Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book review: Ratings Game by Ryan C. Thomas

Ratings Game by Ryan C. Thomas

Paperback, 349 pages

Published May 2008 by Cohort Press

Ratings game is a book I have meant to read for years. The second novel of San Diego based horror author Ryan C. Thomas is a bit of a departure from his first novel The Summer I Died. A decade has passed since those first two books came out and we have had a chance to see the potential RCT showed grow into several books and reputation for character driven horror.

I really like the left turn that RCT took with this second novel, his first release was a masterpiece of extreme horror. It would have been easy go straight back to the blood drenched success of The Summer I Died right away. RCT did eventually do two sequels (on my to read list) but this novel has a very different tone.

Blending social commentary, satire and the occasional gore soaked serial killing. Ratings Game is the story of Roland Stone and Doug Hardwood. Two new York based TV anchors who are on the edge of aging out of the industry for good. After an encounter at a bar they both realize what they need is a big story attached to their names.

It starts when Roland finds the body of a homeless man already dead. He claims the murder with a letter sent to him at the station, he names the killer and the ratings soar. Not to be outdone Hardwood is on to him and stages his own more violent murder with a letter that comes in the mail to his station. On the outside it looks like two killers engaged in a game, but of course it is a boost in the ratings and viewers they want. What follows is a novel that is a smart mix of Anchorman and American Psycho.

On the surface the concept is pretty silly, which is why the novel goes the route of satire. This was a smart move that RCT has crafted a fun novel that captures the "it bleeds it leads" world of news. The two killers "the Chef" (Stone) and Cassnova Carver (Hardwood) bring the gore and style to their murders. This is something Thomas brings to this novel mainstream satires would have strayed away from.

If there is a weakness in the novel it is the sexism of the characters while probably accurate got a bit grating to me. Ratings Game was just as funny as anything I have read from Jeff Strand who is considered the king of horror comedy. I laughed alot reading the book and I really appreciated that it was so different from his first book.

Excellently plotted and structured to deliver a well timed story. If you have not read any Ryan C. Thomas I would start with The Summer I Died, that is just a perfect horror novel. That being said Ratings game is probably a better more dynamic example of what Ryan C. Thomas is capable of.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Book Review: Among Madmen by Jim Starlin & Daina Graziunas

Among Madmen by Jim Starlin & Daina Graziunas

Paperback, 268 pages

Published 1990 by Roc

This is a short but wickedly intense read written by a married couple and long time comic book creators Jim Starlin and Daina Graziunas. Released in 1990 this is apparently a lost classic that was blurbed by Stephen King and George Romero at the time of it's release. I think I first heard of it when Brian Keene mentioned it in a interview on Dread Media, I just happened to be in a used bookstore an hour later and found it for $2. Sold.

I am surprised I had never heard of it because it's post apocalypse setting a gritty characters make it right up my alley. It is a cool book with lots of little pieces of art through out and starting each chapter. It is also very ahead of it's time by taking the zombie novel and adding the berzerker element.

The story of Tom Laker a vet and former NYPD cop who moves with his wife after a virus starts slowly turning the population of into berzerkers. He has become the sheriff of this small town and is trusted to protect the community. Laker is a great character his anguish bleeds off the page. He is trying desperately to hide the fact that his wife has the disease and is at times trying to kill him.

Matters are made worse when a band of raiders are making there way to the small town and someone inside is helping set them up. As we head toward the final battle Tom has to confront his world and family falling apart at the same time.

This novel packs alot of story and emotional punch into it's short page count despite being just over 200 pages it feels epic. Tom Laker and his psycho deputy Benny are both really strong characters who carry alot of the novel on their shoulders. I was less impressed with the story line between Tom and his wife Maria. It just didn't work for me but I feel for Tom when it came to a head.

