Friday, November 10, 2017

Book Review: End of the World Running Club by Adrian J. Walker

End of the World Running Club by Adrian J. Walker
Paperback, 464 pages Published September 2017 by Sourcebooks Landmark

There are certain books that when I read them I know long before it is finished that I reading something that will be there at the end of the year when I make my top ten of the year. This is not a little deal. I hit my reading goal of the year with 70 books with this one. The End of the World Running Club is a masterful epic of post apocalyptic fiction. This is my favorite sub-genre of horror in fiction and is my favorite I have read since Brian Evenson's Immobility. The best British end of the world novel since One by Conrad Williams. In a tradition of novel that includes the Stand and Swan Song, it should be noted The author of both those books have now blurbed this book. Infact it was this tweet that lead me to read it:

@StephenKing

THE END OF THE WORLD RUNNING CLUB, by Adrian J. Walker. This one's a real find. I got a copy in Toronto. Might not be published in the US.

7:17 PM - 12 Oct 2017

EOTWRC is a novel that pushes almost of my buttons. The story is set in Scotland and follows Edgar Hill, he is not going to win father or husband of the year awards. He avoids home by overworking. He forced into survival mode by the end of the world, over night the north hemisphere is hit by hundreds of asteroids. They survive this event by huddling in a cellar. Weeks later they hear a helicopter that takes them to a base where survivors are gathered. While out collecting supplies Edgar and a small group of survivors miss a series of helicopters that are taking survivors to southern England to meet rescue ships. These ships are leaving around Christmas Day in Cornwall will take the survivors to unaffected South Africa.

After waiting a few days they realize no rescue is coming back for them. They have a month to get 550 miles, the problem is the roads are destroyed. Cars, bikes, none of it will work. And despite the fact that Edgar has never been into fitness they have one choice. Run. Pretty much a marathon a day, across the wasteland and through the weather.

What follows is a nerve-racking suspense filled novel that feels like a journey for the reader as much as the characters. The Running part doesn't even start until almost 200 pages in. No matter the building of the characters and universe are done with amazing skill. As a reader generally who doesn't like first person narrative, this in no way held me back from enjoying the story it was so well told.

That is not to say the early moments of the book are a slow build. One of the most harrowing moments of the novel was on page 46 shortly after the asteroids fell. Walker used tried and true methods of suspense building to make the possibility of someone on the other side of the cellar door terrifying. There were several moments in the book that worked well enough that I dog-eared the pages.

There are moments where Walker checks the boxes and hits us with some very trope heavy aspects of the post Apocalypse novel. The camps with the new world tyrants and the like. This doesn't distract from the over all product. Each of these detours from the run at the heart of the novel help deepen the narrative. It gives the journey higher stakes at every turn. By the end of the run we are fully invested.

Certainly I felt a kinship with Ed. I don't like to run, but force myself to do it. He doesn't want to run, but when he is left behind he finally realizes what his family is worth to him. Through the pain and hardship his need to see his family grows. There is a chapter in the book where he highlights the moment where his body excepts the running. When his body gives in and he figures out why people do it. It is a powerful moment in a book filled with them.

I don't use the word masterpiece lightly, but hot damn this book is. There is one scene (page 361) that I didn't feel was earned when a character had a random item they needed to escape a situation that I don't remember being mentioned earlier. It was the only moment I rolled my eyes at. I felt that was a little cheap and forced. A minor thing consider how powerful the book was over all. At the same time there were moments of horror done so well (like page 384) that used setting, sound and atmosphere to such wonderful effect, that is what I will remember.

Oh yes I should mention, I decided this year to only read books released in 2017/16 basically new releases. I understand a version of this novel was self-published in 2014. I suspect this edition is a new edit, and basically a new book. So it fits.

The book is almost 500 pages but it is quick read as the story cooks. Once the main characters take off on their run, the journey not only explores survival, themes of family but the limits of endurance. If you like end of the world fiction you MUST read this novel, if you just like a good story then you probably should read it. I think it was amazing.

Book Review: Pinball Punks by Dave Anderson

Pinball Punks by Dave Anderson

Paperback, 200 pages

Published September 14th 2017 by East Falling

This is a really cool example of what is good about DIY publishing, and look I am not always a fan. I believe in the gatekeepers generally when it comes to publishing. That said there are a few times that a book comes our way that didn't stand a chance finding a traditional publisher. Lets face it a punk book makes more sense DIY than many. Anderson has a book on his hand that is off-beat and fun but it is not a concept that I think screams market-ability.

It does not fit into a standard genre, not horror, not new weird and while it is bizarro it is one that doesn't feel like it should be close on the shelf next to Eraserhead press or Raw Dog Screaming Press books. That is not a knock. The book is strange for certain and at times absurdist, but it is not so weird that it exists sorta in a recognizable reality. Certainly the people in this book listen to alot of the same bands we do.

This is the story of a punk band called the Piss Rats who is just about to start a U.S. tour. I sure I will not be the only person who will wonder if this book was written before or after Trump got elected. In this world there is a dumbass president but this one is way cooler than the one we have in the real world. Because of a e-mail suggesting the country kick start it's economy by creating a network of pinball machines, the president who wants to be called Mister Awesome hires the The Piss Rats to promote the idea.

Before long the president is on tour with the Piss Rats. That is when things get weird. There is alot of wonderful moments in this book and I laughed throughout. It took me awhile to finish this book because honestly it is not exactly my type of book. I am a horror guy. I did enjoy the punk rock of it. You can tell Anderson is a legit hardcore kid, who grew-up going to shows. That is perhaps the biggest strength of the book. The reality is we need more, and more punk fiction. Good punk fiction.

In that sense Pinball Punks is a fun read and I happy to have it on my shelf. Punks looking for more punk stories need to pick this book up.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Book Review: The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

Hardcover, 487 pages

Published August 2017 by Crown Publishing Group (NY)

(first published January 2017 in England)

More than 100 years old War of the Worlds is about as classic as science fiction gets. The novel is one thing, but when you add the radio drams, TV shows and various films the reach of WoTW is hard to measure. Every first contact or alien invasion novel, TV show or film since is in it's shadow. Normally I would think it was a pretty ballsy move to write a sequel that is in many ways the first earliest sci-fi novel. I know there are examples from Frankenstein and more that predate it but in many ways WoTW is the first true classic of the genre that balances depth with pulp appeal.

Kudos to the Wells estate who authorized this, Baxter appears to be the guy to do it. He is a self professed Wells expert who already wrote a sequel to The Time Machine, and From the research he did into not only the original but the history of the times - he was the right before for this job. That is what makes this book something really special. The details and history of the novel is treated just a carefully as the history of the early 20th century. Real life figures play into this novel that takes in and around the 1920's.

The aftermath of the first Mars invasion has effected the entire planet. Germany and Russia are at war and france has fallen to Germany. But everyone comes together for one foe. There is a limited peace as Mars and Earth's orbits are in opposition around the sun. Everyone is tense as they orbits are about to line up. Once they do the Martians return The war is on and wider, in slow motion humanity watches the launch of the Martian attack and have time to prepare.

The war in this novel is wider and more global seen through the eyes of a unlikely narrator. The Sister-in-law of the first book's POV Walter Jenkins. Julie Elphinstone is a fantastic voice for the book, a strong female lead in a era that was still filled with sexism. I admit I was surprised by the choice but it worked great for the novel. Characters often underestimated her, and as she becomes important to the war effort she comes into her own.

Without major spoilers there are major surprises throughout the solar system in this novel. Baxter uses research done in this century to add flavor but he also is willing to use ideas that would be considered out of date. I liked that he mostly used the science of Mars that would have existed in 1920. With a tiny dash of modern knowledge for flavor.

