Thursday, August 31, 2017

The third book in Mail Order Massacres

Money Back Guarantee

Hunter Shea

Publisher: Lyrical Underground

Pub. Date: October 3, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

If I understand correctly, Shea Hunter's Mail Order Massacres is a trilogy. That would make Money Back Guarantee the last book of the trilogy. I hoping it is an continuing series because it is so much fun. If you have not read my previous reviews for Just Add Water and Optical Delusions , the trilogy focuses on those comic books ads in the back of the pages that offer things like sea monkeys, x-ray glasses, and cardboard submarines, all of them described in glowing terms but all of them ridiculous and disappointing when received.

In Money Back Guarantee, Dwight Lancaster really wants that submarine so his mother Rosemary sends for it. It is a piece of cardboard junk but her son loves it. When he attempts to put it in the pool , he nearly drowns. Rosemary writes to the company that sold it for a refund of her five dollars but instead gets another "sub" and threatening phone calls. When the company kidnaps her son and husband she "goes to war" with whoever manufactured the product and finds they are more sinister than she imagine.

It is a quick and fun read just like the other two in the series. It can be read as a standalone novel but is best if they are read in order since this last book gives clues to what went on in the first two. One of the things I appreciated is that each book had it's own feel. Hunter Shea found a unique horror in each one . While the first two focus on the horror of the product, Money Back Guaranteed looks at the source of the horrors. And of course you are rooting for the mother who at first is fighting "for the principle" but find herself in a life for death situation.

So while I recommend this book, I would actually recommend getting all three and gobbling them up in a night or two. My rating for all three comes down to Just Add Water at three and a half stars, Optical Delusions at four stars, and Money Back Guarantee at four stars. But it I read them as a whole, I would easily say five stars for the trilogy. Sometimes the sum is greater than the parts.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Young Adult attacks again!

Stranger Things Have Happened

Jeff Strand


Publisher: Sourcebook Fire

Pub. Date: April 4, 2017

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

If you are preoccupied with categories and labels. Jeff Strand is hard to pin down since he has written in many genres. Yet there is one label that fits practically everything he has written. Humorist. His humor and wit are evident in practically everything he has released and even more so in his most recent books. At the present, he seems to be writing mostly in the Young Adult market and his novels all feature young teenagers struggling with the normal challenges of adolescence in unusual ways. Stranger Things Have Happened is no exception.

Marcus Millian III is a 15 year old boy who is obsessed with magic tricks. His great grandfather Zachary the Stupendous was a professional magician and encourages Marcus to be a magician to the point of betting a local theater manager that Marcus will perform an amazing illusion. Unfortunately, Zachary passes away before the trick is created by them. That leaves Markus on his own to create an illusion that will be the greatest ever performed. He will make a killer shark vanish on stage! There are a few problems though. He doesn't have a shark or a shark tank , has no idea how he will pull off the stunt if he did, and he has a tendency to get stage fright.

So maybe the challenge of making a shark vanish in front of your eyes isn't a normal adolescent fear. However, anxiety in public venues is, living up to the expectations of your elders is, and certainly being the magic nerd , or any kind of nerd, in high school subject to bullies is. Marcus takes all this in stride and, graced by the author's wit and imagination, may actually get through it all somehow.

Stranger Things has Happened is a fun read. Marcus is likeable and just smart enough, even if he seems to have a bad habit of getting into bad situations. The rest of the characters serve their purpose. There is not much development here except for the main protagonist. But while Strand's other recent YA novels stayed in the realm of reality for the most part, this one seems to stretch the boundaries. A little too many weird situations happens. There is a ridiculously evil magician who is probably a close cousin to Count Olaf or Snidely Whiplash. Marcus' new friend Peter has a secret that he doesn't always use to the best advantage. Most annoying to me were three bullies who probably talked more than any bullies I've ever encountered. Finally, there is a climax that seems a bit over the top even for Strand. It is all in the best of fun but I preferred Strand's other YA novels., especially The Greatest Zombie Movie ever, where the fun and wit is centered on a more believable scenario.

Overall though, this is a fun and fast read and should have teenagers and slightly younger kids giggling on every page. There is no real violence aside from some bully payback of the mild kind. and no sex going farther than the first kiss so parents can choose this book with having any discomfort and feel comfortable reading it themselves.It is a good novel for younger teenagers and even adults will give some laughs out of it.

