Thursday, January 29, 2015

A superb collection of short fiction

Our Love Will Go the Way of the Salmon

By Cameron Pierce

Publisher: Broken River Books

Pub. Date: December 17, 2014

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Some may be surprised to know that fishing has been a theme is some very great literature. It goes back to at least Isaac Walton's The Compleat Angler which is as much as an ode to life in the 17th century as a guide to fishing. Then we have The Old Man and the Sea, and Moby Dick. I believe Thoreau wetted his line once or twice in Walden. Then there is Richard Brautigan's rhapsodic Trout Fishing in America which I suspect is a close cousin to the book I am about to review.

Our Love Will go the Way of the Salmon is Cameron Pierce's own ode to fishing. It may be too early to place it on the "great literature about fishing" list but it has its own milestone in my mind as the book by the author that clearly moves him from the Bizarro barrio to the realms of literature with a capital "L". It consists of 15 short pieces all related to fish or fishing in some way, shape, or form. They are all in Pierce's unique style of mixing the surreal with the mundane and leaving the reader in some kind of magical dilemma deciding what it all means. Some of the stories involves a talking fish with hands. The author wisely does not tell us the meaning of this but leaves us to decipher the creature in our own way. I see the fish as a harbinger of tragedy, sort of a symbol of the meaningless and misery in life we can never fully comprehend, but I am sure others may have their own interpretations. Again, this is literature and good literature doesn't do the work for you.

Pierce's passion for fishing is evident throughout the book. I understand this as I came from a family of fishing fanatics. Oddly I never got the fishing bug myself but I understand it. It is a special passion that says no matter how hard life is, there are always fish. It is a special passion that understands and embrace the struggles of life for all of nature's creatures. The joy is in the intimate struggle between the two adversaries. The fisherman has a special connection with his prey realizing that his pleasure is instantly connected with the trauma of the fish, just as our own lives are forever connected with the trauma of others and of life in general.

I believe Pierce understands this too. His stories are full of mundane and inexplicable happenings colliding with his own brand of magical realism. The title story paints fishing as practically a final ritual. "Sway" talks about the connection two people might find despite their terrible surroundings only to lose it when "real life" intrudes. "Short of Lundy" is an ode to father-son fishing ending with a list of imaginary trophies. "The Bass Fisherman's Wife" read to me like a Japanese folk tale until we reach the strange ending that could only be Pierce's. "Floodland" is one of the tales that involve the previously mentioned talking fish. It is one of the best stories in the book replete with odd imagery and sorrow.

All the stories, most fairly brief, are excellent. But there are two, the last ones in the book, that should be mentioned. "The Snakes of Boring" is the longest and finest piece in the collection. It involves a man who, with the help of two "friends", is taking "medicinal snakes" to Boring, Oregon with the idea of making a truckload of cash. It straddles the line between comical and tragic. Violent, funny and weird, it is a tour de force of narrative writing. The last story, not counting a short and heartfelt concluding statement, is "California Oregon", a moving piece loosely patterned like a "choose your own adventure" tale yet appearing to be strongly autobiographical. It questions the roads we take when we make choices in our life. Many of the author's stories seem to have a strong autobiographical nature to them and that only heightens the depth and passion of his works.

I have stated before that I greatly prefer Pierce's short fiction over his novels even though he is a masterful writer in either form. This collection only cements my opinion and confirms my prediction that he is the writer, in any genre, to watch over the next few years,

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Death in a forest

Suicide Forest

By Jeremy Bates

Publisher: Ghillinnein Books

Pub. Date: December 16, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars 


Let's talk about death.

Death is always a touchy subject. Well, not just death, which is often a benign abstract thing that we tend to voice in impersonal and hypothetical tones. But dying. That’s a tough one. Not the dying you do when you are old and gray and ready to go. The type of dying that comes to you, a friend or a loved one suddenly, uninvited, and usually rudely. The ones you want to avoid but can’t. Accidents. Murder. Suicide….

Suicide Forest by Jeremy Bates is about that type of dying. He places his tale is a very real place. Aokigahara in Japan, also known as the Sea of Trees or Suicide Forest. It is a popular place for people to go to commit suicide. Up to 100 suicides happen in the forest every year. In Bates’ creepy but riveting novel, the main character Ethan, along with six others, plan to hike to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro but are prevented by the weather. They then choose, with some reluctantly agreeing, to camp overnight in the famed Suicide Forest. The others include Ethan’s girlfriend Melinda, a late invitee John Scott who knows Melinda from before, Ethan’s work friend Neil, a Japanese student named Tomo, and recently met Israeli travelers Ben and Nina. We find out that all of them have their secrets and brushes with death or even suicide. Ethan is the first person narrator, so we find out most about his own past but all of them reveal bits and pieces of themselves as the story develops. It is a slow development but the author is quite good at that sort of thing. He is also very good at building atmosphere and describing natural environments. You will feel like you can visualize the forest. In fact, I looked at photos of the forest after reading the book and they perfectly matched Bates’ literary description! The novel reads more like an eerie psychological drama until everyone wakes up after a night in the forest and discover one of their group is hanging dead from a tree branch.

