Wednesday, July 26, 2017

It came out of the sea

Pacific Rising

John W, Dennehy

Publisher: Severed Press

Pub Date: June 22, 2017

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

For those not in the know, Kaiju is Japanese for “Strange Beast” and usually refers to a giant monster in stories and film. Kaiju is also a film genre that features, you guess it, giant monsters. It is basically Japanese in origin and the most well-known kaiju is, of course, Godzilla. What I did not know is that there can also be Kaiju novels and they don’t necessary have to be written by the Japanese. Pacific Rising is one of those novels and I suspect it is one that is very basic to the genre.

The fact that it happens in Tokyo should be a giveaway to the formula and bases the plot on solid ground, so to speak. The monster that is set on destroying Tokyo does owe a lot to The King of Monsters but is given the name Zamera. The novel starts with the advancement of Zamera into Tokyo and the attempt to escape the chaos by a young girl named Maki and her parents. Meanwhile in Okinawa, Master Gunnery Sergeant James Penton is preparing the military base for an enormous storm when he gets a call about a major top secret assignment. This assignment will take him straight to the Kaiju in what appears to be a hopeless mission to destroy the seemingly invulnerable creature. There is a third narrative about two Navy Seals who are focused on stealing a nuclear device from the North Koreans. All three narrations come together at the end and we discover whether or not Tokyo can be saved and the monster defeated.

It all sounds exciting and it is. The novel is part monster tale and part military action adventure. John W, Dennehy’s strong point is his knowledge of the military. He puts it to work quite well in this book. The plot gets rolling from the first page and there is very little letup in the action. There are some sparks between Penton and Kate Able, a Marine Harrier pilot, but it is all by the military book and plays second fiddle to the destruction and chaos to come. A Kaiju novel is what it is and a Kaiju novel is what you get. Truth in advertising.

Yet I must ask, is that all a reader wants? If it is, then Pacific Rising will pay off. But the action seems rather predictable to any who is familiar with the genre. None of the characters really comes to life and there really isn’t much characterization you can do with a huge Japanese monster except to make him scary. The writing is to the point and not much else. It gets the job done but it doesn’t really leave much to remember it by past the final page. It feels more like a novelization than an original novel. I kept wondering if I saw the movie.

But as one might say, it is what it is and as a novel about a dinosaur like creature rampaging through a city, frightening little girls, and laughing at puny fighter jets, it fits the bill. It is action-packed and has lots of moments that will thrill those who like their heroes’ valiant and their monsters big. This is also a novel that will appeal to those who can’t get enough military adventures. As for me, yes,I enjoyed it. But overall, I would have rather waited for the movie.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

"I shouldn't be here."

Bone White

Ronald Malfi

Publisher: Kensington

Pub. Date: July 25, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In the (hopefully) fictional town of Dread’s Hands, Alaska, Joe Mallory has confessed to eight murders. He leads the investigators to where he buried the bodies. When Paul Gallo hears about this chain of murder and discovery on the news, he instantly recognizes the place as where his twin brother Danny went missing a year ago. He travels to Alaska to find out if his brother is one of those that was murdered. His journey leads him to a strange small town where crosses are mounted near the roadside like some form of protection, children wear animal masks to ward off devils, and the inhabitants seem fearful of him and just want him to leave. Like many who grieve, Paul is looking for resolution but instead is being sucked into a bigger mystery and an even more horrible secret.

Bone White is one of those rare horror novels that can make a place a monster. Ronald Malfi is a master of dark description and Dread’s Hands is all the most forbidding because of it. It is described as barely a town at all and those who visit it remember it ”as a sequence of crude Neanderthal drawings, a series of snapshots all laid out of order, and in random, nonsensical collages. Nightmare fuel”. But as the reader gets more into the story, Dread’s Hand becomes the foundation for a more deadly horror. The author builds up the terror almost perfectly with each skillful description leading to more fears. “I shouldn’t be here” is an impression Paul gets when he arrives and is repeated in varied and significant ways as he remains. It is also the impression the reader receives as he or she explores Dread’s Hand on paper.

