Friday, October 8, 2021

PROJECT HAIL MARY by Andy Weir

With this latest novel, Andy Weir has created another entertaining love letter to the power of science, technology, and nerds. The story opens with a man waking up on a spaceship with no memories of how he got there and why he's there. But as he begins to regain his memories, and armed with just his knowledge and instincts, he realizes that the most impossible mission has been placed on his shoulders, and the fate of the entire world is at stake. 

One of the big critiques that some people had about Weir's smash debut, The Martian, was that it read like a science textbook at times, with its repetitive focus on the protagonist sciencing the hell out of one problem after another. I partially disagreed with that but if you felt that way about The Martian, then stay away from Project Hail Mary, as it beefs up the sciencing to 100! There were times when it felt a bit tedious detailing every step in Ryland Grace's problem-solving, sort of like a science computer game. But dammit if Weir has a real knack for making this stuff pretty entertaining! There are great, clever twists that I didn't see coming and one of the things that really worked was how we discover bits of the past as Ryland begins to regain his memories, and we piece together the entire backstory, with surprises throughout. A very effective way to deal with exposition.

It's best to go into the book knowing as little as possible about the plot, so I'll just leave it here. If you can make it through all of the science, you'll find an effective, escapist read, and just might learn something new along the way!

GRADE: B+

OUTLAWED INK: Stories by Jason Starr

It should be no surprise that the short stories in Jason Starr’s new collection are a lot like his novels. They’re all contemporary crime noir focused on losers and degenerates of all kinds, ranging from degenerate gamblers, stock market assholes, sleazy old misogynists, and heartless serial daters. 

The first half of stories are pretty good: short, efficient, and filled with Starr’s tragic sense of humor. But it’s strange how the last half of stories sort of fell off the cliff. All of these stories felt incomplete and lazily written, with less than compelling resolutions. But my favorites were: “The Graveyard of Jimmy Fontaine,” about gambler with the most terrible luck, and “Last Pick,” about a bullied kid finally getting the revenge he deserves. 

GRADE: B-



RAZORBLADE TEARS by S.A. Cosby

One of the best novels I've read this year. Coming off of his impactful sophomore novel, Blacktop Wasteland, S.A. Cosby outdoes himself with this soulful crime tale of two fathers who must overcome their prejudice, regrets, and self-pity and take action to avenge the brutal murder of their married gay sons.

There is something so pitch-perfect about the execution here, it's really a sight to behold. Every scene is integral and well-done, and each character is built with elegance, with every flaw and strength on display in equal measure. The book is also touching and funny, with brutal action, but not without moments of reflection. There's really not much else to say. I feel like this silly, inadequate review doesn't do the book justice it all, and it should speak for itself. I haven't read a book this well-balanced and this well-orchestrated in a while. 

There was no turning back. There was no path that lead anywhere except down a long road, as dark as your first night in hell, and paved all along the way with bad intentions.

GRADE: A 

Monday, August 30, 2021

THE FISHERMAN by John Langan

I was really looking forward to this because so many of my Goodreads friends that I respect greatly raved in their glowing reviews about this book. And while the first half of the book was great, I found my attention truly drifting more and more as it went on. I loved most of the character work done in the beginning to introduce us to widowers Abe and Dan, and even the first part of the creepy tale-within-a-tale that becomes the centerpiece of the book does a decent job at invoking unease, but the second half of the novel started to drift for me. In my opinion, cosmic horror is one of the most difficult genres to pull off effectively and I really get excited when it's done well. But sometimes the horror and the threat becomes so vague, subdued, and indefinable that it sort of disappears and loses all urgency. I feel like that's what happened here. 

GRADE: C-


Sunday, August 1, 2021

KIN by Kealan Patrick Burke

We all have seen those horror movies. The ones where a crazy hillbilly family in the middle of nowhere terrorize and torture visitors until one or two of them manage to escape? This book focuses on the aftermath, on the survivor: that “final girl,” and others affected in different ways by the trauma. It also focuses on the relatives of the deceased (including a former soldier with PTSD) and the young kid that helps to bring the girl to safety. It also looks at the killers themselves: a family of cannibals that are all the more scary because they feel like they’re doing God’s work. 

