Saturday, September 23, 2017

THE SNAKE HANDLER by Cody Goodfellow and J. David Osborne

"I could never repent, because that was not my role, any more than it's yours. Heaven needs Hell. And Man needs a scapegoat for all the lies he tells himself."
Although the narrative lacked the momentum I was hoping for, this book is nowhere near safe or formulaic. This story of serpent handling evangelist preacher and small town drug dealer Clyde Hilburn being forced to confront his sins after he's bit by a snake someone put in his mailbox is still pretty memorable and has lots of things to say about sin, God, and morality. The tone of the novel really works to parallel Clyde's slow succumbing to the snake venom that he should be used to by now. I loved the writing and the fact that it's written as a prayer to God. It's an unflinching and savage collaboration between two great authors. And the redneck shootout in Walmart will probably go down as one of my favorite scenes in any book this year.

This is yet another brave and unique piece of work from Broken River Books, one of the best publisher's out there.

GRADE: B+

Monday, September 11, 2017

BEHOLD THE VOID by Philip Fracassi

One of the things that's very apparent in every story in this collection, and with all of Fracassi's work, is the intense focus on developing character. Some might say that it's even too much and not necessary for the short scary stories he writes, but I would respectfully disagree and it's an aspect in his work that I really appreciate. Good horror, to me, is inherently linked to character, and even more so here. Yes, these 9 stories feature occult horror, ghost stories, and cosmic horror, but the thread that really runs strong through most of them is the horror that has its roots buried deep in broken family relationships and parenthood.

Fracassi takes his time with each story, setting up it's world and characters, making the payoff that much more rich by the end. The best examples of this are in the standout stories "Mandala," "Fail-Safe," and "Mother," a story that packs the most stunning prose I've read so far by Fracassi.

And to think, the guy is basically just getting started.
Common sense assures us of the invalidity of demons and sharp-clawed creatures of the night, but we still can't help wonder if there's something there, waiting to drag itself toward us and slide it's cold wet claws around our neck, empowered because we gave it what it needed. We gave it the dark.
GRADE: B+ 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

ROUGHNECK by Jeff Lemire

Many of you might snicker at the fact that I've been reading comic books lately. Or at least just straight-up ignore the reviews. But those serious readers of rural grit lit authors like Daniel Woodrell, Benjamin Whitmer, and Ron Rash would definitely do well by checking out this recent graphic novel by the inimitable Jeff Lemire.

This multi-faceted work of art is a focused and personal drama focusing on Derek Ouellette, a disgraced hockey player turned violent, lonely drunk, and his efforts to reconnect with his estranged drug addict sister after she stumbles back into his life.
I'm so damn impressed by how much Lemire can do with so little. One of the things I LOVED LOVED LOVED the most about Roughneck was its lack of any narration, which is a convention used in almost every comic book/graphic novel I've read, and is mostly used too much as a crutch to help convey backstory and inner thought, since prose is usually not an option. But Lemire doesn't take the easy route and gives us just the amount of info we need through dialogue, expressions, and most important: imagery. It was so refreshing. And speaking of the imagery, Lemire really knows how to tell a story in visuals. There are great motifs here and the Canadian landscapes are rendered in cold, gray/blue tones, only broken by elements of memory, the past, by the things that haunt the characters, all depicted in saturated color.

Roughneck is about the choices you make: the choices in the past and the ones in the present, how they're intrinsically related, and how the time will come when you must come to terms with them. Pimitamon, the name of the fictional town where the book takes place, is the Cree word for "crossroad." Jeff Lemire seems to basically is in a class of his own in the comic book world and shows everyone else how to do it.

GRADE: A

Saturday, September 2, 2017

BLOOD'S A ROVER by James Ellroy

*Book 3 of the Underworld U.S.A Trilogy*

Ellroy seems like he's running out of steam here. Story-wise and stylistically, this novel fits right in as the final book in the Underworld USA trilogy, where he documents his own version of the history of this country's turbulent '60's, with this book pulling us from the MLK and Bobbie Kennedy assassinations and into the early 70's with the Nixon years and the Black Power movement. But it's a far cry from the quality of his masterpiece American Tabloid, and surprisingly, I even liked it a little less than the disappointing A Cold Six Thousand. While those two previous books had solid structures that moved on a path to their respective inevitable events in history, the historical material here doesn't provide such a trajectory, and much of it started to feel really repetitive. Even though it's an easier read than Cold Six, the main characters here were barely engaging. The book's best character by far, the fascinating FBI/Black Power Movement double agent Marshall Bowen, is relegated to mostly journal entries, where the book would've been so much better if he was a POV character!

I still love Ellroy's work in general but in this one, he  either run out of interesting material to fill an epic novel, or the good stuff that he did have was misused.

