Friday, August 2, 2019

RECURSION by Blake Crouch

This might be one of the most batshit crazy novels I've read in a while. It features a high-concept plot that I'm not sure didn't contradict itself and break it's own rules, but it's so complicated and so damn entertaining that I didn't have the time or the brainpower to pick it apart. And I kinda don't care either. Similar in design and tone to Blake Crouch's previous banger, Dark Matter, this novel begins as a curious mystery about false memory and builds from there into something that I'll only describe in two words: MEMORY. WARS. If that's not enough to get you to buy this book right now, I don't know what would.

In it's final third, the book starts to fly off the rails. But instead of simply plummeting to a fiery death in the canyon of silliness, it sprouts wings and starts to soar on it's own winds. It really is awesome to witness a writer so in command of his work, and have the balls to be able to pull something like this off. And not only does the book have moments of high-concept, speculative brilliance, but (like Dark Matter before it) Crouch also never sacrifices character depth and emotional weight. By the end, the novel stays memorable not only for it's sci-fi flair, but also for the journey with the characters. It's possible that a better novel might come out this year, but I'm willing to bet money that there won't be one that does it with as much style.

GRADE: A-

Monday, July 29, 2019

HARD COLD WHISPER by Michael Hemmingson

There aren't many contemporary crime noir novels that attempt to recreate the manic intensity of the best classic pulp paperbacks and succeed quite as well as this one. It's about a Southern California process server who falls for a teenager and gets entangled in her plot to fast track her aunt's death and gain her inheritance, and it's written with direct prose that's full of mischief and a sly smirk. It's apparent that Hemmingson was having a ball seeing what dark turns this story would take as he wrote it, pushing our ill-fated protagonist deeper into a cursed nightmare, all for our sadistic entertainment. It's wicked, short, and swift, just like the best novels of the Gold Medal days, recalling the work of people like Gil Brewer and Harry Whittington.

GRADE: A-

Friday, July 19, 2019

THE SATURDAY NIGHT GHOST CLUB by Craig Davidson

This is yet another very affecting coming-of age I've read recently and it wears it's heart on it's sleeve like the best of them. I've been interested in reading Davidson's work for a while now and this was definitely a great place to start! I was constantly taken by the vivid, sensitive quality in his writing on every page. I wouldn't be surprised if this turns out to be semi-autobiographical because there's a really intimate, personal quality to the work, that lent to the bittersweet but romantic atmosphere that's important for the story. The book details half a year in the childhood of Jake Baker as he explores the lingering past in his Canadian town of Cataract City with his new best buddy and his eccentric uncle.

I surprisingly really enjoyed the aside's to the main character's present day work as a brain surgeon and how that related to and lent more insight to the book's main theme of the malleability of memory  and recollection.

Not only is it about childhood, loss of innocence, nostalgia, and growing up, it's also about regret, memory, and the emotional importance of storytelling. It's a quiet, but nonetheless romantic and affecting tale from a talented, promising author.
Reality never changes. Only our recollections of it do. Whenever a moment passes, we pass along with it into the realm of memory. And in that realm, geometries change. Contours shift, shades lighten, objectivities dissolve. Memory becomes what we need it to be.

GRADE: B+

Friday, July 12, 2019

SNOWBLIND II: THE KILLING GROUNDS by Michael McBride

Author Michael McBride is quickly becoming a creature horror writer I can really depend on, who never fails to provide tense, atmospheric, and well-paced, popcorn-ready tales of suspense that are easy to read and always satisfying. This is the sequel to his great novella Snowblind, a wintry monster tale that was also a great read. This sequel really works on it's own as it doesn't exactly follow-up on the events of the first book, but features all- new characters who get stuck in the remote Rockies during a search mission after they encounter something truly bloodthirsty in the snowed-in forest. This novella is short but somehow McBride finds the time to really develop compelling characters, especially the character of John Avery, who's desperate dedication to finding his missing girlfriend is potent, relatable, and sympathetic. This book is just as good as the first but can also be read as a total stand-alone.

