Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NOVEMBER, 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).

HELLHOLE by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (2011 TOR / 532 pp / hc)

After a five-year struggle against the corrupt governemnt of the Constellation, General Tiber Maximilian Adolphus fails to win a crucial battle for the key planet of Sonjeera.  But instead of execution, Diadem Michella Duchenet decides to exile him to a bleak planet located in the Deep Zone, a (mostly) unexplored space region comprised of fifty-four planets.  Adolphus accepts her decision, despite the Diadem labeling the planet "Hallholme" after the man responsible for defeating him.

Flash forward ten years.

General Adolphus has managed to survive Hallholmes' brutal and unpredictable weather patterns and scarce resources.  Other criminals, outcasts, and defectors to the Constellation are welcome at Hallholme, and most of them pledge their allegiance to Adolphus.

While the planet is known as "Hellhole" throughout the Dead Zone and the Crown Jewel Worlds, the strong manage to survive--and Adolphus begins to plan a way to fight back against the Diadem and General Hallholme, a man who used a barbaric tactic to win the Battle of Sonjeera.  He also manages to get most of the planets in the Deep Zone to back his cause.

This first of Herbert & Anderson's planned three-part epic moves forward quickly: two men hired by Adolphus to explore Hallholme discover an ancient alien race.  The Xayans--natives to Hallholme until an asteroid strike ruined their planet 500 years ago--have survived in mercury-like pools, waiting centuries for someone to find them.  When Vincent's friend Fernando falls into a pool, he's "possessed" by one of the aliens.  Fernando (and Zairic, his Xayan host) now share Fernando's body, and with Adolphus' permission, persuade other humans to help resurrect the Xayan race.  With super-human powers (including telemancy), the Xayans become allies with the Adolphus in his quest...and the stage is set to battle the Constellation's massive army in the next installment.

HELLHOLE is chock-full of interesting characters, is packed with political and intergalactic intrigue, features bizarre religious cults, and has a couple of unusual romances behind the action.  There's also four surviving native Xayans who get discovered; with their humanoid/catepillar-like bodies and artistic, philosophic ways, there's a lot of promise with them for the next two novels.

While some readers found this tedious and typical, I was sucked right in, and trekked through its 500+ pages in no time (I'm assuming HELLHOLE's negative reviews came from anal-retentive fans of "epic" scifi...something I only partake in on occassion).

Here's hoping the authors take this fine introduction and make the series explode...

Smell Rating: 4

FANGTOOTH by Shaun Jeffrey (2011 Dark Regions Press / 233 / tp )

Bruce and his teenage son Jack move to the small fishing village of Mulberry, hoping for a fresh start after the death of his wife.  At first Bruce and Jack are greeted pleasantly enough until an accident claims the life of a tourist.  Then some of the townspeople become openly hostile.

Erin is a marine biologist doing research in Mulberry for a deep-sea drilling company.  While out on a dive she sees a creature that couldn’t possibly exist and almost loses her life.  The Fangtooth shouldn’t exist in its large and deadly form, but it does, and there’s more than one out there.  They have adapted into the perfect killing machine and the whole town will discover how deadly some sea creatures can be.

I liked the basic story of FANGTOOTH and the fact that it’s a good old fashioned monster tale.  The action begins pretty quickly and moves at a nice pace, and there was a nice side story dealing with drug-running that totally worked.  Character development was pretty good, for the most part but about halfway through the story some characters’ traits changed suddenly and rather unbelievably.  For example, Captain Zander was initially a crazy hard-ass brute; then he does almost a complete one-eighty and is suddenly a “good man”, vowing to protect the same kid he was all set to kill earlier in the story.  A few of the characters suddenly became too good to be true and parts of the story just read as cliché to me.  FANGTOOTH is good, but not great….an average read.

-Colleen Wanglund

ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD by Kendare Blake (2011 Tor Teen / 316 pp / hc)

In author Blake's world, there are two kinds of ghosts: the passive type and the murderous.  Cas Lowood is a teenager living with his mom who has inherited a rare gift from his late father: the ability to "re-kill" murderous ghosts with a special knife handed down to him.  Called to rid a small west coast town of a mysterious ghost known as Anna, things take a rough turn when Cas finds himself unable to kill her...especially after they begin to develop feelings for one another.

