Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Review: We Sold Our Souls

We Sold Our Souls We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1990s, Kris Pulaski was the guitar player in a metal band called Dürt Würk. Now, she's broke and working the desk at Best Western. When one of her old bandmates announces the farewell tour of Koffin, his new band, Kris goes looking for some payback...

I'm a huge fan of Paperbacks from Hell and I liked My Best Friend's Exorcism so my interest was picqued. Fortunately, I won a Goodreads giveaway for this book a few weeks ago.

We Sold Our Souls is told in two parallel tracks: the wreckage of Kris' life and her days as a rocker. There's also the side story of Melanie Guttierez, a girl who wants to get to Vegas to see Koffin at any cost, but Kris is the star of the show.

Anyway, as Kris tracks down her old bandmates, she's forced to explore that fateful night, decades before, when Terry Hunt and his creepy new manager put some sinister contracts in front of the members of Dürt Würk.

We Sold Our Souls is part metal, part road book, and part horror. There were some frantic moments and one of the most claustrophobic scenes I've read. I had to stop for a few minutes and burden my wife with it. Lots of crazy, gruesome, unsettling shit happens.

For most of the book, I was planning on giving this five stars but I thought there were a few too many unanswered questions at the end. The ending was satisfying but felt like it was missing something just the same, like when you don't have any bay leaves and decide to make the soup anyway.

Not to hijack the review but I found myself comparing We Sold Our Souls to Todd Keisling's The Final Reconciliation quite a bit. For my money, The Final Reconciliation was the better music-themed horror novel.

At the end of the day, We Sold Our Souls was one hell of a great read. Four out of five stars.

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Thursday, December 6, 2018

Review: The Giver

The Giver The Giver by Lois Lowry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jonas' world seems like a utopia of peace and harmony with little conflict and everyone doing their job. That is, until Jonas is selected to be the new Receiver of Memories and learns utopia isn't all it's cracked up to be...

Once upon a time, sometime in the nebulous nineties when the only things I read were Star Wars and Anne Rice, my brother was assigned to read this in school. My mom read it after him and assigned it to me. Now, years later, my wife and I read it together. It still holds up.

The world Jonas lives in is one largely free of choices and free of strong emotions. People are assigned jobs, assigned families, and largely assigned lives. No one remembers the past or even realizes they're being denied freedom by no being able to decide things for themselves. No one except The Receiver of Memories, that is. As Jonas studies under the previous Receiver of Memories, the titular Giver, he sees all the things lurking under the surface of his perfect world.

I don't know much about Lois Lowry's influences but I see some Brave New World in this book's lineage with a dash of Handmaid's Tale. It's written as a YA book but I was an adult both times I read and enjoyed it. The book explores such themes as family, the value of choice, the importance of history, the dangers of blind conformity, and things of that nature. It's also a great story.

Two decades after I first read it, The Giver is still a great read. Once my wife recovers, we'll probably attack the other books set in the same world. 5 out of 5 stars.

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Friday, November 30, 2018

Review: Summer of Night

Summer of Night Summer of Night by Dan Simmons
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Tubby Cooke goes missing on the last day of sixth grade, Mike O'Rourke and his friends, the Bike Patrol, go looking and stumble upon Elm Haven's secret history of missing children and a turn of the century lynching. But what do those things have do with mysterious holes in the ground and a strange soldier stalking Mike's invalid grandmother?

While I loved the Hyperion and Joe Kurtz books, Dan Simmons has been hit or miss for me. This was definitely a hit.

Honestly, the first chapter almost made me throw it back on the pile. It's overwritten as hell and I was afraid the rest of the book would be suffering from the same malady. While there was some excessive wordiness, Summer of Night quickly clamped on to me like a lamprey.

Set in the summer of 1960, the summer after the end of sixth grade for most of the boys, Mike and friends get caught up in a mystery, a mystery that may or may not be be linked to a lynching at the turn of the century. Wait, a small town with a history of missing kids? Haven't I read this before?

Yes. Summer of Night has a lot in common with Stephen King's It but I found it more focused and it also had 100% less underage gang-bangs than It. People who've read It know what I'm talking about. Anyway, Simmons had me nostalgic for my childhood summer vacations, when summer lasted a hundred years and days could be spent exploring the woods, reading, or whatever the hell else you wanted to do.

The writing kept me enthralled and the boys rang true to me, even though they didn't swear nearly as much as the twelve year olds I knew did. Cordie Cooke wound up being my favorite of the supporting cast. Duane, chubby farm kid, and Lawrence, the fearless tagalong little brother, were my favorites overall, though the book was Mike's story for the second half.

The horror aspect was very well done, something I didn't suspect from Simmons. Some of it was in the realistic vein, like claustrophobia, or having a truck or dog bear down on you. The supernatural horror was also nicely executed but I'm not going to spoil anything.

That's about all I want reveal. I can't recommend this enough for horror fans. Coming of age horror is my favorite kind of horror and Summer of Night is now at the top of the pantheon, surpassing both It and Boy's Life. Five out of five stars.

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Sunday, November 25, 2018

Review: The Last

The LastThe Last by Hanna Jameson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jon Keller is in Switzerland, half a world away from his family, when Washington DC and a lot of other cities get nuked. Now, stranded in a hotel with dozens of strangers, cut off from the internet, wondering if his family is still alive, Jon and others find a girl's body in one of the hotel's water tanks...

My man Easy E was bragging about how great this book was on Twitter months ago and I added it to my Netgalley wish list. Eventually, I was invited to read it and I read it on a single dreary Sunday. It was gripping, to say the least.

In a way, The Last reminds me of The Last Policeman. While the world is crumbling, one man has a mystery to solve, a mystery not a lot of other people seem to care about. In other ways, it reminds me of The Stand, a story of people surviving in the ruins of civilization. In all ways, it was one hell of a book.

I was surprised at how enthralled I was with the book. Hanna Jameson does a great job at building suspense and sewing some misdirection. Her characters were surprisingly rich. It would have been easy to go with stock characters in a story like this but Jon, Tomi, Dylan, and the rest were a complex bunch. Even Peter had his hidden dimensions. The book had a paranoid feel at times, like anyone at the hotel could have been the killer, and that anyone could be hiding in the vast but nearly vacant hotel.

I don't really want to reveal anything else. The Last combines my favorite things about post-apocalyptic fiction and mystery fiction. I can't recommend it enough. Five out of five stars.

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Sunday, November 18, 2018

Review: Final Girls

Final Girls Final Girls by Riley Sager
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Years ago, Quincy Carpenter became a Final Girl when she was the lone survivor of the Pine Cottage massacre. When one Final Girl is found dead and another shows up on Quincy's doorstep, she's forced to confront who she's become in the wake of the killings and what really happened at the Pine Cottage...

This is one of those hyped books that I resisted until it went on sale for $2.99. While I scored it highly, I'm not sure if the hype is deserved.

Quinn runs a baking blog when the story begins. Things quickly go south, however, when Lisa Milner winds up dead and Samantha Boyd shows up at her door. Sam takes Quinn on an odyssey of self discovery and self destruction until Quinn sees that she might not be everything she claims.

This was a gripping page turner. I read 75% of it on a gloomy Sunday morning, only moving to go to the can and to get something to drink. It's told in alternating threads, Quinn at the time of the massacre and Quinn today. The shifts were perfectly timed to build the suspense.

While I enjoyed the shit out of this, it was in no way perfect. Like a lot of overly hyped thrillers, it suffered from "too few characters" syndrome. When you only have four major characters and one of them is acting in an overly obvious fashion, it's not hard to piece together what is actually happening.

Even with its flaws, Final Girls was a very enjoyable thriller. Four out of five stars.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Bang Up: A Filthy Comedic Thriller

Bang Up: A Filthy Comedic ThrillerBang Up: A Filthy Comedic Thriller by Jeff Strand
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Ralph pays Kirk to have sex with his wife in order to drive her back to him, he didn't count on Kirk getting infatuated with her. And he certainly didn't think he'd have to pay another man to kill Kirk...

