Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A solid mystery about school shootings

The Competition

By Marcia Clark

Publisher: Mulholland Books 

Pub. Dat: July 8, 2014

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars.

The Competition is a solid mystery novel that is better than I anticipated. The phenomena of celebrity lawyers becoming novelists is nothing unusual but I daresay it evokes a certain amount of skepticism in the average mystery reader. I certainly had that my doubts when I received this novel to review. Marcia Clark is mainly known as the lawyer that prosecuted O.J. Simpson. Little did I know she wrote three books before The Competition, all involving a district attorney by the name of Rachel Knight. But I ended up pleasantly surprised and if it didn't soar above the heavy competition in the mystery field, it did present itself as an intelligent and thoroughly intriguing mystery novel.

In The Competition, Rachel Knight and her homicide detective friend Bailey Keller investigates a shooting at a San Fernando Valley high school. The crime bears some resemblance to Columbine and it appears that, like Columbine, the two shooters killed themselves. Yet it soon becomes clear that this may not be the case. From there on, it is a cavalcade of rapid investigations, interviews with unreliable witnesses, and lots of red herrings as they try to prevent the next inevitable tragedy and hopefully figure out what is really happening. Not surprisingly, Clark provides a nice level of realism to her story of a homicide investigation. A little more surprisingly, is that Clark seems more involved with the detective side than the prosecutorial aspects. The book focuses solely on the investigation; a little disappointingly for me since there is no courtroom suspense scene as I may have suspected considering her profession. But this is not a criticism. Clark as a writer seems totally at ease in the field, so to speak.

It's an entertaining novel with a charismatic character in Rachel Knight. While there are 3 books before this, it is entirely standalone with needed information from the other 3 books deftly managed and inserted. It has a bit of a ICU / Law and Order feel that I enjoy. Overall, it is a solid whodunnit that deals sensitively with a hot topic. Now that she has quit her day job, Clark appears to be a new and refreshing voice in a crowded literary genre. Three and a half stars.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A most unusual apocalypse

Glorious Plague


By Karen Heuler


Publisher: Permuted Press 

Pub. Date: November 26, 2013

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I believe Karen Heuler's Glorious Plague, at least at the beginning of her strange and thoughtful novel, just may depict the happiest apocalypse in literary history. The victims climb up to the highest point they can find and sing inspirational songs in rhapsodic feelings of bliss. Unfortunately they also die so all is not roses and puppies.

Dale is collecting livestock feed samples for her government work when she first starts noticing the strange and deadly behavior mentioned above. She and Omar, an entomologist, may have an idea to why this illness is spreading but her research is interrupted when her daughter Hallie become missing. She goes to New York City to search for her and finds there are few survivors, a general loss of direction by all who are left, and a few suspiciously eager to take a leader's role. Add on to the apocalypse scenario the appearance of angels in the sky, Jesus dragging a cross through the streets, and the elephant god Ganesh running for mayor and you have a very odd situation indeed. The question that crops up is: Are these events reality or does the plague virus still have a hold on them?

The author has accomplished a rather quiet take on the apocalypse. That is not to say there are not some very disturbing moments in her book. However, she is directing the narrative from the eyes of the protagonists and many of these odd occurrences look very normal to them. Heuler does a great job in communicating that perspective. I would call this an example of magical realism in any other novel but the author's style is best described as speculative or science fiction rather than horror or fantasy. There are a number of various perspectives and interpretations as the author moves from one character to another. But I found it a bit annoying as they seem to switch whenever I start hoping for some resolution to the character's dilemma. But that is not a criticism as Heuler doesn't seem to be interested in resolution but rather in an examination of how we perceive reality, especially in the way that reality is shaped by our religious perspectives. The question of what shapes our view of life is never too far away and it is fascinating to read the subtle way Heuler addresses the issue.

