Sunday, August 13, 2017

Groundhog Day in Hell

Violence Dave: Heartless

July 10, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Norman Mailer meets Williams S Burroughs in the comic book series The 'Nam mixed in with a Philip K. Dick version of Dante's Inferno via H. P. Lovecraft.

Violence Dave: Heartless is 86 pages of gruesome, gut wrenching. non-stop action. It is a bizarro version of those men's combat magazines with a liberal dose of Heinlein's Starship Troopers in Hell. That's the Heinlein novel he never wrote but I wished he did. The premise of Konstantine Paradias' hyper-fiction evolves around Dave, a soldier who is dropped over and over into a war between Earth and Hell fought at the gateway between the two worlds, Dave fights dog-soldiers, demons and loads of other disgusting creatures and it never seems to end. But Dave is determined that this will be the last time he lives through this torment. The basic technicality of this Groundhog Day styled combat is minimally explained between the action but it is not the heart of the book. It comes down to Dave's determination to finally win and end the war respite its hopelessness. That is pretty much the entire gist of this short novella.

Despite its simple plot, It is a nice example of "getting there is half the fun". There is nothing simple about the writing skills the author brings to print. He has excellent writing chops especially when describing the horrors that Dave confront. He writes dialogue between Dave and his combat buddies that is tense and snappy. The macho fiction style is all there with a super-high dosage of Lovecraftian monster terror. For 86 pages , you root for Dave and that is pretty much the reason for this work of fiction.

Does it work? It works very well. Did it work for me? Well, that is where I have to be honest. War fiction is not my forte unless it is anti-war fiction. I am a great admirer of All Quiet on the Western Front for instance. Needless to say, this is nothing like it. This is high anxiety pulp fiction via a bizarro The Naked and the Dead. I wanted more explanation of Dave's dilemma. More background. Instead it was wall to wall action and slaughter...but very well written wall to wall action and slaughter. Sometimes you got to rate something for what it is and what it is supposed to do. Violence Dave: Heartless does what the author means it to do. If one is really into pulp styled war fiction by way of horror and science fiction then this just may be Nirvana. if that is the case,for you then this is a must read. For those who are not into that, it is still an impressive and visceral read.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Nijinsky in New York

A Friend of Mr. Nijinsky

Caro Soles


Publisher: Crossroads Press

Pub. Date: March 5, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


It is New York in 1916. The war in Europe is met with an uncomfortable silence by most Americans. The great ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky has arrived in New York and is at odds with a number of people in the classical arts including the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. In the midst of this, Morgan Vanheusen, the son of a wealthy and important family, meets the dancer and a relationship starts between them. It is a odd relationship between the relatively stable if insecure Morgan and the eccentric and sometimes paranoid Nijinsky but Morgan seems to get something out of it, perhaps because he has his own abandoned dreams of becoming a race car driver and is thwarted at every corner by his overpowering family. While Nijinsky is dancing onstage, his partner for the dance "faints" and it is not until after he carries her off stage that they realize she has died. To some, including a detective and reporter, it may not just be because of a weak heart as the papers reported. Into this mystery Morgan and Nijinsky become involved while dealing with ballet intrigues and backstabbing, possible art fraud, and the exclusionary and sometimes hypocritical practices of America's upper class.

As the title A Friend of Mr. Nijinsky suggests, the main protagonist of the novel is Morgan Vanheusan. Nijjinsky plays a supporting role although a very essential one in both plot and theme. When we meet Morgan he is feeling rootless as he goes through the motions of life without any career goals, having been forced to give up his dream due to the death of his brother and the demands of a controlling father. Nijinsky revives that forsaken spirit in him and he and Nijinsky plays a little Sherlock Holmes, to which Nijinsky replies "Who?", as they attempt to discover some of the answers about who the young dancer Galina Perovna really was and why she was murdered. There is also a sub-plot with Morgan's sister Gloria and a reporter that gives us a look at the strict social roles of the times.

This is where the novel really shines. The mystery in the novel is rather slight, even forgotten at times, and while it points to a number of other intrigues going on, I suspect it is the era in America just before entering World War I that is the real focus of the author. She brings alive that era in not only the sometimes volatile world of the dance but in the very strong class differences and morals that made the era what it was. The author makes the characters, even the minor ones, alive in their thoughts and reactions. For instance, the upper class fawns over the artists but still sees them as being beneath them. While Morgan is applauded for his connection to Nijinsky, his family and especially his father sees the friendship as not worthy of him and subversive. The relationship between Morgan and the dancer, and eventually the revelations that arise from the death of Galina, reveal many of these complex underpinnings of social norms in the early 20th century. The mystery is entertaining and satisfying but it is the depiction of life in New York in 1916 where the strength of the novel comes through. While we read to decipher the murder's mystery, we are also aware that World War I will soon be placing a coda on the New York of that era.