Monday, August 28, 2017

A fitting tribute to George Romero

Nights of the Living Dead: An Anthology

Edited by Jonathan Maberry and George A. Romero

Publisher: St Martin's griffin

Pub. Date: July 11, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Filmmaker George A. Romero passed away on July 16th, 2017. To many people he was just another horror movie director but his influence in pop culture is much more than that. He transformed how we saw a specific concept and embedded it permanently into our collective consciousness. To compare, Romero was to zombies what Bram Stoker was to vampires and we will never go back to our old perceptions again. Before Romero, a zombie was depicted as a person who was controlled by another person, usually a sorcerer or shaman. In many cases, the person wasn’t even dead but one who lost all control of his mind and body to another. It wasn’t the zombie we were scared of but the idea of the person who could make us into a zombie. Romero’s seminal film Night of the Living Dead changed all that. The writer and director hated the term “Zombie” for his creation. He called them ghouls, the dead rising to eat human flesh. But the term stuck and we never saw zombies in any other way after 1968. An entirely new spectrum enters our reality. It takes a genius to manage that and in this small part of pop culture, Romero was a genius. It is hard to overestimate the influence that Night of the Living Dead made on film and literature especially those who soaked in anything remotely related to horror.

The director’s new take on the zombie mythology wasn’t just in film. John Skipp and Craig Spector edited a seminal anthology called Book of the Dead which speculated through the minds of numerous authors what happened after that apocalyptic night .Through the decades and more recently, writers such as Brian Keene, Joe McKinney, and Robert Kirkman of Walking Dead fame added variations but still stayed in the path of Romero’s ghoulish flesh eaters. Even literary figures with a big “L” like Joyce Carol Oates and Colin Whitehead offered their contributions. There was no going back

The anthology Nights of the Living Dead was one of George Romero’s last projects and was edited in collaboration with Joe Maberry, himself no slouch when it comes to zombies and the post-apocalypse. It is a fitting note to Romero’s career as it returns full circle to that one night in Pennsylvania when the dead started walking the earth and devouring flesh. It is comprised of 19 original short stories taking place on that same night and, for some stories, the next few days. The editor kept the authors in that framework with only a little poetic license mainly related to possible explanation of the events and some bending of the exact era (1968 or more recent?) The writers range from the stalwarts in the sub-genre like Brian Keene and Joe R. Lansdale to lesser known but still immensely talented newcomers like Mira Grant and David Wellington. It even has two stories by George Romero and his co-writer for Night of the Living Dead, John Russo. There is the usual unevenness in an anthology like this but all the tales are quite good and none really miss the mark. Ironically it is the two stories by Romero and Russo that seem slightly out of place and a bit old fashioned. But the rest of the crew seem happy to stick to the formula yet give it a kick in the rear.

Of the more established names, Joe R. Lansdale comes through in the first tale which starts with a car race on the street and develops into a race for their lives. John Skipp’s “Jimmy Ray Baxter’s Last Best Day on Earth” is about a sociopathic man who sees the apocalypse as a slice of his type of heaven. Chuck Wendig’s “Dead Run” turns the night into an examination of two brothers’ dysfunctional bond. Jonathan Maberry ‘s “Lone Gunman” is a harrowing story of survival. Of the newer writers, at least newer to me, there were quite a few impressive gems. In “A Dead Girl Named Sue” by Craig E. Engler, a local sheriff finds meaning in the disaster through an act of retribution. Mike Carey’s “In That Quiet Earth” find a theme in the plot that is as moving and unique as you can expect from the one who wrote The Girl with All the Gifts. Finally, “Mercy Kill” by Ryan Brown has a distinct Crime Noir feel to its telling.

I’m not going to capsulize all 19 stories except to say each one of them gives their own individualistic lean to the basic premise that terrified so many viewers of Night of the Living Dead. The anthology works as a theme collection but may also be the best multiple author collections of this year. For that and as a tribute to George A. Romero, it deserving of every single star of a five star rating and plenty more.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The sound of horror

Black Mad  Wheel

Josh Malerman


Publisher: Ecco

Pub Date: May 23, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


 Josh Malerman is easily in the top five best horror writers peddling their terrors today. He is also one of the most unique. His last full novel Bird Box, in essence, scared us with "nothing". We never saw the terror in the story as anyone who did became insane. In other words, it was the sense of sight that became the boogeyman. Here in Black Mad Wheel he again writes about one of our senses. It is the sense of hearing that provides the horror.

