Friday, July 1, 2011

JULY, 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).

DIAPHANOUS by Roy C. Booth and R. Thomas Riley (2011 MinnKota Publications / 57 pp / eBook)

What seems like a missing persons tale quickly develops into an old-school creature feature in this nifty collaboration.  I always have a hard time reviewing these short tales without giving too much away, but suffice it to say the sense of impending doom the authors create between the worried characters creates a tension that'll have you buzzing through this in no time.

It's no easy task to pull off a monster story without a little bit of camp creeping in, but Booth and Riley have done it...and if the suspense doesn't get your goosebumps going, the wicked critters on display here surely will.  DIAPHANOUS is a fine way for any monster fan to KILL an hour or so.

CROOKED HILLS: BOOK 1 by Cullen Bunn (To be Released October, 2011 by Earwig Press / limited edition hc, tp, and eBook)

Charlie Ward and his little brother Alex recently lost their father to a hit-and-run driver.  Their mother decides to go visit her sister Mary for the summer in a little town called Crooked Hills, which turns out to be the most haunted town in America.  Although not thrilled about moving away from his friends for the summer, Charlie is intrigued by the town’s history and legends, and decides to unravel the mysteries with his cousin Marty and their friend Lisa.

What starts out as some lighthearted fun turns into a dangerous adventure for the three, especially when they discover Alex is in true peril and must be saved before something terrible happens to him.  Is Maddie Someday, the legendary witch, actually haunting Crooked Hills with her ghostly dog? Or is it just a tall tale written about in the local history books?

This is just Book One in what promises to be a great series - it’s action-packed and a lot of fun and by the end you’ll find yourself wishing Book Two was already written.

CROOKED HILLS is recommended for age nine and up, but this is not just a children’s book.  I enjoyed it very much. The book reminded me of the old GOOSEBUMPS series, but CROOKED HILLS has more bite. I expected it to have a Scooby-Doo-type ending in which the bad guy would be unmasked by the kids; however, CROOKED HILLS is a lot creepier than I thought it would be.  This is no cartoony book; there are lots of thrills and chills both young and old will enjoy.  If you want your child to start loving horror as much as you do, this is the book to give them.

-Sheri White

LET IT BLEED by S.L. Schmitz (2011 Dead Tree Comics / 348 pp / tp and eBook)

Basically a goth-re-telling of the Gospel, S.L. Schmitz's LET IT BLEED takes place in the early 80s in middle America, in the middle of an already established post-punk/industrial music scene (there's references to countless bands in the early chapters).

A young, drug-addicted punk known as "The Dead Girl" is pregnant with the Messiah while her boyfriend ("The Razorblade Boy") sings for a a punk band (and doesn't exactly treat her like the new Mother of God).  Described as having a voice that's "producing a tune so bereft of romance, erotic to the point of suicide," Razorblade Boy quickly becomes the most interesting character here, although everyone in Schmitz's dark, moody novel managed to come alive in their own unique ways (and while there's many, Schmitz wisely keeps the tale focused on a chosen few).

LET IT BLEED's strength is in its poetic prose; there's certain sentences (and even entire sections) that I re-read not only to get what the author was trying to say, but to enjoy the beauty of the wording.  Whether describing the scene in a crowded night club, demons contemplating their eternal struggle with Christ, or The Dead Girl's love for her abusive boyfriend, Schmitz makes it all read like a poem spawned from the collective auras of Peter Murphy's lyrics and the short stories of Samuel R. Delany (in particular, Delany's "Aye, And Gomorrah" from his classic collection, DRIFTGLASS).

With endless scenarios that are simultaneously beautiful and horrific, and a heartbreaking conclusion that left me wanting more, LET IT BLEED is a sure-fire hit for anyone into music or religion-based dark fiction (just make sure to take the time to read this slowly...there's much going on and Schmitz gives much food for thought).

SENSATION by Nick Mamatas (2011 PM Press / 208 pp / tp and eBook)

From Cthulhu cults to suburban nuclear bomb creators, you never know what you're gonna get when you crack open a new novel from Nick Mamatas...SENSATION is no exception.  And despite a few head-scratching moments, this was a hard one to put down.

It seems a centuries-old war between a rare species of Costa Rican wasps and an intelligent breed of spiders has spilled over into human society.  While the spiders are able to latently control people and change the course of human history, the wasps' victims are usually chaotic and cause worry among the arachnids.  In SENSATION, the wasps sting an average New Yorker named Julia who quickly begins to change into a radical anarchist after leaving her hubby during one intense sex scene (and I don't mean that in the pornographic sense).  The spiders keep dibs on Julia's movements by living inside the heads of "men of indeterminate ethnicity."  (I should state here that the first 50 pages or so feature some truly funny scenarios and dialogue...something I didn't expect from Mamatas).  When Julia begins to influence other like-minded radicals, the spiders begin to worry the wasps may be planning something big, as Julia's husband Ray watches her actions on the news, wondering what on earth is going on.

