Friday, August 19, 2016

Geriatric cyborg vs. attention-deficit vampire.

The ADHD Vampire

By Matthew Vaughn


Publisher: Journalstone

Pub. Date:  February 16, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Horace Dracul is the half-brother of Dracula. His more legendary sibling didn't think much of him and now it is Horace's time to conquer and devour the humans. His coffin is discovered and opened on the deck of a cruise ship catering to the sexual whims of the geriatric crowd. Horace, despite his short attention span and difficulty staying on task, plans to have a splendid meal of the senior citizens and might even turn a few into his brides. However Martha, a retired cyborg spy, is about to make his dream of conquest a very difficult one.

OK. First impression of The ADHD Vampire. This is silly. Second impression. This is fun! Third impression. Does this cruise ship actually exist sans vampire? Where does a senior citizen sign up? Fourth impression. This is really silly. Fifth and final impression. I'm gonna read it again!

Matthew Vaughn specializes in silly. He does it well and is not afraid to push the envelope. Sometimes he just doesn't push the envelope but drags it screaming into the pool and holds its head under the water, laughing at the bubbles. Actually, he does that a lot. This funny novel is full of kink and gore yet it is the type of comic violence that works as an escape for the reader. It's hard to take a senior citizen cyborg spy vs. attention-deficit vampire too seriously. This is fantasy, folks! For its 88 pages, the novella stays at full speed ahead until all the damage and violence is done and the reader gets a few laughs and groans for his money.

The ADHD Vampire works best as a romp. It is an easy night's read for most readers. It is funny in a gross sort of way and is clearly not for the easily offended and squeamish. Yet I like the author's just-throw it-out-there style which I suspect is as fun to write as to read.While it is not as over-the-top as his Mother F'ing Black Skull of Death, it is still pretty wild. What both books has in common beside the extreme sex and violence is that there is no attempt at a social message. It is just meant to be an entertaining ride. I think I liked The ADHD Vampire a little more, ironically because it is slightly less extreme than his other novel. But be aware. That "slightly less extreme" is a judgement call.

So here's the bottom line. Don't like gore and violence or you don't have a twisted sense of humor? Stay away. But if you do, read it. And if you don't have a twisted sense of humor, why are you reading a review of something called The ADHD Vampire in the first place?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

NOT an instruction manual!

How to Successfully Kidnap Strangers

By Max Booth III


 Publisher: Journalstone 

Pub Date: July 20, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


I get real nervous when reading about authors kidnapping book reviewers. This is not the first novel on this topic but, for reasons that will be disclosed, it is the best novel about kidnapping book reviewers. But I do know some book reviewers that should be kidnapped. If one is a reviewer, they should always write about the book and, even if the book sucks, they should not take the negative hyperbole to a personal level. Even if the author is a truly creepy creature who writes about disembodied heads from his own experiences, it should not be an issue in the review. Now mind you, I am not saying Max Booth III is a truly creepy creature who writes about disembodied heads from his own experiences. That would be a falsehood. I never actually met him and our few exchanges on Facebook have been quite pleasant. In fact, I think it was me who brought up the topic of disembodied heads...

I think I better stop there.

Fortunately, I do not have to worry about dissing the author in this review. How to Successfully Kidnap Strangers does not suck. In fact, it is pretty damn good. The premise starts with the sudden and as yet unexplained kidnapping of Harlan Anderson, a somewhat antisocial and vicious reviewer of books he hate. Currently his insults tend to be directed to the writers of a tiny independent book publisher, BILF Publishing. Think of MILF and you'll get the full name. Harlan's kidnapper, Billy, is one of the writers, a tweeted out loser who seems to be tolerated only because he is the brother of one of the close-knitted denizens of BILF. Billy also manages to kidnap one of the witnesses of his assault on Harlan and pretty soon the crimes are piling up like methed-out dominoes.

How to Successfully Kidnap Strangers is a Keystone Kops version of a satire about the writers and readers in the independent publishing business. The characters are all weird, outcasted, maybe a bit repulsive, and instantly likeable. That even includes the serial killer. The action never stops but within it all we get a hilarious glimpse of the people who populate both the Bizarro publisher genre and its target population of readers. The conclusion appears to be that we are all sickos, but in a good way. if I had a issue with the book, it is that the author appears to be writing to a small audience who will get many of the in-jokes and understand the attractiveness of reading that which no one else in their right mind would read. But there is also a sense of slapstick humor in it that would appeal to those who like books with twisted humor or even movies like Scorcese's After Hours and the more mainstream The Hangover.

