Saturday, April 2, 2011

April 2011 Reviews


(NOTE: The "smell ratings" at the end of some reviews rate the actual SMELL of the book and have nothing to do with the story.  Smell Ratings: 5 = excellent, 1 = odorless, 2-4 = you figure it out.  Book Key: hc = hardcover / tp = trade paperback / mmp - mass market paperback / rarer forms described.  Unless otherwise noted, all reviews are by Nick Cato).

THE ULTIMATE PERVERSEITIES by Kurt Newton (2010 Naked Snake Press / 90 pp / tp)

It seems I've been assaulted with several collections of horror-based poetry lately, and while I occassionally enjoy some dark verse, I'm not exactly an authority (or a huge fan) of the genre.  However, when something as fun as THE ULTIMATE PERVERSEITIES comes across my desk, I'm more than happy to spend time with some horrific rhymes...(okay--I tried).

Set up in 6 sections, Newton's poems are (usually) short and sweet and at times offer some truly ghastly scenarios.  In 'Captives of the Curious,' we meet several helpless victims in some unusual situations, my favorite being 'Dead in the Water,' about an afternoon cruise on a sailboat that goes horribly wrong.

Newton's second section, 'A Brush with the Macabre,' proved to be my favorite of the book, each poem featuring horror with a bizarro twist (check out 'Small Town Parade' and you may begin to doubt the author's sanity).

'In Sanity's Wake' offers 10 poems, including the hysterical 'Holocaust Beauty Pageant' (MAN do I love that title!).

'Forbiding Places,' takes a look at all kinds of dwellings, the best being the b-movie titled 'Slaughterhouse Girls' and 'Church Bazaar,' one of the longest (and best) pieces of the collection.

Section 5, 'Nightmare Trappings,' features another longer one titled 'Aborting the Antichrist,' which features a "shock" ending (!) and several 'Wet Dreams' most of us would rather not have.

PERVERSEITIES ends with 'Oddly Enough,' featuring a few food-based pieces, of which 'Breakfast of Champions' does a fine job of combining laughs and gags.

With plenty of artwork courtesy of Christopher Friend (whose sketch on page 74 is to die for), Newton's PERVERSEITIES is a neat little book for when you're craving some bite-sized chills (and you don't need to be a big poetry fan to enjoy it).

DYING TO LIVE: LAST RITES by Kim Paffenroth (2011 Permuted Press / 242 pp / tp)

Lucy and Truman, 2 intelligent zombies from DYING TO LIVE: LIFE SENTENCE, open this 3rd installment of Paffenroth's undead saga aboard a small boat.  They're traveling with Will and Rachel, two humans who have learned to trust them (although Rachel is a bit more apprehensive than Will).  They find a dock outside of a walled-in city named New Sparta.  Will and Rachel are allowed to enter so long as they hand their 2 zombie companions over to the city to be used in their undead labor force.  Lucy and Truman agree to this, despite figuring there will surely be rough times ahead.

Will and Rachel quickly adapt to their new home: they're given a nice little house and each of them find jobs (Rachel on a construction site, and Will with a group of men who leave the city to keep wandering zombies at bay).  They become friends with their neighbors (a couple about their age with a baby), and while Will looks forward to getting back on the water, Rachel begins to grow comfortable, enjoying all the comforts available to them in New Sparta.

Things aren't so good for Lucy and Truman.  She's forced to work with a group of fellow zombies who (like Will's job) also go outside the city looking for undead threats, and Truman winds up as the new "smart zombie" attraction at a local circus.  When he gets tired of the way the human handle him, he rebels, and is punished via electrocution for spectators to see.

When Rachel goes with her neighbor to the circus and sees Truman being tortured, she becomes convinced the citizens of New Sparta are more savage than the zombies and agrees with Will that they need to leave...after they try to rescue their zombie friends.

While I've been enjoying Paffenroth's unique apocalyptic series, this 3rd novel--while emotionally the richest of the series--felt more like an unusual drama than a horror novel.  That's not to knock it--I'm sure fans of the series will enjoy this, despite the absence of some favorite characters from the past two books (my favorite character from the 1st novel, Milton--barely seen in the 2nd--isn't even mentioned this time).  Also, the religious aspect that made the first novel so memorable is barely touched on, although Paffenroth does make up for it with his contemplations on the human (and undead) condition in a way that'd make (even) George Romero jealous.

