Saturday, July 22, 2017

"I shouldn't be here."

Bone White

Ronald Malfi

Publisher: Kensington

Pub. Date: July 25, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In the (hopefully) fictional town of Dread’s Hands, Alaska, Joe Mallory has confessed to eight murders. He leads the investigators to where he buried the bodies. When Paul Gallo hears about this chain of murder and discovery on the news, he instantly recognizes the place as where his twin brother Danny went missing a year ago. He travels to Alaska to find out if his brother is one of those that was murdered. His journey leads him to a strange small town where crosses are mounted near the roadside like some form of protection, children wear animal masks to ward off devils, and the inhabitants seem fearful of him and just want him to leave. Like many who grieve, Paul is looking for resolution but instead is being sucked into a bigger mystery and an even more horrible secret.

Bone White is one of those rare horror novels that can make a place a monster. Ronald Malfi is a master of dark description and Dread’s Hands is all the most forbidding because of it. It is described as barely a town at all and those who visit it remember it ”as a sequence of crude Neanderthal drawings, a series of snapshots all laid out of order, and in random, nonsensical collages. Nightmare fuel”. But as the reader gets more into the story, Dread’s Hand becomes the foundation for a more deadly horror. The author builds up the terror almost perfectly with each skillful description leading to more fears. “I shouldn’t be here” is an impression Paul gets when he arrives and is repeated in varied and significant ways as he remains. It is also the impression the reader receives as he or she explores Dread’s Hand on paper.

But Paul Gallo is looking for his brother so he braves the forbidding town despite the townspeople’s effort to make him leave. There are essentially two mysteries going on in the novel. There is the disappearance of his twin brother and there is the more recent discovery of eight corpses which is being investigated by detective Jill Ryerson who is being lured in by the contradictions and questions that follow the killer’s confession and explanation. Inevitably the two events are connected but not in a way that might be suspected by the reader. Again, we see the enormous skills of the author as he pulls everything together in a way that may be surprising. But what surprises me the most is how well Malfi works in the psychological angst of a man whose love/ hate relationship with his brother fuels his guilt and keeps his needs to put closure on is twin’s disappearance alive. The horror of the town and its residents may be the bait but it is the emotions and struggles of the main protagonist that places this book above the heap of good suspense and horror tales to see the light of day in 2017.

Hence Bone White is not only essential reading for the horror fan but is just as important to those who want a literary read that explore basic human emotion of grief and the need for resolution. Bone White may be dark and it certainly fits the bills for atmospheric scares and chills but it is the human connection that makes this more than just another horror novel and why it is one of the best books of 2017 of any genre.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A study of fear and guilt

The Breakdown

B. A. Paris


Publisher:  St. Martin's Press 

Pub. Date: July 18, 2017

rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Cass is headed home to her cottage and husband when she passes a car on the road. She is driving on a secluded road, a "shortcut", in the middle of a relentless rain storm. She sees a woman sitting in a car but can't tell who it is. She pulls over but is afraid to get out, partially due to the storm but more because of her fear that it may be a set up for a robbery or worst. The woman in the car remains sitting there. Cass drives away promising herself she will call the police when she gets home. She forgets to call and wake up that next morning to discover on the news that the woman was murdered that night.

She is engulfed by guilt and, worried how others will see her actions, tells no one including her husband or the police. Shortly after this, she finds her memory failing. She forgets a number of things ranging from where she left her coffee cup to where she parked her car. She doesn't remember buying things like a baby pram or ordering the installation of a house alarm. She believes that someone is in her house or sees what she thinks may be the murder knife on the kitchen table but the police find nothing when they arrive. And then there are the constant phone calls from someone who doesn't respond when it is picked up. Cass fears that she is being stalked by the murderer of the young woman but she is just as afraid that she may be having a mental breakdown or is beginning the descent into dementia.

The experienced reader of suspense and mystery novels will catch on to a tried and true theme in The Breakdown very quickly. it is about a woman that appears to be mentally deteriorating . The experience with the woman in the car is the catalyst and we read to see how they relate to each other and if they relate at all. The author, B. A. Paris, plays it like a fiddle. We read the narration in Cass' perspective so we do not get the clues until she does. Cass is a young woman who is in love with her husband and life in general but is constantly worried about suffering the fate of her mother which was early onset dementia. We can instantly identify with the potential loss of her dreams to an unforgiving ailment. Paris pays into that well and it is what makes The Breakdown so involving.