GRADE: B+

Thursday, June 27, 2019

CARDINAL BLACK by Robert McCammon

*Book 7 of the Matthew Corbett series*

It's always a grand adventure when I jump into a new Matthew Corbett book! I've always called these books the most consistently enjoyable series out there, and this 7th book doesn't break that trend. This picks up right after the end of Freedom of the Mask and Matthew is now forced to work for his arch-enemy Professor Fell and track down a valuable book of potions stolen by the even more evil Cardinal Black in order to find an antidote to cure Matthew's poisoned paramour Berry Grigsby.

I'm constantly blown away by how refreshingly modern these books feel, given the fact that they take place during the very formal times of the early 18th century. If you've heard about these books and think that they sound like they would be slow and boring, you couldn't be anymore wrong. This book finds Matthew and his murderous traveling partner Julian Devane running headfirst into a dangerously high-stakes undercover operation and they manage to put themselves squarely in the sights of Europe's entire criminal underground.

I'm always worried that McCammon's long-windedness would ruin things for me, but again, there's so much awesome that it's easily ignored. McCammon's big strength, what makes his books so enjoyable, is his uncanny talent with characters. All the supporting cast is instantly memorable, from Julian Devane, to Samson Lash, to RakeHell Lizzie, to Miles Merda, and definitely the creepy Satan-worshipping Cardinal Black. And Matthew himself continues to be one of fiction's best heroes, and this time he faces his biggest moral challenges, as he tries desperately to cling to his honor, even at the cost of survival.

Once again, I would recommend these books to anyone, but especially if you've enjoyed the other novels. As usual, this book ends on a great cliffhanger that sets up the next historical adventure. So now begins the long wait until the next installment.

GRADE: A-

Friday, June 7, 2019

BAY'S END by Edward Lorn

Bay's End falls right in line with many other great coming-of-age novels that I've read, like IT, The Body, The Accidental Siren, and Boy's Life, where we witness a boy forced to grow up fast during the most important summer of his life. The boy in question here is Trey Franklin, who, later in life, is trying to exorcise his demons by recalling the summer as a kid when he met his best friend, fell in love, and lit a cherry bomb in a policeman's car, setting off a deadly chain reaction in the small town of Bay's End.

This was Lorn's debut novel and it's an impressive one. It moves at a good pace, the characters jump right off the page, and the prose is tight. And I love how the author takes his time to lull you into the comfortable setting of the story, bathing you in the innocent freedom of adolescence, so that when the dark shit hits the fan, it's surprisingly brutal and wicked. This definitely isn't for the faint of heart or for people not willing to explore humanity's pitch black dark side, especially in the type of people you encounter everyday. Every piece of work I've read from Edward Lorn has been worth it and he is proving to be pretty dependable. I'll pick up any of his work that's released. 

GRADE: A-

Thursday, May 23, 2019

THE BORDER by Don Winslow

*Book 3 of The Cartel Trilogy*

This was one of the most epic reading experiences I've had in a very long time. This is the massive conclusion to Don Winslow's Cartel Trilogy, THE definitive piece of fiction that focuses on the War on Drugs. Throughout these three big books, Winslow leaves no stone unturned in this subject and passionately challenges what you know about the Border Crisis and the American/Mexican Drug War. But even more importantly, he tells the great story of the tumultuous, decades-long personal war between DEA agent Art Keller and Sinaloa Cartel patrĂ³n Adan Barrera.

After the big turning point in the finale of the previous book, The Cartel, Art Keller is now the head of the DEA and is trying to fight the Drug War from the very top levels of government.  But at the same time, a new breed of cartel leaders are threatening a new level of violence in Mexico.

With this book, Winslow expands his focus ten-fold, the same way The Wire did with each of it's episodes, and begins to focus on every conceivable corner of the Drug War and all its players: from the cartel leaders, to a NYPD undercover officer, an aging hitman who comes out of hiding, a 10-year-old Guatemalan illegal immigrant, a tormented young Staten Island junkie, and finally a reality-show host and real estate mogul running for president with a love of Twitter and a desire to build a bigger wall along the Mexican border. This large cast of characters shows how far reaching this war is and helps give the story it's epic scope. Winslow also brings back storylines from the previous novels and brings it all to a satisfying end.

