Monday, October 28, 2013

Psychological suspense from France

The Stone Boy

By Sophie Loubiere

Rating: 4 and a 1/2 out of five stars


The French novel The Stone Boy is a curiously strange tale of psychological suspense. The premise involves an elderly woman, Madame Préau who, after a long period of convalescence, comes home to a changed neighborhood. She is pretty much alone except for a housekeeper and a son who visits her periodically and seems to be distant and untrusting. Her closest neighbor is a family with apparently three children. One of the children, an older boy, is always seen separately from the others and, to Madame Preau's eyes, appears to be neglected and bruised. But the agency that investigates child abuse tells her that no child exists.

Of course, being a novel of psychological suspense, nothing may be as it appears. The author begins her novel with a vague but important back story and we know little about our protagonist at the beginning except she is probably mentally unstable, maybe dangerously so, and not all that likable. Loubiere has a talent for giving you only what information you need at the time, an essential attribute for this type of story. This novel did not grab me at first but as I read it but I was soon unable to put it down. When I did put it down, I found myself thinking about as if I was putting together a puzzle. What does this mean? What is the reality and what is in her head? The ending, which I will not reveal of course, was worth it and, I must confess, made me slightly teary-eyes. But was it a good teary-eyed or a sad teary-eyed? You'll have to read the book to find out.

Good psychological novels, especially those that involve a person of questionable mental stability, are hard to come by. The most common problem is that often authors do not know how to made a mentally ill protagonist full-dimensional without falling into stereotypes. That is not a problem here. Madame Preau is quite real with little stereotyping and endowed with a clear and believable pattern of decompensation. In fact, I would say it is the prime reason this novel works. The novel is moved along by third person narrative and enhanced by letters and notes by Madame Preau that lets us know more about her and the workings of her mind as the story progresses.

The only weakness in the novel is an occasional feeling of awkwardness and stiffness in the narration, especially at the beginning. It's one of those things I can feel but not necessarily put my finger on. I am inclined to think that may be a problem with the translation rather than the author. But it quickly goes away as we delve deeper into the mystery.

Overall, this is one of the better psychological thrillers I have read in a while and well deserving of more attention in the English-speaking world.  At the time of this writing, The Stone Boy appears to be only available as a Kindle eBook from the Hatchette Book Group.


Method acquired: Netgalley

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Classic sci-fi for the naive and cynical

Ender's Game

By Orson Scott Card

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I originally wrote this review of Ender's Game on Goodreads in 2011. It was a reread, having read it first in 1983. It has been one of my most popular and controversial reviews. I have re-posted it here due to the release on Nov.1st of the film.

I believe it was A. E. Van Vogt who said, "The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 14." And in fact, much of the classic science fiction of Heinlein and others feed into the mind of the adolescent boy. The protagonist Ender is an adolescent's dream. He is alone, alienated and feels he is not appreciated for how special he is. In other words, he is the average teen male or at least how the average teen male sees himself. Add on the naive and egotistical worldview envisioned by Heinlein and it is no wonder why adolescents flocked to the science fiction pulps of the 50s. In fact it can be argued that the teen sci-fi fan of the 50s was not all that different from the Emos of our generation.

Ender's Game was written in 1986. Yet it reads very much like a Heinlein novel and the plot and themes are not all that different from Starship Troopers. Card was smart enough to add in video games and the internet as waves of the future but the old Cold War mentality and the "might is right" philosophy hangs on. This is why this somewhat sadistic journey of a six year old child to his role as sci-fi messiah is so disturbing. Ender is brilliant but it is his habit of extreme violence that attracts him to his superiors. This appears to be a virtue in the author's eyes. In fact, one of Ender's teachers spell it out in no uncertain terms.
"The power to cause pain is the only power that matters, the power to kill and destroy, because if you can't kill then you are subject to those who can, and nothing and no one will ever save you."

Keep in mind this is being said to a six year old boy.

This is the basic theme of the novel. Violence is never extreme enough if it is for a good cause. This idea is never really questioned by Ender or anyone. At the end there is a twist that appears to lay doubt. However is not the basic moral issue in question but the assumption that sets the means to the end in play

This is why I cannot give this novel anything more than two stars. Card isn't a bad writer although some of his action scenes are muddled and he had an annoying habit of changing to third to first person and back for no reason. This was his first novel but I've never read anything else by him so I don't know if he developed any better habits. But this kind of philosophy in any story, especially one that appeals to teens, is disturbing to me. I'm OK with the idea of a young boy with talent being challenged and persecuted. It is a stalwart of YA literature. Harry Potter is an excellent example. But Card seems to preach "If you can't beat them, join them but just be a better fascist than they are."

