Friday, October 31, 2014

Hell is ourselves

Hell's Waiting Room

By C. V. Hunt


Publisher: Grindhouse Press

Pub. Date: October 30, 2014

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

While reading Hell's Waiting Room by C. V. Hunt, I often found myself thinking of two things: Domestic violence and Jean Paul Sartre. There are actually three things but the third one would give away too much of a disturbing but riveting plot.

Greg and his wife live a reclusive life in an isolated house. Greg is none other than bat shit crazy; a survivalist who grows his own food less he is poisoned by the government and rants about the coming invasion. Greg's wife, whose name is part of the mystery of this book, lives in a loveless union in which Greg is at the very least verbally abusive and constantly on the brink of flying into rages. When they experience a power outage, Greg is certain that this is the start of the apocalypse. Almost immediately after, his wife starts to experience strange and terrifying events involving skeletons, her dead parents, and a basement harboring living fetus-like creatures in mason jars. How much of this is really happening in the author's bizarro world and how much is the hallucination and delusions of two dysfunctional people is very much the question. C. V. Hunts leaves us hints throughout and she does a masterful job at feeding us those hints until we reach the satisfying ending.

While Greg is immediately despicable, his wife is an enigma. Not all that likable herself, She seems cowered by him, at first bursting into defiance for moments then falling back in step with his paranoid and verbally abusive demeanor. She seems willing to go along with his most odd demands, like cutting her hair to save on shampoo. Like many dysfunctional relationships, she walks a tight-wire of hate and loyalty. The wife reminds me of many domestic violence victims I have worked with, both aware of the danger of their situation yet invested in the illusion of safety and actually seeking isolation to preserve that illusion. Greg's wife's own experiences strengthens that bizarre "universe" she is trapped in. I can't help comparing this a little to the predicament that the protagonist of The Yellow Wallpaper finds herself in.

Then there is Jean Paul Sartre. The title, Hell's Waiting Room screams No Exit even though the plots are not the same, at least not directly. But there is a clear echo of Sartre's famous warning that "Hell is other people" and maybe, sometimes, hell is ourselves. In some ways, Hell's Waiting Room feels like existentialism gone bad. A world where no real meaning exists except that which you give it yourselves. And if you have a hellish interpretation then reality will be hellish.

I must confess I allowed myself to wander in the abyss of my own interpretation. This has become more of an analysis than a review. Yet that seems to be what Hunt's strange novella is all about. She sets the reader precariously between hallucination and actual disaster and dares us to decide which one it is. Hell's Waiting Room is not a hard read but often an uncomfortable one. I would set it firmly on the shelf that reads "Books I love and hate at the same time" sharing a tenuous friendship with books like American Psycho and We Need to Talk About Kevin. While these books feature unpalatable characters, they speak to our own uncertain grip on reality that can fall apart at any moment. Hell's Waitng Room is that kind of book.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A mystery from the author of the Xanth series


By Piers Anthony

Publisher: Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy 

Pub date: October 21, 2014

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars


Aside from writing the massive Xanth series, Piers Anthony has written in pretty much every sub-genre imaginable in science fiction and fantasy. So I was surprised when he stated in the afterword of his novella WereWoman that he never wrote a mystery until now. WereWoman is a mystery but it is still firmly entrenched in fantasy.

Phil is a young private investigator, 18 years old and on his first day in the job, when a witch asks him to find the murderer of her friend, another witch. Phil himself is a were, a supernatural being that can change into another creature. However Phil's other "creature" is a woman who he calls Mena, short for Philomena. One may argue whether the author is showing a sexist nature when he speculates that women are different creatures than men but I will not go there. Phil is reluctant to take the case until he finds how that his best friend Bear, another were and fiance to his were secretary Syb, has also been killed in a seemingly related murder. From there, he goes on a hunt for the murderer as more killings pop up, all of "Supes" and all of them being different types of supernatural entities.

It is an interesting tale that has various levels of seriousness, parody, and humor. Anthony cannot help throwing out a few puns even here. Yet while admitting that it is different than the never ending Xanth series, it still feels a bit derivative. The combination of detective and fantasy world setting are not exactly novel any more and I can't help feeling the author was rushing through it. No one can accuse Piers Anthony of ever writing mediocre prose. But I am just not feeling the enthusiasm here. One of the interesting themes in the book is that there seem to be a lot of mention of sex and nudity. For some reason the characters are required to get nude to perform certain magic acts and tests and more than once it results in erotic consequences. But it still feel kind of PG and gives me visions of a certain Monty Python character going "Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.". The gimmick of making each murder a different magical creature also grated on me to the point, of thinking "OK, what is it now?" instead of staying in the plot and wondering who did it?. When the mystery is solved, it is actually a clever resolution yet I can't help wondering if very many people cared by that point.

I must admit it is nice to see something by Piers Anthony besides another Xanth novel. However I cannot say Were Woman was all that successful. Even though it was marginally enjoyable, By any standard it does not hold up to the level of simliar supernatural books and is a bit of a disappointment for an established and talented writer.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A zombie apocalypse meets its equal: Calculus!

