Monday, August 21, 2017

The sound of horror

Black Mad  Wheel

Josh Malerman

 

Publisher: Ecco

Pub Date: May 23, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

 Josh Malerman is easily in the top five best horror writers peddling their terrors today. He is also one of the most unique. His last full novel Bird Box, in essence, scared us with "nothing". We never saw the terror in the story as anyone who did became insane. In other words, it was the sense of sight that became the boogeyman. Here in Black Mad Wheel he again writes about one of our senses. It is the sense of hearing that provides the horror.

A once famous but now struggling music group called The Danes are working on their comeback album. They are visited by a representative from the military who gives them a mission; to find a mysterious sound in the Namibian Desert. He plays the sound to them and it has disturbing effects to say the least. But the band's leader Philip Tonka and the rest of the band accepts the assignment egged on by a nice monetary arrangement. Aided with a few military people, including a controversial and demoted officer, they go in search of the sound.

Now lets take a look at a problem right here. The idea of the military choosing musicians on a such a mission is farfetched to begin with. Realistically it is difficult to think what a musician can bring to a expedition in the desert that a team of highly trained officers could bring even if the band leader Philip does have some military training. This would have been enough to derail the less talented writer. Yet Malerman has already hooked us before this. From the beginning, we know that Philip was found in the desert with every one of his bones broken. He is in a mid-western American hospital and is healing at a supernatural speed. However the hospital personnel may not have the most altruistic of motives in healing him. Phillip's only ally and friend turns out to be a nurse named Ellen and it is her developing connection with Philip that fueled a lot of this tale.

The chapters alternate with the events in the hospital and what happened out in the desert. Eventually we do get a sense of what is going with the sound more than we do with sight in Bird Box. But like Bird Box, this is not a straight forward tale of horror. There is a reason for the sound and that involves a number of areas including science fiction and psychological horror. But it is hard to label the author's imagination in this one. His works, including the simple and short The House At the Bottom of the Lake are all about our perceptions of the phenomena that is thrown at us. While there is plenty of horror in this novel, the author is more interested in the psychological and emotional effect involving the one perceiving it. I like that.

Black Mad Wheel didn't bowl me over like Bird Box. I suspect few novels ever will. Yet Black Mad Wheel is still more involving and disturbing than most of the more visceral ones out there and it is easily a contender for best novel of the year in any genre. I do wonder if Malerman plans to visit the next two senses. I can easily envision a four book loose series unrelated in actual plots but comprising the four senses. I can only wait and see and hope.



Sunday, August 13, 2017

Groundhog Day in Hell

Violence Dave: Heartless

July 10, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Norman Mailer meets Williams S Burroughs in the comic book series The 'Nam mixed in with a Philip K. Dick version of Dante's Inferno via H. P. Lovecraft.

Violence Dave: Heartless is 86 pages of gruesome, gut wrenching. non-stop action. It is a bizarro version of those men's combat magazines with a liberal dose of Heinlein's Starship Troopers in Hell. That's the Heinlein novel he never wrote but I wished he did. The premise of Konstantine Paradias' hyper-fiction evolves around Dave, a soldier who is dropped over and over into a war between Earth and Hell fought at the gateway between the two worlds, Dave fights dog-soldiers, demons and loads of other disgusting creatures and it never seems to end. But Dave is determined that this will be the last time he lives through this torment. The basic technicality of this Groundhog Day styled combat is minimally explained between the action but it is not the heart of the book. It comes down to Dave's determination to finally win and end the war respite its hopelessness. That is pretty much the entire gist of this short novella.

Despite its simple plot, It is a nice example of "getting there is half the fun". There is nothing simple about the writing skills the author brings to print. He has excellent writing chops especially when describing the horrors that Dave confront. He writes dialogue between Dave and his combat buddies that is tense and snappy. The macho fiction style is all there with a super-high dosage of Lovecraftian monster terror. For 86 pages , you root for Dave and that is pretty much the reason for this work of fiction.

