Monday, March 29, 2021

MY DARKEST PRAYER by S.A. Cosby

For a while, I've been staying away from most "detective" novels because I began to find them repetitive and not fulfilling anymore. I longed for something more than just solving a mystery over and over. But every now and then, a standard mystery comes along and impresses me! I read Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby recently and I really enjoyed it and sought out his previous debut novel. I enjoyed this one just as much and I can confidently say that he truly is a rising star to watch. 

This book is armed with a cool, collected protagonist, who's pretty badass but not ridiculously so, tortured but not in a forced, clichéd way. Nate Waymaker works as an undertaker in his small Virginia town, but has been hired by the local church ladies to look into the mysterious death of a clergyman with a shaky past. The strange thing is that Cosby falls into many tropes here, with a structure lifted right out of Devil In a Blue Dress and with a hero who seems to be able to get every woman in the world drop their panties for him. But at the same time there was something that felt genuine about the novel, as if I was reading these clichés for the first time. The characters jump off the page, the dialogue is rich and grounded, and I enjoyed witnessing this author crafting a good story while finding his voice.

GRADE: B-


Monday, March 15, 2021

THE DAMAGE DONE by Hilary Davidson

I was really impressed by Hilary Davidson's work after reading her suspenseful and surprising novel, Blood Always Tells, and her short story collection, The Black Widow Club. She's got a real knack for crafting twisty thrillers and her work is objectively entertaining. But this debut novel, the one that put her on the map, was a bit of a disappointment. And not because of her lack of talent. Some of it is because of my recent aversion to the repetitiveness inherent in standard mystery/detective novels. But much of it is also because it just got so damned boring. The stakes seem very low through most of this book, as we follow travel writer and expatriate Lily Moore as she returns to New York City to find out who murdered her sister. 

I normally gravitate toward elevated tension and high stakes, so reading about Lily wandering around asking people questions about her sister didn't really do it for me. For most of the book there's not much danger or even much intrigue, and I kept questioning why I was even reading it, unlike the other work that I've read from her, which was much more engaging. But this award-winning work was a relative hit so it might just be my taste at the moment. Davidson is still one of the better thriller writers around right now, so I'll chalk this one up to taste and possible freshman quality.

GRADE: C-


Friday, March 5, 2021

WOLF HUNT 3 by Jeff Strand

In Jeff Strand's novels, especially the Wolf Hunt series, I've learned to expect anything. Anything can happen. So when Lou is brought back to life by some evil alchemy, I didn't bat an eye, I just rejoiced in the fact that I could have more George and Lou banter for another 200 pages. And like Ripley in the Alien movies, wherever George and Lou go, the werewolves follow. The adventure this time brings together all of the supporting characters from the previous books planning an assassination in an effort to prevent a human/werewolf war. 

If you're familiar with Strand's books, you know what the deal is. If you're new, get ready for some intense  lycanthrope action, hillbilly psychos, deformed killer babies, and seriously demented humor.

GRADE: B+ 


Sunday, February 28, 2021

WAKE UP DEAD by Roger Smith


This author is known for being uncompromising when it comes to violence and brutality, but this book is Smith at his most savage. As usual, his Cape Town is a Grand Guignol stage of crime and violence, and this time, he focuses on a relatively simple but tragic carjacking, and the large cast of characters that all connect around this crime, including an American model, a failed cop, rival gangbangers, a violent psychopath that only wants to reunite with his prison wife, and a young boy who only wants to celebrate his birthday. 

This book isn’t for the faint of heart or people who are turned off by graphic violence. It really rides the line of being gratuitous but it rings much more sincere than that because of how aware Smith is of his characters and their desires. The cast really sings here, as Smith efficiently illustrates who they are and what makes them tick. This book would simply just be an example of violence porn if it wasn’t for how well-drawn and complex of a hero Billy Africa was, or how great of a villain the monstrous Piper was. That’s one of Roger Smith’s strengths as a writer, the way he can somehow take despicable characters and make them irresistible to read about. 

GRADE: B

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

SAVAGES by Don Winslow

It’s interesting reading this early Winslow work having already read his later books, especially the Cartel ones. The tone and writing are so vastly different that it’s striking. If I read his books chronologically, I might have appreciated this more as a new exciting voice and admired his growth and maturity from book to book.  Winslow’s Cartel novels have many obvious similarities in content with this one, but the Cartel series is much more intricately plotted, deeply researched, and thoughtfully executed. 

Savages is less mature and more manic in its pacing. It crackles with an energy and attitude that really fits the material and definitely stands out in the pack of thriller fiction. But I couldn’t get past the large style-over-substance ratio where the writing technique is pretty distracting and it was frustrating how little I cared about the hollow characters or about any of the events and plot turns. The book has style to burn, but ultimately left me a bit cold and distracted. 