Suicide Forest holds you to the end. Narration, dialog, and descriptions all pull together realistically to place you in the moment. This is one of those books that invite you to read it in one sitting. Lovers of visceral horror may be disappointed, at least until the end, but those who like tense character based horror and thrillers will be rewarded. As for myself, I was intrigued on how Bates used each character to illustrate various reactions to tragedy and death from the ones who tries to stay in control to the ones who go into denial to the ones who fall apart. It becomes a little lesson in grief and coping. Yet it never loses sense of the story and keeps you wondering what is really happening. At first I was a little off-balanced by the climax as I was expecting something else, but soon I realized it worked as it was and I relaxed and enjoyed the ride.

From the book’s cover that read “World Scariest Places !”, it appears that this may be one of the series of novels using actual places on Earth. It is an intriguing concept and one I hope the author continues with. His first experiment is clearly a success. Suicide Forest is for the reader who likes his thrills slowly revealed and full of psychological and interpersonal drama but still shocking and scary. Suicide Forest may not have you buying a plane ticket for Japan to camp amongst the corpses but it will still transport you to the forest and reveal its secrets.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Pulp sci-fi adventures revival!

The Lost Level

By Brian Keene

Publisher: Apex Book Company 

Pub. Date: December 17, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Brian Keene’s The Lost Level is the first book of a projected series. If you are familiar with the works of Keene then you know him mainly as a writer of visceral horror. His zombie filled Rising trilogy is probably the best known of his books. Yet he will occasionally venture out in to other territories. The Lost Level is one of those other territories. While having its moments of horror it is steeped in an earlier tradition, that of the fantasy/science pulp fiction of the past. Think Edgar Rice Burroughs or Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Even Sid & Marty Kroft’s TV show Land of the Lost is mentioned by the author as an influence. I will venture out on a limb and suggest that another influence is perhaps Phillip Jose Farmer’s sci-fi epics like The Riverworld Trilogy where an alternate reality is created bringing in various other cultures and people from many places and time yet suggesting that there may be a secret controller of the dimensions. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Aaron Pace is a young but resourceful man who has an interest in the occult. Through his mystical research he discovers something called the Labyrinth, “a dimensional shortcut through time and space. It touches and connects everything”. He explores the various worlds through the Labyrinth with enthusiasm and recklessness. That is until he accidentally enters the Lost Level, “a dimensional reality that existed apart from all the others”. Anything in all of time and space can end up there and there is no escape.

The veteran Keene fan will pick up a theme instantly. The Labryinth Mythos is an integral part of all of Keene’s fiction. Here we learn of the Lost Level but the author is also giving us more subtle hints regarding the mythos’ multiple realities in this series. But if you have never read anything else by Keene this will not ruin this exciting adventure tale for you. The author sets up what he needs to for his story and makes sure it is a thrilling ride.

Aaron Pace is the perfect hero for this tale which does owes the most to Edgar Rice Burroughs. He is daring and capable with just the right amount of naivety and wonder to make him believable, likeable and easy to identify with. The story is told through his perspective as he writes his adventure in an old school notebook he finds on an abandoned bus. Most of his rivals and allies may sound familiar to readers of this type of epic. He borrows from many times, legends, and science fiction warhorses. There is even at least one reference to another Keene novel and I expect there were more that I was not aware of. Stories like this bring out the inner teen in me that thrives on lost worlds, time travel stories, and adventure tales where I can pretend to be the young, muscular hero that manages to slay the monster and win the heart of a buxom, bronze, and half–naked tribe-woman. The nice thing about Keene’s tale though is that it may be derivative but it doesn’t feel like it. There is enough flair and originality to make even the most frequently used creatures in the book fresh and exciting. And the last thing Keene will ever be accused of is not being exciting.

