Tuesday, July 31, 2012

August, 2012 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 MOTH SONG AND OTHER STORIES by Elliott Mabeuse (2008 eXcesscia Publishing / 131 pp / eBook)

I'm not a big fan of erotic horror, mainly because I often find the eroticism stamps out the horror and vice versa...although there's times the two can work well together.  Mabeuse's collection features some hit-or-miss offerings, beginning with 'Leaves,' a familiar and forgettable dark fantasy. But I decided to continue as the writing was quite good.

'Life in Deep Rock' is light on the erotica but heavy on the chills as a couple of scientists discover an unusual life form living within rocks; 'The Devil's Lesson' is a nice spin on the Crossroads thing, this time featuring a devil who's tired of souls and wants a pretty young guitair player's body; The title story, like 'Leaves,' seemed a bit too familiar, and 'Incubus' is basically an XXX version of the film 'The Entity.' Pass.

'The Donor' was a so-so vampire tale, as is 'Vampires on a Train.' The next to last tale, 'Hole,' is my favorite; it has great atmosphere and despite the graphic sex keeps the reader interested due to its thought provoking subtext.

I'm guessing fans of the erotic stuff may enjoy this more than I did, but Mabeuse writes well and works better for me when dealing with the less erotic pieces.

IN THE MISO SOUP by Ryu Murakami (translated by Ralph McCarthy) (2006 Penguin Books /original pub 1997 / 224 pp / tp)

Kenji is a nightlife guide in Tokyo.  His job involves taking tourists to the sex clubs in the Kabuki-cho district.  Frank, an American, has hired Kenji for three nights.  Kenji finds Frank to be a very strange man and begins to imagine him as the killer of a teenage girl whose body was found raped and mutilated in the sex district.  Kenji relays his thoughts to his girlfriend Jun, but decides he’s going to continue as Frank’s tour guide, despite his reservations.  On their second night out, Frank kills the patrons of a club but keeps Kenji alive.  When Frank lets Kenji go, he doesn’t go to the police to report the murder.  Instead he goes with Frank to a squat and listens to Frank’s story of his life and how he ended up the killer that he is.  Frank wants Kenji to do one more thing for him—take him to hear the gongs struck on New Year’s Eve.

Much like his novel AUDITION, Murakami has created flawed and broken characters trying to cope with their existence.  Frank is a savage killer who feels no remorse for what he has done.  Kenji, it seems, has fallen under a kind of spell that keeps him with Frank, even when he fears Frank will kill him as well.  Jun stands as the voice of reason that ultimately helps keep Kenji grounded and saves his life.  Murakami is a master at delving into the worst of humanity, regardless of where they come from.  I love IN THE MISO SOUP as much as I love AUDITION (both the novel and movie).  

-Colleen Wanglund

BLACKOUT by Mira Grant (2012 Orbit Books / 672 pp / tp, mmp, eBook, and Audio book)

The third in the gripping Newsflesh trilogy, which began with FEED and continued in DEADLINE, wraps things up with a serious punch. Okay, the series has become less and less zombie books and more and more sci-tech spec-fic near future thriller WITH zombies … but, in this case, it’s no bad thing. 

The post-zombie-apocalypse world established in the beginning – a viral infection causes any mammals bigger than about the size of a small dog to ‘amplify’ and return from the dead as mindless, ravenous, nearly unstoppable eating machines – is set not during the outbreak but thirty years later. A new generation has grown up with blood tests, security precautions, preparations, constant vigilance, and the fact that most of them have homage-type names drawn from the classics of the zombie movie genre. 

Such as Shaun (of the Dead) and his sister Georgia “George” (for Romero) Mason. Their adoptive parents were among the first survivors who used the internet to spread the word, and as civilization crumbled, they and bloggers like them became a major news source. Shaun and George carried on that tradition, establishing themselves and exceeding even their parents in terms of ratings and success. George got a reputation for unrelenting truth, Shaun as one of the best of the “Irwins” (a type of blogger dedicated to taking risks and poking things with sticks; named for Steve)

BLACKOUT picks up where DEADLINE left off, with Shaun and the rest of his news team on the run and in hiding. Shaun’s still hallucinating that George talks to him, and even sees her sometimes, though he knows that’s impossible … after all, he did shoot her in the head to keep her from turning into a zombie. He killed her. George is dead and gone. 