But while this is what holds us, it is the familiarity of the plot that may hinder our full enjoyment. This is well traveled territory and, while the author tries hard to place some new twists into it, sooner or later it becomes formulaic. Most readers will figure out what is going on early if not necessarily all the whos and hows. Fortunately those whos and hows is what keep us in the read. Paris uses a nice gimmick near the resolution to feed us the loose ends while our protagonist wraps up the ending. It all works but it doesn't knock me out of my seat and eventually makes the great beginning and slow build up a little less effective.

While it doesn't break any new ground, it is still an entertaining novel and a solid psychological thriller made most effective by its study of a woman potentially losing her mind to her life long fears. It still gets a strong three and a half stars and my solid recommendation for an entertaining suspense read.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A descent into thrills.

Cavern of the Damned

Russell James

Publisher: Severed Press

Pub. Date: May 22, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

When I am reading certain books, usually of the horror adventure variety, I sometimes engage on a little fantasy game. I pretend I am a B movie producer considering this particular property to make as a film. I envision myself as a Roger Corman. A Samuel Z Arkoff. A William Castle with 21st century gimmicks. It can’t be any book. It has to be one that sends my imagination wheeling, that is a little cheesy but not too much so, and has lots of creative B movie type thrills and spills. Let’s not forget it has to have some really great monsters.

Cavern of the Damned by Russell James is one of those books.

It has a lot of things I love. Forbidding caves. Oversized monsters,. Creepy bad guy. A hot capable heroine and a somewhat ordinary nerd hero in peril (but the girl already has a guy. We can work on that in the screenplay). Basically it takes me back to the pulps that I loved as a kid and, of course, to those B-movies. It doesn’t hurt that Russell James is in his horror novel element and one hell of a writer.

In Cavern of the Damned we meet Grant Coleman, a laid off paleontologist wondering how he is going to meet next month’s rent. He is lured into a film project with a shady documentary maker that will take him to caves in Montana with pictographs of giant bats at the entrance. Park ranger McKinley Stinson follows the explosions caused when the film maker attempts to open the passageway into the cave and is about to arrest everyone when the entrance collapses and traps them inside. They must find a way out and that takes them deeper into uncharted underground territory filled with deadly monsters and complicated by doubling dealing bad guys. There are scares of both the creature and man-made variety and bets will be taken on who will survive. Then there is Mckinley’s hot lumberjack fiancĂ© who is determined to rescue her despite a killer blizzard raging outside. The thrills are plenty and the science is slight but not stretched to the point of silliness, well, some silliness. The monsters do really exist in caves but is a smaller pint-sized capacity. And the idea of North American Neanderthals? OK. That’s a real stretch but an author can have some fun as long as the reader has fun too.

I think Mr. James will forgive me if I say this is not literature with a capital L. This is pulp but really good pulp. It is the kind that induces thrills, stretches the imagination and makes you root for the good guys. It is the type of adventure pulp that makes me glad there are hints of a sequel. It is the kind of adventure that makes movies in your mind. Cavern of the Damned is one fun read. Let’s call it my recommended mid-summer read for the horror and adventure loving kid inside you.

Friday, July 14, 2017

A tale of dimensions and inner demons

Palladium at Night

Christopher Slatsky

Publisher: Dim Shores

Pub Date: May 31, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In this small press, limited edition novelette by Christopher Slatsky, Irepani is a formerly homeless alcoholic who is on the road to recovery thanks to a caring relative. However, he feels the need to get away on sort of a solitary retreat from the city and goes to an abandoned fire lookout station that his street-wise friends told him about in an urban legend sounding way. The lookout is indeed abandoned but it is also near the ruins of a space observatory and a revoltingly strange shrine. Irepani's isolated retreat quickly becomes a strange out-of-this-world nightmare.