On the heels of reading Sick House, Kelly told me about this book and leaned on me to read it. One night not long after, I split a bottle of sake with my wife and this book was mysteriously on my kindle the next morning so I had no choice but to read it.

Bang Up is that ages old story: guy can't get it up unless his wife wears a puppet on her hand, guy suspects wife of wanting to cheat on him and hires another man to have disappointing sex with her to drive her back to him, sexy time ensues. Haven't we all read that one before?

Seriously, though, this is some good shit right here. Jeff Strand tells a hilarious story of infidelity gone wrong, complete with discussions on whether or not three people constitutes an orgy and uncomfortable small talk during the intermission of a three-way.

I don't want to spoil too much. The filth is filthy, the humor is humorous, and I can't blame Ralph for getting all riled up. Suffice to say, this one is possibly, POSSIBLY, tied with Kumquat as my favorite Jeff Strand book.

The subtitle "A Filthy Comedic Thriller" is an apt one. I can't think of a book that better encompasses those things. Five out of five stars.

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Friday, November 9, 2018

Sick House

Sick HouseSick House by Jeff Strand
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Boyd Gardener gets a job in another town, he moves into a rental property with his wife and their two daughters. Odd things start happening, like food spoiling, and people getting ill. But there are far worse things in store for the Gardener family inside... THE SICK HOUSE!

I'm a big Jeff Strand fan and I finally pulled the trigger on buying this a couple weeks ago. I'm glad I did.

Sick House is told in two threads, that of three men hired to kill an old woman and Boyd Gardener and his family. It wasn't all that apparent just how the threads would intersect at first.

After Cyclops Road and Blister, I think I let my guard down a little. I won't make that mistake again. Jeff Strand spends the early portion of the book introducing Boyd and his family. Once you get to know them and like them, he unleashes the bad shit upon them. There's a lot more blood and gore in this than from a lot of Jeff Strand's recent books. There were times I didn't think any of the Gardeners would survive.

That's about all I want to reveal. It was an exciting haunted house tale, a type of horror that typically goes for the slow burn. Sick House was like having someone hold your hand to the burner of a stove. Once they turn the burner on, it's only a matter of seconds before you're smelling roasted skin. While I don't put this on the level of Kumquat, my favorite Strand book, it's definitely up there. 4 out of 5 stars.

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Switch House

The Switch HouseThe Switch House by Tim Meyer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After returning home from being on "Let's Switch Houses," nothing seems right in Angela and Terry's home, the least of which the void left by the death of their son. But when Angela begins seeing unsettling things, is she going crazy from grief or is it something more?

I saw Easy E talking this up on Twitter a while back and had a couple bucks in credit on the Big A so I pulled the trigger on it.

This was an entertaining haunted house tale. "Is Angela going insane or did the woman who lived in their house for a few months work some bad mojo on it" is the question throughout.

There were some horrifying images and tense moments in this but I thought it could have been fleshed out a bit more. The writing was technically good but no phrases jumped out and grabbed me by the genitals. I thought Angela was a great lead, though.

There were hints of greatness but The Switch House was middle of the road for me. Your mileage may vary, of course. Three out of five stars.


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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review: The Witch Elm

The Witch Elm The Witch Elm by Tana French
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After suffering a brain injury during a burglary at his apartment, Toby goes to live with his terminally ill uncle Hugo. When a skull is found in a hollow tree on Hugo's property, the cops eye up Toby as a suspect. But with his brain injury, he can't be sure he's responsible or not...

I've been awaiting this Tana French book since it was available for pre-order since her Dublin Murder Squad books are some of my favorite things. I almost canceled my pre-order when I saw this was a standalone but stuck with it.

Tana French is one of my must-buy authors so it pains me to say I almost tossed this one back on the pile. The skull isn't found until about a third of the way through the book. The writing is as sharp as ever but I felt like something was missing. It was glacially paced and I didn't really care for Toby. He was unsympathetic before the beating and I only liked him a little bit more after.

Once the skull was found, however, I tore through the book in two or three long sittings. When the fuzz started sniffing around, I was about 90% sure Toby did it and was going to wind up in the clink. French ratcheted up the suspense and I was hooked for the duration. At various times, she had me believing a few different people were the killer. Things eventually went off the rails in a huge way and I was quite glad I didn't chuck it.

Once the mystery really kicked in, the book was good, almost great. Before that, I felt like she was padding things until she figured out whether she was writing a literary novel or one of her usual literary-mystery hybrids. A third of the book is too much setup for what was basically a whodunnit, no matter how well written it is!

Okay then. The Witch Elm is an enjoyable book once you get over the sloooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooow start. I don't want to say Tana French should stick with the Dublin Murder Squad but her next attempt at a standalone needs to be more engaging than this. Three out of five stars.



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Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Review: The Man Who Came Uptown

The Man Who Came Uptown The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michael Hudson is released from jail after witness refused to testify. After developing a voracious appetite for books in the joint, he just wants to get a job and read in peace. When the detective that got his witness to bow out comes looking for a favor, it's either be a getaway driver or go back to prison...

George Pelecanos is back in fine form with The Man Who Came Uptown. Michael Hudson just wants to get his life back to normal when Phil Ornazian braces him for a favor. Just let the guy read his damn book!

The atmosphere of George Pelecanos' Washington DC is still there but it's matured some since his last outing. While there were still references to cars, music, food, and dogs, they weren't as prominent as they normally are. There was a lot more book talk, however.

The Man Who Came Uptown was more character-driven than some of Pelecanos' previous books. Michael and Anna and the bond between them was one of the most interesting parts. Who can't empathize with a guy who just wants people to leave him alone so he can read?

Since it's a Pelecanos book, I was sure it was headed toward the usual shootout with drug dealers ending but it swerved around it into something more meaningful.

While I don't think it was Pelecanos' best, The Man Who Came Uptown was his best in a long while. Four out of five stars.

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Friday, October 5, 2018

Review: Everything is Horrible Now

Everything is Horrible Now Everything is Horrible Now by Edward Lorn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Decades ago, the people of Bay's End burned the town founder and his wife after she was accused of being a witch. When the pastor kills his family and them himself with a shotgun, things appear to be coming full circle...

I first encountered Edward Lorn on Booklikes. He's one of those insidious types that never pushes his books on you. Anyway, a little while ago, he asked if I wanted to take a look at Everything is Horrible Now. Of course I did! I read the first 20% during a rare lunch break where people left me alone and I was starving for more!

"Everything is Horrible Now" is repeated throughout the story, first by Pastor George before he blows his brains all over his front porch in front of Wesley Haversham, then by others. It's partly small town horror, shades of early Stephen King when no one was safe, part cosmic horror. Hell, most forms of horror appear between the two covers at some point.

There are several viewpoint characters: Sheriff Hap Carrigan, the lawnman that resembles Lou Ford of The Killer Inside Me more than the heroes of most detective stories, Wesley Haversham, the farm boy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, Kirby Johnson, the homosexual boy sent to Humble Hill to be "cured," and Pete Blackwood, an imaginative boy living with his hyper-religious grandmother Beulah. Beulah's also a viewpoint character, as is Gertie Fulgore, a woman from a family stricken with a blood curse that used to worship The Bastard.

I feel like I was missing a few things by not reading every Edward Lorn book in existence but I caught references to all of his books I've read up to this point. Easy E does a great job of juxtaposing cosmic horror with the everyday small town horrors of racism, fear, and ignorance. There is some extremely creep shit going on here, like the Coat Men, the people working at Humble Hill, and whatever the fuck the kid in the eyepatch is doing. The book feels like a Laird Barron book at times, what with the cosmic horror and talk about the nature of time and such.

There's a lot of small press horror out there and a lot of it is mediocre to average. What sets Ed apart from a lot of horror is his characters. They all rang true for me, from Hap's inner demons to the friendship between Pete and Wesley. He nicely captures what it was like to be an eleven year old boy. It also helps that Ed knows how to put the words in the right order. "Like an asshole full of concertina wire" was one of the early lines that jumped out at me and there were a hundred others.

