Monday, January 25, 2016

Reviews for the Week of January 25, 2016

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. Thank you.

SKULLCRACK CITY by Jeremy Robert Johnson (2015 Lazy Fascist Press / 344 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This is a staggeringly well-written and amazing book. The scope, the skill, the story, everything about it is just fantastic. Deep and complex, yet funny. Gory and scary, yet heartwarming.

You know that bit in Hitchhiker’s Guide about the wall of Magrathea’s factory floor? How it’s described as not just defying the imagination, but seducing and defeating it? That’s what this book does. To the imagination, to genre, to literature.

It’s … a cyberpunk Lovecraftian gritty horror thriller screwball cult action comedy conspiracy with elements of romance and family drama … the ultimate combination of so many awesome things into a gestalt beyond gestalt … all things to all people … Brian Keene referred to it as “a total mind-(bleep)” and that’s pretty much it in a nutshell.

To attempt to summarize: would-be whistleblower plunges into a drug-fueled crazy world of paranoia with extradimensional demons AND brain-eating genetically engineered monsters; desperate race against time, fate of humanity in the balance. Plus, a pet turtle who somehow, despite a spectacular cast of great characters, still steals the show.

A truly masterful masterwork. I’m calling it now: next Wonderland Award Winner, right here.

-Christine Morgan

ALL SOULS DAY by Martin Berman-Gorvine (to be released 2/1/16 by Silver Leaf Books / 412 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, I must say, this really is one of those cases that proves the rule about not judging a book by its cover … I was sent a PDF and didn’t even see the cover until I looked up the website … and good thing too because I might’ve been disinclined to give the book a chance otherwise.

That would have been a shame, because ALL SOULS DAY is a darn good read. Set in an alt-timeline aftermath version of the 1980s, the community of Chatham Forge survives intact, thanks to the intervention of the great dread god Moloch.

A mysterious Wall surrounds the town, protecting its inhabitants from the blighted world beyond. Select groups are permitted to venture through for occasional battles or raids on the Muties outside, but most are content to stay put and be safe. After all, Moloch only demands one Virgin Sacrifice a year, and is that so much to ask, all considered?

They’ve adjusted their society to a new set of laws and religion, retconning history, revamping church services and holidays. And high school. Yes, high school. The stereotypes we all know – Jock, Nerd, Punk, Slut, Nice Girl, and others – have become a rigorous caste system. Your caste determines how you must dress and behave, who you can date, how you’ll be treated, and what your adult life opportunities will be.

So, in a sense, it’s kind of a YA dystopia, but it’s one of the better-handled takes on the theme I’ve seen. Well-thought-out, internally consistent, taking fun but sharp social-commentary swipes. I was reminded in good ways of Robert Deveraux’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE HIGH.

The particular story is that of Amos, a Nerd with dating aspirations outside his caste, and Suzie, a Nice Girl with a streak of frustrated rebellion. They soon discover that not everyone in Chatham Forge is as happy with the arrangements as they pretend, and a plan gets put in motion to see about getting rid of Moloch once and for all.

My only real complaint (besides the cover) is that the ending was on the abrupt side; I wanted a bit more resolution and final wrap-up answers. All in all, a solid and satisfying good read.

-Christine Morgan

VOODOO CHILD by Wayne Simmons and Andre Duza (2015 Infected Books / 230 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

In this loving homage to 80s slasher films, Simmons and Duza introduce us to three female friends who go for a getaway in the woods for some much needed rest and relaxation, and to visit the isolated cabin where one of them was raised by her grandparents. And like any good 80s slasher film, the cover boldly proclaims this is "Based on a true story!"

As fate would have it, 3 horny jocks are also camping nearby in the Louisiana woods, and there's a legend of a young woman who was drowned in the nearby lake by the locals for being a witch.

Despite taking a bit long to set things up, at about the halfway point Duza and Simmons bring the retro goods (there's as much weed smoking as slashing at play here). We also get witch sightings, alleged possessions, and a stuffed scarecrow of sorts (see cover image above) who gets the blame for the killings, yet the reader doesn't know if someone is messing with everyone or if a supernatural element is truly at work. I found the voodoo-practicing grandparents to be the stars of the show here, as well as a middle-aged sheriff who I found more interesting than our leading ladies. That's not to say they weren't finely done, but there was something about the older characters here that worked well for me.