It turns out a strange spirit creature has been causing Anna to kill...one of her victims a popular jock named Mike whose friends are now furious, although they reluctantly help Cas deal with the Anna situation.  Along with a cute, popular girl from school, his friend Thomas and his occult-hippie uncle, Mike's 2 jock friends, and even his white witch mother, whose herbal spells help protect the group.

I don't read much Young Adult fiction, and was surprised by the amount of violence and profanity here...it's definitely not for younger teens.  While I enjoyed ghost hunter Cas, it was Anna's character and back story that held my interest.  She's an innocent girl--eternally stuck in her teenage years that ended horribly in 1958--transformed into a monster by an evil "Obeahman" which the group battles at the exciting conclusion.

ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD is a fun, quick read, good to whip through this coming Halloween season.  Nothing groundbreaking...but good.

Smell Rating: 4

TALES FROM THE MIDNIGHT SHIFT by Mark Allan Gunnells (2011 Sideshow Press / 330 pp / tp)

TALES FROM THE MIDNIGHT SHIFT is a short story collection that is dark, disturbing and at times gruesome.
My favorite of the bunch is “The World’s Smallest Man” about a most bizarre carnival…let’s just say the puppy horrified me.  Other favorites include “Collector’s Market” about a very unusual, limited edition publisher that wants to publish an author’s last book; “Accidents Happen” about how the guilt of one man after a car accident literally kills him; “Jam” about a man stuck in a traffic jam that is never-ending…very cool premise; and “Acts 19:19 Party” about a book-burning party that ends quite unexpectedly for those doing the burning.

Other great stories include “Out of Print” about a bidding war over a single copy of an author’s out-of-print book; “Big Dog” about the effects of both an old and a new laptop has on a writer; “Snuff”, a revenge story with a twist; and “The Gift Certificate”, a cautionary tale about why you should never open someone else’s mail.

Mark Allan Gunnells’ collection is a total hit with no misses.  I know, there are almost always a mix of hits and misses in collections like this but I really liked every story here.  Mark wrote a lot of these stories while actually working a midnight shift, thus the title.  At the end of the book the author gives some insight into each of his stories, which is a nice way to end TALES FROM THE MIDNIGHT SHIFT.  Horror fans should add this to their own collections.

-Colleen Wanglund

FLOATING STAIRCASE by Ronald Malfi  (2011 Medallion Press / 464 pp / tb)

There’s always something to be said for the classics, and in this genre, does it GET more classic than the haunted house? Moody, broody, grim and gloomy … almost Gothic in the literary sense of the word … homes with tragic histories and new-moved-in troubled residents … where unquiet spirits are, really, only a symptom of the evil that we do to each other … Ronald Malfi’s FLOATING STAIRCASE takes all that and gives it just enough of a twist to make what’s old seem new again. 

Young couple Travis and Jodie have finally decided to move out of their flat in the city, now that Travis’ struggling career as a writer is beginning to take off. The place they’ve found is a bargain (of course!), on the lake, conveniently close to Travis’ older brother, so there’s family nearby. 

It’s a little weird right from the beginning, especially the structure poking up out of the frozen lake, the structure that looks for all the world like a floating staircase. Turns out it’s the collapsed and tipped remains of an old dock, now just a picturesque landmark and the site for daring local kids to climb and dive. 

Including the kid who used to live in the house that now belongs to Travis and Jodie. A kid who left some keepsakes hidden in a secret compartment, toys and … other things. A kid whose bedroom may have been in the windowless basement. A kid who drowned in the lake, in an incident that reminds Travis unavoidably of the most terrible moment in his own past. 

His investigations into the circumstances of the kid’s death, at first out of curiosity and then as a matter of writerly research, and then as a consuming obsession, lead Travis closer and closer to the hidden truth. If anyone will believe him. If they don’t decide he’s lost his mind. 

