Sunday, April 1, 2012

April, 2012 Reviews

11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011 Simon & Schuster / 849 pp / hc) 

I admit it, I grinned at the first mention of a certain iconic white-and-red car … and I squealed like a little girl when I realized we were paying another visit to Derry. I pounced on and eagerly devoured every familiar face, place, name, in-joke and reference. 

THAT, for me, was the best part of this book. The rest was good, too, but, c’mon, Derry! 1958 Derry! 

Because, yeah, 11/22/63 is Stephen King’s take on time travel, it’s his look at one of the watershed moments of American history, the assassination of Kennedy – the “where were you when you heard” of a generation, a key “if you could go back” question. 

It’s a huge, daunting, and ambitious project to tackle, and one that plenty of other writers have attempted with varying degrees of success. For that matter, King’s tinkered with the general idea before, in THE DEAD ZONE. So much to consider … the myriad ripples and repercussions … how even a small single change might resonate in unexpected ways … what someone’s personal duty and responsibility even ARE when it comes to foreknowledge, interference, destiny, and such concepts. 

Me, I’d be very bad as a time traveler or spacefarer, the Prime Directive and all that. I’d be a bad wildlife documentarian, let alone anything else, because if I saw some poor lost baby animal seperated from the group or left behind, I wouldn’t be able to callously stand there filming while it made those plaintive little cries. 

Do you save people? Do you avert a terrible event? How do you know that you’re doing the right thing? Does it matter? Let’s not even get into the muddle of one’s personal history and paradoxes and what if you invalidate your whole existence. 

Like I said, huge, daunting, ambitious project to tackle. King mentions in the afterword that he’d originally wanted to start this book back in 1972 but didn’t for several reasons. I’m glad he waited. I think the book NOW is much stronger, much deeper, much more philosophical and compelling, than it would have been THEN. 

Oh, right, I suppose I should do a bit of a summary, huh? Okay … Jake Epping is a divorced schoolteacher in a little Maine town, and the guy who runs the local greasy spoon diner lets him in on one shocker of a secret: a doorway to the past. To a precise moment in 1958. No matter how many times you go, that’s where and when you end up … and no matter how long you stay, only a couple minutes have gone by on this end. 

The diner owner intended to stay in the past until it caught up with that watershed moment in 1963, and then stop the assassination and save Kennedy’s life. He had gathered all the info he could, poked into the conspiracy theories, and knew that he had to be sure before he acted against Oswald. But, when his failing health meant he might not last that long, especially what with medical care what it was in that era, he realized he needed someone else to take over this crucial task. 

He chooses Jake, and sends Jake on some test runs to alter events that can be verified immediately. Jake agrees. It’ll mean living in the 1950s and 1960s, making all sorts of adjustments from major to miinor. It’ll also mean, as Jake finds out, additional complications. Like, for instance, falling in love with a woman who, in his own time, would be in her eighties … and having to weigh the dilemma of his own happiness with the possible fate of the world. 

Big league stuff, all right! Thoroughly researched, expertly written, well-thought-out … it maybe falls flat a bit toward the end, the way King epics sometimes do … but, again, c’mon, Derry, 1958? That alone for me was worth more than the price of admission!

-Christine Morgan

PITCH by William Ollie (2012 Dark Regions Press / 252 pp / tp)

In 1903, the Devil himself supernaturally saved William Pitch from an angry mob, bent on hanging him for an act of adultry.  The catch?  Every 13 years, Pitch must sacrifice a group of young boys to his Dark Master at an isolated mansion in a small West Virginian mining town.

Flash forward to 1968: Sheriff Nathan Hayes is still dealing with the death of his twin brother, as well as his dwindling police force.  A group of junior high students are dealing with a nasty old teacher, and the town is once again dealing with a new outbreak of murders, kidnappings, and other strange happenings.

And we, the readers, are asked to deal with a by-the-numbers, cliched horror novel that offers nothing new to the "ancient-evil-returns / deal-with-the-devil" thing.  Ollie (who is no slouch when it comes to occultic horror) pens his latest offering with gusto, passion, and at a quick pace, but seasoned genre fans have read this a thousand times already.

Recommended ONLY for those who can't get enough of Old Scratch...

Smell Rating: 1

RUSTING CHICKENS by Gene O’Neill (2012 Dark Regions Press / 97 pp / limited edition tp)

Well, this is one peculiar little book … I’m still not altogether sure what I think of it. Half the story, I really liked, found fascinating, and wanted to read much more of. The other half just didn’t quite catch my interest, though not through any flaw in the writing, just because it wasn’t something that catches my interest. 