Everything is Horrible Now turned out to be quite a wild ride with a lot of crazy bumps in the road. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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Saturday, September 29, 2018

Review: Scapegoat

Scapegoat Scapegoat by Adam Howe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mike Rawson leaves his wife and baby behind for a weekend to go on a road trip to Wrestlemania III with Lonnie, Pork Chop, and Cyndi-from-the-bar. When they take a wrong turn and find a teenage girl with symbols carved into her body, what brand of hell have they gotten into?

Wrestling fiction is hard to come by and Adam Howe and James Newman have written some of the best. When Adam came knocking with Scapegoat, a book written by both of them, I couldn't turn him away.

While wrestling didn't turn out to be a big part of this, Scapegoat was still a fun read, a B-horror book about rock and roll and the end of the world. It's also hilarious.

Mike is the straight man of the tale, the member of the band that grew up and got a job. Lonnie and Pork Chop, still living in the days of Wrathbone, the band they thought would make them famous, have not grown up in the least. Cyndi-from-the-bar is a whole other animal. When they find a would-be teenage sacrifice, they find themselves hunted by a fundamentalist Christian sect. Hilarity and gore ensue.

Scapegoat was a lot of fun and avoided a lot of the cliches this type of book normally encompasses. Mike's not a hero or a bad ass. Neither are Pork Chop or Lonnie, though they all have their good points. It feels like a lost '80s satanic panic tale Joe Lansdale might have written.

Scapegoat is a funny, gore-strewn good time. Four out of five stars.

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Monday, September 24, 2018

Review: Death of the Territories: Expansion, Betrayal and the War that Changed Pro Wrestling Forever

Death of the Territories: Expansion, Betrayal and the War that Changed Pro Wrestling Forever Death of the Territories: Expansion, Betrayal and the War that Changed Pro Wrestling Forever by Tim Hornbaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The National Wrestling Alliance, a group of allied wrestling promoters and their territories had been around for decades. With the advent of cable TV, could the territory system survive? Not if one enterprising promoter from the Northeast has his way...

Yeah, the teaser is misleading since we all know Vince won the war. Anyway, I enjoyed National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Professional Wrestling and decided to pick this up. I was not disappointed.

Death of the Territories starts with an overview of the established system, the National Wrestling Alliance, and details various bumps in the road, like Vince McMahon Sr. hijacking Buddy Rogers and leaving the NWA, only to rejoin years later, and promoters running opposition in one another's territory.

Once the cable boom hits, there are a lot of damn pigs eyeing up the whole trough. People paint Vince McMahon Jr. as the devil, and while he's definitely got some bad points, a lot of other promoters would have expanded nationally with the resources to do so.

I've gleaned a lot of this information from various books and documentaries over the years but this time I feel like I got the whole picture. There wasn't any bias. It didn't go out of its way to drag Vince McMahon through the mud and it didn't make him a saint, either, like a lot of WWE-made material does.

All the maneuvering behind the scenes was fascinating. I had no idea about the various attempts of other promoters to go national once cable was readily available. Ever hear of Global Wrestling (not to be confused with the Global Wrestling Federation)? Me either. The book runs through the 1980s and ends when Jim Crockett sells his promotion to Ted Turner, where it becomes WCW and eventually ignites another war. Hopefully Hornbaker will cover that next.

Pretty much every territory I've ever heard of got its due here: Don Owen of Portland, the Von Erichs, Joe Blanchard, Paul Boesch, Eddie Graham, Bill Watts, and a slew of others. Each made their mark but couldn't keep up with the changing times and the Scrooge McDuck-like bank account of one Vincent Kennedy McMahon.

The warts and all presentation made it a gripping read. I read it in two sittings, a rarity for me these days.

Upon finishing, I think partly some of the old promoters going the way of the dinosaur was karma biting them in the ass. The good old boy network helped run people who weren't NWA members or aligned with the NWA out of business during most of the NWA's existence. It's just this time, it was the NWA members that got got. I think the wrestling world would be better off without one horse running the race a few laps ahead of all the others, though.

Four out of five turnbuckles. Get cracking on that Monday Night Wars book, Tim!


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Sunday, September 23, 2018

Review: The Night Before

The Night Before The Night Before by Wendy Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rosie's sister Laura moved in with her and her husband after a bad breakup. When Laura tries to reenter the dating world, she goes out with a man she met on a dating website and doesn't return home the next day. But are Rosie and Joe afraid of what her date did to Laura or what she did to him?

I was invited to read this on Netgalley and took St. Martin's up on the offer. I'm glad I did.

The Night Before is a tale of secrets, obsession, and the past acting as an anchor. Or is it? Laura is a woman on the run from her past, a past that saw her high school boyfriend beaten to death with a baseball bat and a mentally ill man convicted of the crime. But is that what really happened? As one of the characters says "You never really know what's lurking inside someone" or something to that effect.

The story is split into three timelines: Laura with her therapist months before, Laura on the night of, and Rosie after Laura has disappeared. It wound up being a great tool for building suspense. Misdirection is one of the hallmarks of a good thriller for me and I think Wendy Walker had my number from the first page. I made all the wrong assumptions based on the trail she laid down, just like most of the characters. I had an inkling something was amiss but couldn't lay my finger on it until it was way too late.

I'm a gumshoe from way back. I've read a few hundred mystery and suspense novels over the years. There's nothing I enjoy more than having an author pull the wool over my eyes and make me feel like a rube. Wendy Walker accomplished just that. Four out of five stars.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review: Dinosaur Jazz

Dinosaur Jazz Dinosaur Jazz by Michael Panush
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sir Edwin Crowe is a guide on Acheron Island, a South Pacific Island that is home to dinosaurs. When Selwyn Slade comes to Acheron, he means to own it all with only Sir Edwin Crowe and his Ape-Man friend James standing in his way...

I got this from Netgalley.

Dinosaur Jazz is a pulp adventure tale set on an island populated by dinosaurs in the 1920s. Sir Edwin Crowe, son of Horatio Crowe, the man who discovered Acheron Island, is the last male of the Crowe line and living as a dino-guide with his best friend and adopted brother, James the Ape-Man. When capitalism in the form of Selwyn Slade arrives, Edwin has some tough choices to make. Well, the choices aren't that tough. Edwin is a good guy and Slade and his friends are villains.

I love the setting of this book and pulp stories are always fun. I think maybe this book would do better with a different title, though. This one makes me think of a jazz quartet composed of dinosaurs.

Anyway, it's a fun popcorn sort of book, harkening back to Indiana Jones and Doc Savage. My one gripe with it was the narrator and his tone. The book is told by Sir Edwin Crowe, who is a well-mannered Englishman. His tone yanks me out of the action, a little too mannerly, a little too wordy. I had the same problem with Fury From the Tomb earlier this year.

Dinosaur Jazz was a fun read but I'm not sure I'll be reading the next book in the series. Three out of five stars.

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Sunday, September 9, 2018

Review: King of Strong Style: 1980-2014

King of Strong Style: 1980-2014 King of Strong Style: 1980-2014 by Shinsuke Nakamura
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

King of Strong Style covers Shinsuke Nakamura's life from 1980 to 2014.

The book has a structure I've never seen before in a wrestling biography. It's basically one long interview, giving it a laid back feel.

Things start off in Shinsuke's childhood. He was a sensitive kid, into drawing and things of that nature before the wrestling bug bit. From there, it's amateur wrestling, MMA, pro-wrestling and unparalleled success as a rookie in New Japan. Nakamura talks about some people he had friction with, making excursions to the United States, Italy, and Mexico. His rivalries with Tanahashi and Shibata are detailed to some extent.

While I like how the interview structure helps the book stay focused, I think a lot of sections would have been better with more detail. Interesting topics are only given a couple sentences. The book also doesn't go into much detail with the actual matches, like Shinsuke and the unidentified interviewer are trying not to break kayfabe.

