A Dead-End Job – by Justin Alcala (Review)

Death’s Hitman #1

Urban Fantasy, Supernatural

Parliament House; October 5, 2021

283 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

2 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Parliament House and NetGalley, through which they provided me an ARC! All opinions are my own.

A somewhat novel take on the Grim Reaper trope—where Death is replaced by a mortal for whatever reason—A Dead-End Job isn’t exactly generic, but it’s certainly not new either. I’d call it unique, if only because I’ve never read anything quite like it. It does try a lot of things, but.. well, you’ll see.

Death is hurting—he needs a vacation. Badly. Thanks to automation, the job pretty much takes care of itself nowadays. People die, the souls turn over, and march their own way through to the afterlife. But Death’s job isn’t so simple as it used to be. Because where there is a system in place with rules and regulations, there will always people trying to cheat the system. It’s those that cause Death most of his headaches, and take up most of his time.

So in order to go on holiday, Death must find someone to take up his mantle for just a little while. So he hires a hitman to do it.

And not just any hitman—the best there is. Okay, well, maybe not her. Instead he picks Buck Palasinksia, the most recent hitman to take a bullet through the skull. Buck wasn’t a bad shot in his day, and feels reasonably certain he can do the job. Plus, he’s dead, which makes him perfect for the job.

Now all he has to do is take out Public Enemy #1, John Dillinger, and all the other would-be cheaters while Death is off sipping Coronas on the beach.

When the author first started writing A Dead-End Job in 2019, it was nothing more than the idea of a hard-boiled hitman working for a comical Grim Reaper. What came out the other side was a former vet, working as a hitman to support the kid he picked up off the street, throwing humor around to help him make it through the day. Now, in practice I honestly think this sounds like a decent book. In reality however… it just didn’t work for me. Now there’s a lot to love about this book—really, there is—I just didn’t love it.

My objection to it began in the prologue (which is never good), a prologue which I nearly didn’t finish. I’ve never enjoyed the “Grim Reaper in a cubicle” depiction, and it just isn’t ever likely to work on me. Now, that’s a pretty important part of this book, but it wasn’t in the blurb so how was I to know? I felt that Dead-End Job tried a lot of things—none of which worked much better than the setting for me. Buck is a former vet turned hitman, something that was never adequately explained. The kid he picks up along the way joins the picture only after he was killed, so it had nothing to do with supporting her. The references, puns, catch-phrases, and comedic one-liners pretty much define Buck as a character. And were the only depth I ever saw from him. The hitman/thief with a heart of gold is something that I’ve seen too often, and yet another thing I’ve never bought into. This combined with the world and Buck’s brand of cheap 90’s humor pretty much ruined it for me.

Thus A Dead-End Job pretty much follows in a straightforward manner until just before the end, where it does turn an impressive twist. The trouble was that by that point I was just too far gone to care. The ending itself wasn’t bad, but after 250 pages of bad puns and one-liners, it didn’t manage to awaken any sort of enjoyment from me. Like I said before, this may be a good book; it tries a lot of different things, combines death and comedy with the weight of responsibility. I just didn’t feel like it did any of these particularly well, and wasn’t for me regardless.

TL;DR

A Dead-End Job might not be the most interesting take on a mortal replacing the Grim Reaper, nor the most humorous. It’s not the most thrilling, nor the most mysterious. But it might just be… the newest? I really don’t have a lot to say about this book, other than that it didn’t work for me. It definitely didn’t work. It tries a lot of things: combining the weight of parenting with the seriousness of mortality, joins a hard-boiled hitman with an almost comedically disarming Death, and cobbles the whole thing together with puns, catch-phrases, and references fresh out of the 90’s. While I didn’t feel like it managed any of these particularly well, it also didn’t ruin them. Not exactly. I mean, most of these things have already been ruined for me, so the whole thing was pretty much doomed from the start. Maybe you’ll like it better, though. If you’re the kinda person that enjoys any two of the above tropes, maybe give it a shot. Otherwise, maybe don’t.

Note: As of reviewing, A Dead-End Job has a 4.42 rating on Goodreads, with a dozen five-star ratings and generic reviews from non-mainstream authors. Now I’m not saying that these people just provided a 5 star review to help boost the ratings and help out a fellow author… I’m just saying that it’s a wee bit suspicious. That’s all. I was actually going to go into more depth with this, but… I dunno, I am a little sympathetic. It’s hard to get your book out there when you’re on your own, when you don’t have a big publicity engine behind you—who am I to judge someone who’s just trying to help out their colleague? Who wants nothing more to follow their dreams and succeed, even if all the odds seemed stacked against them? So… while I wouldn’t recommend this, you can still give it a try yourself. Just, maybe wait til it’s on sale.

And maybe look for a more in-depth exploration of this later on.

Death and Croissants – by Ian Moore (Review)

Follet Valley Mysteries #1

Mystery, General Fiction

Farrago; July 1, 2021

230 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

2.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Farrago and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

Richard Ainsworth is a middle-aged Englishman running a bed and breakfast in the Loire Valley of France. He has a fairly boring life—no excitement or mystery ever entering into it. Which is just the way he likes it.

But that’s about to come to an end.