Or is she? Because, in a top-secret CDC facility, Georgia Mason wakes up to find herself a prisoner. She soon realizes that there’s a conspiracy afoot, the powers that be are afraid her brother will uncover it, and they want to use her as bait or insurance to stop him. Needless to say, loyal truth-hound George is not at all on board with this plan. 

There are zombies, yes … there’s some great fight scenes, some action and gore, even a zombie bear attack.  There’s a new infection vector that could threaten what’s left of society. The real story, though, is Shaun and George. 

One of the best aspects of these books is the all-too-plausible heightened state of fear and meek submission as The Price Of Safety. Couldn’t happen, we tell ourselves. Yeah, right. Been to the airport lately? Sure, they don’t subject us to blood tests. Yet. But, really, would it surprise anybody if that was next?

-Christine Morgan

TAUG by Matthew House (2001 / 421 pp / tp and eBook)

The author recently re-released this in 2012 but it was all new to me.  Here's an apocalyptic novel that refreshingly features zombies only as a side-note: At a secret military lab, a scientist releases a most unusual creature after experimenting with human consciousness (but believe it or not, this idea actually WORKS!). A war of angelic/demonic beings then ensues among a cast of well-crafted characters, my favorite being an Indian Shaman who has ties to other-wordly dimensions. Despite the lengthy page count, the prose moves along quickly and I wasn't bored for a minute. House also uses Christian themes in a slick way that won't make non-believers feel like they've been bashed over the head with a bible.

The only thing that hurts TAUG are the usual self-published dilemmas (in particular, much of the dialogue could've used a work-over), and being this is a re-released version for the eBook age, the author should have taken the time to have a professional edit done. But if you can look past this, TAUG is a fun end-of-days beach read that mixes horror and scif and goes down quite smoothly.

Smell Rating: 0

LORE edited by Rod Heather and Sean O’Leary (2012 The Lore Firm/ Volume 2, No. 1 / 170 pp  / tp)

LORE is a collection of short stories of speculative fiction. The cover itself is a beautiful wrap-around piece by famed artist Richard Corben.

I must first mention a story called “Splash”, a round-robin effort with each writer keeping to a thousand words and the ability to rewrite two sentences from the previous part.  The authors involved are Don Webb, Richard Lupoff, Scott Cupp, Michael Kurland, Michael Mallory, Paul DiFilippo, and Jim Kelly.  “Splash” is a weird science fiction tale surrounding three alien creatures—T’eela, Aul, and Radiant—and the state of the universe after multiple galactic wars and the destruction of Old Earth.  It’s an interesting story but one that had me confused at times.  For a round-robin story I felt the prose should have been a little tighter.  It wanders at times and doesn’t always seem to go together….but it was an admirable effort.

There is also a story by the late Brian McNaughton.  It is an unfinished tale titled “The Deposition of Leodiel Fand” about political intrigue and witchcraft that plague a Palace Guard.  It is part of a fantasy series THE THRONE OF BONES that takes place in another world.  Having never read McNaughton’s series I went into the story as a stand-alone novella and liked it.  I’m not necessarily a fan of fantasy, but the story is so well written that it doesn’t seem as though it is unfinished.  The prose is detailed, imaginative and dark, creating an eerie and somber atmosphere.

Other stories include “Toll and Trouble” by David A. Hill about revenge on a galactic scale involving the stars and the music they can make; “She Wanted to go into the Trees” by Patricia Russo about people referred to as the Sorry who are invisible to the rest of society and how one managed to move into a different plane of existence; and “Fairt Gold” by Peadar O’Guilin about places in the world where humans and fairies can interact, but the fairies have decidedly sinister reasons for meeting with the humans.