The book is a violent and compelling examination of retribution, vengeance, and survivor's guilt. It questions whether there's even a possibility of "moving on" for all those involved and whether or not more violence is really the answer to that question. I could tell that Kealan Patrick Burke got a lot more polished as a writer since this earlier novel because there are many times in the book where the prose felt pretty long-winded and overwritten; not as efficient as his later work. But this work is pretty brave, going places that I never thought the story would go without ever feeling forced.

GRADE: B

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

BENEATH A PALE SKY by Philip Fracassi

Just like with the previous collection, Behold the Void, Philip Fracassi gives us a curious collection of horror stories that find a great balance between the cerebral and the emotional, where even if you don’t fully grasp the totality of what transpired, the evocative feeling that the stories give you will be wholly satisfying. 

The book is a collection that combines some of his latest short stories and novellas, ones that were both published previously and ones that were written for this book. Fracassi is great at detailing horrific but believable disastrous events and taking them to places that hint that they go beyond everyday tragedies and into the realm of the supernatural. This is on full display in many of these stories, such as with the horrifying Ferris Wheel tragedy in “The Wheel,” the deadly tornado in “Harvest,” or the earthquake in my favorite story in the collection: the novella Fragile Dreams (which I read previously as a stand-alone and reviewed it here). Each of these stories takes everyday horror and transform them into something much more cosmic and extraordinary. 

Along with Fragile Dreams, my other favorite stories are “Death, My Old Friend,” a stunning story that I also read previously and I still think is the best of Fracassi’s shorter tales, and “ID,” a sly, playful, and unreliable look at a friendship born in a mental hospital that will make you question your own sanity. 

This author is always consistent with his engaging stories and I’m really looking forward to reading his upcoming debut novel later this year!

Thanks to the publisher for the Advanced Reader’s Copy. 

GRADE: B+

Sunday, May 30, 2021

BROKEN by Don Winslow

Laws are made to broken, with rules that are made to be followed.
Don Winslow is mostly known for being a crime writer. Throughout his career though, his style and focus have evolved, starting with hard-boiled mystery of the Neal Carey series, transitioning to surfer noir with the Dawn Patrol, touching on espionage with Satori, injecting a bit more humor with the laid-back drug dealers in Savages, focusing on crooked New York City cops in The Force, and tackling the drug war in his epic Border Trilogy. This latest book is an amalgam of all the styles and topics touched on in all of his books and presented as six of some of the best crime novellas you'll read, combining to create one of Winslow’s very best books! These stories are all told in different styles, even being labelled as homages to various classic crime authors. So there's definitely something in here for everyone:

Broken is the darkest and most brutal story in the collection. A tale of violent revenge in New Orleans. ★★★★★

Crime 101 is a clever, well-plotted little cat-and-mouse story about a cop and a career thief chasing each other up and down the Pacific Coast Highway. ★★★★

The San Diego Zoo brings some much-needed comedy with this story of a young cop trying to arrest a gun-wielding chimp. It was genuinely funny and even sweet in parts, but still sported Winslow's cinematic style. ★★★★★

Sunset might be the most well-written story in the bunch and is a nostalgic story set in the California surf community about maturity and loyalty, featuring some of Winslow's oldest characters. ★★★★★

Paradise is a Ben, Chon, and O adventure, as they attempt to open up shop growing weed in Hawaii. And I actually liked it a lot better than Savages, and really showcased Winslow's knack for spinning great action. ★★★★

The Last Ride ends the collection and might be my favorite story of the bunch, matching more of the style that Winslow is popular for today, about a Border patrolman who has a crisis of conscience after seeing a little girl in a cage and sets about to free her. This dramatic and cinematic tale is a fantastic way to close out the book. ★★★★★

If you're at all a fan of Don Winslow, the book is a must-read. But then again, everyone should be a fan of Don Winslow, so it's a must-read for all of you!

GRADE: A



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+