Frankly, I'm not sure I have come across a short piece of fiction that packed such a combination of emotional and mystical response in quite a while. Slatsky gets right down to forming the character of Irepani and in a few short pages we have a sympathetic man, and his dog, who could have easily become a caricature. The author inserts alternating segments that gives us a glimpse into an odd scientific experiment that may be going on simultaneously. Simply put, Palladium at Night is a miniature masterpiece. We are pulled into the story while the strangeness of the encounter between Irepani and his environment engulfs us subtly if not slowly. The style and theme is reminiscent of the Lovecraftian Circle writers via a Clark Ashton Smith of the 21st century. The ending has a nice twist and it is ultimately a terrifying one.

Novelettes in the 40 and 50 page length are hard to get right. In inexperienced hands they tend to suffer from too much filler or not enough body. Slatsky gets this and executes his tale almost perfectly. It's a tight mix of intimate terror and cosmic horror. I believe we are looking at one of the best works of short fiction this year and that may be important to note come award season. At any shot, Slatsky and his sweetly terrifying novelette could use some more love and attention from the horror fans. They don't yet know what they are missing.

Hap and Leonard visits a bookmobile.

Hoodoo harry

Joe R. Lansdale

Publisher: Mysterious Press/Open Road 

Pub. Date: August 1, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



Bibliomysteries is a series of short novellas from Mysterious Press and Open Road Media that features mysteries centered around books. As they put it, "Short tales about deadly books." The lineup of authors is impressive from R. L. Stine to Joyce Carol Oates. Hoodoo Harry is Joe R. Lansdale's contribution. It is nominally about books with the basic tie-in being a bookmobile that shows up in a deadly accident after being missing for 15 years. But the good news for Joe R. Lansdale fans is that Hoodoo Harry is a new Hap and Leonard story.

Hap and Leonard are almost killed when above mentioned bookmobile hits Leonard's truck. The driver is a young boy who is killed instantly while Hap and Leonard manage to survive. In their usual style, they become involved in finding out why the van reappeared after 15 years, what other gruesome acts are attached to it, and what happened to Hoodoo Harry , the woman who drove it in the years before. Those question reveal several murders which are associated with a mostly derelict town and its questionable inhabitants.

While the core of the Lansdale series is located in the 12 novels, the author seems to be enjoying writing short stories and novellas that clue us in to this duo. I really appreciate those short stories than deal with Hap and Leonard as children as they add dimension to the characters. Hoodoo Harry takes part in the present day after the last novel Rusty Puppy. It still keeps to the pattern of the novels. Yet this may be the best of the short novellas that Landsdale have been writing regularly . It is to the point with plenty of good dialog and a tight who-dunnit
style . Yet there is a scene at the end that both shocked and impressed me. It is a scene that speaks to the difference between the two friends. it is a difference that, if visited in future tales, may speak of a tension that could cause a lot of rift in this series . Will it be explore later. I hope because it will put in a new wrinkle to the Hap and Leonard persona What is it? You know I am not going to tell.

Overall, Hoodoo Harry is a nice addition to the Hap and Leonard repertoire and is one of the better short works. You can read this as a stand-alone but you might miss all the nuances . But for the fans of this roughhouse investigator duo series, it is definitely one to pick up.

Monday, July 10, 2017

More of the same from Koontz

The Silent Corner

Dean Koontz

Publisher: Bantam

Pub Date: June 20, 2017

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My love/hate experience with Dean Koontz goes all the way back to 1975 when I read Demon Seed. It was a neat science fiction thriller that was fun but not necessarily memorable enough to return to the Koontz name. I did not read another Koontz novel, even though he was quite prolific even then sometimes writing 8 books a year under his own name and pseudonyms, until 1983 with Phantoms. That was the start of my love for the writer and what I consider his golden years with Watchers, Lighting, Midnight, and others setting the framework for the author to be considered the dean (no pun intended) of the mainstream sci fi/horror thriller. But soon, somewhere in the 90s I believe, the books started coming out as off an assembly line. It didn't help that all those novels he wrote earlier under pseudonyms were now being issued under his own name with many of those were rather tepid and straddling several genres. The original horror thriller plots now seemed to be rehashed and formulaic. Even though a gem would occasionally pop like like Odd Thomas, the creativity just wasn't there any more even though the fast paced writing skills were still fresh.