Of course, if one is interested and knowledgeable in Nijinsky and ballet it is a real plus and will go far in the enjoyment of the book. Yet it is not necessary as Caro Soles does a fine job in introducing us to the essential details of the discipline in an entertaining fashion. But for me, having a pretty good knowledge of the arts and being able to recognize most of the actual historical figures that pop up among the fictional ones, the part that surprised me was the accurate information on early auto racing. Like i said, the author has a flair in bringing to life many things from ballet to auto racing. The author did her homework in almost every aspect of this historical mystery.

Those who are into mysteries with an historical connection will enjoy A Friend of Mr. Nijinsky. In fact anyone who like historical novels will find this worth looking into. You get not only a mystery but a time capsule into a world whose odd mixture of innocence and class separation has long passed.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Vultures, Raccoons, and WHAT! monkeys?

The Unmentionables

Lance Carbuncle

Publisher: Vicious Galoot Books

Pub. Date: April 5, 2017

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Very few authors have such an crazy sense of imagination as Lance Carbuncle. Strange going-ons, weird characters and nightmare creatures abound in his four novels. Whether it is the Brautiganesque world of Smashed, Squashed, Splattered, Chewed, Chunked and Spewed, The sociopathic cousins a la Mice and Men in Grundish and Askew, or the Hieronymus Bosch meets William S. Burroughs landscape of Sloughing off the Rot, Carbuncle's novels are all different but alike in his unique style which is as rude and disturbing as...well.....a lanced carbuncle. But much funnier.

His fourth and newest novel is The Unmentionables and in some ways it is the most straight horror story he has written so far. It centers on Greg Samsa (name sounds familiar?) who is one of the most picked on boys in the small town of Finlay. The book is sort of a strange coming-of-age tale with a character that I suspect a lot of avid readers can identify with. He's a pretty smart kid but his wits is not enough to keep him from the terrors of adolescent bullying. That is until he find a stash of books and paraphernalia associated to black magic in the Winchester House clone he lives in. Parallel to this, the townspeople seem to be getting meaner and more violent which may be related to a underworld portal spurting out noxious fumes. Add on to this combo of terror vicious raccoons, living dead pig fetuses (the titled Unmentionables) and piss monkeys (don't ask, just read) and you get an idea how outlandish this seemingly "normal" coming of age horror story really gets. And there are turkey vultures, There are always turkey vultures.

It's all by the plan in the author's world. Hook you with weird but likable characters and once you're hooked, throw all that wild stuff at you . It may not be for everyone but it is delicious fun all the way. It may not be horror as much as black comedy. As Greg seeks revenge on the bullies, actually he's pretty angry at the entire town, it is hard to not like him no matter how rough it gets. Then there are those names; Coach Manlove, The Spanish Teacher Mr. French, and Wally, Lumpy and Eddie which works as an in-joke for the baby boomers to chuckle at. Mr. Carbuncle seems to like to give his characters clever names as much as he like to make his readers to go "Ewww,(giggle)"

Even though The Unmentionables may be the most straight-forward of his books, I hesitate to say "mainstream", it is still a far cry from safe and reassuring. But among the bizarre gore and violence there is always the feeling of a roller coaster ride with the sounds of screams and laughter. The Unmentionables may be weird and gross but it is always a lot of fun and maybe closer to our actual emotions and events in our life that we might be afraid to admit. Let's face it. Life is rude and disturbing. Perhaps it needs to be Lance Carbuncle and his novels.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A mother and son drama

Fierce Kingdom

Gin Phillips

Publisher: Viking

Pub Date: July 25, 2017

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Joan and her four year old son are enjoying the last few minutes at the zoo before it closes. But on the way out, Joan hears gun fire and sees some very disturbing things near the exit. She does not know exactly what is happening but she knows people are dying. She and her son run for their lives and hide in an abandoned animal enclosure. For the next three hours, she will be fighting for her life and the life of her son. She will be making some difficult choices.

There is a lot of emotion in Fierce Kingdom which, related to the plot and theme, is one of the best titles this year. It is predominantly about what a mother would do for her child. Gin Phillips has her heart in this book. She writes about a situation which no one would want to be in. We learn much about Joan as she make tough decision and interacts with two other women who find themselves struggling to stay alive. While the situation is harrowing , it really isn't a psychological thriller as much as a psychological drama. The heart of this book is in the relationship between a mother and a young boy.