While we are on the subject, Orson Scott Card is also known for his rather conservative social and religious viewpoints. One of those is his opposition to gay marriage and his basic revulsion to homosexuals in general. So why does his book have so many scenes of young boys running around and wrestling in the nude? Not to mention that the aliens are nicknamed "Buggers". I see some major issues here. Mr. Card, please seek help.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A good historical study of a controversial topic

Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and "Enemies of the State"

By Stephen P. Halbrook

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars 

When I was offered Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and "Enemies of the State to review, I was filled with quite a bit of curiosity. In 2013, when there seems to be a shooting a day by some disgruntled person, there is quite a discussion going on about gun control and the 2nd amendment. A lot of it on both sides is hyperbolic and weak with facts. One of those analogies you see quite often on the anti-gun control side is about the Third Reich in Germany in the 30s and 40s. The basic argument is that Nazi Germany had gun control and it either led to or was an important factor in the rise of Hitler and it could happen here. On the other side, the pro-gun control side states that using this is a ridiculous statement in that gun control was not the reason that the Third Reich occurred. So a serious, non-hyperbolic look at what actually went on in Germany during the rise of Hitler could actually be helpful to know.

The first thing to be aware of is who wrote the book and who published it. And, for that matter, who is reviewing it. Stephen P. Halbrook has written extensively on gun rights and the second amendment. The publisher is the Independent Institute, a Libertarian think tank whose basic stance on this topic is that any restriction on gun control, no matter how small, is anti-constitutional. My own position is that I support the second amendment but understand that some restrictions, like gun registration, may be necessary to protect that right and to prevent abuses, just like there are minimal restrictions to the right to free speech and the right to assembly to protect people against irresponsible and harmful behavior. In the arena of gun control debate, I would probably be considered moderate or in the middle. In most other things, I would definitely be considered liberal. So there is the philosophical starting points for all to see.

My first reaction to this book was how well researched and devoid of preaching this book is. Halbrook did an impressive job of researching his subject and preventing his viewpoint from overpowering the facts. He starts his look into German gun control laws in 1918 when gun possession was pretty much prohibited and severely punished. He continues to the gun control laws of 1928 by the relatively liberal Wiemar Republic that allowed possession of firearms but called for national registration. In the 30s the Nazis took control of the country and used these laws to firther restrict gun possession and to search for and find arms possessed by those they felt were a threat to the regime. In 1938, a new law was passed that forbade "enemies of the state", and specifically Jews, to possess firearms. The Nazis massed an aggressive campaign to seize weapons and arrest anyone against their government, securing the control of the country to Hitler and the Third Reich.

My synopsis is quick and simple but suffice to say Halbrook present detailed evidence of this scenario. Much of this evidence is claimed have been made available only recently. The author does not claim that the gun control laws caused the rise of Hitler's Third Reich but he does make a good case in that it was a significant factor in its success and was also a factor in the lack of armed resistance in Germany during this time. I also think he made a good case for the idea that any law restricting human actions, not just gun control laws in my opinion, have consequences and should be monitored for the potential of abuse by the government.

I really admired Halbrook's research and presentation. The historical facts seem not in dispute. However what can be in dispute is the intent and conclusion of the author and the publisher. For the question now is how much of this can be related to our current national and world environment. While Halbrook's book for the most part appears "to the facts" there are occasional statements that made me wonder. In the introduction of this book, the author states a movement in the United States exists that claims firearms should only be allowed for the military and police. That seems odd to me since I know of no group that takes that extreme and, if there is, it would be a very insignificant movement. I do know that pro-gun registration groups are commonly attacked as wanting to take's guns away from everyone when it is simply not true, I wondered if what I read was an example of that mentality. Another instance happens when the author relates an instance in the 30s in which a German Nazi attacks a Jewish family with a blunt weapon and a gun. The author implies that this incident in another culture would be used as propaganda against the Aryan using the weapon. I was very mystified until I realized that these sentences could have been written in 2013 during or after the incident in which George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin with a gun and could be implying Zimmerman was used in some form of propaganda attack, even though what actually happened is still disputed in most circles. I may be totally off here but I can't think of any other interpretation. I would love to ask the author what he was meaning or implying when he wrote that paragraph.

For the most part, Halbrook wisely leaves us to make our own conclusion but he is certainly trying to lead us to certain ones. I have my own questions needing answers in order to offer a conclusion. For instance, there is no doubt that Germany's laws, even those of the alleged "Liberal" Wiemar Republic, were much more restricted than anything existing or even proposed in America. Is it fair to compare one country with a tradition of second amendment gun rights to a country where such rights would be basically unheard of. Also, taking the current world situation in mind, all countries in Europe and Northern America, in other words most developing countries, have gun control or registration with America's laws being the weakest. I would be hard put to see where any of those democratic countries are in danger of heading toward tyranny at this time even if certain extreme conservative groups love to yell words like "Tyranny" when addressing the current administration.

