Sunday, December 10, 2017

Book Review: Sip by Brian Allen Carr

Sip by Brian Allen Carr
Hardcover, 304 pages Published August 29th 2017 by Soho Press

I reviewed Brian Allen Carr's surreal horror novel "The Last horror novel in History of the World" back in 2015. I enjoyed it as a short but totally surreal novella. At the time I said I laughed alot reading this novel which is some kinda of supernatural small town siege tale set against the interesting back drop of a small border town in Texas. Given the title I expected a satire, or a bizarro send up of horror novels but that wasn't the case. This is more like experimental horror that based on the strength of the strong prose is a really cool quick read.

I was excited about this book and wanted to read it after hearing BAC on the JDO (J.David Osbourne) show podcast. Between then and actually getting around to the book I remembered nothing about it. I am glad I went in cold. SIP is a totally weird novel, those worried that BAC would lose his edge getting published by a traditional publisher - don't worry.

Sip is one of the weirdest horror novels I have ever read. The structure of the narrative is a little more straight forward there are no one sentence chapters, but the idea is plenty weird enough. It takes place in a post apaoclyse western setting, the world was not ended by nuclear war or climate change. In this future our world fell apart when junkies developed an addiction for consuming the souls of others through their shadows. Drinking the shadows gives you rest and the dreams of the person or animals you steal from but leaves the creature dry. Dry means you can't sleep or dream.

On a basic level you have great weird elements like shadow drinkers and limb scavengers, you have western elements with the train and the wasteland setting. Those are lots of neat-o elements but at the heart are human characters. At it's core friendship and loyalty plays as important a role as a mainstream YA novel. There is much to relate too at the heart of the story.

One neat aspect is how the concept and setting subverts the nothing setting or the dark or darkness being home to horror. In this world the sunlight and light in general is source of terror. The characters from Bale and Mira break the tension with momments of humor from time to time. The gee-whiz of the concept was enough to get my interest but it is Characters that made this a step-up from the BAC novel I read.

BAC is a talented writer and the very concept is strong argument for the book. At times the prose is poetic, but it is the world building and setting where the beauty lies. That is a neat trick. Overall I would say this is a weird fiction masterpiece if you like bizarro, horror or science fiction there is something here for everyone. If you think that all the ideas have been exhausted before 2017 then you need to read Sip. It is a book like no other and worthy of massive praise.

Magazine Review: Deciduous #1

Deciduous #1 Edited by Tara Blaine

169 pages

Published by Deciduous Tales

I am a huge fan of the horror short story. One of the biggest problems is the markets for the horror short story shrinks each year. It is always a good thing when a new source comes around. Featuring new fiction and and few classics reprinted Deciduous is a fine entry to the world of dark fiction that comes with a San Diego connection. Associate editor and contributor Brian Asman is here and a part of our local community.

As dark fiction journals go this is a great start, with 169 pages it is pretty much a paper back anthology and while the $14 cover price might scare off a few it shouldn't. The quality level in these pages are really high. The selection of stories is very good, there is not one story that turned me off completely and I tend to expect that in any given anthology. Almost all of them has a stinker.

That said there were stories that were stronger than others and I am not totally sold on what the classic stories added outside of slight vibe. The stories here are generally more on the surreal side of dark fiction. Bless the cracks for example by Brian Asman had Clive Barker ish concept of a world inside the cracks of sidewalk. The interplay between the people who see it and those that don't made it a fun read.

My favorite stories in this issue were Bone Dust by Joshua Chaplinsky and Getting Wet by Adrean Messmer. The dark tone and beautiful written prose of Bone Dust created a rich misery. Reminded me of some the post Apocalypse stories of Brian Evenson. Bone Dust was worth getting the whole thing. Chalinsky is on my radar now.

I didn't know any of the authors by name so I enjoyed the discovery process and that is how it is supposed to work. I would read it again and for those who are serious about short horror fiction should get for sure.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Book Review: Under the Shanghai Tunnels and Other Weird Tales by Lee Widener

Under the Shanghai Tunnels and Other Weird Tales by Lee Widener

Paperback, 188 pages

Published by Strange House Books October 2017

Coming from Portland based bizarro and weird fiction author Lee Widener Under the Shanghai Tunnels is a neat little collection. It was not entirely my thing but I certainly respect the the book. The author is clearly heavily influenced by the works and mythos of HP Lovecraft. I should not have to explain who that is to horror readers. Certainly there is a seriously overwhelming amount of fiction released each year by writers who want to play in Howie's sandbox. There are two styles of Lovecraftian fiction the ones that directly try to write in his style and the ones who write in their own voice using the mythos.

I grew-up on Lovecraft like alot of horror fans and writers. I am not against Mythos writing in fact one of my favorite reads of the year is Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan. I admit I get a little tired of Lovecraft tropes and this book is 100% Lovecraftian. Lee Widener brings a off beat sense of humor that provides a cool counter balance to the atmospheric moments. Those of you who can't get enough of old school Weird Tales should not miss this book.

The title story is my second favorite of the collection. As someone who lived in Portland for several years I enjoyed how Widener was able to weave in this location and local lore into the mythos. The story was told in third person at time and slipped into a first person narrative that was a journal entry. This journal style was where we got the Lovecraft tone and almost his voice. There is no new ground really broken here but I don't suspect most readers of this style of fiction are looking for that. The title story feels like slipping on a favorite familiar sweatshirt.

My favorite story in the collection was a funny and very weird tale of a Shoemaker called "At the Shoe Shop of Madness." This kinda off beat humor is Widener does best. This is a really cool book for Lovecraftian fiction fans, and it is clearly written by a talented author. I know I would like to read his work that is not in the shadow of Lovecraft.

Book Review: Sleeping Beauties By Stephen & Owen King

Sleeping Beauties By Stephen & Owen King

hardcover, 702 pages Published September 26th 2017 by Scribner

When Stephen King released Doctor Sleep (his best novel of this century in my opinion) he went on a book tour with his son Owen who had just released his first novel Double Feature. While on the road apparently Owen pitched his father an idea that he thought sounded like a Stephen King novel. On that tour more than once King suggested that he wanted to write it with Owen. Five years later we have 700 page door stop and The King family has three members in the NY Times bestseller top ten at the same time.

