Wednesday, May 1, 2013

MAY, 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)

TONES OF HOME by Thomas A. Erb (2013 Crowded Quarantine Publications / 174 pp / tp)

Maurice and Ashley are a mixed-race couple who recently got engaged.  They are on their way to meet Ashley's family and make the big announcement.  Maurice is apprehensive, to say the least.  Ashley's family are rednecks living an a small Upstate New York town with a reputation for being racist.

The couple arrive at the Torchlight Inn in the middle of a snowstorm, but that hasn't stopped Ashley's family—of the town's entire population—from packing the joint.  The crowd is raucous and rowdy; there has been plenty of drinking going on and someone is itching for a fight.  Tension is high and Maurice is ready to bolt when Ashley's dad arrives and welcomes Maurice into the family.  Relief settles over Maurice and the party atmosphere has everyone feeling pretty good.

That is, until a foursome wearing Beatles masks and loaded with weapons descends upon the unsuspecting patrons of the Torchlight Inn.  And the bloodbath begins.

When I started reading TONES OF HOME, I thought I knew what direction the story was probably going to take, but boy was I wrong.  Erb throws an astonishing curve ball, creating one of the most bizarre revenge stories I've ever read.  Character development is great, as well as to the point and I found myself rooting for the rednecks and Maurice.  There's a feeling of claustrophobia throughout the story that I found quite uncomfortable.  It's not just that the entire story takes place in a crowded bar...the raging snowstorm makes the confinement far worse.  Where do you go when you are effectively snowed in?  The motive of the Fearsome Four had me both shocked and laughing at the same time, and the leader of this group called to mind Alex of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.  If murder and mayhem with a twist is your thing, then I highly recommend TONES OF HOME.  I can honestly say it's one of the best books I've read this year, so far.

-Colleen Wanglund

HELLHOLE: AWAKENING by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (2013 Tor Books / 527 pp / hc)

Exiled General Tiber Adolphus is now unofficially in charge of protecting the 54 planets of the Deep Zone, a stretch of universe where rebels and undesirables are sent by the corrupt government of the 20 Crown Jewel worlds. Sent away by the brutal Diadem Michella in the first book, Adolphus has allied with a strange alien race who are currently coming "back to life" through volunteer human hosts on the planet Hallholme (a.k.a. Hellhole).

Michella's spies have caught wind of Adolphus' growing power. She sends a hundred warships to stop him, only to once again have underestimated the General. When her massive fleet goes missing, Michella brings a famed war hero out of retirement to get her out of this mess.

Meanwhile, Adolphus' alien allies, the Xayans, are becoming more powerful with each passing day and with each new human convert. Their psychic powers manage to cause major damage to Michella's homeworld of Sonjeera, turning the corrupt queen into an even more bloodthirsty tyrant.

This second book in Herbert and Anderson's epic scifi saga is full of ingenious battle tactics, endless political and social intrigue, and focuses on space survival in the face of war with little-to-no supplies.

Everything ends on a wicked cliffhanger, and the threat of a new enemy should provide much material for book three. Like most series of this size, there are many characters, but the authors keep things tight and we're never lost despite so much going on.

HELLHOLE: AWAKENING is a long but satisfying installment in this powerful series. Get yer scifi geek on!

Smell Rating: 4

SHATNERQUEST by Jeff Burk (2013 Eraserhead Press / 188 pp / tp & eBook)

Of all the ways the world could end … all the cheesy disaster movies I’ve watched, all the end-of-days books I’ve ever read … Judgment Day, Ragnarok … asteroid impact, solar flares … plague … 

The fandom apocalypse. Wow. I mean, holy crap, wow. This went above and beyond the weirdest of the weird in an awesomely terrible, terribly awesome way. 

So there’s these geeks at a con, awash in the humid miasma of third-day gamer-funk. The particular geeks-of-interest are Trek geeks, three in Starfleet uniforms (four, if you count the cat that rides around in Benny’s satchel), and their rival, the big slobby jerk of a Klingon. 

