Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A DANCE AT THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE by Lawrence Block

*Book 9 of the Matthew Scudder series* 
"Sometimes it's a dog-eat-dog world and the rest of the time it's the other way around."
This year I've realized that I'm not that big of a fan of standard detective series. They get too repetitive and frankly boring after a while. It nearly broke my heart when I realized that I was starting to feel the same way about this book in Lawrence Block's Scudder series, arguably the top of the detective pack. As I read, I started to notice the formula and the trends. Once again, Scudder has to explain that he's not an official private detective, once again Scudder "struggles" with what to charge people for his services, even though he always seems to settle on the same price (somewhere between $2-3K), and once again Scudder has a moment where he's unsatisfied with his work and considers giving the client a refund, even though he's never actually gone through with it yet. I guess it's designed for the casual reader that might jump into the series at anytime, but for me it becomes a slog reading the same shit over and over. At least in this book we were spared him having to explain why he's not a cop anymore; I'm a little tired of hearing that story too.

This time around Scudder takes on two cases that somehow end up connected, determining whether or not a TV producer was responsible for the rape and murder of his wife, as well as tracking down the masked sex killers in a grisly smut film he stumbles onto in the middle of watching a VHS rental of The Dirty Dozen. This novel's plot developments were based on so many coincidences that the plotting seemed a bit lazy this time around. But even with these issues that I personally had and the fact that this book lacks the emotional weight of Eight Million Ways to Die, the freshness of When The Sacred Ginmill Closes, or the urgent danger of A Ticket to the Boneyard, it's still as thoughtful, readable, and well-written as any of the other novels in Block's Scudder series, with some cool characters and nasty villains.
"We are closer than close, you and I. We are brothers in blood and semen."
So although it suffers from the usual stale repetitiveness as other later novels in most mystery series, it's still a Block novel so it's still one of the better detective books out there. If you're going to read a repetitive detective series, this should be the one you read.
"Well it's a hell of a story," he said. "And I guess you could say it has a happy ending, because you didn't drink and you aren't going to jail."
GRADE: B-

Friday, December 25, 2015

COLD AS HELL by David Searls

Here I go again, reading another tale of cheerful holiday spirit this Christmas! This time, it's a quick-read novella from DarkFuse that feeds into every parent's nightmare, following a man who he loses track of his twin children after letting them ride on a kiddie train for an 18-minute ride around the fancy outdoor mall on a cold and snowy night. Time seems to stop, people seem to not have seen the train or know that one even exists, and as his Uncle Buster and Santa Claus tell him: "Things Are Not What They Seem."

It's a moody, well-written tale where the author blurs the lines of reality and has you questioning everything your read. His use of the increasing biting cold and snow adds a strong, creepy atmosphere over the story, with the jovial Christmas spirit of the mall providing an unnerving contrast. This book is best read in one sitting and packs a lot in it's small page count.

GRADE: B

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

YOU'D BETTER WATCH OUT by Tom Piccirilli

With the holidays rolling around, I was in the mood for a good Christmas tale and I thought it would be a great opportunity to read another Tom Piccirilli book before the year was out! And because it's Tommy Pic, let me tell you, if you're looking for a heartwarming holiday tale of good tidings and cheer, go look somewhere else, because You'd Better Watch Out is definitely not for you. It's a brooding, hard-hitting Brooklyn "noirella" about an unnamed man who, as a child, witnessed his corrupt, abusive cop father brutally murder his mother. He grows up a foster child, learns violence at an early age, and becomes muscle for a prominent New York crime outfit, waiting patiently for the moment when his no-good Pops gets out of prison.

It's a simple tale, but as usual in the hands of Piccirilli, it stands out for it's storytelling economy, dead-eye prose, no-holds-barred depiction of violence, and how quickly and intuitively he can find the beauty and emotion in such dark and nihilistic material. This is my fourth novella so far by Piccirilli and he's really mastered that length and structure. I can't wait to jump into his longer work and see what he can do when he has more pages to impress me with!


GRADE: B+

Monday, December 21, 2015

THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS: STORIES by Stephen King

It's always an event when a new Stephen King short story collection is released. Much of his best material comes in the short form and he's proven time and again to be one of the best short story writers working these days. I adored his previous collection Just After Sunset, and I couldn't wait to jump into this one! I had read about a third of the stories when they were previously published, including the two novellas in the collection, the inventive and entertaining magic Kindle story UR, and the highly disappointing killer car story Mile 81, which is wrecked by it's atrocious ending.

Unfortunately my favorite stories in the book were ones I'd read before, which lessened my enjoyment a bit with the collection as a whole. It's by no means a bad collection, I just didn't have many amazing discoveries but enjoyed the re-reads. My favorites were the captivating "Morality," about a New York City couple who are approached with a tempting way to get themselves out of the economic slump, the beautiful and heartbreaking story of a highway accident, "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive," and the Raymond Carver-esque tale of a doomed marriage, "Premium Harmony", all of which I'd read before. There were a few new stories that I enjoyed and which read like classic King shorts: "The Dune" (which had a nifty ending), "Obits," and "Bad Little Kid," all of which would fit snugly right in the middle of his Skeleton Crew collection.

Some of the others were less enjoyable, with King's occasional tendency toward disappointing endings on display. He's famous for not outlining his stories and not knowing what will happen once he starts writing, which most of the time is not a problem. But in some of these stories, it's glaringly obvious and he doesn't bring it home very well. But as I mentioned, a collection of new King stories is always a big deal. And there's enough great stuff here to get excited about!
"Memory's job is not only to recall the past but to burnish it."
GRADE: B-

Monday, November 30, 2015

PARADISE SKY by Joe R. Lansdale

"Now, in the living of my life, I've killed deadly men and dangerous animals and made love to four Chinese women, all of them on the same night and in the same wagon bed, and one of them with a wooden leg, which made things a mite difficult from time to time. I even ate some of a dead fellow once when I was crossing the plains, though I want to rush right in here and make it clear I didn't know him all that well, and we damn sure wasn't kinfolks, and it all come about by a misunderstanding."
And so begins the true account of the adventures of the Western legend Deadwood Dick, as told by his own damn self. He's eager to set the record straight about his story, which begins when as a young man named Willie Jackson, he runs away from home to escape a lynching after a grudge-crazed rancher catches him staring at his wife's ass. After he discovers that he's a natural horseman and shootist, Willie takes the name of Nat Love and embarks on a series of wild escapades across the frontier, making friends, killing enemies, finding love, rubbing noses with legends, and becoming one himself.

