Tuesday, May 26, 2020

THE LANTERN MAN by Jon Bassoff

This creative and fascinating novel blends murder mystery, horror, small-town rural legends, and family secrets into a highly satisfying tale coming in just over 200 productive pages. It tells the story of a small-town detective named Russ Buchanan driven to reopen the cases of recent violence in his Colorado town, including the fire-suicide of a girl named Lizzy Greiner. As Buchanan investigates, the story is told with a variety of narrative conventions, including Lizzy's journal, Buchanan's footnotes, articles, photographs, etc. All of this provides an absorbing tapestry that builds as the story unfolds.
"I was not looking for a confession. I only wanted her soul to be freed."
It was awesome getting sucked into this short novel. The epistolary and multiple-point-of-view style it's presented in makes everyone an unreliable narrator and you never quite know what's true and what's not as you're reading. And while it has elements of horror and crime, it ultimately tells a story that shows the tragic disintegration of a family and tackles mental health issues like depression and obsession. The author's innovative style lends an interesting mood throughout the novel and a tense, uneasy reading experience. This is my second novel by author Jon Bassoff and while it couldn't be any more different than the first one I read, it's further proof of how much of a singular talent he is.
"It's only flesh my darling. And flesh is meant for the fire."

GRADE: A-

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

EVERYTHING HAS TEETH: STORIES by Jeff Strand

After falling in love with Jeff Strand's work on a number of his novels and novellas, and really appreciating his witty, dauntless, irreverent charm, I should've known that his style would be perfectly suited for short stories. This collection happens to be pure Strand, all guns blazing and zero fucks given, which is everything that we want from the author. He hits the reader with stories about a conscious soft drink with a bone to pick, fingernails that grow at a dangerous rate, murderous bathtub drains, and middle school serial killers. As always with Strand, there's a great mix of horror, the profane, and jet-black comedy that is a style all his own, with some stories even totally breaking the fourth wall with complete awareness that they're stories. But then, he can turn it all around and write a tear-jerking autobiographical story about the death of his dad.

Although, the majority of stories here are enjoyable, my favorites happened to be in the first half, including "Cry," a really original tale about an emotionless man who goes to extreme lengths to cry, including rubbing habanero peppers in his eyes,  "The Tipping Point," about a date night taking a violent turn for the worst, "Fair Trade," where an adulterer must face the consequences, and both "John Henry, the Steel Drivin' Man" and "The Eggman Falleth," stories that tell the untold stories behind the John Henry folktale and the Humpty Dumpty poem.

Jeff Strand once again proves to be a natural-born storyteller in a class all his own, and his work is so consistently entertaining. He's quickly becoming one of my favorite writers and this collection further proves that he can tell a story about anything.

GRADE: A-


Wednesday, May 6, 2020

NUDE ON THIN ICE by Gil Brewer

Pulpy tagline: “A red-hot hellcat in the frozen night—and murder on the prowl!”

Yep. It’s another potent cocktail of greed and lust by noir master Gil Brewer! This one stars one of his most sleazy protagonists, a womanizer and scam artist who drops the ladies he uses like a bad habit and skips out on the hotel bills. After an old friend dies, Ken McCall concocts a plan to seduce his widow and take her for all the money he left behind for her. But a wrench is thrown in his plans in the form of a pretty young thang named Justine who steals his heart and has plans of her own as well.
"My father. I always called him Daddy. He was the first. He was the only one, other than you."
This is a pretty standard pulp novel for Brewer, but what really makes it memorable is how truly crazy the entire cast of characters is. And if you've read Brewer's other books, that’s really saying a lot! Once you get to Justine's kinky daddy issues and all the ruthless blackmail and double-crosses, you’ll find yourself actually rooting for that poor asshole McCall!
I suddenly wanted to leave this house, fast. I didn't, though. Somehow you never do. It's so damn easy to ignore wisdom when it whispers.
GRADE: B 

Thursday, April 23, 2020

UNIDENTIFIED by Michael McBride

It should be no surprise that I once again really enjoyed a novella by Michael McBride. The author really knows how to entertain, engage, and frighten with a well-molded story. Its set-up has elements that recall Stephen King's IT but obviously much more compressed at less than a hundred pages. It tells parallel stories of childhood friends when they're younger and 40 years later, confronting an inexplicable terror that slowly revealed as the story progresses. It's tight and efficient, and suitably creepy. It's definitely not as effective or as memorable as other works like Sunblind or Snowblind, but  I definitely recommend this as a quick read.

GRADE: B-

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

WHERE ALL LIGHT TENDS TO GO by David Joy

There was a place where all light tends to go, and I reckon that was heaven.
After reading The Line That Held Us, I was stunned by David Joy's writing and I wanted to read more of his work. I decided to go back to the beginning and, wow, what a fantastic debut novel! Joy is now, to me, an author that demands to always be on the must-read list. His work isn't merely country crime or grit-lit. There's something else going on here.