As a war novel Massacre of Mankind works quite well, as an Alien invasion novel it works even better. As a sequel to War of the Worlds it worked for me but keep in mind it has been 30 years since I read the novel. So for me it works really well. Oddly I have never read Baxter before. I think I need to fix that. I really enjoyed this novel. Was it amazing? Not really but it was very solid and Baxter deverves alot of credit for the depth and research he brought to it.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Book Review: The Force by Don Winslow

The Force by Don Winslow

Hardcover, 496 pages

Published June 2017 by William Morrow

I know this year has been a real sci-fi and horror heavy year for me reading wise but I enjoy crime novels. So this is not that out of left field for me. Dawn Patrol Winslow's amazing San Diego based novel is one of the rare books that broke my published in 2016/17 rule for reading this year. The Force follows those rules and it was one I wanted to read since I heard the author on a podcast. Crime novels come in different shapes and sizes and depending on the skill of the author different levels of quality. On the surface the Force is a cop novel, surely there are many of those. Don Winslow is not just a novelist, trained as journalist and academic Winslow writes stories that educate as much as they make you feel. It is a little less message oriented than his last novel, I have not yet read the Cartel but Winslow seems passionate about ending the war on drugs.

The level of detail and research have become a trademark of a Winslow novel. They are fiction but they feel like a window on to the world, you will be educated as well as entertained. That is the important part entertainment and believe me the book is thrilling. Moments of suspense, drama and intensity.

Sometimes I think cover blurbs work against an author with hyperbole that is impossible to live up to. I worried about this as Stephen King compare this book to the godfather with cops. The NYPD world of The Force is clearly detailed researched but one would hope it was not as ugly as this. Keep in mind this is not bash fest of cops. It is clear Winslow does not have a ton of respect for the methods and processes of the Federal investigation agencies. From my experience of being a radical activist I can tell you those parts felt dead on.

This might be a result of the tight point of view. This is not a first person narrative, but unlike the Don Winslow books I have read before the POV follows the main character Denny Malone closely. He certainly hates Internal affairs and the feds. Not sure if that is a feeling Winslow has himself but he certainly gave us that feeling dripping off the page. Denny is a hero cop, son of a hero cop. He is not exactly clean and it is not a spoiler to say he ends up in trouble as we meet him in lock-up and then we are told the story backwards.

Denny is our window but the elite group of cops know as "Da Force" and the justice system in the city is the focus of the book. So the cops break down a few doors and make busts but the action and tension comes from the interplay of Denny and his borthers with the whole system. Judges, lawyers, special agents, internal affairs. Denny has to interface with federal agents investigating his unit and that interplay is like a boxer trading blows. All the best moments of drama and suspense are woven with those confrontations.

The feds have Denny by the balls, and he is forced to do things he finds disgusting. "being a Rat" disgusts the man who had no problem doing the same thing to criminals. It is a interesting moment when Denny realizes he has become many things he hated. That is how the feds and the court system works. How many times do people lie to protect themselves in court? How times do innocent people accept deals because they are afraid to lose in court? How many times do deals get made by the people caught in deals on and on. The questions that rise about our system while you read this book are numerous.

This novel does a great job of shining a light on how the gears of "justice" work in the system. There really are no good guys here. The novel is a exploration of loyalty in a impossible situation. The Force is a must read novel for crime fans. I think it is a masterpiece however I think it is really essential for crime fans but also anyone wanting to understand the criminal justice center.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Book Review: Bone White by Ronald Malfi

Bone White by Ronald Malfi

Paperback, 384 pages

Published July 2017 by Kensington Publishing Corporation

I admit I was not familiar with Ronald Malfi before reading this book. I had heard him mentioned on the Horror Show with Brian Keene, but it was a review that tipped me off. Marvin Vernon of the Novel Pursuit who I sometimes do audio reviews with called it "one of the best books of 2017 of any genre." and it was why I immediately went to my library website and put it on hold. I trust Marvin.

I am glad I did. I enjoyed the hell out of this book, which for the first 100 pages felt like the set-up episode of the next season of Fargo. I know it takes place in Alaska not the upper midwest. It does however start with a weird crime in the far north with a woman detective taking the lead despite many around her doubting her. Not sure it was intentional but that is what it made me think of.

Bone White is a northern gothic horror novel that I liked very much. I gave it five stars but I am not sure I ready to use the word Masterpiece. I mean it is very good. It has many moments of dread and outright creepy-ness while never skimming on characters.

The main character is Paul, who is estranged from his twin brother who a year earlier left for a new life in Alaska. He is more stable than his brother Danny who after moving up north has now gone quiet. The story really starts with a creepy scene in a small town called Dread's hands. Joe Mallory a local older man walks into a diner where everyone knows him and informs them that he has committed a series of murders and you better call someone to get the bodies. This intro was very off-putting in a good way. You can feel the thick tension of the scene drip off the pages and we as readers feel the discomfort.

Malfi appears to have a skill for making excellent off-putting discomfort. I don't want to get into it but I find Alaska to be a creepy enough place but Malfi does a good job of making us feel the isolation. Without giving away spoilers for the end the story takes a supernatural turn. With hints of classic Gothic and cryptic warnings that showcase a heavy Stephen King influence Malfi maintains most of the mystery right up to the horrific end.

This is a deeply psychological novel at times, brutal and atmospheric. The skill of the writing takes a pretty basic concept and elevates it beyond tropes into an experience. The pacing of the novel is very impressive that doles out mystery just enough. If I am critical of anything it would be the weak cover that suggests nothing of tone or feeling of the novel. Jill Ryerson the cop investigating the murders is a very interesting and frankly under used character. These are minor issues and the best thing I can say about the novel is I will read more Malfi.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Book Review: Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Paperback, 125 pages Published February 28th 2017 by Tor Book

Something worked in this books favor was the fact that I really didn't like the last book I read. Kiernan is a author I have meant to read more of. Agents of Dreamland will only cement my need to read more of Kiernan's work.

One of the latest releases in the the Tor.com series of Novellas which has produced masterpieces like Binti by Nedi Okrafor, Buffalo Soliders by Maurice Broddus, The Warren by Brian Evenson and of course the Black Of Black Tom by victor Lavalle. Those are just the ones I have reviewed. I mean some release strange and original works that are short in page count but huge in Ideas. So Agents of Dreamland fits right in.

This balances lots of feelings for the reader. At times the the prose is vivid and crisp and times the narrative is so intensely weird it is hard to believe it is less than 150 pages. I mean this book is loaded with ideas. It is of course a Lovecraft influenced cosmic horror story but not in stereotypical adding tenticles kinda of way. At times it had the delightfully weird transcendental feeling of David Lynch. The story moves through space and time in a totally unpredictable way.

The story of Signalman a spy who gets off a train in the desert to exchange information that is tied events are tied to the deep space probe New Horizon about to buzz the dwarf planet Pluto. If I start to rattle off all the elements that make this novel you'll get an idea how out there it is. There is a woman who exists outside of time, Sogotths basically alien invading space fungus, A doomsday cult called "Children of The Next Level," tie-ins to early 20th century sci-fi films, and more.

It is one thing to throw a whole bunch of weird things together it is a another to put them all together in a well written creepy tale. Page after page page I marveled at little moments of genius, while remaining stunned at the level of weird. It is set in 2015 for specific reason...

That is when new Horizon was swinging by Pluto taking the amazing pictures in the video. This novella is a bit of a companion piece to the Lovecraft story Whisper in the Darkness that was inspired by the recently at the time discovered dwarf Planet. Kinda wish I know that going into it as I would have re-read that story. It has been a long time.

This is my favorite book I have read in awhile, I was excited by all the strange elements coming together. A masterpiece of Science Fiction, horror and Mythos fiction. Kiernan swung for the fences and knocked the sucker in the parking lot.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Book Review: The Dark Net by Benjamin Percy

The Dark Net by Benjamin Percy

Hardcover, 272 pages

Published August 1st 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Boy I really really wanted to like this book. There were a couple reasons for this. For one thing, I really enjoyed the interview with the author on the "This is Horror" Podcast. I found Percy to have lots of interesting takes on writing and the plot to this novel sounded interesting. I thought the concept was one that could be really cool. The fact that it was set in Portland a city I miss didn't hurt either. I WANTED to like this book, and yet I didn't. Not there are levels to disliking a book. I finished this book. Making it to the end says something.

As a novelist myself I know the huge amount of work involved in researching,writing, editing and marketing a book. I don't root against books but I felt like I was riding a fancy bike with the chain falling off every time we got some speed.

This book was alot of things going on but not exactly the book I was hoping for. The idea that a great supernatural evil is using the Dark Net - ie the underground unregulated internet is a fascinating one. What was needed to tell this story is a a really technologically oriented point of view that combines the feel of early William Gibson with the supernatural feeling of the Exorcist or The Omen. My favorite Horror film of all time Prince of Darkness is a great example of science fiction meeting supernatural even religious horror. Lets face it the evil in this story has demonic judeo-christian feel to it. One of the negatives to this book is I felt like I understood more about the real life Dark Net that Percy did.

