Saturday, September 26, 2015

LOSS by Tom Piccirilli

This is a bizarre little novelette by Piccirilli about a failed writer working as a building manager at Stark House, an old apartment building in New York City, home for a variety of has-beens and other failed artists. There's a murder that occurs in the building and soon after, the love of his life disappears and a talking monkey begins writing him notes. Like I said, it's bizarre. It's hard to summarize and can feel pretty disjointed, but I love the atmosphere that Piccirilli maintains in the Stark House location. With his usual urgent prose, he presents the building as a sad purgatory for failed dreams and lost ambition, and is a perfect place for our narrator, with his regrets, frustrations, lost creativity, as well as his ghosts. 

It's an intriguing yet difficult book, open to lots of interpretation. I liked this one the way I liked the movie Mulholland Drive when I first saw it. I don't fully understand it but I'm fascinated enough to explore it more. I decided to read this as part of my horror reading for the season but I realized that it's less of a horror story and more of a psychological portrait. Nothing supernatural was actually happening in the story or at Stark House. Or was there........?


Friday, September 25, 2015

NO TOMORROW by Jake Hinkson

"A couple of dreams are all I have left. So dream a little, just for me."
Jake Hinkson is one of the only crime writers today that really nails the feel of old pulp fiction. His work feels perfect for a tiny paperback with some steamy cover art by Robert McGinnis or Robert E. Schulz and a little Gold Medal logo on the corner. This novel felt even more like an old Gold Medal pulp than his others I've read so far (haven't read The Big Ugly yet), possibly due to it's period setting.

The story takes place in 1947 and follows a woman named William "Billie" Dixon (she was given her father's name by her mother as a big fuck-you to the no-good bastard), who works for one of the Poverty Row B-movie studios in Hollywood, tasked with traveling to small country towns to peddle movie masterpieces like this one: 
It's pretty mind-numbing work but things get a bit more interesting when she rides into a tiny Ozark town and falls for the bored wife of the town's blind preacher. This can't end well, can it?

Something I really appreciated about this story was how Hinkson treated Billie's homosexuality. Similar books that take place in the 40's would have either handled it luridly, with pulpy, erotic overtones, or would have handled it with a precious, romantic touch, illustrating Billie's bravery and desire to follow her heart during a time of persecution. But Hinkson does neither. Instead, Billie just is who she is, a lover of women and a habitual heartbreaker, and Hinkson doesn't really dwell on it; that's not what the book is about. Also, I loved the characters of Lucy and Eustace, the brother/sister sheriff duo, Billie's relationship with them, and the subtle way that Hinkson develops it. The Lucy/Eustace/Billie relationship is one of my favorite aspect of all of Hinkson's work so far.

But, alas, this novel isn't as completely awesome as others by Hinkson. The first two-thirds of the novel were great and featured the same skilled writing I love from the author, but the final act suffers a bit from what I thought was a big drop in momentum. While I love where he ultimately takes Billie's character, there came a point where it seemed like I turned into just a patient observer as the story strolled along to an ending that I knew was coming but hoping that there might be some surprises along the way. And while the ending was fairly satisfying, the last act never matched the plot strength of the rest of the book. But hey, a less-than-stellar Hinkson book is still better than a lot of the stuff out there now. 

The novel is ultimately about the unrealistic, romantic expectations and ideals that we all have, but how those ideals come with a price and real life is never the fairy tale that we expect. It's also about how we tragically miss real, genuine opportunities in our lives because of these expectations. Don't make this one your first book by the author, but if you're a fan of his other work, it's a solid addition!


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

SNOWBLIND by Michael McBride

When Snowblind begins, it wastes absolutely no time and throws you right into the terror; drops you right in the middle of three college buddies helping their friend who's been injured on their annual elk hunting trip in the Colorado Rockies. They end up off the usual trail and soon they are fighting for their lives while being hunted by an unseen force in the raging blizzard.

