Saturday, May 31, 2014

PET SEMATARY by Stephen King


GRADE: A

"Sometimes, dead is better."
One night in 2010 I was visiting my then long-distance fiancé in Alexandria, VA and could not sleep due to serious allergies and jetlag. So, as to not disturb her with my constant sneezing, I spent most of the long late night out in her living room and reading Stephen King's Pet Sematary, in the light of one dim table lamp. After reading the chapter where Louis first ventures onto the Native American burial ground on an eerie moonlit night, I closed the book and realized that I could confidently say that this was the scariest novel I had ever read.

Although some of it might have been the fact that I was reading it in such a prime environment, that vividly written sequence is one of the only times I truly got chills when reading. 

Louis Creed has recently moved his family to a small town and everything seems to be great despite the fact that the local highway has so many instances of killing pets, there is an animal cemetery near their home for all the roadkill victims. It is rumored that deeper in the woods past the cemetery is an ancient burial ground that has more creepier purposes.

Aside from being well-plotted, creepy and evocative, the novel is scary because it taps into basic and primal fears that many families have. The novel is also melancholy and tragic. It goes to such depths of fear and sadness that King himself thinks it's his scariest novel and thought that he might have gone too far after writing it. And the final line of the novel (simple and inevitable but at the same time absolutely terrifying and depressing) sums up what makes this book so effective. It's a standout book out of many great ones from one of our best writers.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

ROOM TO SWING by Ed Lacy


GRADE: B

It's a shame that this 1958 Edgar Award-winner for Best Novel isn't more popular than it is. It's a solid piece of detective fiction and quite possibly the first novel to feature a black private detective as the main character. It's sort of a forerunner to the popular Easy Rawlins series. In the book, we follow Toussaint "Touie" Moore, a small-time detective who's clients mostly stem from the "black" jobs that his white colleagues throw at him. He's trying to make the transition from being a club bouncer to running a legit private dick business. So when a TV executive approaches him with a high paying job to simply keep tabs on a criminal before he's nabbed on an interactive, true-crime "reality" show, he jumps at the opportunity. But things go sour when the guy ends up with his skull bashed in and Touie is framed for the rap!

Toussaint is completely atypical of your classic standard private dick. While most popular fiction detectives are usually jaded and cynical, Touie is bright-eyed and hopeful, making big plans for his new detective career, while his high-maintenance girlfriend Sybil threatens to dash his dreams. She calls it a dead-end career and pressures him to accept the straight post office job that is offered to him early on in the novel. All of this makes his character very relatable and less of a brooding pessimist that many hard-boiled detectives turn out to be. The mystery is enjoyable, the TV show element is surprisingly modern and ahead of it's time, and the racial commentary is never forced and well-integrated. This is a good, quick read that should be better known in the crime genre.



Friday, May 16, 2014

Favorite Novels by GEORGE PELECANOS



My Top 10 Favorite Novels by GEORGE PELECANOS

1. Shame The Devil
2. Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go
3. The Big Blowdown
4. The Turnaround
5. Hard Revolution
6. The Night Gardener
7. The Sweet Forever
8. Hell To Pay
9. Shoedog
10. Soul Circus

Sunday, May 11, 2014

KINDRED by Octavia Butler


GRADE: A-

Great science fiction does more than just entertain. Sometimes, it's used to explore important and difficult material and ideas about society, past experiences, as well as speculate on where we are headed in the future. Octavia Butler was one of the queens of sci-fi and Kindred is considered by many to be her masterpiece. It is one of the examples of great science fiction that goes beyond pure entertainment. It shines a light on what is possibly the most difficult and taboo topics in American history: slavery in the U.S.

Dana, a black woman living in 70's Los Angeles, is inexplicably snatched through time on her 26th birthday, and sent to a Southern plantation during the 1800's. She realizes that she will be brought back repeatedly to save the life of the young troubled son of the plantation owner, who she realizes is her ancestor. So to keep him safe and secure her existence in the modern day, she must endure existing in a time when her skin color makes her property.
"I lost an arm on my last trip home."
Whoa. What an opening line! It's so simple in its construction, but packs a big wallop, and locked my interest in for at least the following 100 pages. After that, not only is it a searing look at life on a slave plantation in the antebellum American South, but also an interesting, speculative character study on how a young black woman from the 1970's would react to having to submit herself to the reality and culture of the times back then. The most intriguing aspect was the way it affected her relationship with her white husband, who ends up traveling along with her through time to protect her. She is so used to acting a certain way with him, a way that is completely not acceptable during these times. Seeing the two of them get "comfortable" in their roles on the plantation and seeing the strain that it put on their relationship over time was fascinating. And Butler's simple and concise style helps to make this harsh story one that can be universally relatable and appreciated.




Thursday, May 8, 2014

DEBBIE DOESN'T DO IT ANYMORE by Walter Mosley


GRADE: A-

A recurring theme in Walter Mosley's prolific career is an existential reawakening of his main character. Whether it be jilted Cordell Carmell's sexual awakening and subsequent odyssey in the erotic Killing Johnny Fry, 91-year-old Ptolemy reclaiming his life and purpose in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, Socrates Fortlow's musings, or even Easy Rawlins's journey in the later books in his series. His new book with the awesome title, Debbie Doesn't Do It Anymore, is in the same vein.

