Thursday, October 12, 2017

Book Review: Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Paperback, 125 pages Published February 28th 2017 by Tor Book

Something worked in this books favor was the fact that I really didn't like the last book I read. Kiernan is a author I have meant to read more of. Agents of Dreamland will only cement my need to read more of Kiernan's work.

One of the latest releases in the the Tor.com series of Novellas which has produced masterpieces like Binti by Nedi Okrafor, Buffalo Soliders by Maurice Broddus, The Warren by Brian Evenson and of course the Black Of Black Tom by victor Lavalle. Those are just the ones I have reviewed. I mean some release strange and original works that are short in page count but huge in Ideas. So Agents of Dreamland fits right in.

This balances lots of feelings for the reader. At times the the prose is vivid and crisp and times the narrative is so intensely weird it is hard to believe it is less than 150 pages. I mean this book is loaded with ideas. It is of course a Lovecraft influenced cosmic horror story but not in stereotypical adding tenticles kinda of way. At times it had the delightfully weird transcendental feeling of David Lynch. The story moves through space and time in a totally unpredictable way.

The story of Signalman a spy who gets off a train in the desert to exchange information that is tied events are tied to the deep space probe New Horizon about to buzz the dwarf planet Pluto. If I start to rattle off all the elements that make this novel you'll get an idea how out there it is. There is a woman who exists outside of time, Sogotths basically alien invading space fungus, A doomsday cult called "Children of The Next Level," tie-ins to early 20th century sci-fi films, and more.

It is one thing to throw a whole bunch of weird things together it is a another to put them all together in a well written creepy tale. Page after page page I marveled at little moments of genius, while remaining stunned at the level of weird. It is set in 2015 for specific reason...

That is when new Horizon was swinging by Pluto taking the amazing pictures in the video. This novella is a bit of a companion piece to the Lovecraft story Whisper in the Darkness that was inspired by the recently at the time discovered dwarf Planet. Kinda wish I know that going into it as I would have re-read that story. It has been a long time.

This is my favorite book I have read in awhile, I was excited by all the strange elements coming together. A masterpiece of Science Fiction, horror and Mythos fiction. Kiernan swung for the fences and knocked the sucker in the parking lot.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Book Review: The Dark Net by Benjamin Percy

The Dark Net by Benjamin Percy

Hardcover, 272 pages

Published August 1st 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Boy I really really wanted to like this book. There were a couple reasons for this. For one thing, I really enjoyed the interview with the author on the "This is Horror" Podcast. I found Percy to have lots of interesting takes on writing and the plot to this novel sounded interesting. I thought the concept was one that could be really cool. The fact that it was set in Portland a city I miss didn't hurt either. I WANTED to like this book, and yet I didn't. Not there are levels to disliking a book. I finished this book. Making it to the end says something.

As a novelist myself I know the huge amount of work involved in researching,writing, editing and marketing a book. I don't root against books but I felt like I was riding a fancy bike with the chain falling off every time we got some speed.

This book was alot of things going on but not exactly the book I was hoping for. The idea that a great supernatural evil is using the Dark Net - ie the underground unregulated internet is a fascinating one. What was needed to tell this story is a a really technologically oriented point of view that combines the feel of early William Gibson with the supernatural feeling of the Exorcist or The Omen. My favorite Horror film of all time Prince of Darkness is a great example of science fiction meeting supernatural even religious horror. Lets face it the evil in this story has demonic judeo-christian feel to it. One of the negatives to this book is I felt like I understood more about the real life Dark Net that Percy did.

The Dark Net is the story of many characters but our main point of view character is Lela a Technophobic Journalist, others include her niece Hannah who is blind but receiving experimental surgery, Her sister, A hacker named Derick and a former evangelist turned homeless advocate. Lela is investigating a murder that is connected to an apartment building that has a tenuous connection the other characters. There is a story line involving Hannah and the experimental treatment leading to her ability to see creatures that exist somewhere between a technological and spiritual realm.

None of these story elements really worked for me. Lela's murder investigation felt like a totally different story, and once the elements started coming together it I didn't feel anymore convinced. The Mike Juniper story on the surface sounded interesting, with a former believer just wanting to help the homeless but his chapters didn't stand out. Hannah and mother were the characters I found most interesting and even though they open the novel they felt under used.