I really wanted a fast-moving, exciting creature feature and I got that and more with this novella. What I wasn't expecting was how well-written it was. I was impressed by the skill Michael McBride showed at setting up a potent atmosphere almost immediately through his prose. The never-ending snow, the biting cold, the deep dark, I felt it all. And the tension is maintained almost throughout the book entirely, never letting up. The creatures stalking our characters are wisely kept unseen for most of the book, adding to the suspense and the experience. Although I felt that the climax section of the book got a bit repetitive, I still felt like I needed a box of popcorn and a bag of Sour Patch Kids for this exciting horror matinee! A good early start to my Halloween scary reading!


Monday, September 21, 2015


Lawrence Block is a pretty popular crime author, but many readers aren't fully familiar with the beginning of his career when he wrote a bunch of softcore smut and lesbian erotica novels under various pen names. In recent years, many of those books have become more popular due to reprints and he even resurrected one of his more popular alter egos, Jill Emerson, for an original novel for Hard Case Crime called Getting Off. Now with The Girl With The Deep Blue Eyes, his new original Hard Case novel, with it's healthy doses of erotica mixed with classic noir stylings, it feels like he unofficially resurrected the Andrew Shaw alter ego, who worked with the same booty-noir mix back in the day. And it seems like Andrew is super pumped  about being unleashed onto our post-50 Shades society, because he definitely holds nothing back on the smut-tip with this book!

An ex-NYC cop turned Florida private eye named Doak Miller gets an assignment to act as a hitman and entrap a trophy wife looking to knock off her husband. But once he meets her, he sees the girl of his dreams and he concocts a plan to keep her.

At first, I got a bit frustrated because the plot didn't really move at the pace I wanted it to. It didn't really seem like much was happening for the first half of the book, and then I realized that the book is less about the crime and the hot sex and more about the character of Doak Miller, which I didn't expect. And the way Block slowly and skillfully reveals more and more about Doak's character is pretty compelling. One really stand-out aspect that I enjoyed is that it takes place in 2014 and Doak is a film noir fan. Because of this, he recognizes that his situation is the same as the characters in classic noirs like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. He knows this convention and knows that those characters never get away in the end. But what makes this even more noir is that although he already knows this, he thinks his situation just might be different, and begins to set everything in motion anyway. He's a great pulp character and Block really illustrates the inevitability of noir. Recommended to crime fans, it's a cool read that might give you a thrill! And just maybe give you a tingle in your underpants!!


Friday, September 18, 2015


*Book 1 of the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy*
"He used to pimp and pull shakedowns. Now he rode shotgun to History."
Whoa, Ellroy's done it again. Another 5-star read. So far , that's 5 out of 5 for me. This time, he takes
his talent for weaving complex plots and conspiracies from his 50's Los Angeles setting and unleashes it nationwide in an epic re-shaping of the country's turbulent history between 1958 and 1963 as we follow three men who play pivotal roles in the events that ultimately lead to that infamous day in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.

