Friday, May 27, 2016

Creatures, Barkeeps, and Cocktails. Oh My!

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge

By Paul Krueger

Publisher: Quirk Books

Pub. Date: June 7, 2016

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

In reading Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, the first thing I noticed was the emphasis in the promotion to call this a "New Adult" Novel. Once I figured it was a targeting ploy and not a "new novel for adults", I endeavored to find out what it meant. Goodreads to the rescue. Their explanation: "New Adult fiction bridges the gap between Young Adult and Adult genres. It typically features protagonists between the ages of 18 and 30". So okay. In our status-focused and age-focused civilization, I guess the typical 20 year old is not ready to bridge the gap between Suzanne Collins and Jackie Collins yet. You need to take baby steps.

That new targeting ploy becomes even odder when I finally got into the novel. Let's look at the premise. Bailey Chen has just graduated college. She has no real prospects yet and is not sure what to do with her life. She has taken a job at a local bar as a barback which has the dubious distinction of keeping her around her old friends, especially her friend Zane with whom she has an unreturned infatuation. But one night she makes herself a Screwdriver (vodka and orange juice if you are not a drinker) on the sly and finds she has special powers for about an hour. On top of that, vicious creatures called tremens begin showing up. She soon finds out the bartenders are really an old form of magicians/warriors whose ability to mix drinks is really an ancient form of potion making. In other words. making a drink right does way more than giving you a buzz.

It is a very clever idea, maybe even inspired. Equally inspired is the inclusion of several drink recipes and background on that drink and its ingredients. But problems come up very quickly, not the least that "new adult" designation. The characters are in their twenties but the dialog is in the teens. It just doesn't feel right. The protagonists in this novel have no business near a liquor bottle not to mention bar tending. But there are other issues. While the premise is fine, the necessary background and build-up isn't . We are given a cursory background for the bar tending gig but the threat they fight is uncomfortably vague. What exactly are they and where do they come from? We never really find out. What we have is a good premise with a thin story and little atmosphere. That is not a good thing when you are writing a fantasy, even an urban one.

And that is the problem. When all is said and done what we have is a rather regular and nondescript urban fantasy that doesn't know if it wants to be teen or adult. Most of the characters are formula driven with the exception of Vincent, a blind bartender, who is a noble and feisty addition. A cute gimmick only goes so far in making a novel stand out. This one doesn't stand out.

Overall, it's a cute story. But without something to make you care or to immerse yourself in this alternate reality, it falls flat. Perhaps it is too obviously trying for that target audience. It isn't really ""New" or "Adult". And that is why I have to say give it a pass. Maybe you can try to make one of those cocktails. But if you are reading and enjoying this "adult" book you probably should be carded.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Mean Streets

Zero Saints

 By Gabino Iglesias 

Publisher: Broken River Books 

Pub Date: November 14, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


Zero Saints is as gritty and uncompromising a novel you will find while still being glad you read it. Gabino Iglesias places his story in Austin, Texas. It is not the urban chic Austin of SXSW or Austin City Limits but the Austin of gangs, drug dealers and a displaced people. Fernando has crossed from Mexico into the Austin streets but have not escaped the terror of the gangs. While his life is still hard, being a drug-dealer in Austin is still better than the horrors that affected his family south of the border. But he is about to realize that may no longer be true. At the beginning of Zero Saints, he has been abducted by a group of drug dealers who want him to take a message to his boss that they were taking over some of the territory. That message includes Fernando watching his friend being tortured and having his head sawed off. This new gang is of a level that is past anything Fernando has experienced. . They seem to have special powers emanating from a source of dark magic. Even Fernando's paid enforcers are afraid to take them on. But Fernando has a need for revenge and honor even when everything tells him it is hopeless.

There are many things that make this novel stand out from the load of similar crime and gang novels. First is the main character. Fernando may not be what most readers consider a role model but he is honorable in his own way. He has values and faith. That is something the reader can identify with. The second thing is the language in the book. Almost half is in Spanish yet it does not slow it down. It flows effortlessly through the pages blending into the plot and action. I could read some of it even though I do not understand Spanish very well, it is the language of the streets that I am familiar with. Let's just say the Spanish I heard as a child was not taught in the schools. Yet except for occasional large portions of prayer, it is not only easy to get the gist but it places you there in the midst of the action and angst. And that leads to the third reason this book is so vibrant. The flow. It doesn't stop whether it is violent action or a tense conversation or the moving emotions of the past and present going through the mind of the protagonist. Iglesias have developed in under 200 pages a very real glimpse of life in these parts of the United States. The supernatural aspects are only a tease to the real messages in this book.