Zombies & Calculus

By Colin Adams

Publisher: Princeton University Press 

Pub. Date: September 22, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Today I will review a book about calculus.

That's right. Hell has officially frozen over.

Professor Craig Williams is just teaching his regular calculus class at a small college. He thinks one of his students is simply stumbling into class late. But when he starts to eat the professor's star pupil, the professor realizes something is wrong. He and the other students run to an office to hide but quickly discovers that a homicidal coed is the least of their problem. A zombie plague has arrived. Someone must take the lead and who else is suited for that job if not the math professor.

Brad Pitt, eat your heart out.

Colin Adams' sweet little novel/calculus primer manages to tell a clever zombie tale and teach a difficult subject at the same time. This is the kind of textbook that should be assigned to reluctant students. Thanks to Colin Adams and the publisher, Princeton University Press (Yep, you heard that right), they can be entertained and befuddled at the same time. Professor Williams saves the day frequently by estimating zombie growth rates, determining the differential of zombie and human speed ratios and, my favorite, estimating the downward velocity needed to crush a zombie's skull. Professor Williams may be a nerd but he is a awesome nerd. However, it does take a little time for him and his colleagues and students to get into the swing of thing...
"Supposedly some janitor tried to eat a freshman.

I'm surprised we heard about that" said Gunderson. "I would have thought the Harvard administration would have tried to keep that hush-hush. A story like that can't help the alumni fundraising campaign".

...Which brings up the major strength of this zombie/math hybrid. It can be very funny. The author has an ear for the ludicrous and it adds a hint of satire to the story. Colin Adams is not above making fun of his own professorial idiosyncrasies...
"I was counting the seconds for Dan to fall. It took 2.5 seconds, which means he fell 16(2.5) - 100 feet. It's just a quick way to tell how far something falls.

"Did anyone tell you you're weird?"

"Yup. I relied, smiling. Plenty of people."

Frankly, if I was rating this on story alone , I wouldn't rate it all that high. It's a somewhat average plot with no real frills..except humor and math smarts. And that is what elevates the book to the recommended stage. It is simply a very clever read that teaches while entertaining. The author makes a really smart move by extending some of the conversations into the appendixes thereby streamlining the story while giving those who need more math the chance to learn and digest. If I had a book like this when I went to college...well. ..I still would have gotten a C but I may not have whined about it so much.

Overall, it is a lot of fun. It is a nice bit of treacle to make the learning fun. Colin Adams deserves a hand simply for attempting this. It's icing on the cake that he succeeded so well.

But if I get one more calculus book in my review pile, I am going full zombie on the deliverer.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Creatures with attachment issues

The Specimen

By Pete Kahle

Publisher: Createspace

Pub. Date: April 2, 2014

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Pete Kahle’s debut novel titled The Specimen is a noble descendent of a number of novels featuring mind-controlling parasites. It is a formidable family headed primarily by Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers and Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. Of the two, Kahle’s epic of over 500 pages seems to owe most to Heinlein’s classic novel. Like Heinlein’s creatures, Kahle’s parasites are slug-like and usually attach to the human’s back, although the author does add quite a few other gross oddities into the mix. Yet Kahle knows that copy cats are forgotten. He endeavored to create his own alternative Earth where the parasitic and tentacled mind controllers have been around for a very long time. While focusing mainly in the 20th and 21st century, we get glimpses of the creatures called “Riders” as they attempt to dominate mankind and the group of humans who fight them. If any novel can be called ambitious, it is The Specimen

Most of the novel is centered mainly in modern day Massachusetts. We are introduced to a series of events, a collection of unsavory people and, in the tradition of many horror thrillers, innocent individuals who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are two basic timelines carrying the central story: one in the present which is told in third party narrative and another in the 60s presented in written reports from a group of researchers. The story also switches back and forth to other narrations including some in ancient times that give us a look at the Riders and how they originated. It is complex and ambitious storytelling that offers many participants and many viewpoints.

But this is where the book falls into trouble. The author must be given credit for a epic piece of storytelling. He has developed an alternative world is horrific but still detailed and believable. Yet at times, there is simply too many stories going on. One can fault it for being too ambitious. The reader never gets a good grounding on any one character. Everyone has a narrative. Even the cat has a narrative! Keeping track of all the people, times, and places become more of a chore than it should be. The background stories help set the origin of the Riders and how they interact with humans but it takes away from the main story. Overall, there is a sense of too much info and not enough focus. Much of this can be due to a need of a more exacting editor to cut down on superfluous descriptions and action. As good as the plot is, it felt like it should have been at least one hundred pages shorter.