Just when I thought a conspiracy couldn't get any more complex than L.A. Confidential's, this book takes it to a whole new level. But surprisingly, even though this is bigger in scope, I actually found it easier to follow along here than in Confidential. I'm not sure why that is, but maybe it has something to do with the author's growth as a writer.  
"His courage was weakness pushed into grandiosity."
Along with the immense amount of historical detail, plot development, and supporting players, Ellroy is able to create three of his most fascinating protagonists who, through their individual fears, dreams, and covetousness, end up creating the history we know today. Ward Littel is an FBI agent who dreams of taking down mobsters and has a fascination with crime-buster Robert Kennedy and his cool-cat buddy Kemper Boyd. Ward is desperate to get rid of his reputation for being a punk bitch, decides that he'll do anything to gain favor, and discovers talents that provide him an opportunity he's never dreamed of. His friend Kemper Boyd is obsessed with the Kennedy family and their high-class status, and starts to juggle multiple secret allegiances with the FBI, the CIA, the KKK, Jack Kennedy, and the Mob in order to get to that same status. Pete Bondurant is a shakedown artist and dope-procurer for Howard Hughes. He's getting tired of the extortion world and sees his job in jeopardy once Howard Hughes starts transforming into a Mormon vampire, so when Kemper and the CIA come calling, he sees a way out and a way to big money. These three guys are intriguing and complicated, and their arcs and journeys are what really gives the book its heart.
"Boyd was now some triple or quadruple agent. Boyd was a self-proclaimed insomniac. Boyd said rearranging lies kept him up nights."
Ellroy is constantly experimenting with form and language and it always works for me (but might not work for other people). I'm not sure how he is able to pull this stuff off. It seems like he's so entrenched in the eras that he portrays, and these stories in his head are so desperate to get out, that the words just spill out onto the page. And what's produced is a piece of work that is his and his alone. He is definitely one of a kind. And as usual for Ellroy, there's enough material in this bad boy for three separate books. You would think that something this huge would run away and get too large for the author, but once again, he is able to stick his landing in glorious form and bring it all to an awesome ending. He really knows how to pull off a great conclusion and that's a big factor in my 5-star ratings.
"Hughes kept Lenny on the payroll to write a private skank sheet.
The sheet would feature skank too skanky for public skank consumption. The sheet would be read by two skank fiends only: Dracula and J. Edgar Hoover."
He is not interested in accuracy, but more interested in how the people in power in our country are just as complicated as we are. But while our complications only really have an effect on us or those close to us, their complications affect the whole country. So watch who you vote for. 
How much of Ellroy's fucked-up epic is true? I have no clue, and that's not what matters. What matters is that we all know that it could happen in America and we wouldn't be all that surprised if it actually did happen. And that notion is terrifying.
"It's time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars. It's time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time.
Here's to them."

Thursday, September 17, 2015

SHUTTER ISLAND by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane took a big leap in his work with this first novel following his stunner of a masterpiece, Mystic River, tackling a period piece for the first time, with a story that somehow both
narrowed and widened his scope. It's about two U.S. Marshalls stuck on a job at an island-based criminal asylum, tracking down an escaped convict during a dangerous hurricane. I haven't read this in a while but I remember it being such a great example of a popular best-seller that fully deserved the attention it got! It's a first-rate psychological thriller and mystery, and I felt like Lehane did everything right. With its 1950's setting, to the Gothic feel of the location, the incredibly potent ambiance created by setting the story during a storm, it's shocking twists, it's brooding protagonist, and it's locked-room (locked-island?) mystery vibe, it's like the book is tailor-made to be awesome. It's also definitely one of the most atmospheric books I've read. It has such a moody, creepy tone, I can still remember the feeling it gave me while reading it late at night before bed. I remember being engrossed and transported. And although not as emotionally gripping as Mystic River, it's a tighter narrative and another amazing notch on Lehane's bibliography. He's one of my favorite authors, and along with Stephen King, probably has the most books on my favorites list! 


Friday, September 11, 2015


"Tomorrow night, if I come back, there'll be kisses. Lovely ones, Frank. Not drunken kisses. Kisses with dreams in them. Kisses that come from life, not death."
With the one-two punch publication of both this novel and the serialized version of Double Indemnity in the mid-1930's, James M. Cain truly popularized what we know of now as being the hard-boiled sub-genre of noir in American fiction, a long time before the term was even coined. Since it's publication, this book has spawned so many copycats, and inspired so many writers and an entire genre of movies that it's story of a man falling for a femme fatale, their descent into crime, and their eventual doom is kind of a cliché at this point. But even to this day, over 80 years later, very few have been able to match the intensity of both this and Indemnity.
"Except for the shape, she really wasn't any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her."
I initially thought that this was better than Indemnity but now on my second reading, I saw that while it's still great, and still has a stellar, superior ending, Postman pales a bit in comparison. But it's still stronger and tighter than many books in its genre and beyond. It's a little over 100 pages of high tragedy as we witness these two emotionally weak but determined characters dig themselves deeper into a hole of self-destruction and form a bond started by love and transformed into hate, a bond that they realize will never be broken, no matter how much they want out. Can anyone else think of any flawed couples like this in recent bestselling fiction? Of course you can. Yep, and it all started with The Postman Always Rings Twice. 
“I ripped all her clothes off. She twisted and turned, slow, so they would slip out from under her. Then she closed her eyes and lay back on the pillow. Her hair was falling over her shoulders in snaky curls. Her eye was all black, and her breasts weren’t drawn up and pointing up at me, but soft, and spread out in two big pink splotches. She looked like the great grandmother of every whore in the world. The devil got his money’s worth that night.”