FLOATING STAIRCASE is a good, gripping read. Interesting characters, well-written, a neat fresh take on the trope. The style’s got a nice solidity and heft, the actual haunt-factor is all the creepier for being understated. 

It just might not be the kind of book to take with you on vacation to that nice lakeside cabin in the woods … 

-Christine Morgan

ROUGH CUT by Brian Pinkerton (2011 Bad Moon Books / 366 pp / tp)

Harry Tuttle directed a few popular horror films in the 80s.  Since then he has been churning out bad, low budget features, many which go direct to DVD or cable TV, barely keeping a cult following.  When his ex-wife marries a hot-shot Hollywood director and begins to get famous, he becomes inspired to get back on track.  The problem is, Harry finally comes to the realization that he just doesn't have it anymore.  He has become a hack.

One day he screens a new film given to him by a young wanna-be director.  The film, 'Deadly Desires,' blows Harry away; it's the most realistic, scary horror film he's seen in ages.  He strikes a deal with the new director (Marcus Stegman) to release the film, only with himself credited as director.  Marcus--badly in need of cash--eventually agrees.  Sure enough, Deadly Desires becomes a huge hit, and Harry's career seems back on track, bigger and better than before.

When a popular film critic interviews Harry, he also watches a screener DVD of Deadly Desires, and becomes convinced one of the kill scenes is too real to have been faked.  And when no one can get in touch with the actress who dies on film, all hell breaks loose: Harry realizes he has bought a genuine snuff film, and Marcus is currently at work on another one, this time targeting Harry's new girlfriend who also happens to be an actress.

ROUGH CUT features a well-crafted plot, tight writing, and a fantastic level of suspense.  Although aimed at a horror audience, this novel will also be enjoyed by fans of thrillers and crime fiction.  It's apparent Pinkerton has done his homework here: his portrayal of the ins and outs of the film business kept me as interested in the proceedings as the ever-growing tension.  You won't be bored for a second.

Smell Rating: 1

THE NEIGHBORHOOD by Kelli Owen (2011 Thunderstorm Books / 106 pp / mini-tp)

In this brief novella, Owen introduces us to the small town of Neillsville, where everyone knows each other's business and there seems to be little-to-no crime.  But when Mary finds a young girl's finger in his son's pocket while doing laundry,  THE NEIGHBORHOOD becomes a dark mystery with countless suspects, including a demanding school bus driver and a pedophile who has recently moved to the area.  The first half of the novella sort-of reminded me of classic Bentley Little and there's plenty of suspense.

A second victim's body is discovered underneath an old foot bridge (and if you hate heights as much as I do you'll be cringing during the prior chapter), making even the most innocent among the townsfolk seem guilty.

Owen's novella is an enjoyable read, although it seems like part of a much bigger story; we get to meet several tight-knit small town people who I wanted to get to know better, and there's much potential for more Neillsville short stories or even a novel.  I'll be keeping an eye out for more...

Smell Rating: 1

THAT WHICH SHOULD NOT BE by Brett J. Talley (2011 JournalStone Press / 260 pp / tp)

When Carter Weston, a student at Miskatonic University, is asked by his professor Dr. Thayerson to retrieve a book with a powerful reputation, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.  Weston is sent to the town of Anchorhead during a blizzard to find the Incendium Maleficarum, or Flame of the Witch.  While in a tavern he meets four men, each of whom has a very interesting story to tell.  Jack tells Weston of his encounter with the legendary Wendigo while on a trapping expedition.  Daniel tells of his misadventure in Eastern Europe where he inadvertently stumbled upon a cult of women intent on bringing a demon into this world.  William’s story involves an insane asylum, a professor at Miskatonic University and a cult trying to unsuccessfully awaken Cthulhu with the Necronomicon.

It is the fourth man, Captain Grey who has the book Weston is searching for.  Grey’s story of how he found the book in the first place describes a magic powerful enough to trap Grey’s ship and bring back the dead.  Grey gives up the book willingly but it is only after Weston has brought the book back to the University that he realizes his mistake.  Carter Weston must now stop Thayerson from doing what a former professor at Miskatonic failed to do—awaken Cthulhu.

