Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Koontz's best thriller in a decade...or more?

Ashley Bell

By Dean Koontz

Publisher: Bantam

Pub. Date: December 8, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In Dean Koontz’s new thriller, we are introduce to Bibi Blair, a 22 year old author with a critically acclaimed book to her name. Her life looks like it is just getting started until she finds she has a rare and especially vicious form of cancer. There is little to no hope that she can be treated effectively, yet she wakes up in the hospital the next day in total remission. Through an odd form of divinization she discovers the reason she was miraculously cured: to save the life of a teenage girl by the name of Ashley Bell.

With that idea, Dean Koontz takes us into a whirlwind supernatural/science-fiction thriller that we have not seen from him since Watchers or Lightning There are all the usual Koontz gimmicks: sadistic villains, deadly cults, a taste of the paranormal and a resourceful young innocent throw into chaos. . Thankfully though, in this one he kept the noble golden retriever at minimum sweetness level. Yet this is the first time in a very long time that I did not think Koontz was sleep walking through it. The author takes an intriguing premise and makes it complex and befuddling in a good way. Bibi Blair is one of his best characters and one whose full importance and talents are very slowly revealed. The story only spans a few days yet the 600 plus narration plays with it, adding important reveals from her past and vague characters whose roles are not clear until the information is needed. Much of the tension, and pleasure, comes from Bibi’s own thought process as she puts together the clues to her new purpose and evidently the surprise turn near the end.

Recently I reviewed The City and stated it was a change from Koontz’s usual, yet I criticized it for not being different enough. Here we have the author going back to the horror thriller that he made his reputation but finding new ideas and ways to express them that will keep even the stalwart Koontz reader interested. Ashley Bell is not the usual roller coaster ride of a thriller. There are times it feels a bit slow but the attentive reader will realize that those slow parts often provide the most important materials to the mystery. Sometime Koontz’s characters can feel a bit thin but Ashley Bell may be one of his best since Odd Thomas. I have purposely stayed away from revealing anything but the bare bones because every detail is important and knowing it in advance may take some of the pleasure out of the reading.

So what we have in Ashley Bell is Koontz’s most interesting novel since Odd Thomas and one of the his best since Watchers and Lightning. If you have soured toward this prolific writer in the past, it is time to check him out again.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Have a fearful Christmas!


By J. G. Faherty

Publisher: Samhain Publishing

Pub date: May 5, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I went through my list of possible books for review, which is way too long, and I found this one that was sent to me by the author after the World Horror Convention in May. I remembered thinking I would save this for the holidays, then putting it out of my mind. So now it is that time of year and I am glad I was checking my list (and checking it twice) so I could find books that were naughty or...well...mainly naughty. Fortunately Winterwood was novella sized so I put everything aside so i could finish it before Christmas.

I am glad I did for Winterwood is a decidedly naughty and dark fairy tale introducing us to the legend of Krampus and his realm of Winterwood. I am not as up on the Krampus stories as I should be . Let's just say they are a dark version of Santa Claus with evil elves and a wicked cat instead of reindeer. Regardless of any questions on the authenticity of the mythology, J. G. Faherty makes me believe. In Winterwood, an old man, who as a boy was almost taken by the evil elves to the kingdom of Winterwood, tells his grandsons about the old ways much to the chagrin of their parents. But the two boys are indeed kidnapped and the grandfather and the boys' parents must enter Winterwood before they are cooked and served as the main course in Krampus' yuletide feast.

I like the modern take on this story. We are also introduced to an evil witch that was the inspiration for Hansel and Gretel. In the story, the grandfather explains that the innocent fairy tales of old were not so innocent and used as warnings to children. Anyone who have read the original Grimm's Fairy Tales know this is true. Faherty takes it one step further and asks, "What if they are not just warnings but actual incidents? What if they can still happen?" It is a fun game and the author plays it up very well. We get a scary kidnapping, a rescue, an adventure and a chilling escape. Not bad for about 80 pages.

This would be a fun book for older kids who want something more than the sanitized Christmas tales we are used to. It is great for adults who can indulge their childhood fears. In fact, this book is part of the Childhood Fears series by Samhain Publishing that allows us adults to do exactly that. Overall, this is a fun scary read that may make you think twice about elves.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Weird Tales meet private eye

The Dream Beings

By Aaron J. French

Publisher:  Samhain Publishing, Ltd. 

