Saturday, June 1, 2013

June, 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)

BURIED A MAN I HATED THERE by Adam Pepper (2013 Innovation Haven / 163 pp / eBook)

Since losing his wife and daughter 10 years ago, Jack Maddox suffers from memory loss. His wife's twin sister, Heidi, meets with him once a year every Valentine's Day in an isolated field in Vermont. She tries to get him to move on with his life, but he refuses.

Back in Manhattan, Jack is a window washer, working at great heights with no fear. His favorite building is where Heidi works, and he spends much time cleaning her office window. He likes to work alone, but on occassion has to share his platform with a co-worker.

Heidi begins to date the head of a huge corporation, but she can't seem to give herself over to him. She becomes increasingly concerned with Jack and starts to display behavior as strange as his.

Then there's Jack's psychiatrist, Dr. Hawthorne, a real sleazeball who seems to be in the business just for the money. We learn he has also lost a young daughter, and seems to take things out on Jack (mentally, at least) during their sessions.  But his way of coping with things leads to the abuse of another patient and his eventual ruin.

BURIED A MAN I HATED THERE, while a thriller, is also a truly odd mystery. When I passed the 100th page I still had no idea where the author was going, and I didn't until the final few chapters. Pepper keeps you guessing from early on, and most of the time you'll be on the edge of your seat . If you're afraid of heights (like I am) you're in for a real freak-out, and the conclusion, while wrapped up nicely, still leaves room for contemplation.

Although a bit different from his previous offerings, BURIED should satisfy anyone looking for a tight, solid read.

FOUR ELEMENTS by Charlee Jacob, Marge Simon, Rain Graves and Linda Addison (2012 Bad Moon Books / 189 pp / tp)

FOUR ELEMENTS is a collection of poetry and short fiction by four women of horror who are all Bram Stoker Award winning poets. Each writer takes on one of the four elements of nature—earth, air, fire and water—and brings their own vision to each.
“Earth” by Marge Simon contains poems and stories that all deal with various consequences of people’s actions including war, desolation, destruction and death, including “A Time For Planting” about the consequences of love and lust and “Quake” about how short our time can be.

“Water” by Rain Graves which includes many pieces dealing with destruction through mythology, including a series of six poems, which I loved, titled “Hades and Its Five” that encompasses all of the myths of Hades, the river Styx and the ferryman.

“Fire” by Charlee Jacob that includes works dealing with death and destruction.  My favorite here is “Accidental Tourists” about a couple of voyeurs who find love at the scene of a horrific car accident and their many names for the color red—the color of life and death.  There is also a series of ten poems called “Reaching Back to Eden” that involve the consequences of the actions of Adam, Eve, Lilith and Satan.

“Air” by Linda Addison contains poems about the power of the wind to shape life and our environment as well as describing the soul as air versus the body.  “Lost in Translation” is one of my favorites here, about air as a hidden, living being.  “Upon First Seeing Ongtupqa” is a beautiful description about air moving through canyons, wearing away the earth and exposing millennia of past life.

All of the prose and poetry is dark, beautiful and vivid in its imagery. There is emotion behind the words that will draw a visceral response from the reader. All of the poetry by these four amazing women is so powerful you will find yourself reading FOUR ELEMENTS again and again.  I have already read through it twice.  If you are a fan of dark poetry then FOUR ELEMENTS is for you.

-Colleen Wanglund

SACRIFICIAL WITCH by S.D. Hintz (2013 Aristotle Books / 172 pp / eBook)

I went into this one not quite knowing what to expect and emerged from it not quite knowing what to think, but in the good way. The lingering, haunting, dreamlike way. The way that makes sense, since the main character never quite knows either, but is in no real position to find out. 

Murray, who never knew his father and just lost his mother to betrayal and murder, is sent to a tiny town to live with his grandmother. He he quickly realizes that nothing is normal. 

For one thing, he’s the only kid in a neighborhood of old folks. Old folks who aren’t the most welcoming; they range from weird to outright hostile. Even when he meets a friendly-seeming one, Murray’s recent past experiences have left him with some understandable trust issues. 

His own grandmother isn’t exempt from the weirdness, what with the way she doesn’t like to talk about why Murray’s mom left home, or his grandfather, or the curtained-off section of the attic where she forbids him to go. 

