Sunday, November 6, 2022

EXTANT by Michael McBride

I made a two-week trip to Egypt early this year and explored up and down the Nile, growing more and more fascinated with Egyptology and the rich history. And I'm usually pretty engaged with Michael McBride's work, which reads like less wordy Michael Crichton books. I also was looking for something quick and easy to read while I'm in the middle of a big job, so when I discovered this novella, it ticked all the boxes. But, like eating a bag of chips in the middle of the desert, it was a bit of a waste and left me wanting something more satisfying.

An expedition team in the Siwa Oasis searches for the final resting place of the army of Cambyses II that vanished thousands of years ago. When they discover mysterious underground ruins, they also discover that they're being stalked by deadly creatures that have survived millennia. 

I was left pretty dry with this one. It felt like the most generic parts of every creature-feature I've read all thrown into 90 pages. It's nowhere near as entertaining or scary as books like Sunblind or Snowblind. There's nothing actively bad about this book, it's simply just not that memorable and terribly bland. That's it. There's not much else to say.

GRADE: C-

Thursday, October 27, 2022

UPGRADE by Blake Crouch

It’s exciting starting another Blake Crouch novel, akin to heading to the theater for the latest summer blockbuster, anticipating the spectacle and excitement. This new novel is set in the near future where genetic engineering has reached a dangerous height and genetic study and practice in general has been deemed illegal. And after a raid gone sour, Genetic Protection agent Logan Ramsay starts to notice that he’s changing…

While the concept is fun and much of the material here is pretty thought-provoking, I couldn’t help but feel that this one fell a bit flat for me. It was thrilling to read how Logan's ability kept evolving and I was constantly pausing to Google genetic science shit and do more research. But I’m used to his novels hitting hard in the emotional feels just as equally as the cerebral ones, and the attempts here at sentiment just didn’t work for me and felt tacked on. The book is still fascinating in concept and has the excitement that I’ve come to expect. In general though, it felt a little “paint-by-numbers.” In other words: “Crouch-lite.”

GRADE: B-

Sunday, October 16, 2022

BANG UP by Jeff Strand

I’ve never once thought to myself, “Self, one thing you’re missing from your life is an erotic fiction novel from Jeff Strand.” That thought has never crossed my mind. 

But I can say now, with full confidence, that yes, I did very much need to read erotica by Jeff Strand. 
"Did you bring condoms?"
"Uh, no. Not to a planned murder. That's a whole different level of deviance."
At this point, Strand is a genre unto himself, but there’s no denying that this book is erotic fiction through-and-through (with all of its hot and heavy doses of sex), just with a bit of a twist. 

A jealous husband named Ralph decides to approach a hot stud named Kent at a diner and hire him to have bad sex with his wife Julie so she can be dissuaded from cheating. Kent has the hots for Julie and Julie really wants to get laid, so obviously things don’t go as planned. No one has ever said anything about these characters being smart.
Ralph could handle his wife shouting the wrong name during sex, but not the wrong two names.
What follows is quite possibly one of the funniest books I’ve read, causing numerous moments of out-loud laughter as I marveled at the terrible decisions the characters made and the hilarious dialogue exchanges that Strand conjured up. One of the things that makes Strand’s work so irresistible and fun to read is the feeling that he’s having the time of his life writing this filth. 

GRADE: B+

Monday, October 3, 2022

CITY ON FIRE by Don Winslow

At this point, it’s safe to predict that any novel by Don Winslow will be one I enjoy! 

This is the start of a new epic crime trilogy by the author and I’m here for it. Inspired by Homer’s classic: The Iliad, Winslow spins a tale of a 1980’s gang war between Irish and Italian families in Providence, Rhode Island and the damage it causes. The book focuses on Danny Ryan, surrogate son of the Murphy family, who’s sense of honor and loyalty keeps him fighting for the Murphy’s even if it’s not in his best interest. The book never hides its influence, featuring a modern Helen of Troy, whose body would launch a thousand beat-downs, a Paris that’s just as useless as one would expect, a Hector that must fight the war his brother started, and even an interesting twist on Achilles. 