But in the long run, I still wanted to see a little more resolution in the plot process. There is a very open ended conclusion typical of the type that signals a sequel that i found unfortunate. While i enjoyed the ride I didn't find myself caring enough about any one character to wonder what will happen in the future. I wish Heuler espoused her ideas more directly at times. However I usually am enthusiastic over books where the author lets the reader do some of the work, so you could say I am a bit conflicted over it. The bottom line is, despite minor issues, I found Glorious Plague to be a thoughtful, unique, and ultimately enthralling novel I can recommend to the fans of apocalypse fiction.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dean Koontz's coming-of-age saga

The City

By Dean Koontz

Publisher: Bantam 

Pub. Date: July 1, 2014

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Dean Koontz’s The City will probably not be well received by his hoard of fans. Koontz has established a very popular niche in the mainstream sci fi/supernatural thriller genre. From the appearance of Watchers and on, it can be argued that he practically invented the sub-genre. There is no doubt Dean Koontz is a talented and imaginative writer but many readers, myself included, came to feel he was writing a formula and sometimes a very tired one at that. But it seemed to be what his regular readers wanted and it is hard to fault any author for writing to their base.

However in his new novel The City, we see something different. Here is a novel by Koontz that unfolds a wider tableau. He places his tale in a lower middle class, racially integrated portion of a city in the 60s. It is for the most part, a coming-of-age story about an African-American boy growing up in the city with his mother, his grandfather and an often absent, morally challenged father. There are some very nice scenes of interaction between his family and his friends. The author outdoes himself in bringing alive a number of major and minor characters with all the subtleties and personal touches you would want. I especially enjoyed his characterization of Mr. Yoshioka, an elderly survivor of Manzanar with his own tragic history, who plays a combination of mentor and detective sidekick to our young hero Jonah. The book has the sense of a nostalgia piece. Koontz writes of the 60s with care and longing. He sees the urban scene of the 60s as dynamic but less forbidding and slightly less dangerous than that the cities of the 21st century. There are plenty of cultural references that help in setting the atmosphere. The novel starts out as an intriguing look at a boy who is perhaps growing up too soon in an environment that is changing for the worse. Using the first person narrative of a 10 year old boy works here, even if that boy sometimes seems a little too wise for his years. There is a nice balance of security and danger throughout which Jonah sums up nicely in the statement, “Maybe the difference between horror and holiday was just the width of an ordinary street.”

Yet this is Koontz, meaning the supernatural is never too far behind. Early on, Jonah gets a visit for a woman who calls herself Ms. Pearl. We find out that she is the physical embodiment of “The City”. What that means is part of what makes this tale different and interesting. She has taken a liking to Jonah and wants to help him but, in the tradition of classic modern fantasy, not too much and never directly. There is a sense in the book that Jonah is passing from the magic of childhood where Juju and spirits exists and into a world of responsibility and loss

So as you can see, this is a different Dean Koontz than the one we are used to. Yet soon Koontz starts to hedge his bets. A menace developed that never really feels realistic. Jonah’s father is part of that menace but he is also the most unrealistic character in the novel. We never really know what makes him tick and his actions seems confused and artificial. The most villainous person is knife toting Eve Adams/ Fiona Cassidy who never becomes more than a cardboard cutout, a disappointment considering how good Koontz usually is at writing villains. While Jonah’s narration is part of the charm of this book, we partially lose it in the second half as we begin to rely on second hand accounts, primarily Mr. Yoshioka’s, to fill in the portion that is supposed to heighten the tension. When the two merges into a climatic finish it feels a bit arbitrary and predictable even if our heartstrings are tugged a bit.

It is a little hard to see where Koontz meant to go with this. The combination coming-of-age / period piece he starts with is apt to scare away his regulars. But his addition of a supernatural aspect, magic realism if you can call it that, and a criminal plot doesn’t add to the more ambitious drama he set out. The one thing that I think most will agree on, and paradoxically the most frustrating, is that this is the best writing Koontz has exhibited in years and maybe decades. There are some rhapsodic passages throughout and some amazingly moving scenes mainly around Jonah’s family and friends. I am somewhat torn since it is counts as one of Koontz’s most ambitious works and could have been one time where he could have escaped from the formula. But in the end, formula wins out over a still entertaining and insightful work.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dumb characters meet confused plot

Ceremony of Flies

By Kate Jonez

Publisher: DarkFuse

Pub. date: July 8, 2014

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Kate Jonez's Ceremony of Flies gets off to a promising but implausible start. Irrepressible loser chick named Kitty (or Emily depending on her mood) is working a lousy job in Las Vegas with the clearly impossible dream of becoming a singer. In a very implausible scene, she accidentally kills her boss and goes on the run aided by a guy she met in a bar. From there on, it gets very implausible as our "heroes" stumble into a double killing, drives into the desert, and runs into a very weird situation.

