Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Beware the Pine Barrens!

The Jersey Devil

By Hunter Shea


Publisher:  Pinnacle 

Pub. Date: August 30, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

As far as legendary critters go, The Jersey Devil may not be on the level of Bigfoot or Nessie but it certainly has a cult following all its own. A flying creature with hoofs and bat wings with a satanic appearance has been said to be spotted in New Jersey's Pine Barrens. With a legend going back to the 18th century and a slew of sightings from the turn of the 20th century, it is certainly grist for the horror writer's pen. There have been a few novels to tackle The Devil but none are so imaginative and gruesome as The Jersey Devil by Hunter Shea.

Hunter Shea certainly loves his cryptozoology. The last book I read by him, The Montauk Monster, took on a similar East Coast event featuring a strange creature but the novel seemed a little too formula for me. Not so with The Jersey Devil. It starts off running and keeps its fast pace throughout its 300 plus pages. It is best described as being in a "Monster slasher" mode. There are several narratives flashing by in the book and most of the narratives end up with a body count. In fact, the endlessly switching narratives are one of the things that didn't work for me. It left parts of the tale feeling slightly fragmented. Fortunately the main narrative works the best and involves 80 year old Boompa Willets and his Pine Barren family who have a strange and dangerous connection with the Jersey Devil. They, along with a popular author of Cryptozoology books named Norm Cranston, seeks out the Devil in the midst of several sightings and disappearances. It becomes clear that the Willets are not so much attempting to reveal the truth of the monster as much as attempt to stop it and his connection to their family once and for all.

The Jersey Devil, like The Montauk Monster, is best described as an old-school horror novel of the monster variety. There is a mysterious legend, a monster to go with it, and lots of gruesome killings and disappearances. In this case, tons of killing. The amount of violence and gore is quite high here and Shea is not above throwing in his own share of very disturbing scenes. What really hooked me in this story is that the author places his own creative spin on what the creature is all about. He blends in much of the traditional legend regarding the origin of the Jersey Devil but then adds a twist that rewards the already exhausted reader halfway through. It is a spin that works because of the portrayal of the Willet family which is full of mystery and obsession. Also adding to the appeal of this tale is Shea's eerie descriptions of The Pines Barrens. The Barrens takes on its own personality and, although I never thought of anything in New Jersey as wilderness, thanks to Mr. Shea, I do not want to get lost in the Pines Barrens in the near future.

The bottom line is that The Jersey Devil is a monster novel. But it one of the best to cme around in a while. It has old fashioned scares coupled with a 21th century taste of the weird and gruesome. It should be loved by most horror fans.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Geriatric cyborg vs. attention-deficit vampire.

The ADHD Vampire

By Matthew Vaughn


Publisher: Journalstone

Pub. Date:  February 16, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Horace Dracul is the half-brother of Dracula. His more legendary sibling didn't think much of him and now it is Horace's time to conquer and devour the humans. His coffin is discovered and opened on the deck of a cruise ship catering to the sexual whims of the geriatric crowd. Horace, despite his short attention span and difficulty staying on task, plans to have a splendid meal of the senior citizens and might even turn a few into his brides. However Martha, a retired cyborg spy, is about to make his dream of conquest a very difficult one.

OK. First impression of The ADHD Vampire. This is silly. Second impression. This is fun! Third impression. Does this cruise ship actually exist sans vampire? Where does a senior citizen sign up? Fourth impression. This is really silly. Fifth and final impression. I'm gonna read it again!

Matthew Vaughn specializes in silly. He does it well and is not afraid to push the envelope. Sometimes he just doesn't push the envelope but drags it screaming into the pool and holds its head under the water, laughing at the bubbles. Actually, he does that a lot. This funny novel is full of kink and gore yet it is the type of comic violence that works as an escape for the reader. It's hard to take a senior citizen cyborg spy vs. attention-deficit vampire too seriously. This is fantasy, folks! For its 88 pages, the novella stays at full speed ahead until all the damage and violence is done and the reader gets a few laughs and groans for his money.