A once famous but now struggling music group called The Danes are working on their comeback album. They are visited by a representative from the military who gives them a mission; to find a mysterious sound in the Namibian Desert. He plays the sound to them and it has disturbing effects to say the least. But the band's leader Philip Tonka and the rest of the band accepts the assignment egged on by a nice monetary arrangement. Aided with a few military people, including a controversial and demoted officer, they go in search of the sound.

Now lets take a look at a problem right here. The idea of the military choosing musicians on a such a mission is farfetched to begin with. Realistically it is difficult to think what a musician can bring to a expedition in the desert that a team of highly trained officers could bring even if the band leader Philip does have some military training. This would have been enough to derail the less talented writer. Yet Malerman has already hooked us before this. From the beginning, we know that Philip was found in the desert with every one of his bones broken. He is in a mid-western American hospital and is healing at a supernatural speed. However the hospital personnel may not have the most altruistic of motives in healing him. Phillip's only ally and friend turns out to be a nurse named Ellen and it is her developing connection with Philip that fueled a lot of this tale.

The chapters alternate with the events in the hospital and what happened out in the desert. Eventually we do get a sense of what is going with the sound more than we do with sight in Bird Box. But like Bird Box, this is not a straight forward tale of horror. There is a reason for the sound and that involves a number of areas including science fiction and psychological horror. But it is hard to label the author's imagination in this one. His works, including the simple and short The House At the Bottom of the Lake are all about our perceptions of the phenomena that is thrown at us. While there is plenty of horror in this novel, the author is more interested in the psychological and emotional effect involving the one perceiving it. I like that.

Black Mad Wheel didn't bowl me over like Bird Box. I suspect few novels ever will. Yet Black Mad Wheel is still more involving and disturbing than most of the more visceral ones out there and it is easily a contender for best novel of the year in any genre. I do wonder if Malerman plans to visit the next two senses. I can easily envision a four book loose series unrelated in actual plots but comprising the four senses. I can only wait and see and hope.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Groundhog Day in Hell

Violence Dave: Heartless

July 10, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Norman Mailer meets Williams S Burroughs in the comic book series The 'Nam mixed in with a Philip K. Dick version of Dante's Inferno via H. P. Lovecraft.

Violence Dave: Heartless is 86 pages of gruesome, gut wrenching. non-stop action. It is a bizarro version of those men's combat magazines with a liberal dose of Heinlein's Starship Troopers in Hell. That's the Heinlein novel he never wrote but I wished he did. The premise of Konstantine Paradias' hyper-fiction evolves around Dave, a soldier who is dropped over and over into a war between Earth and Hell fought at the gateway between the two worlds, Dave fights dog-soldiers, demons and loads of other disgusting creatures and it never seems to end. But Dave is determined that this will be the last time he lives through this torment. The basic technicality of this Groundhog Day styled combat is minimally explained between the action but it is not the heart of the book. It comes down to Dave's determination to finally win and end the war respite its hopelessness. That is pretty much the entire gist of this short novella.

Despite its simple plot, It is a nice example of "getting there is half the fun". There is nothing simple about the writing skills the author brings to print. He has excellent writing chops especially when describing the horrors that Dave confront. He writes dialogue between Dave and his combat buddies that is tense and snappy. The macho fiction style is all there with a super-high dosage of Lovecraftian monster terror. For 86 pages , you root for Dave and that is pretty much the reason for this work of fiction.