Pub. Date: January 5, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



I have always liked Aaron J. French's writings but I often fear he is a bit too esoteric for the mainstream reader, even those into the supernatural and horror. He is clearly influenced by the Lovecraftian Circle and in particular, with his love of parallel worlds and dream states, exhibit more than a taste of Clark Ashton Smith,. A good example of this is his previously published Aberrations of Reality, a collection of short fiction that highlights both his love of dark dimensions and his sometimes florid, even metaphysical style style. But I always wondered how far an author can go by clinging on to that Lovecraft element and not slamming into the contemporary "real life" dead on. I love Lovecraftian and Weird Tales fiction but it is a bit on the fringe, so to speak.

I can now relax a little . The Dream Beings is both a modern tale and one that melds his parallel dimensions and other worldly demons into what is ostensibly a suspense story and a hunt for a killer. It starts a bit like a detective story with the ever threatening serial killer. When Private Investigator Jack Evens is called to the scene of a murder , he is shocked to find that his name is written on the walls. It appears someone is calling out to him and that someone is a serial killer who not only likes to kill women but has "partners" from the dreamworld. Evens has psychic ability and this be what attract the killer and his new creature friends to him . Throughout this all too brief tale, we find out more about Jack and why the Dream Beings are so obsessed about him.

There is a good level of excitement in the story. jack Evens is an very interesting character. So interesting I am hoping that he may show up again in future stories. We have the hook , the chase and the pay-off all nicely laid out with just the right amount of tension to keep the reading glued to the pages. French manages to create not only a likable and sympathetic hero but also deservedly hateable villains. Overall, we have a story that pleases the suspense and horror reader but still stays in that multi-dimensional, mildly Lovecraftian world that the author is fond of. I hope the author will continue wth stories like this. He is an excellent writer so matter what world he is in but I hope he visits this combination crime noir/ dream world mixture again.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Of love and monsters

Monsters Don't Cry

By Shane McKenzie


Publisher: Deadite Press

Pub. Date: December 8, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Shane McKenzie specializes in extreme horror . Much of what he writes can be described as "body horror", that strange sub-genre that centers on the mutilation, transformation, and destruction of the human form. With Monsters Don't Cry I include in the many variations of that theme, the natural and psychological development of a grotesque person whose deformity influences her own terrifying way of interacting with the world.

Natasha was deformed and hideous from the moment of her birth. Her parents kept her imprisoned in her room. Her mother was physically and verbally abusive to the extreme. The only one who seemed to care about her was her timid and ineffectual father. Her only solace were the glamour magazines that told her there was a fairy tale existence for those who were beautiful and it was something she yearned for more than anything. When she finally escapes from her prison, she goes looking for that dream and her Prince Charming. She will destroy anything that gets in the way of her quest.

One of the things that keep bringing me back to the writings of Shane McKenzie is that he can mingle very explicit kink and violence with emotions and issues that affect us in the "real world". In Muerte con Carne there is an awareness of the throwaway status of illegal aliens and the lower classes in society. In Mutt he writes of the assumptions we make of appearances and ethnicity and the need to belong. Once you get past the immense gore and cruelty of Monsters Don't Cry there is an unmistakable message about the illusion of beauty in our culture. Natasha is a sympathetic "monster" . She is a naturally made Frankenstein who will always attract the torch carrying villagers. She is also an innocence, raised with everyday violence and abuse yet struggling to understand how she can obtain the same goals that her beautiful people in the magazine have. She wants to have love and caring shown to her but violence seems to be what follows her. When she escapes into the world, It is a revelation to her that beautiful people can be just as cruel as monsters as she thinks...

"She's a monster. She's a monster just like me. But she's beautiful.

I didn't know monsters can be beautiful."

It is that conundrum that sold me on the grotesque and alternating beauty and ugliness of Monster Don't Cry. But with all the exquisite mingling of horror and pathos, the characters seem to be a little too comic book at times. Natasha's potential Prince Charming is fairly pathetic when you get down to it. The villains are deliciously horrible yet no one really comes out as admirable. The only really likable person is the novel is ...well...don't get attached to her. Yet despite that, it is Natasha that rules the story with her underdeveloped understanding of the world and her narrowly focused and woefully childish need to be simply loved.

So Monsters Don't Cry manages to be a gruesome roller coaster of a horror novel yet also a look at the fragility of emotions and dreams. Does Natasha finally get her Prince Charming or is it dismemberments and bloodletting all the way ? You will have to read the book to find out. Either way I highly recommend this terrifying exercise in extreme horror.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Have a scary Christmas!

