Thursday, January 19, 2017

A young adult ghost story


By Teri Polen

Publisher: Black Rose Writing

Pub. Date: December 1, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


 In Teri Polen's Young Adult horror novel Sarah we have the type of horror that is steeped in the emotions of teens yet interestingly stretches into adult horror often. Sarah is a ghost story and of course ghost stories are popular with all ages. Yet this one deftly merges mature topics with a tight horror tale and more than a taste of violence.

Cain is what most would consider a good guy . He is the captain of the soccer team and his head is on fairly straight, partially thanks to his BFF Finn who has no problem telling him when he is screwing up. The latest problem is with Cain's girl friend who is clearly using him and Finn doesn't waste words in telling Cain that. That may be why Cain doesn't pay much attention to strange things like cold breezes and creaking doors in his family's new house. At least not at first. He discovers a girl named Sarah was killed in the house while it was being built. Sarah is angry over her death and Cain wants to help her resolve it and move on. But when that help include taking possession of his body and planning gruesome deaths of her killers , Cain tries to stop it which only puts his friends and family at risk too.

From there on, it gets pretty scary. I would think this book might be too intense for younger children. 12 and up would be OK...I think. But regardless of the quibbling on the age level, Teri Polen has written one of the better YA horror novels in the past few years. Cain is totally likeable and believable. His hesitation on the number of things feels quite right as does his friend Finn who is the best advice giver even if he doesn't take it that well himself. There is a new girl friend and a cute little sister that add more dimension to the story. Cain's mother seems a bit thin. She is just there because he needs a mother. But the main characters are perfect for tangling with the spirit of Sarah as her true intentions starts to show.

Actually, Sarah is the real highlight of the story. we feels for her because of the circumstances of her death,. Yet the author reveal her growing evilness so nicely that she truly become a figure of horror. As her powers grow, so does the terror. This is one book to keep the lights on while reading, especially if you are a teen.

Sarah is well worth reading for both teens and adults. In a way it is a fairly common ghost story with possession throw in. Yet the combination of teen issues with the constant twists and turns raises it above the usual. This is a good book for your teen who think Goosebumps is old-fashioned. And if you really want to have fun wait until night when he or she is about two-thirds done than flip the main power switch off. Mean maybe but ...

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Hotels and Owls

The Nightly Disease

By Max Booth III

Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub Date: December 18, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


 It is said one should write about what they know. Max Booth definitely knows something about night auditing in a hotel. Much of what is in The Nightly Disease comes from his experiences working that very job; hopefully not the actual events but from the strange and cynical atmosphere that night duty brings. Having worked a series of night shifts in a series of strange jobs in my much younger years, I can vouch that the midnight hours brings out a different and not always complimentary side of human nature. But so far none of my nighttime jobs ever involved, at least directly, owls. Only my daytime ones.

The Nightly Disease centers around a hotel night auditor by the name of Isaac. In first person narrative, he gets right down to telling us about what a lousy job he has. His only real only friend is George the night auditor at the hotel next door. Asides from George, the only other thing he looks forward to each night is the bulimic homeless girl who comes into the hotel to purge. There is one other interesting girl he meets, a new night auditor who biggest dream is to pet an owl. So it is a bad sign when she ends up dead, killed by an owl that attacks her.

Owls figure heavily in Booth's noirish yet weird novel. What their role actually is may be argued even after you finished the last page. They give the book a fantastic feel but are more of a omen (appropriately if you know your Native American folklore) than the main event. Isaac's nightly encounters are both mundane and surreal at the same time. It is a bit like Bukowski's nihilism meets Tom Robbins' mirth. Booth could have made the questionable decision to write a wandering narrative steeped in the negativity of lost hotel characters but instead he wisely chooses to add a main event that gives the plot a focus and Isaac a challenge. Isaac doesn't see it that way but views it as an exclamation point to his drudge of a life and it's inescapable dead end. But in a typical noir move there is a girl that may be his ticket to a meaningful life. Yes, it is the bulimic one. Even hotel night auditors have dreams and sometimes you have to take them where they drop.

While Booth is usually associated with writings of the surreal and bizarre, this particular book reads fairly straight. That does not mean it isn't strange, just the type of strange that makes sense in an alienating world. In fact, of the things I've read by the author, this is probably the most mainstream . (Gasp!) It is, as expected, beautifully written with dialogue and descriptions that grabs your jugular. It is a darkly comedic story which smacks head first into existential angst and comes out the other side with a least a little hope for the human race, not to mention one hotel night auditor. Max Booth III is one of those authors to look out for and The Nightly Disease is the first substantial and thoughtful fiction of the new year.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Mercenaries vs religious fanatics and monster

Little Heaven

By Nick Cutter

Publisher: Gallery Books

Pub. Date: January 10, 2017

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

It's hard to believe after two stunning novels of horror from Nick Cutter in the last few years but Little Heaven is a major disappointment. Cutter has carved himself a splendid little niche of visceral thrills with The Troop and The DeepLittle Heaven pales next to them. It's a little hard to figure out why since it does have the require amount of scares and body horror that the author is known for. Let's see if we can.