The ADHD Vampire works best as a romp. It is an easy night's read for most readers. It is funny in a gross sort of way and is clearly not for the easily offended and squeamish. Yet I like the author's just-throw it-out-there style which I suspect is as fun to write as to read.While it is not as over-the-top as his Mother F'ing Black Skull of Death, it is still pretty wild. What both books has in common beside the extreme sex and violence is that there is no attempt at a social message. It is just meant to be an entertaining ride. I think I liked The ADHD Vampire a little more, ironically because it is slightly less extreme than his other novel. But be aware. That "slightly less extreme" is a judgement call.

So here's the bottom line. Don't like gore and violence or you don't have a twisted sense of humor? Stay away. But if you do, read it. And if you don't have a twisted sense of humor, why are you reading a review of something called The ADHD Vampire in the first place?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

NOT an instruction manual!

How to Successfully Kidnap Strangers

By Max Booth III


 Publisher: Journalstone 

Pub Date: July 20, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


I get real nervous when reading about authors kidnapping book reviewers. This is not the first novel on this topic but, for reasons that will be disclosed, it is the best novel about kidnapping book reviewers. But I do know some book reviewers that should be kidnapped. If one is a reviewer, they should always write about the book and, even if the book sucks, they should not take the negative hyperbole to a personal level. Even if the author is a truly creepy creature who writes about disembodied heads from his own experiences, it should not be an issue in the review. Now mind you, I am not saying Max Booth III is a truly creepy creature who writes about disembodied heads from his own experiences. That would be a falsehood. I never actually met him and our few exchanges on Facebook have been quite pleasant. In fact, I think it was me who brought up the topic of disembodied heads...

I think I better stop there.

Fortunately, I do not have to worry about dissing the author in this review. How to Successfully Kidnap Strangers does not suck. In fact, it is pretty damn good. The premise starts with the sudden and as yet unexplained kidnapping of Harlan Anderson, a somewhat antisocial and vicious reviewer of books he hate. Currently his insults tend to be directed to the writers of a tiny independent book publisher, BILF Publishing. Think of MILF and you'll get the full name. Harlan's kidnapper, Billy, is one of the writers, a tweeted out loser who seems to be tolerated only because he is the brother of one of the close-knitted denizens of BILF. Billy also manages to kidnap one of the witnesses of his assault on Harlan and pretty soon the crimes are piling up like methed-out dominoes.

How to Successfully Kidnap Strangers is a Keystone Kops version of a satire about the writers and readers in the independent publishing business. The characters are all weird, outcasted, maybe a bit repulsive, and instantly likeable. That even includes the serial killer. The action never stops but within it all we get a hilarious glimpse of the people who populate both the Bizarro publisher genre and its target population of readers. The conclusion appears to be that we are all sickos, but in a good way. if I had a issue with the book, it is that the author appears to be writing to a small audience who will get many of the in-jokes and understand the attractiveness of reading that which no one else in their right mind would read. But there is also a sense of slapstick humor in it that would appeal to those who like books with twisted humor or even movies like Scorcese's After Hours and the more mainstream The Hangover.

Max Booth III is writing about an environment he know, even if it doesn't usually involve disembodied heads. He is able to write about these characters that occupy a reality flirting with the underground and cultish, yet infuse them with enough real life and honest pathos that the uninitiated can even get it. There really are some other novels that have taken on the strange relationship between readers, reviewers and writers. Yet this one, while being one of the more outrageous, is the only one that seems to get all three . Humor is funny that way. it may be easy to make fun of something but it only really works if you love what you make fun of.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A odd and curious museum

Curioddity: A Novel

By Paul Jenkins

Publisher: St. Martin's Press 

Pub Date: August 30, 2016

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In Curioddity by Paul Jenkins, we have a emotionally oppressed gentleman by the name of Wil Morgan who lives in a life-long struggle between the imaginative and the mundane. His mother, who died when he was young, encouraged a fantastical approach to life. "Your eyes only sees what your mind lets you believe," she tells him. His father, on the other hand, steered him toward the safe and the dull, so much so that when Wil becomes a private investigator of insurance fraud he is afraid to tell his father who wants him to follow the even duller and safer career of accounting. One day an eccentric owner of an unusual museum comes to him and asks him to find a box of levity, which is the opposite of a box of gravity. From this point on, Wil becomes entrenched in an adventure going beyond just finding a box and is entrusted with the task of saving the Curioddity Museum.