Fright Before Christmas: 13 Tales of Holiday Horror

Edited by Richard Ankers

Publisher: Leap Books, LLC 

Pub. Date: December 11, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Bah humbug!

Don't take that wrong. I love Christmas. But I also love Halloween and horror stories. And all that treacle and sweetness agitates my Diabetes. I'm not alone in this . In fact I have pretty good company in Charles Dickens whose A Christmas Carol is unapologetically a ghost story...and was probably fairly horrifying to the Victorian set.

Fright Before Christmas: 13 Tales of Holiday Horrors is in that tradition even though most of the stories do not have the positive ending that Dickens settled for. The best way to describe this entertaining anthology is that it is more in the line of Goosebumps!. It is geared toward middle grade children yet some of them are a little on the gruesome side so the parent should screen it first. Personally I think the level of fright and horror is just right .

There are many avenues of scare in these stories. If anything, it shows that anything in the Christmas tradition can be pushed over to the dark side. We have killer nutcrackers (that one especially frightens me!) Steampunk Santas, zombie snowmen, even Bigfoot makes an appearance. I especially liked "Machete Santa" by Medeia Sharif, where a splatterpunk video game becomes too real. Most of the stories are brief. In fact, if there is one complaint I have it is that many of them are single punchlines. I wished for a more extended story on some of the ideas but I didn't get it. I guess I was naughty this year.

So if you are the type that think Santa could use a little more red in his costume, you might like Fright Before Christmas. Yes, the tales are meant for middle grade but I enjoyed them too. So will you.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Memoir of dreams and journeys

M Train

By Patti Smith

Publisher Knopf

Pub Date: October 6, 2015)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Rock singer, writer and poet Patti Smith states the basic dilemma of her new memoir M Train in its very first sentence. Her book, for the most part, happens after the death of her husband, Fred Sonic Smith of the rock group, MC5. It is a deceptively simple but full life filled with cafe visits, constant reading, travel, and much reflection on where she was and where she is. It is time with friends and the occasional inspirational moment from a literary hero. It is an endless pot of coffee, her drink of choice. Patti Smith is far from the typical rock idol and M Train is not your typical memoir. The line at the top is spoken by a cowboy in a dream. The cowboy becomes a form of muse and spirit who accompanies her into the waking life at odd moments. It is an atypical muse for a very atypical writer.

M Train is a journey where dreams and real life intersect. Despite her rock and roll credentials, Smith is foremost a poet and it shows in this descriptive, almost musical prose that weaves dreams, memories, and her daily life in a lyrical reminiscence of life, regrets and longing. Whether she is at her favorite table in her favorite cafe, writing in her ever present notebook, visiting the grave sites of famous writers, discovering a Murakami novel, or even buying a house that will soon feel the ravages of Hurricane Sandy, her nothings turn into exquisite somethings that may change the way you see the simple things. Her writings has a timeless quality, an adjective with two meaning: a book that will withstand the test of time but also a memoir that challenges the definition of time, merging past and present in a solid event that emphasizing that our past does indeed make our present. In our dreams, there is no separation between past and present. This is what I believe the author is attempting.

There is much that I envy about Patti Smith, her rock and roll notoriety and fame being the least. I envy her effortless way with words, her child-like wonder which has only been slightly aged by her experiences and the wisdom of maturity, and her freedom and courage to take on the whims that often evolve into meaningful quests. Yet I find we have much in common too. We share the love of literature, great art, and the give and take of brilliant minds. She has that strange and wonderful urge to hunt down the impossible. For instance she becomes obsessed with finding the house Haruki Murakami describes in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles with its bird statue and mysterious well, knowing it probably only exists in Murakami’s mind. To many it sounds like a silly adventure, a bit of nothing so to speak. But the description of her quest sent me into throes of nostalgia for the time I stood standing and staring at a boarded up under construction tenement in London enchanted by the idea that this would have been where 221B Baker Street would be if it really existed. And then, there is coffee.

Travel is a central theme in her book. Yet each travel is linked to her past, or a memory, or a quest of inspiration and fulfillment whether it is looking for an imaginary house or having a beach house of her own. Travel, dreams and memory are three themes yet they all merge into one with a dreamlike sense of imagery suiting for a poet.