Does it work? It works very well. Did it work for me? Well, that is where I have to be honest. War fiction is not my forte unless it is anti-war fiction. I am a great admirer of All Quiet on the Western Front for instance. Needless to say, this is nothing like it. This is high anxiety pulp fiction via a bizarro The Naked and the Dead. I wanted more explanation of Dave's dilemma. More background. Instead it was wall to wall action and slaughter...but very well written wall to wall action and slaughter. Sometimes you got to rate something for what it is and what it is supposed to do. Violence Dave: Heartless does what the author means it to do. If one is really into pulp styled war fiction by way of horror and science fiction then this just may be Nirvana. if that is the case,for you then this is a must read. For those who are not into that, it is still an impressive and visceral read.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Nijinsky in New York

A Friend of Mr. Nijinsky

Caro Soles

 

Publisher: Crossroads Press

Pub. Date: March 5, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

It is New York in 1916. The war in Europe is met with an uncomfortable silence by most Americans. The great ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky has arrived in New York and is at odds with a number of people in the classical arts including the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. In the midst of this, Morgan Vanheusen, the son of a wealthy and important family, meets the dancer and a relationship starts between them. It is a odd relationship between the relatively stable if insecure Morgan and the eccentric and sometimes paranoid Nijinsky but Morgan seems to get something out of it, perhaps because he has his own abandoned dreams of becoming a race car driver and is thwarted at every corner by his overpowering family. While Nijinsky is dancing onstage, his partner for the dance "faints" and it is not until after he carries her off stage that they realize she has died. To some, including a detective and reporter, it may not just be because of a weak heart as the papers reported. Into this mystery Morgan and Nijinsky become involved while dealing with ballet intrigues and backstabbing, possible art fraud, and the exclusionary and sometimes hypocritical practices of America's upper class.

As the title A Friend of Mr. Nijinsky suggests, the main protagonist of the novel is Morgan Vanheusan. Nijjinsky plays a supporting role although a very essential one in both plot and theme. When we meet Morgan he is feeling rootless as he goes through the motions of life without any career goals, having been forced to give up his dream due to the death of his brother and the demands of a controlling father. Nijinsky revives that forsaken spirit in him and he and Nijinsky plays a little Sherlock Holmes, to which Nijinsky replies "Who?", as they attempt to discover some of the answers about who the young dancer Galina Perovna really was and why she was murdered. There is also a sub-plot with Morgan's sister Gloria and a reporter that gives us a look at the strict social roles of the times.

This is where the novel really shines. The mystery in the novel is rather slight, even forgotten at times, and while it points to a number of other intrigues going on, I suspect it is the era in America just before entering World War I that is the real focus of the author. She brings alive that era in not only the sometimes volatile world of the dance but in the very strong class differences and morals that made the era what it was. The author makes the characters, even the minor ones, alive in their thoughts and reactions. For instance, the upper class fawns over the artists but still sees them as being beneath them. While Morgan is applauded for his connection to Nijinsky, his family and especially his father sees the friendship as not worthy of him and subversive. The relationship between Morgan and the dancer, and eventually the revelations that arise from the death of Galina, reveal many of these complex underpinnings of social norms in the early 20th century. The mystery is entertaining and satisfying but it is the depiction of life in New York in 1916 where the strength of the novel comes through. While we read to decipher the murder's mystery, we are also aware that World War I will soon be placing a coda on the New York of that era.

Of course, if one is interested and knowledgeable in Nijinsky and ballet it is a real plus and will go far in the enjoyment of the book. Yet it is not necessary as Caro Soles does a fine job in introducing us to the essential details of the discipline in an entertaining fashion. But for me, having a pretty good knowledge of the arts and being able to recognize most of the actual historical figures that pop up among the fictional ones, the part that surprised me was the accurate information on early auto racing. Like i said, the author has a flair in bringing to life many things from ballet to auto racing. The author did her homework in almost every aspect of this historical mystery.

Those who are into mysteries with an historical connection will enjoy A Friend of Mr. Nijinsky. In fact anyone who like historical novels will find this worth looking into. You get not only a mystery but a time capsule into a world whose odd mixture of innocence and class separation has long passed.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Vultures, Raccoons, and WHAT! monkeys?