I reviewed Owen King's debut novel Double Feature here on my blog when it was released. The book was humorous and I really enjoyed the first 100 pages but I didn't enjoy the book as a whole. Owen King certainly has talent and it has got to be hard to be the youngest in a family of writers who have all (Tabitha King included) seen the bestseller list. While Joe Hill has done everything he can to forge his own path without the help of his Dad's legacy. Owen has been more indifferent. I don't blame him for wanting the experience to write a novel with his Dad, what an amazing experience that would be.

On the surface Sleeping Beauties is a very Stephen King idea, in the vein of Cell or Under the Dome it is a weird speculative Apocalypse novel. The story is global but the point of view is narrow and focused much like Cell. It has almost the page count of The Stand but not the scope. There is a very clear influence or feel of the HBO show The Leftovers. The book is 700 pages and honestly didn't need more than 400 pages to tell this story.

In this novel the women of the world are subject to a pandemic called Aurora. The women affected fall asleep and their faces break-out in a cocoon that keeps them asleep but alive. In the days that follow men have to deal with the loss and certainly most men in our world don't understand everything important that women do. A few women are trying desperately to stay awake and some of their struggles provide the novels most suspenseful moments.

Focused on a fictional West Virginia town called Dooling the novel follows events in the town and in the near-by women's prison. The book has enough characters that it starts with a glossary of them, I suspect most regular King readers wont need it. The Kings do a great job of making the characters vivid. We know this is a family strength. The early build-up is great and there are many really intense moments of creepy-ness related to the face cocoons which I found scary to think about.

Alot of the best moments of horror and story come in moments that I consider spoilers. There are lots of really great character moments. I have seen reviews that diminished Owen's role in the overall book but everyone has to remember he pitched this idea as a SK novel and I am sure he was writing to match that feeling. There are moments of syntax, dialogue and structure that felt different to me as a life long King reader, but I think that was symptom of a third voice.

The early tone of the novel is science fiction but over time the pandemic and related events become more and more supernatural. The story makes less and less sense as the scope narrows and gets more weird at the same time. Almost 100 pages is devoted to a siege of the prison that should have been a chapter at most. None the less the book is peppered through out with great moments of character and tension so I kept turning pages. I think most readers not thinking like writers will not have as many problems as I did.

Story wise I still found it compelling and enjoyed the ride the less I thought about it.I think story wise it is a four out of five star book, Politically it is a 2 out of five. So I am ending up with a 3/5 rating. It is hard to talk about it without mostly major spoilers. I am going spoiler ahoy. Without spoilers I will say this novel has problematic political implications from unintentional patriarchal notions despite being written by two progressive men. This idea is one that would have benefited from a female voice.

In some of the press tours Stephen King has said some cringe-worthy things about how men would react to a world without women. "Who would do the dishes?" I know this can be a generational thing but thankfully The book handles this a little better until the final act. There are plenty of excellent female characters including the Sheriff Lila, that was not the issue it was the notions that were under the surface. More details in Spoilers...

Spoilers: First the positive. There was a chapter about half way into the book where the story took a huge turn, and I admit when it happened I groaned. You see it is 500 pages into the novel that we discover that the sleeping women are living on in an alternate reality without men. This reveal shifted the tone so heavy at first my reaction, was no, just no. But after one chapter it was paid off. The chapter before featured the novel's bully and prime asshole Don Peters talking about wanting set one of the sleeping women on fire just to see what happens. I forgot about them doing this, because of the slight of hand in the form of a huge story shift. The first chapter ends with a woman in the alternate reality suddenly and shockingly dying. When you flip to the next chapter you realize it was the work of Don Peters and young recently deputized man just experimenting.

This was a super effectively reveal. Great storytelling for sure.

As for the bad. I can't believe after Spike Lee complained about Stephen King's use of the "magical negro" in books like the Green Mile and the Stand he would return to the trope but he does. Even naming the woman Evie Black. Evie is in prison for killing a meth dealer and she becomes the key to the whole thing. She is like the gatekeeper between the two worlds.

Even worse is that when she leads the women to discover the path back to our world through this tree portal there is a scene where the women in this new world meet and decide what to do. For a reason I was not clear about they all had to agree and vote on weather to to say in the male-less world that most agree was a better place. In the end they all have a unanimous vote to return to our world.

I can't believe that EVERYONE of them would vote that way. The Kings give the reason that many did not want to be separated from their sons. A better argument is would be that their bodies would always be at risk in the male world. I also didn't understand how the rest of the globe was liberated by Evie's action.

I came away feeling uncomfortable about the ideas at the end of this novel and felt that this story needed a woman's touch.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Big news: New project! Future Shock Live!

I'm creating an exciting new project. I'll be doing this project on a grassroots level.

Future Shock will be a bi-monthly live discussion panel open to the public and heavily promoted in the media. It will feature panelists ranging from political figures, academics, activists and Science Fiction authors. I'm looking for interesting community members who would like to participate by being a panelist for one of the events.

Each installment of Future Shock will focus on a single topic and will be like a live interactive episode of Black Mirror – a theater of the mind with ideas for a better tomorrow. The format will include an hour of discussion, thirty minutes of Q and A, followed by a social and organizing hour.

Topics will include The West Coast in 2075, City Planning for the Future, The Future of Media, Artificial Intelligence, Trans-humanism, Living with Climate Change, and many more.

We will be recording portions of the event for a Future Shock San Diego Podcast. My hope is to get people to gather and discuss the future. I'm shooting for February 2018 to premiere.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Book Review: Sea of Rust by C.Robert Cargill

Sea of Rust by C.Robert Cargill

hardcover, 384 pages

Published September 5th 2017 by Harper Voyager

This is the first novel I have read by C.Robert Cargill but I am certainly familiar with his writing. I discovered this book while browsing the new releases at my favorite local bookstore Mysterious Galaxy. I knew Cargill's work under the Aint It News Pseudonym Massawyrm. I also of course seen his films Sinister and Dr.Strange. I was sold when the book was described on the back as a "Post Apocalyptic Robot Western." I knew if he could deliver on that promise we had seriously cool story on our hands. Some of the marketing did however have me scratching my head. The publisher called it a twist on the Martian, which makes zero sense. Specifically considering Post apoc robot western sounds way better.