GRADE: C

Thursday, December 31, 2020

NORTH AMERICAN LAKE MONSTERS by Nathan Ballingrud

"A ghost is something that fills a hole inside you, where you lost something. It's a memory. Sometimes it can be painful, and sometimes it can be scary. Sometimes it's hard to tell where the ghost ends and real life begins."
The best work in the horror genre is usually described as stories that use the terrifying, sometimes supernatural qualities of the genre to highlight and comment on the emotional turmoil that the characters go through and more real-world, personal horror. In the best horror tales, these scary elements are just a delivery system for the character work. This impressive collection illustrates this idea the best. 

The stories here feature disillusioned waitresses, lonely little boys, grieving parents, and widowers refusing to let go, and mix them with vampires, werewolves, fallen angels, Nazis, and other monsters to tell moody stories that are equal parts skin-crawling and deeply emotional. Sometimes the horror is very overt and other times extremely subtle, but each story has a strong effect, with my favorites being: “The Monsters of Heaven,” “The Good Husband,” “Sunbleached,” and “Wild Acre.”

GRADE: A-

FUGITIVE RED by Jason Starr

Noir is sometimes defined by the terrible decisions that the loser "heroes" make. In the latest book by crime author Jason Starr, this protagonist stands out, making some of the dumber decisions I've read in a while. But that's not a terrible thing as it was fun reading about this dumbass flounder with every decision he tries to make, digging himself deeper and deeper into the shit after he tries to spice up his love life by cheating on his wife on a dating app and then subsequently getting caught up in a murder plot. 

It's an entertaining, if modest, thriller that takes interesting turns and moves at a great pace. But it doesn't really go far with its drama, chickening out at the end and missing exciting opportunities to take advantage of its cool twists in favor of a disappointingly tidy ending. It was all a little too safe and I wish it was a bit more courageous in its choices. 

GRADE: B-

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

SAYING UNCLE by Greg Gifune

"The truth. Everybody wants the truth. Problem is nobody ever knows what to do with it once they get it."
I don’t mean to presume to know anything about author Greg Gifune personally, but out of the work that I’ve read from him, this full-length novel feels the most personal. Maybe it’s not autobiographical per se, but the writing heat has a tragic familiarity that really struck me. Maybe that’s simply just a testament to how talented the guy truly is. 

Telling parallel stories of a man returning to his childhood home after the death of an estranged uncle as well as the summer that changed his family forever in a wave of violence and tragedy, the book slowly reveals not only its secrets but also the heart on its sleeve, culminating in a resolution so mournful you can almost feel the tears on the page. 
I am her child, her baby, and she is my mother, and yet, in this odd territory between reality and dreams, we're the same. The blind mice reaching desperately through darkness for some sense of the divine and all the promises such a destination surely holds.
GRADE: B+

Friday, November 13, 2020

SUMMER FROST by Blake Crouch

If you loved Blake Crouch’s recent novels, Dark Matter and Recursion, there’s a great chance you’ll enjoy his latest novella. Focused on the discovery of a minor, non-playable open-world game character that gains independence and explores her world, the book is smart, speculative science fiction that explores the increasingly fickle idea of what it means to be human. 

Although the danger of AI with a growing awareness has been told many times before, it’s still told well here, using the story to present interesting looks at gender identity and how what we see as life isn’t that much dissimilar to a computer program. It’s all well-conceived with clever twists, by an author still at the top of his game. 

GRADE: B+

Thursday, November 5, 2020

GREENER PASTURES by Michael Wehunt

“You ready to go into the mouth? It goes far and maybe all the way to forever.”
I wanted to read a collection of good horror stories during the Halloween season and while this wet my palette, I was also treated to some of the best writing that I’ve seen during my reading this year! While each story in here is undoubtedly horror, there’s a poetic, romantic tone to the prose, giving the stories a texture and a weight that I haven’t seen in a while in the genre. 

While the stories do vary based on subject, there are common themes throughout, themes like transformation, as in the best stories in the collection:  

“Deducted From Your Share of Paradise,” about a town’s obsession with a group of fallen angels, with this opening line:
The women fell from the sky, silhouetted as dying eagles against the sunset. They struck the huddled trailers of Twin Firs and buckled thin ceilings, the sound of their impacts like God drumming His fingers on the earth. 
and “A Discreet Music,” about a widower’s journey toward something beyond grief. 

Another running theme is the burden of loss, as seen in the devastating breakup in “The Inconsolable” or the breakdown of a marriage in “Dancers.”  Other stories veer into pure cosmic horror territory that sneaks under your skin but they all have the same urgent lyricism that I’m excited to see in more of Wehunt’s work. 

GRADE: A-