As usual with books by Winslow, it’s immensely readable, accessible, and engaging, with compelling writing and clear, relatable characters. But it does fall short of being amazing as it feels like it’s missing something. It feels more like an earlier draft than some of his better novels and is nowhere near as powerful, affecting, or as timely as The Power of the Dog or The Force. If a lesser author’s name was on the book, it would be a very good standout, but it comes off as Winslow-lite, as I’ve now come to expect him to always bring his A+ game. But, it is in no way a bad book. I just hold him to a higher standard now. But I still really enjoyed it and it’s worth a read, especially as the start of a new trilogy. 

GRADE: B+

Monday, September 12, 2022

FIRE & BLOOD: A TARGARYEN HISTORY VOL. 1 by George R. R. Martin

Whew! Finally finished, this took me forever due to life things getting in the way. 

Here’s a book made for us Song of Ice and Fire nerds! 

Seriously, if you’re new to Martin’s epic world, don’t make this the first thing you read. Start with the main series or watch the Game of Thrones show instead. It’s written as an historical account rather than a novel and that might be a turn off to someone who isn’t a big fan already. I thought it was going to be a difficult read but I was pleasantly surprised by how well this flowed! I was always overwhelmed by the history of the Targaryen dynasty but this book actually showed me that’s it’s actually not to difficult to get a grasp on. 

The book is styled as a translation of a text by Grandmaester Gyldayne from information gleaned from historical texts. It covers the reign of the Targaryen Dynasty in the continent of Westeros from the initial conquest by Aegon, Visenya, and Rhaenys Targaryen through the end of the tumultuous civil war that nearly saw the end of the dysnasty. It takes place during a period of roughly 150 years, which in itself begins 300 years before the events in A Game of Thrones. 

The material could’ve been tedious but the writing style happened to be pretty engrossing, making the whole thing very readable. And of course there are all the betrayals, backstabbing, murder, sex, and tragedy that fans have come to expect from anything involving the Iron Throne! My favorite parts were the ones focused on the Dance of the Dragons (which is really the heart of the book) and the part focused on Maegor the Cruel, which was dramatic and fascinating! The book dragged slightly during the Jaehaerys part (mostly because the kingdom was at relative peace), except for the Elissa Farman story, and the Aegon III parts (because he was so sullen). 

Anyway, fans that love diving deep in Westeros and Game of Thrones lore should snatch this up!

GRADE: A-

Thursday, May 19, 2022

HASTY FOR THE DARK: STORIES by Adam Nevill

There are dedicated, vocal fans of Adam Nevill among horror readers, with praise that I’ve been hearing for a while. His work has always looked interesting to me, so when I felt like reading another short story collection, I jumped into this one as my introduction to Nevill’s work. 

Each story in this collection has an elusive quality, a creeping, disorienting feeling that really lends to the horror. Each stands out in how little they spoon-feed the reader, challenging our ideas of horror and story form. One of the standout stories here, “Hippocampus,” reads like a found-footage movie in prose form, with no dialogue or characters, just pure mood and discovery as we explore an ship of death adrift in a storm. And most of the stories take everyday circumstances of discomfort and take them to the extreme, pulling pure horror out of the day-to-day, like a horrible subway commute in “On All London Underground Lines,” abusive relationships in “The Days of Our Lives,” or aging and Alzheimer’s in “Little Black Lamb.”

Not everything here is great, as some of the stories are just plain boring, but it’s a solid collection and if you’re looking for challenging stories that aren’t your usual fare, give this one a look. 

GRADE: B

Friday, May 13, 2022

THE BOOK OF THE MOST PRECIOUS SUBSTANCE by Sara Gran

I’m pretty surprised that a novel about rare books and sex magic would be so compelling…

...or maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise? 

Because on second thought, that sounds awesome. And to top it off, it’s written by the great Sara Gran. 