Once again Joe Lansdale crafts a Western adventure that is charming, exciting, and a pleasure to read, featuring a great lead character. And big ups to him for helping to bring attention to black western figures like Nat Love, since they've largely been ignored in movies and books. And aside from Love, the supporting characters and villains are a big reason why this one is so enjoyable, each one memorable and providing their own color to the overall tapestry. It's a testament to Lansdale's talent that with so many characters populating the book, he can make each one stand out. His considerable skill as a natural storyteller is again on full display here, with his folksy narrative voice and trademark wit proving a perfect fit for the story.
"Let's go outside and see how much of you is fact and how much of you is fart mouth and horseshit."
If you're looking for an entertaining, rousing adventure tale, throw this one on your to-read pile. I might even go as far as saying that it's even more knock-down awesome as his previous western The Thicket, but I personally wish he explored Nat as a more flawed character. It's a wonderful novel that I would gladly read again and a great folktale of the Old West. For companion reading, there is an old autobiography of the real Nat Love that was an inspiration for the novel, and Lansdale also published a novella with further adventures of Deadwood Dick called Black Hat Jack.

GRADE: A-

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

RUMBLE TUMBLE by Joe R. Lansdale

*Book 5 of the Hap and Leonard series*

After a twister blew away his house, Hap is living on Leonard's couch, working as a bouncer, thinking about moving in with his girlfriend Brett, and balls-deep in his mid-life crisis. But when Brett asks for help rescuing her estranged daughter who's turned to whoring and seems to be in danger with the wrong crowd, Hap puts on his white knight helmet, and the three head to the town of Hootie Hoot, Oklahoma, and equally dangerous Mexican border towns to track her down.
Size and strength didn't intimidate Herman. As he told me later, no matter how big they grow, balls and eyes stay soft and a tire tool has no friends.
Every installment of the Hap and Leonard series has been exciting entertainment, guaranteed for a heap of chuckles! Although this one delivers, it doesn't really stand out on its own the way the other books have. It doesn't really add much to the series, doesn't try anything new, and felt a bit more long-winded this time. But it's still lots of fun, and involves shotguns, armadillos, biker gangs, midgets with attitudes and prairie dog hunting, so fans of the series, of Lansdale, and his great dialogue won't be too disappointed. If I hadn't read the first four great novels, I would have probably loved this one more. On it's own though, it's a good thriller and solid entertainment.
"As Leonard has pointed out, I'm like the guy goes out in the yard and steps in a pile of horse shit, and where he or someone else would say, goddamn, I've stepped in horse shit, me, I'm looking for the pony."
GRADE: B-

Friday, November 13, 2015

THE FISHERMEN by Chigozie Obioma

This elegant coming-of-age novel is told from the point of view of Benjamin Agwu, a 10-year old boy growing up in the small Nigerian village of Akure.  He bears witness to the breakdown of his family and his three older brothers Ikenna, Boja, and Obembe, after an encounter with Abulu the Madman, who's foreboding prophecy changes everything.

Debut author Chigozie Obioma shows true talent with imagery and smooth prose, giving the story a storybook, fable quality which Lends weight to the retrospective element of the novel. The book's biggest strength is the way it illustrates the characters almost immediately, really giving us a portrait of a genuine family and the dynamics between the brothers and the parents. The parents were especially compelling. When things go wrong, I immediately sympathized because I felt so familiar with these people and the community that surrounds them. Another thing that really works and that actually surprised me was the novel's historical aspect, where Obioma weaves in bits of Nigerian history in the 90's as a framework for the story. It's really interesting how the breakdown of the Agwu family parallels the change in their village and the political change in Nigeria in general. Although the pacing could've been a little more concise (it took me longer than I expected to finish), I was charmed by the characters, the lovely ending, and enjoyed the book as a whole. 
"I want you all to know that even though what you did was wrong, it reflected once again that you have the courage to indulge in something adventurous. Such adventurous spirit is the spirit of men. So from now onwards, I want you all to channel that spirit into something more fruitful...

What I want you to be is a group of fishermen who will be fishers of good dreams, who will not relentuntil they have caught the biggest catch. I want you to be juggernauts, menacing and unstoppable fishermen."
GRADE: B+

Thursday, November 12, 2015

IN THE SEASON OF BLOOD AND GOLD: STORIES by Taylor Brown

It's always a great feeling when you feel like you've discovered a new author that's on the cusp of blowing up. When you feel that great privilege of knowing that not only is there still a whole career's worth of material to look forward to, but also once he/she gets hugely successful, you can say, "I was a fan from the beginning." In The Season of Blood and Gold (released last year in 2014) is Taylor Brown's debut, a collection of hard-hitting short stories, some of which have already won awards. 
"In a world gone white, ghosts must be the color of shadow."
I'm here to tell you that Brown is the real deal. His writing is some of the very best that I've read all year. He has a real mastery of language, using it in expressive ways, evoking both atmosphere, character, and emotion with impressive economy. There are some stories that seem like they could have been written by a young Cormac McCarthy, where Brown uses words like a mallet and chisel, making sure they stick with you long after reading. Here's the opening line of the award-winning story "Kingdom Come":
"The boy dropped the knife into the stone mouth of the well and watched the blade glitter into the depths, blood from its edge red-clouding its wake, haunting the blade like tidings of its history."
The stories take place in a wide variety of places and times, ranging from the Old West past to even a post-apocalyptic future. A big similarity that I noticed in the stories were the characters, all of which seem to be adrift in their respective worlds, searching for connections, their identities defined by what they do, whether it be a poacher, a soldier, a piano player, a moonshiner, a tattoo artist, or even an alligator wrestler.

My favorite story in the collection, "Whorehouse Piano," blew me away with it's efficiency in the way it illustrates the fascinating character of Lucy and how hard it hits emotionally in just five pages. It's about a former whore who now plays piano in her brothel, her complex and bittersweet relationship with the owner, and her journey to see her estranged father.
"They drove all night into bayou darkness, low-hung moss and the scarce reflection of blackwater amid the mangroves. Highway signs reared before them, bleary and wayward-tilted. Red-flattened carcasses of small mammals littered the road. Whoreson crossed himself when he saw them, reborn. Her hand retreated when he tried to hold it. They never touched, not since the night he slit her throat."
Other standout stories include "Sin-Eaters," set in an apocalyptic future, where one young man decides to buck the system once he finds beauty in a terrible world, "Bone Valley," about a lonely guy who wrestles gators for a living, as well as the beautiful title story, about a young Civil War soldier who risks everything after he meets the love of his life. This story also seems like it might be the basis for Brown's upcoming debut novel, Fallen Land, which I will be scooping up like a hotcake as soon as I can. So excited to read more from this guy! 

GRADE: A-

Monday, November 2, 2015

A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS by Paul Tremblay

*Note: I discuss a theory that could be seen as a SPOILER in the final paragraph of this review* 

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I was pretty surprised by how forgettable this one was. It's one of the more popular horror novels this year, and the premise (about a young girl named Merry witnessing her family dealing with the possible demonic possession of their daughter and their choice to not only perform an exorcism but to film it for a reality show) is a set up for some chilling entertainment. But I was uninterested through most of this book. 

