Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The precarious role of coincidences


By Neil Randall

Publisher: Crooked Cat

Pub. Date: January 24, 2017

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

In the world of suspense and mystery, plausibility is an big issue. The task for most mystery writers is to make the implausible plausible. A good mystery novel is often loaded with coincidences and those coincidences must be such that the reader is willing to suspend belief at least for a little while as the author patches them up to create a believable whole and a believable conclusion.

The issues with Isolation is all about plausibility. The plot starts with an unlikely premise and is then loaded with one thing on top of another. To a certain extent it works. The author, Neil Randall, has a lightning style that keeps throwing weird things at you and leave you wanting for more...and a resolution. The set-up is certainly irresistible. Nigel Randolph is an unassuming man who works in a government office taking safety complaints. He receives a photograph of what appears to be a murder scene. At first he thinks it is a prank but changes his mind when the exact same scene shows up on the news. He reports it to the police and becomes more involved when it is discovered the two murdered women were,along with Nigel, part of a therapy group ten years earlier when he was having mental health problems. Pretty soon there are other deaths of people Nigel knew and they all seem to be related to that therapy group.

There are other strange clues. A drawing of an great horned owl keeps showing up coupled with a Native American myth. A new girl friend comes into his life while an old girl friend is writing things about Nigel that is the opposite of what he remembered. And of course, he is quickly becoming the police's prime suspect. It all mounts up quite well until a situation involving Nigel going to a house to investigate a complaint really stretches my ability to suspend disbelief. It never quite recovers from that point. But the storytelling skills of Randall is good enough to keep my interest until...

The ending. Oh, that ending. I certainly do not want to ruin it but it is a cliche. It explains the piling of coincidence but in the least original way possible. What the author meant to be a shock become merely a groan and deadens any enthusiastic for wanting the author to wrap up all the loose ends. It's too bad since I really did like the build-up regarding of the heightening of the implausibility. Yet that style of build-up always risks falling off the edge and this edge is off the Empire State Building, so to speak.

It isn't that an ending like this can't work. It simply doesn't. In order for it to work we need an inkling of a clue so when we get there we can say, "Why didn't I see that coming." We do not get it. What should feel like a surprise feels more like a cheat. It is too bad because the plot really grabbed me at least for a while. Neil Randall writes well and to some extent there was good structuring of his plot. Yet if an author piles on the implausible there must be a climax that pulls it off. That is what's missing and why I can not recommend Isolation

Monday, December 26, 2016

Monsters and Sorcery in Seattle

Realms of Shadow

By Barry James

Publisher: After Hours Publishing 

Pub Date: March 11, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

When we last encountered Jordan Hanson, he has just finished defeating the evil Ackerman and the Mandragorans who were close to annihilating the human race. It is five years later and the battle has left many portals to other dimensions open. Jordan and his crew are patrolling and fighting the dangerous creatures who pass through the portals.. But recently, an alchemist and a rogue angel have presented a far greater danger that once again threaten to enslave humans and they may be far more powerful that Team Jordan.

This is the premise of Realms of Shadows the second book of Barry James' Mondragoran Chronicles. I have previously reviewed the first book, Dreams of Darkness and, while I enjoyed and recommended it, I found it had a number of common problems that appear in independently published first books. It was still strong enough for me to look forward to the second book. I am pleased to say any quibbles I had with the first book has dissipated with the second. Realms of Shadow is a tighter effort in all ways. The book is shorter at 336 pages than the first but it seems more detailed and complex in the depiction of both the action and the fantasy world. James has created a fully formed alternate reality Earth with lots of creatures, many taken from other mythologies, that serve as Jordan's enemies and allies. The dialog is also tighter and doesn't break up the action like it did before which is perhaps the best improvement for one who likes their urban fantasy to be action-packed. And as I predicted, Jordan has found himself a girl friend yet it is casually immersed enough within the story not to be paranormal romance. (Thank God!)

Jordan continues to be the focus and an interesting protagonist. He is perfecting control of the monster within him and seems to be less in conflict with it. There is still some brooding but it is smarter and more task-directed. The other members of his group are all essential to the plot. I am tempted to say there is a bit of "Buffy and the Scooby Gang" in this second novel due to their focus on mission and their camaraderie and that is a good thing which is essential to drive forward a series like this. My favorite addition is Lori, a child seer with a lot of spunk for someone whose fate is not promising. She has just the right amount of smart-assery for a gifted kid. "Which part of 'I can see the future' did you not get?" Another nice touch is that the more casual parts feel steeped in the culture of Seattle where the action takes palace. I mean where else can a group of demon fighters feel natural discussing sorcery, demons, and plans of attack while sipping Awake tea and a white chocolate mocha at a Starbucks. And knowing Seattle, I could envision that not one customer thought this was unusual until the blood wraith showed up!

