Monday, March 31, 2014

Hot Rods, Gangsters and Zombies.

Dead Man's Drive

By Michael Panush

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Zombie with amnesia. Check. Hot witch. Check. Zoot Suiter shaman sidekick. Check. Teen wizard with pet yeti. Check. Bank robber muscle with a secret. Check. Professor Xavier type who keeps them focused and on the right path. Check

And in the other corner...

Tough guy with zombie army. Check. Crime syndicate boss. Check. Demon summoning motorcycle gang. Check. Fanatical minister. Check. Crooked cop. Check. Evil tycoon with Nazi connections. Check. Evil tycoon assistant with conflicting emotions. Check.

Now place them in a little town called La Cruz, not too far from Los Angeles in the 50s with hot rods, stir a lot and you have the premise of Dead Man's Drive by Michael Panush.

La Cruz seems to be a nice town but it is perpetually on the verge of chaos. The previous mentioned group of anti-hero types called the Donovan Motor Team protects the town but a new series of demonic attacks become a big challenge for them especially since the stalwarts of said town are not all that comfortable with zombies and shamans even if they are good guys. The main protagonist in all this is Roscoe, a recently created zombie with no memory of his past life and deep struggles with who he was and will be.

Dead Man's Drive is one part supernatural adventure and one part crime noir. Michael Panush has his fingers on both styles and bring them together quite well. At times though, I thought the feel of the book tended to lean toward the "cops and robbers" aspects more than the horror side for my taste. The battles are well written but even with demons coming out of the woodwork, I had to remind myself of the supernatural elements. But even if I felt the two elements could have been mixed together a little better it doesn't take away the fact that the novel is a lot of fun and very original. Its best quality is found in the character of Roscoe. He is having quite a struggle remembering his past and when he does, it brings a out a nice back story to the plot. While there is a clear ending to the book, I understand there will be a sequel. I don't know if Roscoe will be the main character in the sequel but I hope we find out more about the rest of the gang and hopefully each will have their turn at the helm, so to speak. It's an intriguing motley crew and that will be what keeps this series enjoyable.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Short Fiction that doesn't quite connect

Dead Americans and Other Stories

By Ben Peek

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Australian writer Ben Peek writes very literary sci-fi/speculative fiction. These are the kind of stories that bear reading twice since what is happening with his prose may not be obvious the first time. It reminds me distinctly of R. A. Lafferty and Gene Wolfe's tricky little stories that catch you up in the prose so much it makes you wonder if you really "got it".

Unfortunately Peek is no Lafferty or Wolfe. While Wolfe and Lafferty pulls you in with their exquisite even intimate style, Peek's writings end up too academic, even cold. It's not that he isn't a good writer. He may be a great writer. But there is too much calculation, too much of a "See how good I am" feeling in his stories. In this way he reminds me of Michael Chabon in that he is such an excellent writer that he forgets to connect past the mind and into the heart.

Dead Americans and Other Stories consists of 10 short stories. They seem to be split between stories about a world with a red sun and "Dead Americans" tales which puts famous Americans into some fantastical situation. The "Red Sun" stories are the better of the two. Yet there appears to be Australian references that may hinder the enjoyment of non-Australian readers. Regardless, they are good stories that just don't rise above the ordinary. The "Dead American" tales seem experimental to the point that they are literary exercises more than stories to be read for either entertainment or revelation.

In a way, this is a hard one to rate. I appreciate the level of skill in these works. Yet ultimately a story needs to reach the reader and these pieces of fiction do not accomplish that. For that reason I can not rate this collection any higher than 2 stars.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Lethally funny!

Stalking You Now

By Jeff Strand

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Jeff Strand writes killer dialogue...pun intended. No, seriously. Strand is a great storyteller but his talent at writing tight, and in this case funny, dialogue slays me..also intended. Stalking You Now is not only a great example of his execution (cough!) of dialogue but also his ability to knock off (gag!) a frightfully funny suspense tale that doesn't leave the reader hanging (cough, cough) at the end. At 50 plus pages, it is either a long short story or a short novella, But either way it is just the right length to give you an hours worth of dark comedic entertainment. By the time it is terminated (cough!) and finished off (zap!) you will agree that it was not time wasted (ka-ching!).