There is one more ingredient to this verbal tone prose. Fred Sonic Smith. M Train is just as much a tribute to her late husband and to their passage together in life. For those who read her marvelous Just Kids, you will remember her experience with Robert Mapplethorpe which resembled a romantic but tragic tale of youth and coming of age. M Train speaks of a different type of love; a partnership where two can be themselves but steady in the idea that they complement each other. While Just Kids spoke of coming of age, M Train speaks of accepting the arrival of coming of age, albeit an older age, and sharing it with the one you love the most. But it also speaks quietly and with contemplation of the crisis of loss when that essential person is no longer there.

If you choose to read M Train, I suggest you read it slowly, contemplating every sentence. Ideally it should be read while in a cafe but simply sitting in your reading place with a cup of coffee will suffice. I consider the coffee important. It is definitely a cup of coffee read. But however you choose to experience M Train, I assure you it will be an experience.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The best ten novels of 2015 and more

2015 is winding down to an end and, as usual, I present my top ten best novels of the year. I also threw in some honorable mentions underneath the list . It was a fairly good year for fiction. My picks are as weird as my reading habits going from the mainstream publishing companies to the tiny little tributaries of indie press. Number one is my pick for best novel of the year while the other nine are in no special order.

1. Brother by Ania Ahlborn
2. Slade House by David Mitchell
3. Mutt by Shane McKenzie
4. Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates
5. The Wonders by Paddy O'Reilly
6. White City by Seb Doubinsky
7. GodBomb! by Kit Power
8. The Truth and Other Lies by Sasha Aranga
9. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
10. White Knuckle by Eric Red

And the honorable mentions...

Best short fiction collection, multiple authors
Surreal Worlds edited by Sean Leonard

Best short fiction collection, single author
Our Love Will go the Way of the Salmon by Cameron Pierce

Best non-fiction
M Train by Patti Smith

Best YA Novel
Alive by Scott Sigler

Best chapbook
Baby's Breath by Sydney Leigh

Best Magazine or Journal
Lazy Fascist Review by Cameron Pierce

Best book from 2014 that I read in 2015
I'll Fuck Anything That Moves and Stephen Hawking by Violet LeVoit

Best WTF! novel
Vampire Strippers from Saturn by Vincenzo Bilof

Publisher of the year 
Eraserhead Press and all her evil children.
 my best wishes for the new year.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Beware of iron doors in alleyways

Slade House

By David Mitchell

Publisher: Random House

Pub. Date: October 27, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I have no doubt that David Mitchell's wildly inventive haunted house novel, Slade House will be considered a classic of the genre. It certainly fits nicely in the long tradition of British ghost stories and haunted house settings even though Mitchell places his own unique spin of it.

The small iron door to Slade House only shows up for a very brief moment in a nondescript easily missed alley once every nine years. It welcomes in a special guest who is then trapped in its lair. Why this occurs and what happens to the unlucky persons is the key to the novel's intriguing plot. Just as intriguing is how the author sets it up. The novel is divided into five segments covering events in 1979, 1988, 1997, 2006 and 2015. Each part has a narrative by a main participant in the reoccurring phenomena. Each narration gives us further clues that help us decipher the mystery of the house. It is an interesting Rashomon-like telling that, instead of giving us different interpretations of a single event, gives us interpretations of a single phenomena over a period of time that eventually glues all the pieces together. The first segment is in the third person narration of young Nathan Bishop who is escorted to Slade House by his mother and starts the tale in almost an English fairy tale perspective. Yet this changes and we eventually perceive the house and the occupants for what it really is. The other three segments uses first person narrative for equally effective insight.

In many ways Slade House is a simple tale but also a complex one. That is what makes it so compelling. Mitchell borrows from the great classic writers of the supernatural yet only uses their influences not their direct ideas. It could be said that this may be to haunted houses what The Turn of The Screw was for ghost stories. I also appreciated Mitchell's use of British occultist history and theories that play into his own form of fictional mysticism. The plot feels a little old fashioned, perhaps even a little Victorian, due to that influence but it comes together as different and contemporary.

Overall, Slade House is a splendid addition to the haunted house canon in literature. it is bound to be one of those books mentioned alongside The Haunting of Hill House and the aforementioned Henry James masterpiece. And for some it may be just as revealing as often is the windows of imagination that great writer can open to the unsuspecting reader.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Funny, Shocking, and Amazing

I'll Fuck Anything That Moves and Stephen Hawking

By Violet LeVoit


Publisher: Fungasm Press

Pub. Date:  October 19, 2014

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

First of all, Let's get right to that title. It is rude, crude and offensive and I loved it. Tell the truth. You laughed didn't you? You may have hated yourself for laughing but you did laugh.