Mysterious feuds, strange gifts and booby-traps, a dog determined to take a chunk out of Murray’s hide, cryptic remarks from the local undertaker, nightmares, glimpses of a little boy signaling for help from the basement of the house next door … it just keeps getting more bizarre. 

And Murray, with the terrible helplessness of a child, is unable to demand answers or escape. Who’s going to listen to him? He’s only a kid. Who’s going to believe stories about witches and spells and sacrifice?

It’s a neat story, an interesting read, one that will lurk in the corners of the mind. Give it a look!

-Christine Morgan

PRIMEVAL: WEREWOLF APOCALYPSE BOOK II by William D. Carl (2012 Permuted Press / 274 pp / tp & eBook)

You know the term "popcorn movie?" Well, this second installment of Carl's BESTIAL saga is a definite "popcorn book," meaning the action is nearly non-stop and the monster-goodness never lets up.

After helping to take care of the Lycan Virus outbreak in Cincinatti in the first novel, General Taylor Burns and ace-sniper Nicole Truitt are taking some time off in New York. But almost as soon as they arrive at their Brooklyn hotel, all hell breaks loose in Manhattan: it seems over-sized rats are now carrying the Lycan Virus, turning both humans and animals into werewolves and mutated creatures. Nicole's girlfriend Sandy is in the city when the military quarantines the island by destoying all bridges and tunnels in an attempt to contain the outbreak. But Nicole and Burns manage to get a helicopter ride into the chaos to try and rescue Sandy and a small group of survivors.

Carl's plot may be simple, but like a good monster movie he delivers the goods at a relentless pace: swarms of mutated rats, lions, dogs, and a huge alligator wreak havoc both on the streets of the city and below ground, where most of the action takes place, and there's still plenty of room for the werewolves. Some of the violence is quite extreme, and I can't remember the last time I saw such gruesome scenes of child carnage before--but then again, this IS an apocalyptic tale so no one is safe!

This is the perfect novel to read on a Saturday afternoon if you're hungering for a thrill-a-minute monster-mash. Dare I say ... this is a real howl!

Smell Rating: 1

UNWHOLLY by Neal Shusterman (2012 Simon & Schuster / hc, tp. And eBook)

When I read UNWIND, a YA book loaned to me by my teenager, I discovered it to be THE creepiest and most chilling book I’d experienced in ages. As scary and disturbing as anything in the adult horror genre. And, of every dystopian near-future I’ve encountered in fiction, the most all-too-terribly-plausible. 

Welcome to a world where the pro-life/pro-choice debate tore America apart with war, and ultimately resulted in a law that made it legal for parents or guardians to decide to retroactively abort their children at any point between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. Those kids would be “unwound,” harvested for their organs and replacement parts. 

UNWHOLLY, the sequel, delves deeper into the history of that shattered nation, again while hitting all too close to the bone. Lack of educational and employment opportunities leading to a generation of disaffected young people with no prospects in a struggling economy … the underlying fear of “feral” teens … sound familiar? 

It’s also a society of convenience, ease, and entitlement that takes a blow when an amendment to the law reduces the unwinding age to seventeen. Suddenly, there’s less material available, making it harder to get those medical fixes or cosmetic upgrades. People don’t like that. Parts pirates have taken to obtaining the goods by whatever means available, including kids not even scheduled for unwinding. 

There’s resistance, inspired by the events of the first book. There’s a growing underground trying to save and free the kids. Those who designate a child from birth as a “tithe,” as a form of religion, are led to question their beliefs. 

Even among the refugee camp where AWOL unwinds hide out, dissention brews when a caste system forms between factions … those who were raised by their biological parents or as wards of the state, and those who were “storked” and abandoned as babies on strangers’ doorsteps. 

The book also takes the science of unwinding in a new and even more unsettling direction with the debut of Cam, the first-ever entirely composite human lifeform. He’s been created from the best of the best, the most beautiful of the beautiful, with the knowledge, language, and talents of all the donors who went into his making. A new height of humanity? Or a modern Frankenstein monster, an abomination that ought not to be?

An UNWIND movie is reportedly in the works. The third book in this not-to-be-missed series comes out later this year. Neither of which is soon enough!

-Christine Morgan

AT THE END OF CHURCH STREET by Gregory L. Hall (2010 Belfire Press / 296 pp / tp & eBook)

Rebecca is a runaway teen surviving in the back alleys of Orlando, Florida. One night she meets Renfield who takes her back to meet his gang of goth-"vampires" living in an abandoned theater. They clothe and feed her, and before long she becomes one of them. They spend their nights terrorizing tourists and living basically however they want, basically every young person's dream.