Another interesting conclusion that the author makes is this. If there were not gun control registration laws in Germany, there could have been an effective resistance by both Jews and people against the Third Reich. That is one of those speculations that is hard to prove but I would essentially agree with it in the abstract. However, I do want to point out it is not a slam dunk. It is good to remember that at about the same time and across the Atlantic, Japanese-Americans were being rounded up into relocation camps with no apparent opposition and resistance despite the existence of the second amendment.

I do think we need to be very careful at what solutions we use even though I think national gun registration is essentially a sensible solution if done correctly. What I don't understand is why conservative groups, meaning in this case Republicans, are so concerned about the possible abuses of gun control laws while they actively pass laws that force pregnant women into invasive ultra-sound procedures just for considering their legal birth control options or pass voter ID laws that will effectively curtail the right of minorities and women to vote under the guise of preventing non-existent voter fraud.

So I think the conclusions can still be argued. But I do commend the author and the publishing country for providing a sane and well researched look at a part of history that is usually drowned in insinuations and exaggerations. I think it would be good for both sides to read this book, weight the information and the discuss the right way to address gun control issues using more sense and less accusations.

I want to thank the author, the Independent Institute and Netgalley for allowing me to read and receive this book. I suspect the author and publishing company may not be happy with some of my review but hope they will take solace in the fact that I actually enjoyed and work and found it informative. I also hope they appreciate that, in this particular instance, they were not preaching to the choir.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

An eye-opening sci-fi thriller.



By Chris Brosnahan

Rating: 3 & 1/2 stars out of 5

Chris Brosnahan wrote POV in 30 hours. In fact, it was the winner of a 30 hours competition for the best novel written in that frame of time. For that alone, POV is impressive. I can barely write a short story in 30 hours. I guess you could be a nitpicker and say that, at 87 pages, it barely qualifies as a novella...but I'm still impressed.

But is it good? Yeah, It is really good. It's a nice mix of science fiction and thriller centering around a future technology in which a person can receive a device inside their eyes that can change their view of the world; change the color of your car, make your partner into a movie star, make yourself thinner, etc. The resulst are only viewable to you, or least that is what we are told from the beginning, but I think you can see the advantages. Our optometrist hero discovers that someone is killing the people that are receiving this new tech from him.

That's enough to know except to expect a few sharp turns. It's a good story especially considering how much the author placed in it with a 30 hour time limit and 80 odd pages. But that's the problem with it too. There's so much this could have easily been a longer novel. I wanted it to be a longer novel. Some things happen too fast and could easily have survived more build-up and emotional embellishment. Not that it didn't have that, mind you. I just wanted more! More! More!

I guess that's a compliment too. I'm not sure it is a fair criticism since the author set out to do what he needed to do and did it well. I gotta stick with my gut feeling. But here's a bit of unsolicited advice. There is a tradition in the science fiction genre for authors to take very popular short stories and rewrite them into novels. If any work is screaming for a longer rewrite, this is it.

There are also 4 other brief pieces included in this ebook. All of the tales are quite good with "The Warning" and "The Happy Pills" being fairly awesome.

The whole kit and caboodle? Three and a half stars.

Method Acquired:  Netgalley

Monday, October 21, 2013

Not your father's horror novel

Sociopaths in Love

By Andersen Prunty

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Of all the new writers in the past five years, Andersen Prunty is the one that most impresses me. Writing in the indie ghetto called Bizarro. Prunty has the unique talent of being able to be off-the-wall in a surrealistic Dali sort of way yet can grab onto the readers' emotions and show parts of themselves they may have never accepted. He has one foot in Psycho Land and one foot in Everyman's earthly angst. He is the only writer that I can read and yell "WTF!" while simultaneously thinking, "Yeah man, I hear you!". He's a weird cross between Vonnegut, Kafka, and Wiley Coyote.

Sociopaths in Love is a good example of his work. We are introduced to a rather boring girl named Erica who takes care of her invalid grandmother. Walt enters her apartment, rapes her, shoots Grandma in the head and Erica falls instantly in love ready to follow him into what he promises to be a liberating experience. His mantra is "I can do anything I want" and that anything will include rape, murder, cannibalism, and a few other perversions we won't go into now.

Are you still with me? You haven't ran away in disgust? Good. Because this is one book where a brief description of the plot doesn't do it justice. Walt has the ability to go unnoticed which allows him to steal, eat in restaurants without paying and kill with impunity. Erica discovers she has the same ability. In one instance, he wheels a wheelbarrow with a corpse in it through a hotel lobby without anyone raising an eyebrow. This is the sort of thing that can only happen in Prunty's world. Walt's ability to be ignored, to be almost invisible, seems to copy a sociological condition called Alienation; the state or experience of being isolated from the society to which one should belong or in which one should be involved. Walt has turned alienation into a life art which he does the most repulsive thing with no real disfavor or emotion. Erica is pulled into this world with some hesitation, at time being repulsed but also being intrigued. This is falling in love with the bad boy taken to the ultimate extreme. Prunty is doing his thing by turning an understandable dilemma into the grotesque and unspeakable.