This novel takes place in a world that is fifteen years beyond the death of the last human being. After a brutal war fought between humans and five major AI mainframes. In the aftermath the mainframes are fighting for control of the earth. Our point of view character is a former service robot named Brittle. Many of the service robots identify with genders as they were set up to interface that before the fall. Brittle is now a scavenger searching the barren landscape that had once been the American midwest.

Brittle has to find parts to keep operating, and the struggle becomes harder when a competing robot attempts to kill her, and worse one of the mainframes is targeting her for assimilation. If that was not enough she meets a robot with a important secret the attention of the mainframe may not be a coincident.

Sea of Rust is a bold as hell concept for a science fiction novel, and it comes with it many, many narrative challenges. Cargill is clearly a very serious writer who takes great care with every minor detail. In a novel like this the story requires master level world building. Cargill nails almost all of it. From the history of the great war and how that history unfolds in the selective memories of Brittle, to the post human landscape and the fact that robots would never use things like smell,taste feelings of the like.

Is it perfect? No but pretty close and that is saying something because of the challenge. Cargill did break a major rule of science fiction by including entire chapters of info-dumps. These were found in alternating chapters within the first act of the book. Normally this is a big No-no in sci-fi but it worked for me. as these chapters progressed they tied more into the narrative by connecting to Brittle's story. There were a few times in the third act where I felt the robots were acting a bit too human. It was easy as a reader to forget these are machines and as an author myself I understood the challenge Cargill had. He had to walk a fine line telling a story about machines to consumers who are human. That is a narrative magic trick.

Overall I think Cargill did a amazing job with the world building and it is no small narrative feet to make a story with all machine characters feel visceral and relentless. One of the best science fiction novels I read this year. Now I am going to have to go back and read his other novels.

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.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Book Review: The Dark Net by Benjamin Percy

The Dark Net by Benjamin Percy

Hardcover, 272 pages

Published August 1st 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Boy I really really wanted to like this book. There were a couple reasons for this. For one thing, I really enjoyed the interview with the author on the "This is Horror" Podcast. I found Percy to have lots of interesting takes on writing and the plot to this novel sounded interesting. I thought the concept was one that could be really cool. The fact that it was set in Portland a city I miss didn't hurt either. I WANTED to like this book, and yet I didn't. Not there are levels to disliking a book. I finished this book. Making it to the end says something.

As a novelist myself I know the huge amount of work involved in researching,writing, editing and marketing a book. I don't root against books but I felt like I was riding a fancy bike with the chain falling off every time we got some speed.

This book was alot of things going on but not exactly the book I was hoping for. The idea that a great supernatural evil is using the Dark Net - ie the underground unregulated internet is a fascinating one. What was needed to tell this story is a a really technologically oriented point of view that combines the feel of early William Gibson with the supernatural feeling of the Exorcist or The Omen. My favorite Horror film of all time Prince of Darkness is a great example of science fiction meeting supernatural even religious horror. Lets face it the evil in this story has demonic judeo-christian feel to it. One of the negatives to this book is I felt like I understood more about the real life Dark Net that Percy did.

The Dark Net is the story of many characters but our main point of view character is Lela a Technophobic Journalist, others include her niece Hannah who is blind but receiving experimental surgery, Her sister, A hacker named Derick and a former evangelist turned homeless advocate. Lela is investigating a murder that is connected to an apartment building that has a tenuous connection the other characters. There is a story line involving Hannah and the experimental treatment leading to her ability to see creatures that exist somewhere between a technological and spiritual realm.

None of these story elements really worked for me. Lela's murder investigation felt like a totally different story, and once the elements started coming together it I didn't feel anymore convinced. The Mike Juniper story on the surface sounded interesting, with a former believer just wanting to help the homeless but his chapters didn't stand out. Hannah and mother were the characters I found most interesting and even though they open the novel they felt under used.

My biggest problem with the writing were events that seemed to happen randomly just because the author wanted them too. The best example was in the first 100 pages. Look as a ex-Portlander who shopped at and loved Powell's city of Books on paper the idea of a suspense filled horror-action scene taking place in the store is cool. However in order to put Lela a reporter who doesn't work into the store alone Percy set-up a ridiculous scene where a Powell's employee just leaves her in the rare books room after the store closed. This would never happen. So it took me out of the book.

This is just one example but there were several times things happen without any logic except to advance the story. Lela's inability to use technology while it fits the author's narrative it is impossible to believe. So as reader in the first 100 pages there are several major strikes against the book. I can suspend disbelief about demons, but a reporter for the leading newspaper in the state being clueless with technology enough soo that she can't download a picture takes me straight out of the story.

Once we get into the third act I feel the title concept of the Dark Net is only touched on in minor ways, and considering it was the subject of the book I wanted more than a wikipedia entries worth of knowledge on the topic. The best techno-thrillers make me feel like the author is in touch with information about the subject I can't understand. The story often meets in the middle. I read this book mostly thinking of ways evil could travel through the dark-net and thinking that Derick was the only character we needed. Then again I didn't believe him as a hacker anymore than Lela as a Luddite reporter in the 21st century.

I wish I could tell you this is an awesome book worthy of your time. It has blurbs from really smart authors Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Chuck Wendig and Paul Tremblay. Percy is a much more successful writer than I am but I just don't see it here. I wanted a smart techno-thriller in the vein of Cyberpunk meets horror instead the third act contains a chapter that felt more like Maximum Overdrive. It was good enough to finish I may give Percy another chance but thumbs down on this one.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Book Review: The Snake Handler by J. David Osborne & Cody Goodfellow

The Snake Handler by J. David Osborne & Cody Goodfellow

Paperback, 152 pages

Published 2017 by Broken River Press

This book came as a big surprise to me. I mean I am a fan of both authors, and I knew these dudes were friends but it seemed a strange combo. On the surface both authors are write strange fiction. Goodfellow is more of a horror author and Osborne known for weird crime, of course both crossover into the other's genre often. Osborne and Goodfellow worked together on Cody's criminally underrated weird crime novel Repo-Shark, with Osbourne serving as editor and publisher through Broken River books. But as a fan of works of fiction by both authors the differences in their styles had me scratching my head at the idea of them working together.

