Thursday, September 25, 2014

An impressive short fiction collection

Where All Light is Left to Die

By Robert S. Wilson

Publisher: Empire of Blood Books; 

Pub date: September 23, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

Some short fiction writers have told me they are not fond of single author collections even if it is their own. They claim that the short story collection corrals the works into a hodgepodge that doesn’t respect the power of a stand-alone short story. You read one and off you go on another without digesting the first tale. But what are you going to do? The sad fact is, without anthologies and collections, short fiction has a short life. One exposure in a magazine and poof! Gone! And we all know short fiction doesn’t pay the bills. Edward Bryant, one of the greatest short fiction writers in fantasy, science fiction, and horror told me that he wanted this engraving on his tombstone: “Died broke. Only wrote short stories.”

But the fact remains that short fiction often brings out the best in a writer. It challenges the writer to flesh out their ideas and emotion in a few pages while still involving and entertaining the reader.  When it works, it can be astounding.

In the single author collection, Where All Light is Left to Die,  Robert S. Wilson shows that he can compete with the big names in the field of worthwhile short fiction. There are thirteen works ranging from science fiction to fantasy and horror and a couple that are hard to classify. All of them can be referred to as dark fiction, a description of the type of stories that bring out the more undesirable and fearful moments in our emotional landscape.  The first story in the collection, “The Death Catcher”, is typical and one of the best. It is about a man who can bring dead souls back to the bodies but with questionable results for both the dying and the catcher. It exhibits a number of similarities in the author’s stories; a cautious sensitivity for relationships and families, a mindfulness of the effects of loss and death, and a fondness for the thoughtful ending. “The Boy in the Elevator” is an uncomfortable tale of child molestation with a weirdly satisfying ending. “Forcipules” is an ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ type tale that might also have a hint of dark comedy for anyone who is afraid of bugs. Not all the stories are successful. “Self-Aware” is an attempt to bring detective thriller and science fiction together but it doesn’t work for me. It misses the emotional connection that the other stories have. “The Resurrection of Tommy Derringer” fares better but seems like an intro to a longer and more involved story. However, most of the other stories succeed quite well and should heighten your anxiety factor to an uncomfortable level.

Besides the short fiction, Wilson has included two novellas and one novelette; “The Quiet”, “The Nesting Place” and “Through the Mindhole”. All three shows that the author can branch out and expand his ideas in more complex ways.  I read “The Quiet” two years ago and had mixed feelings. Yet this revised and expanded version proves that the author has certainly developed his skills nicely. My favorite of these longer works, and best in the collection, is “Through the Mindhole”, a complex story involving a detective who is transported to an alter universe in a version of himself that is precisely his opposite in many disturbing ways. That one novelette is worth the price of admission.

Overall, this is a good collection and a nice introduction to a young and promising writer. Anyone who appreciate short fiction should check out All Light is Left to Die and enjoy some pleasurably scary moments of dark fiction.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014



By Banana Yoshimoto


Classic Flashback #3

This review was originally written in January of 2012. I dedicate this repost to my wife Jeanne, who passed on in 2013, as a testament to her sense of humor and her long-lasting tolerance of mine.

I think I'm in love with another woman.

You can tell my wife. I'm sure she understands. As a former instructor of world literature, she can understand how a reader can become totally infatuated by a writer's virtuosity and their ability to transcend culture when they poke at the universal longings and fears in all of us. She will know that readers can immerse themselves in language and equate that wonderful turn of a phrase with the qualities of the author. She will definitely understand this having had a long-time infatuation with Tom Wolfe.

Of course, maybe I should be a little jealous since she once had a cup of coffee with Wolfe. I would be lucky to get even a peek at Banana Yoshimoto in a noodle shop.

Kitchen is exhibit A in how Ms. Yoshimoto can weave an enchanting spell over her reader. They don't call it "Banana-mania" for nothing. The book is actually two novellas; the title story and Moonlight Shadow. Both hinge on heavy subjects, death, mourning, and the transitory nature of relationships. Yet the author is no pessimist. There is a brilliancy in her characters, a strength that conquers any existential dread. Plus, the author is marvelous at giving us beautiful word images that haunt us long after reading her tale. Her stories are often called minimalist and even simplistic. Yet there is no denying that they are beautiful and easy to relate to. I highly recommend this book to anyone who breathes.