Realms of Shadow ends up a very strong contender in the urban fantasy genre. It is a improvement on the already promising start of the first volume. James' story remains very dark but very readable. Its villains and monsters are well described and formidable but it is Jordan and his team that really make the book such a delight. It should be noted that this novel can be read without the first book since the author has combined a detailed synopsis of the first book in the second chapter to get the reader up to speed. But I do recommend reading them in order. I am looking forward to the next installment.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Time after time

Time Travel

By James Gleick

Publisher: Pantheon

Pub. Date: September 27, 2016

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

James Gleick starts off with a bombshell. One we should all already know but we don't want to admit. Time travel is impossible. At least the two-way type that we would all like to do. He does mention "time travel" as implied in speed of light travel but that isn't really time travel is it? That's more like a suspended animation that you stay awake for. . It is a Rip Van Winkle effect proven by experiments with atomic clocks. But the touristy version of time travel to the past and forward and back again? Fascinating. Tempting, However the sad fact is science and physics fights against the idea of that being a reality.

So why write a book of time travel, especially a history of time travel? Because the concept is so embedded in our brain that it pretty much affects everything in our modern world. It is in our literature, our media, and even in physics as it grapple with the paradoxes set forward in the many thought exercises that time travel gives us. After all, If quantum physics isn't an exercise in the paradoxes of our reality, what is?

Gleick starts his history with H. G. Wells and his novel The Time Machine. Pretty much everything we accept about the idea, including the idea of time as a fourth dimension, comes from Wells. From there he explores several ideas that continue to rise from the literature to come and how Physics chugs along right with them. Time Travel is basically a series of meanderings. It feels more like a continuing mind game, despite its chronological pattern, rather than a history of anything. That may offset a few people that want something really about time travel but for others, like myself, it is an almost poetic if challenging way to look at our perceptions. This is the kind of book more understood at a chapter at a time so you can absorb its idea. Definitely not a light read, it is still one that entertains while informing. If you like the topic, this is a must.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Movies that never were

Neon Trash: Forgotten B-Movies of the '80s

By MP Johnson

Publisher: WeirdPunk Books

Pub. Date: October 5, 2016

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I'm not exactly sure what M. P. Johnson is doing here but it is lots of fun watching her do it. The subtitle "Forgotten B-Movies of the 80" says it all. Neon Trash is a love story to those films that no one has seen and most people won't even try to. Fortunately there are a few people out there, like the author and myself, that lives for this stuff. Johnson in the first article, makes a case for loving B-movies (let's be frank. Most of 80s DIY movies are really D-movies) but makes a better case for reading the capsule reviews of the films that she will proceed to mention. She follows up with synopses of 52 films, none that I have ever heard of. That is actually quite a feat. These capsule reviews are quite fun. This is followed with interviews by actors and makers of these films. Again, none I have ever heard of. Hmmm. She pays particular attention to a movie titled Neon Meltoids of which I could find no mention of on the internet. It must be very obscu...wait a minute. None of these movies can be found on the internet! Am I being screwed with?

OK. Mrs. Johnson. You had your fun. I almost fell for it! Even as the humor it is, it is still a nice salute to the 80's B-Movie era. I must say the best chapter in this book is "Trash Tape Quest: My Hunt for Neon Meltoids". It is hilarious!

So how does one rate something like this? It is very weird. It is very funny. It is very short. It is a merry prank in print. Let's just call it a delicious fart and leave it at that!

Friday, December 16, 2016

The best novels of 2016

Here is my list of  top ten novels of order of preference. I also added various other bests under the list.

1. THE HEAVENLY TABLE - Donald Ray Pollock
2. DARK MATTER - Blake Crouch
3. MONGRELS - Stephen Graham Jones
4. BEFORE THE FALL - Noah Hawley
5. THE VIOLATORS - Vincenzo Bilof
7. DEAD SOULS - J. Lincoln Fenn
8. PUNK ROCK GHOST STORY - David Agranoff
10. SQUIRM WITH ME - Andersen Prunty

Now the best of the rest.

Best single author anthology (tie)
ECSTATIC INFERNO - Autumn Christian

Best multiple author collection
TALES AND SCALES - edited by John Palisano

Best YA Novel

Best novel of 2015 read in 2016
ZERO SAINTS - Gabino Iglesias

Best WTF! Novel (besides the already mentioned THE VIOLATORS)

Best non-fiction
TIME TRAVEL - James Gleick

Best Poetry book
RHYME & REBELLION - Harry Whitewolf

Best journal/magazine

And finally some honorable mentions which means I am distraught because I couldn't put more than 10 books on a top ten list. No particular order (this just happens to complete all the 2016 novels I gave five stars to.)