The novel is told from the point of view of Jacob McNeely, a young man growing up in his father's North Carolina meth ring business, resigned to his lot in life. But the aftermath of a brutal murder and the rekindling of an old flame force him to consider the fact that he has other options and can change his life.
Blood's thicker than water and I was drowning in it. I was sinking down in that blood, and once I hit bottom, no one would find me.
I was surprised by how little the book focused on the murder or the crystal meth business. For a crime novel, very little time is spent on the actual big crimes. Instead, the focus is all on Jacob as a character and his struggle to change his legacy. It's a sad, mournful novel that's emotionally resonant and beautifully written by David Joy, with a terrific and fitting conclusion. Jacob's feeling of helplessness in his situation touched me, as well as his awakening and eventual dreams of escaping this life. There's a running theme in the book about what it means to be a man and the virtues of being  "hard," with Jacob's father constantly saying that Jacob is weak. I found Jacob to be much more of a man than his dad was, with his self-awareness and honesty being the virtues that truly mean something.
Some souls aren't worth saving, I thought. There're some souls that even the devil wants no part of.
GRADE: A

Friday, March 20, 2020

MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER by Oyinkan Braithwaite

This debut novel follows Korede, a nurse who, after helping her sister Ayoola dispose of her third dead body, is now beginning to discover that Ayoola might be a serial killer. I love how efficient the writing here proved to be: the short, clipped chapters, the bare, no-nonsense prose that gets right down to business with character development, and the nimble and direct first-person narration all led to a speedy, effective read. Not only is it an entertaining little thriller but it also develops both lead characters in effective ways and is also an astute look at this particular sibling relationship. The one big thing I think is lacking is a full arc for Korede. In the end, I wish that there was more of a complete journey for her. The ending felt a bit meager and anti-climactic in regards to character. But I enjoyed the writing so much that I'm excited to see what Braithwaite does next.

GRADE: B+

Monday, March 2, 2020

STARING INTO THE ABYSS: STORIES by Richard Thomas

Many of these aren't stories in the traditional sense. They are mere portraits, moody snapshots, fragments of broken lives, each one sharp and dirty with rust. They're short, bold, uncompromising pieces that pummel you in various ways, leaving you stunned. Basically, the kind of short fiction that I adore. Even though they're unconventional, they are all still highly engaging and satisfying. This is a collection of some of the most original stories I've read in a while.

I was extremely impressed by the creative talent shown here, whether it's the chronicling of a "Twenty Dollar Bill" as it travels a grimy and depressing journey, the look at fight clubs as a new form of criminal justice in "Victimized," a bizarrely sad take on the author's fate in "Stephen King Ate My Brain," after an encounter with the titular author, a dark, uncomfortable "Interview" for a babysitting job, or a twisted take on the choose-your-own-adventure story in "Splintered."
Every time she looked at me, she saw him, our son, that generous boy, and it was another gut punch bending her over, another parting of her flesh, and I was one of the thousand, and my gift to her now was my echo.
If you like work that focuses on building atmosphere and tone, work that sinks under your skin and lingers way past reading, then buy this and dive in. I can't wait to read more from Richard Thomas. I've been reading many great short story collections in recent years, with very clever and fascinating writing. But I have to say that Thomas's work is definitely some of the most exciting and stands out in the crowd.
GRADE: A

Friday, February 7, 2020

CYCLOPS ROAD by Jeff Strand

Jeff Strand is not only one of the most idiosyncratic writers working but he’s also one of the most dependable. I found this latest book to be a real treat. Strand is capable of giving us terrifying material with graphic images that linger and also finding a perfect blend of comedy and terror. No matter how silly they seem, all his books have a true heart and a potent sense of creativity and this story is no different.

It’s about a recent widower stumbling into a mysterious young woman who claims to be fulfilling her destiny and hunting a deadly cyclops and who takes him on an adventure of a lifetime across the country. It was laugh-out-loud funny, equal parts sad and hopeful. It’s a story of friendship and of taking a leap of faith. There’s a running question throughout whether the cyclops is real or not. But you’ll find yourself not caring because it truly is about the journey and the friendships that are made.
What a nutzo way to die, huh? Not that it’s a competition, but my demise is going to be far more spectacular than my wife’s.

GRADE: A-

Friday, January 24, 2020

THE HANDLE by Richard Stark

*Book 8 of the Parker Series*

This book had a lot to live up to after the last installment, The Seventh, which I thought was the best Parker book to date. So maybe I'm not being fair when it comes to my opinion. But this one was just... alright. I can see myself easily forgetting this in a few weeks. To be honest, it's not at all terrible, it's just a bunch of ideas we've already seen before in other books. Parker gets a job, has doubts, forms a team, fucks a girl, discovers some obstacles along the way, and then must deal with the heist falling apart. But what really bummed me out was how boring and anticlimactic the resolution was. Oh well, on to the next one.

GRADE: C-

Thursday, December 5, 2019

THE IMMACULATE VOID by Brian Hodge

He had never witnessed anything that felt more unholy than this.
It’s always been difficult to define cosmic horror. It’s one of the most elusive of subgenres. The best way to describe cosmic horror is the fear that comes from witnessing something that is beyond the realm of human comprehension, the fear of something so vast that it defies all logic and understanding. This book is one of the best examples of the genre I've read. It’s a difficult feat to write about something that is “beyond human understanding” and make it palpable to read. But Brian Hodge pulls it off here, grounding the fantastic and other-worldly into a story that is relatable and engaging on a human level. It's proof that once your reader is engaged with familiar emotions and characters that they will go along for whatever ride you take them on.

It's a hard book to describe but Hodge instantly locks us in with parallel stories of a man trying to track down his missing sister, and the sister coming to terms with her traumatic past and what it could mean for her future. But in the midst of all this, Hodge somehow also deals with sadistic god-worshippers, colliding comets, and gazes into the infinite. It's a stunning novel that took me completely by surprise with its passionate writing, its creepy implications, and the touching relationship between the two main characters. If you have any curiosity or interest in cosmic horror, look no further than here for how well it can be done.
He longed to die. He longed to live. He longed to die to live again in some smarter version of this life. He yearned for it, prayed for it, then wept a tsunami when he realized he was the very god he was praying to, and that it was even more helpless than he was.

GRADE: A-