The Dark Net is the story of many characters but our main point of view character is Lela a Technophobic Journalist, others include her niece Hannah who is blind but receiving experimental surgery, Her sister, A hacker named Derick and a former evangelist turned homeless advocate. Lela is investigating a murder that is connected to an apartment building that has a tenuous connection the other characters. There is a story line involving Hannah and the experimental treatment leading to her ability to see creatures that exist somewhere between a technological and spiritual realm.

None of these story elements really worked for me. Lela's murder investigation felt like a totally different story, and once the elements started coming together it I didn't feel anymore convinced. The Mike Juniper story on the surface sounded interesting, with a former believer just wanting to help the homeless but his chapters didn't stand out. Hannah and mother were the characters I found most interesting and even though they open the novel they felt under used.

My biggest problem with the writing were events that seemed to happen randomly just because the author wanted them too. The best example was in the first 100 pages. Look as a ex-Portlander who shopped at and loved Powell's city of Books on paper the idea of a suspense filled horror-action scene taking place in the store is cool. However in order to put Lela a reporter who doesn't work into the store alone Percy set-up a ridiculous scene where a Powell's employee just leaves her in the rare books room after the store closed. This would never happen. So it took me out of the book.

This is just one example but there were several times things happen without any logic except to advance the story. Lela's inability to use technology while it fits the author's narrative it is impossible to believe. So as reader in the first 100 pages there are several major strikes against the book. I can suspend disbelief about demons, but a reporter for the leading newspaper in the state being clueless with technology enough soo that she can't download a picture takes me straight out of the story.

Once we get into the third act I feel the title concept of the Dark Net is only touched on in minor ways, and considering it was the subject of the book I wanted more than a wikipedia entries worth of knowledge on the topic. The best techno-thrillers make me feel like the author is in touch with information about the subject I can't understand. The story often meets in the middle. I read this book mostly thinking of ways evil could travel through the dark-net and thinking that Derick was the only character we needed. Then again I didn't believe him as a hacker anymore than Lela as a Luddite reporter in the 21st century.

I wish I could tell you this is an awesome book worthy of your time. It has blurbs from really smart authors Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Chuck Wendig and Paul Tremblay. Percy is a much more successful writer than I am but I just don't see it here. I wanted a smart techno-thriller in the vein of Cyberpunk meets horror instead the third act contains a chapter that felt more like Maximum Overdrive. It was good enough to finish I may give Percy another chance but thumbs down on this one.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Book Review: The Snake Handler by J. David Osborne & Cody Goodfellow

The Snake Handler by J. David Osborne & Cody Goodfellow

Paperback, 152 pages

Published 2017 by Broken River Press

This book came as a big surprise to me. I mean I am a fan of both authors, and I knew these dudes were friends but it seemed a strange combo. On the surface both authors are write strange fiction. Goodfellow is more of a horror author and Osborne known for weird crime, of course both crossover into the other's genre often. Osborne and Goodfellow worked together on Cody's criminally underrated weird crime novel Repo-Shark, with Osbourne serving as editor and publisher through Broken River books. But as a fan of works of fiction by both authors the differences in their styles had me scratching my head at the idea of them working together.

Goodfellow is an author whose strength comes in research and little details. Osbourne is more of an author who writes books that feel like a surreal version of the southern gothic. More importantly details are not his thing. Osbourne has admitted on his podcast he skips details, ignoring the parts of stories he finds boring. Osbourne often leaves these moments up to the reader to fill the details on their own. Goodfellow plays will those moments turns them into humor, horror or suspense and leaves no stone unturned. Osbourne's strength are tone, the off-color feeling.

So how would they combine their strength?

The Snake Handler is a (just barely southern) gothic crime novel that centers on Clyde Hilburn as Preacher and faith healer in West Virgina who is bit by a snake in the novella's opening moments. What follows is a weird crime story that involves the main character trying to solve his own murder caused by the bite that ideally should not be so full of poison. The setting provides alot of the weird the characters and it all adds to make for weird, violent fun if you are into the darker more gross forms of story-telling.

I could be wrong, but as much Goodfellow as I have read, and I have read a good % of his catalog it seems he wrote the majority of the first part and Osbourne seems to have been lead on the second part. That is not to say I didn't seem hints of the other through out, and I could be wrong I am just geussing. I enjoyed this book but I admit Goodfellow's clarity is a little more my thing. That is why I think I preferred elements of the first half more than the second. None the less I loved the whole thing, that is personal taste thing.

Goodfellow and Osbourne are a welcome combination and with the Matt Revert cover it is a neat little novella, that should be on your shelf. Honestly this felt like a Tor.com novella series book and in a just world it would have been one.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Book Review: Blade Runner 2 The Edge of Human by KW Jetter

Blade Runner 2 The Edge of Human by KW Jetter

Paperback, 320 pages

Published October 2000 by Spectra (first published 1995)

This book sat unread on my shelf for 10 years. I bought it for a quarter at a library book sale in Port Angeles Washington. I knew the back story, KW Jetter who is a cyberpunk author I respected had been friends with PKD during his life. The story goes that he and Dick had discussed before his death his thoughts on seeing the rough cut of the movie, and his plans to write sequel novel Jetter then with permission of the family wrote a series of books that are a sequel to the movie more so than the novel.

The main reason I decided to give this book at spin was to kinda get back into the Blade Runner world before the release of the new film. So I re-watched the blu-ray of the final cut, and read this book. Thought that would be a fun way to get excited for the new film. I read Do Andoirds Dream Electric Sheep and re-watched Blade Runner about 10 years ago. At the time I remember thinking that the movie was more faithful to the source material that it is often given credit for. Certainly there are many concepts in the novel that don't get explored like the empathy boxes and the very term Blade Runner is only in the movie.

That being said the concept of animal extinction, empathy towards animals and the very idea of empathy as a test for humanity is very clearly a translation of the novel into the film format. Watching it again I found little subtle moments that I realized meant nothing to me when I first saw the film and would have no meaning to me without having read the novel. When Deckard asks the replicant stripper if her snake is real and she says "of course not, how could I afford it?" Having read the novel I understand that most animals on earth are extinct that fake animals are status thing. Or in the Tyrell corporations penthouse when Tryell's owl gets a close-up it is clearly a fake but that is never mentioned.

So considering that it was interesting after watching the film again to enter into Jetter's sequel. While there are nods to Dick's novel, this is not an androids sequel it is very much a Blade Runner sequel. There are pros and cons to this. If there is one serious negative is that Jetter doesn't introduce new characters hardly at all, the setting hardly changes. He takes very few risks. It was almost like he was told we have to use all the same actors and sets. Understandable for a movie or TV production just didn't make sense in a prose setting.

Odd choice because it was a book, none the less he finds interesting twists into the story and brings back characters (some of whom died) in interesting ways. At this point I am going to talk about spoilers. The book is many years old, and about to become obsolete. I think many of you want to read this review to skip the book rather than actually than deciding if you want to read it. As a fan of Blade Runner I enjoyed it, but unless you are hugely devoted to the film I don't you have to read it.

I enjoyed reading it rated four stars at first but lowered my score to three after thinking deeper about it. It is fun, but it breaks no new ground and pretty much re-hashes the film over and over.

SPOILERS:

In this novel Rachel has been put in a sleep chamber and Deckard is forced back to LA to look for a last Nexxus 8 Replicant. This mission is given to him by Sarah the template for the Rachel Android. Roy Batty returns in the form of the human template. Holden the Blade Runner shot in the early scenes of the movie returns with a new heart and lungs after nearly dying. Holden and Deckard are both convinced that the other Blade Runner is the last Replicant. This is pretty good PKD paranoia,but the best twist of the novel comes at the end of chapter 8 on page 153. Holden comes the conclusion that perhaps all the Blade runners are Androids.