The Unmentionables

Lance Carbuncle


Publisher: Vicious Galoot Books

Pub. Date: April 5, 2017

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars



Very few authors have such an crazy sense of imagination as Lance Carbuncle. Strange going-ons, weird characters and nightmare creatures abound in his four novels. Whether it is the Brautiganesque world of Smashed, Squashed, Splattered, Chewed, Chunked and Spewed, The sociopathic cousins a la Mice and Men in Grundish and Askew, or the Hieronymus Bosch meets William S. Burroughs landscape of Sloughing off the Rot, Carbuncle's novels are all different but alike in his unique style which is as rude and disturbing as...well.....a lanced carbuncle. But much funnier.

His fourth and newest novel is The Unmentionables and in some ways it is the most straight horror story he has written so far. It centers on Greg Samsa (name sounds familiar?) who is one of the most picked on boys in the small town of Finlay. The book is sort of a strange coming-of-age tale with a character that I suspect a lot of avid readers can identify with. He's a pretty smart kid but his wits is not enough to keep him from the terrors of adolescent bullying. That is until he find a stash of books and paraphernalia associated to black magic in the Winchester House clone he lives in. Parallel to this, the townspeople seem to be getting meaner and more violent which may be related to a underworld portal spurting out noxious fumes. Add on to this combo of terror vicious raccoons, living dead pig fetuses (the titled Unmentionables) and piss monkeys (don't ask, just read) and you get an idea how outlandish this seemingly "normal" coming of age horror story really gets. And there are turkey vultures, There are always turkey vultures.

It's all by the plan in the author's world. Hook you with weird but likable characters and once you're hooked, throw all that wild stuff at you . It may not be for everyone but it is delicious fun all the way. It may not be horror as much as black comedy. As Greg seeks revenge on the bullies, actually he's pretty angry at the entire town, it is hard to not like him no matter how rough it gets. Then there are those names; Coach Manlove, The Spanish Teacher Mr. French, and Wally, Lumpy and Eddie which works as an in-joke for the baby boomers to chuckle at. Mr. Carbuncle seems to like to give his characters clever names as much as he like to make his readers to go "Ewww,(giggle)"

Even though The Unmentionables may be the most straight-forward of his books, I hesitate to say "mainstream", it is still a far cry from safe and reassuring. But among the bizarre gore and violence there is always the feeling of a roller coaster ride with the sounds of screams and laughter. The Unmentionables may be weird and gross but it is always a lot of fun and maybe closer to our actual emotions and events in our life that we might be afraid to admit. Let's face it. Life is rude and disturbing. Perhaps it needs to be funnier...like Lance Carbuncle and his novels.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A mother and son drama

Fierce Kingdom

Gin Phillips


Publisher: Viking

Pub Date: July 25, 2017

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


Joan and her four year old son are enjoying the last few minutes at the zoo before it closes. But on the way out, Joan hears gun fire and sees some very disturbing things near the exit. She does not know exactly what is happening but she knows people are dying. She and her son run for their lives and hide in an abandoned animal enclosure. For the next three hours, she will be fighting for her life and the life of her son. She will be making some difficult choices.

There is a lot of emotion in Fierce Kingdom which, related to the plot and theme, is one of the best titles this year. It is predominantly about what a mother would do for her child. Gin Phillips has her heart in this book. She writes about a situation which no one would want to be in. We learn much about Joan as she make tough decision and interacts with two other women who find themselves struggling to stay alive. While the situation is harrowing , it really isn't a psychological thriller as much as a psychological drama. The heart of this book is in the relationship between a mother and a young boy.

