Wednesday, June 25, 2014

An open Letter to the author



By Jeff Strand


Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

An open letter to Jeff Strand

Dear Mr. Strand.

I have admired your novels and short stories for quite a while. I enjoy the way you can instill humor without reducing the elements of suspense and horror in your works. I enjoy the snappy but realistic dialogue. I've also noticed that for the most part your stories could be described as fiction for men. They tend to be suitable for those of us who crave the more, dare I say, macho tendencies in our literary heroes and villains. With a little gratuitous editing, I daresay some of your stories wouldn’t be all that out of place in those exploitative men adventure magazines of the past (“I was Mata Hari’s Love Slave!!”). Agree or not, you do seem to hit on those themes that men appreciate such as thug bromances (Wolf Hunt) and fickled femme fatales (Stalking You Now).

So when you offered an advanced reader copy of Kumquat to your fans before it was released publicly on July First, I was happy to stand in the virtual line and get my copy with the intent of reading it with lurid delight.

You wrote a goddamn romance.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong generically with romances. But do I look like my name is Mildred? Do I sit around and knit booties for real or imaginary grandkids? Do I look like I have 40 cats? Is my favorite dark humor writer turning into Danielle Friggin’ Steele?

You wrote a motherf---king romance! Admittedly a funny one but still a MOTHERF---KING ROMANCE!

But after the initial shock, I actually started to get into it. The main character may be younger than me but I really understood where he was coming from. He is a bit of a slacker but he is also looking for that elusive spark in life that we all want. The spark that often comes from someone we feel connected to. The kind of person that understands us even while collectively enduring the strange pitfalls that the imperfect world throws at us. And there are plenty of those pitfalls in this novel.

So Todd meets a girl. Amy, to be precise. There is a defining moment early on which I won’t give away and then there’s a road trip. Yes, a road trip! Now you got me. Road trips are macho and cool. But it’s also the type of plot twist that allows you to develop the two characters with plenty of clever dialogue and lots of funny situations that do not feel like they are just being tagged on. I loved the way that each strange episode tells us more about Todd and Amy. Now I'm loving both Todd and Amy and especially their various reactions to those “Shit Happens” moments. Unlike most romantic minded novels, Amy and Todd always seem very real and very vulnerable. And I really got into it. There was one particular point about two-third of the way through that I found myself verbalizing, "Oh Shit NO!" while reading it. Since I was waiting in the dentist office, it was a little embarrassing!

So what do we have in your different but hilarious romance novel. We still have that jaw-dropping dialog although a little toned down to fit the genre. We have cute meet, bomb dropped, a quest, a more self-defining quest, and finally...Nope...No giving away the ending. Of course, Jeff, you know what it is but all those nosy people reading this do not. I’ll just tell them to have their handkerchiefs ready. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I will let the readers find out for themselves.

So, Jeff. Thanks for letting me read and review this book. Thanks for writing an smart, sometimes smart-ass, comedy romance that doesn’t condescend to its reader and one that gives us male dudes a semi-healthy model in the romance division. Kumquat may be one of the best books you have ever written. But don’t retire the dark comedy horror novels, OK? At least, not quite yet. Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel can prop up the romance market a little longer without you.

P.S. If you haven’t already, you really need to write Exit Red and sell it to the studios. I would watch it every week!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Satire with a vicious streak


By Garrett Cook

Publisher: MorbidbookS. Everything Bleeds

Pub. Date: January 20, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Envision a world that reveres serial killers and treat them like rock stars. Would the dissenter be considered the true psychopath?

This was only one of the questions that came to mind while reading Garret Cook's dystopic, very violent, and gloriously bizarre Murderland. In Murderland, Jeremy Jenkins is a pharmacist living in a world that worships serial killers. Fans and groupies call themselves names like Bundy Girls and Ripkids, wallow in a culture called Reap and hangs out at a Reap bar named Murderland. The government more than tolerates it creating Safe Zones where killer celebrities can hide in relative safety. The superstar of the psychopathic murderers has his own TV show. Even though the love of Jeremy's life Cass is caught up in the fandom, he sees a bigger threat; robotic like "demons" controlling people and getting girls pregnant. Jeremy sees these creatures as in league with the entire Reap culture.

