Monday, April 22, 2019

Reviews for the Week of April 22, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on a cell phone you're probably not going to be able to see it. Bust out the laptop, amigo...

POLYMER by Caleb Wilson (2018 Eraserhead Press / 82 / trade paperback & eBook)

Easy to see why this one made the cut for the New Bizarro Authors Series … it’s bizarro, all right, but it’s bizarro of the more elevated, experimental, avant-garde kind, while also being contemporary and current, with cutting observances on modern issues.

We already have reality shows, gameplay livestreams, and nonstop social media drama on tap 24-7. We can sit back and watch other people play video games, risk their necks in stupid stunts, ruin their love lives. We’ve always had the thrill of sporting events, gladiatorial combat, and larger-than-life celebrities.

Caleb Wilson takes all of those to the next level here, in a world where the entertainment-craving masses eagerly follow every move of their favorites to the point of hardly caring about anything else.

Favorites such as Polymer, the latest darling of the monster-hunting scene. With his shiny white jumpsuit, his sleek hairstyle, his expressionless blue neoprene face, and his deadly rapier, he’s a rockstar among rockstars. No one else can work the synth and destroy the withrons like Polymer. He’s hotter than the latest mutated-potato craze.

His fans will drop everything to follow and watch through the glass as he progresses through Sickleburg Castle. And, when new vents open between there and the outside world, his fans are pulled further into the adventure than ever before.

Like much of the genre, the more you try to logic and reason the setting, the less it works … but you don’t have to, and if you just roll with it, then the magic happens. It doesn’t need detailed explanations of the tech and such. It just IS, and what it is, is a whole lot of fast-moving fun.

-Christine Morgan

TEETH OF THE WOLF by by Lee Murray and Dan Rabarts (2018 Raw Dog Screaming Press / 236 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I went into this one somehow not having realized it was the second in a series (of which I’d also somehow missed the first!) but that quickly became very apparent as I read. Despite it being clear I was stepping into an ongoing story mid-stream, the characters were presented well enough to allow for mental filling-in of the blanks.

Scientist Pandora “Penny” Yee does some independent contract work for the local police, which lands her in the middle of some peculiar cases. Like this one, with bog bodies and mysterious tattoos and links to possible cults.

Given her life already has its peculiar aspects, mostly courtesy of her brother Matiu and his connections to underworldly and otherworldly elements, Penny’s pretty used to taking things in stride. Well, most things. She’s still at a loss whenever her parents are involved, especially when her parents are involved trying to play matchmaker at her. Or her erratic aunt goes off the rails in a family emergency.

Or Matiu, who’s got his own inexplicable events unfolding on the side, continues NOT TELLING HER STUFF. That was my biggest problem with the book (aside from the title never quite clicking for me for some reason), and it was purely interpersonal. A whole lot of trouble could’ve been avoided if they just TALKED. Kinda made me want to smack them both.

A fun read, but I recommend starting at the beginning if you can. Not necessary, but probably makes for a more satisfying experience overall. (important note, btw: it’s near-future, 2040s; took me a while to catch on. The first time I spotted a reference to the date, I thought it must be a typo; oops! my bad).

-Christine Morgan

100 WORD HORRORS: PART 2 edited by Kevin J. Kennedy (2019 KJK Publishing / 138 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Alright, folks! Step right up, read all about it. That is, if we’re talking about some of those little one-hundred-word long pieces of violent and macabre flash fiction called drabbles. That’s right, boys and girls. The first book of drabbles did so well it came back for round two and I’m not going to lie ... I’m drabbling a little bit out the side of my mouth right now, as I’m staring at that beautiful, sexy vintage horror paperback cover from yesteryear. The only difference in the concept of this anthology from the first one is this was invite-only, and I have to admit the lineup here is nothing short of admirable. I also found myself enjoying this installment much more than the first because I found it to be more fun and versatile overall, as well as a bit more violent and gruesome. From violent murder to exquisite mayhem, tough love and tragic tragedies, erotic sex and well also some not so erotic corpse sex, money, power, and fame this book of drabbles is sure to leave you wanting more, gasping for air from within your own grave, and the drabbles within are powerful enough to leave a blood-lasting imprint on the top of your mind for some time to come and then some. 

Some of my personal favorites were 'On the Second Date' by Mark Cassell, 'The Rash' by Justin Boote, 'Snow Angel' by Michael A. Arnzen, 'Instant Messaging' by Billy S. Juan, 'Haunted' by Amy Cross, 'Out of Tune' by Chad Lutzke, 'Just Like Your Grandma' by Pippa Bailey, 'My Pet Unicor'n by Sarina Dorie, and 'Laid to Rest' by Derek Shupert.