Overall LORE is a good collection of multi-genre stories full of darkness, depression, eeriness, and a somber tone.  I’m a fan of horror over scifi and fantasy so I would give the book a three out of five rating…I found it average, although I didn’t dislike any of the stories included.  If you are a fan of speculative fiction then this one is for you.

-Colleen Wanglund

WITCH WATER by Edward Lee (2012 Necro Publications / 250 pp / tp and eBook)

Ed Lee’s take on the good ol’ days of colonial witch trials? Awesome, gimme! Okay, my reaction to just about anything he writes is “awesome, gimme!” but this one was extra fun because you just know those uptight repressed wacky Puritans were REALLY into stripping and whipping women ONLY for the right reasons. 

I’d consider WITCH WATER a good starter to suggest for someone new to Lee’s work … not AS out there, depraved and hardcore as some of his other books … a fine stand-alone while giving a definite taste of what his style is all about. 

Stew Fanshawe is a big-city, high-profile successful type whose life and career are in shambles now that he’s been caught and exposed as a perv. In a move that’s part therapy (getting him away from sources of temptation) and part simply running and hiding from the shame, he takes an extended vacation in a quiet New England town that bills itself as “the Salem of New Hampshire.” 

It’s a picturesque place, especially if you want pictures of the authentic pillory in the square, the unhallowed graveyard, the inn’s museum of confession-aides and coven memorabilia, and similar cheerful touristy sightseeing opportunities. There’s also the local fortune teller, the local lager, the historic shopping district, and the visiting convention of professors of the paranormal in town. 

The inn itself was once the home of a notorious warlock and his wicked daughter, who were known to have conducted all manner of salacious and vile rituals. The longer Stew stays at the inn, the more fascinated he becomes with the place’s sordid past. It also feeds into his fetishes and perversions, having a less than optimal effect on his therapy. 

Soon, the lines between then and now get blurred. Stew’s fascination becomes obsession. There’s a gruesome murder, the discovery of an old diary, visions, nightmares, the works. 

So, yeah … a twisted history of orgies, sacrifices, blood, occultism, incest … and this is my idea of a good starter Lee novel to introduce new readers without totally plunging them into the deep end? Well … 

Well, yes, actually, yes it is. I recommended it to my husband, who’s been Lee-curious (and wanting to see why I’m so nuts about his books) as well as a history geek with an interest in Lovecraft, but hasn’t quite been able to bring himself to dive headlong into, for instance,TROLLEY NO. 1852 or the Mephistopolis right off the bat. 

He only looked at me a LITTLE bit nervously after reading it …

-Christine Morgan

BIGFOOT HUNTERS by Rick Gualtieri (2012 / 345 pp / tp and eBook)

While some think werewolves or mummies may be the next "it" monster in horror fiction, there seems to be a steady flow of Bigfoot novels/short stories being released lately, and while BIGFOOT HUNTERS may not be as memorable as Eric S. Brown's BIGFOOT WAR series, there's lots of fun to be had with this all-out monster romp.

Gualtieri's story is simple: a group of teenagers go camping in the Colorado woods and discover a  bigfoot who is much more violent than those of legend. Before long they're involved in a masive battle against the beast and a horde of others, and are eventually aided by men known as Bigfoot Hunters, who seem to have a deep knowledge of what makes these creatures tick.

While the set up here is not unlike your standard b-monster movie, Gualtieri adds a couple of surprises and keeps the reader interested due to the nearly non-stop action and carnage (in fact, some of the killings here are beyond brutal so fans of the extreme stuff might want to take a look). While some may find the gore and destruction repetitive at times, the huge cast of characters (which I understand may distract some) keeps things interesting, and the author kills some people you'd never think he would.  We also get to read the thoughts of the lead bigfoot here, something that at first I found silly but ended up enjoying. Gualtieri also manages to squeeze some nifty twists in-between all the carnage.

Despite some formatting problems, BIGFOOT HUNTERS is a fine self-published novel Sasquatch fans will have a real blast with.