It's breezy and interesting but King of Strong Style isn't a top tier wrestling book, not for me anyway. Three out of five stars

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Sunday, August 26, 2018

Review: The Moonchild

The Moonchild The Moonchild by Kenneth McKenney
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

While on holiday in the Alps, young Simon Blackstone dies, succumbing to a mysterious illness. While SImon's family deals with his death, people around him are dying and the Blackstones must face the fact that their beloved Simon is a Moonchild! Can they bury him before what would have been his seventh birthday to stop the curse, with German police on their trail?

I noticed this while thumbing through Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction and my wife snagged me a copy for my birthday. It was okay but I'm rethinking my approach regarding books I see in Paperbacks from Hell.

Losing a child is terrible. Having the child rise from the dead whenever his casket opens and kill someone with his monster claw is something else entirely. It's a shame I wasn't as captivated by this book as I wanted to be.

The writing style feels antiquated, like I imagine popular fiction from the 1920s was written. The characters aren't all that detailed or interesting. The menace of the Moonchild didn't really live up to its potential. Or maybe I'm being too hard on schlocky horror from the '70s.

There are some creepy moments but I was ultimately uninterested. Two out of five stars.

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Monday, August 20, 2018

Review: Mysterious Creatures

Mysterious Creatures Mysterious Creatures by Time-Life Books
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mysterious Creaturs is a volume of the Mysteries of the Unknown series focusing on cryptozoology.

As I've said before, I was huge into cryptids as a kid, back when the world was a bigger place with plenty of room for unknown hominids and relict dinosaur populations. While we were visiting in California, I noticed my brother-in-law had a complete set of Mysteries of the Unknown, plus a six or seven doubles he wanted to give away. Since he wouldn't take no for an answer, I took this one with me, reasoning that I could use it to protect my wife's photo of us with Brent Spiner on the flight home and I could always stash it on a shelf in the basement and forget about it. I made the mistake of paging through it, seeing familiar (and sketchy) photos of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster and I was powerless to resist its pull.

As the title indicates, Mysterious Creatures is about mysterious creatures, creatures that people have seen (or think they've seen) that may or may not actually exist. While I greatly enjoyed my trip to the Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, and the fiction of Hunter Shea, I'm very much a cynical, skeptical adult. This book may not have changed my mind on most of the creatures within but the tentacles of nostalgia had me snared.

For a book about cryptids, this is a slick, nice-looking books. The photos and illustrations are high quality. It was published in 1988 so there are some things that have since been debunked. However, there's still a lot of good content, including the photos that are in every other cryptozoology book like the Surgeon's photo of the Loch Ness Monster and still shots from the infamous Bigfoot film and centuries-old woodcuts of the Kraken.

For the most part, it's the big name monsters like the Loch Ness Monster, sea serpents, Bigfoot, and his cousins from all over the world that get most of the attention. Fortunately, Mokele Mbembe, the dinosaur of the Congo, gets a few pages. One of the lesser known cryptids, the Almas of Mongolia, gets a few as well at the end of the hominid chapter. For some reason, the Almas are the cryptids that I like the most as an adult. A relict Neanderthal population in a remote part of Mongolia sounds a lot less far-fetched than surviving dinosaurs to me.

For a cryptid fan, this book is a cool overview. However, the lesser known monsters don't get much play. There's no goatman, no mothman, no Mongolian Death Worm, etc. Three out of five stars, although your mileage may vary depending on how into cryptozoology you are and how much you've already read.

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Friday, August 17, 2018

Review: Mecha Samurai Empire

Mecha Samurai Empire Mecha Samurai Empire by Peter Tieryas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Will misfit Makoto Fujimoto realize his dream of being a mecha pilot, with his abysmal grades and war between the United States of Japan and Germany looming in the background?

I really enjoyed United States of Japan but wanted more mecha action. Thankfully, this popped up on Netgalley not very long ago. I'll probably grab a physical copy to keep on my shelf beside United States of Japan because I liked it quite a bit.

Mecha Samurai Empire is part alternate history tale, part coming of age tale, with a generous helping of mecha action. Makoto Fujimoto is a misfit when the tale starts, a video gamer war orphan whose dreams of being a mecha pilot keep him going. Eventually, he gets there, and sees it isn't quite what he thought it was.

Since United States of Japan laid most of the groundwork, this one was more of a character story, believe it or not. Mac goes from being a callow kid to a pilot over the course of the book, making friends and blowing a lot of shit up along the way. My main gripe with USJ was the lack of mechas. This one had about 77% more mecha content and it was just the book I wanted to read.

Mac was a little passive but a big improvement over Ben Ishimura in the last book. Also, it was nice to see Agent Tsukino again. Griselda, Nori, Kujira, Kazu, and Chieko made for an interesting supporting cast, all the mecha pilots having fairly colorful personalities. I would have strangled Kujira!

There are all sorts of video game and pop culture Easter eggs, focused through USJ's alternate history lens. I caught references to Super Mario Bros 3, Madame Butterfly, Double Dragon, and Megaman II and that was just the tip of the iceberg. The mecha combat brought back fond memories of watching Voltron and Robotech after school.

Mecha Samurai empire is where Peter Tieryas breaks free of his Man in the High Castle roots and runs wild. I'm already looking forward to the next book. Four out of five stars.


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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Bird Box

Bird BoxBird Box by Josh Malerman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Creatures plague the world, creatures who anyone who gazes upon them insane. Can Mallorie, with Boy and Girl in tow, make her way to safety in a community down the river, while blindfolded?

This book has been a pretty big deal for a couple years. Richard hooked me up as an early birthday present. Thanks again, old sport.

I loved the core concept behind the book: Earth is overrun by creatures who cause suicidal insanity when anyone looks at them. People walk around blindfolded when they're outdoors to protect themselves and board up all of their windows to prevent accidentally seeing the creatures. As someone who had a lot of nightmares about creatures peering in my window as a kid, I was hooked right off the bat.

The way the story was told was also pretty cool, two threads in different time periods: Mallorie with her housemates and Mallorie after everything went to shit. It was interesting to see who Mallorie's life changed so much in a few years as the world outside continued to decay. The story itself was compulsively readable.

The reasons I didn't love the shit out of this were two-fold. The characters are wafer thin and are basically just names most of the time. Boy and Girl don't even get names until the end of the book. The second reason is that the writing style is fairly flavorless. There wasn't a time I felt like reading passages aloud to my wife or even thinking "That was clever" to myself.

Bird Box was an engaging read with a great concept but I don't think it lived up to its full potential. Three out of five stars.

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Thursday, August 9, 2018

Review: Force of Nature

Force of Nature Force of Nature by Jane Harper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Five men and five women went hiking into the bush for a corporate team-building activity. The women came out late with one woman missing, the woman Aaron Falk needs to talk to about a potential embezzling case. What happened in those woods and is Alice Russell still alive?

The Dry was one bad ass book so I snapped this one up once it temporarily fell into my cheapness range.

Force of Nature takes place in a remote part of Australia. The story is told in two threads: Aaron Falk and his partner, Carmen, piecing together what happened to Alice, and a few days in the past, when the women set off on their hike.

The way things unfolded was masterfully done. I had no idea what happened to Alice until it was spelled out for me. In retrospect, Jane Harper planted a lot of clues for me but I blew right by them. I'm going to chalk some of that up to me reading most of this on the plane back from Vegas in a haze after eight days of drinking too much and not eating or sleeping enough.

It was a very compelling read. Even though I wanted nothing more than sleep on the flight home, I forced myself to keep reading. I finished the second half the next day with cats piled around me, wanting to take a nap but not as much as I wanted to find out what happened to Alice Russell.

There's some great character development done with Aaron Falk in this, exploring his relationship with his father, which reminds me a little too much of my relationship with my father. I'll have to go have a beer with the old man soon.

Not a bad thing to say about Force of Nature. It's an easy four star read.



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Thursday, August 2, 2018

Review: Practitioners

Practitioners Practitioners by Matt Hayward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Recovering from the death of his wife, Officer Henry Stapleton is on a downward spiral of booze. His wife's killer winds up dead, or does he? Henry visits a New Age healing center and starts experimenting with lucid dreaming. But what will he do when he discovers the machinations of a man who may not exist?