 Did I mention the cute photo of Banana on the book's cover?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Horror at its most viseral AND intelligent.

The Deep

By Nick Cutter

Publisher: Gallery Books 

Pub. Date: January 13, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

As much as I loved Nick Cutter's previous horror novel, The Troop, I felt that the author was capable of something even more intense, scarier, and disturbing the next time around.

Boy! Was I right!

In The Deep we learn that the earth is devastated by a new disease called the 'Gets. Those who are infected start to forget little things, then the bigger things, then pretty much everything to the point they forget to breathe and eventually die. In the deepest part of the Pacific ocean, scientists are researching a substance called Ambrosia found eight miles down in the Marianna Trench. They think it might be a cure. Veterinarian Luke Nelson receives a message from his brother Clayton, which is one of the scientists in the deep sea station Trieste, "We need you. Lucas. Come home."

The Deep is one of those novels that is acutely visceral and insanely intelligent at the same time. Part science fiction, part very deep sea adventure, and 100% horror, there is barely any part of it that gives you time to rest before something else either scares the hell out of you or grosses you out. Plot wise, most of the minor characters exist to fulfill their purpose. However the two main protagonist are deftly drawn and provide plenty of emotional connection. Luke is a troubled adult with a missing child and estranged wife and a very dysfunctional childhood. His brother Clayton is a brilliant but sociopathic scientist whose love of discovery trumps his lack of connection and empathy. When Luke and his submersible pilot, Alice, descend eight miles to the deep sea station, the reader is treated to a haunting and uncomfortable description of an environment that redefines the term "claustrophobia". It is both the interaction between the brothers and the starkly written creepiness of the station that keeps the reader on edge. When we finally meet the "monster" It is something that is as terrifying to us as it is mystifying to our protagonists. As stated above, I found The Deep to be one of the most intelligently visceral books I have ever read.

The Deep may turn out to be the best horror book I've read this year. It will be hard to beat it. If The Troop was punch number one and The Deep is punch number two, I am awaiting nervously for the knock-out punch.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Raunchy but smart!

Time Pimp

By Garrett Cook

Publisher: Eraserhead Press 

Pub. Date: October 1, 2013

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is a little hard to describe Garret Cook's satirical bizarro romp Time Pimp. The main reason is because Jeff Burke has already made the best comparison with "One part Doctor Who, one part Hustler Magazine". I can not top that but while reading this hilariously rude and not-so-crude delight I couldn't help thinking Kurt Vonnegut meets R. Crumb. I think I will just have to go with "the most obscene, offensive and hilarious meeting in time and space since Barbarella shagged Superfly". You can go with that too. Or don't go with it. What do I care?

If it seems that I am a little wiggy today, you can blame that on Mr. Cook. Time Pimp is a gloriously raunchy trip involving a pimp that travels in a purple Cadillac through time, a leather clad nun and a genius panda all fighting the evil Death Pimp and the Morality Squad in a battle to keep debauchery safe and thriving in the universe. Time Pimp regularly keeps the universe healthy by making sure famous figures like Dante, Ghandi, Ayn Rand, Sherlock Holmes and others "score", to put it mildly. As Time Pimp says near the beginning of the novel, "Dante Alighieri is gonna get hisself laid and I am gonna get myself paid." In some ways, Time Pimp reads like a comic book, albeit a very smart comic book. Normally when I say something reads like a comic book, I do not mean it as a compliment. But here, Time Pimp reads like a comic book in the best sense. Cook paints ludicrous pictures with his words making each impossible place and creature vividly realized with sharp and unforgettable images in your head. And while it is a fast read, it is not a simple read. The author sends us through various dates and places in a non-linear sense yet keeps us with the story. There are basically four novellas that are linked together in what can loosely be called a novel. If any of your favorite characters (I like Professor Panda) get killed, don't worry, They will probably be back. That must be part of the Doctor Who analogy. If there is any weakness in the novel it is that the cornucopia of wild ideas seem to be on the verge of chaos at some points but they never veer totally out of control. That sense of teetering and threatened toppling is actually one of the joys of this weird tale. The author takes on a lot of ideas, physics and just plain silliness and shakes them up so you are always finding something new. Any way you look at it Time Pimp is a raucous event of a novel.