I thought this was a fun twist. In the end we are left with the same mystery and I am not sure I have reading the other two books.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Book Review: Behold The Void by Philip Fracassi

Behold The Void by Philip Fracassi

Introduction by Laird Barron

Paperback, 292 pages

Published March 10th 2017 by JournalStone

A short story collection is one of the best ways to get to know an author. I heard Philip Fracassi on A podcast, a epic 3 part interview on This is Horror, and was convinced the guy seemed legit. I looked him up at my library, saw nothing so I requested a purchase and within two months I got a notice it was there. I knew he had worked as a screenwriter but honestly had never heard of him before the interview. Well it was clear I have to fix that.

Introduced by cosmic horror master Laird Barron this collection that has creepy and haunting cover. It feels like the intriduction to the author I was looking for. Fracassi clearly has a perfect balance of skill and style. The stories are all genre but have a diverse feel with in that spectrum. Some are straight fucked-up horror and some feel like classic weird tales.

Weighing with 9 tales some are novella length and had a previous life as chapbooks. The best of these long pieces was Altar a story that took place near a pool. The weirdest story of the book was Coffin whose POV character was excellent, she was the most interesting character in the book.

To me the best story in the collection was Fail-safe. In fact I would go so far as to say it was the best pure horror short story I have read since Brian Evenson's Any Corpse. This story is short on pages but loaded with high concept and perfectly composed moments of suspense and terror. The story includes misdirection, atmosphere and white knuckle scares. For this reader these 20 pages made the whole book worth it. To me it would have made a perfect Tales from the Darkside episode.

Don't get me wrong I read and enjoyed all of it. Fracassi found a fan in me. This is excellent horror literature, the prose is inventive and stylish. The Characters fully developed and Fracassi brings powerful new voice to the table. I know this is a short review but I feel confident that serious horror fans will enjoy this book.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Book Review: The Changeling by Victor LaValle

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

Hardcover, 431 pages

Published June 13th 2017 by Spiegel & Grau

I really loved this book, and I know the hyperbole has started, Lavalle's last book book has seems to have won every major award. this book is no different it is getting rave reviews from almost everyone who read it. The reasons are clear. This book is the real deal story telling to it's core. It has a fantasy feel to that at moments feels like full on fable or fairy tale and other times brutal horror. At the heart of this novel is a very rich story that feels like it is being told to you as you sit on rocking chairs on the front porch. I picked up the book based on the strength of Lavalle's last book The Ballad of Black Tom. I think it was good that I didn't know anything about the plot.

It is the story of Apollo Kagwa son of single mother and African immigrant in New York City. His father left them and the reason is a mystery. The elements of this mystery unfold in a very magical way. Early in the story Lavalle creates a simple story that has a natural feeling of scope and magic. It is kinda hard to explain, the events of the novel are subtle with a slow burn but the way it is told just feels powerful. The pages fly by.

Apollo receives a clue left at his door step that leads him to want to collect books, there are really cool moments centered around the magic and power of books. Those passages set the tone but the zigs and zags into romance and horror. When Apollo meets the love of his life. A Librarian whose entry into his life fills a void. But there is tragedy coming. Soon his son and his wife are missing presumed dead, he ends up briefly in jail orginally charged with their murder. After he is released from prison he wants to get to the truth, is he unlucky or are dark forces working against him?

The strength of this novel is the constant balance that Lavalle brings to the text between the magic and beauty and the dark evil as it builds to a boil. I am sure some readers will feel jolted by the tone shift half way into this novel but this is earned through moments of tension slow building in the first half. The New York setting and characters are really well developed.

Was it perfect? Most seem to think so, the book is racking up five star reviews and started already to win awards. For me there were two elements that didn't work. For one thing I didn't like the addition of modern technology into the story. The inclusion of a phone app into a story that drew strength from a spiritual tone was jarring to me. There was one chapter that ended with joke involving an app that was so corny I almost slammed the book shut.

Apollo is tragic character but one I liked enough to feel for. I liked the strengths of this novel enough to ignore the parts I didn't like. I thought it was very, very good but I didn't like it as much as some. The Ballad of Black Tom was a masterpiece and this one was very good but I am not sure I would use the word that strong of a word here. Lavalle is an amazing writer and I think I will read what ever he writes at this point.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Book Review: The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

he Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

hardcover, 288 pages

Published April 2017 by Harper

I have to admit I have never heard of Lidia Yuknavitch before. I have gathered since I started this book that she is an author whose books are shelved and marketed as lit fiction. Certainly this is one of those cases where a book is very clearly genre and is never slapped with the honest label. I understand that to the author she may not have set out to write a science fiction horror post apocalypse novel, but she did. I am sure all she meant to do was do a modern Joan of Arc novel.

Look it was the genre elements that hooked my interest and it the reason many of you read these reviews. Yuknavitch is a talented writer and I am I positive I will read her again. The concept alone, Joan of Arc re-told after the majority of humanity has escaped a radiated earth to live in a orbiting habitat. The humans who survive are transforming, fluid with gender and sexuality becoming a memory. All coo elements that make for interesting read.

Book of Joan is a an ultra-feminist speculative fiction that will get lazy comparisons to Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness just because of the gender fluid moments. I suspect fans of Leguin however will love this novel. There is alot to like here. Normally I am annoyed when a novel like this is not called science fiction, but I have seen worst cases. The novel is not hard sci-fi at all and is more surreal than anything.

Early in the novel I was riding with it. The prose is crisp and the pace starts up OK. I enjoyed the flurry of weird ideas, I had put the hold on the book so many months ago I had forgotten why I was interested so I went in cold. I thought Yuknavitch put more energy into the setting and the world building in the early pages, that is one reason why the first half of the novel worked better for me. In the second half the novel lost focus. So did I.

This novel is really cool, and I liked the themes and methods Yuknavitch used to express herself. I really enjoyed the first one hundred pages. The ecological message is as strong as the feminist one, but I don't think the story suffers for that reason. The last sixty became confusing for me. I admit I got lost and pages went by. That could have been on me, there is no denying the talent involved in the writing.

Overall I liked this book even if I was less happy with the last parts of the narrative. I think fans of smart politically charged speculative fiction should read this book. Fans of smart weird stuff will also enjoy.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Book Review: What Immortal Hand by Johnny Worthen

What Immortal Hand by Johnny Worthen
Paperback, First, 318 pages Published September 2017 by Omnium Gatherum

I was sent a review copy so I could not have gone into this novel anymore cold than I did. I expected something good based on OG's history of cool indie horror titles. WIH is a strange horror novel, and one I am glad I read it. Also kinda glad I didn't read the back cover description which gave away an aspect of the book I didn't see coming. Don't worry I'll warn you before I explain. You don't have to take the red pill.

Lets start with the story. Our POV is Michael Oswald a private detective who is hired by an insurance company to track down a stolen truck. Not because of the two people that went missing, but the rare equipment insured on the missing truck. This investigation leads Oswald across the southwest although mostly Utah and California. He eventually discovered a mass graves filled with bodies both fresh and ancient history.

How Oswald finds the bodies becomes a more important mystery than what happened to the truck. Let me cut to the chase here to avoid spoilers and then I'll come back to the story.

Did I enjoy this novel? Yes This is a odd horror novel that starts off as weird crime noir that has a edge of southwest gothic to it. The turn the novel takes as we enter the last 100 pages is a great one that crept up on me. It took a pretty simple novel and turned the narrative into a bit of live wire. It took a pretty simple book and gave it a really interesting edge. Before that twist I was enjoying it, but my feelings for the book really spiked.

That said I was not a huge fan of the last twenty or so pages.I didn't find the ending as satisfying as I had hoped but it didn't ruin the experience. The book is well written and Oswald is likable enough character. The story moves at a good pace but the things that made the book stand-up were back loaded. I enjoyed the book, and thought it was fun but honestly don't think it holds a candle to some of the very exciting things we have in the modern horror underground. I am thinking of authors like Laura Lee Bahr, Cody Goodfellow or Jeremy Robert Johnson for examples. Those writers are telling daring and brave stories in the sense that they are trying to break new ground.

This is a very good book but it felt a little safe to me. That is OK hell I like Vanilla ice cream. I enjoyed this book enough to give it four stars the problem is stacking it up against the amazing things I have read this year. It is a good book judged on it's own merits, but the hard part about giving a recommendation comes to how much do you devote to reading?. Hell I get it I released a book this year too. There is alot of amazing things out there and it is tough as hell to compete. Worthen should be proud of this book, no matter what I say. I really liked this book, think it is great but I am pretty positive even in September that it will not make my Top 10 list of the year.