Max Booth III is writing about an environment he know, even if it doesn't usually involve disembodied heads. He is able to write about these characters that occupy a reality flirting with the underground and cultish, yet infuse them with enough real life and honest pathos that the uninitiated can even get it. There really are some other novels that have taken on the strange relationship between readers, reviewers and writers. Yet this one, while being one of the more outrageous, is the only one that seems to get all three . Humor is funny that way. it may be easy to make fun of something but it only really works if you love what you make fun of.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A odd and curious museum

Curioddity: A Novel

By Paul Jenkins

Publisher: St. Martin's Press 

Pub Date: August 30, 2016

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In Curioddity by Paul Jenkins, we have a emotionally oppressed gentleman by the name of Wil Morgan who lives in a life-long struggle between the imaginative and the mundane. His mother, who died when he was young, encouraged a fantastical approach to life. "Your eyes only sees what your mind lets you believe," she tells him. His father, on the other hand, steered him toward the safe and the dull, so much so that when Wil becomes a private investigator of insurance fraud he is afraid to tell his father who wants him to follow the even duller and safer career of accounting. One day an eccentric owner of an unusual museum comes to him and asks him to find a box of levity, which is the opposite of a box of gravity. From this point on, Wil becomes entrenched in an adventure going beyond just finding a box and is entrusted with the task of saving the Curioddity Museum.

It is a cute tale and there is lots of stuff is going for it. Wil is an adult that misses the childhood feeling of wonder that his mother instilled in him. It takes a major push for him to reclaim it and that push is aided by Mr. Dinsdale who is the owner of the museum, and a woman who is so endearing and cute that I wanted to ask Wil for her phone number. There is a satisfactory amount of befuddlement in Wil's reactions to the weird going-ons and even a nasty capitalist villain to move along the plot.

Yet, as enjoyable as it was, I couldn't get over the feeling I've read this all before. The clever and humorous writing is often in a style too close to that of Douglas Adams and the characters seemed like copies from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy right down to the neurotic piece of technology. Much of the humor is charming but not all that unpredictable. At the same time, It didn't really launch itself into the farcical surreal as I wanted it to. In a manner of speaking, I wanted to do more than just leave Kansas. I wanted to see Oz. The Museum opened the door but I, Wil, and Lucy never really passed through it.

The thing that works best in Curioddity is Wil's conflict between being "odd" himself or being a conformist. That struggle parallels the conflict between the love for his father and mother to which he cannot reconcile. Wil's father makes an appearance in the second half of the book and it is those conversations between Wil and his father that puts flesh on the bones of the story . Yet the fantastical elements do not meld well enough with the part that moved me to win me over

Curioddity is certainly clever and there are lots of funny one-liners and situations. But with all the satirical fantasy and science fiction that is out there begging to be read, i just didn't give this book too much of a thought afterwards. It seems fairly obvious that the author left plenty of room for sequels. I can think of many series that didn't win me over until the second or third book. This could easily be one of them. But that is in the possible future and for now I have to say I liked it but with reservations. But if you are into satirical fantasy, it just might be worth a shot.

Friday, August 5, 2016

A World War II Thriller

The One Man

By Andrew Gross

Publisher: Minotaur Books 

Pub Date: August 23, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


 In the popular world of mainstream thrillers, Andrew Gross has become one of my favorite authors. Originally a co-author for some of James Patterson's assembly line turnouts, he has succeeded quite well on his own and, for my money, surpasses the talent of his ex-collaborator with a series of financial-based thrillers starring detective Ty Hauck and several stand alone novels. My favorite is the tense and exciting 15 Seconds...until now.

Yet as much as I knew what the author could do, The One Man came out of left field. While ostensibly a thriller, Gross bases his new novel in the wider spectrum of World War II. It becomes a taut and emotional historical suspense tale that works on many levels. It is a suspense book, a historical novel, and a dramatic story of lost and found relationships. In the One Man, Nathan Blum is able to flee Poland before Hitler invades it. But he is filled with remorse since he entire family had to be left behind and are killed by the Nazis. He is picked for a secret mission that could well be suicide. He is to return to Poland, go undercover into the Auschwitz concentration camp, and rescue a scientist that may have the knowledge to place the Allies in a distinct advantage. He finds getting in is difficult but finding one man who is a needle in a haystack of thousands and getting him out before he and his mission dies may well be impossible.