Now for the disclaimer: Time Pimp isn't for everyone. It may be the raunchiest novel I've read that wasn't sold under the counter by a creep with greasy hands. The language is as rude as it comes and the sex is outrageous as it comes. But the plot is inspired and the writing is exquisitely brilliant in an over-the-top way. So if the idea of descriptive sexual positions between Ayn Rand and Genghis Khan doesn't disturb you (much) then you are in for a treat.

Time Pimp II anyone?

P.S.: I just shared this review with a few friends and the first thing they ask me is, "How many books sold under the counter by a creep with greasy hands have you bought?" That answer is NONE! It's a figure of speech! Geesh!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Doubling Down" on two great post-apocalyptic novellas

Biters/The Reborn  (Double Down series #4)

By Harry Shannon & Brett J. Talley


Publisher: JournalStone 

Pub. Date: April 11, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Journalstone's Double Down Series is a bit of a throw-back to the Ace Doubles of the 50s. They were small paperbacks that featured two novels in each book. You would simply read the first tale, then turn the book around and upside down to read the other novel.They were noticeable for featuring both established science fiction and fantasy authors and introducing newer talents. The only thing wrong with the old Ace books is that they were cheaply made and fell apart easily which is why you rarely see them in used book stores nowadays (plus they would now cost you a pretty penny). Journalstone's new Double Down series is much higher quality in the production department. But the real test is the quality of the writing and Biters/The Reborn, the fourth book of the Double Down collection lives up to the challenge.

Biters by Harry Shannon is the shorter of the two novellas and it is the first swing in an effective two punch combination. Biters appears to be a return to the author's zombie infested post-apocalypse previously seen in The Hungry and The Wrath of God. The twist in this novella is that Biters is more related to the crime noir genre that any zombie excursion. There are plenty of walking dead brain-eating types around but Shannon's tale is more about love and betrayal than surviving the apocalypse. Ryan is a post-apocalyptic drifter with a crush on a femme fatale named Sarah. There's a deal involving murder, an evil lawman wanting in on the deal, and so many chances for violence and double-crossing that Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain would be envious. The real surprise is how well the author merges these two elements of zombie horror and crime noir into a satisfying whole. It is a nice pulp fiction ride that manages to breathe a little more life into an over used genre...maybe two overused genres. Easily four stars.

The Reborn is also a riveting novella but the only thing they really have in common is an apocalyptic setting. Brett J. Talley's novel is more of a dystopic novel with a complex back story neatly woven into the plot. Marcus is a recently laid off police officer that is offered a new position in a clandestine organization. In this Washington DC of the future, reincarnation is an assumption and the powers-that-be have developed the ability to trace an unborn's DNA to previous lives. Anyone whose DNA is traced back to an undesirable "reborn", meaning past murderer or worse, is instantly killed in the womb. As you can surmise, there is a lot of gist in this story for social commentary. However Talley never loses sight of the fact that the plot is everything and has written an ever moving action allegory of unparalleled power. The protagonist in a story like this always has the potential trap of being drowned in the action but Marcus is given a lot of dimensions with a past that propels the plot into more than just pulp fiction. Talley's dubious partner Dominic is a little less dimensional but is given just enough "true believer" qualities to scare us. The Reborn is very different than Talley's Lovecraftian fling titled That Which Should Not Be yet is very much equal in its quality and its excitement. Four and a Half stars.

So overall, this particular Double Down volume is a worthy successor to the old Ace Doubles and is definitely worth checking out.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Terror in The World After

The Last Mile

By Tim Waggoner

Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub. Date: October 21, 2014

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Tim Waggoner's novella The Last Mile is one of the wildest literary rides I have taken in a long time. It is amazing how much the author has given us in just 140 pages. Waggoner has created a hellish post-apocalypse word full of demonic ancient ones that have enslaved humans and much worse. The Lovecraftian influences are undeniable but the author has created his own distinct hellhole which he calls The World After. It a terrible but riveting bit of landscape.

In The Last Mile, Dan used to be a normal family man. Yet when the Ancient Ones arrives he is forced to serve them to save his family. Now marked as one of the ancient ones' thralls, he is taking an abducted woman, Alice, to his master to serve as a sacrifice. Most of the story happens in the last mile to his master's residence but we are given flashbacks to Dan's and Alice's life during the arrival of the terror that now dominates the world. The change of narrative from the present to glimpses of the two protagonist's past flows effortlessly with no lull and plenty of surprises. It all leads to a very satisfying twist at the end.