-Jon R. Meyers

THE PROSTITUTE'S PRICE by Alan M. Clark (2018 IFD Publishing / 244 pp / trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

Alan M. Clark’s beautifully bleak, haunting series about the victims of Jack the Ripper does something different in that it doesn’t focus on the killings or killer at all. The focus here is the women themselves, their stories and histories, their real lives, and what led those lives to the point where they crossed the maniac’s path to reach an untimely end.

And this one does something even more different; it’s got a companion piece, a book called THE ASSASSIN'S COIN by John Linwood Grant. I’ve not yet read that one, but I very much need and want to. They go together, facets of the same darkly fascinating historical jewel, presenting events from differing perspectives.

On this side of the story, we have Mary Jane Kelly, believed to be the Ripper’s final victim. Mary Jane Kelly, who also helped her sisters of the streets look out for each other, who became involved with some illicit activities, and who made the acquaintance of an ordinary-seeming but very dangerous man. He comes across almost as some sort of Victorian vigilante, putting the information Mary gathers for him to use.

It’s Mary Jane’s story, though, all the way from her struggling childhood and short-lived marriage through her introduction into her new trade and its rises and falls. It’s Mary Jane’s life, the friends and rivals she makes, the romances she doesn’t think she deserves. It isn’t about the terrible, bloody conclusion. It’s about the real person, and the tragedy of a desperate life.

Clark writes historical well, he writes women well, he does an excellent job capturing the atmosphere of the times and the emotions of the characters. Really good stuff, tragic but beautifully done.

-Christine Morgan

THE ASSASSIN'S COIN by John Linwood Grant (2018 IFD Publishing / 280 pp / trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

This one is the companion piece to Alan M. Clark’s most recent (and excellent) THE PROSTITUTE'S PRICE. Separately, they each weave compelling tales of life and death in 1880s Whitechapel. Together, they make a full, rich, complex story set against the backdrop of the Jack the Ripper killings but not focused on the Ripper himself.

Other people, other lives, are center stage here. While Clark’s books involve the often-tragic pasts of the victims, Grant’s protagonist is a struggling working woman of another sort. Catherine Weatherhead, estranged from her domineering father, makes her way as a practicing spiritualist.

Calling herself Madame Rostov, she isn’t into the table-rapping or ectoplasmic manifestations or channeling spirit guides, like many of her professional peers. Unlike them, however, she isn’t a total fraud. While she does rely on information and psychology, she also has a modest but legitimate psychic gift.

Modest, until she telepathically taps into the mind of a killer … not the infamous Jack, but another mystery man who also appears in Clark’s book. The Deptford Assassin, Whitechapel’s own anti-hero, is like an uneasy cross between Dexter and Daredevil, part vigilante, part killer-for-hire.

This connection is a serious distraction to her regular work, most of which involves doing sittings with grieving widows or young ladies curious about what lies Beyond the Veil. It then leads Catherine into an encounter with the assassin himself, and almost before she knows it, she’s engaged his services to help right an injustice.

From there, she continues bearing clairvoyant witness to his deeds, including his developing interest once the Ripper killings begin. That a cousin of Catherine’s is among the victims only leads to the logical next step – if it takes a thief to catch a thief, maybe it takes a killer to catch a killer.

Compelling on its own, totally enthralling when paired with its other half, great characters, great writing, excellent story, well done!

-Christine Morgan

DEVOURING DARK by Alan Baxter (2018 Grey Matter Press / 320 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Maybe it was because I’d recently finished binge-watching THE PUNISHER, but wow did this book make me think the Netflix people should get right on it right quick! Had all the elements for a perfect series in that format and style, only, set in London instead of New York.

Matt MacLeod is anything but a hero. He’s just a loner, trying to get by, living with a guilty secret and a terrible dark power. Although using it takes a toll on his health, letting the darkness build up is also dangerous. He tries to deal with this by, vigilante-like, only going after the worst of the worst, and so far has managed to not leave too many incriminating bodies in his wake.

One night, though, he’s spotted by a kid who works as a runner for local crime boss Vince Stratton, and Stratton is all too eager to add a new weapon to his arsenal. Matt has to play along if he’s going to protect his estranged family and friends. In the course of trying to find a way to fight back, he encounters a young woman with a similar ability.

Amy Cavendish, a hospice nurse, sees her darkness more as a gift. She’s far from the ‘angel of death’ type, easing the passing of her patients and then using what she collects from them to dispense retribution her own way. Soon, Matt and Amy are in a desperate rush to stay a step ahead of Stratton’s schemes, as Matt’s power nears its limits and Amy’s threatens to spiral out of control.