The problem with what transpired is that the author has chosen a suspenseful situation that calls for tense moments and smart well-timed decisions. This is where the novel falls down. It gets off to a good start yet bogs down in the middle as we get a lot of thoughts from the mother on what is happening but nothing much really happens. Finally, we get glimpses of the terrorists but when they show up they are neither realistic or interesting. Plus, there are just too many strange decisions that may serve to drive the tension but fail because they don't make sense. One example: Joan is worried the light of her cell phone will attract the killers. I kept thinking," then turn it off and wait until they are gone to use it." What does she do,? She tosses it away. It may haveincreases the sense of isolation but doesn't help to make the situation believable.

But at the end the plot is helped along when Joan meet two other women who are hiding. This picks up the level of tension and has a beautiful moment when one of the women recognizes the gunman. It is a nice turn and I wish there were more like it.

Overall, Fierce Kingdom is full of beautiful writing. Gin Phillips is certainly a writer worth noticing. But perhaps thriller related books are not her forte. Literary drama is and if this was solely a drama before family and taking risks, it might have been more fruitful. Read this for the emotional drama and you will be pleased, If you are reading for the suspenseful plot, perhaps maybe not. I do recommend it though for that wonderful writing and for its emotional pull.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Slices of surreal life

Slices: Tales of Bizarro and Absurdist Horror

Scott Cole

Publisher: Black T-Shirt Books

Pub. Date: July 16, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

"The first mistake Landau made was choosing a helmet made entirely of tuna salad."

Surrealism and Bizarro are close cousins. But if I had to differentiate between the two in my own subjective manner, this is what I would say. The surrealist says, "I am trying to get to our deep subconscious by creating loosely associated, sometimes random dreamscapes". The Bizarro writer says, "We are already living in a loosely associated, sometimes random dreamscape. I'm just going with the flow."

Scott Cole is one of the newer Bizarro writers on the horizon. His SuperGhost was one of the big surprises for me in 2015. In that novel, he exhibited a strange but accessible humor along with an almost casual sense of the bizarre and impossible. In Slices: Tales of Bizarro and Absurdist Horror he does the same with 33 brief stories. Most qualify as flash fiction while a few go on for slightly longer. They can all be called surreal or bizarro and they all delve into impossible scenarios. (except for "Rough Night" which accurately describes how I feel most mornings). The most distinctive thing about Slices is that these tales are more horror related than that of SuperGhost. Many dwell on biological transformation or what is know as Body Horror. In fact, there are a lot of exploding body parts. I think it may be a Cole trademark.

The best one word description of a Scott Cole short fiction work is "mindblowing". No matter how short or long, he usually captures you with the first sentence, like the one at the beginning of this review which is from "Landau Made Some Mistakes". You are pretty much hooked from there in. Some stories are straight on surrealism as is the first story," The Degenerates". Others like "Violins for Sale" resembles more of a normal horror story, with "normal" being a relative term. While I find the flash fiction exhilarating, I am more drawn to the slightly longer stories like "Cat Tree Summer", "A Field of Poppies", and "666 Baby Jesuses, Give and Take," a story that should appeal to anyone who have ever had the collector bug. But if you go for a more visceral and uncomfortable type of horror, you should not miss "Slices of Me" where a man is determined to share his delicious flesh with the world.

I like the writings of Scott Cole because he always surprises. In this case, we have 33 little surprises. If I had to compare this book to anything else I might call it a horror version of Italo Calvino's CosmicComics. If i had to issue a warning, it would be that some of the biological horror may be a little too much for sensitive stomachs. The author has a way of making the horrific both scary and amusing. it's a trick I hope he holds on to. Overall, Slices is a nice introduction to a very imaginative, if weird, mind.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A long overdue payment

A Debt to be Paid

Patrick Lacey

Publisher: Black T-Shirt Book

Pub. Date: July 17, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Gillian Foster has kidnapped her own daughter, Meg, and is running from something only she hears and sees. She appears to others as schizophrenic and paranoid. She returns home only after she begins fearing for the safety of her daughter and after she inadvertently hurts her. Gillian ends up in a psychiatric facility. Flash forward 20 years later. Meg is financially struggling and is at a dead-end job. She is receiving phone calls that asks for her but delivers silence. She is seeing human-like, faceless blurs, and, like her mother did, she receives a letter promising financial help if she just signs it and "say yes". She is now questioning her own sanity and is being pursued. The only one that might help her is her mother who is still in the facility.