I strongly recommend new readers read the first two novels before trying LAST RITES.  There's some zombie goodness here and there, along with a few tense scenes, but fans of the zombie subgenre looking for an all-out gut-muncher might be disappointed.  

I'd like to see a return (and an expansion) to the religious themes of the first novel should Paffenroth deliver a 4th, but regardless of which direction this series may take, readers can bet that whatever the author comes up with, it won't be the same old generic zombie story.  And for that alone, LAST RITES is worth any zombie fan's time.

EUTOPIA by David Nickle (2011 Chizine Publications / 320 pp / tp)

Sometime in 1911, Jason Thistledown's mother dies. He keeps her body in a barn and does his best to survive the rest of the snowy winter on their isolated pig farm. As soon as spring approaches, an aunt he didn't know he had shows up and explains that his mother has died of a strange illness. Jason's Aunt Germaine then takes him away from his hometown (where he learns everyone has died of the same illness) and brings him to a mountainous area of Idaho known as Eliada.

Meanwhile, Eliada is having its own problems: The Ku Klux Klan are about to lynch a negro doctor (Andrew Waggoner) who they apparently don't want working in ther hospital. But before they hang him, Dr. Wagoner sees another person about to be hanged--a strange-looking man who we later find out is a patient at the hospital's quarantine ward. Dr. Waggoner is rescued at the last minute by Sam Green, a man hired to keep order by Garrison Harper, who has set up this smal town according to his own ideals.

When Jason arrives in Eliada, it doesn't take long for Nickle to get the suspense going: his aunt allows the head doctor, Dr. Bergstrom, to place him in quarantine to make sure he isn't carring the germ that killed his hometown. After waking up strapped to an operating table, and surviving an attack by small demonic-looking creatures, Jason begins to wonder who this mysterious aunt is and why she has brought him here.

There's so much that happens after this simple premise I don't know how Nickle managed to keep the rest of the novel so tight. There's fantastic atmopshere throughout as conspiracy theories abound in this fresh take on the small-town-harboring-ancient-evil theme (at least I'm assuming the evil here is ancient). Readers will be thoroughly taken with Jason (son of an alleged gunslinger) and Dr. Waggoner (not to mention a potential germ-warfare subplot) that by the time the creatures come fully into play, they won't be taken as the goofy imps of your standard pulp novel. EUTOPIA is as frightening in its social message as it is with its religious themes, and features irresistable prose.

While EUTOPIA doesn't hit the reader over the head despite everything going on, its slow-building tension works well with several pay-offs as the end approaches, and the many subplots never slow the story down--but enhance it. A top-notch novel all around.

Smell Rating: 5+

THE GERMAN by Lee Thomas (2011 Lethe Press / 277 pp / tp)

Set in a small Texas town during World War 2, THE GERMAN twists racial and sexual prejudices into a tightly woven thriller that had me guessing until the end.

A couple of young men are found dead, one disembowled and the other hanged, both with snuffboxes stuffed in their mouhts that contain messages written in German.  Naturally, the German citizens of the town are suspect, especially Ernst Lang, a quiet yet authoratative man who lives across the street from young Tim Randall.

Tim's father is overseas "fighting the good fight," while his mother works the night shift at a factory.  Tim sneaks out when she's gone with his best friend, Bum, and one night they decide to spy on Mr. Lang.  A few older teenagers catch Tim peeking through Lang's window and when they see him having sex with another man, they become convinced Lang must be the murderer.

On the case is Sheriff Tom Rabbit, continually attempting to give the German suspects the benefit of the doubt while trying to keep the increasingly rowdy, blood-thirsty natives at bay.  He's a likeable enough character who shines during the surprising finale.