THE ONE MAN - Andrew Gross
BLISTER - Jeff Strand
THE POISON ARTIST - Jonathan Moore

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Punk never dies

Punk Rock Ghost Story

By David Agranoff

Publisher: Deadite Press 

Pub Date: September 23, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


I like books that evoke an era. I like horror novels. David Agranoff does both quite well at the same time. He likes to write about the punk rock era of the 80s and beyond. He does it very well. Other authors may incorporate punk rock in their fiction but Agranoff does it with a wistfulness coupled with a realism that our memories of an era can be more harmful than helpful if we don't recognize the realities of today. It is not that different than the struggles I had in the sixties and onward with the "hippie" movement. Both evokes memories and conflicts that are ripe for exploration in literature, even horror.

Punk Rock Ghost Story (PRGS)seems to be about that struggle. As we begin the novel, Frank and his punk rock group The Fuckers are touring across the country in 1982 dreaming of a possible concert with Black Flag once they reach Los Angeles. The tour is a disaster and just out of Houston, the band members decide they want to return home to Indiana. Frank forces them to continue and seems to be on the verge of an unreasonable and violent obsession.

Fast forward to 2006. Nate and his band People's Uprising is about to go on tour. They are a struggling punk band in Indiana that dreams of breaking out of the locals and into more renown with their tour. Nate loves the punk scene but wonders if it has lost something from its start in the 80s. While looking for a tour van, he stumbles across a beat up van that was used for the Fuckers' last legendary tour where Frank disappeared and was never seen again. People's Uprising goes on tour but the van has a hold on Nate as he listens to eerie voices and visions while the rest of the band becomes concerned with his memory losses and personality changes.

So now we have a ghost story coupled with a mystery. Is the van haunted,? What happened to Frank on his last tour? What is happening to Nate? Everything is eventually revealed but not without a number of scares and some violence. As a ghost story, PRGS is very successful and kept me enthralled with the mystery and strangeness of the tale. But what really makes it memorable is Agranoff's blending of time and culture. Punk in the 80s was indeed a golden time. But it was not the nirvana that memories may make it. Reality never is. Outside the cities, punk were subjected to suspicion and often violence. They were misunderstood as anything unusual or new is often misunderstood. Frank's anger became part of that and, with Nate, the van recognizes a similar anger and longing and exploits that. The author's evoking of the punk culture seems real in both its contemporary and 80s incarnations. I am not sure it is a coming of age story or a returning to another age story and I like that. Nate's relationship to band member and girl friend Erika is also a central part of the plot and become essential to how it plays out.

It is said that writers should write about what they know and Agranoff certainly knows his punk rock culture. But there is more than that. He is able to communicate beyond the punk rockers and make that scene a reality for those who do not identify with it. He may write in the horror genre but the theme goes well beyond just the scares and that is why we should read his works. He is still in his prime so we can expect more like this. That is definitely a good thing.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Nessie attacks!

Loch Ness Revenge

 By Hunter Shea


Publisher:  Severed Press

Pub Date: November 1, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Natalie, her twin brother Austin and her parents were vacationing at Loch Ness, Scotland 20 years ago. One night while camping and roasting marshmallows, Natalie and Austin heard a splash of water followed by screams. When they arrived at the shore, they see a creature in the water killing her parents. Forward wind to the present. Natalie is now camped out on that very shore trying to prove the existence of the Loch Ness Monster.

And kill it.

OK. Now that kind of bugged me right there. I grew up on stories of Nessie. The Loch Ness Monster for all intent and purpose is Scotland's mascot. The only death ever blamed on Nessie was in 1952 when a water ripple from the big oaf was said to called a speedboat crash. Nessie didn't stick around to swap insurances. Nessie must be the most beloved figure of monster lore on the planet. So the idea of the water seprent as a vicious man-eater took a little work to sink in.

Fortunately, Hunter Shea is a bit of an expert on monsters. They seem to be his specialty with at least his last two books taking on other known legends of crypto-zoology. The challenge in Loch Ness Revenge is to set up his future monster killer with a past that lets us in on her suffering and obsession. If you are going to kill a beloved icon, you better have a good reason. But this is a short novella that means we need to get to the chase quickly. So once the protagonist is set, we are introduced to her twin brother and a couple of colorful sidekicks and we're off!