After starring in hundreds of films, super porn-star Debbie Dare has been disillusioned for a long time and is starting to phone it in. Then, one day, not only does she unexpectedly pass out having the most intense orgasm of her life (and first in years) while filming a scene, she also returns home to discover that her husband and an underage girl are both dead in her bathtub after being electrocuted while filming an amateur sex tape. These events rock her world and sets into motion massive changes in her life. 

I really enjoyed this one because of how sympathetic Debbie is as she struggles to figure out how to move on to a next chapter in her life while facing the repercussions her decisions will cause in her financial security, as well as in her relationships with her friends, family, and associates. The other thing that I loved was how non clichéd the relationship between Debbie and her late husband Theon actually was. Once you start to learn more about their past relationship, you discover an imperfect and sometimes raggedy marriage that was also non-judgmental, very supportive, and ultimately truly loving. You get a sense that they couldn't have been more different as people, but were perfect for each other when they needed it.

In the end, it's another great effort by one of my favorite authors and a very moving portrait of a strong heroine who refuses to be a victim and takes control of her life for the first time.


*This was my first Advanced Reading Copy provided by NetGalley for an honest review*



DARE ME by Megan Abbott


GRADE: B+

I had seen the picture of this hardcover floating around the Interwebs and wrote it off as a teeny-bopper, young adult, chick-lit novel. That was before I knew who Megan Abbott was. That was before I read her awesome, hard-boiled crime book, Queenpin. After reading that award-winning romp, I knew I had to reevaluate that book with the cover art featuring the lip-biting teen. And now, after finishing Dare Me, I now have to seek out every one of Abbott's novels.

This foray into the TERRIFYING world of a high-school cheerleading squad is riveting thanks to the same crackling prose and astute observations that made Queenpin so great. 


"And there's Emily, keening over the toilet bowl after practice, begging me to kick her in the gut so she can expel the rest, all that cookie dough and cool ranch, the smell making me roil. Emily, a girl made entirely of donut sticks, cheesepowder, and Haribo. 
I kick, I do.
She would do the same for me."

Not only does Megan throw you headfirst into the highly competitive (and surprisingly dangerous) ins-and-outs of cheer, but she also takes you into the mind of the main character, a modern teenage girl. Addy's world is filled with insecurities, jealousy, and mind-games. And once the new cheer coach enters her life, her romantic outlook on adulthood gets turned upside down. Megan Abbott, writing with confidence, guides us through it all.



BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL by Elliott Chaze

One thing I love about classic paperback originals are the super pulpy taglines! And this one has a great one:

"She had the face of a Madonna and a heart made of dollar bills."

I love this stuff. :)

The tagline really captured the tone of this hardcore noir, about a convict on the lam named Tim, who spends what was supposed to be one lovely night with a sexy, money-hungry call-girl named Virginia, but which turns into a three-night long love-making session. Afterwards, they're joined at the hip, as she accompanies him across the country and on a heist that could take them both down a fast-lane to easy money, or on a highway to hell.

One really interesting thing about the novel was how volatile Tim and Virginia's relationship was from the very beginning. In many crime novels, the man is initially head over heels for the woman. Not so in Chaze's book! Although the sex is good, both Tim and Virginia seem to hate one another right from the start, even resorting to beating the living hell out of each other one moonlit night on the side of the road.  Throughout the course of the story, there are many times Tim even thinks about killing her or abandoning her. But there is some distant attraction that keeps them drawn to one another, and after they become criminal accomplices, they are destined to stay together until the bitter end, whether they want to or not. This aspect really kept me interested to see how their relationship would play out. 

The writing and atmosphere in this novel is really similar to a Jim Thompson book, and fans of his would love this one. Like most great noirs, the outlook and themes are bleak but the pacing is speedy with an exciting heist. It was also one of the most graphic, and button-pushing classic noir novels I've read (although I've only just started getting into them). I really enjoyed it! 
"She was sitting on the floor, naked, in a skitter of green bills. Beyond her was the custodian, still simpering in death. She was scooping up handfuls of the green money and dropping it on top of her head so that it came sliding down along the cream-colored hair, slipping down along her shoulders and body. She was making a noise I never heard come out of a human being. It was a scream that was a whisper and a laugh that was a cry. Over and over. The noise and the scooping. The slippery, sliding bills against the rigid body.
She didn't know I was alive"
GRADE: A


NATIVE SON by Richard Wright


GRADE: B+

This classic, important novel is a challenging read. The easy route for the author Richard Wright would've been to write a novel asking us to sympathize with a black man wrongfully accused of murder in a racist community. But he does not take the easy route. Instead he implores the reader to follow Bigger Thomas, a young black man who is absolutely guilty of committing a deplorable act (for reasons which he himself cannot fully explain), and forces us to look at the circumstances which might have possibly created this complex man. 

Although the book isn't perfect and every now and then (especially in the last 30 pages, which is basically one big speech) delves into bloated preachiness, it still is very engaging and surprisingly suspenseful. It forces you to consider how society in the 1930's created a man, for whom fear and hate were the only emotions he's ever felt, and how those emotions can lead him to murder. It challenges you to understand that although the murder is essentially accidental, Bigger knows he has done something wrong but is initially unrepentant. Because after lashing out in a situation he doesn't understand, it is the first time he feels alive, with a purpose and with the control of his own life in his hands. 

A challenging and important book that pulls aside the curtain and looks dead on at the circumstances that create Bigger Thomas and at the social, class, and racial relations in our society.
“Violence is a personal necessity for the oppressed...It is not a strategy consciously devised. It is the deep, instinctive expression of a human being denied individuality.”