I follow Patrick Lacey on Twitter and I was all over this one as soon as I saw the cover.

The story feels more like a detective story than anything else a lot of the time. Henry Stapleton, benched after the death of his wife, tries to piece together the identity of Paul White, a guy buying up more and more of town and the mastermind behind Crystal Dreams, a New Age healing center that has opened up.

The book starts simply enough but escalates once Henry begins studying lucid dreaming. From there, it reminds me of the crazy ass second half of Keeper of the Children, with lots of crazy shit happening in dreams.

There was a few editing bumps, par for the course for small press horror. The writing was seamless, meaning I couldn't ever tell more than one person wrote it. Even half asleep on a plane to Las Vegas, I couldn't set the book aside. Four out of five stars.




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Friday, July 27, 2018

Review: The Dinosaur Tourist

The Dinosaur Tourist The Dinosaur Tourist by Caitlín R. Kiernan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Dinosaur Tourist is a collection of tales by Caitlin R. Kiernan.

I have to confess that I grabbed this ARC from Netgalley because I'm a dino-dork from way back. Fortunately for me, the impulse paid off. This was a really good short story collection from an author I've never read before.

Kiernan worked as a paleontologist and paleontology is worked into the periphery of most of the stories. Some of the stories have a Lovecraftian feel, only written in Kiernan's noir-ish style. I don't know that she's ever written a straight up noir tale before but if she did, I'd read the hell out of it. Her style has the doomed feel of the old noir masters.

The title story was my favorite one, partly because it involves a long ass drive across South Dakota, something I've done in the last few years, and it's damn authentic. I had a feeling how it would end but it was still pretty great. I'm a little disappointed they got ensnared by the Wall tourist trap.

It's tricky to review a book of short stories without spoiling too much or writing a review the lenght of a short story yourself. I'll say I was never disappointed and I'll be reading more Caitlin Kiernan in the future. Four out of five stars.



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Friday, July 20, 2018

Review: Deep Roots

Deep Roots Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Aphra Marsh's quest of resettling Innsmouth to New York, where her confluence runs into a snag: two factions of Outer Ones!

I enjoyed Winter Tide quite a bit so I pre-ordered this. Oddly enough, I was approved for an ARC on Netgalley AND a friend gave me the ebook as a birthday gift on the day it shipped. The stars were right that day.

Anyway, Aphra Marsh's goal of repopulating Innsmouth brings her to New York. She discovers a family with Innsmouth blood only to find the son has joined a cult led by a group of Outer Ones, aka The Mi-Go, aka The Fungi from Yuggoth. Arpha Marsh and her friends are caught in the middle of two rival factions with humanity's fate in the balance.

As with Winter Tide, there's a lot to enjoy here. Ruthanna Emrys takes some Lovecraftian concepts and fleshes them out, taking them away from Lovecraft's fear of the unknown roots. The Mi-Go are a lot more than one-dimensional monsters in this tale, given three (or more, if you want to get non-Euclidean about it) dimensions. The ghouls are also fleshed (heh) out quite a bit, given something of a culture.

The characters are a far cry from Lovecraft's, not falling to pieces with the first brush with the unknown, probably because all of them are part of the unknown to some degree. Charlie is gay in an era where it's nowhere near as acceptable as today and also studies magic. Aphra is one of the last of the Deep Ones. Catherine was host to a Yith. Audrey has something different in her heritage.

The jaunts to the Dreamlands and the trek into the Outer Ones' mine were cool set pieces. The magic system is one of the things I like the best in this series. Magic isn't free and takes its toll. Aphra's learning quite a bit but isn't coming through unscathed by any means.

As I've said many times before, I like the stuff inspired by the works of HP Lovecraft more than the works themselves. Ruthanna Emrys' humanized Lovecraftian fiction is some of the best out there. Four out of five stars.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Review: Driving to Geronimo's Grave: and Other Stories

Driving to Geronimo's Grave: and Other Stories Driving to Geronimo's Grave: and Other Stories by Joe R. Lansdale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Driving to Geronimo's Grave: and Other Stories is a collection of tales by Joe Lansdale.

I'm a Lansdale fan from way back so when I saw this on Netgalley, I jumped on it. I've read four or five Lansdale collections but I've never read any of these stories before.

Each tale in the collection is accompanied by an afterword where Joe talks about how the story came to be, which is almost as interesting as the story in some cases. The title story, Driving to Geronimo's Grave, is about a brother and sister driving across depression-era Oklahoma to retrieve the body of an uncle they've never met. It's full of Lansdale's trademark humor and has far more twists than the Oklahoma roads the siblings are driving on.

The second tale, In the Mad Mountains, is a Lansdalian homage to the HP Lovecraft classic, The Mountains of Madness. Joe's tale involves a hole in space and wrecked ships frozen in an iceberg. It's also entertaining as hell and some of the better Lovecraftian fiction I've ever read.

The third story, Wrestling Jesus, is about a young man who learns about confidence and defending himself from an old wrestler. The wrestler, X-Man, wrestles another old timer named Jesus every five years for the love of a dark woman named Felina who has a hold on them. It's pretty much a story of a father-son relationship, told in Lansdale's Mojo style. I texted my wife a few choice lines while I was reading it.

The fourth story, Rapid Robo, is a science fiction tale. Set centuries after a failed alien invasion, a girl leaves her tribe in the desert to find her brother and sister, who were kidnapped by robots. I liked this one quite a bit. I love stories featuring relatively primative people using technology they don't understand and this is one of those. Sheann and Nim's relationship drives the tale, much like in Wrestling Jesus.

The Projectionist, the fifth story, is about the young man who runs the movie projector and the secrets he holds. It's a pretty bad ass crime tale. I know Joe has a few tales that feature movie theaters but this one takes a very dark turn.

The final story, Everything Sparkles in Hell, is about a marshal tracking a quartet of killers in the winter who gets more than he bargained for. This one is a western starring Nat Love, which reminds me I still need to read Paradise Sky.

Driving to Geronimo's Grave was a loaded revolver with a bullet in ever chamber and not a dud in the bunch. It's hard to pick a favorite since I liked all of the tales quite a bit in their own ways. The collection shows that Joe Lansdale can write in a large spectrum of genres and still be the mojo storyteller he's always been. It's an easy four star read.

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Monday, July 9, 2018

Review: The Elementals

The Elementals The Elementals by Michael McDowell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Marian Savage dies, her son and his family head south to Beldame to recover in beach houses that have been in the family for generations. The family splits and takes two of the beach houses. The third house stays vacant, for an ancient evil lurks within...

I read Blackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga earlier this year and loved it. Michael McDowell has been on my radar ever since. When my cohort Anthony offered to loan it to me, I jumped on it.

I have to think The Elementals is a trial run for some concepts Michael McDowell would later explore at great length in Blackwater, namely a Southern family saga with supernatural elements lurking on the fringes.

The Savages and McCrays have been coming to Beldame for years but have always avoided the mysterious third house. After the death of the Savage matriarch, they head down to Beldame for some r&r. It's India McCray's first visit to Beldame so naturally she's very curious about the third house. It's sounds like it's going to be creepy from the beginning but it's not. Michael McDowell takes his time, develops the Savages and McCrays into characters you can't help but be interested it. Then he torments the poor bastards.

For the most part the story revolves around India McCray and Odessa, the Savage's maid. Odessa knows a lot mroe than she's letting on and India is a teenage busybody with nothing but time on her hands at the sleepy penisula. I have to say that Luker and India are my favorite father-daughter combo in all of fiction with their interesting dynamic. Apart, they're both fascinating but together, they're something else. Lawton's machinations made me hate him more than I feared the evils of the third house. Big Barabara's alcohol problem and relationship to Lawton was sad but I wound up liking her quite a bit.

In addiition to family drama, McDowell paints a very accurate picture of the torturous, oppressive heat and humidy of the south. I broke a sweat while I was reading some of the later chapters. The creepy happenings start at Marian Savage's funeral and gradually grow from there. By the end, it's hard to tell who is going to survive.