Winner of JournalStone’s horror novel writing contest, Brett J. Talley has written a wonderful homage to occult horror.  Each of the stories told to our protagonist is unique and scary by itself while adding to the overall atmosphere and theme of the novel as a whole.  Each character is nicely fleshed-out and their individual stories come together beautifully.  With references to Lovecraft, Stoker and even the Bible, THAT WHICH SHOULD NOT BE reads like the best 19th and early 20th century horror stories about the occult and ancient god-like monsters.  I highly Recommend this novel and look forward to reading more by Talley in the future.

(Full disclosure: I was a judge for JournalStone’s contest and gave this novel high marks)

-Colleen Wanglund

A SERPENT UNCOILED by Simon Spurrier (2011 Headline Publishing / 416 pp / tp)

Forget urban fantasy … how about a hearty helping of occult noir? This book grabbed me from the very start and didn’t want to let go, and about knocked my socks off in the process. 

Dan Shaper is a London private eye who works the seedy and sometimes weird side of life. His clients are people who can’t, or don’t want to, go to the proper legal authorities with their problems. And Dan, in the best gumshoe tradition, has plenty of problems of his own. Shady acquaintances. Substance abuse issues. A history he’d really rather forget. 

Anyway, along comes Dan’s latest case, and it is a doozy. A man called George Glass shows up at his office, claiming to be three thousand years old, with sporadic amnesia and mystical powers. He also claims to be in danger, on a hit list from which a few names ahead of his have already been brutally eliminated. 

Dan believes in none of that stuff, of course, but money is money and Glass is offering a lot to find out who’s behind the death threats. The case plunges Dan into a bizarre underworld of psychics, tantric yoga, cults, and killings. With, of course, hired guns on his trail and a turbulent relationship with a troubled, troubling woman inextricably tied to the case. 

Though it’s set in modern times, with cell phones and the internet and everything, but you keep expecting – or at least I did! – to run across words like “dame” or other such colorful Prohibition-era slang. Funny thing, I was sure I recalled the story as having been done in first-person! But it isn’t, it’s in third, as I found upon going back for another look. It just seems so like it SHOULD be in first-person that my mind insisted on believing it was.

Loads of fun, exciting and intriguing. A definite keeper. I’ll be reading this one over again. 

-Christine Morgan

KARAOKE DEATH SQUAD by Eric Mays (2011 Copeland Valley Press / 308 pp / tp)

Odie Wharton is a hot shot on the underground karaoke bar scene in Baltimore.  Along with his off-the-wall friends, karaoke is not only something they do to kill time...it's everything from a serious sport, to a way to make extra cash...it's their way of life.  Their world is thrown into chaos when three beautiful Russian women show up one night and seemingly put the place into a trance with their rendition of Nancy Sinatra's 'These Boots are Made for Walkin'.'  Odie and his crew quickly discover there's more to these women than good voices and hot bodies when they begin to show signs of superhuman strength and other-worldly powers.

When one of Odie's crew goes missing after leaving with two of the girls, and when a few of his male buddies become pregnant, an all-out war is on between our karaoke heroes and these sexy-but-evil dames...

With Russian mobsters, a quiet man who works origami in unusual ways, and a sexy cougar who--along with her hot teenage daughter--work their karaoke like a true art, KARAOKE DEATH SQUAD is loaded with irresistible characters and often hysterical situations.  Mays' witty and inventive prose keeps the pages flipping, and his use of popular songs (and how they're sung by certain people) had me in stitches.

This action-packed novel full of slackers, sluts, and succubbi is easily one of the most entertaining novels this year.  It might even inspire you to pick up a microphone...

(There's a GREAT bonus after the novel...Mays' special top ten lists to keep in mind the next time you hit your local pub!).

Smell Rating: 2

SACRIFICE by Wrath James White (2011 Sinister Grin Press / 174 pp / tp)

Detective John Malloy is called to a most unusual crime scene: it appears some poor soul has been eaten alive by his dog...and every other animal who happened to be close enough to take a bite out of him at the time.  While investigating the case, Malloy and his partner are called to a crime in progress: this time a group of young school children are savagely attacking their teacher...along with all types of animals and insects.  Soon after this, a former heavyweight fighter is attacked in a similar manner.

