Monday, January 6, 2020

Reviews for the Week of January 6, 2020

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GWENDY'S MAGIC FEATHER by Richard Chizmar (2019 Cemetery Dance Publications / 330 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)

I hadn’t realized there was going to be a Button Box sequel until suddenly there was one, so rather than have to wait and anticipate, I got it as a nice surprise! This time, aside from an intro by King, it’s all Richard Chizmar’s work.

We rejoin Gwendy Peterson, now all grown up, gorgeous and successful, a novelist turned congresswoman, happily married. Her biggest problem is the worry over whether she earned all these blessings, or they’re some holdover from the button box’s powers.

Her next-biggest problems are having to deal with annoying politicians (including an obnoxious President; it’s a slightly alt-universe reality), her photojournalist husband getting sent on assignment to potential war-zones, and her mom’s ongoing battles with cancer.

She’s not expecting to have the button box (and its attendant silver dollars and exquisite chocolate animals) make a sudden surprise reappearance in her life. The temptation of those buttons now, with her inside knowledge, is greater than ever. But so’s her caution.

First things first, though … she’s going home for the holidays. Home to Castle Rock, that perpetually troubled little town, which is in the grips of fear after some girls have gone missing. While her mother’s health takes a turn for the worse. Where her father’s found an old keepsake from her childhood: a little white feather she always believed was magic.

It might be up to Gwendy to save the world from itself, and sometimes saving the world means starting small, in your own home town.

Admittedly, I was hoping for more connection to previous stuff, more references to earlier characters, instead of just appearances and mentions. I wanted (and still want) to know more about the aftermath of the whole Needful Things business and the rest of those folks. Aside from that slight disappointment, though, a fine and enjoyable thought-provoking read.

-Christine Morgan

THE CAVERN by Alister Hodge (2019 Severed Press / 207 pp / eBook)

Knew from the first glimpse that this book would be just my thing … caving, cave diving, cave monsters? Plus, local history of keeping them secret and placated? Risks, thrills, sensory deprivation, terror? Bonus opal mines? Heck, yeah!

And I was not proven wrong. Tense and intense, hitting all the right notes. My only quibble, minor though it is, is that it could’ve used a punchier title. Otherwise, it might be too easy to overlook or fade into the background, which would be a shame because this is an exciting and scary read.

With some REALLY nifty monsters, too. Far beyond the pallid subterranean cannibal mutants of The Descent. More like a cross between Alien-esque xenomorphs and chameleonic aquatic reptiles, black and sleek, luminous-eyed … with the ability to camouflage or disguise themselves, hunting by echolocation and other enhanced senses, loaded with vicious talons and lamprey-like teeth … I want toys of them. In fact, a whole cavern playset.

The locals talk of what they call the Miner’s Mother, which taps and raps like a tommyknocker, but likes its offerings of blood and fresh meat. Many of the little opal mines in the area still have shrines, and those who follow the old sacrificial custom, or even go further to conceal the truth.

When a sinkhole reveals part of the vast interlinked underground system, though, news gets around fast among the community of cavers, explorers, and adventuresome types. They’re all eager to be first to get a good look. Sometimes, eager enough to bend or break the rules …

Needless to say, it doesn’t go well. After one intrepid duo vanishes without a trace, another group ignores the warnings and objections, and venture down there themselves. Also needless to say, it doesn’t go well for them, either! Or for anyone else in the area, because what lives in the caves is far from pleased at these intrusions.

-Christine Morgan

KRONOS RISING DIABLO by Max Hawthorne (2016 Far From The Tree Press / 47 pp / eBook)

A brief prologue-type installment to the Kronos Rising series, this one is set on an isolated volcanic island, a Lost World type of setting where life and evolution have gone on largely undisturbed by outside influences.

It’s home to a tribe of Cro Magnon descendants, who’ve thrived for thousands of years and developed their religion centered around the massive marine reptiles inhabiting the island’s inland sea. These great beasts are their gods … though, lately, it’s seemed the gods are in decline. Maybe even dying out.

The tribe’s new shaman/chieftain must preside over the funeral ceremony of his predecessor, hoping to establish his place and regain the gods’ favor, as well as that of his promised bride. But, times have been changing. Strange craft have been seen near the island, strange visitors have come to their shores, and the forces of fate and of nature may have other plans.

