Friday, February 1, 2013

February, 2013 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)

GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn (2012 Crown Publishers / 432 pp / hc)

After losing their jobs, Nick and Amy Dunne move from New York City to Nick's small hometown in Missouri to start over. Nick gets a job as a teacher but Amy--who was reluctant to move away from the city--is slowly adjusting to rural life. On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick comes home to find Amy missing, and the condition of the house suggests she has been abducted.

Flynn's plot sounds typical, but it's far from it. The first half is told from Nick's viewpoint and also through entries from Amy's diary...a diary Nick knows nothing about. Suspects abound, including old friends who were obssessed with Amy and her famous parents (they're the writers of a popular children's book series based on their daughter), and of course the cops begin to eye Nick.

But when the second section of GONE GIRL begins, Flynn pulls the bottom out and sends the story down an incredibly dark path where no one can be trusted or believed, and I was literally flipping through these pages faster than any book I've read in recent memory. This may be a mainstream "thriller," but it's sure to creep you out and make you think twice about who you're really living with.

At first I thought the highly-praised ending was only so-so, but after letting it sink in I've come to like it a lot, and believe it's the only way this one could've ended.

This is a psychological thriller that I hated to see end. Nick and Amy are two characters we both love and hate, and the seamless way Flynn makes us develop sympathy for them is a feat all its own. With cops who are smarter than we think, a sleazy scene-stealing lawyer, raging mistresses, and plenty of curveballs thrown along the way, this is one rare treat not to be missed.

Smell Rating: 4


THE LORDS OF SALEM by Rob Zombie and B.K. Evenson (to be released 3/13 by Grand Central Publishing / 324 pp / tp)

In 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, a young woman is murdered and her newborn child sacrificed to Satan by a coven of witches.  Samuel Mather and John Hawthorne are witch hunters and they have proof of witchcraft.  The men have called on Dean and Virgil Magnus to help them root out the coven.  The men arrest Margaret Morgan and the rest of the coven and they are put to death, but not before cursing Salem and the men’s descendants.

In modern-day Salem, Heidi Hawthorne is a recovering drug addict who works as a morning DJ with her friends Herman and Whitey at a local rock station.  A mysterious record album is left for Heidi, which she plays on the sophisticated sound system in her apartment with Whitey present.  The record only plays backwards and only Heidi can hear it; it puts her into a weird trance.

Whitey and Heidi bring it to the radio station the next day to do a “Smash or Trash” segment.  On the same show they interview Francis Matthias, the author of an in-depth book on the history of the Salem witch trials.  Matthias is in the studio when the record is played and sees Heidi’s weird reaction to it.  What’s even stranger, women are calling the station begging the DJs to play the record again.  Something is happening to the women of Salem and Heidi begins to see and experience nightmares.  Matthias has somehow connected the dots….but is it too late to save Heidi?

This is the novelization of Zombie’s movie of the same name starring his wife, Sheri Moon, and I heard her voice the entire time I was reading the book.  Not that that was a bad thing.  The story was pretty good—I love anything relating to witchcraft when done right.  The characters were well developed, for the most part.  I particularly enjoyed Herman and his penchant for dressing like a character from a 1970s blaxsploitation film.  In fact, THE LORDS OF SALEM reads like a 1970s exploitation/occult film, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  There were some aspects of the book that I felt were unnecessary and even gratuitous (especially a “rape “scene involving a priest in a church).  There were also times I felt as though I was being given too much detail.  One other point that bothered me was what happened to Heidi’s dog?  Her dog Steve is ever-present through seventy-five percent of the book and then he just sort of disappears suddenly with no explanation, as though he was forgotten about by the authors.  I have a major soft spot for dogs and I just wanted to know if Steve was okay.  Other than that I liked THE LORDS OF SALEM.  I’ve heard some early reviews of the movie that do not bode well, but if Rob Zombie stuck to the book then the film should be just as good.
~Colleen Wanglund

THE PROVIDENCE RIDER by Robert McCammon (2012 Subterranean Press / 416 pp / hc & eBook)

Language, tone, feel, voice, authenticity and immersion are once again the order of the day in this, the 4th of McCammon’s historical thrillers featuring young “problem-solver” Matthew Corbett. 

