Tuesday, June 30, 2015

MURDER, D.C. by Neely Tucker

The big, life-changing discovery for me this year is that I'm not that big a fan of standard investigative books. For me to truly enjoy a mystery novel, there needs to be something more than just a detective (or in this
case, a journalist), walking around questioning people for 250 pages and then solving a mystery at the end. There needs to be something else to keep my interest. It seems like the only thing close to standard detective stories that I'm enjoying presently are Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder series. Books by him, as well as Lehane or Pelecanos or James Sallis, are about so much more.

Last year, I stumbled upon Neely Tucker's The Ways of the Dead and thought it was alright, so I requested this one as an Advanced Copy from NetGalley and thought I'd continue. It''s a follow-up novel about Tucker's character Sully Carter, an alcoholic D.C. Metro reporter who limps around the city for the whole book asking a bunch of questions to uninteresting people and eventually solves the complex mystery of: "Who Killed the Black Dude in the Sketchy Park?" The book does have an interesting conclusion though, I'll give it that. But there were many times while reading that I thought I wasn't going to make it there, and that's where the problems lie.

The sad thing is that I actually think that Tucker is a really good writer. I just think he needs better material. It's definitely a case of it's not the book, it's probably me. There are many people that will love this one if they like their mysteries relatively neat and familiar. This book is everything you expect and hope for and not much more. I fell asleep constantly while reading because the "not much more" is what I was missing. I need to be shaken up.


Friday, June 26, 2015

THE BORDER by Robert McCammon

With The Border, Robert McCammon goes back to his roots! His new novel harkens back to his 80's sci-fi/horror classics like Swan Song and Stinger, and mixes in some War of the Worlds with a story
about our Earth becoming a battleground between two hostile alien civilizations and humanity trying to survive in the wake. Although it was enjoyable to an extent, I was disappointed with discovering that I wasn't as into it as I would've expected, given that McCammon is one of my favorite authors. 

McCammon can be long-winded and wordy at times, but sometimes I have found it endearing, showing just how excited he is to be telling his story. Plus, he's the type of writer where you just enjoy reading his wordsmith-ing. But here, I felt that it made for an uneven pace and the book felt a little long and repetitive. And there are so many things, all the way until the ending, that just feel too convenient. Also, the main character of Ethan was a problem for me. He's already introduced as the overused trope we've seen tons of times: the mysterious, gifted kid that is the key to saving the world. But there are many developments that happen with him that just never felt right to me. There's also a missed opportunity where McCammon could've really delved into the idea of this little boy who is trying to deal with the fact of not remembering who he is and being gifted with these powers and responsibility he doesn't understand, and how terrifying that must be for him, and how he must eventually learn to grow past that and become the hero he's destined to be. That would've been cool to witness. But instead, from the start Ethan never really feels like a kid, and seems to just take everything in stride, which, yes, it makes him unbelievably strong, but also pretty boring.

But aside from these issues, the book is still a superficially entertaining summer blockbuster, with plenty of sci-fi action scenes, aliens, guns, and Transformers...a cool book to read on vacation.
She began to sob, to weep for the dead and for the living, for those who had long ago given up hope and for those who still hung on to what tomorrow might bring...

Friday, June 19, 2015

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME by Donald Ray Pollock

Sometimes I find it difficult to put into words what I really liked about a particular book. This novel is
one of those. It's a nihilistic portrait of rural life in Ohio and West Virginia for a disparate group of fucked up individuals as they struggle to not only survive within the parameters that life and fate has stuck them with, but also with their own inherent impulses and desires. It's an admirable, well-conceived debut novel that is brutal but manages to not feel gratuitous. The novel's strength lies in it's prose, it's ideas, the attention to detail, and its highly intricate characters that are both appalling and captivating. You can't help but get swept up in their miserable lives to see where they go next. All of this combines to create a heavy mood and atmosphere that Pollock evokes with his simple but precise prose, and it's an atmosphere that's distinctive, one that I haven't experienced in many other books. It's like the novel takes place in it's own savage dimension...