My main issue with this one was in terms of storytelling and voice; it’s meant to be from the point of view of a member of this entirely separate offshoot society, so having the author including references to things that should not in any way be part of that society’s comprehension – terms of measurement, scientific classifications, art and history and culture, etc. – kept jarring me out of immersion.

-Christine Morgan


DEAD TO HER by Sarah Pinborough (to be released 2/11/20 BY William Morrow / 400 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)

Pinborough is one of a few writers I've followed into the thriller field from their days churning out mainly horror, and while this one has all the elements of a blockbuster thriller, in the end it gets quite horrific and features a deliciously wicked cast.

Marcie marries into a ritzy community in Savannah, Georgia. Her husband, Jason Maddox, is now partners with his boss, William, who has recently become both a widower and the husband of a beautiful young woman from London, Keisha. When Keisha starts coming around to the private country clubs, Marcie swears she's flirting with her husband, and intends to friend her to not only keep up appearances, but keep an eye on her as well. Before long Marcie discovers Jason isn't the one Keisha wants, and she's thrown into an affair she could've never predicted.

As Marcie tries to stay faithful to Jason, worried she'll lose all she has gained and be forced to go back to a poor lifestyle, William is murdered, everyone is suspect, and as detectives work the case Jason and Marcie become the top suspects.

Like her previous thrillers BEHIND HER EYES and CROSS HER HEART, DEAD TO HER features plenty of twists and turns, lots of suspense and surprises, and a wicked twist ending that has become a staple of Pinborough's novels. And by wicked, I'm not only talking about who we discover is behind all the manipulation, but the entire cast, who are not only difficult-to-like elitists, but also some of the most downright evil people I've read in quite some time, which gives the novel a sense anything can happen (and for the most part, it does).

Told in four parts, this is a compulsive read featuring a slight voodoo element, giving it a flavor the author's fans from her horror days will appreciate.

-Nick Cato

SKINWRAPPER by Stephen Kozeniewski (2019 Sinister Grin Press / 80 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Of all the horrific things found in the author’s previous work, The Hematophages, the one that most captured my imagination was the concept of the skinwrappers – women who, dealing with cancer and other terrible terminal-type illnesses, have taken to space.

There, planetary factors such as gravity and environmental changes have less of an effect on their deteriorating conditions. Many of them missing skin or other body parts, being scrawny and wasted by disease and elongated by living under zero-G, they resemble living corpses, sometimes partially bandage-wrapped like mummies, often perpetually leaking blood and bodily fluids.

Icky, right? But, remember, these aren’t mindless undead. These are live humans, incurably ill, in constant pain. If their appearance alone doesn’t make them outcasts, their mental state isn’t the best, either. Between their suffering and their stigma, they’ve a right to be bitter.

Whether or not they have a right to band together, raiding for food and medical supplies, brutally killing whoever they can find after harvesting fresh blood and useful organs and body parts … well, it may be understandable; survival is survival … but it does make them some of the most feared pirates in the system.

This book, a tight, taut, tense thriller set in the Hematophages universe (a strongly feminist corporate-driven one where males are obsolete, btw, interesting and very neatly done), follows a desperate teenager trying to hide during a skinwrapper attack on her ship. It’s claustrophobic, nerve-wracking, grisly, and I read the whole thing in one sitting.

-Christine Morgan

HELL'S EMPIRE edited by John Linwood Grant (2019 Ulthar Press / 295 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

You often hear about anthology submissions that must’ve clearly been pre-existing stories altered to fit the call. Change this, add that, take out this other thing, voila and away we go, right? No one will ever know, right?

Well, that sure didn’t happen here. The theme is so narrow, so specific and precise, reworking a story would have been MORE work than writing a whole fresh new one. Which is good, and it shows. This entire book fits together so well it’s as if it was planned that way, coordinated, cooperatively written.

It’s like that WORLD WAR Z book, chronicling the events in a series of interlinked stories. Only, done by several different authors instead of just one. And instead of zombies across modern-day America, it’s England, toward the end of the Victorian age, with an incursion of the forces of Hell. Not the rest of the world, not other eras. Just that narrow zone.

Now, don’t see Victorian and automatically think ‘steampunk’. There are fantastical elements here and there – besides all the Hell stuff, that is – but it’s primarily historical, it’s military and mundane, it brings in aspects of the everyday. Above all else, delightfully so, it’s just SO British in tone and in feel throughout. There’s primness, a crispness, a propriety. The language. The aspects of class and national pride.