I don't think it is a spoiler to say Jeremy has major issues of his own. But who would be crazier? A psychopathic society or a psychopathic murderer committed to taking down that society. The author is taking on a big task in this novel. It is foremost a horrific satire examining our society's cultural obsession with the media, our worship of pop idols and the exploitation of violence. There is more than a little anarchic playfulness amongst the terror and violence. Yet Cook throws in a love story (Cass isn't all that together neither) and manages to keep the action flowing throughout the story. But here is where we get into a few problems. The first part of the novel reads like a bizarro American Psycho in which the emphasis is on the two narrations; Jeremy's and the voice in Jeremy's head. Then the author adds the narrative of Cass which changes the focus. I missed the tension of Jeremy's conflict as he questions his sanity. This part is lost to a certain extent and doesn't come back until later in the book. In fact, the alternating of the three narrations can become a bit confusing. Plus the task of balancing a love story, socio-political satire and a straight-out horror action tale became sometimes a little precarious and I wondered occasionally if the author was taking too much on in one story.

Yet there is more right than wrong here. If I was thrown a little by the middle, the author does manage to pull all parts together in a solid and definitive ending. Despite some issues, Murderland is the work of a young but brave writer who isn't afraid to take on the societal big guns with his pen...or word processor or typewriter or computer or whatever those cheeky little author bastards are using nowadays. Murderland is an exciting but insightful novel and if it isn't totally perfect, it is causing that copy of Garret Cook's Time Pimp sitting on my desk to scream at me, "READ ME, DAMMIT!"

Friday, June 20, 2014

I arrived at the library...

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

By Italo Calvino

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out  of 5 stars

I will occasionally be posting reviews that I've written of older classic works. Most of these reviews were previously posted on Goodreads. Some of them are analytical while others are written solely for the purpose of entertaining, like the one below. I will be calling these reviews Classic Flashbacks and they will appear once or twice a month. I hope you enjoy them.

Classic Flashback #1

I arrived at the library with my two books in hand. As I plunked them down on the check-in counter, a thin matronly woman approached.

"Would you like to check these books in?"

"Yes I would but I would also like to..."

"Oh, I see you read If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino."

"Yes I did. Have you read it too?"

"On starting the first few pages, you were put off by what appears to be a artistic gimmick."

"Why yes a little. but..."

"You soon realized that the author was trying to involve you in his dadaist alternate reality by connecting to the only reality the author and reader have in common. The world of words and symbolism."

"Well, I'm not sure I saw it that way. But now that you mention it..."

"The book caused you to not only suspend disbelief but examine your own concepts of what is means to immerse yourself in literature"

"Actually I just want to check these books in..."

"It is unlike anything you have ever read before. Even unlike anything Calvino has written before. But he tells you that in the first three pages. For the unique part of the novel is that Calvino holds nothing back about the mechanics of his literary mind."

"OK, this is getting a little weird."

"It makes you wonder. Is there any reality except for that which we perceive through our imagination?"

"This is getting a lot weird. Would you please.."

"How do you know that we are not actually in a novel this very moment?"

"OK, Stop that"

"Or maybe we are in a review of a novel"


"Or a figment of someone's web page"


I grabbed a pen off the counter, leaped up, and rammed the pen through her forehead, stabbing her several times. None of the other people seemed to notice except an old man busy in his reading who pointed to the "Quiet" sign and made a hushing sound. After making sure she was quite dead I dragged her into the Mystery section which I felt was as good a place as any to leave a corpse. I had just returned to the counter when another woman came out from the back.

"That's funny. I was sure Mrs. Peachtree was manning the desk. Well, never mind. How can I help you?"

"I would like to return these two books"

"Why of course. Did you want to renew your loan on either book?"

"If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, no. But on Crime and Punishment, yes."

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Horror and poetry made weird

The Horror Show

By Vincenzo Bilof


Publisher: Bizarro Pulp Press 

Pub. Date: September 10, 2013

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Here is the bare bones plot: A Nobel prize winning poet and his family has been missing for a while. The poet wanders dark streets and is friended only by a psychiatrist and a woman named Lorraine. The poet may have a murderous past and shows the symptoms of a severe psychosis. The doctor is caring for him but possibly has sinister motives himself. As the doctor delves deeper into the mind, the poet becomes more fragmented and dangerous.