SENSATION is told from the spider's view points (and--I THINK at times--from the wasp's), and while it was a bit confusing to follow at times, Mamatas makes it work.  The underlying question here (do humans have free will or is something else controlling them?) is quite frightening, and considering this novel suggest insects are, makes this whole thing downright creepy (and I say this in a positive way).  This is another original, well-written--if uneven--tale from Mamatas that can be consumed in a sitting or two.  Now where did I put that can of Raid?...

DEADLINE by Mira Grant (2011 Orbit / Hachette Book Group / 624 pp / mmp)

Last year’s FEED, the first of Mira Grant’s “Newsflesh” series, succeeded in doing what many zombie books have tried but met with limited success to do – put a whole new spin on the familiar shambling genre. DEADLINE, its sequel, continues building upon that excellence. If it disappoints at all, it is with the agonizing but ultimately excusable reason that many second-in-a-trilogy stories have: a cliffhanger ending to leave readers clamoring for the next one. 

These aren’t so much horror novels as they are techno-medical thrillers, set in a grim near-future after two engineered viruses get out, combine, and trigger a pandemic outbreak that plunges the globe into zombie apocalypse. The virus, a dormant potential in humans and all other large mammals, could amplify without warning and turn the carrier into a savage killing machine. Anyone. Anywhere. At any time. 

Almost thirty years have gone by, meaning that a new generation has grown up in the aftermath. Security precautions and weapons are their whole world. The isolation of the internet has become safer and far preferable to gathering in groups. The blogosphere is where to find the truth, and it is the chosen domain of the After The End Times news team. 

Shaun Mason, the team’s leader, exists in his own brand of living hell following the death of his foster sister and only lifelong friend and companion … a death that came at his own hands in the merciful spirit of killing your infected loved ones before they go zombie and bite your face off. As the loved ones would want, of course, and would have done the same for you if situations were reversed. 

Shaun survived, but his life lost most of its meaning. Until, that is, a renegade researcher from the CDC turns up at his door claiming to have uncovered an even more monstrous conspiracy than the one that claimed his sister. Soon, Shaun and his team are on the job again, on the road again, on the run again from powerful enemies who want to silence them before they can get the word out. 

There are zombies, but the zombies aren’t the focus. They’re a hazard, an obstacle. The real star of the show is the culture Grant has woven, drawing upon our existing modern lore in the form of countless other books and movies, extrapolating society and behavior that would form in the wake of a rising. How things would change … attitudes, relationships, economies, everything. 

This series is a wonderfully plausible and convincing thought experiment, fleshed out (so to speak) with great characters and fast-paced action. It hits every nerve regarding our deepest fears of contagion. And somehow, at the same time, it’s cleverly written and funny as hell. 

Another year until the third one? It WILL be worth the wait … but oh do I not want to wait!

-Christine Morgan

THAT’S NOT YOUR MOMMY ANYMORE by Matt Mogk (2011 Ulysses Press / 32 pp / tp)

It’s a small, strange, zombie-infested world … the first I knew of Matt Mogk and the Zombie Research Society was while the husband and kid and I were sharing our weekly family togetherness time and viewing of the television show Wipeout. 

Mr. Mogk was one of the contestants. In his intro, he mentioned the ZRS, and before he’d gone halfway through the obstacle course, my kid had already found it online and was wheedling our permission to join. Another member in good standing? Dr. Kim Paffenroth, a friend and occasional editor of mine, who honors me by allowing me to beta-read some of his stuff. 

Naturally, we allowed the kid to sign up for the ZRS. Some months later, on a browsing-online whim, I saw and ordered this cute little book without even making the connection. When it arrived, the kid was the one to notice the ZRS emblem on the cover and recognize the author’s name. 

All weirdly fitting, somehow. So, I sat down with my kid, cuddled up on the couch, and read it aloud to her. Just like I used to when she was little, though she is now almost seventeen and could probably kick my butt at just about anything. 

THAT’S NOT YOUR MOMMY ANYMORE: A ZOMBIE TALE is written and illustrated in cheerful children’s-book style, with colorful cartoon artwork and rhyming text. It’s a perfect poke at those books aimed at helping your child cope with some difficult development or adjustment … divorce, moving, remarriage, a new baby, a death in the family … what to do when you suspect your mother has joined the ranks of the living dead … 

It is cute, charming, hilarious, a great addition to anyone’s zombie library, and probably not the best gift for a kindergartener unless he or she is already pretty warped and has understanding parents. 

-Christine Morgan

BIGFOOT WAR 2: DEAD IN THE WOODS by Eric S. Brown (2011 Coscom Entertainment / 154pgs / tp)
Within hours of the Babble Creek massacre (BIGFOOT WAR), the Sasquatches are on the move.   They are on the hunt for more humans, rampaging across the Southeastern United States.  A handful of survivors along with the military are attempting to make their way to safety when another horror surfaces—the dead are rising!  It seems the creatures are carriers of some kind of virus.  The military cannot defeat the giant hairy creatures or the hungry hordes of the dead.  Colonel Drake and his ragtag unit of tanks and infantry are desperately trying to contain a virus that threatens the human race while at the same time trying to stay alive long enough to get out of the quarantine zone.
Continuing right where BIGFOOT WAR left off, Eric S. Brown has upped the ante with DEAD IN THE WOODS.  It’s no longer just tribes of giant Bigfoot—or is it Bigfeet?-- that’s out to get the humans.  Brown, already a master of the zombie sub-genre, has seamlessly blended Sasquatch and zombies to give a one-two punch that no one can duck or weave.  And the twist towards the end is something I never saw coming.  The action begins almost immediately and doesn’t let up until the book is finished.  BIGFOOT WAR 2 is fast-paced, action packed and in my opinion, bleak as all Hell—and I loved every minute of it!  Do not miss this book!