Although I enjoyed them all, I have to mention a few particular favorites:

“Hell at the Empire” by Marion Pitman, in which a showgirl singer initially figures the talk of people seeing demons must merely be something in the gin, until the theater she works at comes under attack.

Frank Coffman’s “Reinforcements,” told in the form of a soldier’s journal entries, well into the war, and the arrival of some unusual but far from unwelcome allies.

“The Singing Stones” by Charlotte Bond, taking a skewed look at things from the other side as a demon and his minion find their scouting mission gone awry.

Ross Baxter’s “The Mighty Mastiff” puts bravery and loyalty to the test when a tough old gunboat faces more than just the lonely isolation of the cold sea.

One of the poetic entries, Phil Breach’s “The Charge of the Wight Brigade,” would’ve had me by the title alone, but the poem itself more than lives up to its promise.

-Christine Morgan

BLOOD VERSE by Patrick James Ryan (2013 Black Bed Sheet Books / 398 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A prevailing theme throughout this collection of 27 tales demonstrates that getting what you want isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be … meet a heavyweight champ facing some challenges that can’t be bested in the ring, a scientific genius learning some hard truths about the medical industry, an eternal reward that sounds awesome at first to one self-righteous soul.

Many of the stories get very grisly, including an example of desperate survival as an injured driver finds himself pitted against patient scavengers, some grit-and-blood revenge torture in the old West, a spelling bee where the stakes have never been higher, and the storm of the millennium giving a killer the perfect cover.

There are family secrets, bitter fantasies, colliding phobias, a much-put-upon assistant trying to help his boss’ parental goals, an ancient vampire’s reaction to certain brooding sparkly paranormal romance trends (hey, as monstrous as he is, it’s kinda hard not to sympathize, y’know?)

I wanted to give a particular shout-out to “Hair,” which starts off with a nasty discovery in a dumpster, seems like it’s going to be a monster-hunty police thing, and then veers into gagworthy body horror … I don’t know if ‘favorite’ is the word I want here, but it sure is effective and squicked me mightily.

Overall, the writing and editing could have used a bit more polish. Little stuff like overuse of names in dialogue, repetitive word use, over-detailed choreography description bogging down the action scenes. But, the spirit’s there, a good sense of energy and enthusiasm. Even when the characters are unlikable, or downright loathsome, they’re entertaining to read.

-Christine Morgan

IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 2202 by Edward Lee (2019 Necro Publications / 138 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Given his more usual settings, one might not be so inclined to think LEE IN SPAAAACE, but, here we go! In a future where religion has taken firm control of society, advancing their theocratic empire around the globe, a ship has been launched on the ultimate quest – to find the actual, physical Heaven.

An extraterrestrial anomaly has been detected. Which, scans indicate, appears to be of the exact compositions and dimensions laid out in the Book of Revelation by St. John the Apostle. It doesn’t take the shape of a planet or nebula; it isn’t made of gases or simple minerals. Is it walled in jasper? Gated in gold? Does it contain the souls of those who’ve passed on? Angels? God Himself?

The C.F.S. Edessa is on a secret mission to find out. Most of the crew doesn’t even know until well into the journey. Including Sharon, a humble data integrator with no idea how sheltered her life has been … an obedient, pious, virginal young woman who regularly goes to confession, diligently takes her supplements, and abstains from foul language or sinful thought.

Many of her shipmates, however, deviate from the rules. This is still an Edward Lee book, so you can rest assured there’s plenty of cussing and sex going on. There’s also sinister plans afoot, including sabotage and murder efforts by heretic cultists.

Sarah, drawn into the intrigues after surviving one such attack, suffers some rude awakenings when she learns more about what’s really going on aboard the Edessa. She’s disturbed by the influences of a civilian remote-viewer assigned to the mission, and by her own budding attraction to a security guard.

She’ll be more disturbed yet when the ship reaches its destination, and they find out the shattering truth of what’s waiting for them in Heaven. If, that is, any of them survive to tell the tale.

A masterful blend of philosophies, sci-fi action, and horror, featuring Lee’s trademark touches throughout, this book will entertain, offend, or maybe both.

-Christine Morgan


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