Goodfellow is an author whose strength comes in research and little details. Osbourne is more of an author who writes books that feel like a surreal version of the southern gothic. More importantly details are not his thing. Osbourne has admitted on his podcast he skips details, ignoring the parts of stories he finds boring. Osbourne often leaves these moments up to the reader to fill the details on their own. Goodfellow plays will those moments turns them into humor, horror or suspense and leaves no stone unturned. Osbourne's strength are tone, the off-color feeling.

So how would they combine their strength?

The Snake Handler is a (just barely southern) gothic crime novel that centers on Clyde Hilburn as Preacher and faith healer in West Virgina who is bit by a snake in the novella's opening moments. What follows is a weird crime story that involves the main character trying to solve his own murder caused by the bite that ideally should not be so full of poison. The setting provides alot of the weird the characters and it all adds to make for weird, violent fun if you are into the darker more gross forms of story-telling.

I could be wrong, but as much Goodfellow as I have read, and I have read a good % of his catalog it seems he wrote the majority of the first part and Osbourne seems to have been lead on the second part. That is not to say I didn't seem hints of the other through out, and I could be wrong I am just geussing. I enjoyed this book but I admit Goodfellow's clarity is a little more my thing. That is why I think I preferred elements of the first half more than the second. None the less I loved the whole thing, that is personal taste thing.

Goodfellow and Osbourne are a welcome combination and with the Matt Revert cover it is a neat little novella, that should be on your shelf. Honestly this felt like a Tor.com novella series book and in a just world it would have been one.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Book Review: Blade Runner 2 The Edge of Human by KW Jetter

Blade Runner 2 The Edge of Human by KW Jetter

Paperback, 320 pages

Published October 2000 by Spectra (first published 1995)

This book sat unread on my shelf for 10 years. I bought it for a quarter at a library book sale in Port Angeles Washington. I knew the back story, KW Jetter who is a cyberpunk author I respected had been friends with PKD during his life. The story goes that he and Dick had discussed before his death his thoughts on seeing the rough cut of the movie, and his plans to write sequel novel Jetter then with permission of the family wrote a series of books that are a sequel to the movie more so than the novel.

The main reason I decided to give this book at spin was to kinda get back into the Blade Runner world before the release of the new film. So I re-watched the blu-ray of the final cut, and read this book. Thought that would be a fun way to get excited for the new film. I read Do Andoirds Dream Electric Sheep and re-watched Blade Runner about 10 years ago. At the time I remember thinking that the movie was more faithful to the source material that it is often given credit for. Certainly there are many concepts in the novel that don't get explored like the empathy boxes and the very term Blade Runner is only in the movie.

That being said the concept of animal extinction, empathy towards animals and the very idea of empathy as a test for humanity is very clearly a translation of the novel into the film format. Watching it again I found little subtle moments that I realized meant nothing to me when I first saw the film and would have no meaning to me without having read the novel. When Deckard asks the replicant stripper if her snake is real and she says "of course not, how could I afford it?" Having read the novel I understand that most animals on earth are extinct that fake animals are status thing. Or in the Tyrell corporations penthouse when Tryell's owl gets a close-up it is clearly a fake but that is never mentioned.

So considering that it was interesting after watching the film again to enter into Jetter's sequel. While there are nods to Dick's novel, this is not an androids sequel it is very much a Blade Runner sequel. There are pros and cons to this. If there is one serious negative is that Jetter doesn't introduce new characters hardly at all, the setting hardly changes. He takes very few risks. It was almost like he was told we have to use all the same actors and sets. Understandable for a movie or TV production just didn't make sense in a prose setting.

Odd choice because it was a book, none the less he finds interesting twists into the story and brings back characters (some of whom died) in interesting ways. At this point I am going to talk about spoilers. The book is many years old, and about to become obsolete. I think many of you want to read this review to skip the book rather than actually than deciding if you want to read it. As a fan of Blade Runner I enjoyed it, but unless you are hugely devoted to the film I don't you have to read it.

I enjoyed reading it rated four stars at first but lowered my score to three after thinking deeper about it. It is fun, but it breaks no new ground and pretty much re-hashes the film over and over.

SPOILERS:

In this novel Rachel has been put in a sleep chamber and Deckard is forced back to LA to look for a last Nexxus 8 Replicant. This mission is given to him by Sarah the template for the Rachel Android. Roy Batty returns in the form of the human template. Holden the Blade Runner shot in the early scenes of the movie returns with a new heart and lungs after nearly dying. Holden and Deckard are both convinced that the other Blade Runner is the last Replicant. This is pretty good PKD paranoia,but the best twist of the novel comes at the end of chapter 8 on page 153. Holden comes the conclusion that perhaps all the Blade runners are Androids.

I thought this was a fun twist. In the end we are left with the same mystery and I am not sure I have reading the other two books.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Book Review: Behold The Void by Philip Fracassi

Behold The Void by Philip Fracassi

Introduction by Laird Barron

Paperback, 292 pages

Published March 10th 2017 by JournalStone

A short story collection is one of the best ways to get to know an author. I heard Philip Fracassi on A podcast, a epic 3 part interview on This is Horror, and was convinced the guy seemed legit. I looked him up at my library, saw nothing so I requested a purchase and within two months I got a notice it was there. I knew he had worked as a screenwriter but honestly had never heard of him before the interview. Well it was clear I have to fix that.

Introduced by cosmic horror master Laird Barron this collection that has creepy and haunting cover. It feels like the intriduction to the author I was looking for. Fracassi clearly has a perfect balance of skill and style. The stories are all genre but have a diverse feel with in that spectrum. Some are straight fucked-up horror and some feel like classic weird tales.