But Rebecca's new found family soon find their numbers dwindling: members of their clan are being found beheaded around the city, and they're now in a struggle to survive against an assailiant who believes Renfield and co. are actually the monsters they think they are.

For those of you (like myself) who are turned off even by the mention of the word "vampire," fear not: Hall's take on them is completely different. CHURCH STREET plays out like a gritty drama, complete with a realistic cast of troubled people trying to figure out their lives and relationships; it was refreshing to see goth culture portrayed in a non-sterotypical manner. Hall manages to deliver the suspense and thrills you'd expect from a horror novel, but this one goes a bit deeper than standard genre fare. There's some laughs, but nothing that takes you out of the story.

This is a seriously good read and one impressive debut novel.

Smell Rating: 3

YELLOW MOON by David Searls (to be released 6/13 by Samhain Publishing / 207 pp / tp & eBook)

A group of boys playing baseball in a park discover a drain and vanish when they explore it. The police in Cleary, Ohio also have their hands full when an influx of homeless-looking people start arriving around town.

The boys return from the drain that led to another dimension and have brought along all kinds of shape-shifting creatures as well as an odd yellow moonlight that bathes Cleary in dread.

Searls' short novel (originally published in 1994) may have been a slightly different riff on King's IT back then, but today it reads like a dime-a-dozen generic horror novel (and one that leaves several unanswered questions). I guess this is fun for newcomers, but veteran horror fans have read this many, many times before.

Smell Rating: 2

HOW TO DIE WELL by Bill Breedlove (2013 Bad Moon Books / 334pp / tp)

HOW TO DIE WELL is an entertaining short story collection by Bill Breedlove. 
My favorite stories include “The Lost Collection” about a strange little boy and his unique collection of murderous dolls; “Free to Good Home” about Mrs. Monroe, who has a special way of teaching a lesson to men who pretend to adopt animals then take them to labs for research—this one just about had me in tears; “It Ain’t Much to Brag About, But It’s All Mine” about a very lonely girl and the creepy pet she decides to bring home; and “Hospeace” about an elderly couple and their dog living out their last days in a fairly isolated home during a zombie apocalypse.

Other great stories include “The Shampoo of Prodigious Potency” about a young man getting what he wishes for from a magician whom he heckled off the stage—you really should be careful what you wish for; “When There’s Nothing Left of Me (A True Love Story)” is a funny and yet horrifying story about a man who continues to seriously injure and even maim himself to keep his love with him; “Drowning In the Sea of Love” is a hilariously wicked story about a young woman’s debut as a porn actress and how things on the set go horribly wrong; and “Highsmith Beach” about what can happen when a person’s personal prejudices come back to haunt them.

There were one or two stories that didn’t resonate with me, but overall I found Breedlove’s writing to be horrifying and amusing at the same time.  There were times when I laughed out loud and others where I squirmed in my seat.  I was thoroughly pleased with HOW TO DIE WELL and I look forward to reading more from Bill Breedlove.

-Colleen Wanglund

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill (2013 William Morrow / 709 pp / hc, eBook, and audio)

Most of my friends spent the past couple weeks on tenterhooks for the new Trek movie, and/or Iron Man 3. For some, and they know who they are, and if you’re reading this you’re probably one of them, THE main can’t-wait event was the release of the new Joe Hill book. 

And justifiably so. This guy rocks. He’s got the talent and the skills, and most of all he’s got the spirit to just have fun with it, to enjoy the craft and the kick and the ride. It shows on every page. 

NOS4A2 is especially good at the having fun with it aspect. It’s peppered with in-jokes, fan service, nods, tributes, and various little treats that might jiggle the fourth wall but elicit grins while so doing. 

Summary-wise, it’s the story of Victoria “Vic” McQueen, aka The Brat (at least, to her father). As a kid, she discovers a knack for ‘finding’ things … when she goes for a ride on her bike in search of some missing thing, a bridge that shouldn’t be there will appear to take her right to it. Of course, nobody would believe the truth, so she also has to get creative about explaining her finds. 

One day, curious about this strange talent, she rides her bike across the bridge to meet a woman who tells her about others with similar gifts, or curses. Those gifts, or curses, tend to take their toll in physical, mental or emotional ways, something Vic’s already finding out for herself. 