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

EVERY SHALLOW CUT by Tom Piccirilli

"I was three days into my life as a homeless loser drifter when they broke my nose and dropped me on the street in
front of a nameless pawn shop. I hit like two hundred pounds of failed dreams."
This sad and heartbreaking book is essential psychological noir. Anyone interested in writing a portrait of despair and anguish and exploring a character at their lowest point should give this a look.  It follows a mid-level writer who is critically-praised but could never find commercial success, and after dwindling sales, the collapsing economy, and the loss of his wife and belongings, is on the verge of (or in the middle of) a nervous breakdown and decides to take a roadtrip to visit his brother in Long Island. And to make matters worse, some dumbass actually sells him a firearm at the beginning.

There's something so honest about everything in this book that it was a little uncomfortable to read it. Piccirilli managed to pull out more emotion in me in a few paragraphs of this noirella than some writers do in 600 page novels. Every page of Every Shallow Cut is filled with what everyone loves about David Goodis's writing when he's at the peak of his talents. I believe that anyone that has a passion in the creative world will be able to relate with this main character whether you want to or not. Benoit Lelievre, my Goodreads buddy and succinct writer in his own right, said it best on his blog review for Every Shallow Cut: "You can't turn your back on its protagonist because you're the only thing he has left, the reader of his tormented masterpiece and you can't really bond with him either as he's stuck in a place you don't want to be." That's one of my favorite quotes ever from a book review and such a great summary of what real noir is. 

And this book is even more heartbreaking once you realize how meta and biographical it might be; when you think of the fact that Piccirilli himself was a prolific, award-winning writer that passed away before finding real commercial success. When you think of him writing this out of his own frustration and during particularly dark times, it takes on even more meaning. Instead of dedicating the book to a friend or loved one, here's Piccirilli's dedication: 
"For everyone with an unfulfilled hope, a mediocre dream, a half-forgotten love, a vague regret, a thorn of disappointment, an average fantasy, a fear of failure, a ghost that walks the midnight corridors, Every Shallow Cut is for you—"
Read this if you're looking for amazing writing and an affecting story. Don't read this if you're not ready for some dark, heavy material, although your missing out on really great work. And if you're looking for a happy ending, you won't find it here.


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

CRY HARD, CRY FAST by John D. MacDonald

My first read by the famous pulp writer and Gold Medal star John D. Macdonald follows a large cast of disparate characters who's lives are not only altered but brought together after a horrific
multiple car crash on a highway. The book looks at the characters before, during, and after the crash, and how the accident affects them all.
"His frequent use of her weary body was as quick and impatient and selfish as his anger. He had lost all the words of love."
In a novel this length and with this number of characters, this type of story hinges on those characters being really engaging. And although it's a great concept with some well-written passages, almost none of the character were all that interesting. I found myself skimming a lot. The backstory sections turn out to be the only interesting parts as all of the post-crash material falls flat and contrived. I got a sense here that MacDonald is a talented writer, and hopefully my next novel from him is more engaging. Maybe I can get some recommendations for his best non-McGee work?
"His childhood had been served, as a sentence is served, in that emotional wasteland of a home which should have been broken and was not—a home where hate is a voice beyond a closed door, where contempt is a long intercepted look, where violence is a palpable thing in silent rooms."

Monday, September 7, 2015

SAINT HOMICIDE by Jake Hinkson

This is a quick-read novella from one of my new favorite authors, Jake Hinkson. It's about Daniel, an infamous prison inmate nicknamed "Saint Homicide" that is now presenting his confession of what
led him to this point and why he completely accepts his guilt. In the first two novels I've read by Hinkson, there are elements that show a fascination with the darker side of Christianity and all of its contradictions. Here, he confronts this darker side head-on in this portrait of quite a compelling character. 

