Wednesday, January 6, 2021

SAVAGES by Don Winslow

It’s interesting reading this early Winslow work having already read his later books, especially the Cartel ones. The tone and writing are so vastly different that it’s striking. If I read his books chronologically, I might have appreciated this more as a new exciting voice and admired his growth and maturity from book to book.  Winslow’s Cartel novels have many obvious similarities in content with this one, but the Cartel series is much more intricately plotted, deeply researched, and thoughtfully executed. 

Savages is less mature and more manic in its pacing. It crackles with an energy and attitude that really fits the material and definitely stands out in the pack of thriller fiction. But I couldn’t get past the large style-over-substance ratio where the writing technique is pretty distracting and it was frustrating how little I cared about the hollow characters or about any of the events and plot turns. The book has style to burn, but ultimately left me a bit cold and distracted. 

GRADE: C

Thursday, December 31, 2020

NORTH AMERICAN LAKE MONSTERS by Nathan Ballingrud

"A ghost is something that fills a hole inside you, where you lost something. It's a memory. Sometimes it can be painful, and sometimes it can be scary. Sometimes it's hard to tell where the ghost ends and real life begins."
The best work in the horror genre is usually described as stories that use the terrifying, sometimes supernatural qualities of the genre to highlight and comment on the emotional turmoil that the characters go through and more real-world, personal horror. In the best horror tales, these scary elements are just a delivery system for the character work. This impressive collection illustrates this idea the best. 

The stories here feature disillusioned waitresses, lonely little boys, grieving parents, and widowers refusing to let go, and mix them with vampires, werewolves, fallen angels, Nazis, and other monsters to tell moody stories that are equal parts skin-crawling and deeply emotional. Sometimes the horror is very overt and other times extremely subtle, but each story has a strong effect, with my favorites being: “The Monsters of Heaven,” “The Good Husband,” “Sunbleached,” and “Wild Acre.”

GRADE: A-

FUGITIVE RED by Jason Starr

Noir is sometimes defined by the terrible decisions that the loser "heroes" make. In the latest book by crime author Jason Starr, this protagonist stands out, making some of the dumber decisions I've read in a while. But that's not a terrible thing as it was fun reading about this dumbass flounder with every decision he tries to make, digging himself deeper and deeper into the shit after he tries to spice up his love life by cheating on his wife on a dating app and then subsequently getting caught up in a murder plot. 

It's an entertaining, if modest, thriller that takes interesting turns and moves at a great pace. But it doesn't really go far with its drama, chickening out at the end and missing exciting opportunities to take advantage of its cool twists in favor of a disappointingly tidy ending. It was all a little too safe and I wish it was a bit more courageous in its choices. 

GRADE: B-

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

SAYING UNCLE by Greg Gifune

"The truth. Everybody wants the truth. Problem is nobody ever knows what to do with it once they get it."
I don’t mean to presume to know anything about author Greg Gifune personally, but out of the work that I’ve read from him, this full-length novel feels the most personal. Maybe it’s not autobiographical per se, but the writing heat has a tragic familiarity that really struck me. Maybe that’s simply just a testament to how talented the guy truly is. 

Telling parallel stories of a man returning to his childhood home after the death of an estranged uncle as well as the summer that changed his family forever in a wave of violence and tragedy, the book slowly reveals not only its secrets but also the heart on its sleeve, culminating in a resolution so mournful you can almost feel the tears on the page. 
I am her child, her baby, and she is my mother, and yet, in this odd territory between reality and dreams, we're the same. The blind mice reaching desperately through darkness for some sense of the divine and all the promises such a destination surely holds.
GRADE: B+

Friday, November 13, 2020

SUMMER FROST by Blake Crouch

If you loved Blake Crouch’s recent novels, Dark Matter and Recursion, there’s a great chance you’ll enjoy his latest novella. Focused on the discovery of a minor, non-playable open-world game character that gains independence and explores her world, the book is smart, speculative science fiction that explores the increasingly fickle idea of what it means to be human. 

Although the danger of AI with a growing awareness has been told many times before, it’s still told well here, using the story to present interesting looks at gender identity and how what we see as life isn’t that much dissimilar to a computer program. It’s all well-conceived with clever twists, by an author still at the top of his game. 

GRADE: B+

Thursday, November 5, 2020

GREENER PASTURES by Michael Wehunt

“You ready to go into the mouth? It goes far and maybe all the way to forever.”
I wanted to read a collection of good horror stories during the Halloween season and while this wet my palette, I was also treated to some of the best writing that I’ve seen during my reading this year! While each story in here is undoubtedly horror, there’s a poetic, romantic tone to the prose, giving the stories a texture and a weight that I haven’t seen in a while in the genre. 

While the stories do vary based on subject, there are common themes throughout, themes like transformation, as in the best stories in the collection:  

“Deducted From Your Share of Paradise,” about a town’s obsession with a group of fallen angels, with this opening line:
The women fell from the sky, silhouetted as dying eagles against the sunset. They struck the huddled trailers of Twin Firs and buckled thin ceilings, the sound of their impacts like God drumming His fingers on the earth. 
and “A Discreet Music,” about a widower’s journey toward something beyond grief. 

Another running theme is the burden of loss, as seen in the devastating breakup in “The Inconsolable” or the breakdown of a marriage in “Dancers.”  Other stories veer into pure cosmic horror territory that sneaks under your skin but they all have the same urgent lyricism that I’m excited to see in more of Wehunt’s work. 

GRADE: A-

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

MY PRETTIES by Jeff Strand

I thought I knew what I was getting into when I cracked open My Pretties, but holy shit was I wrong. I expected a straight-forward serial killer thriller-diller, and while the book is that on a basic level, it is constantly surprising. It’s about two waitresses orbiting a depraved serial killer who gets his kicks off observing brunettes starving to death in cages. But the story took me in directions that I have never expected. I don’t want to go into details and spoil the discoveries so this review won’t be that long. But you should read it and see how deep the depths of depravity goes! I should have known that this book would be something else entirely because of the endlessly exciting author behind it, who’s anything but generic. 

GRADE: B

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-