Weighing with 9 tales some are novella length and had a previous life as chapbooks. The best of these long pieces was Altar a story that took place near a pool. The weirdest story of the book was Coffin whose POV character was excellent, she was the most interesting character in the book.

To me the best story in the collection was Fail-safe. In fact I would go so far as to say it was the best pure horror short story I have read since Brian Evenson's Any Corpse. This story is short on pages but loaded with high concept and perfectly composed moments of suspense and terror. The story includes misdirection, atmosphere and white knuckle scares. For this reader these 20 pages made the whole book worth it. To me it would have made a perfect Tales from the Darkside episode.

Don't get me wrong I read and enjoyed all of it. Fracassi found a fan in me. This is excellent horror literature, the prose is inventive and stylish. The Characters fully developed and Fracassi brings powerful new voice to the table. I know this is a short review but I feel confident that serious horror fans will enjoy this book.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Book Review: The Changeling by Victor LaValle

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

Hardcover, 431 pages

Published June 13th 2017 by Spiegel & Grau

I really loved this book, and I know the hyperbole has started, Lavalle's last book book has seems to have won every major award. this book is no different it is getting rave reviews from almost everyone who read it. The reasons are clear. This book is the real deal story telling to it's core. It has a fantasy feel to that at moments feels like full on fable or fairy tale and other times brutal horror. At the heart of this novel is a very rich story that feels like it is being told to you as you sit on rocking chairs on the front porch. I picked up the book based on the strength of Lavalle's last book The Ballad of Black Tom. I think it was good that I didn't know anything about the plot.

It is the story of Apollo Kagwa son of single mother and African immigrant in New York City. His father left them and the reason is a mystery. The elements of this mystery unfold in a very magical way. Early in the story Lavalle creates a simple story that has a natural feeling of scope and magic. It is kinda hard to explain, the events of the novel are subtle with a slow burn but the way it is told just feels powerful. The pages fly by.

Apollo receives a clue left at his door step that leads him to want to collect books, there are really cool moments centered around the magic and power of books. Those passages set the tone but the zigs and zags into romance and horror. When Apollo meets the love of his life. A Librarian whose entry into his life fills a void. But there is tragedy coming. Soon his son and his wife are missing presumed dead, he ends up briefly in jail orginally charged with their murder. After he is released from prison he wants to get to the truth, is he unlucky or are dark forces working against him?

The strength of this novel is the constant balance that Lavalle brings to the text between the magic and beauty and the dark evil as it builds to a boil. I am sure some readers will feel jolted by the tone shift half way into this novel but this is earned through moments of tension slow building in the first half. The New York setting and characters are really well developed.

Was it perfect? Most seem to think so, the book is racking up five star reviews and started already to win awards. For me there were two elements that didn't work. For one thing I didn't like the addition of modern technology into the story. The inclusion of a phone app into a story that drew strength from a spiritual tone was jarring to me. There was one chapter that ended with joke involving an app that was so corny I almost slammed the book shut.

Apollo is tragic character but one I liked enough to feel for. I liked the strengths of this novel enough to ignore the parts I didn't like. I thought it was very, very good but I didn't like it as much as some. The Ballad of Black Tom was a masterpiece and this one was very good but I am not sure I would use the word that strong of a word here. Lavalle is an amazing writer and I think I will read what ever he writes at this point.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Book Review: The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

he Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

hardcover, 288 pages

Published April 2017 by Harper

I have to admit I have never heard of Lidia Yuknavitch before. I have gathered since I started this book that she is an author whose books are shelved and marketed as lit fiction. Certainly this is one of those cases where a book is very clearly genre and is never slapped with the honest label. I understand that to the author she may not have set out to write a science fiction horror post apocalypse novel, but she did. I am sure all she meant to do was do a modern Joan of Arc novel.

Look it was the genre elements that hooked my interest and it the reason many of you read these reviews. Yuknavitch is a talented writer and I am I positive I will read her again. The concept alone, Joan of Arc re-told after the majority of humanity has escaped a radiated earth to live in a orbiting habitat. The humans who survive are transforming, fluid with gender and sexuality becoming a memory. All coo elements that make for interesting read.

Book of Joan is a an ultra-feminist speculative fiction that will get lazy comparisons to Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness just because of the gender fluid moments. I suspect fans of Leguin however will love this novel. There is alot to like here. Normally I am annoyed when a novel like this is not called science fiction, but I have seen worst cases. The novel is not hard sci-fi at all and is more surreal than anything.

Early in the novel I was riding with it. The prose is crisp and the pace starts up OK. I enjoyed the flurry of weird ideas, I had put the hold on the book so many months ago I had forgotten why I was interested so I went in cold. I thought Yuknavitch put more energy into the setting and the world building in the early pages, that is one reason why the first half of the novel worked better for me. In the second half the novel lost focus. So did I.

This novel is really cool, and I liked the themes and methods Yuknavitch used to express herself. I really enjoyed the first one hundred pages. The ecological message is as strong as the feminist one, but I don't think the story suffers for that reason. The last sixty became confusing for me. I admit I got lost and pages went by. That could have been on me, there is no denying the talent involved in the writing.

Overall I liked this book even if I was less happy with the last parts of the narrative. I think fans of smart politically charged speculative fiction should read this book. Fans of smart weird stuff will also enjoy.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Book Review: What Immortal Hand by Johnny Worthen

What Immortal Hand by Johnny Worthen
Paperback, First, 318 pages Published September 2017 by Omnium Gatherum

I was sent a review copy so I could not have gone into this novel anymore cold than I did. I expected something good based on OG's history of cool indie horror titles. WIH is a strange horror novel, and one I am glad I read it. Also kinda glad I didn't read the back cover description which gave away an aspect of the book I didn't see coming. Don't worry I'll warn you before I explain. You don't have to take the red pill.

Lets start with the story. Our POV is Michael Oswald a private detective who is hired by an insurance company to track down a stolen truck. Not because of the two people that went missing, but the rare equipment insured on the missing truck. This investigation leads Oswald across the southwest although mostly Utah and California. He eventually discovered a mass graves filled with bodies both fresh and ancient history.