Also out there is Mr. Manx, who drives a vintage Rolls with the license plate NOS4A2. With the help of a series of trusty henchmen, he’s been whisking children away to a magical place called Christmasland, where they will be happy forever. Needless to say, this has its darker side. 

Vic goes looking for him, finds him, and manges to survive and escape the encounter. Mr. Manx is caught and sent to prison. The scary story should be over, but, of course, it isn’t. 

Years later, Vic has managed to convince herself that the events of childhood were also the imaginings of childhood, and that her personal problems are solely the result of her just being crazy and screwed-up. She’s gone on with her life as best she can, a life that now includes a kid of her own. 

Meanwhile, Mr. Manx, NOS4A2’s driver, has gone from prison to the hospital, and then the morgue. And then he goes missing from the morgue. He’s got unfinished business and a grudge, and Vic is about to realize that she really was right all along. Only, now, it’s her child in danger, and the bike she used to get to her special bridge-to-anywhere is long, long gone. 

Top-notch writing, great characters, everything you’d reasonably expect from this author and more. Now we just have to bide our time, tap our feet, and wait for his next one!

-Christine Morgan

FEAST OF OBLIVION by Josh Myers (2012 Copeland Valley Press / 199 pp / tp)

Peter Weller (yes, THAT Peter Weller) is on his way to a book signing in a bunker in a desert-stretch of New Jersey. His book is about halibut (yes, the fish) conspiracies and only 10 hand-written copies exist.

After Peter answers Q&A from a select audience of halibut conspiracy fans, he signs the 10 copies for the chosen few, among them a strange English woman who requests to meet with him in private.

FEAST OF OBLIVION then becomes a dark-humored take on (not only) the end of the world, but the end of ... everything. Cock-full of an oddball cast (including Jean-Michel Pititesbaise), some really wild dreams, and enough craziness to satsify any fan of bizarro fiction.

Let's just hope Myers' "real" characters don't decide to sue him before someone makes a cult film version and he misses the premiere.

Smell Rating: 2

MACHINA MORTIS edited by Sam Gafford (2013 KnightWatch Press / 266 pp / tp & eBook)

It’s shamelessness time again, because this is another anthology in which I’m thrilled and honored to have a story. This book’s seen a hard road, too, having undergone some delays and upheavals and changes of publisher … and I’m glad the editor and so many of my fellow writers stuck it out to see it become a reality. 

After all, steampunk horror is just too damn cool a theme not to love! Steampunk! Horror! Clockwork and gears, gaslight and steam, machines of death! A dozen stories of clank and scream, blood and oil!

In “Last Flight of the Bismark,” Scott Baker serves up an airship full of zombies. Salena Moffat’s “Bedlam” brings moody and atmospheric madness. “Patterns,” by Drew Dunlap, pits an aged professor against horrors from beyond. Tonia Brown’s “The Thumping in the Basement” brings a new assistant to the employ of an esteemed doctor, but, what happened to the previous ones? “The Last of the Bad Few,” by Nathan Robinson, welcomes you to a steampunk utopian/dystopian nightmare where technology runs amok. 

Sam Gafford’s “Static” makes the threat of global war look comparatively mild when there’s also otherworldly menaces to contend with. In “Whitechapel Transfer,” by Theresa Derwin, the Jack the Ripper story gets an original and unexpected twist. “The Three Blind Men” by A.J. Sikes takes a slightly more fantastical tone in the form of some bumbling messengers of the gods. 

Travis I. Sivart’s “Nothing But a Dog: A Trio of Travellers Tales” combines steampunk and classic fairy tales in a weird Brothers-Grimm sort of way. “Clockwork Carousel” by Marie Andrews is a quaint and charming ride on a merry-go-round of creepy chills. In “The Black Banshee,” by Buck Weiss, we get lively pulp and paranormal adventure. Last but hopefully not least is my own “The Garretton Ghoul,” in which someone or something preys on the city’s downtrodden artists. 

If steampunk’s your thing, this one is bound to please and entertain. So, put on your goggles or adjust your monocle, and get it today!

-Christine Morgan


THE OBLIVION ROOM by Christopher Conlon (to be released June, 2013 by EVIL JESTER PRESS / 287 pp / tp)

Conlon's short story collection features six "Stories of Violation," and anyone familiar with his work knows what to be in for; those who aren't need to take note.