Thomas paints a dark portrait of paranoid small-town ideology and of man's refusal to allow logic to rule over his self-imposed passions.  In doing so he skillfully builds the reader's liking for both the young, patriotic Tim as well as the former socialist, Nazi party leader, Ernst.  Ernst is a gay man who doesn't fit gay stereotypes: he's a rugged, tough ex-soldier who can take just about anyone in a bar fight and defends his personal choices in ways that confound all he speaks to.  His reasons for leaving Germany make it difficult for Sheriff Tom to view him as a suspect, which increases the mystery and gives the novel a sense of "it could truly be anyone."

Like any memorable thriller, there's plenty of tension and a pace that makes it hard to put down.  Thomas also (as with his novel, THE DUST OF WONDERLAND) weaves homosexuality purposefully into the story, not as a means of exploitation.  There's also a grim torture scene reminiscent of Jack Ketchum's THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, making THE GERMAN a bit more horror-edged than your standard mainstream thriller.

I've been watching Thomas grow as a writer since his debut novel, STAINED, was released back in 2004, and in a relatively short period of time his chops have become slick and his prose poetic and smooth, yet always able to genuinely chill the spine.  THE GERMAN is a fine example of an author who handles his craft like a seasoned vet, and is able to blend genres in a way that should appeal to different audiences.

Smell Rating: 2

BLOODY CARNIVAL edited by Jessy Marie Roberts (2010 Pill Hill Press/ tp / 290 pp)

BLOODY CARNIVAL is a thirty-four story anthology of all things scary and gruesome about the world of carnivals, amusement parks, roadside attractions and circuses.  These stories are chock full of zombies, ghouls, ghosts and of course, freaky clowns.

My favorite story of the bunch is “Nightmare at 200 Feet” by Darin Kennedy about a Ferris Wheel ride gone horribly wrong (never mind the fact that I’m absolutely terrified of Ferris Wheels).  Another favorite is “Canto Carnascialesco” by Carnell about a first date to a carnival that is rudely interrupted by the appearance of zombies.  I also enjoyed “The Really Big Prize” by Robert Essig, about an obnoxious young woman who gets the prize she truly deserves.

Other notable stories include “The Fairground Attraction” by Frank Roger about a very unusual house of illusions; “The Popcorn Challenge” by Scott Cole about a man who wishes to work for his landlord’s carnival and the strange test he must undergo; “The In-Between World” by Lee Pletzers about a woman and her fear of clowns; and “Carnival of the Damned” by Shawn Cook about a carnival that is literally Hell on its performers.

As with any collection there are bound to be some not-so-great stories.  “Tears of a Clown” by Matthew S. Dent is about a man who comes face to face with a clown out of a nightmare.  “Ghostface and the Last Ride of Boots Gurney” by Kent Alyn is about the drugging of rodeo bulls and the zombies they become.  “This Circus, These Roots” by Wayne Goodchild is about a man seeking revenge on the town who ran him and his father out years before.  None of these are bad stories I just thought they were maybe a little TOO fantastic.

Overall BLOODY CARNIVAL is a BLOODY good collection.

-Colleen Wanglund

BONE MARROW STEW by Tim Curran (2011 Tasmaniac Publications / limited hc / 460 pp)

BONE MARROW STEW is a fantastic short story collection from Tim Curran.  With stories ranging from a man who can resurrect the dead in Paris, a theoretical physicist who sees into another dimension, the people caught in the middle of a migration of epic proportions on a mining colony and the things the men on a prison road crew actually do, there is something here for everyone.

My favorite story in the collection (although it’s hard to choose) is “The Chattering of Tiny Teeth” about the things seen on a muddy, trench-filled battlefield in Flanders during World War I; it’s so much worse than the dead, dying and usual horrors of war.  Another favorite of mine is “Queen of Spades” about a group of children trying to scrape out an existence in a bombed out city during World War II; what’s come looking for these children may be worse than the Nazi soldiers they were able to hide from.  And how could I possibly leave out “The Legend of Black Betty”, a tale about zombies and voodoo in the Old West.

Other great stories include “The Puppeteer” about the things that puppets may be able to do when no one is looking; “One Dark September Night…” about the scars one man has carried from a night with his friends; “The Architecture of Pestilence” about a snake-oil salesman and the consequences of his actions; and “Reign of the Eater” about the bringer of death….this one reads like dark poetry.