Saturday, June 13, 2015

CANARY by Duane Swierczynski


I haven't read much Young Adult fiction, (or is it called New Adult fiction?), but I would definitely read more of those books if they were written by Duane Swierczynski, who seems to always try something new every time he writes a novel! Here, the author tackles a YA story and puts his own twisted spin on it. In the book we follow Sarie Holland, a young college freshman, who has the usual worries to deal with in college, like preparing for her honors finals, the attention of hormone-raging boys, and drinking too much at parties. That's already enough to deal with, but soon her life gets even more complicated when she's arrested after unknowingly taking part in a drug run, and to escape prosecution, she becomes CI #137: a snitch for an ambitious Narcotics officer.

At first, I had conflicted feelings while reading this. At times, I would shake my head at the silliness of the plot, then there would be a twist or a character moment that would suck me in, and because Swierczynski tackles the whole thing with real assurance, after a while I was just along for the ride! The story initially moves at a leisurely pace as the author puts all the pieces in place on the board, but then at a certain point, he just lets it rip, and the story rockets along, leading up to a page-turning final act! I found myself raising my eyebrows sometimes at Sarie's bizarre decisions, but I had to remind myself that Sarie is still a teenager during all of this, no matter how crazy the story got, and terrible decisions are a teenager's forté...

After recently being a bit disappointed by another book by the author, The Blonde, partly due to its lack of engaging characters, I was pleased to see such strong, relatable characters in this one (even the smaller parts), with one of the most fascinating characters being the city of Philadelphia itself (as in most of Swierczynski's work). I felt like I'd been on a great tour of the city after reading this! Sarie's character was especially well-drawn. We initially see her as this goody-two-shoes honors student that hardly even drinks, and then watch as she discovers that she has a real talent for navigating the drug underworld. She realizes that she's clever, resourceful, and can handle herself surprisingly well under pressure. Another thing I really enjoyed was, with all of the action and dark crime, at it's core the book is about a fractured family, and their struggle to connect with each other after losing the person that was their glue. That component really elevated the proceedings from being just a standard crime thriller to something with surprising heart.

Monday, June 8, 2015

EYE OF THE CRICKET by James Sallis


*Book 4 of the Lew Griffin series*

James Sallis's books are usually pretty short so you'd think I would be blazing through them. But they're so densely written and realized that it forces you to take your time while reading. This one is probably the densest of the existential Lew Griffin detective series so far. In this, the 4th book, we return back to the 90's section of Lew's life (so essentially a sequel to book 2, Moth), where Lew is not only searching for the missing brother of one of his students, but also is struggling with the sudden appearance of his doppelganger, a homeless man claiming to be him, and what it could mean in the search for his own long lost son.

I had the hardest time reading this book out of the other Griffin novels, as it felt more uneven and unfocused than the others, and it was difficult to get  a grasp at what was going on and what it all meant. I did like how this installment found Lew really trying to atone for many things that he regrets in his past, trying to make things right in so many ways. But don't start with this one. You shouldn't start with this anyway because it is absolutely necessary that this series be read in order, as it demands full attention of the reader across books to recall characters and situations, and the enjoyment of the novels are based on a frame of reference created by the previous ones. The series itself is a rich experience but this volume is the most maddening...

Friday, June 5, 2015

SKINNER by David Bernstein


I don't think I've ever given a book an F. Sometimes I feel like I'm fairly generous with my reviews and if I'm able to actually finish a book that means that there's something there that kept me reading until the end. And I've enjoyed all of the DarkFuse titles I've read so far to some extent. But this one stretched the limits for me and there was really not much there to like.

It involves a group of old friends and their ladies as they make the usual trip to a mountain bungalow for a nice weekend. They get caught in the usual freak snowstorm, get stranded, and are of course subsequently terrorized by the usual monster. The book is so derivative and unimaginatively conceived, it seems to be done on purpose. And defenders may say that that's the point: a homage, but I call bullshit. There are times when homages work or being derivative leads to great work. You can be overly faithful to genre conventions as long as you add SOMETHING new to the usual story, which Skinner did not do. The movie The Cabin in the Woods is a great example. An example from fiction that really works is Scott Smith's The Ruins, which started out pretty much with the same B-movie, friends-on-vacation-premise, and turned it into something really fresh, unsettling, and actually scary.