But Paul Gallo is looking for his brother so he braves the forbidding town despite the townspeople’s effort to make him leave. There are essentially two mysteries going on in the novel. There is the disappearance of his twin brother and there is the more recent discovery of eight corpses which is being investigated by detective Jill Ryerson who is being lured in by the contradictions and questions that follow the killer’s confession and explanation. Inevitably the two events are connected but not in a way that might be suspected by the reader. Again, we see the enormous skills of the author as he pulls everything together in a way that may be surprising. But what surprises me the most is how well Malfi works in the psychological angst of a man whose love/ hate relationship with his brother fuels his guilt and keeps his needs to put closure on is twin’s disappearance alive. The horror of the town and its residents may be the bait but it is the emotions and struggles of the main protagonist that places this book above the heap of good suspense and horror tales to see the light of day in 2017.

Hence Bone White is not only essential reading for the horror fan but is just as important to those who want a literary read that explore basic human emotion of grief and the need for resolution. Bone White may be dark and it certainly fits the bills for atmospheric scares and chills but it is the human connection that makes this more than just another horror novel and why it is one of the best books of 2017 of any genre.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A study of fear and guilt

The Breakdown

B. A. Paris


Publisher:  St. Martin's Press 

Pub. Date: July 18, 2017

rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Cass is headed home to her cottage and husband when she passes a car on the road. She is driving on a secluded road, a "shortcut", in the middle of a relentless rain storm. She sees a woman sitting in a car but can't tell who it is. She pulls over but is afraid to get out, partially due to the storm but more because of her fear that it may be a set up for a robbery or worst. The woman in the car remains sitting there. Cass drives away promising herself she will call the police when she gets home. She forgets to call and wake up that next morning to discover on the news that the woman was murdered that night.

She is engulfed by guilt and, worried how others will see her actions, tells no one including her husband or the police. Shortly after this, she finds her memory failing. She forgets a number of things ranging from where she left her coffee cup to where she parked her car. She doesn't remember buying things like a baby pram or ordering the installation of a house alarm. She believes that someone is in her house or sees what she thinks may be the murder knife on the kitchen table but the police find nothing when they arrive. And then there are the constant phone calls from someone who doesn't respond when it is picked up. Cass fears that she is being stalked by the murderer of the young woman but she is just as afraid that she may be having a mental breakdown or is beginning the descent into dementia.

The experienced reader of suspense and mystery novels will catch on to a tried and true theme in The Breakdown very quickly. it is about a woman that appears to be mentally deteriorating . The experience with the woman in the car is the catalyst and we read to see how they relate to each other and if they relate at all. The author, B. A. Paris, plays it like a fiddle. We read the narration in Cass' perspective so we do not get the clues until she does. Cass is a young woman who is in love with her husband and life in general but is constantly worried about suffering the fate of her mother which was early onset dementia. We can instantly identify with the potential loss of her dreams to an unforgiving ailment. Paris pays into that well and it is what makes The Breakdown so involving.

But while this is what holds us, it is the familiarity of the plot that may hinder our full enjoyment. This is well traveled territory and, while the author tries hard to place some new twists into it, sooner or later it becomes formulaic. Most readers will figure out what is going on early if not necessarily all the whos and hows. Fortunately those whos and hows is what keep us in the read. Paris uses a nice gimmick near the resolution to feed us the loose ends while our protagonist wraps up the ending. It all works but it doesn't knock me out of my seat and eventually makes the great beginning and slow build up a little less effective.

While it doesn't break any new ground, it is still an entertaining novel and a solid psychological thriller made most effective by its study of a woman potentially losing her mind to her life long fears. It still gets a strong three and a half stars and my solid recommendation for an entertaining suspense read.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A descent into thrills.

Cavern of the Damned

Russell James

Publisher: Severed Press

Pub. Date: May 22, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

When I am reading certain books, usually of the horror adventure variety, I sometimes engage on a little fantasy game. I pretend I am a B movie producer considering this particular property to make as a film. I envision myself as a Roger Corman. A Samuel Z Arkoff. A William Castle with 21st century gimmicks. It can’t be any book. It has to be one that sends my imagination wheeling, that is a little cheesy but not too much so, and has lots of creative B movie type thrills and spills. Let’s not forget it has to have some really great monsters.

Cavern of the Damned by Russell James is one of those books.

It has a lot of things I love. Forbidding caves. Oversized monsters,. Creepy bad guy. A hot capable heroine and a somewhat ordinary nerd hero in peril (but the girl already has a guy. We can work on that in the screenplay). Basically it takes me back to the pulps that I loved as a kid and, of course, to those B-movies. It doesn’t hurt that Russell James is in his horror novel element and one hell of a writer.