Much of it has to do with the terribly inconsistent pacing and lack of narrative urgency. When I looked at the bottom of my Kindle and realized that I was coming up on the 50% mark and wasn't really excited about continuing, I knew I was in for trouble. Some of the problems with the pacing comes from the book's structure and framing device, where we glean the story by switching back and forth from an adult Merry dictating the story of what happened to her family to an author named Rachel doing research for a true crime novel, which leads to the POV of an 8-year-old Merry during the traumatizing events. But there's also the POV of an annoying blogger dissecting the infamous reality show that documented the events. The blogger sections specifically prove to be mostly unnecessary. I mean, yea I get it, with these sections we get an idea of what the world knows about the events through the show and the fact that they differ from what might have actually happened but...*yawn*...the same thing could've been done (and to an extent was being done) in the Merry/Rachel sequences much more efficiently and with less pages of pop culture references, less shout-outs to horror and crime icons, and less words in all caps. And as much as I understand choosing to use the little girl POV for the bulk of the novel, it ultimately became a chore, and all the time spent on setting up the 8-year-old-girl-world took away from the real reason that I picked the book up in the first place. For example, what was up with Merry refusing to speak and using notes to talk? Ultimately it didn't really amount to anything other than ruining the pacing in what should've been a really engaging, pivotal chapter.

The dialogue also took away a bit and didn't feel genuine, coming across as overly formal and stilted, especially in the conversations between Merry and the writer Rachel. The theory that most reviewers seem to have by the end (that Merry has been the one that was possessed all along, and continues to be) is much more than a theory to me and is pretty blatantly spelled out for us in the final scene: with the "brrr, it's cold in here" lines popping up every paragraph. This reveal actually makes the book slightly more interesting, but comes too little and too late to redeem the rest of what could've been a nifty little piece.

GRADE: C-

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

SUFFER THE CHILDREN by Craig DiLouie

YO. I gotta tell ya'll, this is one fucked-up little book!

Let's start with this book's awesome premise. Out of nowhere, a worldwide event (later dubbed Herod's Syndrome) causes all pre-pubescent children to drop dead. Then, after three days, it resurrects them, but in order to stay resurrected, they need to ingest a certain amount of human blood. The novel follows three families as they navigate this new reality. 

Craig DiLouie takes this crazy concept and really milks it for all it's worth, delivering a creative twist on vampire fiction and on end-of-the-world fiction as well. He delivers horror in the way that Stephen King does with Pet Sematary, feeding on the terrifying concept of a parent dealing with the sudden death of their child, and the lengths that a dedicated parent would go to in order to keep their children alive.

One of the clever things is that it's not even the bloodthirsty children that are scary in this. In fact, when their hunger is satisfied, they're essentially their old child-like selves again. What really brings the horror is watching what the parents have to go through after the children die (like the horrible notion of having to deliver your rotting 8-year-old for burial in a mass grave) and then see what happens when the children come back and the parents realize that it's possible to keep their children alive by feeding them human blood, that one simple thing that can make them whole again. That's what's truly terrifying: watching how this discovery slowly breaks down society, and realize that it's actually really believable. That grocery store sequence? Damn. That's one of the most unnerving and horrifyingly effective sequences I've read in a very long time! And there are other similar scenes in this one that really gave me the willies!

Another clever thing about this concept is that DiLouie can have the parents do anything in this book and it would be believable. Because what parent wouldn't do anything to be with their kids longer?

As I mentioned, DiLouie milks his ideas for all their worth and delivers a truly unsettling story with interesting characters, cinematic prose and some surprising twists of the fucked-up variety. While writing this, I thought to myself: am I really giving this book a full A? But I really have no complaints with this bad-boy, so yep, there you go! It's an engaging mix of science-fiction and horror and is everything that end-of-the-world/apocalyptic fiction should be.
"There were so many times I was too tired to play with him. Too distracted by work to really listen. Too irritated by his tantrums and sickliness to be present. Understand? But not now. I look back sometimes, and I can't believe what used to matter to me. The things I used as excuses to get away. Not now. This is a different time. A purer time. I've never known such clarity. The only thing that matters is blood."
GRADE: A

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

ANIMOSITY by James Newman

This is the type of story that I'm a sucker for: the focus on the dark-side of human nature and how society naturally can turn on itself and become something terrifying.  Here, we follow a commercially successful horror writer that stumbles onto the corpse of a raped and murdered little girl, and the way that the media and gossip causes his small town to turn against him.

Much of your enjoyment of this novel might hinge on how well you think the transition into the mob mentality works. And it didn't work for me as much as I'd hoped. And no, I'm not naive. It's not that I don't believe that people and the nature of society are capable of such depravity (because they are), it's just that I was never able to truly buy into the fact that these particular people would react so quickly in this way, in this particular situation. I wish that the book was longer and spent a little more time building the case against Andy, or more time on building the town gossip's snowball effect. And this is coming from a guy who wishes that all books could be novella length. But if more time was spent involving the child victim's family for example, if we felt their involvement more in community and the story, if their agony and desperate suspicions helped to fuel the town's anger, and the cycle that would come from that, that would have helped. I'm sure that's part of what caused the town to react in the way they did, I just wish we got more of a sense of it in the book. If there was a little more of a build-up, I might have bought more into the idea of a bunch of over-the-hill housewives brandishing garden shears and ganging up for a public lynching, or a soft-spoken pregnant woman reduced to attempting to claw out the eyes of an 11-year-old girl. I know the speed of the transition to brutality is the whole point and I understood it intellectually but it just never really rang as genuine to me. I also could've done without the whole summary of the novel's themes in the epilogue, as if I needed it all spelled out for me...

But it seems like I'm the only one who thinks this. The book has mostly great reviews, so I'm an almost one-man minority with this less than great review, so don't let this stop you from reading it. I still enjoyed it; it's still a tense, suspenseful read, and the furthest thing from boring. Superficially, the novel still really works as a great thriller. It's definitely worth a read and seems like it would be a great conversation starter.  Many might wonder why this novel is considered horror. There are no ghouls, goblins, ghosts, vampires, demons, or werewolves. But what this book is about is something way more horrifying. It's about the the possibilities of violence that human nature has in store for us all, and the fact that we all have potential of being the victims or the perpetrators. A scary thought.

GRADE: B-

Sunday, October 18, 2015

THE BOOK OF NIGHT WOMEN by Marlon James

"We not getting free, we taking free."
OUT. FUCKING. STANDING.

