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-

Saturday, September 15, 2018

THE MAN WHO CAME UPTOWN by George Pelecanos

The work of George Pelecanos has a special place in my heart. I've read every single one of his books  and they always leave me affected in some way. I know many people complain about his constant focus on the minutiae of his native Washington D.C. and popular culture references, but there's something about it that adds to the experience and the charm. His latest book is classic Pelecanos and one of his most instantly reader-friendly, which is saying a lot, because he's known for that.

In it, a young man is recently released from jail with a new love of books and a new determination to make his life better. He's then torn between two influences after his release, the jail librarian and the slightly bent private detective responsible for his release.

Again, Pelecanos focuses not only on what it means to be a man but also what it takes to get there. He has such an acute sense of character that sometimes the skill can sneak right past you. There are no heroes or villains here, just different people trying to make it for themselves, who happen to make different decisions to get there. Phil Ornazian is especially a great three-dimensional character. His adoration for his wife and kids made me root for him and want him to succeed, but he constantly wonders where along his path of life his actions suddenly turned crooked. Also, with a less aware writer, the handling of a slight romance angle in the story that could have gone another way, but here it is surprisingly tasteful, mature, and truly refreshing.

The book is not only a love letter to reading and the life-changing quality books have (and also a great excuse for Pelecanos to sport his great taste!), but like in the book Northline (a major reference here), it's also really about small kindnesses and how they can change not only someone else's life, but your's as well.

Pelecanos's books are crime novels but he's not a heavy plotter; the action is uncomplicated and the prose is simple, direct, and workman-like. But the power and charm here is in the small, everyday life things: from the small increase in salary at the new job or the gradual connection with coworkers there, to the banter between violent prisoners during a book club debate, or even a simple walk in the District rain. It's easy for a reader to argue against giving an A-score to a Pelecanos book, because it all may seem too simple and unadorned. But this book made me want to be a better man after reading it, so there's really only one score I can give it.

GRADE: A

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

GALVESTON by Nic Pizzolatto

This short, moody novel opens with a mob muscle/strongarm guy named Roy Cady finding out that he's diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. While accepting his imminent death, he fatefully crosses paths with a young prostitute named Rocky who ends up on the run with him.  It's a gorgeously written debut novel with sequences that took my breath away. There's a scene where Roy visits an old girlfriend where you can feel his yearning for the past oozing out of the words, even while she remembers that past very differently. There are also tender scenes between Roy and Rocky where they open up to each other and you can truly feel the connection in the pages.
I wanted to shout, but it dawned on me that all my objections involved the future, and I didn’t really have one.
The atmosphere in this one hypnotized me. Pizzolatto's prose shines here; his writing is equal parts lyrical and woeful, at times filled with both beauty and brutality as he tells this story of two broken souls who first find each other at their most hopeless, but end up providing one another with a light in all the darkness.
You’re here because it’s somewhere. Dogs pant in the streets. Beer won’t stay cold. The last new song you liked came out a long, long time ago, and the radio never plays it anymore.
GRADE: A-

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

SUNBURN by Laura Lippman

I've waited to long to read more books by the popular Laura Lippman, and this one seemed right up my alley. Lippman's set-up is classic pulp noir: a drifter meets a sexy redhead with a mysterious past in a sleepy small town diner and they embark on a relationship that they both know probably won't be the healthiest one. What takes the book down even more fascinating paths is that we get not one, not two, but numerous unreliable narrators. Each character's past starts to be revealed, but not just through their point of view, but the POV of others around them as well. We not only start to learn their history but we learn that they're also harboring secrets as well, and as the reader, we struggle to figure out what is true and what isn't.
He knows everything about her. the hard part has been keeping track of what he's supposed to know and what she has yet to tell him.
It makes for very engaging reading, making this one of the more interesting reading experiences I've had this year. For the first half of the book, I couldn't wait to keep reading to see where the story would take me.

Then, coming up near the end of the novel, I began to suspect that it wasn't really taking me anywhere. The pace slowed down significantly, and by the end, my fears were confirmed. Not much actually happened here, at least not anything that lived up to the promise of the first half. The book was fine but not as amazing as I was hoping, especially with the great character work that Lippman featured here.

GRADE: B

SCALPED: BOOK FIVE by Jason Aaron

"The thunder's calling our names Lincoln. You hear it? I do.
I'll race ya."
What a fantastic series. And Aaron brings it all to a fitting conclusion here. If you're a fan of shows like Deadwood or Sons of Anarchy, and other well-conceived crime dramas, definitely check this story out. I wish I could erase my memory and start over again fresh from the beginning and relive the story one more time. All of the painstaking and meticulous character building and world building pays off as each character and storyline comes to a head and converges dramatic resolution that will leave the Prairie Rose Reservation in flames.

GRADE: A


SCALPED: BOOK FOUR by Jason Aaron

"You gotta sin to get saved..."
This penultimate chapter of Scalped reads like more of a waypoint on the way to it's inevitable finale. While the writing is still incredibly strong and the story continues to be compelling, much of it focuses on the characters dealing with the aftermath of the events from the previous book and setting them in place for the next one. It's really a transition story so it's not as stunning as the last installment. But you'd be hard pressed to find a better comic book series than this one.

GRADE: B

Monday, August 6, 2018

CANNIBALS: STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF THE PINE BARRENS by Jen Conley

Don't go into this book with it's crime label on your mind thinking that it'll be full of big violent thrills. In fact, it's the opposite, filled with quiet, small tales of little moments in the lives of the people in the New Jersey Pine Barrens and the moments that leave an impression, no matter how small. But that's not to say that the stories here are boring. As a matter of fact, I was pretty engaged throughout, as Conley has a real talent for quickly getting to the core of a character and an emotion, instantly grabbing you in a few paragraphs. There's an interesting nostalgic quality to the stories, where they feel more like memories, as if the characters, or in some cases, the omniscient narrator, can't shake the influence that these moments have had. I really enjoyed this taste of Conley's work and I wish that more writers had her skill with brevity. My favorite stories were probably "Finn's Missing Sister," "Angels," "Metalhead Marty In Love," and "Home Invasion".

GRADE: A-