In Cavern of the Damned we meet Grant Coleman, a laid off paleontologist wondering how he is going to meet next month’s rent. He is lured into a film project with a shady documentary maker that will take him to caves in Montana with pictographs of giant bats at the entrance. Park ranger McKinley Stinson follows the explosions caused when the film maker attempts to open the passageway into the cave and is about to arrest everyone when the entrance collapses and traps them inside. They must find a way out and that takes them deeper into uncharted underground territory filled with deadly monsters and complicated by doubling dealing bad guys. There are scares of both the creature and man-made variety and bets will be taken on who will survive. Then there is Mckinley’s hot lumberjack fiancĂ© who is determined to rescue her despite a killer blizzard raging outside. The thrills are plenty and the science is slight but not stretched to the point of silliness, well, some silliness. The monsters do really exist in caves but is a smaller pint-sized capacity. And the idea of North American Neanderthals? OK. That’s a real stretch but an author can have some fun as long as the reader has fun too.

I think Mr. James will forgive me if I say this is not literature with a capital L. This is pulp but really good pulp. It is the kind that induces thrills, stretches the imagination and makes you root for the good guys. It is the type of adventure pulp that makes me glad there are hints of a sequel. It is the kind of adventure that makes movies in your mind. Cavern of the Damned is one fun read. Let’s call it my recommended mid-summer read for the horror and adventure loving kid inside you.

Friday, July 14, 2017

A tale of dimensions and inner demons

Palladium at Night

Christopher Slatsky

Publisher: Dim Shores

Pub Date: May 31, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In this small press, limited edition novelette by Christopher Slatsky, Irepani is a formerly homeless alcoholic who is on the road to recovery thanks to a caring relative. However, he feels the need to get away on sort of a solitary retreat from the city and goes to an abandoned fire lookout station that his street-wise friends told him about in an urban legend sounding way. The lookout is indeed abandoned but it is also near the ruins of a space observatory and a revoltingly strange shrine. Irepani's isolated retreat quickly becomes a strange out-of-this-world nightmare.

Frankly, I'm not sure I have come across a short piece of fiction that packed such a combination of emotional and mystical response in quite a while. Slatsky gets right down to forming the character of Irepani and in a few short pages we have a sympathetic man, and his dog, who could have easily become a caricature. The author inserts alternating segments that gives us a glimpse into an odd scientific experiment that may be going on simultaneously. Simply put, Palladium at Night is a miniature masterpiece. We are pulled into the story while the strangeness of the encounter between Irepani and his environment engulfs us subtly if not slowly. The style and theme is reminiscent of the Lovecraftian Circle writers via a Clark Ashton Smith of the 21st century. The ending has a nice twist and it is ultimately a terrifying one.

Novelettes in the 40 and 50 page length are hard to get right. In inexperienced hands they tend to suffer from too much filler or not enough body. Slatsky gets this and executes his tale almost perfectly. It's a tight mix of intimate terror and cosmic horror. I believe we are looking at one of the best works of short fiction this year and that may be important to note come award season. At any shot, Slatsky and his sweetly terrifying novelette could use some more love and attention from the horror fans. They don't yet know what they are missing.

Hap and Leonard visits a bookmobile.

Hoodoo harry

Joe R. Lansdale

Publisher: Mysterious Press/Open Road 

Pub. Date: August 1, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



Bibliomysteries is a series of short novellas from Mysterious Press and Open Road Media that features mysteries centered around books. As they put it, "Short tales about deadly books." The lineup of authors is impressive from R. L. Stine to Joyce Carol Oates. Hoodoo Harry is Joe R. Lansdale's contribution. It is nominally about books with the basic tie-in being a bookmobile that shows up in a deadly accident after being missing for 15 years. But the good news for Joe R. Lansdale fans is that Hoodoo Harry is a new Hap and Leonard story.

Hap and Leonard are almost killed when above mentioned bookmobile hits Leonard's truck. The driver is a young boy who is killed instantly while Hap and Leonard manage to survive. In their usual style, they become involved in finding out why the van reappeared after 15 years, what other gruesome acts are attached to it, and what happened to Hoodoo Harry , the woman who drove it in the years before. Those question reveal several murders which are associated with a mostly derelict town and its questionable inhabitants.