But I kept reading. Let's face it, Koontz is an icon in the field and his worst, like Relentless, still tops a lot of writers' best. The City was the first since Odd Thomas that perked up my ears again. Then Ashley Bell from last year blew me out of the water . Could we be in the midst of a creative revival for the writer?

This year we have The Silent Corner which is billed as the first in a series featuring rogue FBI agent, Jane Hawk. Despite the name of the main protagonist, The Silent Corner doesn't soar. It just hangs there then sinks like a leaky balloon. In this book, Jane Hawk is investigating the death of her husband who committed suicide despite having a happy and satisfying life and no signs of being suicidal until he write a strange suicide note with the line, "I very much need to be dead". Jane cannot accept the verdict of the coroner and investigators and discovers there is a huge splurge in suicide acts throughout the world, many by them by people who previously shown no inclination of being depressed or hopeless. She find herself being hunted down as she discovers a conspiracy that leads straight to high-end citizens with the brains and money needed to reshape the world through any means necessary.

As you can probably see, this is nothing creatively earthshaking. As we read on to the gist of the conspiracy even Koontz wittingly acknowledges the source which led to me to think, "Of course, wasn't that already obvious?". But retracing tried and true plots and giving them new life is what many mainstream thrillers are about. Unfortunately there is little that we can call "life" here. There is one long "Hunt, chase, destroy and repeat" throughout the 400 plus pages with characters just going through their paces. Jane Hawk goes through the motion of a hard-core Jack Reacher styled bad chick without any real humanity in her. We are told repeatedly how he loves her husband and is given a brief glimpse at her son who she leaves with some friends who seem to take the abandonment all in strife but that's it. There is little empathy here as she fight and kill her way through the bad guys.

And that's a problem too. if there is one thing Koontz does better than anyone else it is writing meaty villains. We get a lot of small cogs as they are eliminated one by one but once we meet the supposed big cog we become disappointed and we meet him too late. After all this is a series, we don't want to make the ending too satisfying, right? It messes up the formula for the series.

In order to make the formula work, you need meaningful characters. That is where the brilliant Ashley Bell shines. Here we get plot but no flesh, action but no heart, resolution but no revelation. We've seen this from Koontz before and even then he did it better. I may be unfair . A writer cannot score every time. Koontz has written enough to always consider him one of the major horror and suspense writers. But at this stage ofa prolific and gifted writer, I do wish the auto-pilot wasn't so obvious.

Dying off-stage

Ten Dead Comedians

Fred Van Lente


Publisher:  Quirk Books 

Pub. Date: July 11, 2017

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars


 The title of Ten Dead Comedians is going to sound very familiar to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of murder mysteries. The best selling mystery of all times is Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None which was also titled Ten Little Indians and in its first printing was given the title Ten Little *insert N word*. Fortunately saner heads won out in later years. Fred Van Lent's very funny take-off on the Christie novel can be called a pastiche or even a tribute to the classic book but, like all good tributes, it adds something of its own and makes its own statement.

Fred Van Lente is primarily known as a writer of comic books and graphic novels. This is his first novel and I guess it is a compliment that it didn't make me think of graphic novels at all. It made me think of someone who has a first hand knowledge of the business of stand-up comedy and the psychological make-up of anyone who wishes to go into that brutal business. I am not sure whether he has that experience but he made me feels like he did. The premise of Ten Dead Comedians, as it is in the Agatha Christie book, involves ten people who are invited to a secluded island for somewhat vague reasons. One by one, they end up being murdered. Since it is established that no one else is on the island, the murderer has to be one of the ten. And we are off to the races.

All of Van Lente's unsuspecting victims are comedians. In fact, they are sort of a sampling of comic stereotypes. Some of them are thin disguises of well known comics such as Joan Rivers and Larry the Cable Guy. A few seem to be a combination of individuals. For instance, prop comic Oliver Rees aka Orange Baby Man appears to be a mixture of Carrot Top and Gallagher. Others seem to be more of a capsule of a particular type of comic style than any one person. The use of comic archtypes works well in this story. They shape the characters and their issues. as they play against the mysterious personage of Dustin Walker, a legend who all ten comics have a connection to and the one who invites them to his island. Walker is sort of the McGuffin in the novel. He explains via videotape why they are all there and then kills himself. Guessing the connections to Walker and how he is pulling off this mass extinction of funny people is half the fun.