Good. I got that out of my system.

So what is Stalking You Now about? Therein lies the problem. In 50  plus pages, a lot happens and there is one great little twist not too far into the story. So saying too much will ruin the ride. It is a story of revenge although whose doing the revenge and why may leave you pleasantly disoriented. The story begins as our revenge minded protagonist is stalking his victim. The author gets into the story running and doesn't let up. It's that dialog thing happening. There is also a another little twist involving a third character. Let's just say tables are turned often.

I've always enjoyed Strand's ability to find the humor is the darkest situations and this story is no exception. Good dark humor elicits laughs of the type that may make you feel guilty but...hell! It is only a story. So get this bargain priced Ebook (99 cents at the time of this posting)  and enjoy a few evil laughs at characters who may (or may not) end up deserving it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

An imaginative sci-fi horror novel


By Gary Fry

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Severed is a nice take on the zombie idea even if it isn't really a zombie novel. A strange virus takes hold of downtown London and literally severed the soul from the physical body. The disembodied part of the person rises to the sky and hovers with the other "ghosts" in a halo formation while the physical body is left on earth with impaired reason and randomly committing violence in zombie-like fashion. Or as Professor Stephen Hobbs, our somewhat unlikeable and relationally challenged protagonist would put it, their emotion becomes separated from their reason. While the leaders look to find the antidote to this disease, Stephen Hobbs is given the task to figure out what it is and find out how to reunite the divided part of the persons to a healthy whole while dealing with his own messed up life.

It's a brilliant idea and author Stephen Fry should be given credit for taking on what is probably a difficult plot to pull off. Asides from Professor Hobbs, we learn abut other characters in the danger zone and out. Most of them come together somewhere in that messed up relationship cycle I implied to earlier. And this becomes one of the biggest problems of what is essentially an very entertaining novel. The separate viewpoints fragment the action especially since most of them do not come together until late in the novel. It becomes a little annoying since we are really wondering what the hell those "ghosts" are doing up there. With the arguable exception of Hobbs, none of the characters really stand out. In a epic sized science fiction horror thriller like this, it is sometime best to focus on the idea rather than the characters and this may have been one of those times. But overall, the book is quite good and blends together a nice amount of psycho-philosophical meanderings with a sci-fi / horror hybrid. This is the second novel I've read by Fry and he is definitely one of the writers to watch for in this genre. Three and a half stars.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A killer way of getting rich

Eat What You Kill

By Ted Scofield

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In some strange way, The pychopathic stock analyst Evan Stoess in Ted Scofield's debut novel Eat What You Kill reminds me of Clyde Griffiths, the struggling lower class dupe from Theodore Dreiser's classic An American Tragedy. Both are from less than desirable circumstances, both are obsessed with joining the privileged class while that same group of people look down upon them, and both become so desperate they consider murder as a desirable option.

But that is where the similarities end. While Clyde Griffiths struggles in the war of the classes, he also believe that he will succeed as long as he works hard and wins the admirable of the upper class. His story is one of the separations of classes in America. Evan Stoess, on the other hand, is a child of the Millennium. He doesn't gives a damn about both class struggle or working hard. He hates the upper class as much as he wants to be them. The only thing he cares about is money. Greed is his disease and he thinks money is the only thing that cures it. He has memorized portions of Ayn Rand and has taken to heart her rants about the evils of altruism and the virtues of selfishness.