This time, the mysterious mastermind Professor Fell makes a direct move instead of operating from the shadows and behind the scenes. His grudge against Matthew for interfering in his previous plans has to take a back seat when the Professor finds that he needs the expertise only a “problem-solver” can provide. 

Matthew’s not inclined to help his enemy, but the Professor’s not the sort to take no for an answer. When a series of threats and violent incidents fail to convince, that leaves kidnapping as the next most reasonable option. Matthew – and, due to an unfortunate turn of luck, his friend the spunky and smitten Berry Grigsby – end up whisked away aboard a sailing ship to the Professor’s classical villain island lair. 

It’s subterfuge and deviousness on all sides from then on out. Matthew is forced to play the role of a notorious criminal to fit in with the Professor’s other guests, with Berry as his hostage to fortune. He’s faced with brutish thugs, dangerous women, battles of wits, and a sinister plot in the best sinister-plot tradition. 

THE PROVIDENCE RIDER  is actually less historical thriller and more almost steampunky pulp adventure, with Matthew becoming even more the action hero (and ladies’ man; this one’s got a sexier edge than I remember from the previous three, not that I’m by any means complaining). The characters are delightful in their larger-than-life and maybe over-the-top way. 

Greatly enjoyable, with a satisfactory enough resolution to not make the reader scream in frustration, but definitely with enough tantalizing threads left hanging so you’ll be eager for the sequel.

-Christine Morgan

DEATH RHYTHM by Joel Arnold (2010 Amazon Digital / 228 pp / eBook)

Andy Byrd has left his girlfriend after a fight, determined to get away from her for a while. But when he hits a deer and cracks up his car, he finds himself in the same town his aunt lives in. He has never met her, but she warmly takes him in while his car is fixed.

But as the days pass, Andy realizes there is a disturbing secret in his family his mother never shared with him. He also wonders why Mae’s next-door neighbors hate his family so much, even as the neighbor’s daughter, Natalie, entices him into a strange relationship.

Confused and scared, especially once Mae reveals what happened in the family’s past, Andy wants to go back to his girlfriend, but can’t break away from Mae’s home. And when Andy’s mother comes, after not talking to her sister for years, their secrets will be exposed and Andy will come to regret ever leaving his own home.

DEATH RHYTHM is a great story, full of mystery and horror. The suspense is razor-sharp and th book is impossible to put down. I wish it had also been published in paperback, because it’s one I’d love to have on my shelf.

-Sheri White


THE LATE NIGHT HORROR SHOW by Bryan Smith (to be released 3/13 by Samhain Publishing / 266 pp / tp & eBook)

A bunch of twenty-somethings living in a small town go to a horror film festival at a run-down multiplex. The festival features low budget, independent films of all types, and when they arrive they've already decided which ones they want to start with. One couple goes to a vampire film, one girl goes to see a Chainsaw Massacre rip-off, and most of them go to an apocalyptic zombie movie. When they arrive at the theater, they notice everyone working there looks similar and acts with no sense of humor.

As each film begins, a bright light flashes. Each person then finds themselves living inside the film they had gone to see. Hordes of zombies attack the tough Brix and her friends, while Lashon is chased through the woods by a chainsaw weilding maniac. Meanwhile, Kira and Monroe find themselves captive at the castle of a powerful vampire, and each one of them becomes a member of the living dead. However, one guy, Greg, is left behind in the theater, and he eventually meets with the strange Dr. Ominous, who he learns created the weird situation he and his friends are now in.

Like all Smith novels, this one's packed to the gills with gruesome violence and plenty of excitement, and I like how--when the cast realizes what's happening to them--they use the horror film cliches they're now a part of to expect what's going to happen next (although they're not always right).

When we finally learn who (or what) is fully responsible for exactly what is going on, we hit familiar territory, but thankfully the author throws in a bit more than what many may be suspecting. While this idea has been done several times as of late, Smith blends things and gives it a bit of his own spin.

Arguably the first novel to cite the obscure 80s band 'Shriekback,' and with characters sleazier than those in your typical Richard Laymon novel, this ode to b-movie horror movie-going is a lot of fun. Just don't expect too many surprises.