My biggest problem with the writing were events that seemed to happen randomly just because the author wanted them too. The best example was in the first 100 pages. Look as a ex-Portlander who shopped at and loved Powell's city of Books on paper the idea of a suspense filled horror-action scene taking place in the store is cool. However in order to put Lela a reporter who doesn't work into the store alone Percy set-up a ridiculous scene where a Powell's employee just leaves her in the rare books room after the store closed. This would never happen. So it took me out of the book.

This is just one example but there were several times things happen without any logic except to advance the story. Lela's inability to use technology while it fits the author's narrative it is impossible to believe. So as reader in the first 100 pages there are several major strikes against the book. I can suspend disbelief about demons, but a reporter for the leading newspaper in the state being clueless with technology enough soo that she can't download a picture takes me straight out of the story.

Once we get into the third act I feel the title concept of the Dark Net is only touched on in minor ways, and considering it was the subject of the book I wanted more than a wikipedia entries worth of knowledge on the topic. The best techno-thrillers make me feel like the author is in touch with information about the subject I can't understand. The story often meets in the middle. I read this book mostly thinking of ways evil could travel through the dark-net and thinking that Derick was the only character we needed. Then again I didn't believe him as a hacker anymore than Lela as a Luddite reporter in the 21st century.

I wish I could tell you this is an awesome book worthy of your time. It has blurbs from really smart authors Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Chuck Wendig and Paul Tremblay. Percy is a much more successful writer than I am but I just don't see it here. I wanted a smart techno-thriller in the vein of Cyberpunk meets horror instead the third act contains a chapter that felt more like Maximum Overdrive. It was good enough to finish I may give Percy another chance but thumbs down on this one.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Book Review: The Snake Handler by J. David Osborne & Cody Goodfellow

The Snake Handler by J. David Osborne & Cody Goodfellow

Paperback, 152 pages

Published 2017 by Broken River Press

This book came as a big surprise to me. I mean I am a fan of both authors, and I knew these dudes were friends but it seemed a strange combo. On the surface both authors are write strange fiction. Goodfellow is more of a horror author and Osborne known for weird crime, of course both crossover into the other's genre often. Osborne and Goodfellow worked together on Cody's criminally underrated weird crime novel Repo-Shark, with Osbourne serving as editor and publisher through Broken River books. But as a fan of works of fiction by both authors the differences in their styles had me scratching my head at the idea of them working together.

Goodfellow is an author whose strength comes in research and little details. Osbourne is more of an author who writes books that feel like a surreal version of the southern gothic. More importantly details are not his thing. Osbourne has admitted on his podcast he skips details, ignoring the parts of stories he finds boring. Osbourne often leaves these moments up to the reader to fill the details on their own. Goodfellow plays will those moments turns them into humor, horror or suspense and leaves no stone unturned. Osbourne's strength are tone, the off-color feeling.

So how would they combine their strength?

The Snake Handler is a (just barely southern) gothic crime novel that centers on Clyde Hilburn as Preacher and faith healer in West Virgina who is bit by a snake in the novella's opening moments. What follows is a weird crime story that involves the main character trying to solve his own murder caused by the bite that ideally should not be so full of poison. The setting provides alot of the weird the characters and it all adds to make for weird, violent fun if you are into the darker more gross forms of story-telling.

I could be wrong, but as much Goodfellow as I have read, and I have read a good % of his catalog it seems he wrote the majority of the first part and Osbourne seems to have been lead on the second part. That is not to say I didn't seem hints of the other through out, and I could be wrong I am just geussing. I enjoyed this book but I admit Goodfellow's clarity is a little more my thing. That is why I think I preferred elements of the first half more than the second. None the less I loved the whole thing, that is personal taste thing.

Goodfellow and Osbourne are a welcome combination and with the Matt Revert cover it is a neat little novella, that should be on your shelf. Honestly this felt like a Tor.com novella series book and in a just world it would have been one.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Book Review: Blade Runner 2 The Edge of Human by KW Jetter

Blade Runner 2 The Edge of Human by KW Jetter

Paperback, 320 pages

Published October 2000 by Spectra (first published 1995)

This book sat unread on my shelf for 10 years. I bought it for a quarter at a library book sale in Port Angeles Washington. I knew the back story, KW Jetter who is a cyberpunk author I respected had been friends with PKD during his life. The story goes that he and Dick had discussed before his death his thoughts on seeing the rough cut of the movie, and his plans to write sequel novel Jetter then with permission of the family wrote a series of books that are a sequel to the movie more so than the novel.

