Thursday, May 23, 2019

THE BORDER by Don Winslow

*Book 3 of The Cartel Trilogy*

This was one of the most epic reading experiences I've had in a very long time. This is the massive conclusion to Don Winslow's Cartel Trilogy, THE definitive piece of fiction that focuses on the War on Drugs. Throughout these three big books, Winslow leaves no stone unturned in this subject and passionately challenges what you know about the Border Crisis and the American/Mexican Drug War. But even more importantly, he tells the great story of the tumultuous, decades-long personal war between DEA agent Art Keller and Sinaloa Cartel patrĂ³n Adan Barrera.

After the big turning point in the finale of the previous book, The Cartel, Art Keller is now the head of the DEA and is trying to fight the Drug War from the very top levels of government.  But at the same time, a new breed of cartel leaders are threatening a new level of violence in Mexico.

With this book, Winslow expands his focus ten-fold, the same way The Wire did with each of it's episodes, and begins to focus on every conceivable corner of the Drug War and all its players: from the cartel leaders, to a NYPD undercover officer, an aging hitman who comes out of hiding, a 10-year-old Guatemalan illegal immigrant, a tormented young Staten Island junkie, and finally a reality-show host and real estate mogul running for president with a love of Twitter and a desire to build a bigger wall along the Mexican border. This large cast of characters shows how far reaching this war is and helps give the story it's epic scope. Winslow also brings back storylines from the previous novels and brings it all to a satisfying end.

There's no other writer quite like Don Winslow. This book shouldn't have worked for me. It's filled with documentary-style focus on detail and sometimes feels like a political essay. But it's so goddammned entertaining that it never bothered me. His writing is so readable that I could've kept reading happily for 500 more pages. I don't want to talk too much about the story but there are so many exciting moments, and even one moment that made me actually shout and clap, and then stop in embarrassment because I shouldn't be cheering at an inanimate object.

The book isn't the most subtle, with it's blatant and inelegant, but spot-on Trump avatar character and a final speech that's basically Winslow's Drug War dissertation, but I had such a great time reading this and was so engaged by the riveting, horrifying, sometimes amusing, and always important story that I can't give it anything but an A-grade. This was fantastic and exhilarating and would recommend it to anyone who's enjoyed the previous books, except maybe sensitive Trump fans.

GRADE: A

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

THE BROKER OF NIGHTMARES by Jon Padgett

I've been hungry for anything by this author since being blown away by The Secret of Ventriloquism, one of the best works of horror I've read in years. So when I saw that he had a small chapbook novella coming out I jumped right on it! It doesn't disappoint as the story, about a doctor who trades painkillers for vivid dreams, has a similarly unsettling vibe as his previous work.

The atmosphere is due to Padgett's evocative language and the detail of the creepy nightmares explored here. It's so impressive how reading this book actually feels like walking around in a dream. It's a story about addiction and the dark side of imagination, and another stand-out work of horror by Jon Padgett.

GRADE: A-

Friday, May 3, 2019

SHORT RIDE TO NOWHERE by Tom Piccirilli

High on my list of favorite authors, Tom Piccirilli has been known to have written some dark shit. This novel is no different as it's one of those downer noirs that we wrote in the last half of his career. It's narrated by Jenks, a man who's lost everything in the recession, now homeless on the streets of Manhattan, and now searching for answers in the wake of his old friend Hale's violent death, a man who shared the same economic fate.
The worst thing about having a wife and kids and dog was trying to keep it all. Once it was gone, Jenks had to admit, so was the pressure of fighting for it. You were never so free.
Prepare yourself for a dreary and gut-wrenching odyssey through the grimy streets of New York, from homeless shelters to hooker alleys, as Jenks not only trolls for answers but seems like he's aching for to vent his frustrations through violence. In an interesting look at how destruction can not only be contagious but possibly destined, we watch as Jenks flirts with bloodshed everywhere he goes. No one does true modern noir quite like Piccirilli.
He would listen to the sound of the blade opening and shutting, the way he was listening to it now, and he would discover in that last moment what the next page in the great book of life, written in God's own hand, would have to say about his sins.
GRADE: A-

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

A FRIEND IS A GIFT YOU GIVE YOURSELF by William Boyle

William Boyle's latest book might also be his most accessible, with a tone that's pretty different from his two previous novels. While it's set mostly in the same outskirts of Brooklyn where the other books take place and it's just as offbeat, this one is filled to the gills with quirk, witty comedy, and hope; a bit of a departure from the earlier crime downers and melancholy character pieces. It tells the story of a mob widow, an ex-pornstar, a precocious teen girl, a mid-level gangster, and an 80-year-old Viagra-popping pervert, bouncing off each other as they flee the wrath of a psycho hitman armed with a sledgehammer.