Moments before the gripping finish of the Magic: The Gathering tournament, explosions rock the convention. Flaming boulders rain from the sky. A swirling dimensional vortex appears. Giant monsters go on rampages of destruction. Basically, everything hits the fan and all hell breaks loose. 

Each of our geeks have their own backstories woven into the narrative, even Squishy the cat (that one made me cry!). Benny’s slow decline from successful game designer, Gary’s struggles with addiction and recovery and relapse, Janice’s efforts to balance fan-life and normal-life … even Korloth, the wanna-be Klingon. 

With nothing to go home to and nothing to stick around for, our three good geeks and their cat strike out on their own into the chaotic landscape. Foraging for vital supplies – chips, candy, soda, junk food – at gas stations and convenience stores along the way, they head west with the intention of finding and saving someone. Not just any someone. The one, the only, the great William Shatner. 

Because, see, he’s been speaking to Gary, serving as a sort of spirit guide. Now he needs help, and Gary’s determined to deliver. Even if it means battling through zombie Borg, Kirk cultists, tribble invasions, an army of Klingon bikers, and more. Much, much, even-weirder, more. 

Of course, it doesn’t help that by the time they get to California, they find a William Shatner who’s been doused in radioactive waste and grown to gigantic size, stomping through the ruins of Los Angeles. It’s not looking good for geekdom. 

All in all, a wild and hilarious read, a sharp and contemporary parody perfect for making all us geeks howl in hurts-so-true mirth and despair.

-Christine Morgan


INTO THE SHADOWS by Greg F. Gifune (to be released May 7, 2013 by Samhain Publishing / 255 pp / tp)

INTO THE SHADOWS contains two novellas by Greg F. Gifune; A VIEW FROM THE LAKE and CATCHING HELL.

A VIEW FROM THE LAKE--James and Katherine live a happy and quiet life in Blissful Point, Massachusetts where they own a quaint lakeside resort, until one summer morning a young boy’s body is found floating in the lake. James is devastated, and within a few months of that tragic accident, he slowly loses his sanity and then disappears. 

A year later, Katherine has decided to sell the resort and start over somewhere new.  Strange dreams and the realization that she didn’t really know her husband have begun to weigh on her.  Katherine’s friend Carlo wants to help her find the answers she is looking for, so he goes to find James’ foster mother.  Carlo discovers a past that James kept hidden from his wife that came back to haunt him—and drive him mad—when the boy drowned at the resort.  Carlo tries to get back to Katherine during a blizzard, while she makes her way down the same path as James did over a year before.

Greg F. Gifune has written a beautifully dark story about the fine line between sanity and insanity.  With just a handful of well-developed characters, and frightening ghosts of the past, this nicely paced novel delves into the fragility of the mind and the isolation that comes with the loss of one’s grip on reality.  Gifune highlights this isolation by setting A VIEW FROM THE LAKE at an empty resort during the height of a blizzard.  Katherine and Carlo experience their own isolation, both figuratively and literally—Katherine at the empty resort and Carlo attempting to navigate the empty, snow-covered roads.  Carlo is also attempting to keep himself sober long enough to save Katherine from James and his past. 

CATCHING HELL—In 1983 Billy, Stephan and Alex are aspiring actors.  It is the end of the summer theater season in Cape Cod and the three friends have decided to spend their last weekend together in Maine at a summer resort owned by Alex’s family.  They bring Tory, one of the theater’s stagehands along with them.  On the drive up to the resort the friends discuss their various future plans—Billy and Stephan going to New York and Alex attending a prestigious college acting program.  

At one point along the winding road through a heavily wooded area the group runs into a fierce rainstorm and must pull over and wait it out.  A bird hits the car’s windshield hard enough to kill it, but the body has disappeared.  Billy is unsettled by the experience, talking about his grandmother’s belief in that very same scenario being a harbinger of death.  