Then there is the monster. Shea has its own version of the Loch Ness Monster. We are given glimpses of it as Natalie seeks it out and the author reveals more as the hunt escalates. As the novel proceeds, we get a few surprises and lots of action right to the final showdown.

So how does the whole thing work? It is not nearly as complex as Shea's previous novels which makes sense because it is much shorter at less than 150 pages. There may be a few too many incidents that seem to be borrowed from Jaws. However it works because it is fun. If it doesn't stretch your mind, that's OK. It is an amusing read with enough thrills to keep the reader satisfied. And I wouldn't lose too much sleep over the scary creature that Mr. Shea has conjured up from his mind. I am sure that Nessie is simply a sweet, if huge, eel-like critter that loves to float on the lake and wake at the tourists. We all must have our fantasies.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Mental unease


Edited by Brad C. Hodson & Benjamin Kane Ethridge

Publisher: Dark Regions Press

Pub Date: May 22, 2016

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I kept thinking of a cinematic comparison while reading Madhouse. There was a movie in the 70s called Asylum. It had a screenplay by Robert Bloch and featured a number of stories set in the confines of a mental institution. There was also a framing story that very loosely tied all the others together. It is one of the better horror anthology movies that you will find.

Madhouse is a little like that. It also has a connecting framing story about the patients and staff who are isolated in an Arizona mental facility during a sandstorm. These "chapters" as they are called, are written by the editors Brad C Hodson and Benjamin Kane Ethridge. Between these chapters are 20 pieces of short fiction contributed by a number of horror and fantasy writers including John Skipp, Scott Nicholson, Lisa Morton, Rena Mason, Jeff Strand and others. As I understand it, all the authors were given a layout of the fictional Golden Canyon Behavioral Health Center to keep the stories consistent with the shared world environment. Whether they knew of the on-going narration before they wrote their stories is unknown to me. However the characters in the chapters do show up in the stories and there seem to be some consistency with characters as well as the confines of the center.

That part about how much the author worked within the confines of the connecting narration is what troubles me. I think they knew little beyond the bare basics because, for the most part, it feels like a jumble. That makes it confusing to follow. Because of this, no one story stands out and makes the collection work. There are some very good tales here. I especially like those by John Palisano, John Skipp., and Jeff Strand. Not so much the chapters by Hodgson and Ethridge which is unfortunate because that is the thread that supposedly binds them together. The full sum of the parts just didn't work for me.

What does work is the overall design of the book and the illustrations that accompany the collection. Dark Regions Press has a stellar reputation for the design and appearance of their publications and Madhouse does not disappoint in this area. There are lots of gorgeous and creepy illustrations from Aeron Alfrey that are worth the price of the admission alone and they do add a great bit of atmosphere to the accompanying stories.

But it doesn't really gel together in the literary department despite the quality of writing. It's a noble experiment but, as a screenwriter and sometimes critic friend of mine would say, "It's a interesting failure."

Friday, December 2, 2016

Another novella diversion with Hap and Leonard

Coco Butternut

By Joe R. Lansdale

Publisher: Subterranean Press

Pub date: January 31, 2017

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


The saga of Hap and Leonard continues with this barely-a-novella, Coco Butternut. In case you are wondering, Coco Butternut is a dead dachshund. Its body has been dug up and held for ransom to be paid by the previous owner of the dog. To be more precise, the son of the previous owner who was his deceased mother. It seems like a simple task for the lads; pay the ransom and collect the coffin and the canine "pickled"corpse ("Embalmed and wrapped like a mummy..Not pickled" says the dog owner's son Farmer to Leonard). But something doesn't seem right and when they complete the deal, it becomes obvious to them why it doesn't seen right...

As far as Hap and Leonard stories go, this is a barely inconsequential one. I am tempted to call it my least favorite book but my least favorite Lansdale work is still better than 90% of other writer's best works. It is short, sweet and simple...and doesn't really give us any new insight to the duo and their extended family. We now have Chance, Hap's daughter, in the gang but nothing is really added here except maybe that Chance is spending too much time around Leonard and picking up a little attitude. There is nothing amiss with the story either, except we really do not learn much of what happened after Hap's flirtation with death in the last substantial novel, Honky Tonk Samurai. I think we may need to wait for the next substantial novel, Rusty Puppy for the details.

Basically, the Hap and Leonard novellas that has recently bridged the gap between novels are diversions. They are entertaining and well written as is anything Lansdale puts to paper. But they are not essential. This one may be the least essential of them all. It still merits three stars. I love this series and can't even think of rewarding it less but I really hope no Hap and Leonard novice starts with this book. That would be dismaying.