Along with these bizarre murders, Malloy and his partner Mohammed Rafik are also attempting to locate several missing young girls.  When they pay a visit to the parents of one missing girl, they find no pictures of the child anywhere in the home...but they do discover a picture of the parents with a woman who they eventually learn turns out to be a voodoo priestess named Delilah.

SACRIFICE is a brutal, action-packed horror yarn with two flawed but likeable detectives and a cast that's equally as interesting.  Its take on voodoo is quite different from anything I've read before, giving Delilah a different vibe from other voodoo-novel antagonists (such as the Haitian Voudon in THE EVIL and THE EVIL RETURNS by Hugh B. Cave).  And despite it's short 174 pages, this one also manages to double as a sequel (of sorts) to Wrath's 2009 novel, THE RESURRECTIONIST.  With lean, tight prose, a satisfying conclusion and a few choice surprises, Wrath has unleashed yet another solid genre read.

Smell Rating: 2

CARNIVAL OF FEAR by J.G. Faherty (2010 Graveside Tales / 310 pp / tp)

A dark carnival has appeared in the middle of the night on Halloween eve, and the carnies are hungry for human flesh and souls.  The biggest attraction is the Haunted Castle.  When the castle is full at the stroke of midnight, everything changes.

Two groups of teens who clearly don’t like each other end up in the haunted attraction at midnight and each group find themselves fighting for their lives.  Upon entering a theme room in the Haunted Castle—witches, zombies, werewolves, etc.—the teens are transported to another world.  If they destroy the evil then they end up back in the castle, cardboard cutouts and all.  The teens discover that they must defeat the evil in each room of the attraction and then do the same in the final room at the top.  Unfortunately not everyone will make it out alive.  The final room is each teen’s own personal Hell and only one of the teens can beat his or her own Hell and save the others from theirs, as well as saving the entire town from being devoured by demons.

CARNIVAL OF FEAR is an imaginative and scary story that plays on the fears we all have when walking into a haunted attraction of some kind.  It is a Young Adult title but doesn’t read like one.  The main characters are all kids, but adults can relate to them all in one way or another.  We were scared teens, too once.  The story is well-written and has a nice flow to it.  There were a couple of instances where I thought character development was a little too much, but it didn’t get in the way of the overall story.  Faherty has written a dark and spooky story that will appeal to all ages.

-Colleen Wanglund

LIKE PORNOS FOR PSYCHOS by Wrath James White (2011 Deadite Press / 100 pp / tp and eBook)

Words spring to mind when reading anything by Wrath James White. Words like “nasty” and “vile” and “revolting.” Non-word action sounds spring to mind, too … like gagging, uneasy queasy cries, quivering whimpers and inarticulate screams. 

In a good way, of course. If there can be a good way for such things. I mean, yes, the stories in LIKE PORNO FOR PSYCHOS WILL stab straight through your eyeballs and into your brain to wrench your guts and cross your legs, but they’ll do so in a most impressive, memorable way. 

Granted, that might also not be a selling point … but then, if you pick up a book with a title and cover like this (the art depicts a woman with the skin flayed off her neck and boobies), you’d hopefully already have some idea of what you’re getting yourself into!

What you’re getting yourself into is a tall stack of horror sandwich, with poems for the bread and ten stories packed in between them. But no ordinary, tidy, safe sandwich. We’re talking “Man Vs. Food” territory here. Like, no sane person should attempt it, you might want gloves, and if you can finish in an hour without puking, you deserve a tee shirt and your name on the wall of fame. 

Seriously. There’s meat everywhere. And it’s messy. There’s sex, eating, cannibalism, cannibalistic sex, oral-genital contact in the fun and not-so-fun ways, mutilation, voracious inhumanity (in several senses; lions and demons and dogs as well as people being evil to each other), gadgets, fetishes, abuses, the works. 

My favorites of the bunch are probably “Feeding Time” (woman with a fetish and a hated husband finds a possible answer to both while getting her kink on at the zoo) and “After the Cure” (a second Sexual Revolution has unexpected consequences). 