How Oswald finds the bodies becomes a more important mystery than what happened to the truck. Let me cut to the chase here to avoid spoilers and then I'll come back to the story.

Did I enjoy this novel? Yes This is a odd horror novel that starts off as weird crime noir that has a edge of southwest gothic to it. The turn the novel takes as we enter the last 100 pages is a great one that crept up on me. It took a pretty simple novel and turned the narrative into a bit of live wire. It took a pretty simple book and gave it a really interesting edge. Before that twist I was enjoying it, but my feelings for the book really spiked.

That said I was not a huge fan of the last twenty or so pages.I didn't find the ending as satisfying as I had hoped but it didn't ruin the experience. The book is well written and Oswald is likable enough character. The story moves at a good pace but the things that made the book stand-up were back loaded. I enjoyed the book, and thought it was fun but honestly don't think it holds a candle to some of the very exciting things we have in the modern horror underground. I am thinking of authors like Laura Lee Bahr, Cody Goodfellow or Jeremy Robert Johnson for examples. Those writers are telling daring and brave stories in the sense that they are trying to break new ground.

This is a very good book but it felt a little safe to me. That is OK hell I like Vanilla ice cream. I enjoyed this book enough to give it four stars the problem is stacking it up against the amazing things I have read this year. It is a good book judged on it's own merits, but the hard part about giving a recommendation comes to how much do you devote to reading?. Hell I get it I released a book this year too. There is alot of amazing things out there and it is tough as hell to compete. Worthen should be proud of this book, no matter what I say. I really liked this book, think it is great but I am pretty positive even in September that it will not make my Top 10 list of the year.

OK Spoilers Bonus:

On the back cover the book is compared the 1985 World Fantasy award winning novel Song of Kali by Dan Simmons. That is really a bold claim and one I am glad had not read. I didn't read anything about the book dealing with Kali or thuggee cults. I am glad I didn't because that was actually a good twist for me. The twist introducing those elements worked for me but going fully into in the last pages didn't work as much for me. I am not sure how I would have written to the back differently I am just saying I am glad I didn't know.

(Audio) Book Review: Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

9 1/2 hours audio recording. I don't listen to alot of audio books anymore. I used to rock most Stephen King novels that way, and it used to be the soundtrack of my long walks. The growth of podcasts, my interest in sports and thus sports radio sorta killed my audio book consumption. But in a convoluted way I owe sports radio local legend and world class curmudgeon Jeff Dothseth. In between insulting basically everyone in San Diego but enemies and friends alike Jeff mentioned Author Don Winslow's new book the Force. I wanted to read that but it is popular and the book has 150 holds at the library. Jeff also mentioned This novel The Dawn Patrol which he described as a Mystery set in Pacific Beach. I was sold.

Last month I had a trip planned to Carbondale Illinois to go watch the total solar eclipse. This is only a four hour drive from my hometown Bloomington Indiana where I would be visiting my father. However I understood that the traffic into and out of the tiny college town of Carbondale would suck. Indeed on the way home the Drive from Carbondale to Mt. Vernon (normally 45 minutes)took 4.5 hours. I listened to more than half of this book on the drive there and drive back. That said I spent alot of that long drive to Mt. Vernon explaining how amazing it was to see the eclipse.

OK Dawn Patrol is written by the genius crime writer Don Winslow known for his cartel crime novels and Read by Ray Porter. Who I knew from his reading of San Diego's own Jonathan Maberry's books. Winslow is known for very honest and brutal modern crime novels. The Savages and and his novel Cartal are known for the detailed research as much as the characters. Dawn Patrol is the most classic noir novel set in San Diego I have read. It has a classic detective novel feel.

The mystery at the heart of this story is only one thread in a rich tapestry. The title perfectly captures the most important aspect of the novel The six characters that make up the Dawn Patrol surfing crew. While our main POV character is Boone Daniels PB surfer turned washed up cop, all the members of the crew did attention and add essential flavor to the story. Boone fits alot of surfer guy and novel detective story tropes but when he is given the job solving the murder of a stripper it drags him in the underworld of San Diego.

In many ways Dawn Patrol reminded me of Terriers, the short lived noir comedy Series on FX set here in San Diego. While I like Terriers slightly more, they kinda have a similar DNA.

As San Diegan my favorite aspect of this novel was the asides where Boone via Winslow explained San Diego to the readers not from here the city. This is important to explain the differences between OB, PB and mission bay for example. Living here I of course know much of this but Winslow really gave history and context that most San Diegans have no clue about. Like Why the Gaslamp district exists, and it's more than 100 years of history. This alone makes the book a worthwhile read

A part of me wishes I had read this novel myself but the audio book was well produced. Ray Porter is a world class reader. I think if you like crime novels you can't go wrong here, but if you are in San Diego you should read this local novel.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Book Review: His Master's Voice by Stanislaw Lem

His Master's Voice by Stanislaw Lem
Paperback, 199 pages Published November 25th 1999 by Northwestern University Press

This book had been on my shelf for years, and I knew I wanted to read it at some point. It is considered a classic and certainly Lem's Solaris is one of the best mind screwing sci-fi novels ever written. Lem pretty much broke the forth wall spoke directly to us on page 31: "The Reader who plowed his[their] way to this point and is waiting , with growing impatience, to be lead into a inner sanctum of the famous enigma, in the hope that I will regale him [them]with thrills and chills every bit as delightful as he experiences viewing horror movies, I advise to set my book down now."

Yeah I admit during the first 30 pages I found myself wonder what the hell was the story. If anything this warning was about 30 pages late. Alot of the early pages just came off as philosophical nonsense. I am sure that is on me but I was waiting for a story to begin. Once I got this warning I sat back to enjoy the book for what it was a thin story propping a discussion of how our species would/could handle contact with a intelligent species beyond our world.

So the story centers around a signal discovered to be repeating that is coming from deep space somewhere around Canis Minor. The signal is transmitted by a method that itself is barely understood. So the U.S. Government gathers physicists, linguists, engineers, psychoanalysts, mathematicians, chemists, humanists, anthropologists and many others. We are told 25,000 experts and sub-experts are gathered in the Nevada dessert to study it. Years go by they learn enough to bio-engineer something they call frog-eggs something they don't entirely understand.