The tale is so short that to say anything else would give too much away and if there is a downside to this novella, that is it. I wanted the story to continue. There is enough fascinating descriptions and glimpses into the World After that I felt there was enough to continue into several novels. I truly hope Waggoner continues to explore his demonic world with or without the characters in this book. In the meantime, we have this delicious terror romp and it comes highly recommended to all those with a yearning for tales of horror that do not let up or disappoint. It is another home run from Darkfuse's impressive series of short novels.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A matter of after-life and death

Black Horizon

By Robert Masello

Publisher: Open Road Media

Pub. Date: July 1st, 2014

Rating: 2 &1/2 out of five stars.

Black Horizon is one of 4 books by horror writer Robert Masello that have been reprinted as ebooks on July 1st, 2014 by Open Roads Media. I have not previously read Masello but he appears to be interested in writing about the supernatural as in topics of spiritualism, life after death, and spiritual communication. Black Horizon was originally published in 1989 and feels very much in the mainstream style of the supernatural fiction of that era. The novel is about a musician who literally brings a dying man back from the dead. The press picks up the story and a scientist, translate to "mad", persuades him to become a subject in his experiments. Needless to say, Dr. Sprague's "experiments" are not exactly approved by the Board of Behavioral sciences. The musician, Jack, is however beginning to see other apparitions, most importantly his mother who died when Jack was born. It is an interesting story with some nicely written parts. I especially was moved by a scene where a man dying of cancer believe Jack can heal him despite Jack's admonitions that he can not heal anyone. But overall, it felt a little too old fashioned and formula. None of the character really stood out and on their own. It was good enough to consider reading another of his novels or one of his non-fiction works. He seems to know a lot about the field of paranormal investigation. There is a number of passages that center around deprivation tanks which were a huge things in the 80s. Yet based on the high quality of good supernatural thrillers since the 90s, I am not sure Masello really stands up well...or at least this particular novel doesn't stand up well. Two and a half stars.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Young Adult salute to the nerd.

I Have a Bad Feeling About This

By Jeff Strand

Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire

Pub. Date: March 1, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Nerds have been treated the same for centuries. None of it good. I can only personally vouch for half of my own current century. However, I feel reasonably certain that Archimedes was familiar with the wedgie. I also feel a little less reasonably sure that Jeff Strand knows something about wedgies. How else could he put so much humor that feels like "I've been there" in his main character Henry Lambert of the very funny Young Adult novel, I Have a Bad Feeling About This?

Henry might best be called a wimpy kid if not a nerd. He is a smart and likeable kid...whatever that gets you in the childhood food chain. He gets picked last in all the playground sports. He is scared of a lot of things including seahorses. "I'm not proud of that one." he says. His father, with clear reluctance from Henry's mother, signs him up in a survival camp to make the proverbial man out of him. What is advertised as a professional boot camp environment is really a barely hanging together camp whose victims include five boys led by a drill sergeant type who,if not the guy from Heavy Metal Jacket, is at least to be trying to emulate him.

I Have a Bad Feeling About This is one of those YA novels that will appeal to children and teens because they can identify with the protagonists. The humor is plenty but grounded in reality and not condescending. The sharp humor is also why this novel will appeal to adults. The first half of the novel deals with the boys' learning, but just barely, the survival skills of the instructor. Some of the funnier moments are derived from these events such as their first time at archery ("That bird shouldn't have been there"). There is also a sweet moment when Henry meets a girl from the Music Camp down the road. As a veteran of teen music camps, I can assure you that we are bad ass! The boys are not placed in danger, which comes from an unexpected chain of events, until the second half of the novel. While is it fun to watch the kids awkwardly defend themselves, I found the real strength of this tale in the first half where we can identify with the teen's reluctance struggles. Yet the entire book is a delightfully fun read. The author also does us a service by adding in helpful survival tips like "Tree bark is not edible, even with peanut butter."

Overall this is one of the funnier and more enjoyable YA novels I have read. I admit I am not an expert in YA books but I have a lifetime of expertise in nerdology, so that has to account for something. It is a truism that in the long run, nerds do better in life than jocks but that is little comfort for the young adults struggling with the fine art of growing up. Books like this are helpful in giving a good perspective. OK. So I may be exaggerating! It is still a funny book!