The placement of the art was an issue. Some of the art spoiled the coming narrative since it appeared a page or two ahead of events in the prose. That said a few times this was used to actually add to the suspense. This is a must read for folks who really enjoy dark, brooding end of the world stories. In that sub-genre it is pretty classic. If that is not a strong motivation for you I don't think it is essential reading.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Book Review: Little Heaven by Nick Cutter

Little Heaven by Nick Cutter

Hardcover, 496 pages

Published January 10th 2017 by Gallery Books

Nick Cutter is one of the hottest names in horror fiction, and for good reason. The ironically this hot name is a pen name for Canadian literary author Craig Davidson most well known a novel Rust and Bone. I have read all four Nick Cutter books now and I thought the praise was certainly warranted. I enjoyed The Deep and the Acolyte but I didn't like either one nearly as much as the Cutter debut The Troop. That debut was a wicked intense character rich body horror novel. At a time when major publishers were shy about hardcover horror it was a major hit.

It worked in part because despite a modern settings it felt retro in all the right ways. It felt like a a golden age of horror paperback classic. People rightly compared to it to classic Stephen King. I thought it was an effective and disturbing horror novel that made the best of a lean prose style.

So now we have Little Heaven. First off it is nice to see Cutter shake the Bentley Little title disease that has plagued him. Finally a novel that is not THE ___ Whatever. To me Little Heaven is a masterpiece of horror fiction and pays tribute to 80's in a even stronger sense than The Troop did. As good as the last two Cutter books were they missed that retro feel that made The Troop special.

So I have seen again the comparisons to classic Stephen King but in this case I don't see it at all. This is lazy analysis from readers who might not know the influences on this novel. This novel has more Clive Barker and Robert McCammon in it's DNA than King. I would also argue the setting and characters give it more of a Cormac McCarthy feel than King. With the structure and dialogue a argument could also be made that Tarantino was a influence.

Cutter proudly wheres his influence on his sleeve, and that is why we talk so much about it. Take all this narrative chemistry and it adds it up to novel that feels like others but is actually like nothing I have read before. Personally I would use the word masterpiece. In part because I think a novel that delivers exactly the feeling of classics and causes me to turn pages is all I am asking for.

This is the story of four trained killers given the mission to rescue a young boy whose father has taken him to a compound called Little Heaven in the New Mexico desert. Cutter clearly has fashioned this cult after real life cults and doesn't hide it as you discover in the second half. We know quickly that these killers are not normal humans. The narrative switches back and forth from the mid 60's to the 80's and the structure unrolls the story in a unconventional but very effective manner.

We know the four mercenaries survived but they changed and are haunted by what they have seen. The supernatural elements have surreal quality that brings to mind early Clive Barker. Monsters like the Long Walker were disturbing in how unnatural they were yet described so well you see them in your mind and were nothing short of creepy.

The tone reminded me of McCammon's Gone South. This comes from the characters that are both scary and hilarious at times. The prose itself was excellent. Cutter creates vivid landscapes and the horrors pop off the page causing several cringe worthy moments of supernatural horror.

I made a mistake reading some of the reviews on goodreads, and the litreactor review by Max Booth that called this book a rehash of IT. I honestly was not sure we all read the same book. So yeah I think you should read Little Heaven. I think it is the best Cutter book and personally I think the best horror novel in years.

Now something new. Below is a audio review/ discussion between author Anthony Trevino and myself talking about the book. it's 20 minutes the first half is non-spoilers and the second half talks more about the writing in the book. Check it out. I am going to do a few more of these from time to time on the blog.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Book Review: Masque by F.Paul Wilson and Matthew J. Costello

Masque by F.Paul Wilson and Matthew J. Costello

Paperback, 368 pages

Published June 1999 by Aspect

I have been reading mostly new releases lately so this is kinda of a random book for me in a couple ways. Anyone following my reviews knows F.Paul Wilson is one of my top five writers easily, his ability to pace and structure a novel is the best on the planet. I admit I had not heard of Matthew Costello before but Dr. Wilson was the first draw, and the high concepts.

Look I picked this up at a used bookstore that was going out of business and the corny cover made me laugh. That said It is one of my favorite authors and when I read the back cover description I was sold.

This novel is set a century or two in the future in a dystopia, I got the feeling these future earthlings had survived a nuclear war or a ecological collapse but that was a bit vague. Don't misunderstand me this novel is effective at many things, one of which is world building. No matter how strange this world was it felt fully developed. This was important because the concept was such a vital part of the story.