The characters are fantastic and fun, great evil-but-enjoyable villainy, excellent and compelling side characters, excellently believable supporting cast. The action moves right along, shifting angles from good guys to bad guys to police investigation. I read the whole thing in a single night, which only further proves my initial point: this story here is made for bingeing!

-Christine Morgan


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Reviews for the Week of April 8, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on a cell phone you're probably not going to see it. Bust out the laptop, amigo...

FULL BRUTAL by Kristopher Triana (2018 Grindhouse Press / 264 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Three for three now … three Kristopher Triana books I’ve read each at one awestruck sitting. My initial prediction that he’s destined for the extreme elite sure is proving true. I am just jawdropped. This book may very well be the most evil thing I’ve ever read in my entire life.

It’s perfect. The perfect evil, the perfect exploration of utter sociopathic monstrousness. Most evil of all, it could totally happen. Nary a breath of the paranormal to be found, either; it’s pure human nature at its most horrible.

Take every ‘mean girls’ movie or story throughout history, distill them down into a single droplet of ultra-concentrated nitroglycerine plasma MEAN GIRL, and that’s what we have here. Have said it before, will no doubt say it again … girls can be vicious. Spiteful, destructive, lethal, and cruel. Never mind simple serial killing. I’m talking sheer, absolute, utter destruction.

Meet Kim. Kim seems like she should have it all going for her. Pretty, popular, permissive single dad with adequate money, a good student, a star cheerleader, squad of friends, bevy of interested boys. But she’s not happy. She’s bored out of her mind. She wants to make a big change, and decides that losing her virginity is the way to go.

Only, she doesn’t want it to be the same dull story as everyone else, so she sets out to seduce an older man. A teacher. Then she discovers maybe sex isn’t such of a much, but the possibility of outright ruining lives and destroying people is a serious turn-on.

Soon, she’s deftly masterminding and manipulating, taking things further and further, playing people against each other, using the full dangerous powers of social media … there’s blackmail, murder, rape, cannibalism … you know, your basic classic tale of the tender sexual awakening of a young lady.

Most evil thing I’ve ever read. And that’s saying something. Wow.

-Christine Morgan

THIS IS A HORROR BOOK by Charles Austin Muir (2019 Clash Books / 140 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, confession time, shame on me, I still haven’t seen Mad Max: Fury Road. But, after reading this book, I know by the time I eventually get around to it, the experience will now be weirder than the filmmakers perhaps intended. Thanks to Charles Austin Muir and his naughty obsession with Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, which features prominently throughout these interlaced tales.

First off, take any regular rules of expectation and reality and chuck them out the window. You’re in for a wild, clever, convoluted ride of fourth-wall breaking, author insertion (in more ways than one, see Furiosa reference above), second-person, genre references, names and in-jokes, and all kinds of craziness.

The first story is about a couple of guys who, while drinking and watching horror movies on Halloween, decide it’d be a good idea to read from this ominous old book one of them found outside the convenience store. Gotta love it when even people who by rights should know better go and do stuff like that, don’t you? At least then they don’t have the gall to act surprised when it all goes hideously wrong!

It’s followed by sinister goings-on at the local library, pop-culture slasher and action heroes on a mission that takes a different-kind-of-slashy turn, some uncomfortable insights into writer critique groups, creepy-guy obsessions, alien invasion, and more.

Definitely a book where the more you know / the closer you are to certain circles, the more fun you’ll have … but raucous and raunchy and fun either way!

-Christine Morgan


SECOND LIVES by P.D. Cacek (to be released 4/11/19 by Flame Tree Press / 304 pp / hardcover & trade paperback)

It has been a few years since the last full length novel from Cacek, and with SECOND LIVES she makes a powerful return to the form.

In this deep look at reincarnation, Cacek introduces us to four people (eight, technically) who have been declared dead, yet wake with new personalities. Nearly half the book is spent not only on the recently deceased, but we get backstory on the past lives whose souls are about to be brought into modern times. I think some will find this first half a bit confusing, but stick with it as Cacek manages to keep the reader interested and I found myself emotionally invested in each one.

I love how the author handled one character in particular, a Jewish man who had died back in the 1920s, and now has to deal with living as a person whose life wasn’t exactly in agreement with his own strict beliefs. Kudos for each of the other reincarnated souls, dealing with modern technology, illnesses, and other issues I’ve never seen dealt with in similar stories before. This here is no 70s b-movie...

While not scary in the traditional genre sense, the story’s third section is heartbreaking and forces you to consider some life and death issues that may not have occurred to you before, and hence makes SECOND LIVES one of those rare reads that becomes more than a standard horror novel. And for that, this is not only one of Cacek’s finest works but one any fan of supernatural fiction will savor.

