at the legacy of motherhood. Eve resents her abusive mother and knows that she’s responsible for much of the hardship in her life, but at the same time, Eve knows that the hard darkness in her mom might be the only thing that could lead Eve to any sort of justice. It’s a challenging tale of morality and retribution and is the best book I’ve read so far this year. 
The baby snuffled a little, burrowing against her chest, seeking. She had the sudden urge to pinch her daughter, show her, right from the start, that the world was full of ugly things.
GRADE: A-

Monday, August 17, 2020

AN APOCALYPSE OF OUR OWN by Jeff Strand

Two life-long friends hide out in a tiny survival bunker after the world gets taken over by mutant zombies. There's blood, madness, and lots of guts and body parts. But there's also casual sex, cans of beans, and it's also funny as hell. Not only must our heroes struggle with now being friends with benefits, but also with how the hell to survive this. 

This is a story that could only come from the mind of Jeff Strand and is suitably entertaining. But it doesn't balance the tone as well as his more successful books and leans a little too much on the jokey side of things, where it lost some of its urgency. But it's still a laugh-out-loud read that will be a good way to spend an afternoon!

GRADE: B-

Monday, August 10, 2020

BLACKTOP WASTELAND by S.A. Cosby

At first glance on the surface, S.A. Cosby’s new novel is your run-of-the-mill crime tale. It focuses on a talented getaway driver who’s gotten out of the crime life to become a dedicated family man and mechanic and is pulled back in for another heist once the bills start piling up. You might think that you’ve read something like this before and you’d be correct. This story has been written before, but the big difference is that I doubt that it was written with such heart and soul. This is a standout, breakout novel that not only is impeccably paced and completely entertaining, but it also dives deep into character, creating a protagonist and a supporting cast that linger long after the last page.

Beauregard Montage is a great protagonist, a man struggling to reckon with his past and with his unexplained abandonment by his father, and a man whose desire to make a better life for his children comes into conflict with his suspicions that he can never outrun his violent life and criminal tendencies. Beauregard carries the story, but every other character is just as well-drawn, whether it was the sleazy brothers Reggie and Ronnie or even the unseen but just as impactful character of Beauregard’s long-gone father. 

Anchored by confident writing and well-conceived, riveting action and car chase scenes, this is a quick, entertaining read that should launch S.A. Cosby as a must-read crime writer.

GRADE: A-

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

THE LESSER PEOPLE by Lee Thompson

Lee Thompson seems to be an author who is constantly challenging himself, dabbling in a
variety of genres, and forcing himself to explore difficult themes with increasing ambition. He reminds me a little of Walter Mosley in that way. That alone makes him an exciting writer worthy of notice. He's written respected work in horror, dark supernatural, mystery, and inner-city crime drama. I wouldn't be surprised if he dabbled in some erotica next. With this novel, The Lesser People, he tackles a coming-of-age historical drama, and racism in rural Mississippi. It's about a dying old man who tells the story of the dark days when he was a child and discovered the body of a lynched and mutilated young black boy in the woods. This discovery not only haunts him but causes a chain reaction that threatens to destroy his innocence and break apart his town and his family. 
His eyes were filling with tears, and I knew he was going to tell me a story about the love that got away, for as strong as men try to appear, it's love like that and all the questions it brings, that hounds them until their final day.
Thompson's work walks that jagged line of being both staggeringly brutal and beautifully touching, as if he believes that those two facets are two sides of the same old coin; you can't have one without the other. That's what I like the most about his work and that characteristic is still on display here. And although this book has some of the best prose that I've read from Thompson so far, this one wasn't as all-out enjoyable as the other books I've read by him. It sports a great beginning and an emotional ending that really brought everything together in a great way, but much of the middle of the novel gradually lost much of the story's urgency and momentum. But that ending definitely made up for it. 

I can feel that there's a true masterpiece or six in Lee Thompson's mind that's just boiling, ready to jump out. And who knows, there's still some work of his that I haven't read so maybe they're just sitting there waiting for me. And if they haven't popped up yet, his work is still awesome enough that I'm having a great time witnessing his journey to get there. 

GRADE: B-

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

TRUE CRIME by Samantha Kolesnik

Everyone called you sweet before they defiled you. A virgin was nothing if not ripe for the teeth.
This shocking debut novella follows a young girl named Suzy and her brother Lim, on a killing spree after escaping their abusive mother. It's an intense character piece exploring what might lead to the creation of a sociopath like Suzy. With staggering and powerfully insightful prose, Author Samantha Kolesnik is unflinching, pulling absolutely no punches here, forcing us to go on this journey with Suzy and to have some sort of relative empathy for her. 
I wondered how the world made its villains and why it never apologized for making them.
Featuring a protagonist that’s a killer with very little remorse is a tricky line to walk, but in my opinion, Kolesnik really pulls it off. I felt her connection to her brother, which is not exactly love, but a primal bond of mutual understanding and protection. I saw that pain is the only true feeling she could recognize and I understood that seeing the desperation and survival instinct in other victims was the only thing she could relate to. Although it’s disheartening and uncomfortable, I found myself understanding her pain and inner corrosion and by the second half of the book, hoping that at some point the little girl inside the damaged shell would have a chance to come out and be free. 
When people prayed to God, I wondered, were they praying to Him or were they praying to me? I couldn't quite see a difference in that moment.
GRADE: A-