STREET OF NO RETURN by David Goodis

Goodis is known for writing gloomy books, and this is definitely one of them. It starts at the bottom and stays there. Whitey was once a famous singer whose throat gets beat to shreds after he refuses to 
let go of his love for dancer and gangster's girl, Celia. Now he's a down-and-out drunk living on Skid Row for seven years and going nowhere. One night, he decides to actually go somewhere and finds himself on a dark adventure in the Philly "Hellhole" neighborhood on one eventful night. 

You can't help but feel sympathy for Whitey knowing what he's been through and to root for him now that he's finally found a purpose. And although he's prone to rambling, Goodis really knows how to evoke an atmosphere, and knows how to give a voice to characters who are at their lowest point.
"...yesterday could never really be discarded, it was always a part of now. There was just no way to get rid of it. No way to push it aside or throw it into an ash can, or dig a hole and bury it. For all buried memories were nothing more than slow-motion boomerangs, taking their own sweet time to come back. This one had taken seven years."
GRADE: B+


LITTLE SCARLET by Walter Mosley

* Book 9 of the Easy Rawlins series *
 
This was the first Easy Rawlins novel to come close to being as good as the first, Devil In A Blue Dress. The books in between have all been decent, but until now, none have been able to match the urgency and freshness of the first novel. In Little Scarlet, Easy is a changed man after witnessing the violence and destruction during the 1965 race riots in Watts, and he searches for the murderer of a black woman in the riot's aftermath. Using the riots as a setting really upped the ante from the previous novels, giving all of the usual detective stuff way more weight. The city has changed and everytime Easy steps outside you can feel that change and the danger. The series has always also been a look at race relations in the 40's-60's and that theme is made that much more potent in this book. And although the series isn't always stellar, this one really set the standard for higher stakes in the next two really good Easy novels, Cinnamon Kiss and Blonde Faith.

GRADE: B+

THE PROVIDENCE RIDER by Robert McCammon


GRADE: A

*Book 4 of the Matthew Corbett Series*

In my opinion, the Matthew Corbett series is one of the most consistently exciting book series I've read. McCammon is always entertaining and accessible to read and the Matthew Corbett series is one of his best achievements so far. It's very impressive how the books keeps getting better with each installment! 

In The Providence Rider, the young, professional "problem-solver", Matthew Corbett, is a changed man following his near lethal adventure with the pyscho-murderer Tyranthus Slaughter. Now he has been summoned by the mysterious Professor Fell: the worldwide, organized crime mastermind who has been a constant presence behind the scenes in the last two books of the series, and is a major threat to Matthew. The Professor needs Matthew's skills, and promises to call off Matthew's "death card" if he takes the job. So Matthew jumps straight into the lion's den, embarking on a high-stakes, overseas adventure to Fell's Caribbean stronghold of Pendulum Island! 

This book and the rest of the books in the series are great page-turners! One of the reasons is because Matthew is such a relatable and endearing character. It's hard not to like him, relate to him, and root for him, and it's great to see him grow with each installment. The other characters, especially Fell's rogue's gallery of henchmen, are also very well drawn. Another major element to the success of this series is the historical element. It's fun getting tons of easy-to-follow historical detail of the growing colony of New York City in the early 18th Century. 

I would recommend this book and the series to anyone. This one is the fourth in the series. The fifth book, The River of Souls, comes out this summer, and keep in mind that they should be read in order, starting with Speaks the Nightbird. It's fun seeing Matthew grow into his career, a career which is still more than a century away from being described as being a "private-detective!"



THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler




GRADE: C+

*Book 1 of the Philip Marlowe Series*

Private dick Philip Marlowe takes a blackmail case involving an old rich man and his two crazy-ass daughters and ultimately gets more than he bargained for in the form of racketeering and dirty picture-book smut. I really wanted to like this one more than I did. It's one of the top essential classics of not just the hardboiled noir genre but of the crime genre in general. I read somewhere that Chandler came up with the book by cobbling a few of his old short stories together. Well it shows. The plot is so muddled and the double and triple-crosses so tangled, that I unfortunately just stopped caring after a while. But Chandler really does have a gift with words that's nearly unmatched, and that definitely elevates the material. I will definitely give the other books in the series a try soon.


COTTON COMES TO HARLEM by Chester Himes


GRADE: B

*Book 7 in the Harlem Cycle*

I was really in the mood for more of Chester Himes's Harlem Cycle books and this, the 7th book in the series, was the easiest one I could get my hand on at the moment. I'd read the first two books, A Rage in Harlem and The Real Cool Killers, and loved them. I had gathered that they don't need to be read completely in order, so I decided to jump into this one! In this installment, badass Harlem detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson rush to track down a slimy con man, who's been swindling hard-working Harlem families out of thousands in a phony Back-To-Africa movement, and ends up getting all of the money jacked. While investigating, the detectives discover that all roads seem to lead to a bale of Southern-grown cotton everyone seems to be interested in!

While not as awesome as the first two books, this one had the same dry wit and sly social criticism that I love from Himes! It was definitely entertaining, but I found that I prefer reading about the more colorful supporting characters and criminals over the detectives Grave Digger and Coffin Ed. Maybe that's why I prefer the first two novels in the series, where the detectives played more supporting roles. Also, a lot of the writing and ideas seem to be rehashed from the earlier novels. 

But no biggy! It was still irresistibly readable, and I look to reading the other 1950's Harlem adventures!