Unfortunately Evan is also a sociopath which turns this cynical yet droll financial thriller into a cross between American Tragedy and American Psycho. Though growing up poor, Evan received the advantage of an upper class education which reinforced his view of being an outsiders to the more affluent boys. After getting an entry level position in a Wall Street firm he looks for his big kill (financially at first) only to see it all slip away from him at the sudden death of the company's founder. He is fired and eventually finds a job with a company that deals in short stocks; investments that essentially make money on the failure on an enterprise. It isn't long before our sociopathic whiz kid is devising a way to revive his luck and make a killing, and we are no longer thinking purely financially now.

Ted Scofield have written a tight and always entertaining thriller about Wall Street, the finance profession and murder.. Don't let the finance part scare you as the author does a great job explaining what you need to know without stopping the plot or action. But the best thing about this novel is the main character Evan Stoess. He is as unlikable as a character can get but he is not boring. The reader can marvel as his audacity and wickedness but will stay on the edge in wondering if he is going to succeed or not. Note I didn't say "Root for". Evan is fascinating but he's hard to root for. The question then becomes; Does he get away with it or not? The answer is at the end and if it is not as satisfying an ending as I would have like, it doesn't deter from the fact that this novel is one hell of a ride. This is one of the more different thrillers that has arrived in 2014 and is set to get new novelist Ted Scofield off to a running start.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Masterpiece of mystery and suspense

Missing You

By Harlan Coben

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In my humble opinion, Harlan Coben is the Stephen King of mystery thrillers. He is able to take old mystery ideas, like King takes old horror themes, and give them new life, He does not ignore characterization. In fact, his characters' personality and problems never take second place to the plot. And like King, he has a casual easy flowing style that hides the fact that his prose is filled with literary goodness.

But while I always enjoyed his novels, something got in the way of my urge to sing his praises. Usually it was the plotting. He has a nice hand for presenting the plot at the beginning and grabbing the reader's attention. But at the end, it seems that there are just too many pat situations and suspend-your-beliefs moments. It just seems like a little too much coincidence and not enough "I should have seen that coming".

In Harlan Coben's newest novel, Missing You, he not only solves that hurdle but writes what may be his masterpiece. In a Goldilocks world of "Not enough", "Too much", "Just right",Missing You is a poster novel of "Just Right" showing a perfect combination of chance, conspiracy, and daring-do; the things that makes a mystery novel live. Kat is a police officer who is too involved in her job. Add to that the fact that her father's killer is dying in prison and she is obsessed with finding out why he killed her father and if he killed him at all. Her best friend, in an attempt to get Kat out and socializing a bit, buys her a membership in a computer dating site. Kat is not impressed but gives it a shot, until she find her fiancee Jeff, who dumped her 18 years ago, on the site. When she contacts him he first acts like he doesn't know her and when she tells him who she is, he cuts contact with her. This would be simply annoying if not that a boy she never seen before comes to her precinct and asks her to find his mother...who disappears while she was corresponding with Jeff on the dating site.

That's a lot of information for the first few chapters and I haven't even told you about the man trapped in a box underground. But this is the strength of the author. He can effortlessly bring together enough ideas that would fill three books by anyone else. But in Missing You, he keeps it going with a string of events and psychological connections that stay believable until the tricky but effective ending. If I was teaching a class in tying together multiple ideas and plot lines, this book would be exhibit A. It doesn't hurt to have a troubled but resourceful protagonist and a wickedly evil villain. Kat is a believable heroine who flaws are noticeable along with her wisdom. One of the best things for me in the novel is the elusive character of her ex-fiancee Jeff. He is purposefully posed as an enigma during most of Coven's brilliant storytelling. We do not know who he really is, although we are given some very disturbing possibilities and a nice jolt at the end when we discover what is really going on.

If you read mysteries at all, this is a must read. It is one of the best mystery thrillers I have ever read and a big contender for best novel of the year. Go for it.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Excellent mini-collection of mystery short fiction.