OK Spoilers Bonus:

On the back cover the book is compared the 1985 World Fantasy award winning novel Song of Kali by Dan Simmons. That is really a bold claim and one I am glad had not read. I didn't read anything about the book dealing with Kali or thuggee cults. I am glad I didn't because that was actually a good twist for me. The twist introducing those elements worked for me but going fully into in the last pages didn't work as much for me. I am not sure how I would have written to the back differently I am just saying I am glad I didn't know.

(Audio) Book Review: Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

9 1/2 hours audio recording. I don't listen to alot of audio books anymore. I used to rock most Stephen King novels that way, and it used to be the soundtrack of my long walks. The growth of podcasts, my interest in sports and thus sports radio sorta killed my audio book consumption. But in a convoluted way I owe sports radio local legend and world class curmudgeon Jeff Dothseth. In between insulting basically everyone in San Diego but enemies and friends alike Jeff mentioned Author Don Winslow's new book the Force. I wanted to read that but it is popular and the book has 150 holds at the library. Jeff also mentioned This novel The Dawn Patrol which he described as a Mystery set in Pacific Beach. I was sold.

Last month I had a trip planned to Carbondale Illinois to go watch the total solar eclipse. This is only a four hour drive from my hometown Bloomington Indiana where I would be visiting my father. However I understood that the traffic into and out of the tiny college town of Carbondale would suck. Indeed on the way home the Drive from Carbondale to Mt. Vernon (normally 45 minutes)took 4.5 hours. I listened to more than half of this book on the drive there and drive back. That said I spent alot of that long drive to Mt. Vernon explaining how amazing it was to see the eclipse.

OK Dawn Patrol is written by the genius crime writer Don Winslow known for his cartel crime novels and Read by Ray Porter. Who I knew from his reading of San Diego's own Jonathan Maberry's books. Winslow is known for very honest and brutal modern crime novels. The Savages and and his novel Cartal are known for the detailed research as much as the characters. Dawn Patrol is the most classic noir novel set in San Diego I have read. It has a classic detective novel feel.

The mystery at the heart of this story is only one thread in a rich tapestry. The title perfectly captures the most important aspect of the novel The six characters that make up the Dawn Patrol surfing crew. While our main POV character is Boone Daniels PB surfer turned washed up cop, all the members of the crew did attention and add essential flavor to the story. Boone fits alot of surfer guy and novel detective story tropes but when he is given the job solving the murder of a stripper it drags him in the underworld of San Diego.

In many ways Dawn Patrol reminded me of Terriers, the short lived noir comedy Series on FX set here in San Diego. While I like Terriers slightly more, they kinda have a similar DNA.

As San Diegan my favorite aspect of this novel was the asides where Boone via Winslow explained San Diego to the readers not from here the city. This is important to explain the differences between OB, PB and mission bay for example. Living here I of course know much of this but Winslow really gave history and context that most San Diegans have no clue about. Like Why the Gaslamp district exists, and it's more than 100 years of history. This alone makes the book a worthwhile read

A part of me wishes I had read this novel myself but the audio book was well produced. Ray Porter is a world class reader. I think if you like crime novels you can't go wrong here, but if you are in San Diego you should read this local novel.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Book Review: His Master's Voice by Stanislaw Lem

His Master's Voice by Stanislaw Lem
Paperback, 199 pages Published November 25th 1999 by Northwestern University Press

This book had been on my shelf for years, and I knew I wanted to read it at some point. It is considered a classic and certainly Lem's Solaris is one of the best mind screwing sci-fi novels ever written. Lem pretty much broke the forth wall spoke directly to us on page 31: "The Reader who plowed his[their] way to this point and is waiting , with growing impatience, to be lead into a inner sanctum of the famous enigma, in the hope that I will regale him [them]with thrills and chills every bit as delightful as he experiences viewing horror movies, I advise to set my book down now."

Yeah I admit during the first 30 pages I found myself wonder what the hell was the story. If anything this warning was about 30 pages late. Alot of the early pages just came off as philosophical nonsense. I am sure that is on me but I was waiting for a story to begin. Once I got this warning I sat back to enjoy the book for what it was a thin story propping a discussion of how our species would/could handle contact with a intelligent species beyond our world.

So the story centers around a signal discovered to be repeating that is coming from deep space somewhere around Canis Minor. The signal is transmitted by a method that itself is barely understood. So the U.S. Government gathers physicists, linguists, engineers, psychoanalysts, mathematicians, chemists, humanists, anthropologists and many others. We are told 25,000 experts and sub-experts are gathered in the Nevada dessert to study it. Years go by they learn enough to bio-engineer something they call frog-eggs something they don't entirely understand.

The title of the book does a excellent job of expressing the whole point of the 199 page exercise. The title is reference to the record famously played for dog to test him if he would response to a recorded voice. It confused the dog, and that is what happens to humans here. Confusion. I actually wish Lem had kept the the title but not named the Manhatten style project in the book His Master's voice. I doubt the government would name their project that. Maybe the scientists would have but whatever, I think it took away from the power of the title.

This novel is a masterpiece of speculative philosophy, that is held together by a threadbare story. The story is not the point. Thinking about what it means to contact another civilization is the point. The extra-terrestrials here are not typical not war like or peaceful. They are as much a mystery as the nightsky itself. We are not even sure if the senders intended for earth to get the message or was it a accident. The message could have been sent out billions of years ago and the senders may be alive or not.

This may be a spoiler but the novel in the end is not about communication, but lack of communication. It becomes most clear when our lead scientists has to explain to us dummies through a dummy surrogate in the Senate. This dialogue clears up alot of things that frankly flew over my head.

There is plenty of ghee-whiz moments when the team discovers that instead of numbers and math the methods normally considered to be the common language in translation, the language is genetic, and based on chemicals. Lem writes some of the most genius and other worldly science fiction.

It might seem funny to say this is a masterpiece of science fiction and certainly worth of five stars even when I personally gave it three. Lot it is a work of genius and the ideas it brings up and discussion are important. I think it is an important book but it is not exactly a fun read. The opening 25 pages is a not stop pompus blab fest that adds zero to the book. In thinking about this book I would talk myself into it's genius at times and then marvel at how crap other parts were.

I also think it is a interesting counter to Sagan's Contact. I wonder if Carl had this book in his mind when he came up with that one. I can't recommend this as a fun read. But certainly I think the ideas are important, if a dry as sand paper sci-fif novel is something you can live with read it and lets talk.

Book Review: The Boy on The Bridge by M.R. Carey

The Boy on The Bridge by M.R. Carey

Hardcover, 392 pages

Published May 2nd 2017 by Orbit

The boy on the Bridge is a follow-up release to the M.R. Carey surprise bestseller The Girl With All the Gifts. If you enjoy horror fiction or just good story telling at all let me say right now that you need to get into The Girl With all the Gifts. It was was one of my top reads of last year. It was a great novel, but thankfully if you don't have it in you to read the novel, then you a pretty faithful movie based on it starring Glen Close. I think it is hard to talk about either book or movie without laying ruin to the effects the story has on the consumer. So if you trust me stop right here. Read the first book or see the movie.

OK maybe you saw the first movie or read the book and you are wondering if this one is as good. I'll get to that. First off I think the marketing and even the title for this book are really interesting. It seemed like they were really trying hard to make sure you were very clear this was in the same world as the first book. The Boy in the title certainly doesn't play the role the Melannie did in the first book.

This novel follows the science team living in a tank named "Rosie" that they take around the waste land. The main character was a scientist named Dr. Rina Khan and a savant named Stephen. The book switches back and forth from their points of view. Stephen is obsessed with finding a cure, and his chapters and unique way of viewing the world provide some of the most interesting moments of prose. For her part Khan reveals in the early pages that she is pregnant. This is very against the rules of the mission but they are too far out into the wilds of the apocalypse to return. This child on the way is well played for moments of subtle but creepy suspense. What world is this child coming into? Will it be safe? Will it be human?

I think for many the characters will come off flat to some readers, but I think this is a bi-product of their position in the mission.The two main characters were well written in my opinion, and yes some of the others filled tropes but I don't count them against my enjoyment of the novel.

