Friday, June 15, 2018

SHARP OBJECTS by Gillian Flynn

I had pretty high hopes for this one. I was smitten with Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, one of the most fascinating examples of modern noir in my opinion. But to my disappointment, Flynn's first novel happens to be a big fat bore in comparison. It's another one of those banal mystery books where most of the story features the "detective" walking around town conducting seemingly endless interviews looking for clues. If these scenes were integral to character development, or worked on a surface level with cool dialogue, I would've been more interested. But all this could've been forgiven if the mystery was interesting, but it's pretty obvious who the killer is almost immediately. And that wouldn't have been a big issue if I was really engaged in the characters and the family story depicted here, but I really just didn't care about any of them, aside from Camille.

The idea of a chronic cutter protagonist could've been really gripping, and Camille was the best part of the book, but I still felt like Flynn should've gone further with her development; it just wasn't enough to make the book fully enjoyable. Crime/mysteries are at their best when character and plot are inseparable and dependent on the other to succeed and I wish that these elements here worked in tandem more with one another. You can tell that Flynn grew and improved as a writer in a big way between this and her third book.

GRADE: C-

Monday, June 11, 2018

ALEX + ADA by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn

I've been increasingly interested in artificial intelligence and the idea of artificial conciousness after watching things like Westworld, Her, and Ex Machina, and Alex + Ada was a great way to continue that exploration. Set in a future where owning robots are an everyday trend, lonely and recently heartbroken Alex is gifted a state-of-the-art X5 model robot for his birthday. At first he wants nothing to do with it but then sees something special within her and decides to do the forbidden: allow her to gain sentience.

The simple, minimalist art works very well with this story, it's stark, digital appearance lends perfectly to this world and the atmosphere. Not only is this a an ambitious, heartfelt romance about true love crossing boundaries most people normally wouldn't think would be possible, it's also a smart,, humorous, thoughtful commentary on tolerance and an allegory that works in many different ways.

GRADE: A-


Sunday, June 10, 2018

LIKE LIONS by Brian Panowich

Yep, this book does exist. I was a little confused about whether or not that was true at first and I'm not sure what the hell is going with this book's release. It was delayed a couple of times and then out of nowhere and with little fanfare, the book showed up on small online marketplace sellers, not available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or even in libraries, without an book or an audiobook. I actually doubted whether or not the novel was actually available at all, but I saw that some reviews were out there.  And lo and behold,  I ordered it and got an actual, real-life copy!
"This mountain was a circle of tragedy that never stopped rolling."
I'd been meaning to read this for a while as I LOVED Panowich's first novel, Bull Mountain, and I couldn't wait to read the sequel. It takes place a year after the events in the first novel and features Clayton Burroughs struggling to protect his family and his land in the midst of the power vacuum created by the events of the first novel.

This deserves a proper release soon. Once again, Panowich shows real skill with pacing, reveals, and reversals, making for an entertaining, quick-read novel that's never boring. The story itself isn't as riveting and absorbing as Bull Mountain's, and not as well structured; feeling slightly rushed, but dammit, Panowich really knows how to suck you in! I really enjoyed this one and while the stunner of an ending may seem gimmicky to some, but not only does it work perfectly as a whole with Bull Mountain, but I thought it was a very fitting cherry-on-top to a narrative about legacy, consequences, and the cyclical, never-ending nature of violence.

GRADE: B+

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

IN THE RIVER by Jeremy Robert Johnson

She stated it as a fact. The sun shines. The wind blows. If he dies, so do I.
In this book about a man and his young son on a fateful fishing trip and the tragedy that befalls them, author Jeremy Robert Johnson crafts an intense tale of loss and grief wrapped up in a package of powerful imagery, top-notch writing and evocative language. It's creative, original, and never goes where you expect it to. I don't want to say too much and ruin the effect of experiencing it.
The sound of the rushing river became a torment. Time was broken. The man was broken. But the river acknowledged neither and carried on as it always had and would and the sound of it was the song of nothing caring and the man knew it would be the last thing he'd hear.

