Saturday, November 18, 2017

Book Review: Strange Weather by Joe Hill

Strange Weather by Joe Hill
Hardcover, 432 pages Published October 24th 2017 by William Morrow

I was not shy about my feelings on Joe Hill's last book The Fireman. While it had moments early and late the middle of the book was so bad to me I considered it my biggest disappointment of the year. I loved the concept and I am a Joe Hill/ King family fan so believe me I wanted to like the book. I just couldn't.

So I am very excited to say Strange weather is an excellent collection that carries on his fathers tradition of the four novella collection that started with Different Seasons and done so well recently in Full Dark No Stars.

That is the last time I will mention the family I promise. Hill is a fantastic writer who crafted four novellas that were very much in his voice. One of the things I really dig about these novellas is they are all three pretty different in style and they don't really compare to anyone else. That is really cool aspect of the book. Each novella is very different and has their own strengths. the first and third novellas are a bit more experimental and all of them are interesting.

"Snapshot"is excellent piece. I first read it in the Joe Hill issue of Cemetery Dance magazine, and something even cooler is he said in the notes he started hand-writing in Portland 2013. Cari, my buddy Ivan and I went together to see that event at Powell's so that was neat. I think the title changed from Snapshot 88, it is a somewhat experimental mystery that takes the narrative and wraps it around a story about dementia. What is cool is as the characters spiral into insanity the narrative loses it's form and becomes more and more strange. Well done.

The second novella "Loaded" is a very political story about guns. In many ways it has a Crash like feel with many stories that seem unconnected weaving together. It was surprisingly well plotted for a writer who openly disdains outlining, and said he hand wrote the first drafts in the novel. The main character is a unlikable dude, a gun nut mall security guard who appears to have ended a mass shooting and declared a hero. there are just a few problems, he has a restraining order from his ex, and the shooting appears to have some unexplainable moments.

This novella is really well written but I suspect conservative readers will not enjoy the point of view.

The third novella is in a sense is the title novella. I mean it is called "Afloat" but if any story is about Strange Weather it is this one. I have a feeling this one will divide readers. certainly it is the most bizarro story and least marketable concept. Personally I found this one to be solid - pun intended. The story of a skydiver that moves back in forth in time during the narrative and gets progressively more surreal as it goes on. There are plenty of powerful moments although I do think a shorter short story version might have been even more impact.

The last novella "Rain" is up my alley as it is a weird post apocalypse story and come to think if it it is a fitting for the title as well. It is about a storm that hits Colorado. The main character travels across the landscape with the mission of informing her father in law that her partner is dead. This is is a darker than dark story that for me was far more impacting in it's short pages that all of Hill's last novel "The Fireman"

Over all I enjoyed this collection, I think it is a must read for Hill or King fans. Joe Hill does a fantastic job of expanding his voice. Big Thumbs here. For a discussion on Strange weather with fellow critic Marvin Vernon:

Friday, November 10, 2017

Book Review: End of the World Running Club by Adrian J. Walker

End of the World Running Club by Adrian J. Walker
Paperback, 464 pages Published September 2017 by Sourcebooks Landmark

There are certain books that when I read them I know long before it is finished that I reading something that will be there at the end of the year when I make my top ten of the year. This is not a little deal. I hit my reading goal of the year with 70 books with this one. The End of the World Running Club is a masterful epic of post apocalyptic fiction. This is my favorite sub-genre of horror in fiction and is my favorite I have read since Brian Evenson's Immobility. The best British end of the world novel since One by Conrad Williams. In a tradition of novel that includes the Stand and Swan Song, it should be noted The author of both those books have now blurbed this book. Infact it was this tweet that lead me to read it:

@StephenKing

THE END OF THE WORLD RUNNING CLUB, by Adrian J. Walker. This one's a real find. I got a copy in Toronto. Might not be published in the US.

7:17 PM - 12 Oct 2017

EOTWRC is a novel that pushes almost of my buttons. The story is set in Scotland and follows Edgar Hill, he is not going to win father or husband of the year awards. He avoids home by overworking. He forced into survival mode by the end of the world, over night the north hemisphere is hit by hundreds of asteroids. They survive this event by huddling in a cellar. Weeks later they hear a helicopter that takes them to a base where survivors are gathered. While out collecting supplies Edgar and a small group of survivors miss a series of helicopters that are taking survivors to southern England to meet rescue ships. These ships are leaving around Christmas Day in Cornwall will take the survivors to unaffected South Africa.

After waiting a few days they realize no rescue is coming back for them. They have a month to get 550 miles, the problem is the roads are destroyed. Cars, bikes, none of it will work. And despite the fact that Edgar has never been into fitness they have one choice. Run. Pretty much a marathon a day, across the wasteland and through the weather.