Of course a book like this needs to be funny. But not so funny or outlandish that we lose the structure of the mystery. Intermittent slices of each comic's routines helps us along as we follow this who-will-do-it and who-will-croak-it. All in all it is a clever take-off on a very weird profession. Van Lente offers lots of droll and witty one liners as each comic engage each other in a competition of words and wits. I can't say any one character is very sympathetic but since we are dealing with archtypes rather than rounded characterizations, it tends to work.

When we do get to the ending, we get a satisfactory if far fetched solution. It is actually no more unrealistic than many of the convoluted endings we expect from the masters like Christie. This ends up as a satire of a particular type of mystery as well as being a parody of comics. The author takes care of the loose ends adequately and we are left with a smile on our face. I'm not sure how much more a reader of a book titled Ten Dead Comedians should expect. If you love Christie styled mysteries you will enjoy the spin.. If you love stand up comedy you will enjoy the in-jokes and the inside look at comic psyches. And if you just enjoy funny novels, you should definitely give this a try.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Past the Red Line

Flesh Trade

David Agranoff & Edward Morris

Publisher: Grand Mal Press

Pub. date: August, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

There is a term used by evolutionary scientists describing a species that can proliferate almost anywhere. When they do proliferate, they often overcrowd and endanger the native animals. Those species are "weeds" and scientists say the most successful weed of them all is man.

In Flesh Trade it is "2384 CE (old earth calendar)" The descendants of Earth has reached far into the galaxies to the agreed upon "Red Line" where humans must end their expansion into space. However colonies do spring up past the red line and they are now lawless frontiers profiting in many criminal endeavors, especially slavery and prostitution. Governor Andall Shelton is hosting a conference of the various civilizations in the universe on the most far-reached colonized planet of the human expansion, Konstantinopolis. Many of the alien civilizations resent the human incursion and the unofficially recognized market in sexual slaves past the expansion's limit. Andall is well aware the conference will determine peace or war but is interrupted and tested when his own daughter and his daughter's friend are abducted and taken to NewKok, one of the most dangerous settlements past the red line.

David Agranoff and Edward Morris has accomplished an impressive epic in Flesh Trade. There is some nice world-building especially at the beginning. The aliens are well thought out with the aquatic Strellans being one of the most interesting. Due to their unusual sensual nature, the Strellans are most affected by the slave trade and most likely to initiate war. The socio-political atmosphere of the summit comes through at the beginning of this book and makes for some heady reading but we do not lose sight of the main characters; Andall, his wife Rizz, and his daughters Liv and Cassie. The other kidnapped girl Nalla and her mother Sun will also be playing a major role. We get a good feel for this world with its precarious politics and its corrupt underbelly but when Andall’s daughter is kidnapped the plot takes a decisive turn. Andall and Rizz, along Sun, goes past the red line to rescue them. The novel shifts to dark science fiction noir and non-stop action. Without giving away all the thrills, there are blotched rescue attempts and a last ditch Hail Mary move reminiscent of William Gibson that places Andall’s mind and soul literally in danger of annihilation.

It is that effortless switch from socio-political worldbuilding to sci-fi noir that makes this novel work so well. From a world of questionable diplomacy and government threats to another world of straight-out dog-eat-dog decadence and criminality, the authors have both down perfectly. We believe Andall in both worlds, especially when he takes on the extra baggage that is hinted at in the prologue which allows him his last chance to rescue the girls. Rizz and Sun are no wallflowers either. There is no feminine weeping and screaming here. They are immensely strong characters who will kick ass right along with, and sometimes better than, any man. The action rarely slows down. The scenes of slavery and prostitution may be a little rough for some but overall this is one tough hombre of a novel.

Flesh Trade is as good a science fiction book as they come. Right now, it is my pick for best science fiction novel of 2017. It is also an edge-of-your-seat adventure novel reeking in crime noir, mercenary action, and underworld decadence. What is impressive is how well they both come together and how we never lose the humanity of the main characters throughout all the double-dealing and violence. If you have any love for science fiction, I highly recommend this as your next  read.