If I read Zero Saints last year when it came out, there would be no doubt it would have been on my top ten list. But I didn't. That is no reason to miss it. As long as we have urban life, as long as cultures collide, and as long as we tolerate an underclass of immigrants, this book will have relevance. I give my top recommendation to Zero Saints.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Hap and Leonard ride again!

Hap and Leonard

By Joe R. Lansdale

Publisher: Tachyon Publications 

Pub. Date: March 1, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


 After nine novels and a handful of short fiction pieces, Hap Collins and Leonard Pine has finally busted out from cult favorites to prime time. Well, I'm not sure The Sundance Channel counts as prime time but it is close enough. The TV series Hap and Leonard premiered to generally good responses and critical applause. Of course, the media being the media, it calls for a crossover hype and that is why we have this very welcomed compilation of the Hap and Leonard novellas and short stories complete with a TV show tie-in and photos.

It should be noted that nothing in the book, Hap and Leonard, ties in with the plot of the first season of the TV series. If you want that, you need to get the first book, Savage Season, of which the first season follows closely. On a logical note, it would have made better sense to just reissue the first book with all those nice photos. I'm sure there is a perfectly good business reason this was not done that eludes me. But if that happened, then we would not have received this nifty collection of shorts. So let’s put away the speculation and talk about content.

A quick summary for those who don’t know Hap and Leonard. Hap Collins is a somewhat liberal and idealistic white straight male who spent time in prison for refusing be drafted during the Vietnam War. His experiences up to the present time challenged his idealism but did not extinguish it. Leonard Pine is a black conservative gay Vietnam vet with a more cynical (he would say "practical") look at human nature. He's not above busting the bad guy’s head. In fact, he rather enjoys it. What they have in common is a deep bond as "brothers from other mothers" which pulls them out of all the deep shit they end up getting into through the nine novels plus. It is this deep bond that makes Hap and Leonard so different and appealing to their fans. Hap and Leonard are East Texas Everymen with very tough hides.

The best way to experience the East Texas odd couple is to start with book one and go from there. But even for Hap and Leonard beginners, this collection may be a great place to start too. We get two novellas, :Hyenas" and "Dead Aim", of which I have already reviewed when they were in book form here and here. Then you have five shorter tales that add onto the persona and even give a little boyhood background. Also included; a Joe R Lansdale appreciation by Michael Koryta, an interview with Hap and Leonard and an afterword by Lansdale giving a little background on their origins. “Hyena” and “Dead Aim”, the novellas I mentioned earlier, are very typical adventures for the guys. They offer the meat for this dinner. Veil's VIsit, a collaboration between Lansdale and Andrew Vachss, brings us a look at a minor character in the H & L canon but also an important insight. “Bent Twig” starts out as a thriller featuring Hap on his own but doesn’t stay that way. He and his girlfriend Brett are again saving her wayward daughter Tillie. Bret refers to her as not broken but a “bent twig”. Finally of the contemporary short works, there is “Death by Chili”, a lighter and delightful conceit in which Leonard does his own version of Sherlock Holmes.

That leaves two other stories which for me are the icing on this literary cake. “Not Our Kind” tells of the meeting of Hap and Leonard as teenagers. It gives us an understanding of their bond at a time when their friendship was not generally accepted. But the masterpiece short in this collection is the “The Boy who Became Invisible”. When I first read I I did not realize it was Hap who was the narrator until almost the end. It stands on its own as a poignant and disturbing look at childhood and the events that may form our view of life when we get older.

“Joe R. Lansdale interviews Hap Collins and Leonard Pine” is cute but doesn’t give the stalwart H & L fans any new insight. I’m sure it will be helpful for the neophytes. Finally, “The Care and Feeding and Raising up of Hap and Leonard” is a well needed look at their origins and the author’s development through the years with these two endearing but unusual crime fighters.

So altogether, I see this as an essential Hap and Leonard addition and one that would be helpful to those who come across the guys through the TV series. But to be fair, any Hap and Leonard is good for me.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Killer eels!