At the heart was a very interesting character Tristan. Indentured to a corporation Tristan is not a normal person. He is a perfect spy because his genetically engineered to be a shapeshifter. The people with metamorphic DNA are called "mimes" and for good reason they are very mistrusted in this world. Tristan wants to be locked into one form and finally get citizenship. To get these things he must complete one mission.

What follows is a strange cyberpunk spy novel that is not as streamlined as I used to with Wilson. One of his strengths is no frills narratives that fly! The level of weird here was source of constant enjoyment for this reader. Former mimes turned religious leaders, Mutant underground clubs, and hero constantly changing identity. Tristan gets dragged into plot to kill off all Mimes and can't trust anyone.

First off this novel is 19 years old so some of the technology and terms you would expect to feel out of date. Not really, the most out of date thing in this novel is the Max Headroom-ish cover art. The elements of Noir,spy thrillers and Cyberpunk are perfectly executed.

Keep in mind it was released in 1998 it was ahead of it's time. Two popular works of fiction came later and did very similar things. In the not super close but was on my mind category is the Richard Morgan novel Altered Carbon (and it's sequels) in that novel all the name elements were there. Spy, noir and Cyberpunk, The hero didn't morph DNA but was switching bodies and never said the same. Fans of Altered Carbon might really enjoy it.

As the morphagentic DNA shape shifters. Yeah they had those in Fringe. Yes it was done here first. Did someone at Bad Robot read this novel first? Who can say? I suspect it was coincidence.

Overall I enjoyed this novel but I can think of a dozen F.Paul Wilson books I would recommend before this one. If you are looking for weird whacked out Cyberpunk not written by authors not known for this sub-genre then yeah, It is a fun read.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Book Review: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

Paperback, 316 pages

Published July 2012 by Quirk Books

Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original (2013)

The lone cop who gives a shit about a murder, that no one else thinks is a murder to a trope way over used in mystery or cop dramas so you have to give credit to Winters her. It is hard to make a mystery original at this point, but every genre has been over done at some point. One of the most fundamental ways to breath life into genre writing is cross genre. Science fiction does this all the time. It is not a new thing, but I am not sure how much this tactic is used by traditional mystery writers.

Ben Winters is a writer who lived in my home state of Indiana and got on my Radar last year when he cracked my personal top ten with the intensely political alternative history book Underground airlines. While this book gets filed in Mystery it is certainly more science fiction to me.

Set in a world that is 77 days from the end, the earth of The Last Policeman is on a collusion course with asteroid big enough to end everything. Social-norms are out the window and things are bad in this small New Hampsire town That Hank Palace a 27 rookie detective is trusted to solve crimes. So when he finds a man hung in the bathroom his buddies just consider it "another hanger."

Suicide is all too common in this world so no one, not even the put upon medical examiner wants to consider this latest case a murder. Palace of course can shake the case. From here it is a trope-fest. I mean the corny cop dialogue, love interest involved in the case, deeper involvement in a larger case it is all there and perfect. I mean those perfect tropes set against a new apocalyptic setting is what makes this one special.

I think the familiar moments are what made me feel so comfortable reading this book. I enjoyed the dialogue. If there is one weakness is that the mystery ends up feeling pretty low stakes consider all that is happening in the world. That can work out if the themes grow in the next two books. Yeah this is a trilogy and I hope Winters treads a little new ground in the next two books.

Winters is a interesting writer I was impressed by this but even more so by his Underground Airlines. Sorry this review is a little short I neck deep in writing a novel at the moment. So my attention is a little scattered.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Magazine Review: Cemetary Dance Joe Hill Double issue

Cemetery Dance issues #74/75

Cemetery Dance is one of the longest running magazines for horror fiction and I admit I missed a few issues, since my local bookstore Mysterious Galaxy carries I am going to make a point to buy each issue. Now if only they would carry Dark Discoveries.