Much with Blackwater, I would have read twice as many pages featuring the Savages and McCrays. I enjoyed the characters so much that the horror element could be removed and it would still be an enjoyable book. Four out of five stars.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Review: American Tabloid

American Tabloid American Tabloid by James Ellroy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The fates of three men, Ward Littell, Kemper Boyd, and Pete Bondurant, are forever entwined in the era of mobsters, Fidel Castro, and the Kennedys.

Yeah, that's not much of a teaser but there's no quick way to sum this one up.

American Tabloid takes key figures of the late 1950s and early 1960s and pisses all over them. Ellroy is back to the trinity of sin structure that worked so well in The Big Nowhere and LA Confidential. His three leads, Ward Littell, Kemper Boyd, and Pete Bondurant, rise and fall as they influence key historical events.

Politics makes strange bedfellows and Kemper Boyd is in bed with most of them. At various points of the book, he's linked with the FBI, CIA, the Kennedies, and probably other groups I can't remember at this moment. He's a wheeling-dealing son of a bitch. He was easily the most compelling of the three leads. Ward Littell started off as kind of a weakling and wound up being the biggest bad ass of the three. He also lost the most before winding up on top. Pete Bondurant struck me as the most pragmatic for most of the book and I'm hoping he'll be back for the sequel.

Ellroy doesn't pull any punches in this. The clipped sentence structure is in full effect, so much so that it's a little overwhelming at times. I still dug it. He also isn't afraid to cast aside the myth of the Kennedys being great men. JFK and RFK both come off as tools. J. Edgar Hoover is almost the Dudley Smith of the piece, a master strategist who never really takes the fall.

It was great how Littell, Boyd, and Bondurant were interwoven into the sagas of Jimmy Hoffa, Howard Hughes, and the Kennedys, linking all of them together into a tapestry of lies, drugs, and death. American Tabloid is just as bleak as the LA Quartet in its own way. While Ellroy's Hollywood is a cesspool, his political world is even worse, a shit and vomit-flecked abattoir where everyone is in bed with everyone else and no one can be trusted. By the end, I didn't think any of the three leads would survive to the second book.

American Tabloid was a dark and exhausting read. By the time I was done, I felt like Kemper Boyd had done a number on me with brass knuckles. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Review: The Mating Season

The Mating Season The Mating Season by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Catsmeat Pirbright and Gussie Fink-Nottle come to Bertie Wooster with their lady problems, he has no choice but to help. Before you know it, Gussie's in stir, Bertie's pretending to be Gussie and Catsmeat is pretending to be Jeeves. Can Bertie get Jeeves to sort things out?

Spoiler alert: Yes.

Way back in 2012-ish, I decided to reread all of the Jeeves novels I read in that hazy time before Goodreads. Then I forgot about that goal until a few days ago.

I read this one ages ago so it was like a new book in a lot of ways. The only parts I remembered were the allusions to Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, since I'm a Dark Tower junkie, and the bit with the cosh.

First, the primer for anyone who has never read a Jeeves book before: Bertie Wooster is one of the idle rich in Edwardian England and Jeeves is his valet (or Gentleman's Personal Gentleman) who specializes in extricating him from trouble.

Like pretty much all of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves tales, this one involves romantic misunderstandings and Bertie Wooster trying his best to sort them out without Jeeves. Once things are suitably dire, Jeeves swoops in with his super-brain and works things out. Not usually by coshing someone, though...

Wodehouse's tales always have a superb rhythym and this one is no exception. You can feel the reversals of fortune coming several pages away. Since I forgot most of this one, I thought for sure Bertie would wind up in stir for a month without the option, It was all sweetness and light by the end, though, as it usually is.

The Jeeves books all tend to blend together in my mind since they all have the same basic plot but Wodehouse manages to take things into different directions each time, keeping them fresh. Wodehouse does his one trick very, very well, I suppose. While I still put The Code of the Woosters at the top of the Jeeves list, this one is still in the upper echelon of Wooster and Jeeves books. Four out of five stars.

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Saturday, June 16, 2018

Review: The Weight of Blood

The Weight of Blood The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When the dismembered body of one of her friends is found, Lucy Dane goes down a rabbit hole of sex trafficking, a rabbit hole that nearly claimed her missing mother decades earlier. Will Lucy discover her mother's true fate before she meets her own?

I've had this book for at least a couple years but forgot about it until I started chewing through my backlog due to my wife's commandeering of the Kindle. It was a gripping read.

The Weight of Blood is told in two threads, one in the past when Lila Petrovich came to Henbane, the other in the present featuring her daughter Lucy. Henbane is a flyspeck town in the Ozarks and I feel like Laura McHugh did a good job capturing the small town way of life, complete with distrust of strangers. The two plot threads were like speeding trains heading toward each other on the same track. You know the end result isn't going to be pretty.

The two mysteries were fairly engaging, although I preferred the Lucy thread. Crete Dane is as rotten as they come but still cares for his family in a twisted sort of way. I felt bad for all the bad stuff that happened to Lila, especially since I knew the worst was yet to come.

The book reminds me of The Roanoke Girls more than anything else, although I preferred The Roanoke Girls. The characters were pretty thin and didn't have a lot of life to them. Lucy and Lila were so alike I forgot which was which a couple times. The writing didn't have much of a spark either. It was pretty basic. While the plot was good, the rest of it could have used more juice.

The Weight of Blood was very readable and I liked it but ultimately didn't have a whole lot of weight to it. 3.5 out of 5 stars.


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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Review: The Impossible Fortress

The Impossible Fortress The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the glorious year of 1987, Vanna White appears in Playboy, sending Billy and his friends in a frenzy to grab that coveted magazine. All Billy has to do is get the alarm code from the stationary store owner's daughter, Mary. Things get complicated when Billy discovers Mary is into computer programming on her Commodore 64, just like he is...

Since my wife comandeered the Kindle to read Anne of Green Gables, I'm chewing through my physical backlog of books. I picked this one up at the Goodreads Summit in 2016. It was a fun little read.

It's funny that the Vanna White Playboy was part of the plot of The Impossible Fortress because that's the one skin magazine my dad had, that I know of. Way back in the day, a co-worker of my dad was dying of cancer and asked him to do the 1990 equivalent of clearing his browser history, retrieving his porn stash from his locker at work. Dad brought it home and said "That Vanna White Playboy is on top of the fridge in the garage if you guys want to look it. Don't let your mom catch you."

Anyway, The Impossible Fortress was fun book. While it's not marketed as such, it's probably best classified as a young adult book. I'm guessing Quirk pushed the nostalgia aspect to grab more readers.

The story is part heist tale, part coming of age. Billy and his friends plan capers to secure copies of the Vanna White Playboy issue. Billy starts having feelings for Mary while the two work on a computer game, The Impossible Fortress, for a contest. Anyone who has ever watched a John Hughes movie knows where things are going.

I found the Impossible Fortress entertaining while I was reading it. The nostalgia doesn't feel forced and doesn't overshadow the story. The relationship between Billy and Mary blossomed pretty naturally and I really wanted them to win the contest. Burglary to retrieve the Vanna White Playboy was kind of a stretch. It's not even a great issue but, then again, many a fourteen year old has done many a stupid thing for a glimpse at naked flesh.

While I found it entertaining, I didn't find it particularly memorable. The only characters of substance were Billy and Mary and the writing was... light, maybe? Unchallenging? Stripped down? The writing didn't have a lot of meat to it is what I'm getting at.

At the end of the day, it's a fun story but The Impossible Fortress isn't anything I'd say people need to go out of their way to read. The story is cute and the nostalgia is fun but that's all there is. Three out of five stars.



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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Review: The Risen

The Risen The Risen by Ron Rash
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Eugene and his brother Bill meet a girl while swimming in a creek, their lives are drawn into her web of sex and drugs. Eugene falls hard for Ligeia and would do anything for her until she suddenly leaves town. Now, almost fifty years later, a body identified as Ligeia's is found along the same creek. Just what the hell happened to the girl Eugene never got over?

