Tuesday, July 21, 2020

THE LESSER PEOPLE by Lee Thompson

Lee Thompson seems to be an author who is constantly challenging himself, dabbling in a
variety of genres, and forcing himself to explore difficult themes with increasing ambition. He reminds me a little of Walter Mosley in that way. That alone makes him an exciting writer worthy of notice. He's written respected work in horror, dark supernatural, mystery, and inner-city crime drama. I wouldn't be surprised if he dabbled in some erotica next. With this novel, The Lesser People, he tackles a coming-of-age historical drama, and racism in rural Mississippi. It's about a dying old man who tells the story of the dark days when he was a child and discovered the body of a lynched and mutilated young black boy in the woods. This discovery not only haunts him but causes a chain reaction that threatens to destroy his innocence and break apart his town and his family. 
His eyes were filling with tears, and I knew he was going to tell me a story about the love that got away, for as strong as men try to appear, it's love like that and all the questions it brings, that hounds them until their final day.
Thompson's work walks that jagged line of being both staggeringly brutal and beautifully touching, as if he believes that those two facets are two sides of the same old coin; you can't have one without the other. That's what I like the most about his work and that characteristic is still on display here. And although this book has some of the best prose that I've read from Thompson so far, this one wasn't as all-out enjoyable as the other books I've read by him. It sports a great beginning and an emotional ending that really brought everything together in a great way, but much of the middle of the novel gradually lost much of the story's urgency and momentum. But that ending definitely made up for it. 

I can feel that there's a true masterpiece or six in Lee Thompson's mind that's just boiling, ready to jump out. And who knows, there's still some work of his that I haven't read so maybe they're just sitting there waiting for me. And if they haven't popped up yet, his work is still awesome enough that I'm having a great time witnessing his journey to get there. 

GRADE: B-

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

TRUE CRIME by Samantha Kolesnik

Everyone called you sweet before they defiled you. A virgin was nothing if not ripe for the teeth.
This shocking debut novella follows a young girl named Suzy and her brother Lim, on a killing spree after escaping their abusive mother. It's an intense character piece exploring what might lead to the creation of a sociopath like Suzy. With staggering and powerfully insightful prose, Author Samantha Kolesnik is unflinching, pulling absolutely no punches here, forcing us to go on this journey with Suzy and to have some sort of relative empathy for her. 
I wondered how the world made its villains and why it never apologized for making them.
Featuring a protagonist that’s a killer with very little remorse is a tricky line to walk, but in my opinion, Kolesnik really pulls it off. I felt her connection to her brother, which is not exactly love, but a primal bond of mutual understanding and protection. I saw that pain is the only true feeling she could recognize and I understood that seeing the desperation and survival instinct in other victims was the only thing she could relate to. Although it’s disheartening and uncomfortable, I found myself understanding her pain and inner corrosion and by the second half of the book, hoping that at some point the little girl inside the damaged shell would have a chance to come out and be free. 
When people prayed to God, I wondered, were they praying to Him or were they praying to me? I couldn't quite see a difference in that moment.
GRADE: A-

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

DETOUR by Martin M. Goldsmith

A violinist named Alexander Roth is hitching rides across the country on his way to Los Angeles to be with his actress girlfriend and gets waylaid along the way by unfortunate circumstances. This essential, classic noir stands out because of its strong writing. Many of the pulp novels back then, because of their quick turn out, felt hastily written, but this one really feels like a little more time was taken to craft the work. Another thing that stands out and that I expect felt different back then was the parallel storytelling, jumping back and forth between Roth's predicament and the story of his girl Sue and her life in Hollywood as a struggling actress. I loved the way the twists in each story revealed themselves and what they meant for the other plotlines. I wish there was a little more substance to Sue's story beyond her pining for love though. But with a cool plot, good writing, a ruthless fatale, and doom-filled atmosphere, this one should definitely be included on any noir bookshelf!

GRADE: B+

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING by Max Booth III

When I was kid, I went through Hurricane Marilyn in the Virgin Islands and when it got really bad in the night, I hunkered down with my parents, grandparents, and sister in my grandparents’ guest bathroom as the hurricane raged outside. It was one of the scariest times in my life. This truly unsettling novella brought back many of those memories, as it takes place completely in a bathroom after a Texas family finds refuge there when a major storm comes through their town.

The story starts off tame enough, with a little tension between the family and discomfort with the conditions. But soon, things get more surreal and more terrifying. As the time in the bathroom crawls on, Booth’s writing provides a palpable unease where I wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t. I don’t want to get into too many details as it’s best to go in blind so that the events in here have maximum impact, but I read most of this with a real sense of dread as I began to feel the claustrophobia, smell the odors, and, once things started to go truly bonkers, I began to read all of it with bulging eyes. 

Did any of this really happen in the story? Some of it might have. Some of it might not. Based on how horrifying this was, I would hope it was all just a bad nightmare for the main character. But deep down, I feel like I know the truth.
it’s going to be okay it’s going to be okay it’s going to be okay it’s going to be okay it’s going to be okay it’s going to be okay
GRADE: A-

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+