What follows is a nerve-racking suspense filled novel that feels like a journey for the reader as much as the characters. The Running part doesn't even start until almost 200 pages in. No matter the building of the characters and universe are done with amazing skill. As a reader generally who doesn't like first person narrative, this in no way held me back from enjoying the story it was so well told.

That is not to say the early moments of the book are a slow build. One of the most harrowing moments of the novel was on page 46 shortly after the asteroids fell. Walker used tried and true methods of suspense building to make the possibility of someone on the other side of the cellar door terrifying. There were several moments in the book that worked well enough that I dog-eared the pages.

There are moments where Walker checks the boxes and hits us with some very trope heavy aspects of the post Apocalypse novel. The camps with the new world tyrants and the like. This doesn't distract from the over all product. Each of these detours from the run at the heart of the novel help deepen the narrative. It gives the journey higher stakes at every turn. By the end of the run we are fully invested.

Certainly I felt a kinship with Ed. I don't like to run, but force myself to do it. He doesn't want to run, but when he is left behind he finally realizes what his family is worth to him. Through the pain and hardship his need to see his family grows. There is a chapter in the book where he highlights the moment where his body excepts the running. When his body gives in and he figures out why people do it. It is a powerful moment in a book filled with them.

I don't use the word masterpiece lightly, but hot damn this book is. There is one scene (page 361) that I didn't feel was earned when a character had a random item they needed to escape a situation that I don't remember being mentioned earlier. It was the only moment I rolled my eyes at. I felt that was a little cheap and forced. A minor thing consider how powerful the book was over all. At the same time there were moments of horror done so well (like page 384) that used setting, sound and atmosphere to such wonderful effect, that is what I will remember.

Oh yes I should mention, I decided this year to only read books released in 2017/16 basically new releases. I understand a version of this novel was self-published in 2014. I suspect this edition is a new edit, and basically a new book. So it fits.

The book is almost 500 pages but it is quick read as the story cooks. Once the main characters take off on their run, the journey not only explores survival, themes of family but the limits of endurance. If you like end of the world fiction you MUST read this novel, if you just like a good story then you probably should read it. I think it was amazing.

Book Review: Pinball Punks by Dave Anderson

Pinball Punks by Dave Anderson

Paperback, 200 pages

Published September 14th 2017 by East Falling

This is a really cool example of what is good about DIY publishing, and look I am not always a fan. I believe in the gatekeepers generally when it comes to publishing. That said there are a few times that a book comes our way that didn't stand a chance finding a traditional publisher. Lets face it a punk book makes more sense DIY than many. Anderson has a book on his hand that is off-beat and fun but it is not a concept that I think screams market-ability.

It does not fit into a standard genre, not horror, not new weird and while it is bizarro it is one that doesn't feel like it should be close on the shelf next to Eraserhead press or Raw Dog Screaming Press books. That is not a knock. The book is strange for certain and at times absurdist, but it is not so weird that it exists sorta in a recognizable reality. Certainly the people in this book listen to alot of the same bands we do.

This is the story of a punk band called the Piss Rats who is just about to start a U.S. tour. I sure I will not be the only person who will wonder if this book was written before or after Trump got elected. In this world there is a dumbass president but this one is way cooler than the one we have in the real world. Because of a e-mail suggesting the country kick start it's economy by creating a network of pinball machines, the president who wants to be called Mister Awesome hires the The Piss Rats to promote the idea.

Before long the president is on tour with the Piss Rats. That is when things get weird. There is alot of wonderful moments in this book and I laughed throughout. It took me awhile to finish this book because honestly it is not exactly my type of book. I am a horror guy. I did enjoy the punk rock of it. You can tell Anderson is a legit hardcore kid, who grew-up going to shows. That is perhaps the biggest strength of the book. The reality is we need more, and more punk fiction. Good punk fiction.

In that sense Pinball Punks is a fun read and I happy to have it on my shelf. Punks looking for more punk stories need to pick this book up.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Book Review: The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

Hardcover, 487 pages

Published August 2017 by Crown Publishing Group (NY)

(first published January 2017 in England)

More than 100 years old War of the Worlds is about as classic as science fiction gets. The novel is one thing, but when you add the radio drams, TV shows and various films the reach of WoTW is hard to measure. Every first contact or alien invasion novel, TV show or film since is in it's shadow. Normally I would think it was a pretty ballsy move to write a sequel that is in many ways the first earliest sci-fi novel. I know there are examples from Frankenstein and more that predate it but in many ways WoTW is the first true classic of the genre that balances depth with pulp appeal.