By Jan Burke

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Short fiction mysteries seem to be a vanishing species. Back in my younger days, There were a number of short fiction magazines that specialized in mysteries and detective stories. The most popular ones were Ellery Queen's, Alfred Hitchcock's, and Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazines. Mike Shayne's was basically hard-nose detective tales, Ellery Queen's was a combination of usually more civilized detective stories and similar who-dun-its, while Alfred Hitchcock's went in for suspense mysteries usually with a twist at the end. Yet the heyday of mystery short tales have been over for a decade or two and, while there may still be some esoteric indie magazines out there, I have rarely seen a short tale of mystery in today's choice of reading materials.

Which is why I was intrigued to see this short 100 plus page Kindle book of fiction by Jan Burke who is best known for her novels featuring investigating reporter Irene Kelly. This is especially appreciated at the bargain price of $1.99. This short book of stories features one original story in the Irene Kelly canon, "Unacknowledged" and three other short tales which were previously released in her older collection, 18. Any of these stories would feel quite comfortable in either Ellery Queen's or Alfred Hitchcock. They have an old fashioned charm in which the guilty is always discovered and the violence tends to be off-screen so to speak.

"Unacknowledged", as mentioned, features Irene Kelly but is set back in her college days. It is the more gentler, sweeter tale of the bunch proving that even mystery writers can have a soft side. "Why Tonight" is a tighter tale in which a wife wonders about her husband's death...and so does the local sheriff. "A Fine Set of Teeth" is my favorite partly because I like stories about musicians and I enjoyed the corny musician jokes interspersed throughout. (Q: How can you tell if a stage is level? A: The bass player is drooling out of both sides of his mouth) But the last story titled "A Man of My Stature" may be the best. It would be a gem in any detective magazine, especially Alfred Hitchcock's, and is reminiscent of Roald Dahl's twisty little crime caper stories.

So I am glad to know someone out there is still writing good mystery short fiction. If you are primed to read a few tales, this would be a good book to get. It would make for some good evening reading; the kind that involves an easy chair, a pipe, and a dog curled up next to the fireplace.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Mystery and dysfunction in the Ozarks.

The Weight of Blood

By Laura McHugh

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Laura McHugh's powerful novel is being compared to those of Gillian Flynn and Daniel Woodrell. McHugh uses the same rural Ozark environment as Woodrell. If it isn't as depressingly steeped in meth and nihilism as Woodrell, it isn't for lack of trying. But McHugh's writing style clings more to the dysfunctional lifestyle narrations of Gillian Flynn. She even uses a alternating first person narrative as seen in Gone Girl at least for the first third of it when she then spices it up with other characters' viewpoint giving us new glimpses in a mysterious and harrowing tale.

But that is where McHugh leaves the two writers and goes off on her own original tale. Seventeen years old Lucy's best friend's body is discovered and appears to have been murdered. It evokes strong feeling in Lucy not just for her friends but for her mother who disappeared shorty after her birth. Lucy begins an investigation into her friend's death while she also tries to find out more about her mother's mysterious disappearance. In alternating chapters, we hears Lucy's mother Lila's tale which starts eighteen years previously and before Lucy is born. The story is dark but not so dark that there are not noble characters and honest emotions in it. It is a tale of family secrets with plenty of twists and turn for the mystery fan but a also a novel where family interaction may be dysfunctional but are truly felt. Lucy is a very strong protagonist whose bond with her friend, who is more of a local misfit than she is, becomes a strong catalyst and makes Lucy the most endearing person in the book. My only complain is that some of the interaction of the brothers, Lucy's father and uncle, seem forced. I felt that Carl was a little too loyal to Crete, enough so to stretch plot credibility. But it is a minor complain considering how well the plot moves and how well the author weaves in the various narrations to make a coherent and exhilarating whole. Recommended.

Friday, March 14, 2014

One of Philip K Dick's strangest novels.

A Maze of Death

By Philip K. Dick

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

A Maze of Death is one of Philip K. Dick's most aggravating books. It is almost unbearably dark and loaded with insensitive protagonists who often act like spoiled brats. And just as you think you figured it out, it becomes even more nihilistic and disorganized.

It is also one of Dick's best novels.