Daniel is completely devout in his Christian beliefs, so devout he doesn't even relate to the extreme denominations. There was never a doubt for me that he was unwavering in his commitment that God had a plan for him and that's what makes him totally terrifying. But what also made him really fascinating was the fact that he is aware of the conflicting darkness and weaknesses within himself and struggles with it. I've always pondered on how tragic it must be for a man of such devout faith to also be a human being in this world all at the same time. And Hinkson's absolutely necessary use of first-person POV served to really thrust me into the mind of such a person. One thing I wished was for more of a sense of Daniel's prison life in the present day and the way his fellow inmates see him, just to get more of an idea of the way the outside world viewed him at this point. Hinkson is a completely underrated writer and I hope my reviews of his work helps to bring in more readers!


Sunday, September 6, 2015

BOY'S LIFE by Robert McCammon

Robert McCammon's coming-of-age classic, Boy's Life, is almost universally loved. So when I started the book and got about 5 chapters in, I was initially horrified to find that I didn't have the same
warm feeling in my stomach the way others seemed to have when reading it. Had I finally realized that my taste was in fact not as impeccable as I'd thought? Was I going to have to write an unfavorable review for a beloved book and get roasted and trolled for it and lose the respect of my Goodreads friends? Or was I going to discover that all of my internet friends just had really bad taste? The book seemed to lack a momentum, or a real narrative thread and each day-in-the-life chapter, while okay on their own, had the weakest of connections. I knew that there was still about 600 pages to go, and I was losing interest.

But then I quickly realized that I needed to start looking at the book as a collection of interlocked short stories detailing the eventful and magical year of 1964 in the life of our protagonist and hero, 12-year old Cory Mackenson, and his very special town of Zephyr, Alabama. A year when Cory transitions out of childhood and into adolescence. Every chapter stood on it's own at first, but the weak threads that connected each one got stronger and stronger as the book went on. Once I started looking at it as a story collection that built on itself like a snowball, I was charmed! Yep, that's the word for it! There's a charm in McCammon's writing that's present in all of his work but it is at it's strongest here. He has such a grasp of his material that he not only is able to command a great child's voice (which always seems terribly hard to do), but also a nostalgic one as well. And I love how these memories are all heightened in reality, the way lifelong memories always seem to be. Every time I revisit strong memories of my childhood, they're probably way more dramatic and romantic, or tragic as they were in reality. In the end, the book is very touching and I can see why it's such a classic. Another win for McCammon!


THE REVENANT by Michael Punke

While reading this exciting western adventure, I was constantly reminded of how many things we take for granted today. Little things like blankets, lighters, automatic rifles, and those two words that kept
running through my mind while reading: ANTI. BIOTICS.

The book is based on the famous true story of Hugh Glass, the frontiersman working as a trapper for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1823 gathering beaver pelts along the Missouri River. Things go south fast when he gets ripped apart by a grizzly bear while hunting. It's almost a sure thing that Glass will croak, so he doesn't take it personally when his colleagues abandon him, but when they steal his beloved knife and rifle, AND his flint and steel? Now that's totally unforgivable! Against all odds, Glass crawls across hundreds of miles of treacherous countryside to bring retribution to those that wronged him. 

I'd never heard of the story of Hugh Glass and I'm totally in awe of how much of a badass he was. The story is sometimes hard to believe; I mean damn the dude's throat was nearly severed and he couldn't walk! And with Michael Punke's well-conceived embellishments and dramatics, it really elevates to an even more extraordinary story. It's not only a gripping tale of classic revenge, but also of survival literally against all odds and about the extent that one man's determination can go. It's well-researched and its great sense of place was very transportive. And Punke uses an omniscient POV that's great for historical fiction that really gives the reader more info about the world and more historical scope beyond the immediate story. I was not only entertained but I also learned a lot and I was inspired to jump on the Interwebs and learn even more. And that's what historical fiction is all about, right?
"The frustrating necessity of delay was like water on the hot iron of his determination—hardening it, making it unmalleable. He vowed to survive, if for no other reason than to visit vengeance on the men who betrayed him."