Smell Rating: 2

CLICKERS VS. ZOMBIES by Brian Keene and J.F. Gonzalez (2012 Deadite Press / 288 pp / tp & eBook)

Sheesh, what did that poor alternate reality ever do to you guys? Unleash the Clickers AND the Siqqusim on an unsuspecting world? At the same time? Harsh!

Okay, sure, it’s “vs.” so they end up fighting each other too, but for the hapless – not to mention soft, juicy, and tasty – humans caught in the middle, that doesn’t help a whole heck of a lot. 

Clickers are undersea monsters who combine the worst features of lobsters, crabs, and scorpions … armor plating, segmented stingers, powerful serrated claws … then ramp it up with corrosive/acidic venom … and they’re amphibious enough to scuttle quite effectively on land. As an extra added feature, this batch, stirred up from some deep oceanic trench by a quake and tsunami, can grow to HUGE sizes. Ginormous-huge. Knocking-over-buildings huge. 

The Siqqusim are the zombies from the universe of THE RISING and its sequels, evil beings that take possession of and inhabit the bodies of the dead as long as the brain’s undamaged. They’re fast, intelligent, have access to their host body’s memories, able to communicate with each other, and led by the entity known as Ob. When they kill, they try to leave the victim intact enough to function, and they are not limited to humans. Far from it. Animals, birds, fish … 

… Clickers … 

Because, really, if an acid-spewing crustacean the size of a motor home, with a stinger like a harpoon and claws that can snip through telephone poles isn’t bad enough, HOW ABOUT AN UNDEAD ONE???

It’s nonstop carnage from the moment the Clickers start swarming toward shore (driving a panicked marine stampede of other sea life before them, in what I thought a particularly neat touch), and the Siqqusim choose a good moment to catch the planet’s paranormal defenders off-guard to break through. 

Since this is an alternate reality and written in a very purposefully so manner, there’s loads of cameos, nods, grins, Easter eggs, and other little treats in store for readers familiar with the authors’ larger bodies of work. 

I do, regrettably, have to cite it for numerous apostrophe violations and a few minor editing infractions, though. They’re the only hitch to an otherwise rollicking and wildly fun read.

-Christine Morgan

FAUSTUS RESURRECTUS by Thomas Morrissey (2012 Night Shade Books / 320 pp / tp & eBook)

Donovan Graham is a morotcycle-riding bartender working in mid-town Manhattan. He's also a recent graduate of occult studies, and is engaged to Joann, who works for the district attorney. Along with a Catholic priest named Father Carroll, he helps the police on a recent string of ususual murders dealing with the signs of the zodiac. Each one is more gruesome than the last, and one involving scorpions leads to a deeper investigation that make both men question their faith.

Donovan is then on the tail of a shady figure who we learn is bent on making a deal with the Devil that even the legendary Faust jumbled...and this figure has even managed to resurrect Faust himself to help him...or so he believes. And as if that weren't enough, even Mephistopheles gets in on the happenings...

Morrissey's debut novel starts a bit slow but by the mid-point is dripping with occult violence and interesting updates on the Faust story. I usually complain that most horror novels tend to end abruptly, but not here: the last hundred or so pages pits Donovan, Father Carroll, and the NYPD against a swarm of possessed homeless people tricked into helping bring about hell-on-earth right in the middle of Central Park's Great Lawn. There's plenty of suspense and the action comes quickly, and there's a nice surprise waiting at the end.

If you're a fan of occult horror some of this may feel a bit familiar, but it's apparent Morrissey had a blast writing this...and I had one reading it.

FLOATERS by James Kinsak (2011 Fiero Publishing / 177 KB / e-Book)

Ward gets a frantic phone call on Easter Sunday from his ex-wife who swears she has seen their dead children Jimmy and Josh while visiting the cemetery.  Confused, Ward decides to meet her and find out what’s going on.  Ward doesn’t remember what happened the day his sons died while on a fishing trip together.  

Ward meets his ex-wife Merilee at the same hotel where he stayed with the boys on their Easter vacation one year ago.  The room seems to trigger some memories and Ward decides to try and found out how they died.  As his memories return, we discover that Ward was having an affair and Merilee divorced him, going off the deep end.  Ward soon learns the truth about what happened that awful Easter when he lost his boys.