During my Goodreads visit in 2016, they had a massive pile of books for us, free for the taking. I managed to restrain myself, taking only The Impossible Fortress, an Anthony Bourdain book (may he rest in peace) that I regifted to my brother, and this one. I devoured it on a couple sweltering weekend days.

The Risen is the story of the buried secrets of Eugene Matny's past coming back to haunt him, although they'd been subtly haunting him for a few decades. Back in the day, Eugene was hot and heavy for a hippy chick named Ligeia until she vanished from his life. When her body is discovered, he immediately suspects his brother lied to him about taking her to the bus station. What exactly his brother was lying about proved to be quite something.

Rash's writing style sucked me right in, easy yet poignant. The parallel structure of the book, one set in the present day and the other in the mythical age of 1969, kept me interested even in the stretches where not a lot was happening. Knowing the train wreck is coming doesn't mean you'll be able to get off the tracks in time to avoid getting swept up in it. The ending was even better than I was expecting.

And now we've come to the point in the review where I reveal why I only gave The Risen a three. The book felt like it was missing a little something, like the time I forgot to put bay leaves in my beef stew. For the reputation Ron Rash has, this book was kind of a letdown. "Average" would be the first word that comes to mind when I think of this book. It was engaging but I'm already forgetting details and I just finished it a few minutes ago.

I think the characters needed to be fleshed out more. Eugene was a drunk. Bill was a med student. Ligeia was a hippy. Eugene and Bill's grandfather was a tyrant. That's pretty much it. The characters were pretty flat to me.

The Risen was a worthwhile read but it probably wasn't the Ron Rash book I should have read if I wanted a new author to follow. Three out of five stars.


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Saturday, June 9, 2018

Review: Made to Kill

Made to Kill Made to Kill by Adam Christopher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ray Electromatic is the last existing robot who works as a private detective and assassin. When he is hired to find and kill a missing actor, he soon becomes entangled in a web of communists and mind control. Will Ray get his man and get his money?

Way back in the fall of 2016, I visited Goodreads headquarters and this book was in the goodie bag they gave me. Now, almost two years later, I have finally read it.

Taking place in an alternate version of the 1960s, one where robots were created and all but one, Ray Electormatic, were deactivated, Made to Kill is a Chandleresque tale of murder, lies, death, and dirty communists. Ray Electromatic operates as a detective and an assassin with the added caveat that he has to recharge every day and have his memory uploaded and erased. A supercomputer named Ava is his secretary/boss. Sound good yet?

Born out of imagining what a Raymond Chandler science fiction tale would be like, Made to Kill hits a lot of the Raymond Chandler beats. There are femme fatales, shady actors and government types, and Adam Christopher's Hollywood is just as filled with phonies and psychopaths as Chandlers. Ray's internal dialogue is peppered with dark humor and he approaches detection with the same grace, or lack thereof, of Philip Marlowe.

The story folds back in on itself a few times like some kind of tesseract. It was an engaging read but I wasn't ass over tea kettle over it. For a bad ass robot, Ray Electromatic didn't actually do a whole helluva lot besides drive around and he was tied up for a lot of the final portion of the book.

Made to Kill was an entertaining read for a rainy Saturday afternoon. I'm not sure I'll be sticking around for future installments, though. Three out of five stars.



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Monday, June 4, 2018

Review: Horses and Farms For Fiction Writers

Horses and Farms For Fiction Writers Horses and Farms For Fiction Writers by Horace Ponii
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jim MacLachlan was one of the first friends I made on Goodreads. Since we both live in rural areas and work in IT and love Roger Zelazny, we hit it off pretty well.

Once upon a time, I was writing a fantasy story and had a question about horses, specifically how long it would take one to go 200 miles. Jim was my go-to guy since he has horses, including one that's the grandson of Secretariat. Not only did he answer my question, he gave me a lot more helpful information about horses. I like to think my fairly innocent question played a small part in Jim writing this book.

Apart from reading about them, I don't have a lot of experience with horses, although I've ridden a few and my grandpa has a photo of a couple horses he owned in the 1970s in his wallet where his grandchildren's should be. Jim gives a good overview of horses and the culture of horse owners here.

"Horses aren't cars with hooves" is a quote from the intro and something important to remember when writing about horses. Jim covers a broad range of horse topics the average person doesn't give much though to, like shoeing, dentistry, the difference between a horse and a pony, and many other subjects, like how horses deal with other animals and politics within the herd.

Jim's style is very accessible and often hilarious. I did not expect to read a story about his daughter taking her horse to school, only for it to sport a massive erection in front of her classmates. In addition to horses, Jim covers a lot of related topics, like life on a farm, other livestock, and things of that nature.

Much like the time I asked Jim how far a horse could go in 200 miles, this book provided much more information than I originally wanted but it's better to have it and not use it than need it and not have it. Horses and Farms For Fiction Writers should prove to be a good resource for writers wanting to include accurate depictions of horses and various horse-related things in their writing. Four out of five stars.

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Sunday, June 3, 2018

Review: Blood Standard

Blood Standard Blood Standard by Laird Barron
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

When he sees his fellow gangsters killing walruses for fun, Isaiah Coleridge chops one of them in the throat and winds up exiled to a work farm in upstate New York. A teenage girl also staying at the farm disappears and Isaiah means to find her, stirring up a hornet's nest of gang members and corrupt law enforcement...

2017 was the year of Laird Barron for me. I managed to read every book he had in print so it was a no-brainer that I'd pick up this one, his first foray into crime fiction. Barron's prose is rooted in noir so I knew he'd do a great job.

Blood Standard is a mystery but Isaiah Coleridge is no Philip Marlowe. He pretty much bulldozes his way around, kicking ass and pissing people off. In some ways, he's a lot like Conrad Navarro, the protagonist of The Light is the Darkness, a brute of a man who would have been better off being born a thousand years earlier.

The writing was as I expected, grim, gruesome stuff written with a sort of poetry. Like Isaiah, I suspect Laird Barron wouldn't mind a Homburg and an overcoat, although he'd be wearing his someplace cold and desolate. If I wouldn't have been reading a physical copy, I would have highlighted half of the book on my Kindle.

Isaiah's a little more complicated than all of that, a half-Maori man haunted by his mother's death at the hands of his father when he was fifteen. Papa Coleridge is a piece of work, a career military man who went mercenary. While Isaiah wouldn't agree with, he's a lot more like his father than he'd like to admit.

While I don't pretend to understand Isaiah, I understand his motivations. It brought a tear to my eye when someone asked Isaiah why he did what he did and he said "I miss my dog." Animals and kids have an innocence that should be preserved. Yeah, I miss my dog too.

Isaiah's case takes him up against the White Manitou, a Native American organized crime organization, and corrupt cops and FBI agents. By the time the dust is settled and the blood is dried, the case is closed but not a lot of good came of it. The classic noir ending, in fact.

The supporting cast went a long way toward making Isaiah seem like more than a human wrecking ball. Lionel, Isaiah's drunken co-worker at the ranch, is the kind of friend every man wants, one that would follow him through the gates of hell. I also liked that Meg was tough and didn't immediately jump on Isaiah's groin. She proved to be a many-faceted character.

There were a whole lot of loose ends left behind but that's not all that surprising. If you follow Laird Barron on social media, you know he's already got the next Coleridge book in the can. I'm looking forward to Isaiah's next blood-spattered outing.

Laird Barron's first steps into the world of crime fiction were even better than I expected. 4.5 out of 5 stars.




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Monday, May 28, 2018

Review: The Somnambulist's Dreams

The Somnambulist's Dreams The Somnambulist's Dreams by Lars Boye Jerlach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lighthouse keeper finds the deranged writings of his predecessor, of dreams spanning time and space...

I never would have picked this up if my wife hadn't commandeered the kindle to read Anne of Green Gables. On that fateful day, Lars Boye Jerlach happened to email me, asking if I was interested in reading print copies of his books. Needless to say, I took the plunge.