Sorry if I say "implausible" a lot. It's the key word here. Even in a novel that has supernatural elements, of which you don't find out about until three quarters of the way through, there should be some basic logic. Once Kitty flies off with equally implausible (there I go again!) Rex, all logic is out the window not to mention common sense and any sign that either one has an ounce of intelligence. But the main fatality in this short novel is a sense of the author having any knowledge of where to take her ideas. Ceremonies of Flies starts out of a crime noir road novel. The two main characters are, if stupid, at least funny in their stupidity. So now it looks a little like a Thelma and Louise style farce without the extra chick. Then we get to the supernatural tie-in and that is where the author loses me. I don't think I ever read a novel so short that felt like two books. The maddening thing is that the author has a clever and smart style of writing. If only she could have settled on a plot.

So overall, despite its promising beginning, this is a face-palm fail of a novel. I really wanted it to work and because of that I give it a very generous two stars. But unlike in the book, reality must eventually set in and I must stay "Nope. Doesn't work."

Thursday, July 10, 2014

40th anniversary of a children's classic

Where The Sidewalk Ends: Poem and Drawings

By Shel Silverstein


Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Look O Look!
I see a book!
A book that gleams
A book that screams
Delightful things
By Shel Silverstein
Poems and drawings
That are not boring
They speak to me
Like a tapestry
Of childhood joys
For girls and boys
Not just for kids
Adults will dig
The funny rhymes
of forgotten times
When they were young
And life was fun
So turn the page
Forget your age
When the book ends
You can start again
And follow the bend
Where the sidewalk ends

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A quality anthology for a good cause


Edited by Lori Michelle

Publisher: Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing

Pub. Date: August 16, 2013

Rating: 5 out of 5 stares

The best reason for buying Bleed, the emotionally moving anthology of horror fiction edited by Lori Michelle, is that the proceeds from the sale of the book goes to the National Children’s Cancer Society. The second best reason for buying it is that it is one of the best horror anthology I have read in a long time.

Bleed is a collection of 47 short works by known and lesser known authors in the horror genre. Most of the works are short fiction but there are about a half dozen essays and a few poems. The theme anthology focuses on the horror and devastation of cancer. This may sound depressing but Editor Lori Michelle does an amazing job of balancing the book with very different tales of horror, grief, emotional loss and even hope. Sometimes the tales are directly related to the illness. Sometimes the authors use fictional plagues or monsters to make the case. And in other stories, it is an allegory that may not connect right away but later as the story absorbs into your brain.

The first four works pretty much set the pace and shows Michelle’s deft handling of the topic. The introductory essay “True Horror” by Lori Michelle describes her experiences dealing with her son’s diagnosis and treatment of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. It is followed by “With Paper Armour and Wooden Sword” by Tracie McBride, a piece of fantasy fiction that deals with the relentless devastation the disease brings to families and society. But once you finish it and are reeling from the power of the work, you get Bentley Little’s “The Addition” a very subtle and gentle horror tale that at first seems to have no connection until later when the message hits you. Then the pace is changed again with “Welcome to the World, Mister Smiles” by T. Fox Dunham, a horror tale that directly involves cancer and its treatment but with a terrifying twist.

From then on, the stories continue with much more variety then you would suspect for what appears to be a narrow theme. Yet the contributing writers display an abundant of imagination and a refined skill for portraying feelings of grief, loss powerlessness and, most importantly, hope. No story or essay is weak and if there are better pieces than others it comes from a comparison of strength rather than weaknesses.