The problem with what transpired is that the author has chosen a suspenseful situation that calls for tense moments and smart well-timed decisions. This is where the novel falls down. It gets off to a good start yet bogs down in the middle as we get a lot of thoughts from the mother on what is happening but nothing much really happens. Finally, we get glimpses of the terrorists but when they show up they are neither realistic or interesting. Plus, there are just too many strange decisions that may serve to drive the tension but fail because they don't make sense. One example: Joan is worried the light of her cell phone will attract the killers. I kept thinking," then turn it off and wait until they are gone to use it." What does she do,? She tosses it away. It may haveincreases the sense of isolation but doesn't help to make the situation believable.

But at the end the plot is helped along when Joan meet two other women who are hiding. This picks up the level of tension and has a beautiful moment when one of the women recognizes the gunman. It is a nice turn and I wish there were more like it.

Overall, Fierce Kingdom is full of beautiful writing. Gin Phillips is certainly a writer worth noticing. But perhaps thriller related books are not her forte. Literary drama is and if this was solely a drama before family and taking risks, it might have been more fruitful. Read this for the emotional drama and you will be pleased, If you are reading for the suspenseful plot, perhaps maybe not. I do recommend it though for that wonderful writing and for its emotional pull.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Slices of surreal life


Slices: Tales of Bizarro and Absurdist Horror

Scott Cole


Publisher: Black T-Shirt Books

Pub. Date: July 16, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars



"The first mistake Landau made was choosing a helmet made entirely of tuna salad."

Surrealism and Bizarro are close cousins. But if I had to differentiate between the two in my own subjective manner, this is what I would say. The surrealist says, "I am trying to get to our deep subconscious by creating loosely associated, sometimes random dreamscapes". The Bizarro writer says, "We are already living in a loosely associated, sometimes random dreamscape. I'm just going with the flow."

Scott Cole is one of the newer Bizarro writers on the horizon. His SuperGhost was one of the big surprises for me in 2015. In that novel, he exhibited a strange but accessible humor along with an almost casual sense of the bizarre and impossible. In Slices: Tales of Bizarro and Absurdist Horror he does the same with 33 brief stories. Most qualify as flash fiction while a few go on for slightly longer. They can all be called surreal or bizarro and they all delve into impossible scenarios. (except for "Rough Night" which accurately describes how I feel most mornings). The most distinctive thing about Slices is that these tales are more horror related than that of SuperGhost. Many dwell on biological transformation or what is know as Body Horror. In fact, there are a lot of exploding body parts. I think it may be a Cole trademark.

The best one word description of a Scott Cole short fiction work is "mindblowing". No matter how short or long, he usually captures you with the first sentence, like the one at the beginning of this review which is from "Landau Made Some Mistakes". You are pretty much hooked from there in. Some stories are straight on surrealism as is the first story," The Degenerates". Others like "Violins for Sale" resembles more of a normal horror story, with "normal" being a relative term. While I find the flash fiction exhilarating, I am more drawn to the slightly longer stories like "Cat Tree Summer", "A Field of Poppies", and "666 Baby Jesuses, Give and Take," a story that should appeal to anyone who have ever had the collector bug. But if you go for a more visceral and uncomfortable type of horror, you should not miss "Slices of Me" where a man is determined to share his delicious flesh with the world.

I like the writings of Scott Cole because he always surprises. In this case, we have 33 little surprises. If I had to compare this book to anything else I might call it a horror version of Italo Calvino's CosmicComics. If i had to issue a warning, it would be that some of the biological horror may be a little too much for sensitive stomachs. The author has a way of making the horrific both scary and amusing. it's a trick I hope he holds on to. Overall, Slices is a nice introduction to a very imaginative, if weird, mind.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A long overdue payment

A Debt to be Paid

Patrick Lacey

Publisher: Black T-Shirt Book

Pub. Date: July 17, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



Gillian Foster has kidnapped her own daughter, Meg, and is running from something only she hears and sees. She appears to others as schizophrenic and paranoid. She returns home only after she begins fearing for the safety of her daughter and after she inadvertently hurts her. Gillian ends up in a psychiatric facility. Flash forward 20 years later. Meg is financially struggling and is at a dead-end job. She is receiving phone calls that asks for her but delivers silence. She is seeing human-like, faceless blurs, and, like her mother did, she receives a letter promising financial help if she just signs it and "say yes". She is now questioning her own sanity and is being pursued. The only one that might help her is her mother who is still in the facility.