This is not for everyone. I think most people will be disgusted by the excess gore and violence. In fact, the reason I didn't give this 5 stars is because I felt the extreme violence of the story did go overboard at times in the extent that it causes the reader to lose the connection with Erica and Walt. They may be unlikable but there is something magnetic about their relationship. Maybe you can't identify with having a boy friend that eats people but I bet you can think of a past relationship you had in which you stayed too long with the only reason to stay being "I love him".

Prunty's strength is that he takes these human dilemmas to extremes and puts them in a surreal universe where the weirder it is, the more acceptable it becomes. Horror novels, and perhaps Bizarro, is all about placing yourself in an environment you never want to be and allowing it to be a cathartic release. But great horror also uses that cathartic release to allow you to see something in yourself or your environment that you can now deal in a more positive state of awareness. Sociopaths in Love is great horror.

Method Acquired:  Purchased

Friday, October 18, 2013

Leave the crime solving to the adults, boys!

Neighborhood Watch

By Joseph A. Turkot

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Neighborhood Watch appears to be categorized as both a mystery and a horror novel. The basic premise is about three boys who see a man taking pictures of them with a camera. Since there is a missing child in the neighborhood, they wonder if this man may have something to do with it. They start a club to solve the mystery and everything springs from that idea. It certainly isn't horror. While there is a minimal amount of suspense, there is nothing the least bit horrific in its pages. As a mystery, it doesn't quite work because the solution is broadcasted in the first few pages and everything afterwards is anti-climatic. I did keep waiting for some genuine scares or at least a foreboding feeling but the plot simply moved too slow to allow anything of the sort. The end picked up some but by that time it was simply too predictable. I did appreciate the author's attempt to depict an calm and idealistic community being shaken out of its slumber. But I also wished I cared a bit more about the three boys as I suspect the connection you make with these kids will affect your enjoyment of the novel. It wasn't a bad book, just not that memorable.

Method Acquired: Review copy from the author

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Science fiction fairy tales

Wishing Stars: Space Opera Fairytales 

By Nenia Campbell

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Wow! Big surprise here. I was browsing the pages of my Goodreads friends and notice Nenia was making a couple of her books free on Kindle for a few days (No. Don't tell me. I know. I'm cheap) I grabbed Wishing Stars: Space Opera Fairytales because the idea of melding fairy tales with modern sci-fi and fantasy seems so Angela Carter. And I adore Angela Carter. Campbell's collection include both short fiction and poetry. The poetry is quite good but I'm not really qualified to analyze it. I can't even rhyme "moon". But the short stories are very creative, each one a sci-fi retelling of a traditional fairy tale. Think the Brother Grimm meets Doc Smith. The style is old fashioned space opera which suits me fine. As for the author, she tends to mix in a few genres, like horror and romance into the space opera/fairy tale mash-up. She is also quite adept at creating aliens with real personality that actually involve the readers. Here is a rundown of the five stories.

"Deep Blue Nightmare" is a retelling of Bluebeard and is suitably terrifying. Despite it's colorful aliens and a nice helping of traditional science fiction themes, it is a fairly straightforward horror tale.

"Clockwork Roses" is a version of Grimm's Briar Rose aka Sleeping Beauty with a nice gender switch. The author's talent for fantastic descriptions really stands out on this one.

"Quantum Diamond" is the most macho of the tales, even though it is based on Rumpelstiltskin, and is the one that remind me the most of Doc Smith or maybe Harry Harrison from his Stainless Steel Rat days. It's my favorite of the bunch.

"Iceheart" is the most romantic of the tales . I can't place the fairy tale it is based on. (but I bet this is the one that made you cry, am I right, Nenia?)

"Blood of my Blood", The last and somewhat weird(er) tale, asks the question; What if Snow White was a clone? It takes a close second in my best-of list for this book.

Add on the poetry and this makes for a very successful introduction to a talented writer. If it is still free...consider yourself lucky. But it is definitely worth paying for.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A riveting historical thriller

Speaks the Nightbird

By Robert McCammon

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


Speaks the Nightbird is a surprisingly excellent novel by Robert McCammon. Perhaps I should explain why I say "surprisingly."

I have read a lot of McCammon, almost all of it pre-21th century. In fact, McCammon stopped writing in 1992 and didn't return to writing until 2002 when this novel was published. The author is always entertaining. However his earlier works were often derivative. So much so that there was was a rather cruel joke going around in the horror fan circles of early eighties...

Q: What is Robert McCammon's next novel?
A: Stephen King's last novel.

In my opinion, his best novel before 2000 was The Wolf's Hour which itself was a pastiche of werewolf tale and World War II adventure books.