Slightly freaked out, the four take a turnoff into Boxer Hills, a rural town in the middle of the woods.  
The town itself seems stuck in 1947 and after a weird run-in with some locals, the four decide it’s time to leave.  The problem is that the road they travelled into the town on is no longer there.  The four learn they must fight to survive the night and get out of town or else become the victims of depravity, violence and evil.

CATCHING HELL is another story where there are just a handful of well-developed characters being thrown into a situation of desolation and isolation.  Boxer Hills is a town that clearly will not be found on any maps in the middle of nowhere.  It is a frightening story that reads like a horror film and plays out like a game of Mousetrap. The four young protagonists are very sympathetic and relatable, and their terror is palpable.

The novellas were originally published separately by Bad Moon Books and Cemetery Dance, respectively, and if you have not had the pleasure of reading either story before, do yourself a favor and pick up this re-release from Samhain Publishing.  It is a must read for fans of the dark and macabre.

-Colleen Wanglund

ASH STREET by Lee Thomas (2012 Sinister Grinn Press / 282 pp / tp & eBook)

A few years ago, Selma Baxter and Derek Thomason used the basement of a house on Ash Street in Barnard, Texas as a chamber of torture and death for their innocent victims. They killed just for the hell of it, and in doing so managed to unleash an entity comprised of both of their extreme wickedness.

Today, detective Stuart Lancaster (whose wife was one of Baxter and Thomason's victims) is still on the case. And things get strange when family members of the victims start being visited by the ghosts of the deceased ... and some of them are murdered--but not by the ghosts.

Melanie, the star of a paranormal cable show called The Haunt Club catches wind of the sightings in Barnard, and decides to give up a lucrative assignment in England to investigate on her own. She's on a mission to get to the bottom of things before her money-hungry bosses exploit the story, and other members of her team eventually meet up with her.

While it took a while for ASH STREET to kick into gear, once Stuart, Melanie, and Mike (a young man whose little sister Dory was also a victim) meet and begin to investigate, Thomas brings on the goods and begins to tie things together. There's a genuine shock in the final chapters, and the mysterious entity known as "Andy" is like a more complex version of the demon from Thomas' debut novel, STAINED.

Thomas takes a different look at ghosts and adds serial killers to twist the two genres into something fresh. Fun stuff.

(This review originally appeared at THE CROW'S CAW)

COLD VENGEANCE / TWO GRAVES by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (2011/2012 Grand Central Publishing / 368 pp / 480 pp / all formats)

Time for another Special Agent Pendergast double-feature! With these, the second and third books in what are referred to as ‘the Helen trilogy,’ some loose ends get tied up and others come all unraveled. 

The thrillers by Preston and Child have taken many odd turns over the years. Murders, monsters, mysteries, action, adventure, intrigue and horror … a cast of compelling characters and cleverly interwoven relationships … and the most enigmatic of all remains their pale, brilliant, troubled FBI agent with the honeyed New Orleans drawl.

Hey, Harry Dresden and Cumberbatch’s Sherlock have fangirls, don’t give me that look! *swoon*

In FEVER DREAM, which precedes these two, Pendergast discovered twelve years after the fact that his wife Helen’s death wasn’t the accident it had seemed. His efforts to get to the truth only brought more and more questions, not only about that fatal incident but the woman herself, and their entire relationship. It also drew the wrong kind of attention. 

In COLD VENGEANCE, Helen’s brother Judson is determined to get rid of Pendergast once and for all, before the agent’s snooping can do more damage. A seemingly-innocent us-guys hunting trip to the rugged moors of Scotland ends badly, with Pendergast shot and presumed dead. 

As time goes by and even his most faithful friends hear nothing, they’re forced to begin to accept the inevitable. But this is not, of course, the first time Pendergast has been presumed dead. He’s a hard man to kill. Especially when he has something to strive for … in this case, his brother-in-law’s final taunting words that Helen isn’t dead after all. 