The title of the book does a excellent job of expressing the whole point of the 199 page exercise. The title is reference to the record famously played for dog to test him if he would response to a recorded voice. It confused the dog, and that is what happens to humans here. Confusion. I actually wish Lem had kept the the title but not named the Manhatten style project in the book His Master's voice. I doubt the government would name their project that. Maybe the scientists would have but whatever, I think it took away from the power of the title.

This novel is a masterpiece of speculative philosophy, that is held together by a threadbare story. The story is not the point. Thinking about what it means to contact another civilization is the point. The extra-terrestrials here are not typical not war like or peaceful. They are as much a mystery as the nightsky itself. We are not even sure if the senders intended for earth to get the message or was it a accident. The message could have been sent out billions of years ago and the senders may be alive or not.

This may be a spoiler but the novel in the end is not about communication, but lack of communication. It becomes most clear when our lead scientists has to explain to us dummies through a dummy surrogate in the Senate. This dialogue clears up alot of things that frankly flew over my head.

There is plenty of ghee-whiz moments when the team discovers that instead of numbers and math the methods normally considered to be the common language in translation, the language is genetic, and based on chemicals. Lem writes some of the most genius and other worldly science fiction.

It might seem funny to say this is a masterpiece of science fiction and certainly worth of five stars even when I personally gave it three. Lot it is a work of genius and the ideas it brings up and discussion are important. I think it is an important book but it is not exactly a fun read. The opening 25 pages is a not stop pompus blab fest that adds zero to the book. In thinking about this book I would talk myself into it's genius at times and then marvel at how crap other parts were.

I also think it is a interesting counter to Sagan's Contact. I wonder if Carl had this book in his mind when he came up with that one. I can't recommend this as a fun read. But certainly I think the ideas are important, if a dry as sand paper sci-fif novel is something you can live with read it and lets talk.

Book Review: The Boy on The Bridge by M.R. Carey

The Boy on The Bridge by M.R. Carey

Hardcover, 392 pages

Published May 2nd 2017 by Orbit

The boy on the Bridge is a follow-up release to the M.R. Carey surprise bestseller The Girl With All the Gifts. If you enjoy horror fiction or just good story telling at all let me say right now that you need to get into The Girl With all the Gifts. It was was one of my top reads of last year. It was a great novel, but thankfully if you don't have it in you to read the novel, then you a pretty faithful movie based on it starring Glen Close. I think it is hard to talk about either book or movie without laying ruin to the effects the story has on the consumer. So if you trust me stop right here. Read the first book or see the movie.

OK maybe you saw the first movie or read the book and you are wondering if this one is as good. I'll get to that. First off I think the marketing and even the title for this book are really interesting. It seemed like they were really trying hard to make sure you were very clear this was in the same world as the first book. The Boy in the title certainly doesn't play the role the Melannie did in the first book.

This novel follows the science team living in a tank named "Rosie" that they take around the waste land. The main character was a scientist named Dr. Rina Khan and a savant named Stephen. The book switches back and forth from their points of view. Stephen is obsessed with finding a cure, and his chapters and unique way of viewing the world provide some of the most interesting moments of prose. For her part Khan reveals in the early pages that she is pregnant. This is very against the rules of the mission but they are too far out into the wilds of the apocalypse to return. This child on the way is well played for moments of subtle but creepy suspense. What world is this child coming into? Will it be safe? Will it be human?

I think for many the characters will come off flat to some readers, but I think this is a bi-product of their position in the mission.The two main characters were well written in my opinion, and yes some of the others filled tropes but I don't count them against my enjoyment of the novel.

Now is this a sequel? Does it take place around the same time as the first book? We know early on that the E-blockers exist in this story. That is the stuff they put on their skin so they are not smelled by the Hungries (zombies). Because I didn't really know I got treated to a bit of twist and I enjoyed that reveal. I think if I had read the first book more recently I might have had a better context for it. It will not be a twist for all readers.

M.R. Carey is a master story teller, and alot of people feel the first book was the man coming to the tops of his powers. There are moments of suspense and reveals through-out the book that really impressed me. He used the claustrophobic setting of the tank for both emotional as well physical suspense. The moments through Stephen's eyes we are watching him make amazing discoveries but we know he is doing it in a way that will harm him down the line.

The action in the book is done incredibly well. One scene chapter 38 pages 241-244 was something I had never seen before. Did it work? It did for me. Stephen just had seconds to save Khan's life and Carey broke actions down second by second.It was a really smart way to do action and character at the same time. I thought it was a neat trick. There is also a moment of heart-breaking coldness on pages 312-13 that I thought was the best moment of the book.

The Boy on the Bridge is a excellent follow-up to the Girl with all the Gifts after last year's disappointing (for me) Fellside I thought this was a great read. As good as the first, that would be tough to do. but it will make the first book stronger and that alone is reason enough to read it.

Check out this 30 minute discussion I had about the book with fellow critic Marvin Vernon or the Novel Pursuit blog.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Book Review + Author Interview: Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus

Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus

Paperback, 144 pages

Published April 2017 by Tor.com

Boy Tor continues to release weird and exciting novellas! Now I generally think 100 pages or more is a novel, and I always bring up Of Mice and Men as an example. Hoosier horror and fantastic fiction author Maurice Broaddus is also on a heck of roll. His short story collection Voice of Martyrs is destined for my top ten reads list and this one has chance. If you read that review you might remember I said 'Voice of Martyrs goes beyond just being good, it is a book of deep meaning.'

I was first introduced to this world in the short story “Pimp My Airship” which appeared in the Voice of Matyrs. There all kinds of genius moments of world building through that story. And as soon as I heard that a novella set in that world was coming – I was sold.

This alternative history features a very different map and even though I am spelling it out here it is woven matter factually into the text in a way only masters of world building can do. Jamaica is a super power, Texas spelled Teja is its own country and the five native American nations control the west. You probably have more fun discovering that on your own, but I mention it to give you a understanding of the depth here. This is a short book but Broaddus is an author who has to sit on his over-stuffed suitcases to get them to close. These books are so filled with ideas you will marvel at them.