AESOP'S FABLES by Aesop


GRADE: A-

This is the complete collection of the fables of Aesop, who was reportedly a tongue-tied slave that miraculously gained the power of speech and began telling stories to his masters. The tales were first written down almost 2,000 years ago. It's amazing how many of these very short tales have ingrained themselves so deep into our psyche as a society. While reading, you will be constantly surprised when a story pops up that you've always been familiar with, but were never really sure where it came from. For centuries, these simple stories have guided much of the way we live our lives all around the world. They are so much more than just short fables, but can be seen as a reference book of wisdom.


GRIFTER'S GAME by Lawrence Block


GRADE: B+

I've started reading and enjoying Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder series this year and I decided to try this book out, a hard-boiled early one-off by the author which also happens to be the first reprint by the popular Hard Case Crime series. A drifting con man (his name might be David Gavilan, or it might be Joe Marlin) hops from town to town, jumping the bill at fancy hotels. His smooth system gets interrupted in Atlantic City however, when he acquires some stolen luggage from a train station that turns out to be carrying a brick of heroin, as well as a sexy dame that ends up stealing his heart and common sense.
“She knew how much I needed her. And now she was teasing, playing games. I looked at her and watched her turn into a sex symbol in front of my eyes. She did not look sweet and virginal and lovely anymore. I looked at the very simple summer dress and saw breasts and belly and hips. I looked at her eyes and saw lust as naked as my own.” 
Once again, Block proves to be an awesome writer with a great sense of pacing and momentum! This story moved at such a clip, it was painful having to put it down to get back to doing life stuff. It's best to read this not knowing too much about the plot, and ride the waves of it's great twists right up until the depraved finale!
“She made love with the freshness of an impatient virgin and the ingenuity of a sex-scarred whore.”

IN THE MIDST OF DEATH by Lawrence Block


GRADE: B+

*Book 3 of the Matthew Scudder Series*

This book was just as enjoyable as the previous two in the series. It's refreshing how consistently solid these books have been so far. Probably the biggest reason for this is how vivid both the cast of characters and the dialogue scenes feel in Block's novels. Everything just rings true. His scenes are entertaining with cool dialogue, but the "coolness" never feels forced. There is an ease to Block's writing that I really enjoy to revisit every time I pick up one of the Scudder novels!


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

THE REAL COOL KILLERS by Chester Himes


GRADE: B+

*Book 2 of the Harlem Cycle*

This is the 2nd book in Chester Himes's Harlem Cycle and it's just as absurd and insane as his previous masterpiece in the series, A Rage in Harlem, which I loved. The plot starts almost immediately and moves at a breakneck pace. Just like in A Rage In Harlem, the story is so crazy, and the writing so on-point, that it's hard to stop reading. 

The hardboiled Harlem detectives, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, are back on the job again when a big white Greek dude gets shot and killed by a fake gun in the middle of a crowded street in Harlem, causing all hell to break loose. After Coffin Ed gets suspended for blasting his .38 all over 128th Street when some little gangster throws perfume at him, Grave Digger investigates the case solo. Throughout the course of one night, he discovers that there is more to the case that he originally thought, where it seems like all connections lead to some hookers and a gang that calls themselves the Real Cool Moslems.

Once again, an entertaining read from Chester Himes.

DOWN BY THE RIVER WHERE THE DEAD MEN GO by George Pelecanos


GRADE: A-

*Book 3 of the Nick Stefanos Series*

“The thirst for knowledge is like a piece of ass you know you shouldn't chase; in the end, you chase it just the same.”
The best of the Stefanos novels (Book 3) and my second favorite book Pelecanos has written! In somewhat of a parallel to Nick Stefanos's character, the first two books in the series are a little meandering, but this novel is more mature, with a cleaner and clearer plot line, and finally a real sense of true detective work. 

Nick is on somewhat of a guilt trip with his latest investigation. He is set on solving the murder of a teenage kid; a murder he witnessed and possibly could have stopped if he wasn't piss drunk and semi-conscious under a bridge in Anacostia after a major bender. But the mystery is secondary to the wonderful character study of Nick himself, now close to rock bottom. The novel is not only a detective story, but also a look at a young man trying to finally confront his alcoholism. 

Nick has grown into a great character and almost all of the smaller characters are extremely memorable, including LaDuke and the "man in the brilliant blue coat". And as usual, there is a great sense of place in the way Pelecanos portrays mid-90's Washington D.C. and it's culture. I used to live there for four years in college and I really miss it. Reading these books takes me right back! 

This is an awesome story that kept me hooked. Also, for a real conclusion to Nick Stefanos's story, read Shame the Devil, my #1 favorite Pelecanos novel, which unites both the Stefanos series and the DC Quartet series and brings them both to a rich resolution.


THE GETAWAY by Jim Thompson


GRADE: B+

Doc McCoy was recently released from prison and doesn't waste any time getting right back in the game with a new heist with his inexperienced wife and an insane partner. The bank robbery is successful but Doc soon realizes that the robbery itself was the simple part!

The Getaway begins with what would usually be the middle of most heist stories and is mostly about the aftermath of the crime (hence the title). But the story is not your usual "Bonnie and Clyde"-type thriller. This highly suspenseful yarn is ultimately about the disintegration of this couple's relationship as their journey leads them into some deep shit (literally). The only disappointing thing is the build up of a great character with lots of potential, that ultimately goes nowhere.