This book floored me. Seriously. I was so stunned by the time I finished that I couldn't sleep for a while, even though I had to be to work on set at 6am the following day! The Book of Night Women is the best coming of age novel I've encountered; it really is unlike anything I've read before. Night Women, Marlon James's second novel, follows a mulatto girl named Lilith, who is born into slavery in late 18th-century Jamaica, and the eventful year after she turns 15 at the Montpelier Estate. Lilith catches the eye of Homer, the strong-willed head house slave, who recruits her to join a quorum of five other women, who are plotting an island-wide slave rebellion. 

One of the things that's so impressive about this novel is how fascinating this coming of age concept is, illuminating the horrifying effects of slavery in a unique way that we've never seen before.  It's commonly known how difficult it is being a teenage girl, dealing with the growing pains of puberty, sexual awakening, mood swings, self-discovery, and the need to assert independence and be seen as a woman. Now imagine all of this happening while the only world you know is one of complete oppression and total lack of freedom or positive influence. This idea is ripe for exploration and Marlon James leaves no stone unturned. How would a young girl handle being touched with kindness when all she knows is being touched with violence? How do you handle the already confusing matter of being mixed race during a time when skin color defines everything? It's unsettling, frustrating, and ultimately engaging to watch the process of Lilith growing from a girl to a self-aware woman throughout the book. And this concept of coming of age as a slave is something that I feel no one else has ever done (The Book of Negroes might be the closest), at least not this powerfully, showing the horrifying effect of slavery in a unique way that we've never seen before.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see how hyper feminist the story is. There are only a couple main male characters and almost no primary male slave characters. It's kind of a breath of fresh air as there are hardly any strong female characters in classic slave narratives and here, the entire revolt plot is planned by strong women all over the colony. They don't involve men because they don't believe that men have enough rational brainpower to really handle this! Here, it's the women that are totally badass, calling the shots, packing muskets and machetes and Obeah spells, and it always feels genuine. 

The cherry on top is of course the author's skillful writing. He's a natural and the prose is epic, poetic, and probably the most challenging of all his novels. While both John Crow's Devil and even the dense A Brief History of Seven Killings have heavy loads of Jamaican patois, Night Women is COMPLETELY told in patois and I could imagine it no other way. It helps to provide a totally original voice. Although I had no problem with it as I grew up in the Caribbean, I expect many readers to have a difficult time. But, I think the plot and the amazing characters are easier to grasp and more accessible than either of those other books. And for anyone that has a problem with the vernacular, I highly recommend listening to the audiobook as well. I jumped back and forth between the paperback and the audio and Robin Miles's narration is the best audiobook performance I've heard. She's a complete chameleon with accents and really accentuated the drama!

So as you can tell I adored this book and I immediately added it to my list of favorites. It's a total masterpiece from the beginning all the way to it's extraordinary ending that James just NAILS like a master conductor! This is a powerful piece of work and I believe (and sincerely hope) that this book will ultimately be considered a literary classic in years to come. Bravo Marlon James! Bravo!
Some fire don't go out, they go quiet under the ash, waiting for one little dry stick to feed. So the white man sleep with one eye open, waiting for the fire next time.
     That fire coming.


GRADE: A+

Thursday, October 15, 2015

NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET: HORROR STORIES by Richard Matheson

This is my first real foray into Matheson's work that I can remember (I read I Am Legend a very long time ago and can't quite recall it). I knew he was an important and influential author but I had no idea to what extent! It feels to me like he's the author that had the strongest influence on Stephen King. Their style of storytelling and pacing (at least in the short story work) is very similar! And you can also see why he was tapped to write The Twilight Zone episodes and why that show adapted a few of his stories. If you're a fan of the show, you'll love this collection as the stories have a very similar structure.

I listened to this on audiobook throughout the span of several months. I really enjoyed most of the tales in this collection and was constantly impressed with how clever and creative Matheson was in his storytelling. The concept and idea for each story is compelling and will keep you reading. And not only does Matheson show real skill in building upon these concepts in interesting and original ways and bringing it to a slam-bang ending, but he also has a great sense of what to show, what not to show, and when to do so. In the entire collection the writing has a great sense of mischief throughout, that same sense that King's writing has in his best creepy tales. The best example of Matheson's skill is the best story in the collection, the utterly creepy "Dress of White Silk", about a young girl obsessed with her dead mother's belongings. And that final couple of lines? Holy shit.

Other standout stories are, "Disappearing Act," "Legion of Plotters," "The Likeness of Julie," "First Anniversary," "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,""Through Channels," "Blood Son"...hell, who am I kidding? Just read 'em all. Definitely a recommendation if you're looking for some classic horror stories this Halloween season.

GRADE: A-

Saturday, October 10, 2015

THE UNDERDWELLING by Tim Curran

Setting and atmosphere is so important in many horror stories and this book has that in spades! This novella by cult favorite horror author Tim Curran is about a young miner who is excited for his new post on a graveyard shift team to work the bottom levels of the Hobart mine, because it means extra dough that'll help with his new baby on the way. But on his first night, a new, deeper section of the mine is revealed and because he's all macho and shit, he volunteers with a group to explore it. And what they find is a horror that's been hidden for thousands of years. 

This one is actually even better than the previous novella I've read by Curran, Blackout, mostly due to his skillful rendering of the environment: the absolute, claustrophobic darkness deep beneath the earth and the way it can break the mind, the smells, the sounds that shouldn't be there, and the hopelessness of being trapped. Curran is great at setting a scene and maintaining mood.And points for a chilling ending that's even more fucked up than I expected...

If you enjoyed The Descent, that tense, heart attack of a movie about a group of badass women discovering horrors underground and directed by my buddy Neil Marshall, you should give this novella a spin!


GRADE: B+

Friday, October 9, 2015

COME CLOSER by Sara Gran

Many of the popular horror story tropes don't really affect me. Vampires, zombies, slasher killers, monsters. But demonic possession always freaks me out a little. Losing control of myself has always been one of my biggest fears, and the idea that a purely evil spirit is capable of controlling my susceptible body, soul, and thoughts is a little nerve-wracking. This book is a very well-done portrait of one woman as she slowly loses that control.

Author Sara Gran skillfully crafts this perfectly paced descent. How terrifying would it be to lose long lengths of time from your day, not knowing what happened, or what you did during that time? I love the subtlety and control of tone Gran maintains through most of the book. It's not all out horror, but instead it's a great psychological exploration, creepy and hypnotic.



GRADE: B+

Thursday, October 8, 2015

fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

This was so damned disappointing. I'm actually bothered by this. I'm such a big fan of Butler's novel Kindred and this one (her last before her unfortunate passing) almost felt like it was written by someone else. The book actually sports a really great concept that's ripe for tons of conflict and exploration of ideas and themes. The story is about an amnesiac 11-year-old-looking girl and her rediscovery that she is in fact an experimental member of the Ina, a vampiric species that live in a mutually symbiotic relationship with several humans. She is one of a few Ina that have dark skin, who's melanin might be the key to withstanding the sun rays. There are so many cool ideas that can stem from these concepts and that's what kept me reading longer than I normally would have with this book. 