It is a cute tale and there is lots of stuff is going for it. Wil is an adult that misses the childhood feeling of wonder that his mother instilled in him. It takes a major push for him to reclaim it and that push is aided by Mr. Dinsdale who is the owner of the museum, and a woman who is so endearing and cute that I wanted to ask Wil for her phone number. There is a satisfactory amount of befuddlement in Wil's reactions to the weird going-ons and even a nasty capitalist villain to move along the plot.

Yet, as enjoyable as it was, I couldn't get over the feeling I've read this all before. The clever and humorous writing is often in a style too close to that of Douglas Adams and the characters seemed like copies from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy right down to the neurotic piece of technology. Much of the humor is charming but not all that unpredictable. At the same time, It didn't really launch itself into the farcical surreal as I wanted it to. In a manner of speaking, I wanted to do more than just leave Kansas. I wanted to see Oz. The Museum opened the door but I, Wil, and Lucy never really passed through it.

The thing that works best in Curioddity is Wil's conflict between being "odd" himself or being a conformist. That struggle parallels the conflict between the love for his father and mother to which he cannot reconcile. Wil's father makes an appearance in the second half of the book and it is those conversations between Wil and his father that puts flesh on the bones of the story . Yet the fantastical elements do not meld well enough with the part that moved me to win me over

Curioddity is certainly clever and there are lots of funny one-liners and situations. But with all the satirical fantasy and science fiction that is out there begging to be read, i just didn't give this book too much of a thought afterwards. It seems fairly obvious that the author left plenty of room for sequels. I can think of many series that didn't win me over until the second or third book. This could easily be one of them. But that is in the possible future and for now I have to say I liked it but with reservations. But if you are into satirical fantasy, it just might be worth a shot.

Friday, August 5, 2016

A World War II Thriller

The One Man

By Andrew Gross

Publisher: Minotaur Books 

Pub Date: August 23, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


 In the popular world of mainstream thrillers, Andrew Gross has become one of my favorite authors. Originally a co-author for some of James Patterson's assembly line turnouts, he has succeeded quite well on his own and, for my money, surpasses the talent of his ex-collaborator with a series of financial-based thrillers starring detective Ty Hauck and several stand alone novels. My favorite is the tense and exciting 15 Seconds...until now.

Yet as much as I knew what the author could do, The One Man came out of left field. While ostensibly a thriller, Gross bases his new novel in the wider spectrum of World War II. It becomes a taut and emotional historical suspense tale that works on many levels. It is a suspense book, a historical novel, and a dramatic story of lost and found relationships. In the One Man, Nathan Blum is able to flee Poland before Hitler invades it. But he is filled with remorse since he entire family had to be left behind and are killed by the Nazis. He is picked for a secret mission that could well be suicide. He is to return to Poland, go undercover into the Auschwitz concentration camp, and rescue a scientist that may have the knowledge to place the Allies in a distinct advantage. He finds getting in is difficult but finding one man who is a needle in a haystack of thousands and getting him out before he and his mission dies may well be impossible.

The German concentration camps are never a pleasant topic. The author must thread a fine line between showing the atrocities and terrors of the camps yet not making so horrific and depressing that we lose the excitement of the story. Gross does this quite well. We follow Blum and the scientist Mendl through their days in the camp and witness the one-foot-in-the-grave dilemmas of the prisoners. It is harrowing and maybe a little too much for some readers who may like their thrillers a bit more escapist. Yet it rings true to history and never loses the fact that this is a suspense novel about the odds of survival and the the possibilities of second chances. The author even throws a few cameos into the mix with the appearance of historical figures like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Wild Bill Donovan. Back at Auschwitz, there are a few particular incidents that happen to Blum, Mendl and a young but brilliant teenager that I will not spoil for you. But suffice to say the overlying theme here is the strengths of relationships in the most unlikely places. With all the thrills of adventure in form of an escape and the descriptive horrors of the camp., it is these relationships that make this novel far more that the historical thriller it is.

