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+ 


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+