But these cool concepts are totally betrayed by not only the blandest plot you could ever come up with from such a great idea, but also some of the dullest and most lackluster writing I've ever come across. While Butler's work on Kindred had such an urgent insistence to it and a great sense of personality and pace, the work in this one was devoid of not only that but also lacked any flavor or style, leaving nothing but dry, awkward, and totally redundant dialogue along with wikipedia-like info dumps about Butler's ideas every two pages. She should have taken a note from George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series for a good example of how to organically provide tons of exposition. And I think it might have been a mistake to write this in first-person. Not only is it already tricky to successfully pull off an amnesiac protagonist in first-person, but our heroine's inner dialogue was laughable and sometimes cringe-inducing at times, with lots of annoying "what have I done?'s" and "could it be?'s" throughout, like a bad YA-book written for pre-teen girls.

I'll give the book a few points because it does bring up some great ideas about sex, race and racism, and free-will, but a better constructed delivery of these ideas could have turned this into an utter masterpiece. And I keep bringing up her work on Kindred because it proves that Butler could have done better. I read somewhere that she was having a hard time writing while taking medication later in her years and wasn't very confident about fledgling. So she probably knew she was capable of more as well.


GRADE: C-

Monday, October 5, 2015

CRAWL by Edward Lorn

Author Edward Lorn is an active member on Goodreads and while we don't I've admired his book reviews and his taste in the horror genre. He doesn't seem to hound people for reviews which is refreshing, and his books have also gotten pretty good praise so when October came around I dropped a couple bucks on Amazon and gave this a go.

I was DEFINITELY not disappointed. I expected a good horror read but I didn't expect the writing to be as sharp and polished as the other greats in the genre. I know it's pretty much en vogue these days that whenever you read a good horror tale you compare it to Stephen King, but let me tell you, this comparison is undeniable and a total compliment with this book. Like King, not only is Edward Lorn's prose wicked and chilling, but it also mixes that with dashes of wit, a great sensitivity to character, and a dramatic bravery. Crawl is right up there with some of the best of King's short fiction.

The story is told from the point of view of Juliet and tells the story of what happens to her and her cheating husband as they travel along a dark highway on one creepy night.

And I must say, horror books don't really scare me that often but the way this story quickly descended really kept me wide-eyed and on edge, and there's one part that truly scared me. I won't say what it is here but holy shit, if I saw that in that situation, I'd probably shit myself before going insane. It's the fact that it's something so normally childlike and playful placed into a such a harrowing situation that really made it terrifying for me. I can probably count on one hand the amount of times I've been scared while reading and this is one of them. That's enough for me to look into all of this author's work.

GRADE: A-

Saturday, October 3, 2015

PIKE by Benjamin Whitmer

The holes they dug themselves into were exactly the shape of their dreams.
Whitmer's writing is contemporary noir in perfect pitch. Just like his title protagonist, his prose is muscular but spare. It only speaks when it has something to say, and when it has something to say, it packs a punch with very little. This is the type of fiction I love.
 
The book focuses on four damaged characters who know what they are and don't ask for sympathy. Pike, a hard-ass with a violent past who seems to be quietly enduring some sort of penance, his best friend Rory, an aspiring boxer who is haunted by his parents' deaths, training for one last shot at success by winning a tough man tournament (and has an unhealthy dependence on Vicodin), a corrupt Cincinnati cop that has his own twisted moral code, and a dirty-mouthed girl named Wendy who's 12-years-old-going-on-45, and happens to be the child of Pike's estranged daughter who has died recently of a supposed heroine overdose. These are strong characters and although I wanted a little more,  I was fascinated by how engaged I was with them, with such little information given.
"Take it from an ex-con, the market in redemption is running low."
Afterwards, I felt like I wanted to know more about Pike and Wendy, and more detail about how they change one another, but part of me feels that if Whitmer focused more on that, it would introduce a sentimentality that would be completely out of place here. This book features some of the most impressive writing I've read all year, and I'm excited to read more from this guy.
He smokes his cigarette until there's nothing but a smoldering scrap of paper between his fingers, staring at the tombstone as though some kind of answer might bloom out of it.
None does. He doesn't even have a good question.
GRADE: A-

Friday, October 2, 2015

BLOOD MERIDIAN, OR THE EVENING REDNESS IN THE WEST by Cormac McCarthy

I recall that there's a book written by some lady who claims to have been chosen by Jesus to be taken on a tour of Hell for 40 nights and spread the word as a warning. That book was most likely just written by a crazy lady and I've never read it, but Cormac McCarthy wrote a book that's close to what I would imagine that experience being like. 
“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”
Blood Meridian is like a walk (or ride) through all of your nightmares for 350 pages. I can confidently claim that there's probably nothing quite like it out there. But I admired the book more than I can say I enjoyed it. I admired McCarthy's obvious and famed skill as a wordsmith and his ability to paint a picture, but what left me cold wasn't the violence or darkness (there's such a distance in the writing that the violence isn't as affecting to me as was rumored), it was the fact that there wasn't really much happening and the story could've been told in 150 less pages than it was. For a large bulk of the book, our protagonist is essentially forgotten about. This really took away my emotional involvement and much of the book seems purposeful in being emotionally withdrawn. But once the book regains its focus on the kid, it starts to get pretty good in it's last quarter. But prior to that, we're basically tagging along with the Glanton gang as they talk shit and take scalps. And if there was a drinking game for every time McCarthy writes some variation of "And they rode on...", you wouldn't make it past page 100 before passing out.

Actually if McCarthy wrote this novel today it would be like 200 pages long and probably one of my favorite novels. He's definitely gotten more efficient as a writer. I think both of his latest novels, No Country For Old Men and especially The Road (which I consider a true masterpiece), take everything that he was doing in Blood Meridian, honed it down and pulled it off more successfully. His writing is tighter, more emotionally accessible, and at its most sublime in The Road, and the plotting is better in No Country, not to mention a more successful look at the nature of violence and the nihilistic view of fate. 

On another note, if you are having difficulty reading this or have read it and want another way of experiencing this, check out the unabridged audiobook read by Richard Poe. I listened to it and read it simultaneously and man it was one of the best audio performances I've listened to. Poe's voice seems like it was tailor-made to read books by Cormac McCarthy! 
“Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen the horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance.”
But although I respect and appreciate the book for some great moments, for being like nothing else I've ever read, and for sporting some stunning prose, I was disappointed after hearing what a perfect masterpiece it was. Everything that people claim to love about this book, I feel that Cormac has done it better since. I've heard his Border Trilogy is pretty great, and I'll give that a try soon! or I'll jump into The Passenger next year!