Smell Rating: 0

THE BACK OF BEYOND by Alan Peter Ryan (2011 Cemetery Dance Publications / 181 pp / hc)

THE BACK OF BEYOND is a collection of four novellas that all have the idea of loneliness in common.

“Sexual Exploration is a Crime” is about Jerry, a rather dull man who goes to Brazil where he meets Renata, a professional girlfriend.  On a drive to another part of the country Jerry and Renata are in a terrible car accident and she is killed.  Once the police are done questioning Jerry and investigating the accident, they give Jerry an alarming piece of Renata’s personal property.

“The Winter’s Tale” tells the story of a man living alone next to an old churchyard, who became suddenly lonely in the middle of winter.  He decides to venture out and bring some food to a family that lives some ways down the road.  The couple is afraid of the man and they drive him away, rather violently.  The man makes it back to his home but begins to wonder about what might be inhabiting the desolate churchyard next door.

“Starvation Valley” follows an estranged father and son who decide on a whim to take a cross-country road trip from Los Angeles to New Jersey.  The trip goes slowly downhill, with each man expecting something very different.  The father remembers an isolated diner called Janey’s some years before the failed road trip.  He remembers every detail about his brief stay at Janey’s, but soon discovers Janey’s has something in common with the man’s relationship with his grown son.

“Mountain Man” is about what happens when Trask, a ranch foreman discovers old Hiram in the woods covered in blood and incoherent.  Hiram seems possessed and Trask decides to take him back to the ranch and get some help for him from the doctor.  In a moment of lucidity Hiram tells Trask that he is going to eat him.  The men decide the best course of action is to take the mountain man back to the mountain where they found him but the ride devolves into a supernatural violence.

All of the stories seem to explore the strange possibilities when people are dealing with profound loneliness.  Ryan’s prose is descriptive and flows nicely, moving each novella from weird to downright creepy.  “The Winter’s Tale” and “Starvation Valley” are dark and eerie, along the lines of psychological horror with a somber mood.  “Sexual Exploration is a Crime” and “Mountain Man” are just as dark, but quite bloody with a nod to the grotesque.  I thoroughly enjoyed THE BACK OF BEYOND and think there is something here for everyone.

-Colleen Wanglund 

DUELING MINDS edited by Brian James Freeman (2012 Cemetery Dance Publications / 152 pp / limited hc)

One piece of artwork. Six authors. It’s like a literary episode of IRON CHEF. Here’s your theme ingredient, GO! See what kind of inspirations and evocations you can come up with! Then, the six dishes will be assembled into one anthology and presented to please the palates of the judges!

Except there are no judges and everybody wins, especially the readers who get treated to half a dozen different and unique tastes. 

The piece of artwork is by Alan M. Clark, and is nicely spooky all on its own. No wonder it spurred and stirred the imagination of the talented lineup so well! 

First up is Brian Keene’s “Purple Reign,” full of fun gruesome mayhem when an ordinary town gets doused in mysterious chemical goop that turns normal people into raving maniacs.

“Bargain,” by Gary Braunbeck, takes a quick change of pace into the territory of more serious, haunting, thoughtful, emotional horrors of sorrow and regret. 

Tom Piccirilli’s “Between the Dark and the Daylight” is a terrifying thriller wherein heroes try to stop a runaway hot air balloon and go for the ride of their lives. 

“Falling off the World,” by Tim Lebbon, is another runaway-balloon story of a very different kind, hitting an uneasy nerve between Twilight Zone and Shel Silverstein. 

Jenny Orosel’s “That Which Binds” presents a disturbing and eerie tale of life, death, lost loves and second chances. 

The book finishes up with “The Breath of Bygone Spirits,” by Gerard Houarner, in which a bitter, unhappy man is drawn home to deal with familial obligations and a lot of old ghosts. 

All in all, DUELING MINDS is a good read as well as a neat example of how different writers respond to the same prompt with very diverse but all fascinating results.