This book on the other hand felt like it was written by a beginning writer desperate for a movie adaptation deal. It actually felt as if a bare-bones screenplay was written first, and then sections were filled in in order to churn out a mediocre novel. It's filled with clunky exposition, laughable dialogue, story beats that are pulled straight out of a high school soap opera, cringe-inducing, rookie-level metaphors and similes, and a monster/villain that's so uninteresting it actually became funny. Yea, I guess he was frightening on the surface, but it was all superficially scary, as if the author was just pushing the necessary buttons to tell me that I'm supposed to be scared by the bad guy, rather than instilling true terror. I also didn't care much about the main characters to the point where I wanted the monster to hurry up and kill them so the book would move faster. 

I received an Advanced Copy of this from the homies at DarkFuse via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review and that's what this is. I could go on and on some more about all the things about this book that didn't work. But it always makes me sad when I don't enjoy a book. So I want to just move on to a better novel.



*Book 8 of the Matthew Scudder series*

A Ticket to the Boneyard is a whole new ballgame in the Matt Scudder series. After allowing Matt to confront his alcoholism in Eight Million Ways to Die and focusing on him dealing with sobriety in Out on the Cutting Edge, author Lawrence Block now has a blank slate and the space to really take Matt's story in any direction. But one would think that after your private detective character sobers up, the stories are in real danger of becoming flat and boring. Not so with Block's series! Because Boneyard is probably the most exciting Scudder book to date. Instead of Matt getting hired to solve a random mystery as with the previous novels, Block makes it personal and brings it close to home, while introducing a truly unsettling villain who proves to be a formidable foe for our hero. 

Years back when he was a cop, Matt framed a psycho, woman-hating killer who was raping and terrorizing his special lady-friend Elaine. When James Leo Motley went to prison for 12 years, he vowed to hurt Matt and everyone he loves ("You and all your women Scudder..."). Matt thought it was just the usual empty threat that criminals make while in cuffs. But things prove to be different after Motley is released crazier than ever and begins a mission to hurt any woman close to Scudder. 

This novel proves to be one of the most engaging of the series so far. While not as emotionally heavy as Eight Million, it is well paced, with the suspense quickly building as the threats to Matt's friends become real, and still packs an emotional punch as we see Matt becoming unhinged, making serious mistakes, blaming himself for these events, and getting dangerously close to falling off the wagon. 

Matt's relationship deepens with both Elaine (who's popped up sporadically in previous books), and Mick Ballou (the Irish gangster and butcher that Matt befriended in the last book). The relationships and the personal danger for Matt really make this book shine as Block steps it up another notch in this series. 
Life, I'd heard someone say, is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel. It seemed to me that it was both at once, even for those of us who don't do much of either.

Monday, June 1, 2015

WITH FURY IN HAND by Lee Thompson

Author Lee Thompson once again writes a simple tale that's dark but compelling, and perfect for the novella format. The cover with the hard looking dude sporting an assault rifle is a little misleading. It's not a shoot em up story but instead a melancholy tale about a group of different people surviving in the inner city. Each of them damaged and dispirited in some way, but each trying to make a change for what they feel is for the better. It's a sort of slice of life story as we follow these characters as they make these choices for themselves and watch in both horror and anticipation as these actions cause them to interconnect and collide on one fateful night. It's a sympathetic and compassionate look at flawed individuals that is still unflinching in the belief that sometimes you can't stop what's coming, no matter how much you try.
"You climb too high in that opinion of yourself and the fall going to kill you."
Thompson sets the novella in Flint, Michigan, considered one of the most dangerous and unfortunately neglected cities in the country. This choice doesn't seem arbitrary. If you are familiar with anything about the city, it will add an extra mood of sadness and gloom that supports the book's atmosphere. A tale of broken people in a broken city. And another solid story by Lee Thompson.
"I like you just the way you be now. You smell real good. You smile and it makes me want to kiss you. You open your mouth and say something and it's like I'm hearing the voice of God. It gives me hope, and that's something, since there is so little of that to go around these days."