GRADE: B-

Saturday, September 26, 2015

LOSS by Tom Piccirilli

This is a bizarre little novelette by Piccirilli about a failed writer working as a building manager at Stark House, an old apartment building in New York City, home for a variety of has-beens and other failed artists. There's a murder that occurs in the building and soon after, the love of his life disappears and a talking monkey begins writing him notes. Like I said, it's bizarre. It's hard to summarize and can feel pretty disjointed, but I love the atmosphere that Piccirilli maintains in the Stark House location. With his usual urgent prose, he presents the building as a sad purgatory for failed dreams and lost ambition, and is a perfect place for our narrator, with his regrets, frustrations, lost creativity, as well as his ghosts. 

It's an intriguing yet difficult book, open to lots of interpretation. I liked this one the way I liked the movie Mulholland Drive when I first saw it. I don't fully understand it but I'm fascinated enough to explore it more. I decided to read this as part of my horror reading for the season but I realized that it's less of a horror story and more of a psychological portrait. Nothing supernatural was actually happening in the story or at Stark House. Or was there........?

GRADE: B-

Friday, September 25, 2015

NO TOMORROW by Jake Hinkson

"A couple of dreams are all I have left. So dream a little, just for me."
Jake Hinkson is one of the only crime writers today that really nails the feel of old pulp fiction. His work feels perfect for a tiny paperback with some steamy cover art by Robert McGinnis or Robert E. Schulz and a little Gold Medal logo on the corner. This novel felt even more like an old Gold Medal pulp than his others I've read so far (haven't read The Big Ugly yet), possibly due to it's period setting.

The story takes place in 1947 and follows a woman named William "Billie" Dixon (she was given her father's name by her mother as a big fuck-you to the no-good bastard), who works for one of the Poverty Row B-movie studios in Hollywood, tasked with traveling to small country towns to peddle movie masterpieces like this one: 
It's pretty mind-numbing work but things get a bit more interesting when she rides into a tiny Ozark town and falls for the bored wife of the town's blind preacher. This can't end well, can it?

Something I really appreciated about this story was how Hinkson treated Billie's homosexuality. Similar books that take place in the 40's would have either handled it luridly, with pulpy, erotic overtones, or would have handled it with a precious, romantic touch, illustrating Billie's bravery and desire to follow her heart during a time of persecution. But Hinkson does neither. Instead, Billie just is who she is, a lover of women and a habitual heartbreaker, and Hinkson doesn't really dwell on it; that's not what the book is about. Also, I loved the characters of Lucy and Eustace, the brother/sister sheriff duo, Billie's relationship with them, and the subtle way that Hinkson develops it. The Lucy/Eustace/Billie relationship is one of my favorite aspect of all of Hinkson's work so far.

But, alas, this novel isn't as completely awesome as others by Hinkson. The first two-thirds of the novel were great and featured the same skilled writing I love from the author, but the final act suffers a bit from what I thought was a big drop in momentum. While I love where he ultimately takes Billie's character, there came a point where it seemed like I turned into just a patient observer as the story strolled along to an ending that I knew was coming but hoping that there might be some surprises along the way. And while the ending was fairly satisfying, the last act never matched the plot strength of the rest of the book. But hey, a less-than-stellar Hinkson book is still better than a lot of the stuff out there now. 

The novel is ultimately about the unrealistic, romantic expectations and ideals that we all have, but how those ideals come with a price and real life is never the fairy tale that we expect. It's also about how we tragically miss real, genuine opportunities in our lives because of these expectations. Don't make this one your first book by the author, but if you're a fan of his other work, it's a solid addition!

GRADE: B

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

SNOWBLIND by Michael McBride

When Snowblind begins, it wastes absolutely no time and throws you right into the terror; drops you right in the middle of three college buddies helping their friend who's been injured on their annual elk hunting trip in the Colorado Rockies. They end up off the usual trail and soon they are fighting for their lives while being hunted by an unseen force in the raging blizzard.

I really wanted a fast-moving, exciting creature feature and I got that and more with this novella. What I wasn't expecting was how well-written it was. I was impressed by the skill Michael McBride showed at setting up a potent atmosphere almost immediately through his prose. The never-ending snow, the biting cold, the deep dark, I felt it all. And the tension is maintained almost throughout the book entirely, never letting up. The creatures stalking our characters are wisely kept unseen for most of the book, adding to the suspense and the experience. Although I felt that the climax section of the book got a bit repetitive, I still felt like I needed a box of popcorn and a bag of Sour Patch Kids for this exciting horror matinee! A good early start to my Halloween scary reading!

GRADE: B+

Monday, September 21, 2015

THE GIRL WITH THE DEEP BLUE EYES by Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block is a pretty popular crime author, but many readers aren't fully familiar with the beginning of his career when he wrote a bunch of softcore smut and lesbian erotica novels under various pen names. In recent years, many of those books have become more popular due to reprints and he even resurrected one of his more popular alter egos, Jill Emerson, for an original novel for Hard Case Crime called Getting Off. Now with The Girl With The Deep Blue Eyes, his new original Hard Case novel, with it's healthy doses of erotica mixed with classic noir stylings, it feels like he unofficially resurrected the Andrew Shaw alter ego, who worked with the same booty-noir mix back in the day. And it seems like Andrew is super pumped  about being unleashed onto our post-50 Shades society, because he definitely holds nothing back on the smut-tip with this book!

An ex-NYC cop turned Florida private eye named Doak Miller gets an assignment to act as a hitman and entrap a trophy wife looking to knock off her husband. But once he meets her, he sees the girl of his dreams and he concocts a plan to keep her.

At first, I got a bit frustrated because the plot didn't really move at the pace I wanted it to. It didn't really seem like much was happening for the first half of the book, and then I realized that the book is less about the crime and the hot sex and more about the character of Doak Miller, which I didn't expect. And the way Block slowly and skillfully reveals more and more about Doak's character is pretty compelling. One really stand-out aspect that I enjoyed is that it takes place in 2014 and Doak is a film noir fan. Because of this, he recognizes that his situation is the same as the characters in classic noirs like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. He knows this convention and knows that those characters never get away in the end. But what makes this even more noir is that although he already knows this, he thinks his situation just might be different, and begins to set everything in motion anyway. He's a great pulp character and Block really illustrates the inevitability of noir. Recommended to crime fans, it's a cool read that might give you a thrill! And just maybe give you a tingle in your underpants!!

GRADE: B

Friday, September 18, 2015

AMERICAN TABLOID by James Ellroy

*Book 1 of the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy*
"He used to pimp and pull shakedowns. Now he rode shotgun to History."
Whoa, Ellroy's done it again. Another 5-star read. So far , that's 5 out of 5 for me. This time, he takes
his talent for weaving complex plots and conspiracies from his 50's Los Angeles setting and unleashes it nationwide in an epic re-shaping of the country's turbulent history between 1958 and 1963 as we follow three men who play pivotal roles in the events that ultimately lead to that infamous day in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.