There's a nice mix of psychological fear, mainly that of becoming insane, and pure supernatural terror. It is no spoiler to say that something is indeed after Gillian and Meg yet the added-on trauma of being unable to know if it is real is played nicely here. A Debt to be Paid is a solid horror story that delivers solid scares and terror. There is also good interplay between mother and daughter as they struggle with their love but also feels betrayed by the other. An interesting social analogy appears in the story. Both mother and daughter are lured into danger by a letter promising financial help but delivering terror and uncertainty. Whom among us have not been lured into an offer too good to be true but ended up in a quagmire they regretted? The author just takes this dilemma one more step into the weird and supernatural. For a short novella, Patrick Lacey has a lot going here and proves he has the chops to scare in a way that stays with us.

This story was first released as an ebook in 2015. But in this 2017 Kindle and paperback re-release, Lacey has added three short stories. They are all worth reading even though A Debt to be Paid remains the highlight. "In on It" suffers from being a bit too much like the title work. It features a man who, probably reading too much David Icke, sees the shape of a lizard inside a local politician. Again we have the theme of delusion vs reality except here the focus is on his friend Lisa who starts to believe he may be right. It is still a great story even if the ending left me a bit hanging. "The Lynnwood Vampires" is back with full steam ahead. A schoolteacher starts questioning his daughter's choice in boy friends amidst a surge of Goth-like teens at the school where he teach. Here again we have a nice mix of a fear many parents go through and a creepy horror ascending on the town. It becomes the fear of all parents tripled.

Lastly, we have "The Barry Effect" which feels like a cross between The Twilight Zone and Harlan Ellison's "Shatterday". It is the second best story in the collection and the most quietly horrific of the bunch. John goes to his high school reunion to meet his old school bunch but is met by quizzical faces when he asks them why Barry isn't there. None of them remember Barry. From that simple premise the author kicks it up a notch into high anxiety. It's a nicely structured short story that holds onto you.

All four stories are quite good and shows off Lacey's considerable storytelling skills. Yet it is the title novella that is the clincher and is most likely to make you nervous when your phone rings or when you get that quick and easy loan application in the mail. Good scares and quality reading.


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.

Dying off-stage

Ten Dead Comedians

Fred Van Lente

 

Publisher:  Quirk Books 

Pub. Date: July 11, 2017

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

 

 The title of Ten Dead Comedians is going to sound very familiar to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of murder mysteries. The best selling mystery of all times is Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None which was also titled Ten Little Indians and in its first printing was given the title Ten Little *insert N word*. Fortunately saner heads won out in later years. Fred Van Lent's very funny take-off on the Christie novel can be called a pastiche or even a tribute to the classic book but, like all good tributes, it adds something of its own and makes its own statement.

Fred Van Lente is primarily known as a writer of comic books and graphic novels. This is his first novel and I guess it is a compliment that it didn't make me think of graphic novels at all. It made me think of someone who has a first hand knowledge of the business of stand-up comedy and the psychological make-up of anyone who wishes to go into that brutal business. I am not sure whether he has that experience but he made me feels like he did. The premise of Ten Dead Comedians, as it is in the Agatha Christie book, involves ten people who are invited to a secluded island for somewhat vague reasons. One by one, they end up being murdered. Since it is established that no one else is on the island, the murderer has to be one of the ten. And we are off to the races.

All of Van Lente's unsuspecting victims are comedians. In fact, they are sort of a sampling of comic stereotypes. Some of them are thin disguises of well known comics such as Joan Rivers and Larry the Cable Guy. A few seem to be a combination of individuals. For instance, prop comic Oliver Rees aka Orange Baby Man appears to be a mixture of Carrot Top and Gallagher. Others seem to be more of a capsule of a particular type of comic style than any one person. The use of comic archtypes works well in this story. They shape the characters and their issues. as they play against the mysterious personage of Dustin Walker, a legend who all ten comics have a connection to and the one who invites them to his island. Walker is sort of the McGuffin in the novel. He explains via videotape why they are all there and then kills himself. Guessing the connections to Walker and how he is pulling off this mass extinction of funny people is half the fun.