So who is this book for? It is for anyone who enjoy adventure tales, sci-fi and fantasy. It is for those who remember the early “Weird Tales” type pulp fiction and wants to relive it. It is definitely for the Keene fan. And, despite some rather grown up scenes that tells us it is not YA, it is for the mature teenager who is ready to bridge the gap from young adult to mature audience. The Lost Level is a good start to a series that promises to send your mind to lost levels of its own.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A tale of family grief and the supernatural

Cracked Sky

By Brian Eads

Publisher: Omnium Gatherum Media

Pub. Date: January 6, 2015

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

 The strength of Brian Eads’s short novel Cracked Sky lies in the ability to express and illustrate strong and intense emotions. His story centers on Stephen and Shelly Morrison whose child was murdered. The author wastes no time in getting into the deep emotions involving the death of a child. Stephen is practically mentally comatose, depending on his doctor prescribed medications to get through the day. Shelly isn’t much better, disguising her difficulty to deal with the death of her child onto her husband’s behaviors. Stephen’s brother Josh tries to help but he is losing patience and his own drug issues aren’t helping either. He relays the news to the grieving parents that their child’s killer is dead but that does not relieve the pain partially because Stephen is seeing things. Things like his daughter’s alphabet blocks on the floor spelling out “Help Me”. It appears that the killer’s power to hurt goes beyond the grave.

Eads does an impressive job melding the issue of grief with a tale that involves the supernatural and the afterlife. I wish it worked a little better than it does. There are a number of reasons for this. The main reason for me lies in the character of the killer. Darryl is never thoroughly explained. He has powers that seem a bit pat and unexplained for the tale. I wanted more explanation for his supernatural influences. Certainly the main focus is Stephen but Darryl is too powerful a force to simply leave as is. Another problem is that this approximately 100 page story is too short. We are thrown head first into the Morrison’s dread and angst but never get a good grip on their characters. The characters scream for development and the plot screams for a back story. Finally, I found some of the dialog a bit awkward. The author’s strength lies in description rather than dialog. At least it does in this work.

But when the tale gets started, it moves. I mean really, really moves. It takes off in the second half when we are introduced to the nether world that Stephen’s daughter may be trapped in. As I said, Eads’ strength is his descriptive talent and that applies both to emotions and the ability to set up an “after world” unlike the one we are expecting. And there is that ending; powerful and fulfilling to the characters and the story. It is a powerful ending for an emotional tale.

So while I have my misgivings about the development and character, it finally paid off. I often felt Cracked Sky may have been a dry run for something bigger. I hope so because Eads has the ability and the sensitivity to write a powerful horror/fantasy story that sketches the boundary of horror fiction as well as scaring us.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

First big tech thriller of 2014?

 The Great Zoo of China

By Matthew Reilly


Publisher: Gallery Books

Pub Date:  January 27, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The heights of effort and methodology that the PR campaign invested on this best seller hopeful is a little intriguing. Nothing in their description and hype says what the astounding creatures, that China created an entire zoo for, are. It is equally puzzling since the cover pretty much gives it away and you find out the secret about 10 minutes into the novel. So no one can accuse the writer or the publisher for draggin' (cough!) it out.

OK. Bad pun accomplished. On to the review.

I have not been familiar with the author until now. Yet Matthew Reilly has a fast readable style perfectly made for bestselling fiction, especially the high tech sci-fi thriller of the Michael Crichton variety. In fact, Reilly reads a lot like Crichton and the plot of The Great Zoo of China owes everything to Jurassic Park. The basic plot is this. The Chinese are unveiling to carefully picked Americans a new attraction with which they hope to heighten respect scientifically and culturally in the world. One of these hand picked persons is Dr. Cassandra Jane "CJ" Cameron, an respected herpetologist, one who studies reptiles. Also included are two journalists, CJ's photographer brother, plus the US ambassador to China and his assistant who seems to be a little more than just an assistant. As the secret is revealed, we are introduced to a fantastical scenario which the author mires in high tech and speculative science. Some of it seems way too speculative. It is just the type of place I would love to visit. But being the thriller it is, nothing is as it seems and all hell eventually breaks out.

Reilly gets off to a enviable start. His prologue brings world politics and status into perspective. The next quarter of the novel gives us a detailed explanation of the zoo and all of its workings. Reilly sets up his dominoes with the reader's knowledge that they are bound to fall. This part of the book is the author's first strength: a believable technology for a far fetched idea.

Then the action starts and we come to the author's second strength; A gift for fast paced and epic action scenes. Reilly's style of writing is almost cinematic. This book has "Soon to be a Major Motion Picture!" written all over it. The author's action scenes read well and fast giving the reader no problem in visualizing the most hard-to-believe sequences. And that brings up the weakness of the novel. There are plenty of hard to believe sequences. As our heroine goes from one peril to another, it gets to the point that I was saying, "Geesh! Come on now". By the ending I was elated with the ride but i was also yearning for some of that intelligent nerdiness in the beginning of the book.