-Christine Morgan

THE DEVOTED by Eric Shapiro (2012 Ravenous Shadows / 178 pp / tp)

Matthew is a member of a suicide cult.  Edgar Pike is their leader.  At one time the cult had many members but at one point most of the members left and Pike took the remaining eight members into hiding.  The press has referred to them as the Missing Nine and the police and family members are looking for them.  Pike has taken away their cell phones, but in a moment of doubt Matthew found and took his phone back.  A former member has been calling and when he speaks to Matthew, he tells him the truth….that Pike isn’t some kind of messiah.  Matthew wants to marry to Jolie and discovers a truth about Jolie and Pike that devastates him and makes his next actions clear.  

THE DEVOTED is a scary look into how a scam artist can hold sway over people and drive them to do things they might not normally do.  Shapiro’s vision of the Missing Nine and their impending suicide is beautifully detailed and quite frightening.  The story itself is told from the viewpoint of Matthew, and includes diary entries of Pike which lead to a disturbing but inevitable conclusion.  The pace is steady and sucks you into the story with an ending that is both expected but unpredictable at the same time.  An excellent read if you like the dark side of human behavior.

-Colleen Wanglund

THUNDERSTRUCK by Erik Larson (2007 Broadway Paperbacks / 480 pp / hc,tp, eBook, and audio book)

Following on the heels of THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, Larson delivers another amazing rendition of actual events and non-fiction presented in such a readable format that it’s easy to forget you’re not reading a great made-up story.

The two main threads that entertwine in THUNDERSTRUCK are Tesla and the invention of the wireless, and the Crippen murder case. What might the connection be, you could ask or wonder … I did … between the eccentric young Italian genius and the meek-seeming English doctor? 

Admittedly, I didn’t know much about either of them going into it, beyond what’s bopping around in the general Jeopardy category kind of cultural knowledge. I had no idea that Tesla was such a jerk! (or, indeed, a psychopath with mood and personality disorders, as he sure comes off in this book; though, I had read that others of history’s top inventors and geniuses were ‘eccentric’ to the point of madness). I didn’t know the full backstory or gory details of the Crippen case, or that the same investigator’s career began with Jack the Ripper and concluded with this one. Truth, fiction, stranger than, etc. Really bizarre, sometimes, the way things fit together. 

Now I do know more, and wow, what an incredible read! The way it all comes together, these two seemingly disparate series of events … the coincidences and stuff no self-respecting writer would dare make up for fear of being called on it … 

On the one side, there’s all these struggles within the scientific community, the academic rivalries and feuds, setbacks, sabotage … on the other, there’s the inside peek at a toxic marriage gone hideously wrong, and a murder that captured the attention of both sides of the pond. 

Since I’ve also been on something of a steampunk-writing kick lately, this was yet another great resource for what was going on at at time when electrical power and modern innovations were taking hold, when the pace of everything was speeding up, when communication became instantaneous, information was more readily available, and the world was getting smaller every day. 

THUNDERSTRUCK is the title and thunderstruck is what it’s liable to leave you. Certainly did me. I’ll continue to snap up anything Larson does. Being able to take all those snippets of history, all those excerpts from letters and interviews, and put them together into a damn compelling, eminently readable narrative is a kickass accomplishment.

-Christine Morgan

THE WHISPER JAR by Carole Lanham (2011 Morrigan Books 2011 / 196 pp / tp)

THE WHISPER JAR is a collection of nine stories combining a wonderful mix of horror and fantasy.  Easily my favorite of the bunch is “The Blue Word” which takes place inside a mountain fortress run by the Church for orphan children.  A zombie virus has ravaged society, although the government has managed to get it under control.  Salvation House provides a sanctuary for children deemed “special” until their eighteenth birthdays when they return to the world.  Salvation House comes under attack at times and the nuns and the children must fend off the attackers.  One young woman named Esther discovers the truth about who she is and what really happens when the special orphans leave the only home they’ve known for most of their lives.  Lanham keeps you guessing through the entire story and then hits you in the gut with and unexpected and heartbreaking ending.