-Nick Cato

THE QUEEN OF NO TOMORROWS by Matt Maxwell (2018 Broken Eye Books / 120 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Amateur historian-type that I am, I was hooked right away by the notion of a story about someone who’s not merely a restorer, copier, and translator of old tomes, antique books, and manuscripts … but a forger as well.

Cait, our protagonist, has kind of a Remington Steele gig going on with her career (talk about history, showing my age there, egads), playing ‘assistant’ to a reclusive expert who doesn’t actually exist, so her work will be taken seriously by the musty boys’ club of academia and collectors.

Heck, I would’ve gladly read the whole thing as a thriller, even if it hadn’t then gotten into the paranormal weirdness. But hey, paranormal weirdness is also good! Cait’s current project is her masterpiece, the rare Smoking Codex, about a mysterious Mesoamerican deity.

It’s so rare, in fact, that nobody’s ever heard of it. Which makes sense, because, like Cait’s mentor/boss, it doesn’t actually exist. Cait’s creating the whole thing herself, with an eye toward stirring up rumors of the discovery of a one-of-a-kind relic, to land the big sale and secure her reputation.

The problems really start when members of a gang/cult called No Tomorrows want the book before it’s finished, and know details from it they shouldn’t possibly know. Things Cait hasn’t even written yet. They want her, too. And, despite their scary reputation, despite a series of ritualized murders, Cait can’t help but be curious. Is she somehow predicting the future, or creating real magic? What is this power, where does it come from?

Neat characters, fascinating concept, solid writing. It did feel a little sparse and rushed overall, though. I wanted more detail, more depth, more fleshing-out and backstory. Really nice to see something in this vein that wasn’t yet another medieval relic!

-Christine Morgan

TWISTED TALES FROM TORNADO ALLEY by Stuart R. West (2018 Grinning Skull Press / 304 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Have never been to Kansas, and it’s perhaps just as well because just the very idea alone of tornadoes scares the everlovin’ heck out of me. The random capricious destruction! How could anyone stand to LIVE there, where it happens often enough to be seasonal??? Then again, I grew up in earthquake country and could never understand why people who didn’t were so freaked out. All what you’re used to, I guess!

This book, thankfully, is not about killer twisters. It is, however, about Kansas, as presented in short-story collection form from the mind of Stuart R. West. It opens with a folksy chat introduction, kind of like what King does in Needful Things to help set the stage and give some teasery previews of what you’re in for.

Though, after reading “Bagworms” I might almost have preferred killer twisters … a nice drive in the country when everything’s covered in cocoons and silken webbing? Eek yikes nope. Took forever for my skin to stop crawling, and that was even without considering what came out of those cocoons …

The other tales run a gamut of madness and murder, family tensions, small-town witchiness and wickedness, indignant local legends, purgatorial hauntings, the trials of adjusting to vampire life, strange things that grow in the basement, a quick dental checkup, and a journey into the depths of an underground city where terrible creatures do terrible things.

“Husk” in particular deserves special mention; it’s a powerful gut-punch beware-of-what-you-wish-for exploration of racism and privilege, teetering between uncomfortable humor and all-too-real painful unfunny.

As a bonus, it includes a peek at the opening of the author’s novel “Dread and Breakfast,” which is also a good one! Well worth checking this out.

-Christine Morgan

a HFR second look...

ALL HAIL THE HOUSE GODS by Andrew J. Stone (2018 Rooster Republic Press / 134 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This genre certainly does produce some peculiar post-apocalyptic settings! In this one, the remains of humanity exist in a strictly-structured society designed around couples producing children … not families, since the children are taken away to be raised in the Offspring Oasis … only seeing their parents during brief monthly visits …

… or when one of the children is chosen by lottery to be sacrificed to the House Gods. Which are, well, houses. Animate, living houses. That eat people. How? Why? Backstory? Never really explained, and, doesn’t really matter. It just is, that’s the world, that’s the way it works, that’s one of the neat things about bizarro.

Not all of the humans are happy with this arrangement. Kurt’s wife Katie is one of them, or becomes one following the sacrifice of their eldest son. She organizes a small group of resistance fighters with two main objectives: stop having babies, and find a way to destroy the House Gods.

Kurt, meanwhile, isn’t so sure. He doesn’t want to lose any more children, but he doesn’t want to get in trouble with the authorities for failing to couple. He’s also met Devin, a guy who believes there is another way to end the hostilities. There are, Devin says, GOOD House Gods, who could be convinced to stand up against their fellows.

So, Kurt and Devin undertake their own clandestine missions to find and talk to the good House Gods, while Katie and her cohorts are building weapons and planning their attack. And the time for the next lottery draws ever nearer …

Well-written and disturbing, taking some sharp and insightful pokes at various social issues, this is a book that will entertain but unsettle, and make you think.

-Christine Morgan