GRADE: A-

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

SHILOH by Philip Fracassi

Philip Fracassi once again gives us another unsettling, haunting novella, this time set during the infamous Battle of Shiloh, one of the bloodiest of the American Civil War. As we follow two twin brothers struggling to survive the conflict, the story is told in vivid, indelible imagery that paints the graphic horror of war, but also the OTHER disturbing horrors they discover amidst the carnage.
The war might spare my life, but I’m confident my soul is long-since forfeit. You don’t wash with another man’s blood and expect to get clean.
There is also a bonus story here called "Soda Jerk," abut a teenage girl who has recently moved to the small town of Sabbath, and what happens when the creepy dude next door gives her a tour of the town. It's a nifty little Matheson-ish story that's worth a read!

GRADE: B+

Thursday, May 17, 2018

DOWN ON THE STREET by Alec Cizak

There are many movies, especially the exploitation ones in the 70's, that present prostitution and pimps in a heightened way, whether it's glorifying a pimp's excess, or soaking us in the tragedy of it all, like on HBO's Hookers at the Point.

This noir does something different, showing us a less melodramatic transition that two people take into the business and letting us see how easy it can be to get caught up. We follow Lester Banks, a depressed loser who is barely making it by driving a cab, and his apartment neighbor Chelsea, a college student who has equally terrible money problems and finds solace in the arms of lovers every night. They decide to team up and go into business together, selling Chelsea's sex to horny men online while Lester provides transportation and protection. And as you can guess, it doesn't take long at all for this situation to go bad really fast.

Cizak double dares you to judge these characters. There were many times in the book where I was tempted to, but realized that it would be too easy and unfair to dismiss these two as simply: the loose girl who doesn't respect herself and the asshole that takes advantage of her. Cizak even has a chorus of bench ladies who live in their apartment building who judge berate the two constantly and I didn't want to be like them. We see everything through the lens of a man who's too broke and broken to care about much of anything. Because of this, the book's tone is very nihilistic and bitter and makes it challenging to empathize.

And it was tragic witnessing Lester and Chelsea's increasing resentment toward one another as they fell deeper into self-loathing. My main issue with the book is the conclusion and the fact that it feels like there wasn't as big of a consequence for Lester's actions as there were for Chelsea's. Books like this almost always end in destruction, and it's unfair that the woman in this situation bears the brunt of it more than the guy. But hell, I don't know, maybe life ain't fair...

In the end, it's a tricky book and not for everyone, but I enjoy books that challenge me in this way, daring me to follow unlikable characters, forcing me to see them and understand them in all their complexity.

GRADE: B+

Monday, May 14, 2018

SOUTHERN BASTARDS: BOOK TWO by Jason Aaron

This is one of the best comic series that I’ve been following so it’s disappointing that it’s single issue releases have been constantly delayed as of late. But the concluding chapter to this 2nd Book was finally released last week! In Book Two we follow a number of supporting characters as they deal with the aftermath of the two recent deaths in Craw County, and prepare for the fateful Homecoming game against Wetumpka County. The town is really expanded here for the reader as we focus on characters like Esaw, the Sheriff, the crazy snake-handling woodsman Boone, and vengeful newcomer Roberta Tubb, and we get too see how they all revolve around Coach Boss and the violent legacy of the county.

I was bowled over by Book One and once again, Southern Bastards features almost first-rate writing, including some stunning moments of dialogue. It's so impressive how Aaron forces you to follow a truly nasty villain like Coach Boss and actually make it really work, where you find yourself empathizing just a little. I hate the guy, but do I dare say I understand him? It's riveting stuff. And it's cool to see Aaron setting up the different characters on an inevitably violent collision course with Boss. It's like addictive, binge-worthy tv. Along with writers like Ed Brubaker, Brian K. Vaughan, and Jeff Lemire, Jason Aaron shows us what happens when you push the comic book medium to its full potential. This series suffers from too many delays, but everyone should be reading this awesome story of blood, beer, and BBQ.