The German concentration camps are never a pleasant topic. The author must thread a fine line between showing the atrocities and terrors of the camps yet not making so horrific and depressing that we lose the excitement of the story. Gross does this quite well. We follow Blum and the scientist Mendl through their days in the camp and witness the one-foot-in-the-grave dilemmas of the prisoners. It is harrowing and maybe a little too much for some readers who may like their thrillers a bit more escapist. Yet it rings true to history and never loses the fact that this is a suspense novel about the odds of survival and the the possibilities of second chances. The author even throws a few cameos into the mix with the appearance of historical figures like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Wild Bill Donovan. Back at Auschwitz, there are a few particular incidents that happen to Blum, Mendl and a young but brilliant teenager that I will not spoil for you. But suffice to say the overlying theme here is the strengths of relationships in the most unlikely places. With all the thrills of adventure in form of an escape and the descriptive horrors of the camp., it is these relationships that make this novel far more that the historical thriller it is.

Even though Andrew Gross has a significant "cult" following among the thriller fans, this could easily be the book that propels him into the popular best-seller list if he hasn't made it already. it should. But more importantly, it is also quality writing with deeply emotional feelings. I love to see an author go beyond what I think he can do and this is indeed one of those novels.

Monday, August 1, 2016

A Dark thriller from a dark series

A Time of Torment

By John Connolly

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton 

Pub. date: April 7, 2016

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars


 One of my rules for reviewing is, "Never review the later book of a series I have not read.". It is also one of my most broken rules. Take the Charlie Parker detective/thriller series by John Connolly. I have been wanting to read them for a while. Asides from the main character being named after my favorite jazz musician, it seemed like a fascinating and complex thriller with a touch of the supernatural. Exactly the type of detective series I tend to love. Yet it was not until recently I decided to read one when i was offer the most recent A Time of Torment for review. Will the fact that this is number 14 of the series affect the power of the novel or my ability to catch the nuances inevitable in a quality series?

The answer is yes in a minor way and no in a major way. Charlie Parker is indeed a complex character with baggage that would sink the Titanic. He manages to die a couple times, have a deceased daughter who hover protectively around him, and carry an intense purpose that goes way beyond, "I want to catch the bad guy.". Connolly attempts to bring the tardy reader up to task during the start of the plot and for the most part, he succeeds. But I still felt I was missing some subtlety in a not so subtle protagonist. But once the story started, it wasn't really that big an issue. the skilled writing and tight plot carries the book.

In A Time of Torment, A man straight out of prison comes to Parker to tell his story. He was once perceived in public as a hero but soon was arrested and jailed as a child molester. He maintains he was framed as a punishment for killing two criminals in a hostage situation. His only real clue to who singled him out for punishment is a phrase uttered by one of his attackers while violating him in the inevitable jailhouse manner ; "This is for the dead king!". To make matters worse, once he tells his story to Parker, he disappears. Parker finds each of his leads are being killed or disappearing which only makes him more determined to find out what is really happening.

This starts an investigation by Parker and his two way-beyond-scary henchman Angel and Louis. Parker's tactics seem to have both his supporters and detractors in the law enforcement profession which helps Parker get away with a lot of things that Sam Spade and Nick Charles would never think of trying. His investigation leads to a group in West Virginia that is well insulated from the local law and have a century old reputation of actions that guarantee no law enforcement officer will try to bother them.

Parker is a bit of an enigma to me. He is foreboding and appears over-the-top goal-oriented. This is probably the part I am missing due to starting with book 14. But his dark charisma and determination does come through and I am all for him right down to the last body count. But much of this also has to do with how well the author incorporate other characters into a whole tapestry of unfortunates and borderlines . Connolly makes each character, major or minor, essential and a clue to the puzzle.

But the biggest "character" for me was The Cut. The Cut is an area not a person. It is an isolated part of West Virginia ,hopefully fictional, that the author endows with a unique sense of evil and dread. It takes on its own personality and is much as a part of the story as any person in the book. As Parker is led to The Cut,we learn more about all involved and by the time we get there, there is a dense and delicious amount of tension that has built up.

I may have not have gotten a total grasp of who Charlie Parker is than if i would have if I read the earlier books in the series. But what stands out is that John Connolly isn't dependent on one character being the sole reason for the story's existence. He wrote a story that, while not necessarily standing alone, is deep and colorful enough to be read out of sequence. There are many supernatural elements but the plot actually would stand well without them. But they do add unique elements to the story.

After reading this, would I go back and read all other 13 books? You're damn right I would. This was one hefty but involving read and well worth it for any thriller fan that likes a supernatural element to their detective yarns.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Science fiction that matters

Dark Matter

By Blake Crouch


Publisher: Crown

Pub. Date: July 26, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

You can be forgiven if you think the available descriptions of Dark Matter sound vaguely like Blake Crouch's popular series Wayward Pines. They both deal with a man who wakes up in an unfamiliar environment and discovers that what once was may not be. But that is where the similarity ends. While Wayward Pines has its share of twists and turns, Dark Matter breaks the barrier with twists and turns. So much so that the unenviable task of telling the basic plot is fraught with the dangers of telling too much. But I'll try.