Crawling Darkness

By Adam Cesare & Cameron Pierce


Publisher:  Severed Press 

Pub. date: March 30, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Adam Cesare is one of the most promising horror writers on the horizon. Cameron Pierce is an established star of the Bizarro circuit whose recent writings has branched into the more mainstream literary circles. In Crawling Darkness, we have them collaborating on...a monster tale? Not only a monster tale but one that is vaguely familiar from old B-movies about killer piranhas, lampreys and pretty much any old disgusting fish creature you can think of. Here we have eels. Personally, I think eels are kind of cute and they taste good. Most people do not hold my fondness for eels though. In Pierce and Cesare's hands, they are certainly anything but cute and have a unfortunate ability to swarm pretty much anywhere and shred you into bite size pieces. This brief novel is full of the expected in this type of tale; bloody attacks, secret government conspiracies, a hit man, unlikely heroes...the whole kit and kaboodle.

And that is why I liked Crawling Darkness so much. It feels comfortably familiar but is unlike anything either Pierce or Cesare would do on their own. They seem to bring out the fun in each other. The attacks are terrifying, the dialogue is sharp, and the plot moves like wildfire. There are some interesting and colorful characters here and if some don't last too long, there will be another. I just wish it was longer than the less than 100 pages it is.

Novels with killer creatures are a staple of the horror genre. So much so that they need to stand out with something special if you want to keep the reader interested. Pierce and Cesare's eels are something special. The authors manages to make the story terrifying but also endow the tale with a lot of wit and imagination. In some ways it feels like a tribute to those b-movie creature features I mentioned before. I really wish I could have gone five stars on it but the brevity and the reliance on old but entertaining horror gimmicks kept it from being as original as it could have been. However, putting that aside, Crawling Darkness is a real kick in the butt for the monster lover. Sometimes the best scares are the old scares and Pierce and Cesare certainly know how to scare. This is the type of book you will want to read with one light on and a brew and a snack available on the side. I recommend eel sushi.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A tasty first course

Bone Meal Broth

By Adam Cesare

Publisher: Rollin & Jeanie Press

Pub. Date: March, 2012

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars


Originally published in 2012, the short fiction collection titled Bone Meal Broth can be seen partially as a retrospective of Adam Cesare's early efforts. It may sound strange to call works of only 4 years ago and before as "early" yet if one has read anything later by the author such as Mercy House or Zero Lives Remaining, it is easy to see a maturation then and now. Or maybe it is because these are relatively brief short stories and, for the most part, goes for the shock with less development of character that novellas and novels allow. But however you see it, these stories are successful because they are capsule scares. They are pretty nasty frights at that. And, if I can theorize where I have little knowledge and authorization to do so, it seems to me that this may be exactly what he was focusing on at that time of his career; delivering a nasty jolt and making sure the reader felt it long after he read the lines. He seems to have perfected it well.

In Bone Meal Broth, we have 11 stories of varying quality. When they work, they are dynamite. When they don't, they are still not half bad. The winners include" The Still", a great example of going for the kill quickly, and "Rollins & Jeanie" with the moral perhaps being the family that plays together ain't quite right in the head. My favorite may be "Border Jumper" about two men who take a monster to a dog fight. I rooted for the monster. "The Girls in the Woods" is rather exquisite in its telling and deserves two readings to really get it.. The others range from good to uneven, yet they all show that Cesare is an author that knows how to deliver in the dark.

This is the first short fiction collection I have read by the author. I still prefer his novellas . They seems to be the perfect size for his imagination. But what these short pieces prove is that he can go straight to the shocker yet leave you with characters and situation that stick in your mind. If they feel too short it is because they are. But the short fiction fan will certainly want to check them out. For that matter, so will anyone else who likes good storytelling.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Triple Strange

The Humans Under the Bed


Vampire Guts in Nuke Town

By Kevin Strange


Publisher: Strangehouse Books 

Rating: See below.

Indie authors have it rough. Even though, in my opinion, some of the most interesting and experimental writings are being done and distributed by independent authors and small indie presses, it still is passed up by most readers for the mostly mainstream pablum called the New York Times Fiction List. That leaves the struggling indie writer to promote his books in any way possible. It is not unusual to see them giving away or selling their books for pittance. I can’t complain too much. Some of my favorite novels of late came from promotions like that. Books that I would never have known existed. Word of mouth becomes a very important tool for the independent author.