It’s a YMMV situation for sure. Then again, that could be said for all books. So, with Rusting Chickens, let’s start with what I liked – I liked the chickens! And the other metal sculptures, which have this eerie way of not being in the same place or the same position they used to be. Though you never quite see them move, never quite catch them in the act. 

At least, that’s what returned Marine Rob McKenna thinks, and after everything he went through in Pakistan – coming home badly injured both physically and psychologically – he can’t be sure how far to trust his own perceptions. Or his wife, who claims not to notice anything odd at all, and whose memories of events don’t line up with his. 

Does she know about the chickens? Is she doing it on purpose? Is someone else messing with them? Who? Why? Is it madness? Paranoia? The descriptions of Rob’s inner struggle and suffering are anguishingly vivid to read. 

The descriptions of the chickens are damn creepy too. Reminded me of the hedge animals in King’s The Shining, which my aunt told me would mean the topiary at Disneyland’s Small World ride would forever after scare the hell out of me. On that score, my aunt wasn’t altogether wrong. And let’s face it, there are some unnerving pieces of sculpture and statuary out there. I’ve seen plenty. I don’t think I’d feel very comfortable having them in my yard. These chickens, rusting though they are, totally fit right in. 

The other half of the story, the part that didn’t grab me so much, involved flashbacks to Rob’s time in the military, which led to him becoming the damaged wreck of a man who now has to deal with these damn chickens. It’s the gritty horrors of war, and I’m just not such the fan of war stories. 

I came up with various theories and suspected reveals during the course of the read, and missed the mark on them all. The ending twist was a fresh, even beautiful surprise that in no way lessened the tragedies.

-Christine Morgan

OVERKILL by Robert Buettner (2010 Baen Books / 402 pp / mmp)

Fresh off his five-novel "Orphanage" series, Buettner returned in 2010 with a new series that takes place some time afterwards (there's mention here of a visit to a museum that commemortates the Psuedopod wars of those novels). I waited a while for this 2010 release to come to mass market paperback, and the wait was well worth it (in fact, I should've just sprung for the trade edition).

As a child, Jazen Parker was born on a planet where births have been outlawed.  Raised by a go-between woman, she raises him and eventually enlists him as a soldier.  Now at 23 years of age, he's a hero veteran of a brutal tank war, and is now in hiding over his illegal birth.  Enter Cutler, a sleazy capitalist who hires Parker and a sexy but lethal earthling named Kit to help him track down and capture a grezzen, one of the deadliest animals in the universe.  They live on a desloate planet where humans have built two small cities, and the chances of them capturing a grezzen (and not being eaten by some of the other wildlife) is slim to none.

After they manage to capture a female grezzen, Cutler double crosses Parker, Kit, and Zhondro, a one-time enemy of Parker who now works with them.  Cutler manages to get the grezzen back to base, figuring his human helpers will be killed.  But the son of the captured grezzen (who can communicate with the humans) discovers what's going on, and latently helps them get back to base so he can find his mother and take revenge on Cutler.

While I was expecting a military sci-fi story here, OVERKILL turned out to be a KING KONG-like monster story set in deep space, and ending back on earth.  There's some scenes of Parker's time in the tank war, but most of the novel deals with the grezzen's psychic interacting with the humans and Cutler attempting to exploit this power.  I can't remember the last time an author made readers care so much for a hideous beast (a grezzen is a huge creature weighing 11 tons, has 3 eyes, 6 legs, and is covered in muscle and hair) and I'm hoping we see more of him in UNDERCURRENTS, the second novel in the series that will be out in mass market this July (although I'm tempted to grab a trade edition right now).

I'm looking forward to the next titles in this series as Buettner has again created a group of characters that are every bit as engrossing as those in his Jason Wander ORPHANGE saga...the creatures here even more so.  The 99 short chapters and tight prose make the pages fly by.  Great stuff and must reading for monster fans.

Smell Rating: 5

BLACK TIDE by John G. Rees (2011 Black Water Books / 352 pp / tp)

The third book in a trilogy, BLACK TIDE is a prequel to ANOXIC ZONE and HALOCLINE, which tells the story of Jake, a diver called a Reuseable who discovered, with the help of his friend and fellow Reuseable Johnny, that they were vampires.

In BLACK TIDE we meet Jake before he was made into a Reuseable by Megacorp, a giant company which practically rules the world.  It is a future world where most of the planet’s natural resources have been used up and the knowledge to recreate some of humanity’s engineering feats is all but gone.  Jake’s world is dependent on the Internet and most of society just wants their instant gratification and their needs met.  Megacorp wants to make Jake a Reuseable because he is one of the best divers around….and he takes pride in doing his job the proper way.  Jake is also a decent and honorable man, so Johnny tries to prepare Jake, with the help of some friends, for his inevitable future.  Once Jake is taken by Megacorp, he spends decades struggling to keep the madness of his reality from swallowing up the person he is.