-Colleen Wanglund

THE DOPPELGANGER SONG by Caitlin Sumer and Bill Shears (2011 InfinityBound / ebook)

Dr. Holly Ambrose, psychiatrist, and her partner Frank Zhelikhovsky, an Iraqi war vet and security expert, have been asked to consult on a case involving a young teacher who may or may not have tried to commit suicide.  Emma Ward went out the fourth floor window of the Gracewynne School, a private girls’ school in the Bronx.  Emma insists she didn’t jump and there are stories among the students of a Shadow Emma, a mysterious mirror-like image of Emma.

The definition of doppelganger is a ghostly double or counterpart of a living person.  After speaking with Emma and some of the students it seems as though Emma does indeed have a doppelganger.  Holly however is very skeptical.  As Holly and Frank’s investigation progresses there seem to be more questions than answers.  Who is Ms. Grande, the woman who runs the school and does she know about the supposed doppelganger?  What happened to Emma’s boyfriend Scott the day he died while rock climbing?  Is Emma crazy?  Is Shadow Emma really a doppelganger?

THE DOPPELGANGER SONG is a smartly written book.  I like the paranormal aspects of the story as well as the questions about Frank and Holly’s personal relationship.  The pacing is quick and consistent while keeping the reader guessing as to the final outcome until the very end.  The character development is excellent giving the reader ample background without getting bogged down in too much or unnecessary detail.  I genuinely liked Holly, Frank and Emma and no one is without their flaws.  In other words, they are all very human and realistic.  I also enjoyed the intelligent and witty dialogue, especially between Frank and Holly.  I think THE DOPPELGANGER SONG would make a great addition to your library if paranormal is your thing.

FULL DISCLOSURE-my daughter Darlene Wanglund did the cover art and I think it’s great.

-Colleen Wanglund

NIGHTJACK by Tom Piccirilli (2010 Crossroad Press / 241 pp / eBook)

While Piccirilli has been pumping out the crime noir thrillers lately, this one blends bizarre elements not seen since his novel NOVEMBER MOURNS.

Pace is released from a mental institution only to be abducted by three of his former ward mates, who managed to escape the hospital right after something horrible happened to the daughter of wealthy industrialist Alexandra Kaltzas.  All four of Piccirilli's characters suffer from Multiple Personality Disorder, and it's up to Pace to try and discover which one (presumably) raped Cassandra Kaltzas--and being there's so many personalities here, the suspect list is nearly endless (the mystery of just who Cassandra was/is helps drive the tale at a break-neck--ummm--pace).

But Pace has a dark history of his own: after watching his wife burn to death in a mob-orchestrated restaurant arson, an inner demon known as Nightjack had come out of him and managed to slaughter all those responsible (and the constant wait for Nightjack to re-emerge gives this novel nearly non-stop suspense).

As our foursome face constant danger and hitmen sent by Kaltzas, they eventually find themselves on an isolated Greek island, owned by the revenge-hungry tycoon, in an all-out brain-trip of action, dark fantasy, and endless questions (and while I admit to being confused at times due to so many characters popping out of our group, Piccirilli manages to tie things up at the if you go in don't let the insanity turn you off!).

NIGHTJACK is yet another satisfying yarn, sure to please the author's continually-growing legion of fans (kudos here for some dark and slick humor).

LILITH’S REVENGE AND OTHER STORIES OF FEMME FATALE by S.A. Gambino (2011 Panic Press/ 87 pp/ tp)

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned….and that truth is glaringly evident in LILITH’S REVENGE.  This collection of short stories all revolve around women getting revenge on a man who has wronged them or hurt them in some way.  In some of the stories Lilith aids in the revenge, in others the women manage very nicely on their own. 
The book begins with a prologue that reads as a poetic warning to men everywhere.  The first story “Lilith’s Revenge” tells of Lilith waking from a 200 year imprisonment and having her revenge on the town of Elmwood that punished her for being Satan’s succubus.

Among my favorite stories are “Recluse” about a serial rapist/killer who meets his match in Lilith; “The Awakening” about Susan and how as a zombie she is determined to find her husband; and “Monster” about 12-year-old Sharon who is determined to take revenge on her step-father for his sexual abuse over the last five years.  “Monster” is definitely not for the squeamish.

Most of the stories have an eroticism to them, some more overt than others.  S.A. Gambino’s imagination knows no bounds with stories ranging from zombies to werewolves to vampires.  The stories are violent, disturbing and beautifully written.   LILITH’S REVENGE is a quick and entertaining read.  I loved it.

-Colleen Wanglund

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