FLOATERS is a creepy short story about a man who does the unthinkable to get what he wants.  Well-written and with memorable characters, the reader discovers just how monstrous a man can be.  It is suspenseful with a few surprising twists near the end.  It’s a quick read that I thoroughly enjoyed.
-Colleen Wanglund

KINSMEN by Bill Pronzini (2012 Cemetery Dance Publications / 192 pp / hc & limited edition hc)

Shame on me … apparently there’s an entire series of these Nameless Detective books, and I’m only just now finding out! KINSMEN is one of 36 of them, originally done in 1993 but reissued now in trade size. 

The idea of such a series presents a challenge that is fascinating from a writer’s perspective and intriguing from a reader’s. A story without identification of the protagonist? Sure thing. An entire book? Getting tougher, but okay. Maintain that for a whole SERIES? 

And yet, it works. We don’t know his name, but even from one book we get to know this guy as a character, as a person. It’s excellently done, and I’m curious to see how bits and pieces from the various books shapes up into the whole picture. 

KINSMEN is a mystery novel, a noir tale of the more-modern but still hardboiled variety, but the line between mystery and horror is often very thin, not to mention blurry. Especially when, as is the case here, the crime is something horrific but real, something that did, could, and still all too frequently does, happen. 

The mother of missing co-ed Allison Shay hires our Nameless Detective to find out what happened to her daughter. Allison was on her way home for a visit, and bringing someone to meet mom. A new boyfriend? She wouldn’t say, wanted it to be a surprise. But Allison never arrived. 

Change of plans? Inconsiderate elopement? breakdown on some lonely back road? The new boyfriend maybe not so wonderful after all? Or something even worse? Once Allison’s car turns up, abandoned far from her projected route, ‘something even worse’ starts looking more and more likely. 

It’s a very good read, if an uncomfortable one as the story unfolds. But then, it SHOULD be uncomfortable, because too many people ARE capable of such things.

-Christine Morgan

YOUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE, YOUR CHILDREN ALL GONE by Stefan Kiesbye (2012 Penguin Books / 208 pp / tp)

A group of childhood friends return home to attend the funeral of one of their own in a small village in Germany.  We are slowly introduced to each one and their lives while growing up in the village.  These children are not, however, innocent as they have been involved in murder, rape and betrayal.

This book thoroughly surprised me.  It is a rather dark look at the experiences of a group of friends told in a style reminiscent of Southern gothic horror.  It is at times quiet and subtle while at others coldly violent.  Kiesbye gives a slight nod toward the supernatural but most of the story deals with real life monsters—our friends and neighbors.  YOUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE, YOUR CHILDREN ALL GONE made my skin crawl.  What I really enjoyed was the question I was left with after one of the boys discovers a secret about his town—how monstrous can a human being, or a whole town, be?  This is one of my favorite books of 2012 and I look forward to reading more by Stefan Kiesbye.

-Colleen Wanglund


THE FALL OF NEVER by Ronald Malfi (to be released 3/13 by Samhain Publishing / 360 pp / tp & eBook)

I wanted to like this book, I really did … the writing is smooth, the style is beautiful, the story is intricate … but for the most part I found it wildly frustrating in terms of the characters, their motivations, and their actions. It felt railroady, and forced. 

Kelly Rich is summoned home because something’s happened to her sister. Kelly doesn’t want to go home, Kelly is estranged from her parents and has bad memories of the place. But she’s summoned by some lawyer, and she has to go. Even though nobody will tell her what did happen to her sister, nobody will explain anything, nobody will answer her questions … but she goes. She makes a couple token efforts to find things out, but doesn’t pursue or insist when she gets the brush-off.

I mean, sorry, but, hell no! At some point, a character’s got to put his or her foot down instead of being moved around like a chess piece, at least if I’m going to be able to care about that character in any meaningful way. 

And, in THE FALL OF NEVER, it’s not just Kelly. There’s a lot of it going around. Simple communication, people! Would have solved a lot of problems while still keeping, or making a more, interesting story. 