There are a number of fictional works deserving special mention. “Sludge” by Stan Swanson is one of the more humorous of the stories and perhaps also a clever tribute to the film The Blob. It works best as a clever analogy. William F. Nolan’s “Descent” starts out quietly but quickly turns into a harrowing look at facing inevitable death. “Dreams of Shadows” by Robert S. Wilson is one of many stories in the collection that directly takes on the plight of childhood cancer yet it stands out as the most hopeful of the short fiction pieces. Rick Hautala’s “The Call” is a terribly beautiful tale of a son and father. It is one of my favorites and it bear extra significance considering the author’s demise in 2013. Some of the stories features cancer in the form of a sentient monster and “The Sallow Man” by Adam Millard especially stands out in that category. Finally, “No Limit” by Peter Giglio and S. S. Michael has a quirky kind of weirdness to it and if its connection to the anthology’s theme eludes me, it is still too good not to mention.

So overall, Bleed is an exceptional anthology with an unusual theme and fiction that rises over the average in terms of quality and substance. I highly recommend this book as one of the best anthologies you will find. And don’t forget that you will be donating to a good cause. It’s a win/win.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A circus "Inferno".

The Ninth Circle

By Brendan Deneen

Publisher: Permuted Press

Pub. Date: January 30, 2014

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

In The Ninth Circle by Brendan Deneen, 16 year old Dan feels forgotten and neglected by his family with the exception of his older brother who torments him constantly. One day he is reluctantly dragged to the circus and become entranced with its mystery. “It’s not lame. It’s awesome,” He exclaims. He runs away to the circus and is accepted and protected by the ringmaster. Yet he finds that the circus hold torments of its own. He is considered an outsider and most of the performers are hostile to him. As the circus travels from Massachusetts to Louisiana, he discovers that each circus resident has their own torments and are living in their own version of hell. It is Dan’s unacknowledged quest to discover how and if he fits in as he negotiates this strange coming-of-age journey he finds himself in.

The Ninth Circle can be overwhelmingly depressing at times and parts are quite violent. Yet it can also be eerily beautiful in its descriptions of the circus and its misfit crew. The author’s somewhat episodic book plays out in “Cantos” rather than chapters. As the circus travels through the nine states, Dan becomes involved with the circus people whose reactions to him range from amused affection to violent hostility. Each has a tale and each has an affliction, whether emotional or physical, that coincides with their actions of the past.

Now if this is starting to sound strangely familiar, it is probably because you have read The Inferno by Dante Alighieri. There are nine states which the circus travels through correlating to Dante’s nine circles of hell. Many of the names of the characters in Inferno show up in The Ninth Circle, such as Guido, Horace, and Beatrice. Many of the novel’s characters suffer similar fates as their Dante counterparts. For instance, in Dante’s classic, fortune tellers’ heads are reversed so they are eternally forced to walk in a way they cannot see where they are going. Deneen’s fortune teller does not experience such a physical torture but her more realistic psychological suffering has the same result. The Ninth Circle is Brendan Deneen's imaginative retelling of The Inferno set to the big top and peppered with the suffering of the damned. Dan is the visitor both hated and envied for his freedom to leave if he chooses and for the promise that he still holds in his young life. Dan experiences this circus inferno with both horror and bewilderment as he tries to understand. At the end, we do not really know what Dan has learned for he is still a child and, just like Dante’s visitor to Hell, he yet has the wisdom and experience to fit it all together.

Clearly readers of The Ninth Circle will gleam more from the book if they are familiar with Dante’s Inferno. Yet Deneen’s version holds up well on its own and a familiarity with Dante’s classic work is not totally essential to enjoy this fantasy horror novel. The author has a good grasp of the magical realism that permeates this strange circus world. Realism and fantasy mixes well in Deneen’s hands. The book also fits solidly in a sub-genre of carnival themed horror novels that includes Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Will Elliott’s The Pilo Family Circus.

While The Ninth Circle may seem a bit fragmented and relentlessly downbeat, it eventually shines forth with a strange and beautiful look at the human condition, which is another thing it has in common with its ancestral role model. I strongly recommend this book to those who like carnival themed dark fiction and those who revel in the dark side of life.