Monday, November 23, 2015

Book Review: The Border by Robert R. McCammon

The Border by Robert R. McCammon

Hardcover, 441 pages

Published May 2015 by Subterranean Press

There are few authors who I think are as consistently solid storytellers as McCammon. Considered one of the greats of the 80's horror explosion he has won the Bram Stoker Award and the World Fantasy Award for classics like Swan Song, Gone South and Boy's Life. I think it is fair to say RRM is one of the best genre authors. Transcending the genre in the last few years his output has been mostly in historical mysteries.

The Border was generally believed to be RRM returning to the style of novel that made him a bestselling, award winning powerhouse. Certainly he has produced excellent works in recent years. His first return to the modern setting was in 2011 was with the fantastic novel "The Five." This was a big deal I mean Stephen King said it was the best novel of the year and McCammon's best. I reviewed it at the time saying "The Five is a novel about the tapestry of Rock and roll, the universe of live music, what it all means. The Five works on many, many levels. It's a masterpiece written by a man who has a few of those." The novel is a thriller but not quite horror, RRM did however return to the genre once before The Border in the 2013 horror western novella I Travel by Night.

None the less it is true that The Border reads and feels like a McCammon novel from the 80's. That my friends is a super wonderful thing. In tone and story this book feels like a perfect blend of two of his classics Swan Song and Stinger. It is absolutely a horror novel set against the end of the world. Stinger was unique in the RRM Catalog because it was the most science fiction of all his works. Until the The Border that is.

The Border is a Science Fiction end of the world horror novel that will appeal to fans of McCammon and kinda feels like putting on a great classic album or movie. I went into the novel as blind as possible reading nothing but the title before diving into it. That made for a interesting choice since we are dropped into the novel mid-action with no info-dumps and it is hard at first to get your footing. I mean what the hell is going on?

This was intentional as we meet a boy on the run from two different alien races in battle over the skies of Colorado. He doesn't know who or where he is so it is appropriate POV that we are confused. Once he is saved by a group of humans surviving in an apartment building he takes the name Ethan. The survivors are concerned that he is alien, certainly he has no business being alive. We learn that earth has become the center of a battle between two species that two years after they arrived no one even knows. Humans call the aliens Gorgons and Cyphers. No one is sure why they are at war with each other, but the entire human civilization is on edge of death. Ethan is not sure who he is, he picks the name at random but he quickly shows powers that are nothing short of magical. He believes he can save the human race but he has to follow visions on a journey across the wasteland.

An amazing thing happened when I was reading this book. I was 200 or so pages into it at the time. Before I left for work I got into a online debate with people here in San Diego that were disturbed by the idea that we as community might be taking in 300 Syrian refugees. I tried very hard to explain that the people were caught in the middle of civil war, their lives destroyed. I tried get these people to understand what that would feel like. To feel empathy.

An hour later sitting on the bus heading to work I opened The Border to read and it hit me. Intentionally or not that is what McCammon was expressing. In this novel humans caught in between forces of a war and have lost their civilization itself. In post America people who once enjoyed privileges of this society were struggling to survive. They could use some of that empathy. While this novel seems to be going back to a style that McCammon used in the 80's his growth as a writer is super clear. Both The Five and The Border present excellent stories, but also a subtle political messages that was not there in the older novels. All done without a preachy tone.

I also get the feeling had McCammon written this book in the 80's it might have been twice the length, in that sense we get a more tightly told tale. McCammon breaks rules, but he gets away with it. He shifts POV sometimes without a break from one paragraph to the next. This sometimes confuses me. It is something he has always done. That is one tiny nitpick with the man's style. This novel is excellent with RRM's trademark pacing a strong characterization. The Border is a must read for fans or Robert R. McCommon, and anyone who enjoys a good end of the world epic.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Review: Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Anna Waterhouse

Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Anna Waterhouse

Hardcover, 336 pages

Published September 2015 by Titan Book

I maybe read this book for the wrong reasons. Kareem is one of my favorite basketball players. I love the NBA, and even though I have adopted the Blazers and hate the Lakers I always loved Kareem. I mean he is a cool cat. Besides being the game's all time greatest in total points, he invented his own unstoppable shot. He is 7'2, super political, smart as a whip, trained with Bruce Lee, fought Bruce Lee on screen and was in Airplane. I had heard that he was a big Holmes nerd and that I respect too. It had been since I was a teenager that I followed the tales of Baker Street but I loved that one of the best NBA players had written a novel and I had to check it out.