BONE MARROW STEW is an amazing collection.  Tim Curran has a way of writing that draws you into the story--it’s as if you’re really there.  You can almost hear the sounds and smell the smells.  His prose is descriptive, dark and visceral.  The introduction by Simon Clark and artwork by Keith Minion (the cover was designed by Deena Warner) just add to the collection.  If you’ve never read anything by Tim Curran this is a good place to start.  Have I mentioned that I’m a huge Tim Curran fan?

-Colleen Wanglund

DEATHWATCH by Lisa Mannetti (2010 Shadowfall Publications / 158 pp / e-book)

Like her debut novel, THE GENTLING BOX, the two novellas collected in DEATHWATCH are historical (set in the late 19th century) and offer some genuine chills and disturbing scenarios.

In DISSOLUTION, young medical student Stuart Granville is lured into helping a surgeon separate his twin daughters who are cojoined at the hip.  To make matters more difficult, the twins' dead mother haunts Stuart and her supernatural power becomes stronger when the twins are finally separated.  Guess how the twins and Stuart decide to get rid of the evil spirt?  I'd tell you but I don't want to ruin this nifty yarn that's overflowing with great gothic atmosphere and dread that builds on every page.

In THE SHEILA NA GIG, teenager Tom Smith reveals why he's leaving Ireland for America to a drunken passenger in the bottom of a ship he manages to bribe his way aboard.  Tom's recounting of his dysfunctional family and a powerful idol had me reading through it at top speed and the conclusion was quite satisfying.

While I thought DISSOLUTION was the better of the two, they're both solid horror stories that are perfect for late-night reading, and both feature atmosphere that make things as interesting as the characters and ideas.

DEATHWATCH is a great hold-over until Mannetti's next novel.

EVERY SHALLOW CUT by Tom Piccirilli (2011 Chizine Publications / 162 pp / tp)

Piccirilli's latest noir tale is told from the point of view of an unnamed man who we learn is a mid-list author who has lost everything: his 2nd wife, his house, and apparently most of his readership.  He lives in a car with his dog, Churchill, and decides to take a cross-country trip back to New York to visit his older brother.

Before he leaves Colorado, he hocks some of his final belongings at a pawn shop and purchases a .38 with some of the money.  After a long, tiring trip, his brother is surprised to see him, and reluctantly allows him (and Churchill) to stay for a while.

EVERY SHALLOW CUT's strength is in its slow-building suspense: we know the unnamed author is on the brink of going postal, especially when he hits Manhattan to visit his agent who has (apparently) given up on promoting his books.  The author also visits his ex-girlfriend, and though wild thoughts go through his head as they speak on her front stairs, he doesn't act on them.

An old friend in the Bronx (a psychiatric counselor and part-time author himself) offers the author his apartment to crash in, and after going through his rucksack, tries to get get the author to understand he's having a nervous breakdown.  The author leaves his friend's apartment after a few days and has a run-in with a young cop, and things quickly get ugly.

At first I felt a bit let-down by CUT's non-dramatic conclusion, but after chewing on it a while, it made me look at this "noirella" in a different way.  Piccirilli has once again created a strong, troubled character who we can't take our eyes off; we don't know if he's going to snap or let things go on as always (the ending leaves it for the reader to decide).  And as with any good story (regardless of length), we're left wanting more.

Smell Rating: 5

PRIVATE WORLDS: A REVISED ATLAS (by Scott E. Green (2009 Abbott ePublishing / ebook / 41 pgs)

PRIVATE WORLDS: A REVISED ATLAS is a collection of short (some very short) poetry which are basically commentaries on the work of others in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror.  About half of the poems were originally published in Green’s PRIVATE WORLDS in 1985 with the other poems being newer works.

The poems cover everything from the Addams Family television show, Hanna-Barbera’s cartoons, and Roger Corman’s movies to the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Isaac Asimov.  There are poems about Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, Burrough’s Tarzan, and the movies of John Ford.  One of my favorites was on Toho Studio’s kaiju films (for those of you not paying attention, that’s Godzilla and other monsters).  

Even though Green’s poems are his view of other people’s work, the poems stand alone without the cultural references.  It’s a quick read and one that I enjoyed immensely.