There's a nice mix of psychological fear, mainly that of becoming insane, and pure supernatural terror. It is no spoiler to say that something is indeed after Gillian and Meg yet the added-on trauma of being unable to know if it is real is played nicely here. A Debt to be Paid is a solid horror story that delivers solid scares and terror. There is also good interplay between mother and daughter as they struggle with their love but also feels betrayed by the other. An interesting social analogy appears in the story. Both mother and daughter are lured into danger by a letter promising financial help but delivering terror and uncertainty. Whom among us have not been lured into an offer too good to be true but ended up in a quagmire they regretted? The author just takes this dilemma one more step into the weird and supernatural. For a short novella, Patrick Lacey has a lot going here and proves he has the chops to scare in a way that stays with us.

This story was first released as an ebook in 2015. But in this 2017 Kindle and paperback re-release, Lacey has added three short stories. They are all worth reading even though A Debt to be Paid remains the highlight. "In on It" suffers from being a bit too much like the title work. It features a man who, probably reading too much David Icke, sees the shape of a lizard inside a local politician. Again we have the theme of delusion vs reality except here the focus is on his friend Lisa who starts to believe he may be right. It is still a great story even if the ending left me a bit hanging. "The Lynnwood Vampires" is back with full steam ahead. A schoolteacher starts questioning his daughter's choice in boy friends amidst a surge of Goth-like teens at the school where he teach. Here again we have a nice mix of a fear many parents go through and a creepy horror ascending on the town. It becomes the fear of all parents tripled.

Lastly, we have "The Barry Effect" which feels like a cross between The Twilight Zone and Harlan Ellison's "Shatterday". It is the second best story in the collection and the most quietly horrific of the bunch. John goes to his high school reunion to meet his old school bunch but is met by quizzical faces when he asks them why Barry isn't there. None of them remember Barry. From that simple premise the author kicks it up a notch into high anxiety. It's a nicely structured short story that holds onto you.

All four stories are quite good and shows off Lacey's considerable storytelling skills. Yet it is the title novella that is the clincher and is most likely to make you nervous when your phone rings or when you get that quick and easy loan application in the mail. Good scares and quality reading.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

It came out of the sea

Pacific Rising

John W, Dennehy

Publisher: Severed Press

Pub Date: June 22, 2017

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

For those not in the know, Kaiju is Japanese for “Strange Beast” and usually refers to a giant monster in stories and film. Kaiju is also a film genre that features, you guess it, giant monsters. It is basically Japanese in origin and the most well-known kaiju is, of course, Godzilla. What I did not know is that there can also be Kaiju novels and they don’t necessary have to be written by the Japanese. Pacific Rising is one of those novels and I suspect it is one that is very basic to the genre.

The fact that it happens in Tokyo should be a giveaway to the formula and bases the plot on solid ground, so to speak. The monster that is set on destroying Tokyo does owe a lot to The King of Monsters but is given the name Zamera. The novel starts with the advancement of Zamera into Tokyo and the attempt to escape the chaos by a young girl named Maki and her parents. Meanwhile in Okinawa, Master Gunnery Sergeant James Penton is preparing the military base for an enormous storm when he gets a call about a major top secret assignment. This assignment will take him straight to the Kaiju in what appears to be a hopeless mission to destroy the seemingly invulnerable creature. There is a third narrative about two Navy Seals who are focused on stealing a nuclear device from the North Koreans. All three narrations come together at the end and we discover whether or not Tokyo can be saved and the monster defeated.

It all sounds exciting and it is. The novel is part monster tale and part military action adventure. John W, Dennehy’s strong point is his knowledge of the military. He puts it to work quite well in this book. The plot gets rolling from the first page and there is very little letup in the action. There are some sparks between Penton and Kate Able, a Marine Harrier pilot, but it is all by the military book and plays second fiddle to the destruction and chaos to come. A Kaiju novel is what it is and a Kaiju novel is what you get. Truth in advertising.

Yet I must ask, is that all a reader wants? If it is, then Pacific Rising will pay off. But the action seems rather predictable to any who is familiar with the genre. None of the characters really comes to life and there really isn’t much characterization you can do with a huge Japanese monster except to make him scary. The writing is to the point and not much else. It gets the job done but it doesn’t really leave much to remember it by past the final page. It feels more like a novelization than an original novel. I kept wondering if I saw the movie.

But as one might say, it is what it is and as a novel about a dinosaur like creature rampaging through a city, frightening little girls, and laughing at puny fighter jets, it fits the bill. It is action-packed and has lots of moments that will thrill those who like their heroes’ valiant and their monsters big. This is also a novel that will appeal to those who can’t get enough military adventures. As for me, yes,I enjoyed it. But overall, I would have rather waited for the movie.