But I guess a ten year hiatus did him good because 2002's Speak the Nightbird, which has just been reissued as an ebook by Open Road Media, is quite original and is now my favorite McCammon novel. It is a historical mystery novel set in Colonial America, the Carolinas to be specific, in the year 1699. Magistrate Issac Woodward and his young clerk Matthew Corbett travel to a struggling town for a trial of an alleged witch. The town of Fount Royal is slowly deteriorating due to what the townspeople feel is the work of witchcraft. The young woman in question is charged with the murder of her husband and the town's minister. What follows is a long (800+ pages) but always fascinating mystery. This is one of McCammon few non-supernatural novels and the first mystery I've read by him. He seems to relish the genre, filling the story with close calls, red herrings, amusing detours, and a feeling of dark suspense. He catches the times well using accented dialogue sparingly, just enough to set the mood but not too much that it loses the reader. Matthew Corbett is the "star" of the tale and he is quite the budding detective. Highwaymen, Indians, lost treasure, and one very nasty bear all make this a rather rollicking adventure. I'm sure there may be other mystery tales set in Colonial America but this is the first one I've seen and it felt quite original. I understand the author wrote two sequels featuring Matthew Corbett. I will be sure to put them on my "To read" list.

Method acquired:  Purchased

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Wizard of Oz meets Carlos Casteneda

Sloughing Off the Rot

By Lance Carbuncle

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A warning to those who laughed their way through Lance Carbuncle's first two bawdy romps. You will laugh through Sloughing Off the Rot too but it will be the kind of uncomfortable laughter that comes from handling donkey bezoars; a object you will be quite familiar with once you finished this bizarre masterpiece.

Carbuncle's new travesty is quite different than anything he wrote before. While the wicked humor is there, as well as the scatological word feast and the multitudes of cultural references from rock lyrics to literary and religious sources, the author has risen to a weird psychedelic form of seriousness; a tale that is a sort of The Wizard of Oz as told by Carlos Castaneda. It is an intense spiritual journey down a red brick road as John the Revelator, a man who wakes up in a cave with no sense of who he is and why he is there, travels through a purgatorial wilderness loaded with creatures like zombie-like Lunkheads and sexually irresistible Blumpkins. John is aided by a group of guides that feels an awful like an id, ego and superego set-up, not to mention the bezoar-puking Alf the Sacred Burro. All of this madness is steered by Carbuncle's manic over-the-top style that isn't afraid to offend and always entertains. Lance Carbuncle has already been proven to be one of the most original writers around. Sloughing off the Slough merely broadens and cements his already infamous reputation.

Method acquired: Review copy from author

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A book about nothing?

Mastodon Farm

By Mike Kleine

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Do you remember the TV sit-com Seinfeld? There was one episode that was deemed "about nothing". That describes Mastodon Farm; a book about nothing. The difference is that Seinfeld was as least funny, interesting, and not a waste of time. Kleine's exercise into nothingness is a strange tale told in second person narrative. You hang around with celebrities, listen to bad music, and makes lists in your head about rock music, celebrities, and other in-things. Something similar was done in American Psycho except that had a plot and a reason. You also name drop a lot and go to cool places like Lake Mead not quite knowing what to do there. If I had to make a guess at the theme, I would say Kleine is trying to illustrate the banality and meaningless of the "good life" that many people crave. I'm sure there could have been a better way than writing a banal and meaningless book. The maddening part is that the author is a good writer and I kept going, hoping that something would happen. Fortunately this book is short at 126 pages so I didn't have to wait long for nothing to happen, So two stars because it is well written and shows promise for the writer...with a different book.

Method Acquire: Purchased

Friday, October 11, 2013

The brain vs. reality

Andrew's Brain

By E. L. Doctorow

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Where to start?

This book is about the brain. In general, the games and tricks our brain plays on us. In specific, it is about the brain of Andrew, a cognitive scientist who is narrating his life to a therapist. The vehicle of the book's narrative is a dialogue running through a series of sessions. Why these sessions are taking place is not revealed until the end and even then there are many questions. Andrew is the poster boy for an unreliable narrator. From the beginning there are moments that may be his life or may be his imagination. For instance, in the beginning of the novel he speaks of of hearing voices and walking into a stranger's house. At first he seems to be unsure if it really happened. But soon he is saying it was an actual incident. The therapist keeps asking if it was a dream, not quite sure himself. This scenario plays itself over in many ways. But soon we get a narration that makes sense, at least for a while. Andrew is a brilliant but troubled man. He sees himself as being a conduit for a series of tragic incidents, starting when a hawk carried off his pet dachshund when he was eight. He partially blames his own ineptitude for these incidents yet he maintains an uncaring attitude and a disdain for his own stoic in-humaneness.