This is my 2nd Jim Thompson novel, and it turns out to be just as haunting, bizarre, and all-out ballsy as my first, A Hell of a Woman. And just like in that book, The Getaway has an ending that will first make you pause and think to yourself, "Wait, what in the f......hold on, did I just read that?", and then make you want to go back and read the entire book again. I definitely can't wait to see what his other books are like!
"You tell yourself it is a bad dream. You tell yourself you have died--you, not the others--and have waked up in hell. But you know better. You know better. There is an end to dreams, and there is no end to this."

TIME TO MURDER AND CREATE by Lawrence Block


GRADE: B+

*Book 2 of the Matthew Scudder Series*

Another solid Matthew Scudder novel (the second in the series), once again filled with great dialogue and strong characters. This time, Matt is commissioned by a small-time hustler to posthumously solve his murder in the event of his demise. And because Matt is a man of his word, he sets out to do exactly that. 



11/22/63 by Stephen King


GRADE: A

High school teacher Jake Epping is about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. An old former night-school student is on his death-bed and confides in Jake that he has discovered in the pantry of his diner, a portal back in time to 1958. He then enlists Jake to travel back and prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Who could resist that?!

Stephen King takes an already familiar and popular science-fiction concept and turns it into one of his best novels, a wonderful story that transcends the genre. It's at the same time an irresistibly exciting time-travel adventure, a nostalgic look back at the Sixties, and a beautiful love story. When King is firing on all cylinders like this and hits the mark, he hits it hard, proving that he's among the very best. 



A RAGE IN HARLEM by Chester Himes


GRADE: A

*Book 1 of the Harlem Cycle*

This is was first book by Chester Himes and I loved it! It was exciting, well-written, darkly comic, and unexpectedly absurd while still being hard-boiled to its core. Because of his love for his sexy lady-friend, the loose, conniving, high-yellow Imabelle (“She smelled of burnt hair-grease, hot-bodied woman, and dime-store perfume.”), simple and square working man Jackson loses all of his money to some con men, setting off a chain reaction that leads to a funeral home robbery, acid throwing, a runaway hearse, and a plot involving a trunk full of 18-karat gold ore. In order to navigate this dangerous terrain, Jackson gets the help of his resourceful twin brother Goldy, who makes his living impersonating a Sister of Mercy nun, soliciting bogus charity donations and selling tickets to heaven on the streets of Harlem. 

Sounds awesome doesn't it? It gets even better.

Here's a sample:
"She held him at arms’ length, looked at the pipe still gripped in his hand, then looked at his face and read him like a book. She ran the tip of her red tongue slowly across her full cushiony, sensuous lips, making them wet-red and looked him straight in the eyes with her own glassy, speckled bedroom eyes. 
The man drowned. 
When he came up, he stared back, passion cocked, his whole black being on a live-wire edge. Ready! Solid ready to cut throats, crack skulls, dodge police, steal hearses, drink muddy water, live in a hollow log, and take any rape-fiend chance to be once more in the arms of his high-yellow heart.”

THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY by Walter Mosley


GRADE: A

Mosley's consistently eloquent and soulful writing is perfect for this tale told from the point of view of a 91-year old man who is pulled from the depths of dementia in his final days, is inspired to recapture life and love, and ultimately come to grips with painful memories from his past. It was refreshing and eye-opening to follow a protagonist that is almost never featured in books, the extreme elderly. Many of us forget that a man over 90 years old can have the same desires, the same worries, and the same ambitions as the rest of us. And to witness Ptolemy's active transformation and discovery of a new purpose in life was a joy. Wonderful book. Mosley rarely disappoints and deserves much more acclaim.


A HELL OF A WOMAN by Jim Thompson


GRADE: A

This is the first Jim Thompson book I've read (don't know why it took so long), but it was definitely an experience! The story starts out with a fairly simple and familiar noir plot, focusing on a door-to door salesman who gets smitten for a meek, but strangely attractive young woman, and hatches a plot to steal some money from her aunt, who's a down-right deplorable old witch that pimps out her niece to everyone around town. But eventually, it evolves into this totally bizarre and unpredictable character-driven ride. And WHOA! WHAT AN ENDING!

I'm excited to get into his other novels! Any author that has the balls to write a line like the one below, is definitely one to get excited about:
"...even the puke was beautiful like everything else."

THE SINS OF THE FATHERS by Lawrence Block


GRADE: B

*Book 1 of the Matthew Scudder Series*

Solid start to what I've heard is a good series! I've been planning on reading the Matthew Scudder books for years and now I've started. Matthew Scudder is an ex-New York City cop who quit the force after accidentally killing a young girl in a shootout. It shatters his marriage and relationship with his sons, and he moves into a Manhattan hotel room, where he makes money by doing "favors" for people who need the help of someone with some investigative skills. Matt has those in spades. In this novel (the first of the series), Matt is hired by a man who wants to reopen the closed case of the grisly murder of his daughter, and learn the truth.

Matthew seems like a great character and I'm anxious to learn more about him. In detective and crime novels, I'm less interested in the actual mystery and more interested in how the mystery affects the character, the world around him/her, and vice versa. The strongest aspects of this book are the richness of the characters and the ease of their dialogue. There's not a lot of delving deep into the character of Scudder, but it's definitely a good tease. Can't wait to learn more in subsequent books. 