I was pretty clear that I was not a big fan of the last Joe Hill novel the Fireman, but that is OK because I am huge fan of his work and him personally. So when I saw this double issue was coming I knew I wanted to get it. I also enjoy the usua suspect essays, even Thomas Monteleono's MAFIA pieces even if I disagree with the points being made.

I was excited for the Joe Hill interview being done by long time Stephen King expert, assuming that his knowledge of the family might provide fresh questions. It was fun interview but maybe not as deep as I was hoping.

I skipped the Fireman excerpt as I have already read the novel but the new novella "Snapshot 88"is excellent piece. A somewhat experimental mystery that takes the narrative and wraps it around a story about dementia. What is cool is as the characters spiral into insanity the narrative loses it's form and becomes more and more strange. Well done.

There are plenty of short stories by other authors but three stood out for me. The story by Ray Garton was my favorite, followed by Lisa Morton and Josh Malerman's short by very interesting story.

Big thumbs up.

Book Review: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Behind Her eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Hardcover, 320 pages

Published January 2017 by Flatiron Books

It is really hard to talk about this book without spoilers. I am going to try very hard to discuss this psychological thriller without ruining the reading experience for those of you who have not read it. I tried to go in knowing as little as possible and I think that is the best way to go.

I discovered Sarah Pinborough in 2012, when I learned that she had written a book with one of my writing heroes F.Paul Wilson. I decided to check out the first book of a trilogy called Dog Faced Gods. That first book A Matter of Blood was one of the best books I read that year and a rare book i have considered re-reading. It is a master work of supernatural neo-noir dystopia and still my personal Pinborough favorite. As I continued to follow the output of Pinborough I have read masterpiece after masterpiece.

You can find reviews of Murder, Mayhem, Death House and of course the rest of the Dog Faced Gods Trilogy. I think many readers will be introduced to her from this latest book which has become a #1 bestseller in her native England. I think in time it will grow to have just as many readers here in the states. I mean they are selling this bad boy at Costco. For us to see someone from our community hit mainstream success is super wonderful. It couldn't happen a better and more hard working novelist.

So the question becomes is it worthy of all the hype?

First let me say that BHE is compulsive and additive read. Pinbrough always had skills for plotting, emotional depth and of course creating terror on the page. The big leap here is just magnetic the pull forward of the narrative. You will tear through this. You might not realize it but you'll have suspend disbelief and kinda ride with it at times. This is not supernatural novel but you will have to take a leap and if you do you'll be glad.

Behind Her Eyes is the story Adele and Louise two women whose lives are intertwined. Louise is a single mom who has chance encounter with a man at bar. It is just a kiss but one to remember. So when that man walks into her work and becomes her new boss it is a horrible coincidence, made worse by the fact that he is married. Louise tries to keep it personal but she slowly falls for the man.

His wife Adele is a special case. Survivor of a tragic accident that her future husband David saved her from. Adele and Louise share more than a man. Victim of night terrors and a survivor of a tragic teenage experience that left her with nightmares. It is what bonds Adele and Louise who become friends. Louise is now keeping a secret from her new friend and her husband that she is sleeping with. There is more going on but this love triangle is one that is best to enter with as little heads up as possible.

The book is being promoted with a hashtag #wtfthatending. When I first saw that I thought it was a mistake, Because how could the story still surprise? I thought of Old Boy the Korean movie with one of the best twist endings ever. I once told someone they would never guess the end and of course half way through he did.

This book is excellently plotted and when I closed the book the ending got me for sure. I was impressed and seething with jealousy That Pinborough pulled off such a great ending. I mean I am a total geek for story plotting and structure and goddamn it this was so tight it was hard not to be jealous.

BHE is a fantastic read, if you like domestic thrillers like Gone Girl and Girl on the Train you should check this out. This book is in that genre but it takes a writer like Sarah Pinborough to cross the lines that she does. She does one thing those other authors as good as they are would not dare to do.

"You should read BEHIND HER EYES. Even if it's not a thumping good read, it's bloody brilliant." - Stephen King

"I'm being perfectly honest when I say "Behind Her Eyes" is a quantum leap for her. She's always been good but she surpasses her best here." - F.Paul Wilson