The main reason I decided to give this book at spin was to kinda get back into the Blade Runner world before the release of the new film. So I re-watched the blu-ray of the final cut, and read this book. Thought that would be a fun way to get excited for the new film. I read Do Andoirds Dream Electric Sheep and re-watched Blade Runner about 10 years ago. At the time I remember thinking that the movie was more faithful to the source material that it is often given credit for. Certainly there are many concepts in the novel that don't get explored like the empathy boxes and the very term Blade Runner is only in the movie.

That being said the concept of animal extinction, empathy towards animals and the very idea of empathy as a test for humanity is very clearly a translation of the novel into the film format. Watching it again I found little subtle moments that I realized meant nothing to me when I first saw the film and would have no meaning to me without having read the novel. When Deckard asks the replicant stripper if her snake is real and she says "of course not, how could I afford it?" Having read the novel I understand that most animals on earth are extinct that fake animals are status thing. Or in the Tyrell corporations penthouse when Tryell's owl gets a close-up it is clearly a fake but that is never mentioned.

So considering that it was interesting after watching the film again to enter into Jetter's sequel. While there are nods to Dick's novel, this is not an androids sequel it is very much a Blade Runner sequel. There are pros and cons to this. If there is one serious negative is that Jetter doesn't introduce new characters hardly at all, the setting hardly changes. He takes very few risks. It was almost like he was told we have to use all the same actors and sets. Understandable for a movie or TV production just didn't make sense in a prose setting.

Odd choice because it was a book, none the less he finds interesting twists into the story and brings back characters (some of whom died) in interesting ways. At this point I am going to talk about spoilers. The book is many years old, and about to become obsolete. I think many of you want to read this review to skip the book rather than actually than deciding if you want to read it. As a fan of Blade Runner I enjoyed it, but unless you are hugely devoted to the film I don't you have to read it.

I enjoyed reading it rated four stars at first but lowered my score to three after thinking deeper about it. It is fun, but it breaks no new ground and pretty much re-hashes the film over and over.

SPOILERS:

In this novel Rachel has been put in a sleep chamber and Deckard is forced back to LA to look for a last Nexxus 8 Replicant. This mission is given to him by Sarah the template for the Rachel Android. Roy Batty returns in the form of the human template. Holden the Blade Runner shot in the early scenes of the movie returns with a new heart and lungs after nearly dying. Holden and Deckard are both convinced that the other Blade Runner is the last Replicant. This is pretty good PKD paranoia,but the best twist of the novel comes at the end of chapter 8 on page 153. Holden comes the conclusion that perhaps all the Blade runners are Androids.

I thought this was a fun twist. In the end we are left with the same mystery and I am not sure I have reading the other two books.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Book Review: Behold The Void by Philip Fracassi

Behold The Void by Philip Fracassi

Introduction by Laird Barron

Paperback, 292 pages

Published March 10th 2017 by JournalStone

A short story collection is one of the best ways to get to know an author. I heard Philip Fracassi on A podcast, a epic 3 part interview on This is Horror, and was convinced the guy seemed legit. I looked him up at my library, saw nothing so I requested a purchase and within two months I got a notice it was there. I knew he had worked as a screenwriter but honestly had never heard of him before the interview. Well it was clear I have to fix that.

Introduced by cosmic horror master Laird Barron this collection that has creepy and haunting cover. It feels like the intriduction to the author I was looking for. Fracassi clearly has a perfect balance of skill and style. The stories are all genre but have a diverse feel with in that spectrum. Some are straight fucked-up horror and some feel like classic weird tales.

Weighing with 9 tales some are novella length and had a previous life as chapbooks. The best of these long pieces was Altar a story that took place near a pool. The weirdest story of the book was Coffin whose POV character was excellent, she was the most interesting character in the book.

To me the best story in the collection was Fail-safe. In fact I would go so far as to say it was the best pure horror short story I have read since Brian Evenson's Any Corpse. This story is short on pages but loaded with high concept and perfectly composed moments of suspense and terror. The story includes misdirection, atmosphere and white knuckle scares. For this reader these 20 pages made the whole book worth it. To me it would have made a perfect Tales from the Darkside episode.