BLACK TIDE brings the story begun in ANOXIC ZONE full circle, both of Jake and the slowly disintegrating world he lives in.  The book is well-written and Rees has preserved the continuity of the first two books.  There is also excellent character development, as we get a great sense of the kind of person Jake is, as well as the others like him who struggle with maintaining their identities in a world where it seems increasingly clear that individuality doesn’t matter.  BLACK TIDE is also a cautionary tale about what can happen if we don’t appreciate and care for the natural world around us.  Modern technology is great, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of our environment…or our individuality.  I highly recommend all three of John G. Rees’ books as they bring a refreshing twist on the standard vampire tale.

-Colleen Wanglund

THE FLU by Jacqueline Druga (2011 Permuted Press / eBook and tp)

About 1/4 chick flick, 1/8 action movie, 1/8 medical thriller, and 1/3 pandemic apocalypse survival. Which, sorry to say, doesn’t quite add up to one complete book. 

It tries, with a massive cast of characters in scenes set all around the world, tries to build everything up and then bring everything together … the author manages a fairly credible job of keeping track of what’s going on … the dialogue isn’t bad but much of the prose is in passive voice or “telling” or both … might have just been too big and ambitious a project at this stage, ultimately a biting off of more than could be chewed. 

As a reader, I found it numbing and overwhelming, too prone to clutter and bloat. The romance/drama plotline was where most of that clutter and bloat occurred, with a male lead heavy-handedly presented as OMG Such A Badass and a female lead presented as ineffectual to the point of being almost offensive. 

The actual flu sections of THE FLU were well done, with some intense description and a nice job capturing the horror and helplessness of an outbreak scenario. By about the halfway point, I found myself reading for those, while skimming much of the rest.

-Christine Morgan 

WESTLAKE SOUL by Rio Youers (2012 ChiZine Publications / 187 pp / tp and eBook)
Westlake (named by his hippie parents) is a handsome, 23 year-old surfing champion with a room full of trophies.  He lives in Ontario with his parents, younger sister, and faithful dog, Hub.
While on vacation with his girlfriend Nadia, Westlake hits the surf early one morning and catches a wave that both paralyzes and puts him into a coma.  He's now in a vegetative state (physically and to the world) but inside he's very much alive.  He even gains the ability to astral-project, and uses this new-found "super power" to deal with his crippling situation and at times, to influence the decisions of those around him.  He's also able to mentally communicates with his dog, helping them to grow extremely close.
Youers' study of this young man's isolation is gripping, heart-breaking, and one of the most emotionally devastating novels I've read since Gary A. Braunbeck's THE INDIFFERENCE OF HEAVEN (a.k.a. IN SILENT GRAVES).  I challenge anyone to keep a dry eye when Westlake's family--on the eve of his impending death--watch home videos and reminice over how rich of a life Westlake led.
But WESTLAKE SOUL is more than a dark tear-jerker: we truly feel the terror and paranoia that come with living a life we have absolutely NO control over.  This is a real-life horror story that brings up issues most would rather not consider, but by the end you'll be glad you did.  A few scenes with Westlake's visiting friend and new therapist are unforgettable.
Do NOT miss this.

(NOTE: This review was originally published here: THE CROW'S CAW)

VAMPLAYERS by Rusty Fischer (2011 Medallion Press / 384 pp / tp)

Take THAT, TWILIGHT, right in the face. VAMPLAYERS is a refreshing new jab at the YA moody broody covergirl vampire scene. It owes much and hearkens back to the heyday of BUFFY, and VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE, and it’s a lighthearted spoof while also being a compelling story in its own right. 

Because, okay, there’s vampires, and while they might not sparkle (thankfully!), there are some whose purpose it is to organize and train to dispatch their more renegade kindred. The “good” vampires, if such can be said, belong to the Afterlife Academy of Dark Arts. There, the Saviors are the SWAT team, deadly vampiric commandos armed to the teeth, who go into the hot spots and put down the infestations … and the Sisters are the infiltrators, the advance scouts and spies who seek out their targets. 

Lily is a Sister. She’s Third Sister, in fact, lowest rank, and her main ambition is to pass her exam to become a Savior. In the meanwhile, however, she’s stuck doing the Sister act yet again. Another mission, another high school, another dreamboat too-perfect sexy vampboy who’s putting the moves on some hapless teenage girl … the job of the Sisters is to move in, protect her, and prevent anybody being “turned.”