Yet there is one aspect that sets this novel apart. The two books I mentioned at the beginning are classic novels but their monsters are just that…monsters. Kahle’s contribution in The Specimen is that his monsters are more three dimensional. He puts a lot of work into what and why they are the way they re. Perhaps more so than he does his human protagonists. This is the main strength of his work and why it deserves to be read even if there are some issues of structure and development. The time the author spends fleshing out the Riders and their place in this alternative history makes this a worthwhile and ultimately entertaining read. The ending leaves room for a sequel, which always leaves me nervous no matter how good the story is. However, Kahle can only grow as a writer and may develop his world into something even more interesting. Even with my reservations, I am looking forward to book two.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Simmering psychological horror

Wakening the Crow

By Stephen Gregory


Publisher: Solaris 

Pub. date: November 11, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Stephen Gregory’s Wakening the Crow invokes not only the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe but also some of the psychological and supernatural aspects of the master’s writings that has had readers mesmerized since the 19th century . In Gregory’s haunting and puzzling novel, Oliver Gooch is a marginally working librarian until his 7 year old daughter Chloe is in a car accident. She suffers brain damage and Oliver is only slightly uncomfortable that he prefers this version of Chloe, mute and pliable, to pre-accident Chloe who he describes as “a horrid child” and “rude, petulant, and defiantly uncooperative.” He is also minimally guilty that the large settlement allows him to open up his own book store which he names “Poe’s Tooth” due to a gift he is given by an elderly bookseller. The reason the gift is given to Oliver is unknown but the bookseller has a connection to the Gooch family that Oliver is yet aware of. The gift comes with a letter stating it to be Edgar Allen Poe’s actual tooth that was pulled from his mouth when Poe was a small boy.

Anyone faintly familiar with the supernatural psychological novel knows that this is not going to go well. Along with the spectra of the tooth, Oliver, Chloe, and his wife Rosie are also visited by a ragged and somewhat sinister looking crow who is reluctant to leave the confines of the bookstore, formerly used as a church. The crow seems to have a strange connection with the mute child. The reader as well as our narrator wonders if the tooth may be some kind of curse and, in many ways, this novel is just as much a homage to W. W. Jacob and his classic short work, “The Monkey’s Paw” as it is to Poe. Yet Gregory is not just writing a homage to the old horror writers and their talent at creating a work of atmospheric terror. He is also creating his own tapestry of a dysfunctional family caught in an inexplicable horror and he does it with the minimum of gore and the maximum of dread and angst. Oliver is not very likable. His relationship with his daughter is creepy at best. And at worst? That is a question the author leaves out there. Rosie seems to be the grounding for the family yet we suspect that grounding is tenuous. Chloe is the question mark. In her post-accident cherubness, she seems to be a tabula rasa for the interpretation that Oliver places on the events. Eventually the entire family become unhinged by the presence of the crow or is it just the secrets, guilt and consequences of the behaviors of this family catching up to them due to the catalyst of supernatural forces?

Gregory doesn’t let you know too much too soon. His hoarding of details and doling out of information only until you need it is quite masterful. It is also why some may feel this book moves a little too slowly. Yet the slow psychological reveal is fast becoming a lost art in storytelling especially in the horror genre. This is why I recommend Wakening the Crow so highly. It is a nice example of introspective storytelling yet when it is necessary, and especially at the end, Gregory can scare the pants off you. The average reader may also feel uncomfortable with the relationships in the Gooch family yet this adds to the eeriness and developing horror of the tale. Overall, Wakening the Crow is an above average work of horror that will stay with you quite a while after you read the last page.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The sequel to Blood on the Sand

Z Plan: Red Tides

By Mikhail Lerma

Publisher: Permuted Press 

Pub. Date: August 24, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Red Tides is the second novel of Mikhail's exciting Z Plan series and the sequel to Blood on the Sand. It remains a riveting hybrid between zombie thriller and military novel. The main character, American soldier Cale, has experienced the beginning of a zombie holocaust while in Iraq and is now headed on a journey through the Middle East and Europe to find a way home to his family in the States. When we left him in Blood on the Sand he was stranded in a boat on the Mediterranean Sea and waiting for a possible rescue by an unknown ship. Not surprisingly that unknown ship, actually a submarine from what is left of the Egyptian Navy, is not good news. In the beginning of Red Tides, it start right where the first book left off and we find that Cale has been taken prisoner and forced into slave labor, chained to another prisoner and is scavenging supplies in the midst of rampaging zombies. This epic of a apocalyptic journey continues in high fashion as we wonder if Cale will ever be able to resume his quest to go home.

I don't think it is too much of a spoiler to say Cale's imprisonment is only a small part of the journey in this second installment. More importantly though, it helps us know more about Gale and how he copes with crisis and with others. His interaction with the person he is chained to reveal much about his humanness and will to persevere. In Red Tides, Mikhail becomes more than just a soldier trying to get home.

The author continues to use his military experience to write believable scenarios and excellent action scenes. One surprise is that Lerma chooses in an alternating narrative to take the story "home", so to speak, and let us know what is going on in the States and specifically with Gale's family. At first it was a bit disorientating. However it does help us know about his family, their own ordeal, and what Cale has to look forward too. It also assists us in knowing a little of what to expect in book 3. Another part I liked is how Gail's vision of his dead friend Zach lets us know about Gail's own doubts and fears. It should probably be mentioned that the zombies for the most part take a back seat to other issues in this novel. This is actually expected since we all know that, in a zombie apocalypse, the biggest monster becomes each other.

Overall I was just as happy with the second book as I was the first one. In many ways, I think it trumps the first book in both plot and character development. This is a series that will please both the action adventure fan and zombies lover.