This book reminds me a lot of George Pelecanos's work! I wouldn't be surprised if Pelecanos was highly influenced by Block. There's a poetic simplicity and a love of the people that I found in this book that I saw many times in Pelecanos's writing.

SHOEDOG by George Pelecanos


GRADE: B+

George Pelecanos has mentioned before that with Shoedog, one of his earliest novels, he wanted to write a no-frills, hard-boiled, straight up paperback crime thriller that can be read in one afternoon. With me, he succeeded. Shoedog starts off blazing, with a tour-de-force 2nd chapter that skillfully sets up the entire eventful backstory of the lead character Constantine. And it never lags during it's exciting tale about our antihero, an aimless drifter who finally returns home to inner-city DC, and gets involved in a heist that is just aching to go wrong. It definitely feels different from all the other books Pelecanos has written, in that it has the dark, depressing sense of nihilistic atmosphere that's present in many of the classic noir dramas.

Pelecanos's wonderful knack of creating interesting and genuine characters is on display here as well, including the level-headed and hard-working Randolph, who takes real pride in his job at selling women's shoes and who might just be Constantine's only help when shit hits the fan. Another solid one from one of my favorite writers. And it has a great final line.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee


GRADE: A

It's sad that I haven't read this book until now. Unlike other people it was never assigned to me in school and I never got around to reading it, along with many other classics (I'm trying to rectify that this year). I had also never gotten around to watching the movie, so I was fairly unfamiliar with the story before I started.

When I first started this book, I was disappointed. I initially thought that the novel was about the trial of a black man wrongfully accused of the rape of a white woman, told through the eyes of the defense attorney's young daughter. So when much of the beginning of the book featured the little girl running around town getting into mischief with her big brother, I admit I was a little thrown. But then, I started realizing that I was totally mistaken: the book was about the coming-of-age of and loss of innocence of little Scout during a few very impressionable years living amongst her tiny community in Alabama during the Great Depression, with the rape trial being one of the big events that teaches her about the bigger world she's living in. After I realized that, I was fully lost in the book. So simple in it's delivery, it sort of sneaks up on you with it's astute lessons about prejudice, decency, community, heroism, and just plain growing up. Once I finished reading in the early morning, I discovered that the book truly lives up to it's reputation as one of the greatest novels ever written.

JUST AFTER SUNSET: Stories by Stephen King


GRADE: A-

I've heard so many people critique Stephen King by saying that his books are always long and he needs editing. That boggles my brain, because to me he seems to be one of the only mainstream authors that consistently releases great short stories, short novels, and novellas. And this book once again proves that he's one of the top dogs of the short fiction format.

This might actually be one of my favorite Stephen King short story collections (and yes I've pretty much read all of them)! This is his collection with the strongest, most cohesive themes connecting each story. Many of the stories have to do with accepting and overcoming death and loss. There's also a definite influence by 9/11 events in many of the stories. There's a lot less pure horror in here than many expect from King.

But that's not to say that King has lost his touch for the macabre. "The Cat from Hell" reads like something that would have been right at home in his first collection, Night Shift, and the most popular work from the collection: the fabulous novella "N.", is a creepy tale of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder told in the intriguing epistolary format that ultimately takes a Lovecraftian turn. But there are also some very quiet, tender, and beautifully written pieces here, like the first story "Willa".

I liked almost all the stories in this collection. The only one that I was not all that keen on is another popular one from the set, "Stationary Bike". It just didn't grab me. 

My favorites here include: the beautiful "The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates", the brilliantly suspenseful "A Very Tight Place", "Willa", "N.", "Harvey's Dream", and "The Things They Left Behind".

LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding


GRADE: C

One of my favorite narrative themes is the true nature of society and its corruption and breakdown when facing trauma and change. Lord of the Flies played a big part in inspiring and popularizing this theme in fiction. A group of British schoolboys survive a plane crash on an unidentified island. At first the boys naturally have a blast with their new independence without adults, until leaders start rising and groups start dividing. Then the dark side human nature starts to show its ugly head.

The classic plot is one of my favorites but I found the writing to be a bit tedious and awkward. In the hands of a more engaging, imaginative writer, this book could've been a favorite!

QUEENPIN by Megan Abbott


GRADE: A-

It's always exciting discovering a new author, whose work I can't wait to dive into more. It's great reading a pulp noir novel from a woman's perspective (with a man as the "femme fatale" no less! ha!) and written with the same tough talk of some of the hard-boiled classics. In the book, a young, bright-eyed club bookkeeper finds herself living the good life after she becomes the protégé of an aging but still glamorous (and still ruthless) mob queen. She might lose everything after breaking the rules and falling hard for a two-bit gambler. Sexy and poetic, Megan Abbott's prose is the main star here. It starts off with all gun's blazing, never lets up, and makes it hard to put the book down. Here are two excerpts that give you a taste of her great writing:
"It was a soft sell, a long sell. I never knew what she had in mind until I already had such a taste I thought my tongue would never stop buzzing. Meaning, she got me in, she got me jobs, she got me fat stacks of cash too thick to wedge down my cleavage. She got me in with the hard boys, the fast money, and I couldn't get enough. I wanted more. Give me more."
-
"One night, he ripped my $350 faille day suit from collar to skirt hem in one long tear. Fuck me, I was in love.
I'm yours, that's what I told him without ever spitting out a word. He could see it on me, feel it on me. He liked to have me on the bare mattress, liked the way it rubbed me raw. I liked it. Liked the burn of it. Liked thinking of it all the next day, every time I leaned against anything, every time the strap of my brassiere pulled across it."
Can't wait to read more Megan Abbott, who has books with awesome titles like Bury Me Deep and The End of Everything

THE BURGLAR by David Goodis

This novel by David Goodis follows Nat Harbin, a man leading a Philadelphia burglary gang. He's efficient and professional, and is  dedicated to protecting Gladden, the daughter of a dead friend and  
a member of his crew. But things get complicated once the mysterious Della comes into his life.