It starts out like a science fiction version of a horror novel where the characters are sure to get picked off. I kept thinking about Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None for it has a similar idea. A group of strangers end up on an island planet not knowing the reason they are there and are put in a situation that may mean death for some or all. But this is Philip K. Dick, so nothing is as it seems. In many ways this is a transitional work in which the author's Gnostic interests start to dominate his writings. In the book, Gods exist as a perceived reality, prayers are sent electronically and people live by their bible titled How I Rose From the Dead in My Spare Time and So can You. It is also one of Dicks' few works that explores the idea of death in detail. Freud's Death Instinct hovers throughout this nihilistic work. Yet I found this story totally engaging as it wobbles into the end where the strange and selfish reactions of our usually dislikeable characters actually make sense. This is clearly not the Dick novel to start with. But if you already read some quality works of his like Man in the High Castle and A Scanner Darkly you just may like where this morose novel takes you. I'm rating it four and a half stars only because I feel I have to compare it to Dick's masterpieces such as the two already mentioned. As I said, it is a transitional work.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Not quite the pits but...

Marrow's Pit

By Keith Deininger

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Marrow's Pit is another book from DarkFuse's novella series. It is a dark 1984-type story taking place in a world where all serve The Machine. Their world is an inhospitable one where they exist serving and worshiping a mechanical contraption whose origin is never quite clear. Our main protagonist is an unhappy man with doubts and resentment that are only increased by his nagging wife. It's a story holding a lot of promise but with a disappointing delivery. Ballard, our protagonist, is a hard man not just to like but to feel any sympathy for. He makes a severe mistake and stupid responses early on and it is difficult to really care about it. We are left waiting for him to leave the relative safety of the Machine yet by the time he does, it become clear that not much is going to come out of it. The novella had the feel of an over-serious Twilight Zone episode with a predictable build-up and a unsatisfactory pay-off. I would call the book mostly dark Sci-Fi but with a touch of psychological thriller in it. Unfortunately there is not enough of one thing to pull in the reader and immerse them into really experiencing the tale. This is the first of Darkfuse's novellas that left me cold. But hopefully something will come up that leads me to read more of Keith Deininger's work because he does have a firm talent, just the wrong idea to display it with.

"Oh Myyy!" indeed!

Oh Myyy! (There Goes The Internet): Life, the Internet and Everything

By George Takei

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It was 1988. My date and I went to see a popular Japanese film, A Taxing Woman's Return, at the Royal Theater in Westwood. It was a weeknight and the theater was almost empty. Then a group of people came in and sat about four rows in front of us. My date grabbed my arm and said, "Isn't that the guy that plays Sulu in Star Trek?" Yes, it was. But I was not looking at him. I was staring at a woman who was with his party. She was, simply put, the most beautiful woman I have ever seen and ever hope to see. She was a tall slim Asian beauty with long flowing hair. On a scale of 1 to 10, she was a 153. My date looked at me weirdly, probably because I was drooling. It didn't take her long to realize that I was not looking at Mr. Takei.

"Beautiful, Isn't she" She said in a voice that, translated, meant, "You're not getting any tonight".

I tried to tell her that line every man knows to use. "Yes, but you're prettier." Unfortunately it came out something like, "Mmmmm. gadda dummgh mutter DROOOOOOOOOL!"

The date didn't go too well after that. But I never forgot the fleeting glimpse of that gorgeous woman and thinking, "GOD! That Takei guy is lucky."

Little did I know...

Now it is 2014. George Takei is no longer just the guy that played Sulu but an established actor of TV, film and stage. He is a respected gay activist and clever observer of human nature. He also has one of the most popular and followed pages on Facebook.

So what does this all have to do with that moment in 1988? The internet was in its infancy and I am fairly sure the "World Wide Web" was not yet in least not yet publicly. What we knew about public figures in the 80s is what they chose to show us in public and in the media or what gossip columnists chose to tell us or make up. There were paparazzi but I'm pretty sure they have not yet reached the frenzy of today's culture. And there was, for everyone, a sense of privacy and choice to what you presented. Perhaps there was less tolerance for some behaviors but, for better or worse, there was a feeling that you could keep your public mask on no matter who you were...and you knew when to do it.