-Colleen Wanglund

SKULLS by Tim Marquitz (2011 Damnation Books / pb and ebook)

Jacob is a teen who hates his life.  His father is a drunk that abuses him, his mother left him, and his stepmother practically ignores him (except when she leaves behind a mess for him to clean up).  The only good thing in Jacob’s life is his girlfriend Cass, a goth-chick whose parents would never approve of Jacob.  He comes from the “wrong side of the tracks”.  One afternoon Jacob accidentally discovers a bunker hidden in the earth on Old Man Jenks’ property.  The bunker is full of skulls—human skulls.  There have been rumors about Jenks for decades after the recluse moved to town.  When Jacob looks into the eye sockets of one of the skulls he sees something that freaks him out.

Jacob doesn’t tell anyone of his discovery, but can’t stop thinking about what he’s found.  As his life begins to spiral out of control Jacob keeps returning to the bunker.  Cass is also becoming more concerned about Jacob but he can’t bring himself to talk to her about his secret.  Someone knows he’s going there because one afternoon a box with a skull is left at Jacob’s trailer for him.  Does Old Man Jenks know that Jacob has been sneaking onto his property?  Is Jenks really a murderer?  And what does he want with Jacob?  

SKULLS is a Young Adult title but it has more than enough of a story to keep plenty of adults entertained.  The setting is perfect for this rather unique story and character development is dead on.  I felt for Jacob and could also relate to him, as well as to Cass.  The pacing is excellent and easily holds the reader’s interest.  I didn’t want to stop reading the book.  Marquitz manages to keep the suspense alive throughout and when Skulls finally reaches its climax it’s a huge surprise that I never saw coming.  He manages to do that with every book he writes and I have to say, that’s my favorite kind of ending.  There’s nothing predictable about Skulls and I love that in a book.

-Colleen Wanglund

OLD MAN'S WAR by John Scalzi (2005 Tor / 316 pp / hc)

I've been on a military sci-fi binge the past few years, thanks in large part to Robert Buettner's ORPHANGE series, and I've had several people recommend this one from John Sclazi to me (and I'm glad I took the time to read it).

The Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) recruit people when they turn 75 years old to protect the human race and colonies we've started on distant planets.  They fit them with new, modified bodies that enable them to fight like advanced soldiers with the stamina of a 20 year-old, and gadgetry that'd make Heinlen himself envious.

Tired of life on earth and being without his wife, 75 year-old John Perry enlists in the CDF and on his way to their space station, meets several like-minded seniors who are about to take the same life-changing plunge.  The early parts of OLD MAN'S WAR, in which we see John being modified and trained with his new body and equipment, are quite entertaining (some even spooky), and although at times filled with technobabble, Scalzi keeps it to a minimum and I wasn't lost or bored for a second.  One of the more interesting weapons new recruits get are called BrainPals, which are basically micro-computera that are fit into the brain in which crucial data and communication can be given and received without having to utter a word (and what Perry and his new friends name their BrainPals is quite funny).  While most of this novel is serious and action-packed, there's lot of well-timed humor, especially during the first half.

Understanding that once he joins the CDF there's no returning to earth, Perry goes on his first mission to rescue a human-colonized planet from a fierce alien race.  While the mission is a success, he barely makes it out in one piece, and is rescued by a woman who looks like his late wife.  Without giving anything away, Scalzi gives this tale a heart-breaking, romantic-side story that's every bit as good as the alien battles and "skip-jumping" technology that the CDF goes into battle to protect and hopefully learn more about.

I was surprised how quickly the final battle between the CDF and an alien race known as the Rraey is, but OLD MAN'S WAR is a solid, fun read filled with neat ideas, some violent battles, and a cast that I grew to like very quickly.  I'm looking forward to reading the next 3 books in this series, and hope the coming film-version of OLD MAN'S WAR is even a quarter-as-good as this stellar novel.

Smell Rating: 5

NEXT MONTH: A LONG AWAITED magazine update, plus more reviews from the large and small press...

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1 comment:

  1. Colleen,

    Thanks for your kind words on Nightmare at 200 Feet from Bloody Carnival. I'm so glad you enjoyed the story.

    All best,
    Darin Kennedy