GRADE: C-

Monday, August 28, 2017

BLACK HAMMER VOL. 1: SECRET ORIGINS by Jeff Lemire

Wow, I really enjoyed this one. Just when you think you've seen everything in the superhero genre, it's awesome that a writer like Jeff Lemire can come along with an original story that feels fresh.

You know in superhero comic book universes when a big epic crossover crisis happens because the publisher wants to reset continuity and get rid of particular characters that won't fit into the new mold? When a God-like being threatens existence itself and some of our heroes sacrifice themselves to save the universe? Well, this book speculates on what happens to those characters post-event. After sacrificing themselves for Spiral City in a Crisis on Infinite Earths-style event, six Golden Age heroes find themselves on a farm in a quiet rural town, inexplicably unable to leave. Some are content with their new existence, while some are aching to find a way out.

If you're looking for big, epic superpowered action, you won't find it here. This story is a quiet, character-focused tale, as we watch the group try to deal with their new lives, hide their unique superpowers, and search for purpose now that they aren't heroes anymore. I love these characters and each chapter in this volume focuses on each person's history before the crisis and parallels the past with what they have going on in the present on the farm. While Abraham Slam and Barbalien are both trying to find their place in this new life while also finding new love, my favorite character, Golden Gail is having a much harder time. Her powers cause her to turn into a superpowered 9-year old girl, but after the Crisis, she is stuck in her little girl form. Being a 55-year-old woman (with all the accompanying thoughts and desires) stuck in a 9-year-old body can cause anyone to be bitter, so who can blame her for wanting a cigarette or a drink or three in the afternoon?

This book is a fascinating, spirited love letter to classic Golden/Silver/Bronze Age superhero comics (with obvious send-ups to known heroes Captain America, Swamp Thing, Mary Marvel, and Martian Manhunter), featuring detailed world-building and lovingly realized characters. Can't wait to see where this goes.

GRADE: A-

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

THE BLACK HOOD VOL. 1: THE BULLET'S KISS by Duane Swierczynski

Over the years, there have been a number of iterations of the superhero vigilante The Black Hood, who was introduced during the Golden Age of comics as a corny-costumed crime fighter. But writer Duane Swierczynski and artist Michael Gaydos takes the Hood and grounds him in tough ultra-realism, using the story to touch on violence and crime in his native Philadelphia.

Greg Hettinger is a Philly cop who gets involved in an altercation that not only leaves the original Black Hood vigilante dead but also leaves Greg's face hideously scarred by a shotgun blast. While recuperating and struggling with speech therapy and a painkiller addiction, he finds a purpose when he dawns a black hood and stalks the streets at night.



I'm a fan of Swierczynski's novel writing and I think it's pretty cool that he can jump back and forth so successfully between prose fiction and graphic fiction with his popularity on Marvel's Iron Fist and Cable, and DC's Birds of Prey. His sensibilities and talent is on display here to good effect, producing a graphic novel that turns the story of the Black Hood into something absolutely unrecognizable as a superhero story and much more of an urban crime noir about a man with serious issues and weaknesses finding the one way he feels he can redeem himself.

Gaydos's artwork really adds to the tone as well, feeling both painterly and rough around the edges, very similar to Alex Maleev's work, with the simple, unobtrusive panel layout work you can also find in Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips's work.

I wish that the book ended with the great finale of the fifth issue because the last issue was awkward and felt totally out of place. It felt that it should have just been included in Volume 2. But it's still pretty good work overall!

GRADE: B+

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

CRIMINAL VOL. 6: THE LAST OF THE INNOCENT by Ed Brubaker

Here we go! The final full-length volume of Brubaker and Phillips's Criminal series is the bitter/sweet cherry on top of an awesome anthology that provides some of the best examples of noir writing in the sequential art form. It's pretty difficult to stand next to the other books in this series, which are consistently rad, and this one really holds it's own, taking a step away from Center City as the primary backdrop, which connected all of the stories in the series, and follows Riley Richards, a man who seems to have it all but is deeply unhappy and pines for his hometown, obsessing over the mistakes he made there.

What's really cool about The Last of the Innocent is the innovative artwork that contrasts the present day and the flashbacks by illustrating Riley's present-day world in Sean Phillips's trademark rough edges while presenting the nostalgic past with the softer, simpler art that many would recognize from Archie comics. I love it when artists use the singular strengths of their respective mediums to tell the story and the way Phillips uses the comic medium here lends a great effect!



At first, I thought the similarities to Archie were just a stylistic thing, but then I realized that there's much more to it than that. It's exciting to see that the story is essentially a speculation of what might happen if Archie married Veronica, moved to the big city and then got all fucked up. Dead ringers for all the Riverdale characters are all over this story, with pretty blatant Jughead, Reggie, Moose, and Betty analogue characters. But it's also a great tale on it's own merit, touching on simmering regret and resentment, and the lengths that you might be willing to go if given the opportunity to fix your discontent.