While the core of the Lansdale series is located in the 12 novels, the author seems to be enjoying writing short stories and novellas that clue us in to this duo. I really appreciate those short stories than deal with Hap and Leonard as children as they add dimension to the characters. Hoodoo Harry takes part in the present day after the last novel Rusty Puppy. It still keeps to the pattern of the novels. Yet this may be the best of the short novellas that Landsdale have been writing regularly . It is to the point with plenty of good dialog and a tight who-dunnit
style . Yet there is a scene at the end that both shocked and impressed me. It is a scene that speaks to the difference between the two friends. it is a difference that, if visited in future tales, may speak of a tension that could cause a lot of rift in this series . Will it be explore later. I hope because it will put in a new wrinkle to the Hap and Leonard persona What is it? You know I am not going to tell.

Overall, Hoodoo Harry is a nice addition to the Hap and Leonard repertoire and is one of the better short works. You can read this as a stand-alone but you might miss all the nuances . But for the fans of this roughhouse investigator duo series, it is definitely one to pick up.

Monday, July 10, 2017

More of the same from Koontz

The Silent Corner

Dean Koontz

Publisher: Bantam

Pub Date: June 20, 2017

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My love/hate experience with Dean Koontz goes all the way back to 1975 when I read Demon Seed. It was a neat science fiction thriller that was fun but not necessarily memorable enough to return to the Koontz name. I did not read another Koontz novel, even though he was quite prolific even then sometimes writing 8 books a year under his own name and pseudonyms, until 1983 with Phantoms. That was the start of my love for the writer and what I consider his golden years with Watchers, Lighting, Midnight, and others setting the framework for the author to be considered the dean (no pun intended) of the mainstream sci fi/horror thriller. But soon, somewhere in the 90s I believe, the books started coming out as off an assembly line. It didn't help that all those novels he wrote earlier under pseudonyms were now being issued under his own name with many of those were rather tepid and straddling several genres. The original horror thriller plots now seemed to be rehashed and formulaic. Even though a gem would occasionally pop like like Odd Thomas, the creativity just wasn't there any more even though the fast paced writing skills were still fresh.

But I kept reading. Let's face it, Koontz is an icon in the field and his worst, like Relentless, still tops a lot of writers' best. The City was the first since Odd Thomas that perked up my ears again. Then Ashley Bell from last year blew me out of the water . Could we be in the midst of a creative revival for the writer?

This year we have The Silent Corner which is billed as the first in a series featuring rogue FBI agent, Jane Hawk. Despite the name of the main protagonist, The Silent Corner doesn't soar. It just hangs there then sinks like a leaky balloon. In this book, Jane Hawk is investigating the death of her husband who committed suicide despite having a happy and satisfying life and no signs of being suicidal until he write a strange suicide note with the line, "I very much need to be dead". Jane cannot accept the verdict of the coroner and investigators and discovers there is a huge splurge in suicide acts throughout the world, many by them by people who previously shown no inclination of being depressed or hopeless. She find herself being hunted down as she discovers a conspiracy that leads straight to high-end citizens with the brains and money needed to reshape the world through any means necessary.

As you can probably see, this is nothing creatively earthshaking. As we read on to the gist of the conspiracy even Koontz wittingly acknowledges the source which led to me to think, "Of course, wasn't that already obvious?". But retracing tried and true plots and giving them new life is what many mainstream thrillers are about. Unfortunately there is little that we can call "life" here. There is one long "Hunt, chase, destroy and repeat" throughout the 400 plus pages with characters just going through their paces. Jane Hawk goes through the motion of a hard-core Jack Reacher styled bad chick without any real humanity in her. We are told repeatedly how he loves her husband and is given a brief glimpse at her son who she leaves with some friends who seem to take the abandonment all in strife but that's it. There is little empathy here as she fight and kill her way through the bad guys.

And that's a problem too. if there is one thing Koontz does better than anyone else it is writing meaty villains. We get a lot of small cogs as they are eliminated one by one but once we meet the supposed big cog we become disappointed and we meet him too late. After all this is a series, we don't want to make the ending too satisfying, right? It messes up the formula for the series.

In order to make the formula work, you need meaningful characters. That is where the brilliant Ashley Bell shines. Here we get plot but no flesh, action but no heart, resolution but no revelation. We've seen this from Koontz before and even then he did it better. I may be unfair . A writer cannot score every time. Koontz has written enough to always consider him one of the major horror and suspense writers. But at this stage ofa prolific and gifted writer, I do wish the auto-pilot wasn't so obvious.