Does it work? It works very well. Did it work for me? Well, that is where I have to be honest. War fiction is not my forte unless it is anti-war fiction. I am a great admirer of All Quiet on the Western Front for instance. Needless to say, this is nothing like it. This is high anxiety pulp fiction via a bizarro The Naked and the Dead. I wanted more explanation of Dave's dilemma. More background. Instead it was wall to wall action and slaughter...but very well written wall to wall action and slaughter. Sometimes you got to rate something for what it is and what it is supposed to do. Violence Dave: Heartless does what the author means it to do. If one is really into pulp styled war fiction by way of horror and science fiction then this just may be Nirvana. if that is the case,for you then this is a must read. For those who are not into that, it is still an impressive and visceral read.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Nijinsky in New York

A Friend of Mr. Nijinsky

Caro Soles


Publisher: Crossroads Press

Pub. Date: March 5, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


It is New York in 1916. The war in Europe is met with an uncomfortable silence by most Americans. The great ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky has arrived in New York and is at odds with a number of people in the classical arts including the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. In the midst of this, Morgan Vanheusen, the son of a wealthy and important family, meets the dancer and a relationship starts between them. It is a odd relationship between the relatively stable if insecure Morgan and the eccentric and sometimes paranoid Nijinsky but Morgan seems to get something out of it, perhaps because he has his own abandoned dreams of becoming a race car driver and is thwarted at every corner by his overpowering family. While Nijinsky is dancing onstage, his partner for the dance "faints" and it is not until after he carries her off stage that they realize she has died. To some, including a detective and reporter, it may not just be because of a weak heart as the papers reported. Into this mystery Morgan and Nijinsky become involved while dealing with ballet intrigues and backstabbing, possible art fraud, and the exclusionary and sometimes hypocritical practices of America's upper class.

As the title A Friend of Mr. Nijinsky suggests, the main protagonist of the novel is Morgan Vanheusan. Nijjinsky plays a supporting role although a very essential one in both plot and theme. When we meet Morgan he is feeling rootless as he goes through the motions of life without any career goals, having been forced to give up his dream due to the death of his brother and the demands of a controlling father. Nijinsky revives that forsaken spirit in him and he and Nijinsky plays a little Sherlock Holmes, to which Nijinsky replies "Who?", as they attempt to discover some of the answers about who the young dancer Galina Perovna really was and why she was murdered. There is also a sub-plot with Morgan's sister Gloria and a reporter that gives us a look at the strict social roles of the times.

This is where the novel really shines. The mystery in the novel is rather slight, even forgotten at times, and while it points to a number of other intrigues going on, I suspect it is the era in America just before entering World War I that is the real focus of the author. She brings alive that era in not only the sometimes volatile world of the dance but in the very strong class differences and morals that made the era what it was. The author makes the characters, even the minor ones, alive in their thoughts and reactions. For instance, the upper class fawns over the artists but still sees them as being beneath them. While Morgan is applauded for his connection to Nijinsky, his family and especially his father sees the friendship as not worthy of him and subversive. The relationship between Morgan and the dancer, and eventually the revelations that arise from the death of Galina, reveal many of these complex underpinnings of social norms in the early 20th century. The mystery is entertaining and satisfying but it is the depiction of life in New York in 1916 where the strength of the novel comes through. While we read to decipher the murder's mystery, we are also aware that World War I will soon be placing a coda on the New York of that era.

Of course, if one is interested and knowledgeable in Nijinsky and ballet it is a real plus and will go far in the enjoyment of the book. Yet it is not necessary as Caro Soles does a fine job in introducing us to the essential details of the discipline in an entertaining fashion. But for me, having a pretty good knowledge of the arts and being able to recognize most of the actual historical figures that pop up among the fictional ones, the part that surprised me was the accurate information on early auto racing. Like i said, the author has a flair in bringing to life many things from ballet to auto racing. The author did her homework in almost every aspect of this historical mystery.

Those who are into mysteries with an historical connection will enjoy A Friend of Mr. Nijinsky. In fact anyone who like historical novels will find this worth looking into. You get not only a mystery but a time capsule into a world whose odd mixture of innocence and class separation has long passed.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Vultures, Raccoons, and WHAT! monkeys?

The Unmentionables

Lance Carbuncle

Publisher: Vicious Galoot Books

Pub. Date: April 5, 2017

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Very few authors have such an crazy sense of imagination as Lance Carbuncle. Strange going-ons, weird characters and nightmare creatures abound in his four novels. Whether it is the Brautiganesque world of Smashed, Squashed, Splattered, Chewed, Chunked and Spewed, The sociopathic cousins a la Mice and Men in Grundish and Askew, or the Hieronymus Bosch meets William S. Burroughs landscape of Sloughing off the Rot, Carbuncle's novels are all different but alike in his unique style which is as rude and disturbing as...well.....a lanced carbuncle. But much funnier.