Brubaker and Phillips wrapped up this series of stand-alone noir tales with real pizzazz in this great volume!

GRADE: A-

GREEN LANTERN: REBIRTH by Geoff Johns

I really enjoyed Green Lantern: Secret Origin and I think it was a great place for me to start: a simple origin story for Lantern newbies but still introducing cool mysteries and high concept science fiction. But I thought the real test was going to be this book, a tricky rebooting of a high fantasy cosmic saga and the return of the greatest Lantern, years after a number of other humans have taken up the mantle. Was I going to be lost and confused jumping into the middle of years of canon? Would ithe story just seem like a cheap trick to try to bring back a beloved character?

Well I admit that it wasn't as tightly crafted and easy to understand as Secret Origin, but I'm happy to say that it was still exciting. I was a bit lost with the the backstory of what happened to Hal Jordan before this book (there's something about him going bad and then bonding with the spirit of fear and the spirit of vengeance as they war for control of his mind). But I think that Johns did a relatively good job at catching me up and I was surprised by how much I understood and appreciated it all. There are lots of Justice League and Lantern Corps cameos as Jordan's friends band together to try to free him from both spirits. I'm not a big fan of all-powerful heroes, but what I enjoy about the Green Lantern is that although a Lantern's ring is the most powerful weapon in the universe, it's potential is only as strong as the willpower and imagination of the person using it, and in one of the best scenes in this book, I love how you see the struggle that Green Arrow goes through when he tries to use the ring.

There are some really great moments and and well-drawn action, especially in the rousing finale where all the heroes have to fight Parallax, the embodiment of fear. Even Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are out of their league and have to take a step back and let the Lanterns do the damn thing! I actually felt like cheering after the final fight and the triumphant return of Hal Jordan, which is pretty surprising given the fact that I wasn't very familiar with what happened before. There's some great world-building and a surprising amount of thoughtful character work. I especially loved the conflict between Green Lantern, a man with no fear, and Batman, a man who's biggest weapon is intimidation.

GRADE: B-

DOPE by Sara Gran

Sometimes, if you've been unlucky enough to find out the truth, you're better off forgetting it. Especially when there's not much you can do with it.
For a while now, I've been pretty over reading standard detective mysteries. I've begun to find them terribly boring, mostly featuring a slightly flawed investigator running around asking the same questions for most of the book; it gets pretty tedious and repetitive after a while. These days, I'm more interested in dark crime and noir stories that are a little more creative and substantial. So I'm not sure why I expected something different when I cracked this open.

The thing is, author Sara Gran really creeped me out with her previous demonic possession novel, Come Closer, impressing me with her matter-of-fact, conversational prose. So I really wanted to read more of Gran's work. But Dope doesn't offer much more than most of the other usual crime mysteries. It really is mostly just about ex-dopefiend Josephine Flannigan stalking around Manhattan searching for a missing girl. Gran does give us a bit more with her exploration of Josephine's past and her fight to stay on the wagon. Other than that it was all pretty forgettable. There's nothing inherently terrible about Dope, I just found it unremarkable. But hey, it might just be me and the way my taste has been changing.

GRADE: C

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

HARD SENTENCES: CRIME FICTION INSPIRED BY ALCATRAZ edited by David James Keaton and Joe Clifford

Broken River Books is one of the most exciting publishers out there, with great taste and a knack for finding interesting material. This is one of their latest releases, a collection of short fiction inspired by the country's most infamous penitentiary, from a group of great writers: folks like Jedidiah Ayres, Les Edgerton, Nik Korpon, Johnny Shaw, and Gabino Iglesias, all with different styles, ranging from Iglesias's bizarre shadow terror to the Cronenberg-sequel body horror style of Glenn Gray. 

The anthology does a good job of telling stories from different points of view surrounding Alcatraz. Sometimes they're about people intimately familiar with the place and sometimes the island haunts the stories' events from afar. We get tales from the points of view of prisoners, their relatives, children of prison employees living on the island (what a strange childhood that must have been!), and there are even some ghosts, demons, and historical figures like Capone, The Birdman, and Johnny Cash being awesome as usual. I wish there were more stories from the POV of the guards and other employees though. 

And although not every story is stellar, there are some great pieces here, like Ayres's "Clean Shot," Leah Rhyne's melancholy "The Music Box," Iglesias's hard-hitting "Creep," Rob Hart's punchline, "The Gas Chamber," and Matthew McBride's dynamic "A Broken Window." And all of the stories together serve to weave an inspired tapestry illustrating the undeniable notoriety of The Rock.

GRADE: B