This novel follows a successful author-turned-book-dealer who is hired to track down a mysterious rare grimoire detailing a complicated sex spell that promises the practitioner unimaginable power after the successful completion of five acts.

Sara Gran has a serious talent for writing with a  powerful efficiency in characterization; she really knows how to introduce and illustrate a character to the point where you immediately understand who they are. She’s detailed and engaging in her descriptions and astute in her observations. She’s a stand-out and better at this than most authors I’ve read, and it makes her work immediately readable. Just like with Gran’s masterful horror novel, Come Closer, the power here is in the subtleties. The plot and the way it evolves is actually deceptively simple, but it leaves room for Gran to focus on what’s really going on here which is the spiritual and emotional reawakening that Lily goes through in the search for the book. And the author does this in a subtle, well-paced way. 

Yes, it’s a book about greed, sex magic, and rare book-selling, but it’s also a sometimes touching look at getting past grief. 

GRADE: A

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

MAN WITH NO NAME by Laird Barron

During this entire novella, Barron had me entranced by his writing. His prose is equal parts efficient and deliriously lyrical in this strange crime story about an enforcer for the Heron clan of the Yakuza and his colleagues as they kidnap an ex-celebrity wrestler during a gang war. From the start, I got a sense that this story was not going to be your run-of-the-mill crime thriller, as the author infuses the tale with a sense of existential dread that just gets worse and worse as it goes on. And once the climax hits, it becomes something way more creepy than I ever expected. 

The first thing I attempted to read by Laird Barron was the story collection, Swift to Chase, which I was disappointed by but which I now understand was more advanced, grad school-level Barron, especially with the fact that Barron’s books reference each other. Well I’m still in Barron high school so this short book was my next choice, and although I still might not understand all of its mysteries, I enjoyed it much more. And there’s even a bonus story that was just as impressive, “Blood and Stardust,” which played like a really twisted Frankenstein. I’m excited to read more Laird Barron soon.

GRADE: B+

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

PIECES OF HER by Karin Slaughter

A good novel is hidden somewhere in here. I know it. Karin Slaughter’s book starts off with a promising and provocative opening sequence as our main character Andrea witnesses her speech therapist mom take down a mall shooter. 

But once the book attempts to move past this opening, and I started to be increasingly irritated by one of the least compelling protagonists I’ve ever read, it started to go downhill fast. Not only does Andrea have the personality of a sea slug but Slaughter falls into the habit of trying to telegraph drama by detailing her inner monologue of worrying and whining and it goes on and on. It’s tiresome to read. 

And I knew I was in for a bad time when someone asks Andy a question about something and her reply is:
“I don’t know… About anything actually.”
And then it got even worse when a new parallel flashback storyline is introduced and the main character there is just as irritating in the same way. Then, when I got to the 65% mark and I realized that nothing much had happened, it was the final straw. The book is painfully boring and actually tedious to read. 

GRADE: D


Saturday, January 29, 2022

COMMODORE by Philip Fracassi

I went into this prepared for a Stephen King-inspired coming-of-age drama laced with horror tones similar to Hearts in Atlantis or The Body, with its 1950’s small-town setting, and a story about a group of curious boys looking for adventure. What I did not expect was a mysterious and disturbing horror of haunting imagery, body trauma that will make you cringe, and inexplicable cosmic occurrences. 

The novella follows five young friends in the fictional town of Sabbath who head to a vast junkyard to find a fabled black car that’s become a town legend. The story is well-written and quick and easy to read, but what’s really exciting is realizing that this is one smaller story in a bigger mythos that Fracassi is building with the town of Sabbath. While the story here is creepy on its own, the hints at deeper horrors in the town were even more unsettling to me. Even at the beginning of this book, you get a sense that something isn’t quite right in this small town. And are the residents aware? Are they okay with this? Do they even have a choice?

And discerning Fracassi readers will recognize that the events in this story were referenced in the first Sabbath short story, “Soda Jerk,” which can be found in his latest collection, Beneath A Pale Sky, or as a bonus story at the end of his novella Shiloh

GRADE: B+