It's fun, suspenseful, and delightfully oddball, What few action scenes there are never go quite the way you expect. The chapter in the first third where all of our characters collide in the Bronx is one of the best chapters of any book I've read in a long while! It's well-written with absorbing characters, but Boyle does show a constant issue with narrative momentum as he's always interrupting the flow of the story at the worst moments just for the characters to reminisce. It always helped to learn more about these characters ut I wish it was done with a bit more finesse. But I had a great time reading this one. It's a tale of how friendship can be found in the most unlikely places, and how all you need is the right people around you in order to discover who you really are.

*Advanced Copy provided through Netgalley for an honest review*

GRADE: B+

Friday, March 1, 2019

STUMPTOWN VOL. 1 by Greg Rucka

Greg Rucka crafts a really commendable hard-boiled mystery that checks off all of the right boxes. It's got twists, turns, reveals, fist-fights, a missing girl, good dialogue, and most importantly, a memorable protagonist. That detective here is Dexedrine "Dex" Parios, a private dick with a gambling problem, who agrees to find the missing daughter of the local casino owner in order to get out of mounting craps debt. Thus begins "The Case of the Girl who Took Her Shampoo But Left Her Mini."

Rucka is well-known for creating memorable female characters, and Dex is definitely someone that I would rush out to read more about. She's smart and tough but she's constantly unlucky and prone making bad decisions, and is always getting her ass beat down for some reason or another. And with her, there's no need for much backstory. We learn all we need to know from her determination to find answers, her bravery in the face of danger, the way she interacts with her brother Ansel with Down Syndrome or the way that she interacts with the police chief she had an affair with. Rucka shows how much info you can get across with a few well-placed bits of dialogue. And Matthew Southworth's art could've been a little more refined but definitely fits. This was a good one, buying the next!

GRADE: A-

Monday, February 11, 2019

COLD DEAD HANDS by Jeff Strand

This won't be forever changing lives through it's poetic and artistic examinations of character and theme, but it will prove to be a gripping, quick, bloody read one night before bed!

I always say this, but Jeff Strand is like his own genre and his books have a feeling of their own. This story is FAR from being a comedy but not many people can infuse levity into such a dark story but still maintain the dread the way Strand can. The ending is a bit underwhelming but the rest of it moves at a great pace and will definitely keep your attention.

GRADE: B

BLACK SCIENCE PREMIERE VOL. 1: TRANSCENDENTALISM by Rick Remender

A big advantage that second books have in a series is the fact that they don't have the burden of exposition holding them back. And that's definitely the case here. So we're free to ride the fast-paced tidal wave of action from the very beginning of this book. And I'm glad because it gets pretty crazy, let me tell you! After the cliffhanger of the first premiere edition, I was eager to where our characters end up and where it all goes from here, and I was not disappointed. More imaginative sci-fi thrills, jaw-dropping twists and turns, family drama, and shifting character dynamics makes this yet another great Black Science read.

GRADE: A-

Thursday, February 7, 2019

A SCHOLAR OF PAIN by Grant Jerkins

Let's get this out of the way. If you're on the search for a book with likable characters that will make you smile and strengthen you outlook on humanity, don't even look in this direction. There's nothing for you here. But if, like me, you're a weirdo fascinated by the darker side of humanity and shifty morality, then step right up.

What you'll find here is one of the best story collections I've read in years and marks the first time I've read anything by Grant Jerkins. The stories mostly focus on societal deviants of questionable ethics, stalkers, religious fanatics, child molesters, sizzurp addicts, and up-skirt peepers. It even takes leaps into the cosmic and metaphysical in ways that I won't spoil here.

Most of these characters aren't in denial of who they are and it leads to a bold and unwavering look at things that aren't all that comfortable to explore.
"I had a bowel movement in your commode. And I did something to your toothbrush so that you will have molecules of me inside of you too."
And Perkins is an exciting writer, tackling all of the subjects fearlessly and with sly, smirking prose that's exciting to read and darkly comic. But I'm not sure if I should even call this collection dark comedy. Because while it's too odd and outlandish to be grim, sometimes it's too painfully accurate and on the mark to be funny. What it is though is a stellar collection of stories the like of which you won't find anywhere else. Read this now. And then get ready to want to read more Grant Jerkins.