There are a lot of things going on in VOODOO CHILD, but it's a fun time fans of old school stalk and slash films should enjoy (after all, there are many slasher films that are all over the place, most not half as in control as this novel). I liked the supernatural element (or is it? Muhahaha!) and the authors did a fine job creating the feel of a genuine 80s slasher flick.

-Nick Cato

GHOST IN THE COGS edited by Scott Gable and C. Dombrowski (2015 Broken Eye Books / 252 pp / hardcover, trade paperback & eBook)

An anthology of 22 steampunk ghost stories … I like steampunk, I like ghost stories, I like combination themes … if you do too, then this is a book you’ll want to read. It’s got all the apparitions and automatons you could want, and then some.

My top pick this time came down to a tie:

'The Lady in the Ghastlight' by Liane Merciel for its sheer beauty of language and imagery, and its unexpected yet highly poignant and satisfying outcome … and Jonah Buck’s would-be-debunker getting a big surprise in 'T-Hex.'

I also noticed a tie for my top picks of outstanding opening line, and just have to share them:

"The day she turned eleven, Effie’s father showed her how to die" – 'Asmodeus Flight' by Siobhan Carroll.

"It is winter in Pal-em-Rasha and all the roosters have been strangled" – 'Golden Wing, Silver Eye' by Cat Hellisen.

I mean, because, well, wow, how can you NOT read on after grabbers like those?

Other faves include:

'The Shadow and the Eye' by James Lowder, who may be known as an anthologist and gamer, but is certainly no slouch in the writing department and more than proves it in this ominous tale.

Elsa S. Henry’s 'Edge of the Unknown,' in which we’re shown, whether it’s Tumblr or a Victorian finishing school for proper young ladies, that one should never underestimate the power of the fangirl.

There are, of course, a couple of nods to Carnacki, because where better for a famed occult detective? 'The Twentieth-Century Man' by Nick Mamatas and 'The Blood on the Walls' by Eddy Webb both play well with the familiar frame narrative.

So yeah, if you like ghosts, gears, gents in goggles, gutsy gals, and gaseous gadgets, this one is a definite don’t miss.

-Christine Morgan

REINCARNAGE by Ryan Harding and Jason Taverner (2015 Deadite Press / 248 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

It’s been, what, more than thirty years now that we’ve had the unstoppable slasher-killer as a genre? We know them like rock stars, some of them needing only a single name. Like the Universal Horror classic monsters, they’ve spawned tons of sequels, would-be successors, and shabby imitators.

You might think that, after all this time, there’s nothing new under that particular sun. That there’s only so many ways teenagers or hapless vacationers can get dismembered by garden tools and other creative around-the-house DIY mutilation.

But, in REINCARNAGE, Ryan Harding and Jason Taverner find a way. What if, they ask, it happened for REAL? What if there WAS a killer who couldn’t be killed, not for keeps? Who DID keep coming back, somehow, even after being seemingly put down again and again?

People would DO something, wouldn’t they? The government would have to DO something, right? National security and all that. Like if there were real, live supervillains, or aliens, right? Stick ‘em in a mega-uber prison or lab or something.

Or something. Welcome to the Kill Zone, home and stomping grounds of the maniac known as Agent Orange. Walled off and secure, monitored, it’s like a wildlife preserve without the tourists … not counting the occasional death-defying thrill seekers and daredevils … at least, that’s what most of the world thinks.

To the random group of strangers who wake up and find themselves there, well, the truth’s a rude surprise. What follows is a frantic struggle for survival as well as unraveling the mysterious conspiracy of how they ended up there.

What also follows is a grim and grisly spectacular body count. The up-close-and-personal POV style does a great job of making this anything but your usual cheer-the-mayhem slasher flick, even when it’s the obnoxious characters you thought you couldn’t wait to see get picked off in horrific, gruesome ways.

As a bonus, the entire book is laden with wonderful zingers, descriptive bits, groan-worthy jokes, and fantastic turns of phrase. But it is, don’t forget, very, VERY gory!

-Christine Morgan



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