But it is not the plot that is important when reading The Horror Show by Vincenzo Bilof. The author has created a novel in the form of a poetry collection. This is not the first time I’ve read a poetic horror novel. Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth uses free verse to tell its tale but it is fairly straightforward in its narration. The Horror Show is more of a conceptual experience. When I first started the book I went to my usual first instinct with poetry and read a few at random before reading it from start to finish. The poems work amazingly well this way but I don’t think this is how the author meant for them to be read. They are best read from beginning to end as you would a novel. Considering the emotional power of the poems when taken as a group I would recommend reading them one after the other in long sessions, if not all at once, to get the feel of the narration in this unsettling book. In fact, it is best not to try to follow the plot but to let the poems take you into whatever feelings that are elicited. In other words, go with the flow. This may be one of those very few novels where style successfully trumps plot. Bilof seems to be intentionally disorienting the reader and telling them that not even the pages of this book is necessarily a safe place for your mind. Some of the adjectives that came to mind while reading these uncomfortably beautiful poems included “psychedelic”, “creepy”, and “exquisitely psychotic”. It should also be noted that the author doesn’t flinch on the violence and gore. This is first and foremost a horror novel and a fairly extreme one at that.

Bilof’s conceptual experiment does not dilute the power and terror of its story. The three main characters come out quite real and developed considering they are immersed in poetry full of fragmented imagery and their thoughts expressed in a stream of consciousness. Inner thoughts and external reality become entwined adding to the reader’s feelings of confusion and terror, not unlike the ones our literary protagonists are experiencing. This is the type of novel that may not appeal to those who like their scares external and well explained, presented in a straight narration, and then safely tucked in at night. But if you like poetry and do not mind being dragged around in a literary soup of angst and dread then Bilof may have written your kind of nightmare.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A strange and troubling tale


By Gary Fry

Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub. Date: June 10, 2014

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Gary Fry is one of the more interesting new horror writers to grace the literary scene. While his stories have the expected creepy and dark going-ons, he seems to be more interested in exploring the psychological aspects of the protagonists in his tales. In Savage, another book in the Darkfuse novella series, we have a stodgy professor who is obsessed with his work to the point of neglecting himself and the people around him. He buries himself in a sense of eliteness and the delusion of being "disciplined" That word crops up a lot in this story as well does the theme of the futility of feeling in control. He becomes lost and out of gas in an unknown area and stumbles onto a small village. The environment and the village is one of the best things in this book. It has an eeriness is quite unusual for even this type of work. The way Fry describes the natural surroundings is fascinating . For lack of a better description. Think Colour Out of Space as designed by Picasso. The villagers are of course strange but it is the professor that captures the reader's attention. Fry had a similar emotionally stunted and selfish professor type in his novel Severed. Yet the professor in Savage appears to be even more out of tune with his life. This becomes important as he is asked to "fix" one of the villagers and instead is thrown into a struggle of life and death.

It is a story with a lot of promise but once we learn about what or whom he is asked to help, it begins to become less focused. It turns into part creepy horror fantasy and part murder mystery. It doesn't feel right even if Fry's writing is so good you have to keep reading to find out what happens. The author shrouds the village and its residents in an endless mystery and I wanted a bit more resolution. The turn near the end when the professor leaves the village didn't quite work for me. And I am not sure what our selfish professor got out of it except confused. It started out as an exciting tale of mysterious happenings and ended with a whimper.

Yet I liked the novel in the sense that, through the beginning and middle, the author grabbed me up in that sense of wonder and dread that horror stories should. Fry is a author of horror that is not afraid to be different and I do like the care he puts into his protagonists. While this may not be his best work, it is still a work of a promising writer.

Friday, June 6, 2014

A solid mix of suspense and horror

The First One You Expect

By Adam Cesare

Publisher: Broken River Books 

Pub Date: February 1, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I like reading younger writers; Those that are still fine tuning their art and hustling the genre magazines to find an audience. It is in these young authors that we find the real innovators, the ones that aren't afraid to stretch the boundaries. I have always kept my eyes open for the "new thing" in suspense and horror. What that "new thing" is I rarely know exactly but it is usually from the writer that is not afraid to break a few taboo minded eggs along the way. Yet it is also a writer steeped in the tradition and knows that real innovation is built on the foundations of the masters.