Now is this a sequel? Does it take place around the same time as the first book? We know early on that the E-blockers exist in this story. That is the stuff they put on their skin so they are not smelled by the Hungries (zombies). Because I didn't really know I got treated to a bit of twist and I enjoyed that reveal. I think if I had read the first book more recently I might have had a better context for it. It will not be a twist for all readers.

M.R. Carey is a master story teller, and alot of people feel the first book was the man coming to the tops of his powers. There are moments of suspense and reveals through-out the book that really impressed me. He used the claustrophobic setting of the tank for both emotional as well physical suspense. The moments through Stephen's eyes we are watching him make amazing discoveries but we know he is doing it in a way that will harm him down the line.

The action in the book is done incredibly well. One scene chapter 38 pages 241-244 was something I had never seen before. Did it work? It did for me. Stephen just had seconds to save Khan's life and Carey broke actions down second by second.It was a really smart way to do action and character at the same time. I thought it was a neat trick. There is also a moment of heart-breaking coldness on pages 312-13 that I thought was the best moment of the book.

The Boy on the Bridge is a excellent follow-up to the Girl with all the Gifts after last year's disappointing (for me) Fellside I thought this was a great read. As good as the first, that would be tough to do. but it will make the first book stronger and that alone is reason enough to read it.

Check out this 30 minute discussion I had about the book with fellow critic Marvin Vernon or the Novel Pursuit blog.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Book Review + Author Interview: Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus

Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus

Paperback, 144 pages

Published April 2017 by Tor.com

Boy Tor continues to release weird and exciting novellas! Now I generally think 100 pages or more is a novel, and I always bring up Of Mice and Men as an example. Hoosier horror and fantastic fiction author Maurice Broaddus is also on a heck of roll. His short story collection Voice of Martyrs is destined for my top ten reads list and this one has chance. If you read that review you might remember I said 'Voice of Martyrs goes beyond just being good, it is a book of deep meaning.'

I was first introduced to this world in the short story “Pimp My Airship” which appeared in the Voice of Matyrs. There all kinds of genius moments of world building through that story. And as soon as I heard that a novella set in that world was coming – I was sold.

This alternative history features a very different map and even though I am spelling it out here it is woven matter factually into the text in a way only masters of world building can do. Jamaica is a super power, Texas spelled Teja is its own country and the five native American nations control the west. You probably have more fun discovering that on your own, but I mention it to give you a understanding of the depth here. This is a short book but Broaddus is an author who has to sit on his over-stuffed suitcases to get them to close. These books are so filled with ideas you will marvel at them.

There were times when the world came off recognizable and other times so alien I had to really think about it. Is this the past, present or future of this other America…I can’t say exactly but it was an amazing steampunk setting. As great as that was it wouldn’t matter much if the characters and story were flat.

Our hero Desmond Cole is a Jamaican spy who brings a talented young man named Lij. The boy is hunted for his pychic abilities and here another tried and true sub-genre is added. Think of the magical child horror genre made famous by King’s Firestarter and originally in the John Farris classic “The Fury.” We also saw it more recently in The Forgotten Girl by Rio Youers.

Broaddus has fun playing with old tropes and tools in a very different sand box. I think this a neat book and certainly could have been double the length. I mean this novel has the fantasy elements, the strong characters and the pieces of assassins and intrigue that make this at times feel like classic adventure while always balanced with imagination and invention of a master story teller.

Already now. I was recently back home in Indiana and asked Maurice if he wanted to have a coffee hang. So we did but I couldn’t resist the chance to record a interview in person. So this interview is mostly about Buffalo Soldier and the craft of writing. So if you have not read the book there is still a lot to learn in this interview. If you like it please check out my youtube channel for interviews with other writers.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Book Review: Cold Cuts by Robert Payne Cabeen

Cold Cuts by Robert Payne Cabeen
Paperback 218 pages

Expected publication: September 1st 2017 by Omnium Gatherum

Certain themes in horror work better for certain readers. For me the isolation of deep space, or the north/south poles really work for me. I hate isolation and so movies like The Thing, and the Final Winter or books The Terror by Dan Simmons or Stranded by Bracken Macleod just really work for me.

Cold Cuts is a neat little book that takes place in a research station in Antarctica. At the start let me point out that this is a great example of how important the small press is to modern horror fiction. In the 90’s or early this century a book like this was not publishable. It would have been considered to short the only way it would have seen print would be padded with a extra hundred pages and would not have the cool art at the end.

Honestly the idea is not a slam dunk pitch, I mean the bizarro con elevator pitch for this could have March of the Mutant Penguins. Maybe Killer Nuclear Penguins. I know that sounds silly, and while this book has humor and does not take itself too seriously it is weird concept. My point is this is not cookie cutter monster plot. It is odd plot, and that is one of the things I respect about it.

The main character is a scientist and horror nerd named Ozzy. It is quite a tale of survival after a huge chunk of his research station is blown up. The story is about his survial with one other researcher. Eaton and Ozzy are the only survivors and they have to battle mutant birds and despair to survive. The despair affected for more as the novel went on than the mutant birds.

The moments between Eaton and Ozzy were the best most effective moments for me. The mutant penguins were cool but not super effective until I looked at the sketches in the back. Cabeen is clearly a talented artist and the art in the back was totally amazing.

Some miscues include this Hour of the Red Wolf conspiracy, One of the most interesting things in the book gets introduced and forgotten. It gets a little explanation but not enough for me. I am not saying it should have taken over the book, but more could have been done. The references to horror movies and geek culture didn’t work for me and took me out of the story. We have seen that before (I know I did it myself in the Vegan Revolution with Zombies) but in Cold Cuts I don't feel it added much. I would suspect Cabeen meant for it to add to Ozzy's character. I am just not sure we needed it dialed to 11. That said the action figures do come back in the story in a Shane Black-style pay off. So I can live with it.

I don't think Cold Cuts is going to make my top ten list this year, but I am stoked that I was given a pre-release of it. It is fun book, some times when I get review copies it forces me to read a author or book I would not of read otherwise. Robert Payne Cabeen is a new author to me and I am glad I checked out his work. I think his is a fun and odd monster novel with a few moments of eye-brow raising weird-ness. The art at the end is really cool and this kinda small press I would love to see libraries pick-up and collectors support.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Book Review: Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow
Hardcover, 379 pages Published April 2017 by Tor Books

This book will divide readers for sure, and hell it gave me very mixed feelings. Well I have enjoyed interviews with Doctorow and his many blog posts I decided to read this because I just had not read any of his work before. I mean this book has blurbs from William Gibson, Kim Stanley Robinson (who called it a utopia- huh?) and Edward Snowden. Yeah that edward Snowden on a side note that is a heck of a blurb.

Walkaway is a near future speculative fiction novel that looks at the economical and societal effects of a world where traditional free-markets can't function. In this future 3D printers can make pretty much anything. Most jobs are a thing of history. There is of course the effects of global climate change and no one should thing this is an amazing future where were sit around just having fun. That said the main characters do enjoy life quite a with a very free attitude towards sex and sexuality and drugs.

The most interesting characters are Hubert etc, and Natalie whose father is one of the richest men in the world. The characters are a strong point in the book which is quite diverse. People of color, and various fluid forms of sexuality and gender make up the cast. They decide to join a class of refugees who walkaway from the system. Social networks and the economy are just part of what that means. Instead of staying in the cities begging for food the walkaways take over areas that are declared a loss due to ecological reasons. Seriously this is part of the reason I can't understand the utopia moniker being thrown around. OK there is alot of sex but the setting and conditions were hardly ideal.

Doctorow clearly is reacting to the occupy movement re-casts the 1% as Zottas and Occupy movement is reflected in the people who live in default (or walkaway). There are various methods used through out the book to debate various forms of anarchist philosophy and certainly the author does not take a clear position. The debates between characters are often convincing of several points of view. The walkaway world is not perfect, and the clumsy attempts at self policing were interesting parts of the book for me.

So those are the political idea how did the story work? Not great. I was into it for the first 150 pages. Then I found the prose to be confusing at times. The characters that were interesting early on got lost in the mix for me. I was thinking alot about the ideas suggested by the book so I enjoyed that but my eyes often rose up from the page and I found myself thinking about the setting and ideas losing desire to read on.