Then came the interest. Then Facebook. With it came a loss of privacy. "But Marvin," You say. "I haven't lost any privacy. I can still choose what I share and what I won't share. " Can you? That's just what the internet wants you to believe. The momentary illusion of fame or infamy can be very addictive even if you are only sharing it with 450 of your closest friends of which 75% you never met. Do you really think people want to know that you drank your first chocolate beer yesterday, or that you love Grumpy Cat. Do you really think they want to hear about the weird pick-up date you experienced last week in all its embarrassing details. When you think of it, it is really kind of scary what we will share on-line for the want of a few "likes". You know. Things like drooling over a stranger you glimpsed at for maybe 3 minutes 24 years ago. Facebook can be a exhilarating ride but it can be rude, embarrassing, and sometimes dangerous for those who are not knowledgeable with its risks to enjoy the ride.

George Takei discovered social networking in his 70s, first on Twitter then on Facebook. He discusses his virtual adventures in social networking in the pages of Oh Myyy! (There goes The Internet): Life, The Internet and Everything. His forays into the internet starts out as cautious and tenuous but soon he is not only social networking like a teen but getting a huge following. Takei's casual but droll style makes this book a delight to read. It is a joyful look at someone who, despite a few jolts and prat falls, got it right and is enjoying the harvest of his sharing. He intersperses the book with popular memes that illustrate various aspects of Facebook or incidents that happened during his networking. It can be funny but there is a lot of wisdom through this book on the social aspects of our virtual life. For anyone who is new to Facebook, it can serve as a primer on what to do and what not to do when you make your way around this virtual community. The author also ends up delving into a number of social issues, not the least Marriage Equality. And of course there are plenty of nerd jokes and insider laughs regarding Star Trek and the full range of Sci-Fi geekdom.

I have followed Mr. Takei's Facebook page for a while now. I like the way he know how far to take things, letting us into his life and his mind but knowing where to set the limits. His book does the same yet you can not help but feel you have spent the time with a very interesting man who knows how to make you laugh and feel good. So if I ever meet Mr. Takei I will go up to him, shake his hands and ask, "Do you still have the number of that girl you were with?"

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Creepy crawlies times a thousand.


By Tim Curran

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you like horror novels with non-stop action and descriptions that will give you nightmares, then Tim Curran's Nightcrawlers is for you. This is the first book I have read by Curran and, if this is an accurate representation of his talents, he is bound to be a major name in the fields. Nightcrawlers read like a Lovecraft tribute except that the actual Cthulhu Mythos isn't really used by the novel except as a fleeting reference to a character's knowledge of the horror sub-genre. Yet the book does bear a eerie similarity to Lovecraft's "The Colour out of Space". However, That similarity is slight and the story becomes Curran's own unique take on the idea. In Nightcrawlers, A plethora of corpse are unearthed by a bulldozer. At the same time, an officer is reported missing with his partner telling a terrifying account of what happened. Lead officer and out-of-towner Kenney starts to look for the missing officer, soon to be plural, and he start to uncover a secret that the town of Haymarket is terrified to reveal.

For the most part, Nightcrawler is all action. The only time it lets up is when Kenney researches past stories and the writer shares the antidotes with us. While it is essential to the story, it is the only part of the book that bogs down the telling slightly. But no matter. soon we return to the excitement. But what is special about Curran's story telling is that he is excellent at merging the action with descriptions and thoughts that let us know what may be happening. I just love the grotesque and almost psychedelic descriptions. One may fault him for having less developed characters but this may be one of those novels where three dimensional protagonists would actually reduce the effect.

However you look at it, Nightcrawlers emerges as a contender for best horror novel for 2014. If you don't mind a few sleepless nights, I highly recommend it.