Just when I thought a conspiracy couldn't get any more complex than L.A. Confidential's, this book takes it to a whole new level. But surprisingly, even though this is bigger in scope, I actually found it easier to follow along here than in Confidential. I'm not sure why that is, but maybe it has something to do with the author's growth as a writer.  
"His courage was weakness pushed into grandiosity."
Along with the immense amount of historical detail, plot development, and supporting players, Ellroy is able to create three of his most fascinating protagonists who, through their individual fears, dreams, and covetousness, end up creating the history we know today. Ward Littel is an FBI agent who dreams of taking down mobsters and has a fascination with crime-buster Robert Kennedy and his cool-cat buddy Kemper Boyd. Ward is desperate to get rid of his reputation for being a punk bitch, decides that he'll do anything to gain favor, and discovers talents that provide him an opportunity he's never dreamed of. His friend Kemper Boyd is obsessed with the Kennedy family and their high-class status, and starts to juggle multiple secret allegiances with the FBI, the CIA, the KKK, Jack Kennedy, and the Mob in order to get to that same status. Pete Bondurant is a shakedown artist and dope-procurer for Howard Hughes. He's getting tired of the extortion world and sees his job in jeopardy once Howard Hughes starts transforming into a Mormon vampire, so when Kemper and the CIA come calling, he sees a way out and a way to big money. These three guys are intriguing and complicated, and their arcs and journeys are what really gives the book its heart.
"Boyd was now some triple or quadruple agent. Boyd was a self-proclaimed insomniac. Boyd said rearranging lies kept him up nights."
Ellroy is constantly experimenting with form and language and it always works for me (but might not work for other people). I'm not sure how he is able to pull this stuff off. It seems like he's so entrenched in the eras that he portrays, and these stories in his head are so desperate to get out, that the words just spill out onto the page. And what's produced is a piece of work that is his and his alone. He is definitely one of a kind. And as usual for Ellroy, there's enough material in this bad boy for three separate books. You would think that something this huge would run away and get too large for the author, but once again, he is able to stick his landing in glorious form and bring it all to an awesome ending. He really knows how to pull off a great conclusion and that's a big factor in my 5-star ratings.
"Hughes kept Lenny on the payroll to write a private skank sheet.
The sheet would feature skank too skanky for public skank consumption. The sheet would be read by two skank fiends only: Dracula and J. Edgar Hoover."
He is not interested in accuracy, but more interested in how the people in power in our country are just as complicated as we are. But while our complications only really have an effect on us or those close to us, their complications affect the whole country. So watch who you vote for. 
How much of Ellroy's fucked-up epic is true? I have no clue, and that's not what matters. What matters is that we all know that it could happen in America and we wouldn't be all that surprised if it actually did happen. And that notion is terrifying.
"It's time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars. It's time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time.
Here's to them."
GRADE: A

Thursday, September 17, 2015

SHUTTER ISLAND by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane took a big leap in his work with this first novel following his stunner of a masterpiece, Mystic River, tackling a period piece for the first time, with a story that somehow both
narrowed and widened his scope. It's about two U.S. Marshalls stuck on a job at an island-based criminal asylum, tracking down an escaped convict during a dangerous hurricane. I haven't read this in a while but I remember it being such a great example of a popular best-seller that fully deserved the attention it got! It's a first-rate psychological thriller and mystery, and I felt like Lehane did everything right. With its 1950's setting, to the Gothic feel of the location, the incredibly potent ambiance created by setting the story during a storm, it's shocking twists, it's brooding protagonist, and it's locked-room (locked-island?) mystery vibe, it's like the book is tailor-made to be awesome. It's also definitely one of the most atmospheric books I've read. It has such a moody, creepy tone, I can still remember the feeling it gave me while reading it late at night before bed. I remember being engrossed and transported. And although not as emotionally gripping as Mystic River, it's a tighter narrative and another amazing notch on Lehane's bibliography. He's one of my favorite authors, and along with Stephen King, probably has the most books on my favorites list! 

GRADE: A

Friday, September 11, 2015

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE by James M. Cain


"Tomorrow night, if I come back, there'll be kisses. Lovely ones, Frank. Not drunken kisses. Kisses with dreams in them. Kisses that come from life, not death."
With the one-two punch publication of both this novel and the serialized version of Double Indemnity in the mid-1930's, James M. Cain truly popularized what we know of now as being the hard-boiled sub-genre of noir in American fiction, a long time before the term was even coined. Since it's publication, this book has spawned so many copycats, and inspired so many writers and an entire genre of movies that it's story of a man falling for a femme fatale, their descent into crime, and their eventual doom is kind of a cliché at this point. But even to this day, over 80 years later, very few have been able to match the intensity of both this and Indemnity.
"Except for the shape, she really wasn't any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her."
I initially thought that this was better than Indemnity but now on my second reading, I saw that while it's still great, and still has a stellar, superior ending, Postman pales a bit in comparison. But it's still stronger and tighter than many books in its genre and beyond. It's a little over 100 pages of high tragedy as we witness these two emotionally weak but determined characters dig themselves deeper into a hole of self-destruction and form a bond started by love and transformed into hate, a bond that they realize will never be broken, no matter how much they want out. Can anyone else think of any flawed couples like this in recent bestselling fiction? Of course you can. Yep, and it all started with The Postman Always Rings Twice. 
“I ripped all her clothes off. She twisted and turned, slow, so they would slip out from under her. Then she closed her eyes and lay back on the pillow. Her hair was falling over her shoulders in snaky curls. Her eye was all black, and her breasts weren’t drawn up and pointing up at me, but soft, and spread out in two big pink splotches. She looked like the great grandmother of every whore in the world. The devil got his money’s worth that night.”
GRADE: A

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

EVERY SHALLOW CUT by Tom Piccirilli

"I was three days into my life as a homeless loser drifter when they broke my nose and dropped me on the street in
front of a nameless pawn shop. I hit like two hundred pounds of failed dreams."
This sad and heartbreaking book is essential psychological noir. Anyone interested in writing a portrait of despair and anguish and exploring a character at their lowest point should give this a look.  It follows a mid-level writer who is critically-praised but could never find commercial success, and after dwindling sales, the collapsing economy, and the loss of his wife and belongings, is on the verge of (or in the middle of) a nervous breakdown and decides to take a roadtrip to visit his brother in Long Island. And to make matters worse, some dumbass actually sells him a firearm at the beginning.