I'll Fuck Anything That Moves and Stephen Hawking is fortunately more than just a clever title. The title communicates the range of weirdness and basic nonconformity in the 14 pieces of short fiction (15 if you count "Discussion Questions for Book Clubs" as fiction which I do) that make up this unusual collection. One thing for sure, I don't have to warn you this is not a book for everyone. You probably got that hint from the second word in the title.

Violet LeVoit is one amazing writer. She can carry a lot of baggage in a few short pages. Her stories are not easy reads. She can go into a word orgy that is as disorienting as finding a pickle in a dildo display yet just as tasty. I found myself having to read some of the stories a second time even a third time, fortunately they tend to be brief, and sometimes still not getting the gist. Yet they all pack an emotional punch perhaps speaking to our id or just our need to revel in a primordial soup of words poured over uncomfortable topics.

I have not read LeVoit's first collection, I am Genghis' Cum but I am told the fiction in it is centered around the perception of birth. This new collection takes on the theme of death with scenarios and set-ups that are worthy of the Grim Reaper and any self-respecting anarchist. The author has a feminist's slant on many things with stories that take on abortion, anorexia , mother-daughter relationships and more. This is not a random mixture of stories. They seem to be tailored picked to trigger all aspects of angst and dread about our personal destruction, psychologically and physically. Yet with all the darkness, they are often as darkly funny as the title that umbrellas them.

It would be difficult to give a analysis of some of these stories, so I will try to briefly tell you my favorites. "Air, Trees , Water, Animals" is a nice warning of what you are getting yourself into with the opening line, "I look like the abortion of Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra". "Warm, in Your Coat" is a story on eating disorders which is surreal and disturbing. "White Man Rental" turns the idea of white privilege on its head. "Live Nude Girls" is one of those stories where the author is in literary "word angst" right to the shocking finale. Yet two stories really stood out for me. "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" is one of the more straightforward tales yet still packs a punch. It could be called a nightmarish fairy tale. Finally "I Bite into Your Lit and Spit out Two Frank Pieces" is an examination of the creative process that tells me I would rather read about the author's mind than be in it.

Looking through these stories, I realize that they do not all work for me but they are all impressive. This is Bizarro literature at its best and most surreal. They tend to have a rock and roll take-no-prisoners feel; Patti Smith and Valerie Solanas mugging William S. Burroughs in an alley, so to speak. But they are true literary marvels and as shocking, disturbing and hilarious as they get, They will stay with you. Call them Surreal, Bizarro, or just weird. That is the best complement I can give.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Creatures in the Suburbs

The Beast of Barcroft

By Bill Schweigart


Publisher: Hydra

Pub. Date: November 17, 2015

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars


I think the monster novel is making a comeback. There seems to be a lot of literary creature features this year. Perhaps the vampire has finally ran out of blood and the zombies went on a brain-free diet. It is time Cryptozoology had a chance to lord over the horror novels for a time. Mythological creatures, Bigfoot, Sea creatures ...they all need a day in the sun.

The Beast of Barcroft is a novel about one of those creatures. Which one cannot not be said for the author Bill Schweigart takes a long time to name the monster in his novel. We are given a lot of choices though. In the beginning of the book, when down on his luck glass-half-empty Ben sees his dog killed by the creature, he is pretty sure it is a mountain lion. Except mountain lions are almost non-existent in the Washington DC suburb of Barcroft. There is a strange woman next door to him whose passion for collecting animals causes a neighborhood rat problem that that pales next to the increasing body count of the creature. From there on, The Beast of Barcroft develops into what could be called a monster mystery. What is the killer creature the resident fear and the officials scoff at? Is someone behind its appearance?

It's a nice plot and the author does follow with some nice imagery and scares. Yet the mystery wanes through a good part of the book. We do not even get a hint on the identity of the creature until about halfway through and perhaps that may not even be correct. By the middle of the novel, it feels like the plot is looking for a purpose and not finding it. The characters do not really help to find that purpose. Even Ben, despite a number of misfortunes, seems to be one-dimensional. When the Cryptozoologist arrives I am looking for a little eccentricity to relieve the ennui but none is found except for a few mild play of words on mythological terms. When we finally get to the true identity of the monster, it falls flat as does the expected climatic battle. If you spend so much time and drama to get to the payoff, I expect more than loose change.

But The Beast of Barcroft is still a pleasant horror tale. It just doesn't rise to the top of the food chain. Perhaps the zombies and vampires will one day have a worthy opponent from the loads of horrible creatures waiting in the literary wings but it won't be The Beast of Barcroft