The first thing that stands out in Cutter's first two books is that the plot is held together by brilliantly vicious ideas of horror. Although formed adequately to catch the reader's empathy, the characters are secondary to that horror. In Little Heaven we have another horror but it is secondary to the characters. Normally this would be good but the characters of the novel doesn't stand apart enough to make us care. The action of the novel goes back and forth over two decades; from the 60s to the 80s. The constant throughout this see-sawing are three mercenaries who gives us very little to like about them. And these are our "heroes". The novel describes how they meet through a contract hit and how their paths continues to cross. One of them, Minerva, plans to kill another, a British black man named Ebeneezer, to fulfill a wish for revenge. For reasons never sufficiently explained, Minerva , Ebeneezer and a third man named Michah maintain an uneasy bond through the years. This hard to believe bond takes them to a religious commune and eventually a confrontation with a misshapen creature in the wilderness.

The main human villain does not fare well either. The commune of Amos and his followers is a thinly disguised Jonestown but Amos shows none of the charisma required to bring something like that together. He looks and acts like a fool leaving the reader to wonder why anyone would follow him. Interestingly, the most believable thing in the novel is the strange creature in the forest and that is because we are given a creepy and scary glance at his development in the prologue. The image that Cutter sets forward never leaves us and give us the kind of promise that he delivered in his first books. Unfortunately that is not to be in this book.

It seems that the author is blending a few styles of writing here besides his own. There is some Cormac McCarthy in the type of protagonists he creates and a lot of Stephen King in Amos and the circumstances his commune finds it in. Yet it ever really gel together. We end up with a well written horror tale that should of worked but doesn't. I am only left with recommending either The Troop or The Deep to the reader or telling them to wait for Cutter's next book.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The precarious role of coincidences


By Neil Randall

Publisher: Crooked Cat

Pub. Date: January 24, 2017

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

In the world of suspense and mystery, plausibility is an big issue. The task for most mystery writers is to make the implausible plausible. A good mystery novel is often loaded with coincidences and those coincidences must be such that the reader is willing to suspend belief at least for a little while as the author patches them up to create a believable whole and a believable conclusion.

The issues with Isolation is all about plausibility. The plot starts with an unlikely premise and is then loaded with one thing on top of another. To a certain extent it works. The author, Neil Randall, has a lightning style that keeps throwing weird things at you and leave you wanting for more...and a resolution. The set-up is certainly irresistible. Nigel Randolph is an unassuming man who works in a government office taking safety complaints. He receives a photograph of what appears to be a murder scene. At first he thinks it is a prank but changes his mind when the exact same scene shows up on the news. He reports it to the police and becomes more involved when it is discovered the two murdered women were,along with Nigel, part of a therapy group ten years earlier when he was having mental health problems. Pretty soon there are other deaths of people Nigel knew and they all seem to be related to that therapy group.

There are other strange clues. A drawing of an great horned owl keeps showing up coupled with a Native American myth. A new girl friend comes into his life while an old girl friend is writing things about Nigel that is the opposite of what he remembered. And of course, he is quickly becoming the police's prime suspect. It all mounts up quite well until a situation involving Nigel going to a house to investigate a complaint really stretches my ability to suspend disbelief. It never quite recovers from that point. But the storytelling skills of Randall is good enough to keep my interest until...

The ending. Oh, that ending. I certainly do not want to ruin it but it is a cliche. It explains the piling of coincidence but in the least original way possible. What the author meant to be a shock become merely a groan and deadens any enthusiastic for wanting the author to wrap up all the loose ends. It's too bad since I really did like the build-up regarding of the heightening of the implausibility. Yet that style of build-up always risks falling off the edge and this edge is off the Empire State Building, so to speak.

It isn't that an ending like this can't work. It simply doesn't. In order for it to work we need an inkling of a clue so when we get there we can say, "Why didn't I see that coming." We do not get it. What should feel like a surprise feels more like a cheat. It is too bad because the plot really grabbed me at least for a while. Neil Randall writes well and to some extent there was good structuring of his plot. Yet if an author piles on the implausible there must be a climax that pulls it off. That is what's missing and why I can not recommend Isolation

Monday, December 26, 2016

Monsters and Sorcery in Seattle

Realms of Shadow

By Barry James

Publisher: After Hours Publishing 

Pub Date: March 11, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

When we last encountered Jordan Hanson, he has just finished defeating the evil Ackerman and the Mandragorans who were close to annihilating the human race. It is five years later and the battle has left many portals to other dimensions open. Jordan and his crew are patrolling and fighting the dangerous creatures who pass through the portals.. But recently, an alchemist and a rogue angel have presented a far greater danger that once again threaten to enslave humans and they may be far more powerful that Team Jordan.