But Kevin Strange, an entrepreneur of the most bizarre, did something a few weeks ago I have never seen. For one day only, he placed all 11 of his Kindle books on Amazon free for the taking. Every single one. Of course I couldn’t resist and downloaded three of them. In hindsight, it may have been stupid not to download all eleven. However, I really wanted to find the time to read them. You have not seen my pile, virtual and real, of to-read books! Besides, I may be a cheap bastard but I am not a greedy one. Despite our reputations, we book reviewers do buy books on occasion!

Strange seems to have developed his own weird little niche. He focuses heavily on that area of the weird called Body Horror, the terror of body transformation and biological atrocities. Mutants abound in his book and they usually take place in a much changed post-apocalyptic future. I occasionally call books like this “graphic novels with words” to set the tone of action-packed prose that encourage a visual mindset while reading. Kevin Strange is not graphic novel. He is pure comic book. His style can be described as EC Comics meet DC Comics meet R. Crumb. It is impossible not to have vivid and disturbing images bombard your head while reading his works. His reliance on visual descriptions belies his background as a filmmaker. His writing is fast, rude and sometimes very crude with both violent and sexual imagery abounding. Yet there is something totally fun about it on the level of a roller coaster ride through a slaughter house. If that imagery turns you off, you might want to look elsewhere for your reading thrills. But if a roller coaster ride through a slaughter house sounds like a blast, meet Mr. Strange.

The first book I read was The Humans under the Bed. I picked it first because it was a), short and b) sounded cute. For the first few numbers of pages, it was cute. It is five hundred years after the monster/human wars which the monsters have won. No humans have been seen since then and humans have become the “monsters under the bed” for baby monsters…until some very different and modified humans appear under the bed of two monster tykes, Dexantheon Jr. and Willex. The emergence is the beginning of the next human vs monster wars and it is up to the monster kids to save the day.

It is adorable and gross at the same time. It is a children story for very weird children or for adults who haven’t grown up…and I say the “adult” part fully knowing it applies to me. We get battle after battle yet this is a book in which we root for those cut little monsters even if those tykes are described as “a Twinkie stood on end” and ”a grotesque fly if it’s been cooked in a microwave and left out in the heat to spoil.” If anything I wanted more about cute monsters and less about slipping on intestines. For more of this novella the battle and violence take over but it is incredible imaginative violence and gore with the moral that even monsters have a right to defend their world. Take that, Humans! Rating it was a little tricky since the cuteness and the violence didn’t always jive together for me. But I was still thoroughly entranced. Four stars worth of entrancement. 

Robamapocalypse, on the other hand, frustrated me. First of all I am not that enthralled with Bizarro books that involve real life characters. Jeff Burk with his Shatner novels is the only one that really pulls it off . The problem is made ten-fold when you take the president of the United State your target even if you make it clear there are no politics involved in the telling. The author does say that and deliver. Yet I feel it still took away from the plot. In this wild and complex work, Lord Obama is ruling the world in the far future as a robotic mutant. Robot Obama is ruling the only human city on earth still existing after the zombie apocalypse. It’s not easy. As Lord Obama says, “Maybe accepting the consciousness of an Elder God from a dark dimension totally unfathomable and incomprehensible to humankind wasn’t such a good idea.” What entails is a hodge-podge of robot warriors, zombies and American Gladiator styled death matches, Frankly it is a bit of a mess. It doesn’t really work for me. What saves it is that Strange’s imagination is first class. But in this book it is working faster than his typing, leaving his computer to gasp out of breath trying to catch up. I’m not sure but it feels like one of his earlier works. I have to give it two and a half stars. I may have given it more if I didn’t already read The Humans Under The Bed and the next book.


It is that “Next book” that kills them all. Vampire Guts in Nuke Town is a messy but exquisite marvel of Bizarro, vampire epic, and folk legend about a really grossed out human hero. The title is not just about vampire parts but also about our hero “Guts', one of the last of the humans after an apocalypse caused by a plague that leaves vampires the rulers of earth and the few humans who survive haunted by their own mutant transformations. Guts is a true anti-hero haunted by his past yet pulled on by some unseen force to rid the world of the vampire scourge. Vampire Guts et al may be a vampire tale but the author doesn’t “do” vampire. He has created a totally different and fairly disgusting variety. This is the author’s strength. The traditional creatures of horror literature just aren’t horrible enough for him. He tricked them out and revs them up to give the reader a totally weirded out version. Like the first two books I read, Vampire Guts never lets up on the action and violence. Yet it leaves the other two books disappearing in the rear view mirror and eating dust. Five stars. Easy.