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

DETOUR by Martin M. Goldsmith

A violinist named Alexander Roth is hitching rides across the country on his way to Los Angeles to be with his actress girlfriend and gets waylaid along the way by unfortunate circumstances. This essential, classic noir stands out because of its strong writing. Many of the pulp novels back then, because of their quick turn out, felt hastily written, but this one really feels like a little more time was taken to craft the work. Another thing that stands out and that I expect felt different back then was the parallel storytelling, jumping back and forth between Roth's predicament and the story of his girl Sue and her life in Hollywood as a struggling actress. I loved the way the twists in each story revealed themselves and what they meant for the other plotlines. I wish there was a little more substance to Sue's story beyond her pining for love though. But with a cool plot, good writing, a ruthless fatale, and doom-filled atmosphere, this one should definitely be included on any noir bookshelf!

GRADE: B+

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING by Max Booth III

When I was kid, I went through Hurricane Marilyn in the Virgin Islands and when it got really bad in the night, I hunkered down with my parents, grandparents, and sister in my grandparents’ guest bathroom as the hurricane raged outside. It was one of the scariest times in my life. This truly unsettling novella brought back many of those memories, as it takes place completely in a bathroom after a Texas family finds refuge there when a major storm comes through their town.

The story starts off tame enough, with a little tension between the family and discomfort with the conditions. But soon, things get more surreal and more terrifying. As the time in the bathroom crawls on, Booth’s writing provides a palpable unease where I wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t. I don’t want to get into too many details as it’s best to go in blind so that the events in here have maximum impact, but I read most of this with a real sense of dread as I began to feel the claustrophobia, smell the odors, and, once things started to go truly bonkers, I began to read all of it with bulging eyes. 

Did any of this really happen in the story? Some of it might have. Some of it might not. Based on how horrifying this was, I would hope it was all just a bad nightmare for the main character. But deep down, I feel like I know the truth.
it’s going to be okay it’s going to be okay it’s going to be okay it’s going to be okay it’s going to be okay it’s going to be okay
GRADE: A-

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

THE LANTERN MAN by Jon Bassoff

This creative and fascinating novel blends murder mystery, horror, small-town rural legends, and family secrets into a highly satisfying tale coming in just over 200 productive pages. It tells the story of a small-town detective named Russ Buchanan driven to reopen the cases of recent violence in his Colorado town, including the fire-suicide of a girl named Lizzy Greiner. As Buchanan investigates, the story is told with a variety of narrative conventions, including Lizzy's journal, Buchanan's footnotes, articles, photographs, etc. All of this provides an absorbing tapestry that builds as the story unfolds.
"I was not looking for a confession. I only wanted her soul to be freed."
It was awesome getting sucked into this short novel. The epistolary and multiple-point-of-view style it's presented in makes everyone an unreliable narrator and you never quite know what's true and what's not as you're reading. And while it has elements of horror and crime, it ultimately tells a story that shows the tragic disintegration of a family and tackles mental health issues like depression and obsession. The author's innovative style lends an interesting mood throughout the novel and a tense, uneasy reading experience. This is my second novel by author Jon Bassoff and while it couldn't be any more different than the first one I read, it's further proof of how much of a singular talent he is.
"It's only flesh my darling. And flesh is meant for the fire."

GRADE: A-

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

EVERYTHING HAS TEETH: STORIES by Jeff Strand

After falling in love with Jeff Strand's work on a number of his novels and novellas, and really appreciating his witty, dauntless, irreverent charm, I should've known that his style would be perfectly suited for short stories. This collection happens to be pure Strand, all guns blazing and zero fucks given, which is everything that we want from the author. He hits the reader with stories about a conscious soft drink with a bone to pick, fingernails that grow at a dangerous rate, murderous bathtub drains, and middle school serial killers. As always with Strand, there's a great mix of horror, the profane, and jet-black comedy that is a style all his own, with some stories even totally breaking the fourth wall with complete awareness that they're stories. But then, he can turn it all around and write a tear-jerking autobiographical story about the death of his dad.

Although, the majority of stories here are enjoyable, my favorites happened to be in the first half, including "Cry," a really original tale about an emotionless man who goes to extreme lengths to cry, including rubbing habanero peppers in his eyes,  "The Tipping Point," about a date night taking a violent turn for the worst, "Fair Trade," where an adulterer must face the consequences, and both "John Henry, the Steel Drivin' Man" and "The Eggman Falleth," stories that tell the untold stories behind the John Henry folktale and the Humpty Dumpty poem.

Jeff Strand once again proves to be a natural-born storyteller in a class all his own, and his work is so consistently entertaining. He's quickly becoming one of my favorite writers and this collection further proves that he can tell a story about anything.

GRADE: A-