This time, Lily and her Sisters Cara and Alice are bound for the Nightshade Conservatory, a posh private school, recently flagged with some of the usual warning signs of a new vamp in the vicinity. It looks like the same old routine, nothing they haven’t done hundreds of times before. 

This time, though, things go wrong for Lily from the very start. She blunders into an awkward friendship with a couple of the school nerds, she attracts the attention of the prime suspect much sooner than advised, and soon her own Sisters are snubbing her in favor of Nightshade’s Miss Popular. 

Before she knows what’s going on, Lily’s trying to handle the case on her own, instead of as part of the team. Her Sisters are supposed to have her back, not be playing cruel pranks on her. She’s supposed to be befriending the sexy vampboy’s victim, not being swayed by his charms. She’s not supposed to get close to ordinary humans, let alone develop a crush on one, let alone entangle herself in a suddenly-too-complicated love life. 

VAMPLAYERS is a delightful read, quick and fun, with believable teenage characters (even the vampires) and a couple of clever twists on the familiar lore. I’ll be handing it over to my own teenager, who is bound to get a huge kick out of it.

-Christine Morgan

77 SHADOW STREET by Dean Koontz (2011 Bantam / 464 pp / hc)

In previous reviews, I know I’ve advanced the theory that Dean Koontz peaked around the time of LIGHTNING and STRANGERS, coasted for a while, and has been on a gradually hilly decline since then. 

The new one, 77 SHADOW STREET, reinforces that theory. It’s tedious. It suffers from Unique Character Name Syndrome, and Look At My Mad Writing Skillzors Syndrome. The showoff topic this time is Indian language/culture; it’s as if Koontz discovers a new interest and proceeds to beat the reader over the head with it, like he did with surfer lingo in the Chris Snow books. 

Oh, and the vocabulary … never mind ten dollar words, we’re going for the Benjamins here. I am something of a word-phile, words are like Play-Doh to me, a full sensory experience and a toy … one of my favorite JEOPARDY categories is “Word Origins” … and when even I’m tripping over words like “deliquesced,” that I can parse from context and dissection …

I mean, dude, seriously, c’mon. There’s dumbing it down, there’s learning something every day, and there’s purposefully alienating your readers with pretentious word choices that smack them right out of the story. 

What there is of a story. See, there’s this building, at the address that serves as the title. Former Golden Age mansion, now subdivided into luxury apartments, occupied by way too many Uniquely Named and Oh-SO-Quirky characters. We know they are, because the author makes damn sure to tell us so, and remind us at every opportunity, in case we forget. Many of whom are such rehashes of other Koontzian regulars as to be painful. 

The building has a bizarre history of death and disappearances, on a regular cycle. And, guess what? The cycle’s due again. Eras and other worlds seem to fold in on each other. Strange creatures prowl the halls and mysterious people deliver cryptic warnings. Is it supernatural? Extradimensional? Alien? Demonic? 

You’d have to read it to find out, and, frankly, I don’t recommend it but I won’t spoil the thing either. If one can spoil something that is about as much a Koontz trademark as everything else in this book. 

Except for the dog. While dogs are mentioned occasionally, there’s no actual dog character, and, believe it or not, the phrase “golden retriever” does not appear until page 449.

-Christine Morgan

THE WANDERERS by Carlos Sisi (2011 Permuted Press / 27o pp / tp and eBook)

This might be one of those books you’d pick up and think, “ho-hum another zombie apocalypse,” but you would be missing a treat if you let that stop you from reading it. 

Yes, it’s the outbreak, the rising, the collapse of civilization and the struggles of a few small groups of survivors in an aftermath of the living dead … but it’s done with flair, with solid writing and satisfying characters, some intriguing twists, and some refreshing departures from a few of the standbys of the genre. 

For one thing, it’s not set in the United States. Or even in England. That right there gives THE WANDERERS a much different feel, helped along by the fact that it was originally written and published in Spanish. The translation may stumble in a spot or two, but not in a way that detracts from the reading. 

For another, and as a woman I appreciated this, there wasn’t the usual sexism, objectification, enforced whoring or omnipresent rape threats so prevalent in so many of these scenarios. As if we don’t have troubles enough what with the world ending, ladies, am I right? Bad enough we have to watch out for zombies! So, encountering female characters largely treated as equals, as fellow survivors who happen to be female … it’s kind of sad to still feel like I should point out what a nice change that was. 