Eventually, (about 2/3 of the way through the book, and I admit it, I came close a few times to giving up before that), the obnoxious witholding-of-information dance wraps up and the story from then on is good … REALLY good … which makes the earlier bits all the more aggravating. 

Some books, if you don’t start at the beginning you might miss out on important elements … I think in this case it’s almost the opposite. It feels like taking a class from a professor whose response to every request for elaboration or clarification is met with only: “don’t worry, it’ll be on the final.”

So, if you want to skip ahead to the good stuff, I won’t tattle. The good stuff IS good, with Kelly and her sister, and the strange entity in the woods, and how it all ties in with the old lady … part dark fairy tale, part ghost story, part familial drama … once you get down to the meat of the story, it’s great.

-Christine Morgan

JACK BUNNY BAM BAM AND THE WEEPER APOCALYPSE by Eric S. Brown (2013 Bizarro Pulp Press / 58 pp / eBook & tp)

Jack Bunny is a tall, green rabbit assassin living on a future earth. He's like a cross between Boba Fett, Rambo, and a mafia hitman. He lives within a city that's protected by a wall of flame that can only be crossed by reciting a secret incantation.

The rest of the world has been overrun by Weepers, people infected with a virus that turns them into zombie-like creatures whose tears can turn their victims into part of their army. But now the fuel that keeps the flame wall up is getting low, and Jack Bunny's enemies want to team with him to fight the coming Weeper invasion. What ensues is another non-stop, gory action romp from the author of the BIGFOOT WAR series, and I'm sure his fans won't be disappointed.

I had a blast with JACK BUNNY, but I don't know why this is being pushed as a bizarro story; it's more of a dark scifi action fantasy that at times reminded me of a violent Bugs Bunny-meets-Mad Max hybrid. Either way, this quick read is a real blast and I'd like to see more from this sarcastic, nasty little rabbit...

DARKBOUND by Michaelbrent Collings (2012 Amazon Digital Services / 289 pp / eBook & tp)

Like subways aren’t scary enough already? Being packed into a confined space with a bunch of strangers, rocketing through a labyrinthine maze of tunnels … it’s like a combo pack of phobias BEFORE you start to factor in whether anybody’s sick, or crazy, or dangerous. 

Sure, most of the time, it’s a perfectly ordinary, perfectly safe commute. Sure, the stories you hear are the extreme examples, exaggerating a bad reputation. You won’t necessarily get panhandled, manhandled, groped, harassed, robbed, barfed on, assaulted, or killed. It’s not ALWAYS Clive Barker’s “Midnight Meat Train.”

Not at all. Sometimes, it’s worse. This time, in DARKBOUND, it’s WAY worse. For the six unfortunate commuters, it’s going to be far worse than they ever could have imagined. 

For Jim, eager to get home to apologize and make up for an earlier fight, things start going less than well when a creep in a trenchcoat peeks over his shoulder to make a remark about the picture he’s looking at. “Pretty,” this creep says, and Jim thinks it’s not Carolyn that’s the object of interest here, but little Maddie. 

The other waiting passengers don’t seem inclined to get involved, but then a fiesty little Hispanic grandma steps in to send the creep slinking away in shame. The encounter leaves Jim so shaken that, when the train arrives, he’s eager to dismiss as an attack of nerves the uncanny impression he gets from a fleeting glimpse of the driver. 

The feisty grandma sees it too, but accepts Jim’s suggestion that it was a trick of the light, and he accompanies her into the subway car. They’re soon joined by everyone else who’d been on the platform, including the creep … because none of the other cars’ doors will open. 

Weird, but, weird things happen, so they settle in for the ride. Which swiftly becomes the subway trip of nightmares, a bloodbath express with no way out. The train won’t stop. The doors won’t open. One by one, car by car as the survivors try to flee, passengers are picked off in hideous and agonizing ways. 

DARKBOUND is a bit of a departure from Collings’ previous works, but by no means in a bad way. It’s grim, gooshy, and gloriously gruesome … while also poetic in an almost Dante-esque way. Really good, highly recommended, make sure you have time to read a lot at one sitting since you may have a hard time putting it down. 

And, if you’re a commuter, you might NOT want to read it on the subway … I’ve rarely been gladder that my city is behind the times when it comes to mass transit.

-Christine Morgan