Don't get me wrong I read and enjoyed all of it. Fracassi found a fan in me. This is excellent horror literature, the prose is inventive and stylish. The Characters fully developed and Fracassi brings powerful new voice to the table. I know this is a short review but I feel confident that serious horror fans will enjoy this book.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Book Review: The Changeling by Victor LaValle

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

Hardcover, 431 pages

Published June 13th 2017 by Spiegel & Grau

I really loved this book, and I know the hyperbole has started, Lavalle's last book book has seems to have won every major award. this book is no different it is getting rave reviews from almost everyone who read it. The reasons are clear. This book is the real deal story telling to it's core. It has a fantasy feel to that at moments feels like full on fable or fairy tale and other times brutal horror. At the heart of this novel is a very rich story that feels like it is being told to you as you sit on rocking chairs on the front porch. I picked up the book based on the strength of Lavalle's last book The Ballad of Black Tom. I think it was good that I didn't know anything about the plot.

It is the story of Apollo Kagwa son of single mother and African immigrant in New York City. His father left them and the reason is a mystery. The elements of this mystery unfold in a very magical way. Early in the story Lavalle creates a simple story that has a natural feeling of scope and magic. It is kinda hard to explain, the events of the novel are subtle with a slow burn but the way it is told just feels powerful. The pages fly by.

Apollo receives a clue left at his door step that leads him to want to collect books, there are really cool moments centered around the magic and power of books. Those passages set the tone but the zigs and zags into romance and horror. When Apollo meets the love of his life. A Librarian whose entry into his life fills a void. But there is tragedy coming. Soon his son and his wife are missing presumed dead, he ends up briefly in jail orginally charged with their murder. After he is released from prison he wants to get to the truth, is he unlucky or are dark forces working against him?

The strength of this novel is the constant balance that Lavalle brings to the text between the magic and beauty and the dark evil as it builds to a boil. I am sure some readers will feel jolted by the tone shift half way into this novel but this is earned through moments of tension slow building in the first half. The New York setting and characters are really well developed.

Was it perfect? Most seem to think so, the book is racking up five star reviews and started already to win awards. For me there were two elements that didn't work. For one thing I didn't like the addition of modern technology into the story. The inclusion of a phone app into a story that drew strength from a spiritual tone was jarring to me. There was one chapter that ended with joke involving an app that was so corny I almost slammed the book shut.

Apollo is tragic character but one I liked enough to feel for. I liked the strengths of this novel enough to ignore the parts I didn't like. I thought it was very, very good but I didn't like it as much as some. The Ballad of Black Tom was a masterpiece and this one was very good but I am not sure I would use the word that strong of a word here. Lavalle is an amazing writer and I think I will read what ever he writes at this point.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Book Review: The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

he Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

hardcover, 288 pages

Published April 2017 by Harper

I have to admit I have never heard of Lidia Yuknavitch before. I have gathered since I started this book that she is an author whose books are shelved and marketed as lit fiction. Certainly this is one of those cases where a book is very clearly genre and is never slapped with the honest label. I understand that to the author she may not have set out to write a science fiction horror post apocalypse novel, but she did. I am sure all she meant to do was do a modern Joan of Arc novel.

Look it was the genre elements that hooked my interest and it the reason many of you read these reviews. Yuknavitch is a talented writer and I am I positive I will read her again. The concept alone, Joan of Arc re-told after the majority of humanity has escaped a radiated earth to live in a orbiting habitat. The humans who survive are transforming, fluid with gender and sexuality becoming a memory. All coo elements that make for interesting read.

Book of Joan is a an ultra-feminist speculative fiction that will get lazy comparisons to Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness just because of the gender fluid moments. I suspect fans of Leguin however will love this novel. There is alot to like here. Normally I am annoyed when a novel like this is not called science fiction, but I have seen worst cases. The novel is not hard sci-fi at all and is more surreal than anything.

Early in the novel I was riding with it. The prose is crisp and the pace starts up OK. I enjoyed the flurry of weird ideas, I had put the hold on the book so many months ago I had forgotten why I was interested so I went in cold. I thought Yuknavitch put more energy into the setting and the world building in the early pages, that is one reason why the first half of the novel worked better for me. In the second half the novel lost focus. So did I.

This novel is really cool, and I liked the themes and methods Yuknavitch used to express herself. I really enjoyed the first one hundred pages. The ecological message is as strong as the feminist one, but I don't think the story suffers for that reason. The last sixty became confusing for me. I admit I got lost and pages went by. That could have been on me, there is no denying the talent involved in the writing.

Overall I liked this book even if I was less happy with the last parts of the narrative. I think fans of smart politically charged speculative fiction should read this book. Fans of smart weird stuff will also enjoy.