Andrew is a hard man to like. To be frank, he comes across as an arrogant ass. But he is a person we want to understand. I do not think I ever really understood him and that may be a weakness of the story. Halfway into the novel and especially at the end, it appears more and more than some of the events are imagined. There is one event involving the White House that really came from nowhere and I couldn't help wondering if it was a fantasy, not unlike the meerkat island in Life of Pi. But like the therapist, we are never grounded in Brian's perception of reality. But I am not sure it is fair to blame the author for being vague, especially in a novel that is about the illusions of the mind. Doctorow may have led us exactly where he wanted us. At the end, I got the distinct impression that Andrew may not have been in his final predicament for the reasons he said he is. It's that unreliable narrative thing again. That is my take but I suspect that 100 readers will have 100 different takes on the ending. Doctorow has appeared to have written a novel that is as intangible and unpredictable as our own minds.

So what to make of all this? Andrew's Brain is a fairly simple read, brief at 200 pages, and quite involving. Yet it is also somewhat perplexing and a little maddening when you think about it afterwards. Does our perceptions rely on reality or does reality rely on our perceptions? If you think that is a silly question, you need to spend a little time in Andrew's brain

Method Acquired: Goodreads Firstreads

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Night of the Living Scouts

The Troop

By Nick Cutter

Rating: 4 out of five stars

If Stephen King says The Troop scared the hell out of him then it better be scary...right? In this case, the boss of the horror book blurb got it right. This is one terrifying novel.

"The Troop" refers to a boy scout troop. In this case, 5 scouts and a scout leader who are on a camping trip on a uninhabited island. The author Nick Cutter does a great job setting up the characters of the scouts and their leader but deftly leaves some important things out which we will learn about later. The boys are archetypes of teenage angst. You got the bully, the volatile one, the popular and nearly normal kid, the picked-on nerd, and the weird kid. But it works here because the teenagers are quite real in their reactions. They strive in their cliche with fart jokes, bullying, posturing, and an obsession about girls and sex. I swear that, somewhere between" Trustworthy" and "Loyal" in the scout laws, they should have placed the word "Horny". As a former Eagle scout, I know. But I digress...

Their camping trip is disrupted by a emaciated man who seems to be very hungry. The scout leader, who is also the town doctor, realizes that something is wrong and that is when everything takes off. It not a spoiler to say that our "monster" is infectious and the result of a lab experiment gone wrong. One of the cool moves in the novel is that the creature or creatures, in question actually exists and you would feel pretty upset if you found out one was existing in you. Now magnify that feeling by a thousand.

Just leave the island, right? Well the radio busted, the boat is broken and what are all those naval ships doing out there and why is are they rescuing us?

OK. Enough set-up. For anything else, you need to read the book to find out. But if you're looking to be scared, and maybe more than a little grossed out, this is the perfect read. The author knows when to lay on the adrenaline and when to back off, keeping the suspense at a consistent and entertaining level. Cutter inserts reports, diaries, and court records pertaining to the beginning of the disaster to help us piece together what is going on as the terror rises. Many have called this a cross between The Lord of The flies and The Ruins. It's a good description. One of the themes in this tale pertains to the frailness of civilized norms and manners when a crisis arrives...remembering that early adolescent boys are slightly beneath the brink of civilization to begin with.

Overall, I really enjoyed this. A really scary novel doesn't show up often, especially one with such a creative "monster". I wouldn't be surprised if this become the horror book to read for the year.

Thanks to Netgalley and Gallery books for allowing me to read and review this book in advance. It might be a few days before I can turn the lights off.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

I was at the doctor's office...

Please Do Not Shoot Me in the Face

By Bradley Sands

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I was at the doctor's office.

"Well, Doc. It's like this. I have a headache the size of Baltimore, My nose runs like the winner of Kentucky Derby, My body is aching for the fjords and I have an irresistible desire to discuss Existentialism with Nietzsche's horse"

"What have you been reading lately, Marvin?

"Oh, the usual The Great Gatsby, Ulysses, The Exesis of Philip K. Dick at one sentence a day, and unsolicited excerpts from Journey to Virginland".

My doctor shook his head. He pulled out the rectal thermometer, looked at it and shook his head again. "It's quite obvious. You are having a bad case of taking yourself too seriously". He handed me a copy of Bradley Sand's Please Do Not Shoot Me in the Face.

"Read these three stories. One for each night then report to me on Thursday. Do not try to read more than one a night as it could have devastating consequences."