Adam Cesare seems to be one of those writers. His barely-a-novella (between 80 to 100 pages) The First One you Expect has the type of grittiness that you might find in a Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine But then there's that plot. The author not only gives us a modern plot steeped in the world of basement budget indie movie-making and Kickstarter campaigning but a plot that might send Mickey Spillane looking for a barf bag.

The plot centers around a wanna-be horror movie directer named Tony who lives with his mom and makes very low-budget, cheap effects films that caters to a small group of blood and gore aficionados. It's the on-the-edge group of movie makers and fans that seem not too far away from confusing fantasy with reality. in other words, "the first ones you expect". The cheapish videos feature his movie-making partner and friend Burt who played a serial killer called The Debaser. They muddle along fairly well between their passion and their day jobs until Tony meets Anna, a fame hungry wanna-be actress that holds a strange attraction to Tony and takes his movie making abilities to areas that he would rather not go. Anna is written with just the right amount of sexiness and craziness that we like her and are ready to see where the writer is taking her...and us. When we get to the middle of the novella, we find out. It may not be totally unexpected but Cesare writes it so wel we can't avoid having our nerves jerked around a bit and maybe seeing if Mickey Spillane left the barf bags in grabbing distance. It's a great scene. But it is so good that the aftermath feels a little tame and drags slightly. Tag on a too sudden ending and I end up thinking I read a fantastic half of a story. However, it is such a fantastic half that it manages to carry the tale and stay in my mind for a while to come.

The First One You Expect is a bit of a hybrid between suspense and horror. It also fits firmly into the splatter-punk sub-genre. Splatter-punk appears to be a niche that the author excels at based on this brief novel. Even with my reservations on the end, this was a fine introduction to an author who has the promise of unnerving readers for a long time in the future.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A coming-of-age horror novel

Boot Boys of the Wolf Reich

By David Agranoff


Publisher: Deadite Press

Pub. Date: March 9, 2014

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

David Agranoff's gem of a coming-of-age novel may not get the attention it deserve. You can blame that on the title and the cover. Now don't get me wrong. I love the title and the cover art. That catchy title, Boot Boys of the Wolf Reich clearly communicates the promise that we are going to get our share of Nazis and werewolves. Plus the cover by Matthew Revert is a brilliant takeoff on the 60s grind-house exploitation films that thrived on  plots that featured lurid topics like monsters and Nazis. How can you not like a blurb that shouts "PUNKS VS NAZI MONSTERS FROM THE DEPTH OF HELL!" and "Fanged beasts who crave worldwide domination"? Yet it hides the fact that the author, while eventually rewarding us with plenty of violence and horror, has crafted a circa 80s coming of age novel which explores a slice of life that has been ignored for the most part in literature.

Paul and his parents have moved into the city. His ex-hippie parents tolerate his skinhead lifestyle and Paul is out to meet some new friends into the same things. He finds some like-minded people, not to mention a girl friend, but also discovers there is plenty of tension between his SHARP buddies and a local white supremacist skinhead group. Switch focus to former Auschwitz commander Klaus Schroeder who is in exile but ready to revive the glories of the Third Reich. In his possession are dark secrets that will be irresistible to Nazi skinheads yearning for recognition, power and acceptance.

Yet it takes more than half of the book to really get into the Nazi werewolves. Instead, we get something more inspired. We follow Paul on his rite of passage in his group which, unlike the Nazi skinheads, believe in racial acceptance. They are SHARPS which stand for "Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice".  Agranoff writes about what he knows and does it with knowledge and compassion. Most of his older readers, like me, will probably have the common misconception of punks and skinheads in the late 80s as racially bigoted. I had to look up the definition of "SHARP" and "Straight Edge". But the author is not necessarily writing to us. He is writing for his generation which already knows this. Regardless, he writes about them well, illustrating that they had the same types of doubts and peer issues that permeate all cultures. Paul's mix race ex-hippie ex-militant parents seem like all parents; concerned and puzzled over their children's choices yet reluctant to admit that their own choices as teens were not necessary sensible either. But I did wonder how many readers of the author's generation had to look up who Fred Hampton was!

The author does a nice job describing and building the tension between the two factions of skinheads and this is what fuels the arrival of Klaus and his dark secrets. It is to the author's credit how well he merges the coming-of-age plot and the lurid pleasure of Nazi monster terror without ever losing the original themes. There are some good characterizations here especially with the white supremacist skinhead Sonny whose desires and doubts become realistically conflicted.