Of course a book like this needs to be funny. But not so funny or outlandish that we lose the structure of the mystery. Intermittent slices of each comic's routines helps us along as we follow this who-will-do-it and who-will-croak-it. All in all it is a clever take-off on a very weird profession. Van Lente offers lots of droll and witty one liners as each comic engage each other in a competition of words and wits. I can't say any one character is very sympathetic but since we are dealing with archtypes rather than rounded characterizations, it tends to work.

When we do get to the ending, we get a satisfactory if far fetched solution. It is actually no more unrealistic than many of the convoluted endings we expect from the masters like Christie. This ends up as a satire of a particular type of mystery as well as being a parody of comics. The author takes care of the loose ends adequately and we are left with a smile on our face. I'm not sure how much more a reader of a book titled Ten Dead Comedians should expect. If you love Christie styled mysteries you will enjoy the spin.. If you love stand up comedy you will enjoy the in-jokes and the inside look at comic psyches. And if you just enjoy funny novels, you should definitely give this a try.





Saturday, July 1, 2017

Past the Red Line

Flesh Trade

David Agranoff & Edward Morris


Publisher: Grand Mal Press

Pub. date: August, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


There is a term used by evolutionary scientists describing a species that can proliferate almost anywhere. When they do proliferate, they often overcrowd and endanger the native animals. Those species are "weeds" and scientists say the most successful weed of them all is man.

In Flesh Trade it is "2384 CE (old earth calendar)" The descendants of Earth has reached far into the galaxies to the agreed upon "Red Line" where humans must end their expansion into space. However colonies do spring up past the red line and they are now lawless frontiers profiting in many criminal endeavors, especially slavery and prostitution. Governor Andall Shelton is hosting a conference of the various civilizations in the universe on the most far-reached colonized planet of the human expansion, Konstantinopolis. Many of the alien civilizations resent the human incursion and the unofficially recognized market in sexual slaves past the expansion's limit. Andall is well aware the conference will determine peace or war but is interrupted and tested when his own daughter and his daughter's friend are abducted and taken to NewKok, one of the most dangerous settlements past the red line.

David Agranoff and Edward Morris has accomplished an impressive epic in Flesh Trade. There is some nice world-building especially at the beginning. The aliens are well thought out with the aquatic Strellans being one of the most interesting. Due to their unusual sensual nature, the Strellans are most affected by the slave trade and most likely to initiate war. The socio-political atmosphere of the summit comes through at the beginning of this book and makes for some heady reading but we do not lose sight of the main characters; Andall, his wife Rizz, and his daughters Liv and Cassie. The other kidnapped girl Nalla and her mother Sun will also be playing a major role. We get a good feel for this world with its precarious politics and its corrupt underbelly but when Andall’s daughter is kidnapped the plot takes a decisive turn. Andall and Rizz, along Sun, goes past the red line to rescue them. The novel shifts to dark science fiction noir and non-stop action. Without giving away all the thrills, there are blotched rescue attempts and a last ditch Hail Mary move reminiscent of William Gibson that places Andall’s mind and soul literally in danger of annihilation.

It is that effortless switch from socio-political worldbuilding to sci-fi noir that makes this novel work so well. From a world of questionable diplomacy and government threats to another world of straight-out dog-eat-dog decadence and criminality, the authors have both down perfectly. We believe Andall in both worlds, especially when he takes on the extra baggage that is hinted at in the prologue which allows him his last chance to rescue the girls. Rizz and Sun are no wallflowers either. There is no feminine weeping and screaming here. They are immensely strong characters who will kick ass right along with, and sometimes better than, any man. The action rarely slows down. The scenes of slavery and prostitution may be a little rough for some but overall this is one tough hombre of a novel.

Flesh Trade is as good a science fiction book as they come. Right now, it is my pick for best science fiction novel of 2017. 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.