His fourth and newest novel is The Unmentionables and in some ways it is the most straight horror story he has written so far. It centers on Greg Samsa (name sounds familiar?) who is one of the most picked on boys in the small town of Finlay. The book is sort of a strange coming-of-age tale with a character that I suspect a lot of avid readers can identify with. He's a pretty smart kid but his wits is not enough to keep him from the terrors of adolescent bullying. That is until he find a stash of books and paraphernalia associated to black magic in the Winchester House clone he lives in. Parallel to this, the townspeople seem to be getting meaner and more violent which may be related to a underworld portal spurting out noxious fumes. Add on to this combo of terror vicious raccoons, living dead pig fetuses (the titled Unmentionables) and piss monkeys (don't ask, just read) and you get an idea how outlandish this seemingly "normal" coming of age horror story really gets. And there are turkey vultures, There are always turkey vultures.

It's all by the plan in the author's world. Hook you with weird but likable characters and once you're hooked, throw all that wild stuff at you . It may not be for everyone but it is delicious fun all the way. It may not be horror as much as black comedy. As Greg seeks revenge on the bullies, actually he's pretty angry at the entire town, it is hard to not like him no matter how rough it gets. Then there are those names; Coach Manlove, The Spanish Teacher Mr. French, and Wally, Lumpy and Eddie which works as an in-joke for the baby boomers to chuckle at. Mr. Carbuncle seems to like to give his characters clever names as much as he like to make his readers to go "Ewww,(giggle)"

Even though The Unmentionables may be the most straight-forward of his books, I hesitate to say "mainstream", it is still a far cry from safe and reassuring. But among the bizarre gore and violence there is always the feeling of a roller coaster ride with the sounds of screams and laughter. The Unmentionables may be weird and gross but it is always a lot of fun and maybe closer to our actual emotions and events in our life that we might be afraid to admit. Let's face it. Life is rude and disturbing. Perhaps it needs to be Lance Carbuncle and his novels.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A mother and son drama

Fierce Kingdom

Gin Phillips

Publisher: Viking

Pub Date: July 25, 2017

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Joan and her four year old son are enjoying the last few minutes at the zoo before it closes. But on the way out, Joan hears gun fire and sees some very disturbing things near the exit. She does not know exactly what is happening but she knows people are dying. She and her son run for their lives and hide in an abandoned animal enclosure. For the next three hours, she will be fighting for her life and the life of her son. She will be making some difficult choices.

There is a lot of emotion in Fierce Kingdom which, related to the plot and theme, is one of the best titles this year. It is predominantly about what a mother would do for her child. Gin Phillips has her heart in this book. She writes about a situation which no one would want to be in. We learn much about Joan as she make tough decision and interacts with two other women who find themselves struggling to stay alive. While the situation is harrowing , it really isn't a psychological thriller as much as a psychological drama. The heart of this book is in the relationship between a mother and a young boy.

The problem with what transpired is that the author has chosen a suspenseful situation that calls for tense moments and smart well-timed decisions. This is where the novel falls down. It gets off to a good start yet bogs down in the middle as we get a lot of thoughts from the mother on what is happening but nothing much really happens. Finally, we get glimpses of the terrorists but when they show up they are neither realistic or interesting. Plus, there are just too many strange decisions that may serve to drive the tension but fail because they don't make sense. One example: Joan is worried the light of her cell phone will attract the killers. I kept thinking," then turn it off and wait until they are gone to use it." What does she do,? She tosses it away. It may haveincreases the sense of isolation but doesn't help to make the situation believable.

But at the end the plot is helped along when Joan meet two other women who are hiding. This picks up the level of tension and has a beautiful moment when one of the women recognizes the gunman. It is a nice turn and I wish there were more like it.

Overall, Fierce Kingdom is full of beautiful writing. Gin Phillips is certainly a writer worth noticing. But perhaps thriller related books are not her forte. Literary drama is and if this was solely a drama before family and taking risks, it might have been more fruitful. Read this for the emotional drama and you will be pleased, If you are reading for the suspenseful plot, perhaps maybe not. I do recommend it though for that wonderful writing and for its emotional pull.