For one day a guest disappears from his B&B in the middle of the night, leaving only a bloody handprint behind him. Enter Valerie Dorçay, an exotic and enigmatic woman that coincidentally happens to be staying the same night that the guest vanishes. Eager to solve the caper, the Frenchwoman drags Richard on the ride of his life as they rove around the fictional hamlet of Val de Follet in pursuit of the mystery that so binds them.

But by the time they find out the truth, will Richard be sick of this life or smitten with it? Or will he instead fall victim to the very murderer he hunts?

Instead of the “Charming, witty, brilliant, relentless rollercoaster” of a read that Death and Croissants was billed as, another term comes to my mind when describing it.

Generic.

A reluctant host is dragged into a murder investigation and manages to solve it in a fun, hilarious, and roundabout way, all thanks to a mysterious and sexy stranger and a ragtag band of misfits blah blah blah. It’s the kind of book that would’ve been better served with a laugh-track and a live studio audience. Sitcoms like this are a dime a dozen, and books even more so. Now maybe if the comedy had been profound, the lead deep and relatable, the setting vivid and unique, or the mystery extra mysterious and immersive—this could’ve been great. But none of these things are the case. The world itself is rather blasé. The mystery itself does feature a few interesting twists, but they’re small and far between. Richard is just some bloke—maybe relatable, but certainly not deep. The comedy simply tried too hard, never really succeeding.

Even a few days removed from this, I’m already struggling to remember it. The characters aren’t exactly bland, but neither are they exciting or unique. The plot isn’t dull, but neither is it particularly interesting. The humor is hit-and-miss. It’s not bad, nor is it terribly good.

TL;DR

It’s as if the Death and Croissants is trying very hard not to take itself too seriously, which it ultimately fails at. Don’t get me wrong—it’s not a bad read. It’s okay. The story shows some heart later on, some character, the mystery does eventually try to avoid being predictable. Which it mostly succeeds at. A rather lackluster finish ruins what could’ve been a decent turnaround, cementing Death and Croissants’ status as okay, if generic and forgettable.

The Awkward Black Man – by Walter Mosley (Review)

Omnibus

Short Stories, Fiction, Scifi

Grove Press; September 15, 2020

336 pages (ebook)

3.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Grove Press and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

I know it’s not usually my cup of tea, but I read general fiction on occasion. But there’s a reason I mostly stay for science fiction and fantasy. Parts of my younger life were an awkward mess, or ruined by bullies, or anxiety, or MORE anxiety, or whatnot. So while I enjoyed this collection, it reminded me too much of a time where I always sought an escape.

The Awkward Black Man collects the stories of Walter Mosley, an author who’s been telling stories of inner city African American men since before I was born. While I’ve read some of his science fiction, it’s his mysteries that have always drawn my attention. My dad introduced me to Mosley’s books about a decade ago, when he started me on the Easy Rawlins series. While i was never the fan that my father was, I enjoyed some few of Mosley’s books because of the culture that they referenced were so dissimilar to my own.

Most of the narrators are black men (unsurprisingly), and most of them are also awkward. You can glean as much from the title. While Walter Mosley doesn’t shy away from talking about the disparity of racism, neither does he neglect that the bigotry cuts both ways. But while the Awkward Black Man isn’t about race, but it’s also not not about race. Prejudice colors the undercurrents of many of the tales. While sometimes it’s overt, other times it’s casual. It was always depressing.

Mostly these are just stories about life. Not how to live, nor how not to live. Mostly just how to be human. The characters within are entirely human (save the science fiction), which is probably the best thing I can say about the book itself. It paints a realistic picture of life—one that could be anyone’s life, and might as well be.

Several of these stories were just depressing, though. Some even seemed pointless. Rufus and Frank both appeared multiple times, enough that I learned that I didn’t want their lives, even though they proved to be equal parts entertaining, exciting, depressing and super, super awkward. Another thing to note is that I’ve never been a fan of the author’s science fiction—mostly it seems too far out there, too unrealistic, even silly—and the few scifi reads within didn’t disprove this.

My favorite stories were: Almost Alyce, where a man’s life spirals out from under him, but he does his best to claw it back, while staying true to himself. Between Storms, when a disaster strikes, a man’s life takes an unexpected turn, but when it is pulled from the ashes, he must decide whether or not to own up to the fear that led him to the brink. Local Hero, about a boy who always idolized his cousin, and what happened when that idol was laid low. Reply to a Dead Man, which reminded me of several different movies, and yet fit none of them precisely.

TL;DR

The Awkward Black Man paints a realistic picture of life—be it through the eyes of an old, black man, dying in his bed; a young, white woman who is shallow but not awful; a young, black man that has the life he’s always wanted, even if it isn’t his own; and many more. There exists racism within, yes, but it’s a double-edged sword, one that proves horrid no matter which end you’re on. Walter Mosley has never shied away from the awkwardness of race—and why would he start now? But while some of these stories center around racism, few of them are defined by it. Some are depressing for the racism within. A lot are just depressing. Others are ridiculous. Some are even pointless. But most are at least humanizing. At the end of the day, these are stories about people being people. A decent read—even if several of them are really depressing.