The opening tale 'The Oblivion Room' features a woman who finds herself captive in a pitch-black, brick cylinder. She attempts to survive by creating a mental memoir and eventually discovers a way to escape...sort-of. Claustrophobes be warned. In 'On Tuesday All The Rain Fell From The Sky,' a man murders his family then goes to work as if nothing happened. We're then taken on an emotionally-charged journey as he attempts to come to terms what he has--or hasn't--done. The ending will have you baffled until it sinks in.

'Skating the Shattered Glass Sea' deals with a man who visits his sister in a Behvaorial Health Center and the unusual bond they both share; 'The Long Light Of Sunday Afternoon' centers around an old man and how he handles personal ghosts (it also acts well as a latent end of the world story), and in 'Grace' a woman returns to the home where her step father abused and kept her locked in a closet as a child. She comes to terms with it all when she rediscovers a drawing she had done on the closet wall.

The main event here is 'Welcome Jean Krupa, World's Greatest Girl Drummer!' It tells the tale of Jeannie Crupiti, who is a self-taught demon on the drum kit. Set in the 1940s during WW2, she joins a band fronted by former jazz great Stanley Skye after sitting in with them one night, and the group begins a long but steady rise to the top. Told from the point of view of young guitarist Lester (undraftable due to being 4-F), we quickly fall in love with all the characters here, cheering them on and, like the band, become protective of young Jeannie, especially when her strange cousin arrives back from the war to roadie for the band. But secrets abound, and Conlon brings this impossible-to-put-down tale to a tragic but satiysfying conclusion. As a former drummer, I can say this is one of, if not THE best story I've ever read about drummers and band life on the road.

THE OBLIVION ROOM is a real treat. Conlon's tales go from flat-out terrifying to subtle, quiet horrors, but each one dark and thought provoking in their own ways. The writing is razor sharp and a real pleasure to read. Highly recommended and easily one of the best releases of 2013.

HITCHERS by Will McIntosh (2012 Night Shade Books / 301 pp / hc, tp, eBook & audio)

A wonderful exercise in contradictions, this story presents a take on life-after-death that manages to be terrifying and sweet, sad and funny, infuriating and uplifting, and many other conflicting or even opposite emotions blended into a satisfying 283 pages of cognitive dissonance. 

On the big-picture scale, it’s a world-shaking disaster: a terrorist anthrax attack literally decimates the population of Atlanta (side note: misuse of ‘literally’ and ‘decimate’ each on their own are pet peeves of mine, misused together they make me crazy, and what a tremendous relief to see it DONE RIGHT FOR ONCE!!! okay soapbox over)

Hundreds of thousands are killed. Bad enough. Worse, and very weird, is what happens next, as many of the survivors begin to experience strange instances of suddenly blurting out words in coarse, gravelly voices. The condition quickly progresses to a point that people are losing control of their own bodies, being taken over from within. 

PTSD, the experts say. Or some sort of personality disorder triggered by the events. Or people are going crazy. All reasonable enough explanations, and certainly anybody who’s suffering or witnessing the phenomenon is going to feel that way. But they soon come to realize they’re not crazy. They really are possessed, sharing their bodies with the spirits of the dead. 

These ‘hitchers,’ as they come to be called – though ‘stowaways’ or even ‘hijackers’ in some cases might be closer to the truth – have unfinished business, strong ties, or other reasons for wanting to cling to even this surrogate semblance of life. 

Large-scale though the premise is, the real story is small-scale and personal. Finn Darby, who’s been through some personal tragedies including the loss of his beloved wife, is finally getting his life back on track. He’s revived his grandfather’s classic comic strip – very much against his grandfather’s dying wishes – to great success. Then he finds himself the unexpected and unwilling host to his grandfather’s angry spirit. 

Finn is desperate to find a way to solve the problem before his grandfather fully takes over. Even as he’s working toward that, he realizes that his wife must be out there somewhere too, and they could be, in a way, together again. 

With the unlikely help of some fellow sufferers, including an aging rock star and a waitress with an interest in the occult, Finn has to wrestle metaphysical matters as well as his own feelings, all while struggling against his grandfather’s opposition.

Great book. Definitely worth a look, sure to provide a lot of unsettling food for thought on bodily autonomy, rights, and the afterlife.

-Christine Morgan


Gerard Houarner's Max the Assassin returns in WAITING FOR MR. COOL...

and the usual BOATLOAD of reviews...