Lean, mean, and terribly bleak, once this story starts moving it's pretty hard to break away from it until it's haunting ending! This ending is one of the best I've ever read. This was my first novel by the nearly forgotten David Goodis and it won't be my last.

Example of Goodis's poetic bleakness:

“He couldn’t speak. The thing that crushed down on him was the sum weight of all the years, and her voice was a lance cutting through it, breaking it all up and showing him it added up to nothing but a horrible joke he had played on himself.”
GRADE: A-

GOING TO MEET THE MAN: STORIES by James Baldwin


GRADE: A-

I was slightly disappointed with the first novel I read by the late great James Baldwin, Giovanni's Room. Although I found it difficult to empathize with the main character (who I found to be a little whiny and spoiled), I was really taken by how beautiful Baldwin's writing was. It was enough to keep me interested in reading more of his work and I'm glad I chose this book as the next one. This solid collection of 8 short stories is a great primer to his writing style and the themes that permeate most of his work, such as race, identity, sex, life in Harlem, and the influence of art, religion, and family. 

Baldwin's writing is consistently sincere, although some stories kept my attention more than others. There are two stories that are the big standouts in this collection. The soulful "Sonny's Blues" is about a man struggling to understand and reconnect with his estranged, heroin-addicted, musician brother, and also happens to be a look at the liberating power of the blues. The following quote is one the best descriptions of what great music, especially "the blues" is supposed to do, and what it means to be a musician:

"He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness."

The title story, "Going to Meet the Man", floored me and haunted me, and might be one of my favorite short stories. It actually kept me up at night thinking about it afterward. It's a story written with pitch-perfect confidence by Baldwin, about a middle-aged, racist, deputy sheriff of a Southern town in the U.S. recalling the event in his childhood that might have made him the bigot he is. The story challenges you to see how an innocent 8-year-old boy, who's best friend is black, can somehow turn into something else. It also explores the uncomfortable relationship between prejudice and sexuality, and how one can profoundly affect the other. A great piece.

THE ACCIDENTAL SIREN by Jake Vander Ark


GRADE: A-

Jake Vander Ark is one of the only self-published authors that I've read that I believe truly deserves to get a deal and see a wide release. I've read two of his books and for the life of me, I can't see why he's not signed to a major publisher. Although beautiful, don't be fooled by this book's YA-ish ebook cover. It has definitely attracted readers, but to me this book is darker than any young adult fiction I've ever come across. 

The story takes place during the eventful summer of 1994 in western Michigan as young James Parker just wants to make an awesome movie with his buddies. Everything changes when they meet Mara, the most beautiful girl in the world, who not only changes the course of their summer, but changes their lives forever. The book begins as your usual coming-of-age tale, but as each chapter rolls along, and the atmosphere builds, you slowly begin to realize that you are reading something much more twisted and extraordinary than you originally expected. 

Vander Ark's prose is a huge part of why the book works so well. It's gorgeous and really carries you through this ultimately haunting story of obsession and growing-up the way a great book can. When he details the awesome scene where James and the other neighborhood boys are listening silently in the trees one night as the mysterious girl finishes her hypnotic singing lessons at home, he writes THIS magnificent line:
“The night seemed suddenly defiled by the absence of music, as if the silence itself was injecting a sickness that only another song could cure.”
The book ultimately feels like something that Stephen King would be proud to write these days. You can find the ebook for free and if this review doesn't convince you to read the novel, then check out the plethora of 5-star reviews on its GoodReads page. I can't wait to read more by this author! Check out his other novels as well: The Brandywine Prophet and Lighthouse Nights.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A SIMPLE PLAN by Scott B. Smith


GRADE: A

I find it hilarious whenever I see negative reviews for this book. Almost all the time, the reason for the negativity is that the reviewer thought that the main characters were stupid and made dumb decisions. If characters always made the right decisions or the smartest ones, there would be absolutely no drama and why the hell would anyone want to read about people who do all the right things?!

I think this was a wonderful story about how all of us are capable of terrible things if circumstances were there, such as greed, fear, the need to survive, or simply by just making BAD DECISIONS.

Three friends stumble upon millions of dollars and decide to keep it and not tell the authorities. That one decisions begins a terrible domino effect that leads to dire consequences. It's like a classic tragedy where the end is inevitable.

Great book! Tightly written and with great pacing! It's crazy that Scott B. Smith has not only written a book that is now one of my favorite crime novels, but he has also written one of my favorite horror novels, his second and only other novel so far, The Ruins. It should be a crime that he takes so long to write novels!

FULL DARK, NO STARS: STORIES by Stephen King


GRADE: B+


A solid collection of four novellas by Stephen King!

The novella 1922 makes this collection worth reading. Not only is it my favorite story in the collection, I think that the other stories pale in comparison. 

Big Driver was disappointing, while both Fair Extension and A Good Marriage were fairly good. But 1922 is a very well-written descent into madness. I couldn't help but keep reading as the main character and his son disintegrate after committing a terrible crime. It's a very dark story and might not be some readers' cup of tea, but I loved it. A true homage to the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Now, it's one of my favorite novellas by King, and one of his best works!