Kudos to the Wells estate who authorized this, Baxter appears to be the guy to do it. He is a self professed Wells expert who already wrote a sequel to The Time Machine, and From the research he did into not only the original but the history of the times - he was the right before for this job. That is what makes this book something really special. The details and history of the novel is treated just a carefully as the history of the early 20th century. Real life figures play into this novel that takes in and around the 1920's.

The aftermath of the first Mars invasion has effected the entire planet. Germany and Russia are at war and france has fallen to Germany. But everyone comes together for one foe. There is a limited peace as Mars and Earth's orbits are in opposition around the sun. Everyone is tense as they orbits are about to line up. Once they do the Martians return The war is on and wider, in slow motion humanity watches the launch of the Martian attack and have time to prepare.

The war in this novel is wider and more global seen through the eyes of a unlikely narrator. The Sister-in-law of the first book's POV Walter Jenkins. Julie Elphinstone is a fantastic voice for the book, a strong female lead in a era that was still filled with sexism. I admit I was surprised by the choice but it worked great for the novel. Characters often underestimated her, and as she becomes important to the war effort she comes into her own.

Without major spoilers there are major surprises throughout the solar system in this novel. Baxter uses research done in this century to add flavor but he also is willing to use ideas that would be considered out of date. I liked that he mostly used the science of Mars that would have existed in 1920. With a tiny dash of modern knowledge for flavor.

As a war novel Massacre of Mankind works quite well, as an Alien invasion novel it works even better. As a sequel to War of the Worlds it worked for me but keep in mind it has been 30 years since I read the novel. So for me it works really well. Oddly I have never read Baxter before. I think I need to fix that. I really enjoyed this novel. Was it amazing? Not really but it was very solid and Baxter deverves alot of credit for the depth and research he brought to it.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Book Review: The Force by Don Winslow

The Force by Don Winslow

Hardcover, 496 pages

Published June 2017 by William Morrow

I know this year has been a real sci-fi and horror heavy year for me reading wise but I enjoy crime novels. So this is not that out of left field for me. Dawn Patrol Winslow's amazing San Diego based novel is one of the rare books that broke my published in 2016/17 rule for reading this year. The Force follows those rules and it was one I wanted to read since I heard the author on a podcast. Crime novels come in different shapes and sizes and depending on the skill of the author different levels of quality. On the surface the Force is a cop novel, surely there are many of those. Don Winslow is not just a novelist, trained as journalist and academic Winslow writes stories that educate as much as they make you feel. It is a little less message oriented than his last novel, I have not yet read the Cartel but Winslow seems passionate about ending the war on drugs.

The level of detail and research have become a trademark of a Winslow novel. They are fiction but they feel like a window on to the world, you will be educated as well as entertained. That is the important part entertainment and believe me the book is thrilling. Moments of suspense, drama and intensity.

Sometimes I think cover blurbs work against an author with hyperbole that is impossible to live up to. I worried about this as Stephen King compare this book to the godfather with cops. The NYPD world of The Force is clearly detailed researched but one would hope it was not as ugly as this. Keep in mind this is not bash fest of cops. It is clear Winslow does not have a ton of respect for the methods and processes of the Federal investigation agencies. From my experience of being a radical activist I can tell you those parts felt dead on.

This might be a result of the tight point of view. This is not a first person narrative, but unlike the Don Winslow books I have read before the POV follows the main character Denny Malone closely. He certainly hates Internal affairs and the feds. Not sure if that is a feeling Winslow has himself but he certainly gave us that feeling dripping off the page. Denny is a hero cop, son of a hero cop. He is not exactly clean and it is not a spoiler to say he ends up in trouble as we meet him in lock-up and then we are told the story backwards.

Denny is our window but the elite group of cops know as "Da Force" and the justice system in the city is the focus of the book. So the cops break down a few doors and make busts but the action and tension comes from the interplay of Denny and his borthers with the whole system. Judges, lawyers, special agents, internal affairs. Denny has to interface with federal agents investigating his unit and that interplay is like a boxer trading blows. All the best moments of drama and suspense are woven with those confrontations.

The feds have Denny by the balls, and he is forced to do things he finds disgusting. "being a Rat" disgusts the man who had no problem doing the same thing to criminals. It is a interesting moment when Denny realizes he has become many things he hated. That is how the feds and the court system works. How many times do people lie to protect themselves in court? How times do innocent people accept deals because they are afraid to lose in court? How many times do deals get made by the people caught in deals on and on. The questions that rise about our system while you read this book are numerous.