However Reilly manages to make it all work. This is a real page turner in the true bestseller sense. Best seller thrillers are meant to be an escape. The good ones allow you to use your imagination even when the plot goes brain dead. The Great Zoo of China is one of the good ones. No one will mistake it for War and Peace. For that matter, no one will mistake it for Jurassic Park which is kind of a classic of its type. Yet The Great Zoo of China has the earmark and pedigree to become the first talked about sci-fi thriller of the year. For pure fun, it will do.

And mark my words! When it comes to the movie, they won't be draggin' (cough!) their feet!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A return to straight horror from Lansdale

Prisoner 489

By Joe R. Lansdale

Publisher: Dark Regions Press

Pub. Date: October 20, 2014

Rating : 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Joe R. Lansdale has long been one of my favorite writers. He is also an author who writes in a number of genres. Lately he seems to be releasing a lot of mysteries and westerns. So I was especially happy to see this 60 page piece of original horror fiction show up at the end of the year. The fact that it is nicely bound by the high quality publisher Dark Regions Press and has great illustrations by Santiago Caruso is icing on the cake. You see, it was his horror fiction back in the so called "splatter-punk" days of the 80s that first attracted me to his works. So this is sort of a literary reunion for me.

Prisoner 489 is short. But it is quality writing on every page. The basic plot centers around workers on a small island that is used as a prison graveyard. As usual, Lansdale sets up the stage and players expertly. One of the things you can rely on with a Lansdale story is dialogue that is cleve and witty but realistic to the characters. His stories tend to be on the macho side and this one is no exception. I will not reveal the horror aspects of the story except to say the author gives us a legendary creature and places it in an unusual environment. Creativity and taut action writing is what makes this piece of short fiction work. Prisoner 489 is a nice return to the type of horror that made Lansdale a name in the field. I love his mysteries and westerns too but this is the type of writing that a fan of weird fiction yearn for. .

Friday, January 2, 2015

A young adult novel with an edge

Dark Art

By Tim Waggoner


Publisher:  Past Curfew Press

Pub. Date: December 7, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Sarah Pennington has the misfortune of being paired with the local weird kid, Ben Phelps, in her high school drawing class. Ben turns out to be a talented artist and he shows her a drawing of a sinister man with knifes that he calls Shrike. Sarah is at first leery of Ben but drawn to him even when she discovered he has anger issues and may be hiding some dark secrets. But when Shrike starts appearing in her dreams, and is attacking people she knows in real life, she and Ben has to comfort the evil to find out where it came from and how to destroy it.

It should be mentioned up front that the plot of Dark Art may sound a little too close to that of Nightmare on Elm Street and Shrike to that horror icon Freddy Kruger. Yet the similarities leave quickly as you read Tim Waggoner's exciting young adult horror novel. The big difference is that, unlike Freddy, Shrike is a product of young Ben's own emotions and difficulties in dealing with his anger. In this, the author has create a YA novel that is not only fun to read but deals with a essential part of growing up into adulthood; understanding and expressing your emotions. Waggoner does this without one ounce of preaching, expressing the issues through the action and tribulations of the two main protagonists.

The strength of the book lies with the characterizations of Sarah, Ben and Shrike. Ben and Sarah comes off real and mired in teenage angst, the good kind and the bad kind. Young readers will find themselves able to identify with them. Shrike is the boogeyman but he is a monster created of real and normal fears resulting from trauma and coming-of-age stress. The three main characters being so deftly drawn heightens a minor problem that the rest of the characters seem much like bit players simply there to serve the plot. It is not that big of an issue though, as we are caught up with Sarah and Ben's own dilemma so much that we can forgive the two dimensional backup. However when it comes to the action, Waggoner has it moving like a train on fire causing the reader only a little time to catch his breath before moving on.

So Dark Art is a sturdy contender in the YA horror/fantasy genre giving the readers a harrowing tale while adding a little insight into their own emotional makeup. There is violence in the story. It's a real live horror story not some Meyers hack job, but the violence is well done with relevance to the tale. However, the audience for this book should be considered. Dark Arts may be a fantasy but it deals with reality and real life issues. Its themes, which involve both death and suicide, may be too much for the Pre-teens and Tweens but should be fine for the mid-teens which I think it was meant for. Come to think of it. many of those tweens and teens are already gulping down King novels. So who knows?