There were times when the world came off recognizable and other times so alien I had to really think about it. Is this the past, present or future of this other America…I can’t say exactly but it was an amazing steampunk setting. As great as that was it wouldn’t matter much if the characters and story were flat.

Our hero Desmond Cole is a Jamaican spy who brings a talented young man named Lij. The boy is hunted for his pychic abilities and here another tried and true sub-genre is added. Think of the magical child horror genre made famous by King’s Firestarter and originally in the John Farris classic “The Fury.” We also saw it more recently in The Forgotten Girl by Rio Youers.

Broaddus has fun playing with old tropes and tools in a very different sand box. I think this a neat book and certainly could have been double the length. I mean this novel has the fantasy elements, the strong characters and the pieces of assassins and intrigue that make this at times feel like classic adventure while always balanced with imagination and invention of a master story teller.

Already now. I was recently back home in Indiana and asked Maurice if he wanted to have a coffee hang. So we did but I couldn’t resist the chance to record a interview in person. So this interview is mostly about Buffalo Soldier and the craft of writing. So if you have not read the book there is still a lot to learn in this interview. If you like it please check out my youtube channel for interviews with other writers.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Book Review: Cold Cuts by Robert Payne Cabeen

Cold Cuts by Robert Payne Cabeen
Paperback 218 pages

Expected publication: September 1st 2017 by Omnium Gatherum

Certain themes in horror work better for certain readers. For me the isolation of deep space, or the north/south poles really work for me. I hate isolation and so movies like The Thing, and the Final Winter or books The Terror by Dan Simmons or Stranded by Bracken Macleod just really work for me.

Cold Cuts is a neat little book that takes place in a research station in Antarctica. At the start let me point out that this is a great example of how important the small press is to modern horror fiction. In the 90’s or early this century a book like this was not publishable. It would have been considered to short the only way it would have seen print would be padded with a extra hundred pages and would not have the cool art at the end.

Honestly the idea is not a slam dunk pitch, I mean the bizarro con elevator pitch for this could have March of the Mutant Penguins. Maybe Killer Nuclear Penguins. I know that sounds silly, and while this book has humor and does not take itself too seriously it is weird concept. My point is this is not cookie cutter monster plot. It is odd plot, and that is one of the things I respect about it.

The main character is a scientist and horror nerd named Ozzy. It is quite a tale of survival after a huge chunk of his research station is blown up. The story is about his survial with one other researcher. Eaton and Ozzy are the only survivors and they have to battle mutant birds and despair to survive. The despair affected for more as the novel went on than the mutant birds.

The moments between Eaton and Ozzy were the best most effective moments for me. The mutant penguins were cool but not super effective until I looked at the sketches in the back. Cabeen is clearly a talented artist and the art in the back was totally amazing.

Some miscues include this Hour of the Red Wolf conspiracy, One of the most interesting things in the book gets introduced and forgotten. It gets a little explanation but not enough for me. I am not saying it should have taken over the book, but more could have been done. The references to horror movies and geek culture didn’t work for me and took me out of the story. We have seen that before (I know I did it myself in the Vegan Revolution with Zombies) but in Cold Cuts I don't feel it added much. I would suspect Cabeen meant for it to add to Ozzy's character. I am just not sure we needed it dialed to 11. That said the action figures do come back in the story in a Shane Black-style pay off. So I can live with it.

I don't think Cold Cuts is going to make my top ten list this year, but I am stoked that I was given a pre-release of it. It is fun book, some times when I get review copies it forces me to read a author or book I would not of read otherwise. Robert Payne Cabeen is a new author to me and I am glad I checked out his work. I think his is a fun and odd monster novel with a few moments of eye-brow raising weird-ness. The art at the end is really cool and this kinda small press I would love to see libraries pick-up and collectors support.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Book Review: Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow
Hardcover, 379 pages Published April 2017 by Tor Books

This book will divide readers for sure, and hell it gave me very mixed feelings. Well I have enjoyed interviews with Doctorow and his many blog posts I decided to read this because I just had not read any of his work before. I mean this book has blurbs from William Gibson, Kim Stanley Robinson (who called it a utopia- huh?) and Edward Snowden. Yeah that edward Snowden on a side note that is a heck of a blurb.

Walkaway is a near future speculative fiction novel that looks at the economical and societal effects of a world where traditional free-markets can't function. In this future 3D printers can make pretty much anything. Most jobs are a thing of history. There is of course the effects of global climate change and no one should thing this is an amazing future where were sit around just having fun. That said the main characters do enjoy life quite a with a very free attitude towards sex and sexuality and drugs.

The most interesting characters are Hubert etc, and Natalie whose father is one of the richest men in the world. The characters are a strong point in the book which is quite diverse. People of color, and various fluid forms of sexuality and gender make up the cast. They decide to join a class of refugees who walkaway from the system. Social networks and the economy are just part of what that means. Instead of staying in the cities begging for food the walkaways take over areas that are declared a loss due to ecological reasons. Seriously this is part of the reason I can't understand the utopia moniker being thrown around. OK there is alot of sex but the setting and conditions were hardly ideal.

Doctorow clearly is reacting to the occupy movement re-casts the 1% as Zottas and Occupy movement is reflected in the people who live in default (or walkaway). There are various methods used through out the book to debate various forms of anarchist philosophy and certainly the author does not take a clear position. The debates between characters are often convincing of several points of view. The walkaway world is not perfect, and the clumsy attempts at self policing were interesting parts of the book for me.

So those are the political idea how did the story work? Not great. I was into it for the first 150 pages. Then I found the prose to be confusing at times. The characters that were interesting early on got lost in the mix for me. I was thinking alot about the ideas suggested by the book so I enjoyed that but my eyes often rose up from the page and I found myself thinking about the setting and ideas losing desire to read on.

It is funny I didn't enjoy this book, but at the same time I think the ideas and issue it raises are important. I am glad Doctorow wrote it. Does that make sense? Not sure but that is how I feel.