Jason Dessen lives a happy life with his wife Danielle and his teenage son, Charlie. Yet there is a slight bit of regret when he realizes that he gave up a potentially brilliant career in research for a teaching job and his wife abandoned her blossoming career as a professional artist. This feeling of "what may have been" isn't helped when his colleague friend wins a major award in Physics, one that Jason felt he could have pursued and won. As Jason is out one night, he is abducted by a man with a gun. "How do you feel about your place in the world, Jason?" the abductor asks. Shortly after, Jason wakes up in a science lab. He is still himself but nothing else seems the same.

That is where I will stop the synopsis. Yet it is fitting to examine the title Dark Matter which is a big hint on where this book is headed. As the novel explains, dark matter is a theoretical substance in quantum physics that could lead to the possibility of multiverses. . We get a number of scientific theories and ideas in the telling of this tale including the example of the quintessential Schrodinger's Cat. But the author is too good to lose us in the science. The science becomes entrenched in the story. Action and theory flow together and merge freely in our imagination. This is a nerd book for non-nerds, so to speak. Crouch never loses the human aspect of the story. Jason becomes very real and very conflicted to the reader which heightens our tension and our empathy.

The excitement in Dark Matter is created by how the plot moves into so many other areas but never leaves the emotional focus of our protagonist. This is not a science fiction story that trips up itself in technical issues. It is a human story that exists hand and hand with the science. There is no doubt that this will appeal to the science fiction fan, especially those who love books dealing with alternate realities and multiverses. Yet Dark Matter has a distinct mainstream appeal for those who like books about the burden of life decisions and our uncertainty about the ones we make. Despite a very satisfactory ending, the author leaves things a bit open at the end and is screaming for a sequel. Indeed it is ripe for another of Blake Crouch's series. That is a series that I can become truly excited about. Dark Matter has all the makings of a mainstream crossover novel and I would not be surprised if it became the summer hit of 2016. There is no doubt it is, so far, the best science fiction novel of the year.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Two tales of pulp horror

Run to Ground

By Jasper Barks


Publisher: Crystal Lake Publishing

Pub. Date: June 10. 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I like Jasper Bark’s style. If the two pieces of short fiction in Run to Ground are prime examples, his writings are a deft combination of hardcore pulp fiction and moral tale. Clive Barker meets Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. Bark’s main characters in these two stories are not the most likeable characters. In fact, they are fairly repulsive. They are thrown into a fate that may be excessive but oh so delicious in a “eww, gross” sort of way.

Take the title story. The main character Jim McLeod is a man who makes a career out of running away from life, commitments, and responsibility. But when we meet him he is doing a different kind of running away from creatures in a cemetery that are devouring his only friends. We are given flashbacks to help us understand how this horror came to our protagonist and it isn’t pretty. When we get to the end we end up with a weird mixture of glee and angst. Bark may have developed an almost perfect blend of back story in this short tale where past and present blends together in the horror. The terror hits early and hard yet the flashbacks do not slow it down yet makes us only more willing to meet the shock at the end.

The author isn’t happy with the usual monster chase. “Somehow it was possessing the soil, like a vengeful spirit, converting the earth to whatever it was, then releasing it as it moved alongside the path in pursuit of him.” Bark’s strength is in creating creatures we haven’t seen before and then making them as real as any other monsters that grace the pages of a horror novel. This is also true of the second story, “How the Dark Bleeds”. We are introduced to a questionably sane woman and find out more as the story continues. We are also thrown into a legend that gives us another strange and unique monster. Bark seems to excel in that strange sub-genre of body horror and he revels in it beautifully.

Both tales read fast and furious. They are nice examples of pulp horror and they deliver a big kick for the money. The author states they are part of a series of stories based on The Quar’m Saddic Heresy. It adds a nice Lovecraftian tone to the fiction. There is even a short scholarly essay added that explains the heresy. It fooled me enough to google it! In the edition that I read there is also two excerpts from his novel, The Final Cut which is not reviewed here.
I was pleasantly surprised by Jasper Bark. He is one of those writers that showed up out of the dark and dropped a little bomb into my knowledge of horror. He is the kind of writer that should get more recognition. Run to Ground should be enough for most readers to get hooked into his pulp horror world.