Most of all, though, the descriptions in here will just about knock your socks off. The gore, the action, the fight scenes, the settings, and a thousand tiny but effective details give the story a depth and realism that reach out from the page and pull you right in. 

There’s also a heart and humanity, a poignancy, to a lot of the dialogue and most of the back stories, which really make the characters come to life, so to speak. 

They all start off facing their own private challenges – desperate teens trapped on the upper floors of an apartment, an ex-addict who learned survival the hard way before the dead started walking, the solitary and almost classical heroic journey of a natural leader, a priest who discovers his true purpose here in the End Times, a small but organized and determined group of militaristic types – and are brought together by circumstances and for reasons that don’t seem nearly as contrived or coincidental as sometimes happens. 

VERY good stuff. I recommend it as a cornerstone to anyone’s zombie library.

-Christine Morgan

LUCIFER’S LOTTERY by Edward Lee (2011 Cemetery Dance Publications / 280 pp / hc)

While preparing to enter the Seminary, theology student Hudson receives a visit from a strange woman with a message that he’s won Satan’s lottery.  Only eleven people have won this lottery since Satan’s downfall; one winner every six hundred and sixty six years.  Hudson is an almost pure soul that Lucifer wants.  Hudson decides to go to the address given in the message and there he begins his grand tour of Hell with H.P. Lovecraft as his tour guide.  Hudson sees unimaginable horrors along the way and wonders why Lucifer would think Hudson would give up eternity in Heaven upon his death.  However, Lucifer has an ace up his sleeve.

Meanwhile, Lucifer has his minions building a reservoir that is heavily guarded from prying eyes.  He wishes to build a permanent merge point between Hell and Earth.  In another part of Hell Joseph Curwen has built the largest demonculous, which will be powered by his own heart for the glory of Hell.  While all of this is going on, a terrorist group of anti-Satanists, led by the fallen angel Ezoriel plots the destruction of both the demonculous and the reservoir.  They will ultimately get an unexpected helping hand.

I could not put this book down.  The characters, both human and demon are well-written and very interesting.  I liked Hudson but could see that even though he had an almost perfect soul Hell was having an unexpected effect on him.  And I absolutely loved Howard the guide (Lovecraft).  He was so refined and yet so perfectly suited to Hell.  The story is a solid one with an awesome twist ending that I didn’t see coming.  Edward Lee paints such a vivid picture of the city and surrounding areas that is Hell, including some very graphic detail as to each district’s particular form of punishment.  I love the extreme horror of LUCIFER’S LOTTERY and its very frightening depiction of Hell.  Pick this one up, if you can.

-Colleen Wanglund

THE CAGE by Brian Keene (2012 Deadite Press / 112 pp / tp)

THE CAGE brings together a few of Keene’s earlier, hard to find, and/or hitherto out of print works in this collection consisting of one novella, two short stories, and a piece originally written to be printed on a t-shirt. 

The titular novella, “The Cage,” takes place in an electronics store, where the employees are just closing up when the final customer of the night walks in. Only, he’s not a customer, and at first what they think will be an ordinary robbery turns into anything but. Having had a friend who worked at Best Buy, I found the setting entirely believable, and think I’ve met most of those characters, too. 

The intruder is creepy, the scenario keeps getting creepier, and it builds toward a finish that … well, if you’re one of those readers who howls in agony at a Keene’s penchant for bastardly cliffhangery teasy leave-‘em-hanging endings … I’m afraid I have some bad news …

“Marriage Causes Cancer in Rats” is a nice little karma’s-a-bitch piece, in which one bad turn deserves another, and another, when in the wake of a terrible family tragedy, widower Harold Newton finds himself diagnosed with a terminal condition. 

“Lest Ye Become” is an oldie but a definite goodie … when a gunman goes on a school shoooting spree, spouting talk of monsters and inhumanity, is it madness, delusion or paranoia … or possession and infection and no one else will believe the truth until it’s too late? 

“Waiting for Darkness” is the t-shirt tale, and it packs a wicked wallop into very few words, as a kid buried neck-deep on the beach as a prank by his sister waits for her to come back.

All in all, while there is a fair amount of that agonized what-comes-NEXT?!?! Howling, THE CAGE is a good read and a lot of fun. One more bonus feature to this collection is the smattering of references and connections throughout. I always enjoy those touches in an author’s works. 

-Christine Morgan


Hal Bodner's werewolf/vampire comedy THE TROUBLE WITH HAIRY, Gregory Lamberson's THE FRENZY WAR, and FINALLY the new novel from Bentley Little, THE HAUNTED.  PLUS so many more you're head will surely spin...