This novel does a great job of shining a light on how the gears of "justice" work in the system. There really are no good guys here. The novel is a exploration of loyalty in a impossible situation. The Force is a must read novel for crime fans. I think it is a masterpiece however I think it is really essential for crime fans but also anyone wanting to understand the criminal justice center.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Book Review: Bone White by Ronald Malfi

Bone White by Ronald Malfi

Paperback, 384 pages

Published July 2017 by Kensington Publishing Corporation

I admit I was not familiar with Ronald Malfi before reading this book. I had heard him mentioned on the Horror Show with Brian Keene, but it was a review that tipped me off. Marvin Vernon of the Novel Pursuit who I sometimes do audio reviews with called it "one of the best books of 2017 of any genre." and it was why I immediately went to my library website and put it on hold. I trust Marvin.

I am glad I did. I enjoyed the hell out of this book, which for the first 100 pages felt like the set-up episode of the next season of Fargo. I know it takes place in Alaska not the upper midwest. It does however start with a weird crime in the far north with a woman detective taking the lead despite many around her doubting her. Not sure it was intentional but that is what it made me think of.

Bone White is a northern gothic horror novel that I liked very much. I gave it five stars but I am not sure I ready to use the word Masterpiece. I mean it is very good. It has many moments of dread and outright creepy-ness while never skimming on characters.

The main character is Paul, who is estranged from his twin brother who a year earlier left for a new life in Alaska. He is more stable than his brother Danny who after moving up north has now gone quiet. The story really starts with a creepy scene in a small town called Dread's hands. Joe Mallory a local older man walks into a diner where everyone knows him and informs them that he has committed a series of murders and you better call someone to get the bodies. This intro was very off-putting in a good way. You can feel the thick tension of the scene drip off the pages and we as readers feel the discomfort.

Malfi appears to have a skill for making excellent off-putting discomfort. I don't want to get into it but I find Alaska to be a creepy enough place but Malfi does a good job of making us feel the isolation. Without giving away spoilers for the end the story takes a supernatural turn. With hints of classic Gothic and cryptic warnings that showcase a heavy Stephen King influence Malfi maintains most of the mystery right up to the horrific end.

This is a deeply psychological novel at times, brutal and atmospheric. The skill of the writing takes a pretty basic concept and elevates it beyond tropes into an experience. The pacing of the novel is very impressive that doles out mystery just enough. If I am critical of anything it would be the weak cover that suggests nothing of tone or feeling of the novel. Jill Ryerson the cop investigating the murders is a very interesting and frankly under used character. These are minor issues and the best thing I can say about the novel is I will read more Malfi.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Book Review: Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Paperback, 125 pages Published February 28th 2017 by Tor Book

Something worked in this books favor was the fact that I really didn't like the last book I read. Kiernan is a author I have meant to read more of. Agents of Dreamland will only cement my need to read more of Kiernan's work.

One of the latest releases in the the Tor.com series of Novellas which has produced masterpieces like Binti by Nedi Okrafor, Buffalo Soliders by Maurice Broddus, The Warren by Brian Evenson and of course the Black Of Black Tom by victor Lavalle. Those are just the ones I have reviewed. I mean some release strange and original works that are short in page count but huge in Ideas. So Agents of Dreamland fits right in.

This balances lots of feelings for the reader. At times the the prose is vivid and crisp and times the narrative is so intensely weird it is hard to believe it is less than 150 pages. I mean this book is loaded with ideas. It is of course a Lovecraft influenced cosmic horror story but not in stereotypical adding tenticles kinda of way. At times it had the delightfully weird transcendental feeling of David Lynch. The story moves through space and time in a totally unpredictable way.

The story of Signalman a spy who gets off a train in the desert to exchange information that is tied events are tied to the deep space probe New Horizon about to buzz the dwarf planet Pluto. If I start to rattle off all the elements that make this novel you'll get an idea how out there it is. There is a woman who exists outside of time, Sogotths basically alien invading space fungus, A doomsday cult called "Children of The Next Level," tie-ins to early 20th century sci-fi films, and more.

It is one thing to throw a whole bunch of weird things together it is a another to put them all together in a well written creepy tale. Page after page page I marveled at little moments of genius, while remaining stunned at the level of weird. It is set in 2015 for specific reason...

That is when new Horizon was swinging by Pluto taking the amazing pictures in the video. This novella is a bit of a companion piece to the Lovecraft story Whisper in the Darkness that was inspired by the recently at the time discovered dwarf Planet. Kinda wish I know that going into it as I would have re-read that story. It has been a long time.

This is my favorite book I have read in awhile, I was excited by all the strange elements coming together. A masterpiece of Science Fiction, horror and Mythos fiction. Kiernan swung for the fences and knocked the sucker in the parking lot.