Fortunately, through a series of lapses and distractions, I didn’t get around to reading COLD VENGEANCE until after I already had TWO GRAVES. Otherwise, I would have been screaming, foaming at the mouth over bastardly cliffhangers. Instead, I was able to go right from one to the other. 

Two books of Pendergast trying to find out what’s really going on with Helen, is she alive or dead, who IS she, what’s her secret, what’s she been keeping from him, and why? His nature of intense concentration and focus narrow to their finest point yet, into obsession. 

And if it gets a little off-the-deep-end crazy extreme with Nazis and psychic powers and stuff? If the thing about Constance getting committed to an asylum for tossing her baby overboard is left tantalizingly semi-resolved?

Oh, who cares … it’s Pendergast!

-Christine Morgan

PETER COOPER AND THE PIRATE KING by James DeAcutis (2012 CreateSpace / 350 pp / tp & eBook)

Thirteen-year-old Peter Cooper has been raised by his aunt and uncle since the death of his parents when he was very young.  He has grown up in an orphanage run by that aunt and uncle that is actually a stable and loving home for all of the children who live and have ever lived there.  

One night on the way home from a day in the downtown district of Harmon, Peter meets a strange man in the park who gives him a moonbeam catcher.  Peter thinks nothing of it, but later that night the family’s home is set on fire and blaming himself, Peter runs away.  He stows away on the Pollywogg but is soon discovered by some of the crewmembers who’ve known Peter for years as he has spent much time at Harmon’s docks, helping out and earning money where he could.  The captain of the Pollywogg alerts the authorities back in Harmon, but before Peter can be returned to his family he is kidnapped and brought to the Pestilence whose captain is Bill Kyuper, the Pirate King.  He is the very same man from the park that night.  In order to continue his immortal existence, the Pirate King needs Peter’s body/life essence.  Peter is a resourceful boy and will do what he can to survive and get back to his family in Harmon.

PETER COOPER AND THE PIRATE KING is a well-written Young Adult novel that will appeal to all ages.  It is a fun and frightening story involving immortality with a catch, the dead and almost dead, and friends who will do whatever they can to save a young boy in danger.  Character development is excellent—I liked Peter a lot.  The prose is tight and flows nicely, although I did have an issue with the orphanage’s history going on a bit too long.  Overall PETER COOPER is an enjoyable read and I recommend it to fans of horror and fantasy—and pirates.

-Colleen Wanglund

AFTER DEATH edited by Eric J. Guignard (2013 Dark Moon Books / 332 pp / tp & eBook)

It’s time for another shameless review of an anthology in which I’m honored and fortunate to have one of my own stories appear … sharing a table of contents with many great authors, including one of my personal must-read faves, Bentley Little. 

All that and each story has an illustration by the awesome Audra Phillips. The one to accompany mine is an utterly kick-butt Valkyrie, wearing actual armor that actually, y’know, covers vital areas – I mentioned this on a panel at RadCon and discovered that you can disrupt an entire room with the phrase “battle panties,” btw. 

So, biased though I am, this is a fantastic book! With a theme inviting speculation on what happens after we die, thirty-four authors stepped up with thirty-four wonderful and diverse visions. When nobody can know for sure, anything becomes possible. 

Heavens, hells, hauntings and more are to be found herein. Some are spooky, some are sad, some are spiritual, some are scientific. A few are full of fun and wonder. A variety of mythologies, traditions and beliefs are represented. 

Narrowing it down to a shorter list of my personal favorites of the lot – not counting my own, though I do believe “A Feast of Meat and Mead” is one of the best I’ve written so far! – is a challenge. 