There's something so honest about everything in this book that it was a little uncomfortable to read it. Piccirilli managed to pull out more emotion in me in a few paragraphs of this noirella than some writers do in 600 page novels. Every page of Every Shallow Cut is filled with what everyone loves about David Goodis's writing when he's at the peak of his talents. I believe that anyone that has a passion in the creative world will be able to relate with this main character whether you want to or not. Benoit Lelievre, my Goodreads buddy and succinct writer in his own right, said it best on his blog review for Every Shallow Cut: "You can't turn your back on its protagonist because you're the only thing he has left, the reader of his tormented masterpiece and you can't really bond with him either as he's stuck in a place you don't want to be." That's one of my favorite quotes ever from a book review and such a great summary of what real noir is. 

And this book is even more heartbreaking once you realize how meta and biographical it might be; when you think of the fact that Piccirilli himself was a prolific, award-winning writer that passed away before finding real commercial success. When you think of him writing this out of his own frustration and during particularly dark times, it takes on even more meaning. Instead of dedicating the book to a friend or loved one, here's Piccirilli's dedication: 
"For everyone with an unfulfilled hope, a mediocre dream, a half-forgotten love, a vague regret, a thorn of disappointment, an average fantasy, a fear of failure, a ghost that walks the midnight corridors, Every Shallow Cut is for you—"
Read this if you're looking for amazing writing and an affecting story. Don't read this if you're not ready for some dark, heavy material, although your missing out on really great work. And if you're looking for a happy ending, you won't find it here.


GRADE: A

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

CRY HARD, CRY FAST by John D. MacDonald

My first read by the famous pulp writer and Gold Medal star John D. Macdonald follows a large cast of disparate characters who's lives are not only altered but brought together after a horrific
multiple car crash on a highway. The book looks at the characters before, during, and after the crash, and how the accident affects them all.
"His frequent use of her weary body was as quick and impatient and selfish as his anger. He had lost all the words of love."
In a novel this length and with this number of characters, this type of story hinges on those characters being really engaging. And although it's a great concept with some well-written passages, almost none of the character were all that interesting. I found myself skimming a lot. The backstory sections turn out to be the only interesting parts as all of the post-crash material falls flat and contrived. I got a sense here that MacDonald is a talented writer, and hopefully my next novel from him is more engaging. Maybe I can get some recommendations for his best non-McGee work?
"His childhood had been served, as a sentence is served, in that emotional wasteland of a home which should have been broken and was not—a home where hate is a voice beyond a closed door, where contempt is a long intercepted look, where violence is a palpable thing in silent rooms."
GRADE: C-

Monday, September 7, 2015

SAINT HOMICIDE by Jake Hinkson

This is a quick-read novella from one of my new favorite authors, Jake Hinkson. It's about Daniel, an infamous prison inmate nicknamed "Saint Homicide" that is now presenting his confession of what
led him to this point and why he completely accepts his guilt. In the first two novels I've read by Hinkson, there are elements that show a fascination with the darker side of Christianity and all of its contradictions. Here, he confronts this darker side head-on in this portrait of quite a compelling character. 

Daniel is completely devout in his Christian beliefs, so devout he doesn't even relate to the extreme denominations. There was never a doubt for me that he was unwavering in his commitment that God had a plan for him and that's what makes him totally terrifying. But what also made him really fascinating was the fact that he is aware of the conflicting darkness and weaknesses within himself and struggles with it. I've always pondered on how tragic it must be for a man of such devout faith to also be a human being in this world all at the same time. And Hinkson's absolutely necessary use of first-person POV served to really thrust me into the mind of such a person. One thing I wished was for more of a sense of Daniel's prison life in the present day and the way his fellow inmates see him, just to get more of an idea of the way the outside world viewed him at this point. Hinkson is a completely underrated writer and I hope my reviews of his work helps to bring in more readers!

GRADE: B+

Sunday, September 6, 2015

BOY'S LIFE by Robert McCammon

Robert McCammon's coming-of-age classic, Boy's Life, is almost universally loved. So when I started the book and got about 5 chapters in, I was initially horrified to find that I didn't have the same
warm feeling in my stomach the way others seemed to have when reading it. Had I finally realized that my taste was in fact not as impeccable as I'd thought? Was I going to have to write an unfavorable review for a beloved book and get roasted and trolled for it and lose the respect of my Goodreads friends? Or was I going to discover that all of my internet friends just had really bad taste? The book seemed to lack a momentum, or a real narrative thread and each day-in-the-life chapter, while okay on their own, had the weakest of connections. I knew that there was still about 600 pages to go, and I was losing interest.

But then I quickly realized that I needed to start looking at the book as a collection of interlocked short stories detailing the eventful and magical year of 1964 in the life of our protagonist and hero, 12-year old Cory Mackenson, and his very special town of Zephyr, Alabama. A year when Cory transitions out of childhood and into adolescence. Every chapter stood on it's own at first, but the weak threads that connected each one got stronger and stronger as the book went on. Once I started looking at it as a story collection that built on itself like a snowball, I was charmed! Yep, that's the word for it! There's a charm in McCammon's writing that's present in all of his work but it is at it's strongest here. He has such a grasp of his material that he not only is able to command a great child's voice (which always seems terribly hard to do), but also a nostalgic one as well. And I love how these memories are all heightened in reality, the way lifelong memories always seem to be. Every time I revisit strong memories of my childhood, they're probably way more dramatic and romantic, or tragic as they were in reality. In the end, the book is very touching and I can see why it's such a classic. Another win for McCammon!

GRADE: A-

THE REVENANT by Michael Punke

While reading this exciting western adventure, I was constantly reminded of how many things we take for granted today. Little things like blankets, lighters, automatic rifles, and those two words that kept
running through my mind while reading: ANTI. BIOTICS.

The book is based on the famous true story of Hugh Glass, the frontiersman working as a trapper for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1823 gathering beaver pelts along the Missouri River. Things go south fast when he gets ripped apart by a grizzly bear while hunting. It's almost a sure thing that Glass will croak, so he doesn't take it personally when his colleagues abandon him, but when they steal his beloved knife and rifle, AND his flint and steel? Now that's totally unforgivable! Against all odds, Glass crawls across hundreds of miles of treacherous countryside to bring retribution to those that wronged him. 

I'd never heard of the story of Hugh Glass and I'm totally in awe of how much of a badass he was. The story is sometimes hard to believe; I mean damn the dude's throat was nearly severed and he couldn't walk! And with Michael Punke's well-conceived embellishments and dramatics, it really elevates to an even more extraordinary story. It's not only a gripping tale of classic revenge, but also of survival literally against all odds and about the extent that one man's determination can go. It's well-researched and its great sense of place was very transportive. And Punke uses an omniscient POV that's great for historical fiction that really gives the reader more info about the world and more historical scope beyond the immediate story. I was not only entertained but I also learned a lot and I was inspired to jump on the Interwebs and learn even more. And that's what historical fiction is all about, right?
"The frustrating necessity of delay was like water on the hot iron of his determination—hardening it, making it unmalleable. He vowed to survive, if for no other reason than to visit vengeance on the men who betrayed him."
GRADE: B+