GRADE: A

Saturday, January 26, 2019

WALK IN THE FIRE by Steph Post

Steph Post seems to be getting better with each novel! This book, a direct sequel to Lightwood, is even more engaging than it's predecessor. One of the reasons might be the fact that there was no need to acquaint myself with the main characters and I was able to watch Post develop them even further here, taking them into interesting directions. This over-arching story Judah Cannon story reads like a Florida Godfather, showing a man who wants nothing to do with his family empire, but realizing that it might've been his destiny all along, a destiny fueled by his last name.

I loved the new characters introduced here as well, who help to really make this look stand out further ahead of the last, such as the increasingly desperate ATF agent Clive Grant and the unsettling Weaver, who might be an even scarier villain than Sister Tulah. And speaking of Tulah, the sly and manipulative preacher is back as well, and we travel further into who she is as a character and what motivates her.

It all provides a great set-up for another sequel and I personally can't wait to see what happens next and what Steph Post has up her sleeve.

GRADE: A-

Thursday, January 17, 2019

BLACK SCIENCE PREMIERE VOL. 1: THE BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO ENTROPY by Rick Remender

Bold. Imaginative. Visionary.

I was not sure what to expect with this series but it hit me like a runaway train as it pulled me away on it's adventure. I don't want to go into too much detail about the plot as it might be best to go in almost completely fresh the way I did, and jump headfirst into this trip down the rabbit hole and into the onion as this flawed crew of travelers try to survive their dangerous trip through countless dimensions.

The biggest thing that struck me was how fast the story moves. It drops the reader right into the middle of the action from the beginning and NEVER stops. There is no exposition to get you acquainted with the world at the start, and there is no time to take a breather during the entirety of its 400+ pages.

I've seen reviews talk about the speed of its storytelling was a problem with it being too confusing but I totally disagree. I really appreciated that the creators didn't treat the reader with kid gloves and trusted the readers to keep pace with the story. And learning more about the rules, the background of the expedition, and info about the characters while the story was moving forward really added to the experience. So buckle your seatbelt before jumping into this one, and keep up!

The artwork here, especially the inking and the color work, was a real standout here, providing a singular atmosphere that's really memorable. Whenever I think about this story in the future, I'll visualize those sharp lines and bold neon-ish colors.

There are a few reasons why my grade for this was dropped a couple points though. The constantly shifting POV narration became a little obnoxious and sometimes distracted from the flow of the story, I wish that there was a bit more variety in the nature of the different dimensions, and I wish some of the action was easier to follow. This story also seems like it might benefit from it being read in big chunks like this premiere volume, which collects the first three trade paperback. I seemed to have responded to this better than other friends who started reading it in the shorter paperback volumes.

For me, this was a wild ride and I can't wait to continue.


GRADE: A-

THE CLEANUP by Sean Doolittle

This was a simple little noir with a familiar story about a disgraced cop on a shit detail working security at a convenience story who gets himself caught up in a murder cover-up involving the checkout girl he’s crushing on. There's some good dialogue and it can get pretty suspenseful. But what made this one really enjoyable was bearing witness to Doolittle’s skillful plotting. Every action and every character turns out to have an important role to play and watching it all come together is like seeing Doolittle set up a complicated array of dominoes, then tipping one over and watching them all fall gloriously!

GRADE: B+

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

THE SEA WAS A FAIR MASTER by Calvin Deemer

Flash fiction is a difficult form to really pull off. I've found that some flash stories I've read come off as small scenes from a bigger story that the author is hoping to publish someday (the case with many short stories, even the longer ones), or come off as simply mood poems that go nowhere. Calvin Deemer seems to have a sense of how to really pull it off. He keeps things simple, to the point, and knows that the point of flash stories isn't to develop a character or deep thematic material but that it's all about conceptual brevity, plot, and an ending reveal. Deemer packs a lot into just 3 or 4 pages in every story, knowing how to set the stage almost immediately.

Although my favorite stories were the ones that were more emotionally resonant, like the unlikely poignant love in "Yara," the sad regret in "Graves," or the look at tragedy and requital in "The Snakes or the Humans." In most of the other stories, the author seems to simply have a good time, coming up with his fun ideas and letting us into his head. Even though in some of the stories the potentially powerful and slightly ambiguous endings are weakened by final lines too obvious and literal, most of the stories are worth your time!

