Saturday, January 20, 2018

Immortality has a price

Ramses the Damned: The Passion of Cleopatra

Anne Rice & Christopher Rice

Anchor Books

November 21, 2017

3 & 1/2 stars

I believe Anne Rice lost her charms with me after the fourth or fifth vampire novel. The first three, starting with Interview with the Vampire, are masterpieces and cemented Rice's fame no master what she ended up writing. But even those novels soon started feeling like she wasn't really into it anymore. They became extended and tired run-throughs of the same ideas. The few other novels I read outside of the vampire niche didn't really grab me . But there is no denying Rice can be a mesmerizing writer in her best moments.

Her newest novel, Ramses the Damned: The Passion of Cleopatra is a sequel to her 1989 novel The Mummy which I have not read. To be honest, this particular book got my attention because it was co-authored with her son, Christopher Rice. In some ways, Christopher Rice is a more interesting writer for the 21st century and if you have not read him you should. Check out The Heaven Rises. Rice's style has many similarities to his mother and in this new book, they mesh well but I believe I see a little spark in Anne Rice's writing I haven't seen for a while. Perhaps it is the spark of a proud mother.

The Passion of Cleopatra starts where the first one left off. It would probably be best to read The Mummy first but the authors give us enough background to proceed if you didn't. Ramses and Julia are betrothed. Cleopatra does not die in the train accident and fire but is cared for by a doctor who develops a slavish devotion to her. Most importantly we discover that the originator of the immortality potion is still alive and another immortal who is looking for the potion is searching has his own obsessive reasons for doing so. It appears, as Cleopatra has already found out, a little potion is not necessarily a good thing.

There is of course much more with lots of sub-plots and characters. Julia's brother who had a tragic romance with Cleopatra in the first book and a woman named Sibyl who has a mysterious and disturbing connection with Cleopatra are two of the more interesting characters asides from the lead protagonists. But this introduction, or rehashing, of these plots and characters tend to slow down the novel and it really doesn't go into full gear until about halfway through. It pays to get there though and it does give us a connection to the characters when it goes into full swing. Anne Rice always had a very Victorian feel, in my opinion, despite her modern sensitivity to emotions and sex and her son seems to play into that well enough to blend in with the style.

Overall, The Passion of Cleopatra is an entertaining read. I think those, like myself, who soured a bit on Anne Rice novels in the past will find this to be worth reading. Those who love Anne Rice or liked the first Ramses the Damned book will not be disappointed.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Audiocast: The Martian by Andy Weir

Author David Agranoff and I did another audiocast where we discussed Andy Weir's new novel, Artemis. You can check it out below.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Domestic trauma, different perceptions

The Wife Between Us

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

St. Martin's Press

January 9, 2018

3 & 1/2 stars

At the beginning of The Wife Between Us, we quickly become acclimated to three main characters. The first one is Vanessa, the ex wife of a wealthy almost perfect catch of a husband. The second is Nellie, a young woman who works two jobs as a school teacher and a waitress and is now the fiance to the catch of a husband. The third is that husband, Richard.

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen gives us these protagonists in a series of alternating chapters between Nellie and Vanessa,. Nellie's chapters are in third person while Vanessa's are in first person. This goes on for a third to half of the novel. Then Hendricks and Pekkanen throws us a hell of a literary curve ball. What it is will remain unsaid since it is at the center of everything that happens from that point on. Suffice to say, it is downright brilliant leaving the reader disoriented and rushing to keep up. Interestingly Richard doesn't get his own chapters. He is purposely seen from the eyes of the other narrators which is an important point in itself. Overall the pacing, the structure and the twists are all evidence of the authors' brilliant style and plotting.

I wish I could say the second half of the novel keeps up but it doesn't. It doesn't fall apart. In fact, we become even more involved in the three characters and how the plot will unravel. It just lags after the big reveal. There are two basic reasons for this. First is a continuous weave of background stories interspersed in the narrations. It is sometimes difficult to tell the present and the past in the narrative and I'm not sure if that is intentional or unintentional on the authors' part. More importantly much of it, but not all, seems like filler and doesn't add to the story. The second reason is an ending that meanders and drags. We get one more twist at the end but this time it feels forced and unrealistic, very much unlike the earlier twist.

What does work though works well. Vanessa becomes our main narrator and maybe an unreliable one. We do not know at first if we can believe her side of the story or how stable her mental state is.
We are given clues throughout, but the authors' building of the tension keeps us guessing until the very end. You probably notice I've said very little about the plot and more about the structuring of the plot. This is because the less you know, the more you will enjoy it. Basically, it is a story about an ex-wife, a soon-to-be wife and the man connected to both. It is not so much a suspense thriller in the conventional way but more of a tale about human perceptions and psychology. And this is why it works in the final analysis.

Despite the problems in the second half, I still enjoyed it. I just wished it stayed as tight in the second half as the first half. Overall though, I believe most readers will become quite involved with the main characters and that is why this novel has the good possibility of being the first blockbuster read of 2017. Even with my hesitation, I do recommend it for those who want a different form of suspense thriller.

Monday, January 1, 2018

It's all about the Ouji

Tales from a Talking Board

Edited by Ross E. Lockhart

Word Horde

October 24, 2017

3 stars

"What do you mean you don't believe in ghosts? You read horror books!"

I get that a lot. It is surprising how many people think that because you love a literary genre titled horror you must believe in all the things between the pages. Ghosts, Demons, anything supernatural. I used to reply. "If you like to read Tolkien. do you believe Hobbits are real?" but I got tired of the blank looks. No, I do not believe in the supernatural. I believe in the preternatural. For me, Horror is not about understanding the supernatural but understanding ourselves and the fear and doubts that bind us.