GRADE: A-

Saturday, May 12, 2018

MAY by Marietta Miles

Let's get this out of the way. I don't know who decided on the cover for this book but it's terrible. And I'm bringing it up because Down & Out Books usually has fairly decent covers for their books. So did someone have something against this one? I'm confused. This book doesn't deserve this.

May tells parallel tales of a solitary woman: first in 1987 as she prepares for a storm on a North Carolina island, which is presented consecutively with the story of her life as a teenager on the mainland and the unfortunate circumstances that led her to where she is now.

The book takes an interesting approach at depicting loneliness and the events that can feed it, especially in showing the differences between May and the two other lead characters, Junior and Tommy, who all share a similar isolation but with totally different backgrounds. They all struggle to stay afloat emotionally and to feel that they matter. And by the end, May realizes that the salvation she needs might be found in caring for someone else rather than expecting to be cared for by others. I must say that I preferred the past storylines better than the present day one, mainly because the present story was filled with so many day-to-day minutiae, details that I feel were unnecessary, cramped the pace, and overstayed their welcome.

Even though you might see this book billed as a crime novel, it's nothing of the sort and it's more enjoyable when you don't have those expectations. I feel like Marietta Miles has a masterpiece in her and I'll be here to see it.

But please, please do better with covers Down & Out Books, if you're looking to actually sell copies!

GRADE: C+

Friday, May 11, 2018

HELL & GONE by Duane Swierczynski

*Book 2 of the Charlie Hardie Trilogy*

If you read the first book in the Charlie Hardie trilogy, Fun & Games, and think you know the way this series is going to continue, trust me, you have no idea.

Hell & Gone takes our favorite ex-cop-turned-house-sitter Charlie Hardie deeper into another level of the conspiracy that he found himself violently thrust into in the first novel, where he'll be challenged even more than before. It's pretty cool that this sequel feels completely different than it's predecessor, but yet totally fits. Swierczynski is one of the best writers of pure thriller out there, and like all of the great thriller writers, takes the most ridiculous of concepts and makes something really entertaining. All the craziness never felt forced to me or out of place. He kept throwing out so many creative and unexpected twists that I just gave up on trying to figure everything out and just went along for the ride.  Especially after the final scene, I can't wait to see where the final book takes us.

GRADE: A-

Monday, April 30, 2018

THE LONELY WITNESS by William Boyle

William Boyle's new novel isn't exactly a sequel to his previous one, Gravesend, but we do follow Amy, a small side character from that first novel, a party girl who formed a relationship with Gravesend's heroine, Alessandra. In The Lonely Witness she has cut herself off from her past life after Alessandra abandons her, and sequesters herself socially in her Brooklyn neighborhood, where she volunteers for a local Catholic church, providing in-home communion for the elderly.

Once again, Boyle provides us with a deep study of an emotionally lost character as she drifts through a detailed Brooklyn steeped in sadness. The novel is all about identity as Amy struggles to figure out her place in the world. She constantly believes that the life she's set up for herself as a helper to the ignored is the right one, but she keeps finding herself pulled in other directions. Old friends from the past and the people who inhabit her life presently all know different Amy's, but the real question that she has to ask herself is which one is the real her. You get the sense that Amy has hidden behind all of these personality facades all her life and now she's on a journey to realize who she truly is. Amy, as well as most of the other characters in the book, set about to leave their dead end lives, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Like Gravesend, this book is a slow novel and a bit meandering, but the reason why it doesn't fully succeed for me the way Gravesend did is because where that first novel switched back and forth between equally fascinating POV's, keeping it fresh, this one just focuses on one character, one that happens to be a hard nut to crack, so the pace and other issues were more evident. But the novel's conclusion as well as Boyle's keen-eyed observance really clicked with me.

The Lonely Witness come out tomorrow, May 1, and this is my review of an advanced copy that I received in exchange for an honest review!

GRADE: B+