It is funny I didn't enjoy this book, but at the same time I think the ideas and issue it raises are important. I am glad Doctorow wrote it. Does that make sense? Not sure but that is how I feel.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Book Review: Mormama by Kit Reed

Mormama by Kit Reed

Hardcover, 288 pages

Published May 2017 by Tor Books

I went back and forth on this one. Mormama is a strange gothern gothic that is kinda sorta a haunted house story. Told through multiple points of view, the closest thing to a main character is essentially Dell Duval a homeless man who decides to squat in the Ellis house a huge mansion with a an intense history in Jacksonville. The the many flashbacks and POV shifts we are given the horrid history of the house. Maybe it is better to say the house is the center of the story.

Kit Reed is certainly a talented writer but there is a reason why several of the reviews on Good reads are marked this book as the dreaded DNF. I have to admit there were a few times when I considered not finishing the book. It is not the author's fault but I came off reading one of the best books of the year - the extremely breezy read of Rio Youers The Forgotten Girl. Yes I felt Mormama was a slog at times but there was enough interesting characters and moments that I stuck it out. Every time I ready to give up a interesting moment hooked me.

I came to the conclusion that it is a smart inventive novel that is just not a easy read. I thought it was good but not exactly for me. I don't mind southern voice infact I like Many southern writers. in fact those elements were some of my favorite moments. I think many readers found the changing voice of the POV's to be disjointed. It was but after awhile I got into a rhythm with them.but if I had to put a finger on it would be that the book asks too much of it's readers.

You are going to have to remember various characters, who you have not heard from in a few chapters, if you put the book down for a night and return to it you often are picking up the story at a totally left field plot turn. Deel's story was always more interesting to me than say Theo's chapters. I felt a urge to skip his chapters. It is hard to keep track of what is flashback and what is living, dead or long dead voices from memory.

Loaded with a powerhouse of blurbs from Brian Evenson, Peter Straub, Tim Powers and Chelsea Quin Yarbro it is hard to imagine that a book is garbage. There are moments of genius in this book the concept should have been five stars but it just barely got a three from me.With as many awesome books out this year I just can't tell you this needs to be on the top of the list.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Sample reading from my newest novel Flesh Trade (co-written w/ Edward Morris

"Edward Morris is a fearless writer, expanding the boundaries of what is possible with the weird. Read him." -Jeff VanderMeer author of Authority

"David Agranoff is a razor sharp writer, a storyteller with a hard rock pacing, a magician of ideas." - John Shirley Author of A Splendid Chaos

"It is that effortless switch from socio-political worldbuilding to sci-fi noir that makes this novel work so well... It is also an edge-of-your-seat adventure novel reeking in crime noir, mercenary action, and underworld decadence. What is impressive is how well they both come together and how we never lose the humanity of the main characters throughout all the double-dealing and violence. If you have any love for science fiction, I highly recommend this as your next read." - Marvin Vernon of the Novel Pursuit blog

for more info:grandmalpress.com/FleshTrade.php

Book Review: Gwendy's Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

Gwendy's Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

Hardcover, 175 pages

Published May 2017 by Cemetery Dance Publications

Been a little while since I reviewed a Stephen King book on this blog. I think the last I read was Revival which I liked, not loved. This is not your typical King book, it is a novella that with drawings, and large print gets out to about 160 pages. It is also a rare collaboration only the second time King has worked with another writer outside his family on prose.

Richard Chizmar is a long time SK friend having published him in his Cemetery Dance magazine and in limited editions on the CD press. According to a Chizmar interview done on the Horror Show with Brian Keene it happened like this. King started this novella and wasn't sure how he wanted to finish it. He surprised Chizmar by sending him the story and giving him the option to finish it.

What an amazing experience for him! I can say this that after reading the book it starts with a very Stephen King feel. The characters are so well drawn and they feel so in a way that makes it clear King kicked off this story. I think I assumed there would be a moment when I feel the torch being passed.

People should not underestimate Chizmar who has edited a countless amount of horror fiction short stories for decades now in Cemetery dance. He has edited more than a 100 issues of the best and longest running horror mag in the world. Dude knows how to write and work with a another writers voice.

Part of the other surprise tipped off to entertainment weekly is that the story would return to Castle Rock, the city that SK claimed to retire in the novel Needful Things. I think he had one other story set there but this might be connecting to the upcoming JJ abrams show named after the fictional town. I am a big King nerd, but not enough to see why the story had to take place there other than maybe the suicide stairs as a setting.

The comparisons to Matheson's Button, Button are too obvious not to be intentional homage. Of course the box in question is a bit more elaborate and the issues it presents more so.

The strength of the novel is the characters and the weakness is the idea is not entirely delivered. A doomsday box in the hands of a kid could have so much more potential. Little details make the difference like the animal shaped chocolates and the hard to push buttons. Her life turns around and the ethical questions arise. This is a short book and certainly I read a review or two who would like to see the story expanded. While it is short I think a good length even if some things end quickly. Gwendy suddenly wants to become a writer with no earlier indication of such desire for one example.

Over all this was a fun read for serious Stephen King nerds, but not essential reading if you are not. The first few pages are creepy as hell, the antagonist is as vicious as ever, and we know SK can write bullies better than just about anyone. those elements are all there and certainly was fun.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Book Review: The Forgotten Girl by Rio Youers (Author interview TBA)

The Forgotten Girl by Rio Youers

Hardcover, 368 pages

Published June 2017 by Thomas Dunne Books

This is the second novel by Rio Youers that I have read and as much as I liked the first one Westlake Soul it had been five years since I read the last one. Westlake soul was a very slow burn deeply spiritual novel. It was not a easy-breezy read, that I really enjoyed but it was one that I only suggested to fans of very serious horror literature. Not that it didn't have fun and like hearted moments, because it did. That said the tone was deep and introspective.

The Forgotten Girl is very different from that. It is absolutely Rio Youers but this feels like the arthouse film director who makes an excellent popcorn blockbuster. The serious horror lit fans will like this and I believe the mainstream readers looking for a thriller for their flight in the airport bookstore will too. At times it doesn't feel like it could possibly be the same others and then there are moments that it is clear. Youers was always a talented writer he has reached a new level here.

Some novels feel effortless, the pages turn fast and easy and before you know know it have read 60 or 70 pages read in a sitting and with great ease you feel the story flow over you. I know that is the ideal, but I think novels like that are rare. I still enjoy books that require dedication, but it nice when a book breezes by feeling effortless.Sarah Pinborough, David Morrell and Robert McCammon are examples of authors who make very easily readable books. The prose and narrative have a McCammon like flow that helps this book fly.

This is one hell of a novel. The publisher seems to be marketing it as a thriller and that is true the book is also very much A science fiction horror novel. The story is about Harvey Anderson a street musician is suddenly attacked by thugs who want to know about his girlfirend, that oddly Harvey has no memory of. The thugs are sure they were a couple and Harvey must know where she is. The problem he doesn't remember her at all.

Mystery is one best served cold so I nervous to tell you more plot but Sally the woman in question was in his life. The thugs have pictures, people around he remember her, and the couple were happy long time friends. The mystery of why Harvey doesn't remember her sets of journey that takes Harvey cross country. The story is very clearly influenced by and modernizing classics like Stephen King's Firestarter and the John Farris Classic The Fury. If you read those novels you understand we are talking about psychic conspiracy road trip thrillers. The strength of this novel is less about the plot and more the characters. Not just Harvey and Sally but thankfully the romance between the main characters was believable. Youers had a interesting challenge having the main character in love with a woman he couldn't remember and it was really interesting to watch him fall in love while solving the mystery and recovering lost memory. Some of the most interesting aspects of the writing and story structure came in these moments. Youers used the romance effectiely to tell the story build characters and ratchet the suspense cutting half a dozen carrots with one knife.

For that reason the novel works as fun story but if writers and storytellers unpack what is going on there is a deeper level happening at the same time. Dominic Lang is a vicious villain whose motivations and arc take him to a almost mythic status instantly, think Khan in Star Trek. That level of well rounded bad guy helps lift the novel as well. He also adds a political connection expands the scope.

Some of the best moments of character for Harvey come in the moments with his father. Harvey's father seems like a crazy person but he in a sense humanizes Harvey better than anything else in the novel. He is a minor but great character who adds weight to the novel as a whole. Excellent example of a character who is not in the whole story but adds so much.