And if one more person says, "I like horrors books too. Especially true ones like The Amnityville Horror" I'm going full Jody on them.

Now to the review...

Full discloser. I have never used a Ouji board, either by myself or with others and probably never will. First of all, if you know they are not real, they are kind of boring. Second, while it is not real. our imaginations are and I do believe believing something is happening when it isn't affect us and not always positively.

But Ouji boards are part and parcel to many plots of horror stories. They are the conventional gateway to the spirit world for many residents who live between the pages of a horror novel. Tales from a Talking Board edited by Ross E. Lockhart consists of 14 pieces of short fiction covering the board but isn't limited to it. Some of the stories involve seances, divination, tarot cards among other things. But they all have to do with conversing with the spirits in one way or another.

There are some good stories here but none that really blow me other into the other dimension. All the authors are skillful but not all caught me up in their story. This is not to say it isn't quite entertaining. it is. Interestingly I wanted more stories actually about Ouji Boards and I found those that kept to the traditional the most satisfying. On the other hand, I did appreciate how many of the writers seem to be looking for something new to say about this tried and true warhorse.

Of the stories, I especially liked the early 20th century vaudeville setting of "Wegee Weegee, Tell Me Do" by Anya Martin. It captures the early days of the Ouji board craze with a feminist twist. "Spin the Throttle" by David James Keaton tells us we can have the frights of the board without the board. But the one that made my hairs stand on end was Tiffany Scandal's "Grief"which is about as straight a horror story you will find here.

There were others that stood out. Nathan Carson's "When the Evil Days Come Not" is part mystery, part horror and very different. Nadia Bulkin's "May You live in Interesting Times" is a much needed look at the subject from another culture. Finally for this short and incomplete survey, "Questions and Answers" by David Templeton is a humorous look at the Ouji while giving us a glimpse on what is happening n the other side.

There are eight other tales or varying quality but the above six stands out. As with many anthologies there is the usual unevenness but certainly there is enough to entertain. This collection would appeals mostly to those who either have an interest in Ouji boards or just likes tales about communication with the dearly departed. It's a good if not exceptional collection.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Audiocast: Best Novels of the Year

Author/Critic David Agranoff and myself put together this look at our top ten books of the year. It is about an hour long as we interview each other about our favorites reads of 2017. Hope you enjoy it.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The perils of high school

We Came Back

Patrick Lacey

Sinister Grin Press 

April 15, 2017

4 stars


 Some people see high school as the best years of their lives. Other see it as the horror they do not want to go back to. I'm in the latter group. Maybe it's why I liked We Came Back so much because the demons of my high school would have felt at home in the old haunts of Patrick Lacey's Lynwood High School.

Melvin Brown is one of those kids for which high school was hell. At the bottom of the food chain and ignored by even the teachers, he takes a gun to himself in the cafeteria and kills himself. The creatures he drew endlessly in his notebook may or may not have had anything to do with it. Ten years later, The now abandoned old Lynwood High seems to be calling the best and the brightest and now they are dressing Goth and calling their "club" the Lynwood Vampires.

To be sure, the monsters of We Came Back seem more demonic than vampiric to me. Yet they are at the heart of this novel which makes some interesting twists on the theme of teen cliches and angst. Also at the center of this book is Frank, a high school teacher who was present at Melvin's death and is now attempting to protect his daughter Alyssia from the evils of the world. Needless to say, Alyssia is led straight to the allures of the Lynwood Vamps.

Patrick Lacy's tale has some very scary moments and is quite entertaining as a straight horror story. The perspectives of the teens and one teen's parent is at the heart of this book and, despite a good amount of gore, I think the young adult crowd would enjoy it. Melvin, or more precisely what he becomes, is a first class terror which feels like a cross between a Lovecraft monster and a vampire. There are a few problems that crop up. For instance, the late introduction of a weapon to fight the monsters that comes out of left field and challenges one's ability to accept the farfetched. However there isn't anything that takes away from the fun. Others might want to know why it is The popular students and the jocks that are initially drawn to the strange cult but for those who remember high school in a darker light, we know that many of those students are one step from the demonic to begin with.

OK, so I read my own baggage into this a bit. I think others will too. We Came Back is a good horror tale but its setting and its character are likely to take you back to your own school experiences and that is part of the fun. This is straight horror and a very entertaining read at that.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Best novels of 2017 and more

As usually at the end of the year, I present my  list of the ten best novels of 2017. It was a very rich year for novels. There are also a few honorable mentions and "best of" categories.

1. Final Girls - Riley Sager
2. In the Valley of the Sun - Andy Davidson
3. Nails - M. P. Johnson
4. Liquid Status - Bradley Sands
5. Bone White - Ronald Malfi
6, Agents of Dreamland - Caitlin R. Kiernan
7. Flesh Trade - David Arganoff & Edward Morris
8. The Fourth Monkey -  JD Barker
9. Secrets of the Weird - Chad Stroup
10. The Boy on the Bridge - M. R. Carey

Honorable Mentions (all other novels this year receiving five stars from me in no particular order)
Kind Nepenthe - Matthew V. Brockmeyer
Home is Where the Horror is - CV Hunt
Cavern of the Damned - Russell R. James
Rusty Puppy - Joe R. Lansdale
Doll House - John Hunt
Mad Black Wheel - Josh Malerman

And the rest...

Best single author collection: Men Without Women - Haruki Murakami
Best multiple authors collection: Nights of the Living Dead - Jonathan Maberry & George Romero
Best non-fiction: Paperbacks from Hell - Grady Hendrix

Best YA novel: Turtles all the Way Down - John Green
Best WTF Novel: The Fetishists - AS Coomer
Best 2016 novel I read in 2017 - The Nightly Disease - Max Booth III
 Happy holidays to all my readers!