There's no other writer quite like Don Winslow. This book shouldn't have worked for me. It's filled with documentary-style focus on detail and sometimes feels like a political essay. But it's so goddammned entertaining that it never bothered me. His writing is so readable that I could've kept reading happily for 500 more pages. I don't want to talk too much about the story but there are so many exciting moments, and even one moment that made me actually shout and clap, and then stop in embarrassment because I shouldn't be cheering at an inanimate object.

The book isn't the most subtle, with it's blatant and inelegant, but spot-on Trump avatar character and a final speech that's basically Winslow's Drug War dissertation, but I had such a great time reading this and was so engaged by the riveting, horrifying, sometimes amusing, and always important story that I can't give it anything but an A-grade. This was fantastic and exhilarating and would recommend it to anyone who's enjoyed the previous books, except maybe sensitive Trump fans.

GRADE: A

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

THE BROKER OF NIGHTMARES by Jon Padgett

I've been hungry for anything by this author since being blown away by The Secret of Ventriloquism, one of the best works of horror I've read in years. So when I saw that he had a small chapbook novella coming out I jumped right on it! It doesn't disappoint as the story, about a doctor who trades painkillers for vivid dreams, has a similarly unsettling vibe as his previous work.

The atmosphere is due to Padgett's evocative language and the detail of the creepy nightmares explored here. It's so impressive how reading this book actually feels like walking around in a dream. It's a story about addiction and the dark side of imagination, and another stand-out work of horror by Jon Padgett.

GRADE: A-

Friday, May 3, 2019

SHORT RIDE TO NOWHERE by Tom Piccirilli

High on my list of favorite authors, Tom Piccirilli has been known to have written some dark shit. This novel is no different as it's one of those downer noirs that we wrote in the last half of his career. It's narrated by Jenks, a man who's lost everything in the recession, now homeless on the streets of Manhattan, and now searching for answers in the wake of his old friend Hale's violent death, a man who shared the same economic fate.
The worst thing about having a wife and kids and dog was trying to keep it all. Once it was gone, Jenks had to admit, so was the pressure of fighting for it. You were never so free.
Prepare yourself for a dreary and gut-wrenching odyssey through the grimy streets of New York, from homeless shelters to hooker alleys, as Jenks not only trolls for answers but seems like he's aching for to vent his frustrations through violence. In an interesting look at how destruction can not only be contagious but possibly destined, we watch as Jenks flirts with bloodshed everywhere he goes. No one does true modern noir quite like Piccirilli.
He would listen to the sound of the blade opening and shutting, the way he was listening to it now, and he would discover in that last moment what the next page in the great book of life, written in God's own hand, would have to say about his sins.
GRADE: A-

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

A FRIEND IS A GIFT YOU GIVE YOURSELF by William Boyle

William Boyle's latest book might also be his most accessible, with a tone that's pretty different from his two previous novels. While it's set mostly in the same outskirts of Brooklyn where the other books take place and it's just as offbeat, this one is filled to the gills with quirk, witty comedy, and hope; a bit of a departure from the earlier crime downers and melancholy character pieces. It tells the story of a mob widow, an ex-pornstar, a precocious teen girl, a mid-level gangster, and an 80-year-old Viagra-popping pervert, bouncing off each other as they flee the wrath of a psycho hitman armed with a sledgehammer.

It's fun, suspenseful, and delightfully oddball, What few action scenes there are never go quite the way you expect. The chapter in the first third where all of our characters collide in the Bronx is one of the best chapters of any book I've read in a long while! It's well-written with absorbing characters, but Boyle does show a constant issue with narrative momentum as he's always interrupting the flow of the story at the worst moments just for the characters to reminisce. It always helped to learn more about these characters ut I wish it was done with a bit more finesse. But I had a great time reading this one. It's a tale of how friendship can be found in the most unlikely places, and how all you need is the right people around you in order to discover who you really are.

*Advanced Copy provided through Netgalley for an honest review*

GRADE: B+