Other stories include “Keepity Keep” about a pair of brothers who discover a fairy and over the years the brothers become competitive and jealous in their relationship with Petaloo the fairy, leading to a devastating conclusion; “The Good Part” about Etta who becomes a vampire and how she uses and manipulates her brother Gideon through an incestuous relationship; and “The Forgotten Orphan” about a boy who becomes a doctor’s assistant in an orphanage and discovers a secret.  There are also two poems, “The Whisper Jar” about a village in which the townsfolk keep their darkest secrets in jars; and “The Adventures of Velvet Honeybone, Girl Werewuff” about how a girl became a werewolf.

Carole Lanham writes with a touch of whimsy that draws you into what ultimately are very dark and macabre stories.  She is also able to flawlessly meld a childlike innocence with an eerie eroticism that for me really makes THE WHISPER JAR a major standout.  The stories are at times playful and then move into an almost unpredictable darkness.  This is one collection that I highly recommend if you like your horror weird and disturbing.

-Colleen Wanglund

TRIBESMEN by Adam Cesare (2012 Ravenous Shadows 2012 / 174 pp / tp)

In the 1980s Italian horror was at its height in popularity.  Producer Roland Pressberg is sending a small movie crew to a small Caribbean island to make a horror/exploitation movie using the natives as extras.  When the cast and crew arrive, the village is deserted and they stumble upon a mass grave of bones.  The natives were slaughtered and the matriarch cursed the island and anyone who set foot upon it. 
When they begin filming, things go from make-believe to gruesomely real with the death of a crew member on camera by another actor who seems to be possessed.  American actress Cynthia flees into the jungle to avoid becoming another victim in what is quickly becoming a snuff film.  Will anyone make it out alive?  More importantly, what will happen to the movie?

I’m a huge fan of Italian horror/exploitation films and I loved this book.  It took an amazing film genre and turned it into a real horror story for the small cast and crew involved.  TRIBESMAN was just as bloody and grotesque and any 80s Italian horror film and included a major dose of the supernatural.  Cesare writes without the pretense of being a cinema know-it-all….the book is about the characters and what drives their actions while trying to film a low-budget horror film.  I think any fan of horror will appreciate TRIBESMAN for what it is—a very entertaining read.

-Colleen Wanglund

THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE by Stephen King (2012 Simon & Shuster / 309 pp / hc)

If any of you have read The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, then you know how excited I was to get this book.  If you haven’t read and of the Tower books, you can still enjoy THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE, as it is a stand-alone book in its own right. 
Falling between books four (WIZARD AND GLASS) and five (WOLVES OF THE CALLA), KEYHOLE finds the gunslinger Roland, Eddie, Suzannah, Jake and the bumbler Oy seeking shelter before they are overrun by a deadly storm.  They hunker down in a stone church in an abandoned town and not being able to sleep, Roland tells the group about a time when he was still a rookie gunslinger and sent to investigate a possible shape shifter.  The town is on the very edge of the inhabited world and someone or something is tearing people apart.  The only witness to the carnage is a scared young boy who saw his father killed.
In order to help the boy relax, Roland tells him a story that his mother used to him when Roland was a boy.  That story is about Tim Stoutheart, who ventures into the most dangerous part of the forest around his village to avenge his father’s murder.  In the telling of the story, Roland hypnotizes the boy so he can tell what he knows, helping Roland catch the murdering shape shifter.  Roland finishes his story and the storm has passed, enabling the group to continue on their journey.

Like the rest of the Dark Tower series, KEYHOLE weaves a detailed and imaginative story (or in this case stories) that fits perfectly with the series while still maintaining stand-alone status.  It is dark but hopeful, relaying a strength found in the young boys (and young Roland himself) that leads to an optimistic ending for the group listening.  If you’re a King fan and especially a Dark Tower fan then THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE is a must-have book.

-Colleen Wanglund


The HFR staff continues to chew through a recent influx of review material...

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