This is the premise of Realms of Shadows the second book of Barry James' Mondragoran Chronicles. I have previously reviewed the first book, Dreams of Darkness and, while I enjoyed and recommended it, I found it had a number of common problems that appear in independently published first books. It was still strong enough for me to look forward to the second book. I am pleased to say any quibbles I had with the first book has dissipated with the second. Realms of Shadow is a tighter effort in all ways. The book is shorter at 336 pages than the first but it seems more detailed and complex in the depiction of both the action and the fantasy world. James has created a fully formed alternate reality Earth with lots of creatures, many taken from other mythologies, that serve as Jordan's enemies and allies. The dialog is also tighter and doesn't break up the action like it did before which is perhaps the best improvement for one who likes their urban fantasy to be action-packed. And as I predicted, Jordan has found himself a girl friend yet it is casually immersed enough within the story not to be paranormal romance. (Thank God!)

Jordan continues to be the focus and an interesting protagonist. He is perfecting control of the monster within him and seems to be less in conflict with it. There is still some brooding but it is smarter and more task-directed. The other members of his group are all essential to the plot. I am tempted to say there is a bit of "Buffy and the Scooby Gang" in this second novel due to their focus on mission and their camaraderie and that is a good thing which is essential to drive forward a series like this. My favorite addition is Lori, a child seer with a lot of spunk for someone whose fate is not promising. She has just the right amount of smart-assery for a gifted kid. "Which part of 'I can see the future' did you not get?" Another nice touch is that the more casual parts feel steeped in the culture of Seattle where the action takes palace. I mean where else can a group of demon fighters feel natural discussing sorcery, demons, and plans of attack while sipping Awake tea and a white chocolate mocha at a Starbucks. And knowing Seattle, I could envision that not one customer thought this was unusual until the blood wraith showed up!

Realms of Shadow ends up a very strong contender in the urban fantasy genre. It is a improvement on the already promising start of the first volume. James' story remains very dark but very readable. Its villains and monsters are well described and formidable but it is Jordan and his team that really make the book such a delight. It should be noted that this novel can be read without the first book since the author has combined a detailed synopsis of the first book in the second chapter to get the reader up to speed. But I do recommend reading them in order. I am looking forward to the next installment.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Time after time

Time Travel

By James Gleick

Publisher: Pantheon

Pub. Date: September 27, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

James Gleick starts off with a bombshell. One we should all already know but we don't want to admit. Time travel is impossible. At least the two-way type that we would all like to do. He does mention "time travel" as implied in speed of light travel but that isn't really time travel is it? That's more like a suspended animation that you stay awake for. . It is a Rip Van Winkle effect proven by experiments with atomic clocks. But the touristy version of time travel to the past and forward and back again? Fascinating. Tempting, However the sad fact is science and physics fights against the idea of that being a reality.

So why write a book of time travel, especially a history of time travel? Because the concept is so embedded in our brain that it pretty much affects everything in our modern world. It is in our literature, our media, and even in physics as it grapple with the paradoxes set forward in the many thought exercises that time travel gives us. After all, If quantum physics isn't an exercise in the paradoxes of our reality, what is?

Gleick starts his history with H. G. Wells and his novel The Time Machine. Pretty much everything we accept about the idea, including the idea of time as a fourth dimension, comes from Wells. From there he explores several ideas that continue to rise from the literature to come and how Physics chugs along right with them. Time Travel is basically a series of meanderings. It feels more like a continuing mind game, despite its chronological pattern, rather than a history of anything. That may offset a few people that want something really about time travel but for others, like myself, it is an almost poetic if challenging way to look at our perceptions. This is the kind of book more understood at a chapter at a time so you can absorb its idea. Definitely not a light read, it is still one that entertains while informing. If you like the topic, this is a must.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Movies that never were

Neon Trash: Forgotten B-Movies of the '80s

By MP Johnson

Publisher: WeirdPunk Books

Pub. Date: October 5, 2016

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I'm not exactly sure what M. P. Johnson is doing here but it is lots of fun watching him do it. The subtitle "Forgotten B-Movies of the 80" says it all. Neon Trash is a love story to those films that no one has seen and most people won't even try to. Fortunately there are a few people out there, like the author and myself, that lives for this stuff. Johnson in the first article, makes a case for loving B-movies (let's be frank. Most of 80s DIY movies are really D-movies) but makes a better case for reading the capsule reviews of the films that he will proceed to mention. He follows up with synopses of 52 films, none that I have ever heard of. That is actually quite a feat. These capsule reviews are quite fun. This is followed with interviews by actors and makers of these films. Again, none I have ever heard of. Hmmm. He pays particular attention to a movie titled Neon Meltoids of which I could find no mention of on the internet. It must be very obscu...wait a minute. None of these movies can be found on the internet! Am I being screwed with?

OK. Mr. Johnson. You had your fun. I almost fell for it! Even as the humor it is, it is still a nice salute to the 80's B-Movie era. I must say the best chapter in this book is "Trash Tape Quest: My Hunt for Neon Meltoids". It is hilarious!

So how does one rate something like this? It is very weird. It is very funny. It is very short. It is a merry prank in print. Let's just call it a delicious fart and leave it at that!