Ironically, there’s also one story – “Fatter” – that involves body image issues, sex, and eating … and, speaking as a *ahem* woman of substance, that one hit home with uncanny accuracy. 

Now … where’s my tee shirt? 

-Christine Morgan

THE WHITE FACED BEAR by R. Scott McCoy (2010 Bellfire Press / 165 pp / tp)

Jeff Bennett returned to Kodiak, Alaska, the place of his birth to fulfill his father’s deathbed wish of having his ashes scattered on the island he so loved.  The minute Jeff sets foot on Kodiak a giant bear awakens and Jeff’s nightmare begins.  The bear is an evil magician trapped by Aouachala, a Sun’Aq shaman.  It seems Jeff’s father, a hunter, shot a member of the magician’s bear clam some forty years before and he is now seeking revenge.  Merrick and his grandfather Joe are descendants of the shaman Aouachala and they help Jeff survive the wrath of the magician and destroy the giant bear.  Joe sends Jeff and Merrick to Russia to find the skull of Aouchala and bring it back to Kodiak.  Along the way both men must deal with the deaths of their fathers and how it has affected their own lives to this point.

THE WHITE FACED BEAR is an interesting story because it’s not just about a rampaging supernatural bear.  It’s also about how Merrick and Jeff were each impacted by their fathers and how coming to terms with their respective pasts makes them stronger and able to fight back against the magician.  Character development is spot on and the story moves at break-neck speed to its inevitable and satisfying conclusion.  Both Jeff and Merrick are flawed but still very likeable men who are just trying to find their way.  The magician/giant bear is not really the focus of the story, but makes an excellent and frightening antagonist.  R. Scott McCoy’s writing is descriptive without being overdone and keeps an even and quick pace throughout.  This is definitely one to pick up if you like your horror full of the supernatural and dangerous animals.

-Colleen Wanglund

JUST LIKE HELL by Nate Southard (2011 Deadite Press / 122 pp / tp)

On some of the forums I frequent, there’s the abbreviation BBR to stand for Black Bug Room, a tag given to designate stuff likely to be ‘triggering’ or upsetting in regards to certain key sensitive issues. 

As in, what you’re about to read will agonize and infuriate, make you lose whatever faith you may have had left in this world and our species, and there’s nothing to be done for it. The diametric opposite of uplifting and inspiring. 

The title novella of this collection, “Just Like Hell,” could use a BBR tag. 

It’s hateful and cruel. It’s brutality and revenge a la “I Spit on Your Grave” crossed with the most awful of homophobic bullying tales. It’s horrific in the way of  Jack Ketchum’s THE GIRL NEXT DOOR.  It’s terrifyingly painful and difficult to read. 

It’s TOO well-written, the characters too real and believable. The usual safety zone of “hey, it’s only a story” is not available here. 

In other words, it’s probably one of best things you’ll NEVER WANT TO READ AGAIN. Much too much discomfort. Like J. F. Gonzalez’s SURVIVOR.  Like … 

Well, just like hell. Talk about aptly-titled. Yeesh. It’s a neck-deep wade through our worst fears of helplessness and witnessing the suffering of our loved ones. 

Not pretty. Not pleasant. Very, very BBR. 

Yet, at the same time, there are some vocal intolerant types out there for whom I can’t help thinking it should be required reading. Really rub their noses in the ugliness of their own dogma.

Basically, it once again proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that no matter what kind of nightmarish supernatural monsters we dream up, the worst ones are always the real ones.

Assuming you make it through those first sixty-some pages, there are four other shorter and much less soul-shreddingly grueling stories to round out the book. 

“A Team-Building Exercise” takes a black-humored look inside corporate life, “Miss Kenner and Me” is a creeptastic tale of obsessive hot-for-teacher, “Seniorita” started off by putting me strongly in mind of the cowboy ballad ‘El Paso’ but then takes a hard left turn into the bizarre, and “Work Pit Four” is a peculiar little one that left me thinking it must have been an excerpt from some longer work (Occult steampunk? Paranormalish-Victoriana?)

-Christine Morgan


 and many more...