GRADE: B+

Friday, January 11, 2019

OLD GHOSTS by Nik Korpon

I feel like you can always depend on Nik Korpon for a solid tale of modern noir with dark and evocative language, and Old Ghosts doesn't disappoint. Not totally. This early novella follows Cole, a man trying to make ends meet with his wife Amy, while trying to make a baby with her as well. But things get complicated when old friends come back into his life and bring the old ghosts with them.

I liked the book fine superficially and the writing made it compulsively readable, but I wish that more time was spent on detailing the complicated past relationship that Cole had with Delilah and Chance. It seems like something was compelling him to work with them again even though he knew it would lead to tragedy, but I never fully understood what that something was, so I couldn't get fully invested in his decisions. He seems like he hates them and wants to stab them both in the face all the time, so why does he feel like he has to help them? I'm sure it's something along the lines of feeling some sort of familial loyalty that is hard to break, which I understand on a surface level, but not on an emotional one. We really need to get a sense of their past relationship more. An example of where this is done well in the novella format are in several of Tom Piccirilli's novellas, which deal with similar themes. This one was alright but for a stunning look at what Korpon can do, read By The Nails of the Warpriest.

Also, the editing in this edition left much to be desired too as there were many typos that were pretty dam distracting.

GRADE: B-

Thursday, January 10, 2019

FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2018

2018 was another great year in general but whoa, it seems like I get more and more busy every year. I feel like my reading attention was at its worst this year and that may have affected my enjoyment of many of the books overall. I definitely jumped pretty heavily into reading more superhero comics, which was pretty fun. I definitely noticed a few things:

*I've been neglecting reading more older classic pulp and westerns. I miss them. So much to read!

*I also noticed that I didn't read that many short story collections. Maybe only three I think. That has to change.

*I realized that I enjoyed more books that were published this year than the ones that I read that were published earlier.

Anyway, here are some favorites. My humble awards, with less categories this time. 

(*) indicates my top favorite

__________________________________________________

Favorite Book I Read in 2018:

*Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias
The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos
The Listener by Robert McCammon
Cemetery Road by Gar Anthony Haywood
The Line That Held Us by David Joy

Favorite Novella:

*The Nobody by Tom Piccirilli
In The River by Jeremy Robert Johnson
Pretty Marys All In A Row by Gwendolyn Kiste

Favorite Short Story:

*"Finn's Missing Sister" by Jen Conley (from Cannibals)
"Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice" by Damien Angelica Walters (from Cry Your Way Home)


Favorite Superhero Comic Book:

*Ivar, Timewalker by Fred van Lente
Injustice: Gods Among Us - Year Two by Tom Taylor
Archer and Armstrong by Fred van Lente
Astro City: Confessions by Kurt Busiek
Black Hammer Vol. 2: The Event by Jeff Lemire

Favorite Non-Superhero Comic Book:

*Scalped: Book Three/Book Five by Jason Aaron
Trillium by Jeff Lemire
Southern Bastards: Book Two by Jason Aaron

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

COYOTE SONGS by Gabino Iglesias

"Whatever is happening there smells like blood and bad news."
Gabino Iglesias's novel Zero Saints was one of my favorite books I read in 2016. I also mentioned in that review that it was completely original and unlike anything I'd read before. This latest work follows that trend and goes even further. It's even harder to pin down than that previous book.
The silence on the other side of the door struck him as forced, pregnant with something tense, something that belonged to the world of screams, but that was forced to stay quiet.
Coyote Songs almost completely defies description. I won't even try. And good luck trying to pin it down to a genre. It's equal parts magical realism, crime noir, supernatural horror, manifesto, and who the hell knows what else. It's a mean and poetic ballad of la frontera: a place that's even darker than la frontera he explored in Zero Saints, a place filled with monsters, both human and otherwise. This book isn't for everyone, and I admit that I probably didn't understand all that it offered. But I was held rapt by it's imagery and language, a reading experience unlike anything else this year. Books like this make me happy that there are writers like Gabino Iglesias out there in the world, and publishers like Broken River Books brave enough to publish them.
"La frontera es un sitio malo, especially if you start caring about shit. La frontera es un sitio donde hay que ser un hijo de puta para sobrevivir. You have that, mijo. Don’t lose it. Nunca.”
GRADE: A