I left fifteen minutes later, of which ten minutes of it was spent begging the doctor to put the rectal thermometer back in. When I got home I looked at the relatively thin book and said, "Posh! (the Spice Girls were staying the night). I'm the only man who ever read Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous in one night and survived." So I began reading. Wait! This is actually three novellas. It's a novel. No, now the author says it isn't. I was getting confused. I soared through the first novella, a cute little Bizarro comedy called "Frankie Nougat and the Case of the Missing Heart". I found myself forgetting about Nietzsche's horse, probably just in time since the horse was changing into something more comfortable. Frankie is sad and funny and his dog is cute, talks, and is occasionally a substitute for a gun. Then I turned to "Cheesequake Smash-up" in which all the fast food franchises are involved in a destruction derby with floating buildings. Wait a minute. Is my house moving? I can no longer feel my toes. So I took a break and asked Posh Spice to feel my toes for me.

Then I read "Apocalypse Ninja". OK already . The first two were funny but this is a blast. The world's worst ninja takes on the world's worst pirates. Bradley Sand writes like a maniac with a chainsaw and I'm liking it. But my body started to revolt. I was being pummeled by my own intestine totally unaware that I ripped off that line from a sci-fi novel written by the 2nd president of the United States. I've totally forgotten about Nietzsche's horse but the fantasy was replaced by visions of ninjas, floating McDonalds, and talking animals. I began to realize that writing like a Bizarro author is not as easy as it looks and should be left to the maniacs with a chainsaw.

So I rushed back to the doctor and he told me to lay off Bizarro for a day or two. Read something trashy like 50 Shades of Grey or Atlas Shrugged before tackling another Bradley Sands Bizarro fest.

"By the way Doc, is it one novel or three novellas?"

"When you win the lotto do you ask if the bills are in 10s or 20s?"

"Good point" Actually it wasn't but he's the Doc.

"One more thing, Doc. Why it is there a cauliflower growing out of my nose and whistling the Ode to Joy?"

Doc shrugged his shoulders. "It's Bizarro."

Method acquired: Purchased

How not to deal with a bad review!

The Goodreads Killer

By Dave Franklin

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

To be fair, this is not the first story about  writers murdering internet book reviewers... let's hope that doesn't become a habit.  There is also The E-Book Murders but that reads more like a treatment for a TV pilot. Neither book is very well written. I give Mr. Franklin credit for tackling the idea which is indeed ripe for satire and the novella does has its amusing moments. Yet as satire, his attempt doesn't ring all that true. His preference for the poor writer is obvious which makes the tale read like a revenge fantasy. And revenge fantasies are not all that pleasant to read. Add on one of the stupidest sex scenes I've ever read and I have to chalk this down as an uninteresting failure.

Besides, the definite statement of the battle between author and reviewer was written over 200 years ago by Matthew Gregory Lewis...
"An author, whether good or bad, or between both, is an animal whom everybody is privileged to attack; For though all are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them."

...and it hasn't change in all these centuries.

Method Acquired: Purchased

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Courtroom drama at its finest

The Hanging Judge

By Michael Ponsor

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

There are tons of mysteries and courtroom dramas novel seen in the perspective of the lawyer, the law enforcement officer, and even the indicted. But The Hanging Judge may be the first novel I have read that is mainly in the perspective of the judge. It is because the author, Michael Posner has been a judge since 1984 is currently a judge in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts.. It's nice to see a novel written by someone who knows all the facts, intricacies and problems that abound in our legal system.

Of course, it is even better that Michael Ponsor is an excellent writer and shows an amazing amount of promise in his first debut novel. The author takes on the issue of capital punishment in this taut courtroom drama. the main protagonist, David Norcross, is a judge with some deep doubts about the legal system and especially those pertaining to the capital punishment. He is assigned a case involving a drive-by shooting resulting in the death of a gang member and a respected member of the community. It is clear almost from the beginning who is guilty and who is innocent but that is not really the point. This is more of a drama than a mystery as its main focus is on the actions and emotions of the principles who are caught up in the situation. There are no simple actions or answers throughout this well-developed story. I became very involved in the tale and pretty much read through the night to see what would happen. It has a satisfying climax but this is a story that is too realistic for a Perry Mason "I did it" ending. Various plot diversions come into being and culminate at the end always staying true and realistic to the story with good guys, bad guys but mostly people in between doing things is the best way they know how to.

Yes, I'm being vague. I have to be because there are so many nice touches to this novel that I don't want to spoil them. Anyone who enjoy mysteries, suspense, or courtroom drama should place this on their list as a must-read.

Method Acquired: Netgalley

Friday, October 4, 2013

Controversial topic, top-notch mystery

The Last Clinic: A Darla Cavannah Mystery


by Gary Gusick

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars. 

I have to hand it to the author of The Last Clinic for basing the plot around a controversial topic. I am doubly impressed that Mr. Cusick is able to write such a good thriller without getting bogged down in the issue of right to life vs. Pro-choice and being fairly balanced in his approach. Actually, this mystery isn't so much about abortion rights as it is about the price of extremism. Or it is simply a tight and witty mystery that keeps your attention to the end. Take your pick. Or take both.