But, of all the ones that resonated with me, for emotional impact, writing skill, cleverness, coolness, just-plain-wow-factor, or any combination thereof, here are the biggies:

“Be Quiet at the Back” by William Meikle
Joe McKinney’s “Acclimation Package”
Kelda Crich’s “Circling the Stones at Fulcrum’s Low”
“Boy, 7” by Alvaro Rodriguez
“Someone to Remember” by Andrew S. Williams
Simon Clark’s “Hammerhead”
David Steffen’s “I Will Remain”
“Afterword” by Ray Culey
“Final Testament of a Weapons Engineer” by Emily C. Skaftun

I’m going to make myself stop there, before I wind up listing them all. Suffice to say, these are a knockout bunch of stories. 

In addition, editor Eric Guignard graces each with a brief introduction that sets the tone and/or shares some insight on what went into the making of this book. The final product is a gorgeous book from cover to cover, a top-notch job throughout.

-Christine Morgan

PREY by Tim Marquitz (2012 Genius Book Publishing 171 pp / tp & eBook)

A young homeless boy is found in the middle of a gruesome murder scene by Detective Shane Calvin and his partner and taken into custody as the perpetrator.  Five mutilated bodies—and a few extra parts—are among the carnage in the abandoned house.  In the course of his investigation, Detective Calvin discovers more houses, owned by the same person, all with hidden torture chambers.  Somehow, this connects back to the town's mayor and one of his childhood friends.  Now, the mayor's son is missing and Calvin will do whatever it takes to save the boy.  Unfortunately, it's only the tip of a horrifying iceberg.

PREY is a very dark and disturbing novella that is well-written and fast-paced.  Shane Calvin is a determined man, good at what he does, and concerned for the safety of the mayor's son.  The homeless boy, Aiden, at first seems like a monster, but as the story unfolds, he becomes very sympathetic.  The real monster is hiding in plain sight.  PREY is very entertaining and held my interest with some interesting and cringe-inducing twists.  It is not for the faint of heart.

Included with PREY is the bonus novella ANATHEMA, about a man Jerrod, who loses everything to another man and is determined to exact revenge.  Unfortunately for Jerrod, things go horribly wrong and he is left to deal with the sickening consequences of his actions.  Another macabre tale that will leave you squirming.

-Colleen Wanglund

THE KILLINGS by J.F. Gonzalez and Wrath James White (2013 Sinister Grin Press / 174 pp / tp & eBook)

I went into this one already wincing, flinching, and cringing in anticipation of having the shredded bits of my soul drawn out through my eyeballs. I based this on, reasonably enough I think, prior experience; BOTH of these authors have reliably demonstrated off-the-charts squick level capabilities. Together? Eek. 

Fortunately for my shreddable soul and eyeballs, THE KILLINGS proved to be … I hesitate to use the word ‘milder’ when it features graphic gore, twisted urges and horrific mutilations … but, in a sense, okay, ‘milder’ will have to do. In a sense. One sense. 

In the other sense, the harsh beam of a stark and vicious spotlight cast upon many of the uglier aspects of humanity (hate, racism, privilege, misogyny) did kind of send my soul shrinking way to the back of wherever it dwells. 

After all, this book was inspired by actual historical events, and actual historical events tend to showcase how much we can suck as a species. Even without the nudge of curses, monsters or outside evils, we’re plenty capable of atrocities. 

Journalist Carmen Mendoza is following up on some intriguing interviews with a convicted child-killer. She soon finds herself investigating not just one set of heinous crimes but a chain of them, similar-yet-different murder sprees stretching back a hundred years. In the course of her poking around, she not only gets her hands on an old journal, she has the misfortune to catch the eye of the latest in this series of killers. 

The century-apart plotlines interweave so cleverly that the story and suspense are maintained at relentless high-tension throughout. It demands to be a one-sitting read even as it really makes you want to step away for a moment to steady your nerves, so you can’t step away. 

All in all, THE KILLINGS is an exceedingly well-written, riveting, and a deeply, DEEPLY disturbing and uncomfortable read.

-Christine Morgan

See ya'll in one month!