THE SON by Philipp Meyer


GRADE: C-

I tried to like this novel. The premise sounds like something I'd love. A multi-generational story told in parallel narratives, exploring the creation of myths and legends, and how the experiences of one man can affect future generations. The central story, of a young teenage boy who is kidnapped by Comanche marauders after seeing his mother and sister raped and scalped, and growing up amongst the Comanche, is fairly engaging and informative historically. The main problem is that the other two narratives are not compelling in the least. The story of Jeanne Ann McCullough for instance is terribly repetitive as she lays injured and alone in her house, reflecting on her past, which feels like the same thoughts and events over and over. The other character, Peter McCullough, is incredibly wooden and flat. I made it through about 250 pages, about half of the novel, until I called it quits. :(

THE TURNAROUND by George Pelecanos


GRADE: A

During a hot summer in Washington D.C. in 1972, six young boys' lives were violently changed by a chance encounter forever. Now, 35 years later, the survivors will cross paths again in a story of redemption and revenge.

Filled with themes of forgiveness, responsibility, and redemption, while still being just a simple, handsomely-told story about everyday working men, this book is pure Pelecanos. All the elements of his work are here, from the spare writing, to the constant theme of what it means and what it takes to be a man. One of his best traits setting him apart from so many other writers is the sense you get when reading that he genuinely loves and cares about his characters. This is a great book to read as a primer to Pelecanos's work! Then go ahead and read them all...

A LESSON BEFORE DYING by Ernest J. Gaines


GRADE: B

Young teacher Grant Wiggins is bitter about returning to his home in a tight knit black Louisiana township to teach in a poor education system and live with his aunt. So he's definitely reluctant when he is called upon by his aunt's friend to counsel her son, who has been arrested and sentenced to death for murder. In trying to help this young man recover a bit of dignity before he dies, Grant forms a bond with him that will affect him more than he expects.

Although it took me a while to truly empathize with the main character as he seemed obnoxious and self-absorbed in the first half, this was a great story, with a powerful message and a great sense of time and place.

THE GIVEN DAY by Dennis Lehane


GRADE: A

This quickly jumped into my list of favorite novels! Not only is it impeccably researched and details dramatic historical events in Boston of 1919, it also follows truly relatable and engaging characters. The book follows two young men, one black and one white, who get caught up in the social and political turmoil in Boston at the time.

I was worried that being a long historical drama, it would be boring, but from the first chapter I was totally engaged and then became swept up in Luther's desire to get back to is wife and Danny's journey into union activism and involvement in the infamous police strike. The books pacing is surprisingly quick for all the historical info it details and I finished it in four days. I've read all of Dennis Lehane's novels and most of his short stories, and I'm looking forward to the next one!

“Do you know the primary difference between men and gods? ... Gods don’t think they can become men” 

THE TIME MACHINE by H.G. Wells


GRADE: A-

“Looking at these stars suddenly dwarfed my own troubles and all the gravities of terrestrial life. I thought of their unfathomable distance, and the slow inevitable drift of their movements out of the unknown past into the unknown future.” 
One of the most timeless classics in the world. The story begins with a scientist describing his latest invention to a group of his dinner friends. They are naturally skeptic when he describes a machine that can travel through time. One of his friends is curious though and when he returns to visit the scientist, he finds him haggard and spent, and sits and listens to the "time traveller's unbelievable story. This is the classic novella that arguably gave birth to science-fiction as we know it. And it is still incredibly readable, imaginative, engaging, and thought-provoking. Not to mention ahead of its time!

CITY OF THIEVES by David Benioff


GRADE: A

This book is a blast! With vivid, memorable characters, including an endearing, vulnerable, and highly relatable protagonist, this is a novel that I would recommend to anyone. During the Nazi's savage siege of Leningrad during World War II, young Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and sentenced to death. He gets the opportunity for a pardon though, when he is given the near impossible task of collecting a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of the daughter of a powerful colonel. He's accompanied by a fellow inmate and sets out on an adventure that will change both of their lives forever.

It combines a beautiful coming of age story, an odd couple friendship, a buddy road trip, and a historical war thriller, producing an adventure that's truly exciting. I didn't think that a book that takes place during the deplorable conditions in the siege of Leningrad could be so enjoyable! You may recognize the writer's name, David Benioff. Yes, aside from being the creator/writer/producer, of the immensely awesome HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones, Denioff is also a very accomplished novelist. Make sure you check out his other first great novel, the crime drama, The 25th Hour

SAMARITAN by Richard Price


GRADE: B

A failed screenwriter returns to his hometown of Dempsey, New Jersey (the same fictional city featured in Richard Price's masterpiece Clockers), in order to get back in touch with his roots and to teach a high school class. After he decides to do some good deeds in the inner-city community, he gets his ass kicked close to death. He's refusing to name his attackers or give a reason for the beating, so his old high school friend, and now near-retired cop, Nerese "Tweetie" Ammons, sets out to find the answers.

Richard Price is a great wordsmith with true sense of authenticity in his writing. In Samaritan although there's some rambling soliloquizing from certain characters that drags and slows down the story at times, he tells a solid story of deep moral and emotional complexity with compelling, relatable characters (Nerese specifically is a refreshing creation). The novel also turns out to be a thoughtful look at the urban public education system.