This is an exceptional short novel that delivers on its promise of horror but delves into bigger issues by someone who understand the generation it speaks to. I recommend this book to all lovers of horror fiction regardless of age. The hardcore horror reader will not be disappointed. But I would also advise the prospective reader to come for the Nazi werewolves but stay for the social and family themes. Thoughtful horror fiction like this is getting increasingly difficult to come by.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

How did Christopher Moore's Fluke come about?


By Christopher Moore


Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

An old review from Goodreads worth re-posting:

After completing Fluke, I started to envision this fantasy scenario on how the novel came to be...

Book Publisher: Thank you for coming in today, Mr. Moore. I wanted to discuss the manuscript you sent us.

Christopher Moore: Yes, of course. The Song Cycles and Migratory Habits of Whales. Did you like it?

BP: Well, liking it isn't really the point. It's about whales.

CM: And?

BP. No. I mean...It's really about whales. It's non fiction. Unfunny non-fiction.

CM: But that's my point! Everybody expects me to be funny all the time. I'm so funny people do not realize how much research I do on my topics. I have a serious side. I want to inform, to research, to make a serious contribution to society!

BP. But...your contract specifies a novel... a funny novel. I'm not sure people are ready for Christopher Moore the oceanographer. Isn't there some way you can change it. Put in a plot? Make it funny? Perhaps add a Rastafarian wanna-be and a crazy lady millionaire?

CM: I'll see what I can do.

Three weeks later:

BP: I just read your new draft. I'm glad you changed the title. I must say it is really funny.

CM: So what did you like about it?

BP: I loved the Rastafarian wanna-be. And I loved the sci-fi elements. That's a little different than your previous works. I have to hand it to you. I not only laughed a lot but I learned a lot about whales. Your research really is impressive.

CM: Thank you.

BP: And I loved that gotcha moment at the beginning where the marine biologist sees "Bite Me" written on the tail of the whale.

CM: I'm glad, because you were my inspiration for that part.

BP. Why, Than...Oh.

CM: Now, lets talk about my new manuscript that I sent you recently. A Concise History of European Impressionist Artists and Their Models

BP: Uh...Yeah...I wanted to talk to you about that...

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A summer read with beach monsters.

The Montauk Monster

By Hunter Shea

Publisher: Pinnacle

Pub. Date: June 3, 2014

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The Montauk Monster is a solid monster novel of the conspiratorial type. Strange killer beast. Contagious epidemic. Mysterious island with military lab. It's all there and it is very entertaining even if it seems on the verge of creating a severe epidemic of Deja Vu.

Hunter Shea's novel is inspired by an real-life concurrence on a beach near Montauk, New York in July of 2008, The body of a strange creature was found that, depending on who you believe, was either the rotting corpse of a raccoon or a previously unknown creature of the creepy variety. The corpse was lost (why do people keep losing these weird bodies?) and the controversy continues. In Shea's novel, we have a similar creature which is now alive, very deadly and the carrier of a vicious disease that reacts like a cross between Ebola and a grenade. It's a somewhat gruesome novel with scary creatures and lots of thrills.

Yet it all seem a bit familiar even if the author's monsters have some unique capacities. We have as the setting, a small resort town with two or three main characters returning in between episodes involving other unfortunate townspeople. There is a lot of switching back and forth to various characters often in the middle of action. The problem is that the reader can never latch on to one focus.  We never really have the time to empathize with any one character. The fast switch of venue and plot that we are so familiar with in the modern TV drama is not necessarily the best literary device. No one character is given room for development. So even with a clever plot, a deliciously vicious monster, and a disturbingly gruesome virus, we end up with a somewhat formula driven novel. There is certainly plenty in this book to keep the reader clued to their seat and Hunter Shea is a good storyteller. Yet I wanted more to involve me, such as real protagonists. Also, while mad doctors and government conspiracies will always hang out in horror novels, it takes a special hand to make them seem new and refreshing. The Montauk Monster is actually a little old fashioned in plot, theme and environment despite an excessive amount of contemporary violence and gore.

Yet it is still an exciting novel and just in time for the beach, where this summer read really belongs. Just watch out for those weird looking dog-like creatures coming out of the surf.