The Somnabulist's Dreams is a tough animal to pin down. It reminded me of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle a bit, even before Toru was mentioned. Enoch Soule's tales feel like fever dreams, strange vignettes featuring talking ravens, Edgar Allan Poe, Sigourney Weaver, David Bowie, and probably a lot of historical figures I didn't recognize.

One minor quibble: David Bowie does not have eyes that are different colors. One has a pupil that is permanently dilated due to an injury he suffered in a brawl.

The Somnambulist's Dreams could be interpreted as the fracturing reality of a man suffering from loss and loneliness. It could also be about the nature of reality and existence. I was pretty sure who the narrator would wind up being when I started but that didn't impede my enjoyment of the tale one iota. I wolfed it down in a quiet afternoon.

The Somnabulist's Dreams is an odd, quirky, enjoyable little book with no clear cut answers, one that can't be shoved into any particular genre. I'm looking forward to cracking Lars' other book, When all the days have gone, once I've had a little more time to digest this one. Four out of five stars.

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Friday, May 25, 2018

Review: Beyond Barlow

Beyond Barlow Beyond Barlow by Jason R. Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After an unfortunate accident, young Ford Barlow goes on the lam and joins a group of young bandits, the Wayward Boys. Will Ford ever leave his new life behind and go home to Barlow to meet his fate?

I have to say I didn't go in it without a bias. J-to-the-K and I are so tight we're partners in a fictional detective agency ("Book Bros Unite!"). The year was 2016 when Jason Koivu first told me about this book at the Goodreads Summit. The mighty Bill Kerwin was also there. "Huckberry Finn meets Lord of the Rings" was how he described it. He eventually sent me a copy and then I lost it during a remodel. I unearthed it last week and here we are.

The prose was denser than I expected, possibly because it's been a LONG time since I read any straight up fantasy. I got used to it, though, and was soon drawn into Ford's plight. Stuck with an angry stepmother, Ford returns from his first battle only to find tragedy has struck. Then tragedy strikes a second time and Ford's off in the wind. People who follow Jason on social media will be happy to know the Koivu wit is present, although not so much that it detracts from the more serious moments.

The Wayward Boys reminded me of Peter Pan's Lost Boys with some Lord of the Flies thrown in. It's all fun and games, robbing people and sleeping rough, until it isn't. Big Jay said it was a prequel to the tale he really wanted to write and I'm guessing Ford will factor heavily into that one. This story is part fantasy, part coming-of-age tale.

That's about all I have to say. Beyond Barlow shows that good fantasy doesn't have to be all dragons, elves, and doorstop-sized volumes that don't go anywhere. Four out of five stars.


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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Review: The Infinite Blacktop

The Infinite Blacktop The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Who tried to kill Claire DeWitt in a hit and run? That's what Claire wants to find out but will there be anything left of her when she finds her would-be killer?

A funny thing happened a few days ago. I was driving to work, pondering when/if a new Claire DeWitt book would be coming out, only to find there was a Goodreads giveaway for the newest one AND it was up on Netgalley. Naturally, I was all over it.

Fresh from the events of Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, Claire DeWitt goes through the meat grinder yet again, subsisting on stolen drugs, grit, and shear stubbornness to find the man who tried to kill her. Claire is still Claire, the drug-doing, alcohol-drinking, ass-kicking, lying, detecting machine she's always been. She's a glorious melding of old-school locked room cozy detective heroines with the damaged goods detectives of noir fiction. The Infinite Blacktop is another one of her grand, quirky, funny, broken cases.

The book is told in three threads: one with Claire and her two teenage detective friends, Kelly and Tracy, one with Claire trying to earn her PI license while piecing together the events surrounding an artist's death, and the final one, Claire's search for the man who tried to run her down. Each thread is pretty bad ass and does a great job illustrating the journey of Claire DeWitt.

The artist thread was narrowly my favorite, showing how Claire got her IP license but also showing some vulnerability from her that she doesn't show anymore. The present day thread, with Claire barely hanging on, was nearly as interesting as the artist thread but I just wanted someone to tell Claire to slow down and maybe sleep for ten hours. Although, the world's greatest detective never slows down when she's on a case...

This book answers a lot of lingering questions from the two previous books, namely what happened to Tracy, why hasn't anyone else ever read the Cynthia Silverton books, and who left the copy of Detection, Silette's book, in the unused wing of the DeWitt home all those years ago. It was pretty satisfying conclusion to the previous two books, although I hope it isn't the last we've seen of Claire DeWitt.

I don't really know what else to say without spoiling things. Claire's Dirk Gently approach to detection is as great as it ever was. Much like the previous two books, this one was a darkly humorous, quirky, gritty train wreck.

As per the last two books, Claire just barely holds everything together while searching for her quarry, going on an odyssey of substance abuse and self-discovery while proving why she is the best detective in the world. I fucking loved it. If this is the last Claire DeWitt book, it's a hell of a high note to go out on. Five out of five stars.

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Friday, May 18, 2018

Review: The Whole World

The Whole World The Whole World by Emily Winslow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Polly and Liv are Americans studying abroad in Cambridge. When Nick, a friend of theirs, goes missing, The Whole World turns upside down. Is Nick still alive? And does his disappearance have to do with what happened between him and the girls? That's what Morris Keene and Chloe Frohmann mean to find out!

Yeah, I fudged the teaser a little bit. That's the book I was imagining when I picked this up. Look For Her was part of one of my Pagehabit boxes and I liked it quite a bit. While I liked this one, it was not the same kind of book.

The Whole World is a character study in four parts that happens to feature a mysterious disappearance. Polly, Liv, and Nick are all working on a project, sorting a blind woman's photos, when Nick disappears after some romantic misunderstandings with Polly and Liv. The story is told in four points of view: first Polly's, then Nick's, then Morris', and finally Liv's. Each tale reveals more of Nick's disappearance and the events surrounding it.

Now that I write it out, I liked the structure of the book quite a bit. Instead of being linear, the narrative curves back in on itself quite a bit. Honestly, there's not a lot of sleuthing to be done. Nick's fate is revealed early and the shit doesn't really hit the fan until late in the book.

I understand now why Emily Winslow doesn't call this a series, precisely. While Morris and Chloe are characters in this book, they are secondary to Liv, Polly, and Nick. While the story wasn't what I expected, the book was very well written. I'm a little on the fence about reading the second and third book, although I'm interested in what happens to Morris' marriage and daughter and Chloe's future.

The Whole World wasn't what I expected but I still enjoyed it. Three out of five stars.

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Sunday, May 13, 2018

Review: The Upper Hand

The Upper Hand The Upper Hand by Johnny Shaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When their mother dies and leaves everything to a televangelist, Axel, Kurt, and Gretchen Ucker are left out in the cold. A long lost aunt, Mother Ucker, shows up and introduces them to their long dead father's family, a family of con artists and thieves. The Uckers soon set their sights on Reverend Floom, the man their mother left everything to...

Even though I'm getting to the point where I refuse almost every ARC, I got this from Netgalley after Johnny Shaw hit me up. Totally worth it.

The Upper Hand is a hilarious tale about what it means to be a family, even if that family is entirely criminals. When the story begins, the Ucker kids aren't really talking to each other. Kurt still lives at home and wants to be a rock star. Axel just broke up with his girlfriend and lives in a house he can't afford, one that she talked him into buying. Gretchen is a burglar specializing in rare comics. When their mother dies, they are forced together out of necessity.

There's a lot going on in this. The dialogue is trademark Johnny Shaw: hilarious, Joe Lansdale by way of southern California. Much like Lansdale, I would have highlighted half of the book if I was keeping track of all the funny lines.

I really liked how the Uckers were brought into the fold and taught the family business by Mother Ucker and Fritzy, although we all knew how things would eventually go down. The Uckers run a few cons, both as a group and individually, crime bringing them together and eventually break them apart. And together again. It's like The Sting, only hilarious.

While I didn't like it as much as the Jimmy Veeder fiascos, The Upper Hand was hilarious and at least as good as Big Maria. Four out of five stars.

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