The Forgotten Girl is a next level step for Rio Youers. It was a excellent reading experience and I think we'll be talking about it again come best of the year time.

Book Review: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Hardcover, 371 pages

Published April 2015 by Grove Press

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2016)

California Book Award Gold Medal for First Fiction (2015)

Edgar Award for Best First Novel (2016)

The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize (2015)

Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction (2016)

Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature for Adult Fiction (2015)

International DUBLIN Literary Award Nominee for Shortlist (2017)

If you look at the list of awards this novel has been given you probably have seen all the reasons why this is a good and important read. I first had this book on my radar when Elliot Kalan of the Flophouse podcast recommended it instead of a movie on a episode of that show. It sounded like something I would be interested in. I put it on hold at the library and being 10 persons down the list I forgot about it until it came in.

This novel is a part historical fiction, mystery and throughout it is a novel of deep social importance. Sympathizer starts off in the last days of the US occupation of Saigon. The story is narrated by a man whose name we never learn. He works for an important general, while born in South Vietnam, he was educated in the U.S. caught between two worlds. One time spy, working both sides the nameless character at the center of the novel comes to LA as a refugee.

Some of the most interesting parts of this novel centered around The General and his wife the Madame. The Idea that they were rich and powerful during the war and end up owning a hole in the wall restaurant was interesting to me. Our hero however gets a job as a consultant on a war movie called the Hamlet.

This subplot is about 100 pages of the novel and was the storyline that most interested me. If anything really counted against the novel for me was this part was not a little more in depth. It is clear that Nguyen is writing about Francis Ford Coppola and this incitement of Hollywood taking on the war deserved more time and attention.

The writing is pretty amazing but took me some getting used to. There are no quotation marks. My general rule is that pretty much only Kathy Acker and Cormac Macathy can get away with such things. I hated it for the first 30 pages, and it slowed me down alot. Once I got over it the novel flowed faster.

It is a excellent story, well plotted and carried out. It won awards for a reason. It is funny because I didn't think was that much better than most of genre books I have read this year. It maybe a personal taste thing, but just this writer is considered literary I don't think makes his work better. Now this author unique heritage (compared to mainstream pop culture fiction) certainly gives this novel more weight. Voices from this culture responding to the vietnam war is certainly welcome and the most important reason to read this novel. The fact it was a good story with excellent twists and compelling characters was a bonus. Certainly worth the time.

Book Review + Author Interview: Entropy in Bloom by Jeremy Robert Johnson

Entropy in Bloom by Jeremy Robert Johnson

Hardcover, 272 pages

Published April 2017 by Night Shade Books

We have had a few authors in the horror genre really make huge strides in the last year. Some notables include the massive success of Paul Tremblay's Head full of Ghosts and Sarah Pinborough's Behind her Eyes. It is true That Jeremy Robert Johnson could be considered a part of a new wave of horror field to mainstream publishing success, but he is also the first to come out of the Bizarro scene with a major hardcover release. Stephen Graham Jones, Laura Lee Bahr and Brian Evenson are authors who I think walk this line that some times touches Horror, Bizarro and fine Literature all in the same stories. But Jeremy was a flag holder for the movement in the early days so this feels different.

Sometimes when a writer takes the next step in there career it is important to look back and see where they came from. Entropy in Bloom is that book, it features some of the best short stories from Jeremy Robert Johnson's two previous independently released collections both reviewed on this blog. Angeldust Apocalypse and We Live Inside You.

In that sense I have read all of these stories except the new novella Sleep of judges before. I read The Oarsmen and Flood of Harriers when they were first published in Dark discoveries and Cemetery Dance as well as well as when they were collected. I have to say both those stories worked the third time. The Oarsmen still continues to be a favorite of mine, the sci-fi setting is really subtle and I admit I would love to see JRJ explore space a bit more, but of course that is not the point of the story. The story is a tone piece that gives a otherworldly feeling the emotions of monks after the apocalypse.

Flood of Harriers has been frustrating to read all three times. The two stories that hit me harder than before were the ghost story "the Gravity of Benham Falls," and Snowfall. I mean I have read them before but this time it come off as really effective. It is funny if you listen to the audio interview I thought Snowfall was about something totally different from JRJ's intention.

The story Trigger Variation was one I commissioned for an anthology I co-edited called the Vault of Punk Horror. I have a really strange relationship with this story. It is a long story, but JRJ was writing this piece about a fictional faction of straight edge that was a photo negative of the movement I spent the 90's in. In many senses I had a very hard time with this story, but if you want to hear more about that...listen to the audio interview. That part of the discussion is more interesting if you have a back ground in punk or hardcore music.

A writer this talented is rare and it is incredibly exciting as a long time reader of his work and friend to see this happen. I mean he deserves it for many reasons. But I wonder sometimes how or why it happens to a certain artist? Certainly Jeremy himself would agree Cody Goodfellow and Laura Lee Bahr are equally deserving of this kind of attention and notice. Without his talent it would not be possible but often it is timing and luck...I couldn't be happier the stars aligned for him.

I don't want to take away from what JRJ has accomplished. It is exciting and important that these works reach a wider audience. The level of drug laced paranoia that drips off the pages is one thing but when you match it with fine tuned prose, intelligent with and skillful mechanics of suspense you quickly figure why Johnson is so readable.

Check out this interview recorded over skype on 8/3/17 I did about this book with Jeremy:

Soundcloud (with a download feature)

Youtube:

Monday, July 24, 2017

Book Review: The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

Hardcover, 380 pages

Published February 2017 by Saga Press

The Stars are Legion is a space fantasy novel that is high on concept from the first to the last page. Kameron Hurley is an award winning author and this is my second time reading her work. The first novel of hers that I read I remember thinking was good but honestly can't remember the title right now which is not the best sign. None the less I liked it enough to come back and read this.

The story takes place in a region of space called the Legion. Is this our future? Is it a totally different new civilization? Not sure. The legion seems to be a couple worlds and habitats in space. We are introduced to a woman named Zan. She is our hero and it becomes clear that she has no memory of the life she lived but remembers enough to be a badass warrior. We understand quickly that this has happened to Zan before. There is a woman Jayd who might be able to help her but it is possible Jayd is the reason Zan is in this spot in the first place. She is given a mission to board a space station/ world ship called Mokshi with the mission to liberate it. Her entry to the world requires a giant battle and only succeeds in getting Zan stranded deep in the bowels of the ship.

It about 100 pages I realized that this culture is devoid of men folk...more on that later.

In this novel the women of this universe don't talk about dying but being recycled, which on Mokshi means being ejected into the deep down below levels. Thus begins Zan's quest to climb the levels. Fighting monsters and the weird ship based ecology. Each chapter begins with quotes from The legions historical and or religious texts. These are not throw away motifs. They are important to the story and give clues of the direction the story is heading.

I read that Hurley is normally thin on plot but heavy on details, these chapter headers may have have been added later but as a fan of intensely plotted books I loved that detail. There are clues even in the first couple pages that pay off, I had to go back and re-read. I got a laugh when I listened to Luke Barrage on the Science Fiction book review podcast said he did the same thing. The second half of the book is pretty much a heroes quest, with moments of political intrigue. If you paid close attention in those early pages the second half is a bit more powerful.

Now I get why Hurley was making jokes about this book being lesbians in space. She was just kidding so don't get the wrong idea. This world is not soft gentle feminist utopia or nerd fantasy. This book depeicts a brutal society that worships war lords. It was not the book I would have expected if I had known that it was Matriarchal space opera. It is not that I needed the novel to constantly be exploring gender issues, it is probably better than just naturally exists as a feminine culture. Some of the most interesting moments revolve around body control and issues of reproduction. I am not sure Hurley was trying to express here, reproduction in this future comes almost randomly and is always painful.

I am sure this is not the first entirely matriarchal space opera, but it is the first I can remember reading, I know it has happened before and in a moment of zeitgiest I know Stephen Kozeniewski's new sci-fi horror novel THE HEMATOPHAGES is free of dudes too. I think this a neat part of the novel but I would not entirely define it as such.

The end of the novel is classic space opera and in some ways reminded me of sword and sorcery classics. It all comes together for a super entertaining read. This is not light reading sci-fi, the appeal would not be as board as say Old Man's War. This is not mainstream or for a beginning sci-fi reader. This book will lose some readers, but if you stick it with it pays off.