Popular anti-abortion preacher, Jimmy Aldridge, is gunned down while setting up his protest signs in front of one of the last abortion clinics in Jackson, Mississippi. Of course the main suspect is good looking clinic doctor Nicoletti and there are plenty of people who want to nail the murder on him. But when investigator Darla Cavannah finds $3000 in small bills inside the reverend's car, she suspects there may be another suspect and another motive.

There are a lot of nice twists and turns in this tale but it is the characters that really made this a superior mystery. Darla is a transplanted northerner whose deceased but well-respected husband makes her a little less of a stranger in this slightly nepotistic Mississippi city. Her sheriff friend Shelby is a delightfully charismatic redneck. In fact, most of the characters in this novel are well-written and full of eccentricities that endear them to the reader. For that matter, Jackson, Miss. is practically a character in the book as Cusick writes about it with such flair. It is not surprising to find that Jackson is Cusick's real-life hometown. There is only one person in the book that seems a bit forced and that is a bungling Elvis impersonating police officer but he does make for good comic relief.

As far as the plot goes, this is one of the few mysteries that had me guessing to the very end. I like it when a who-dunnit has many suspects and all of them seem plausible...including the one that actually "dunnit". There is just the right amount of seriousness and wit to keep this story entertaining. This is an easy recommendation for all mystery fans. I understand this is Gary Cusick's debut novel. Very promising indeed.

Method Acquired: Netgalley

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

I'm going to kill you! Do you mind?

The Forbidden Territory

By Dennis Wheatley

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Dennis Wheatley was a very popular writer of British mystery, espionage, and occult from the 30s to the 60s. His heroes were the precursor to James Bond in that they tend to be debonair but manly. If The Forbidden Territory is typical. his characters love adventure, adore the ladies, and relish a little top secret action now and then. But they seem to be very They never kill unless totally necessary. In this case, unlike James Bond who had a license to kill, they have a learner's permit.

The Forbidden Territory was Wheatley's first published novel (1933) but not his first written novel. His heroes are essentially a trio consisting of French aristocrat Duke de Richleau, the Jewish financier Simon Aron, and wealthy American Rex Van Ryn. One must applaud Wheatley's decision to have such a diverse group yet on paper they all come out sounding rather British. The plot hinges around Richleau and Aron going to Soviet Russia to save their friend Rex from prison. It seems he wandered off to "forbidden territories" that are closed to foreigners. He does have a secret agenda that supplies the motive and thrills for this adventure. On the way one of our rescuers, Simon, has a romance, runs into an especially nasty villain, and all concerned learn how to fly a plane on the run. If I seem a little tongue in cheek, it's because I'm not always sure how serious the author wishes us to take this. It's quite a romp with rather good action but I feel that the author is saying, "Gee! Isn't this clever?". But all in all, it's a lot of fun.

One of the more interesting elements is Wheatley's description of Stalinist Russia in the 30s. I do not know how accurate his description was for the time but Wheatley did have military intelligence background. He does seem to get across a good sense of what it may have been like to live under this dictatorship yet also communicate the basic geniality of the Russians. In this way, this novel may be a capsule of the British's, and American's, perception of the pre-cold war Soviet Union. It is one of the most interesting part of the book. But it is basically good adventure tale and a popular one for its time. Recommended for those who like rip-roaring tales and foreign intrigue.

Method Acquired: Netgalley

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A haunting time machine of a novel.


By Thomas Tryon

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



Those who are familiar with Thomas Tryon's first two more novels, The Other and Harvest Home might find Lady a little perplexing. Yet it may also be the now deceased author's best and most realized work. While Lady still has a Gothic setting, taking place in Tryon's mythical New England town Pequot Landing where the other two books take part, this novel is not remotely a horror story. It is part mystery and part coming-of-age story and a very good one at that. The author excels at creating an eerie and haunting environment while involving the reader into early 20th century life complete with its town secrets and slowly emerging scandals. Woody, the narrator, tells of his childhood beginning at the age of eight focusing on his close friendship with Adelaide Harleigh who is usually called Lady. The sometimes moody widow is friend and mentor to Woody but there are still many secrets about her that he questions; Such as what happened to her husband, why does she switch so quickly from elegant joviality to brooding solidarity, and who is that strange red-headed man who shows up now and then. The answer to these and other questions may seem somewhat lame to today's readers but in the period this novel takes places (1930s) it was quite shocking. For that matter, the younger readers may be surprised to know that this was a fairly shocking ending in 1974, the year Lady was first published. The times have changed.

But it is not the ending that stands out. Tyron has written a haunting time machine of a novel taking us back the the 30s with exquisite detail and a understanding of the slower snow-globe existence of a small town. Sensitive characters round-out this novel which is deserving of re-issue in e-book format by Open Road Media and equally deserving of new discovery by new readers.

 Method Acquired: Netgalley