So what we have with Kevin Strange is a man with a vision, one that seems to delight in mutants, apocalypses and scattered body parts. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but there is something that is inspired about his prose that makes you not mind being in a world with humans under the bed, vampire’s vs human mutants, or a robot Barack Obama fighting zombies at least for a few hours of reading. Who cares if it is a slaughter house? Let’s ride that roller coaster!

Friday, May 6, 2016

Strangeness in the suburbs

The Hanover Block

By Gregor Xane

Publisher: New Dollar Pulp

Pub. Date: November 2, 2014

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Marion has returned home after a day's work to find that his neighbors are building weird things on their lawns; sheds, playhouses, domes, even an outhouse on one person's property. It is a mystery to him until he discovers something in his yard....

That's all you are getting for a synopsis. In The Hanover Block Gregor Xane has written a very strange novel bordering between Bizarro and Fredric Brown styled satire a la Martians Go Home. His novella has a surrealist tinge but never really go over the edge into incoherency. When we get to that which will not be mentioned it definitely gets strange and maybe a little uncomfortable for some readers. If you want a hint, look at the cover. Xane gets to the mystery slowly and steadily while building the Bizarro nature of the tale. While much of the novel is in Marion's perspective., it occasionally moves into the perspective of stoned voyeurs Buddy and Trevor where we get an explanation of the weird activities...sort of.

And it is that "sort of" that bothers me. As much as I was taken by Xane's strange tale, the weirdness doesn't quite gel. Marion, Buddy, and Trevor are like players in a scene they do not understand therefore the observer does not neither. There is a lot of weird but no heart. Good Bizarro, if that is what this is, needs to take the next step to connect the reader in a world they never knew existed or even wanted to know if it existed and The Hanover Block doesn't quite get there. At the end, i was like "and then?" and left waiting for the sequel. In this noble experiment, I am not sure that was the intention of the writer.

The Hanover Block is an interesting reading experience. It is worth the time to experience Xane's strange creative mind. But it didn't grab me or make me wonder. That is what I was looking for. Yet there is enough there to desire to read more by the author and that is a good thing.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Coming of age...with demons

My Best Friend's Exorcism

 By Grady Hendrix

Publisher: Quirk Books 

Pub Date: May 17, 2016

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars


A coming of age novel with demons.

That is My Best Friend's Exorcism in a nutshell. It's the 1980s. Abigail Rivers at turning 10 in 1982 become friends with the slightly odd Gretchen Lang who is the only person to attend her birthday party.. Both slightly nerdy and very intelligent, they bond together as best friends, helping each other get through those awkward years as teenagers. But it starts to fall apart after a night of experimentation with LSD in the late 80s. Gretchen begin to act strange, sometimes acting terrified and other times being cruel. She plays mean tricks on her friends often setting up Abby as the scapegoat. Abby know there is something very wrong with Gretchen but no one believes her. Until she meets a bodybuilding evangelist who is willing to believe that Gretchen is possessed.

Grady Hendrix's alternately snarky and scary novel is drenched in the 80s. There are lots of references to the era and the more you are familiar with the times, the more you will feel at home with our two teen protagonists. However the bond between Abby and Gretchen even at its most tenuous times is what most readers will connect to. It takes a long time in the novel for the exorcism topic to take center stage. For the longer part of the tale, Abby simply does not understand what is going on with her friend and when she tries to tell others about what is happening, she is the one that becomes the pariah. It is this threat to their friendship and the challenge it entails where the real meat of the story is.

Yet when the signs of possession happen, they happen with a bang. While much of the novel seems mild and sweet, those sudden shocks brings us back. Either Gretchen is a incredibly viscous and evil person or she is truly possessed. The scenes of possession and the eventual exorcism are quite explicit, especially for a book that veers on Young Adult.

It is a fine line the novel follows between light and dark. However there are points in which the authors stretches for credibility. While the teens are believable most of the adults, especially hte parents, are too stereotypical in character or just too callous in their reactions. Despite a crackerjack climax, things fall together a bit too quickly and easily when the fireworks are over. And as mentioned before, I was never really sure if this was meant to be YA or adult. The song titles for chapters is cute but adds very little to the mix except to become annoying. Some of the scenes seem too intense for teenagers and some others seems too youth focused for adults. Yet it is the way the author portrays the friendship between the two teens that keeps the book centered. Over all , it is a very different coming-of-age epic that will appeal to young adult and older adults alike.