Even though Andrew Gross has a significant "cult" following among the thriller fans, this could easily be the book that propels him into the popular best-seller list if he hasn't made it already. it should. But more importantly, it is also quality writing with deeply emotional feelings. I love to see an author go beyond what I think he can do and this is indeed one of those novels.

Monday, August 1, 2016

A Dark thriller from a dark series

A Time of Torment

By John Connolly

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton 

Pub. date: April 7, 2016

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars


 One of my rules for reviewing is, "Never review the later book of a series I have not read.". It is also one of my most broken rules. Take the Charlie Parker detective/thriller series by John Connolly. I have been wanting to read them for a while. Asides from the main character being named after my favorite jazz musician, it seemed like a fascinating and complex thriller with a touch of the supernatural. Exactly the type of detective series I tend to love. Yet it was not until recently I decided to read one when i was offer the most recent A Time of Torment for review. Will the fact that this is number 14 of the series affect the power of the novel or my ability to catch the nuances inevitable in a quality series?

The answer is yes in a minor way and no in a major way. Charlie Parker is indeed a complex character with baggage that would sink the Titanic. He manages to die a couple times, have a deceased daughter who hover protectively around him, and carry an intense purpose that goes way beyond, "I want to catch the bad guy.". Connolly attempts to bring the tardy reader up to task during the start of the plot and for the most part, he succeeds. But I still felt I was missing some subtlety in a not so subtle protagonist. But once the story started, it wasn't really that big an issue. the skilled writing and tight plot carries the book.

In A Time of Torment, A man straight out of prison comes to Parker to tell his story. He was once perceived in public as a hero but soon was arrested and jailed as a child molester. He maintains he was framed as a punishment for killing two criminals in a hostage situation. His only real clue to who singled him out for punishment is a phrase uttered by one of his attackers while violating him in the inevitable jailhouse manner ; "This is for the dead king!". To make matters worse, once he tells his story to Parker, he disappears. Parker finds each of his leads are being killed or disappearing which only makes him more determined to find out what is really happening.

This starts an investigation by Parker and his two way-beyond-scary henchman Angel and Louis. Parker's tactics seem to have both his supporters and detractors in the law enforcement profession which helps Parker get away with a lot of things that Sam Spade and Nick Charles would never think of trying. His investigation leads to a group in West Virginia that is well insulated from the local law and have a century old reputation of actions that guarantee no law enforcement officer will try to bother them.

Parker is a bit of an enigma to me. He is foreboding and appears over-the-top goal-oriented. This is probably the part I am missing due to starting with book 14. But his dark charisma and determination does come through and I am all for him right down to the last body count. But much of this also has to do with how well the author incorporate other characters into a whole tapestry of unfortunates and borderlines . Connolly makes each character, major or minor, essential and a clue to the puzzle.

But the biggest "character" for me was The Cut. The Cut is an area not a person. It is an isolated part of West Virginia ,hopefully fictional, that the author endows with a unique sense of evil and dread. It takes on its own personality and is much as a part of the story as any person in the book. As Parker is led to The Cut,we learn more about all involved and by the time we get there, there is a dense and delicious amount of tension that has built up.

I may have not have gotten a total grasp of who Charlie Parker is than if i would have if I read the earlier books in the series. But what stands out is that John Connolly isn't dependent on one character being the sole reason for the story's existence. He wrote a story that, while not necessarily standing alone, is deep and colorful enough to be read out of sequence. There are many supernatural elements but the plot actually would stand well without them. But they do add unique elements to the story.

After reading this, would I go back and read all other 13 books? You're damn right I would. This was one hefty but involving read and well worth it for any thriller fan that likes a supernatural element to their detective yarns.