I know he didn't write this one alone, I am sure Anna Waterhouse knew that she would get overshadowed by her famous co-author.It is hard not to be over shadowed by a figure as tall and KAJ. None the less KAJ is know for being a serious Holmes expert who has author essays on the character before. I can't help but wonder how much was written by Kareem but I think this story came very much from the man. After watching interviews I was convinced to pick up the book because I sensed his passion for the subject.

I admit I had never heard of Sherlock's "smarter" older brother. At the time of this story Sherlock is a teen who we only briefly meet. 23 year old Mycroft Holmes is of course the focus of the story. Fresh out of college Mycroft is drawn into a mystery of disappearing children on the island of Trinidad, the birthplace of his best friend a black man Cyrus Douglas and his fiancee Georgiana. As they take the long trip across the Atlantic the mystery begins.

The first hundred pages are somewhat slow suffering origin story dilemmas, The authors do a good job of world building, which I enjoyed enough to keep reading. The story picks up steam when Cyrus and Holmes take to the sea. In many was it seems like a interesting story could have been told simply as a mystery on the ship.

None the less the story gets even better, one of my favorite aspects of the book was the fully realized Trinidad of the period. It feels well researched, of course I know nothing of the time or the character. It feels right to me. I enjoyed the writing which I felt flowed and the story worked perfectly. I am sure KAJ has it in him but I would love to see what he could do with a novel about a athlete living through the late 60's. I know he probably already wrote that book and it is not fiction. I'll read it. Eventually.

I think this is a must read for Kareem fans and Holmes nerds. It is excellent in many ways, the mystery unfolds at a perfect pace and the twists work through out. If the book had weaknesses to me they were ones that I admit might be personal preference. The conclusion of the mystery did not go to the dark places that I thought was coming to due to the setting. While Mycroft was a fine Character I like his sidekicks more than him. Cyrus was a great character and was perfect to explore some of the racial issues of the time. My favorite thing in the novel was Huan the Chinese immigrant who had a gang of martial artists in Trinidad called "The Harmonious Fists." I would love a whole novel about them and I thought they were not used enough in the third act.

For the record I wish I had more authors doing a sky hook to add to their book reviews.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Book Review: Internecine by David J. Schow

Internecine by David J. Schow

Hardcover, 341 pages

Published August 2010 by Thomas Dunne Books

I am a huge of David J. Schow, and have been for many many years. His short story collection Seeing Red is one of the best single author collections I've ever read. I met David at a signing for the Midian Unmade tribute anthology here in San Diego and he was charming. I liked him as much as person.

So I decided it was time to go back and catch up on his thrillers. So I started with this 2010 novel. The story of Conrad Maddox an ad executive in LA who hates his life. He calls the people living their normal lives "The Walking Dead" and very much thinks of himself in those ranks. That is until he finds a briefcase full of guns. This sets off a series of events that drags Conrad into the internal conflict of an international crime ring.

This novel has a Hitchcock man on the run style story however it doesn't globe hop, it is confined to the city of Los Angeles. Schow shows great passion for his city through out the 341 pages, one neat aspect of the novel are nuggets of LA history spread through-out the book. A scene doesn't just take place on Muholland Drive, but DJS very effectively weaves in the street's history and that of the person it was named for. In many ways it was my favorite aspect of the novel.

Conrad is a man in over his skates, shot a gun once years ago and now is in the middle of fire fights. Exchanging verbal jabs with hired killers and gangsters. How he handles this is well told through a very personal first person narrative. Schow is playful with the rules of writing, showing all his cards and often breaks the fourth wall to good effect. I think the suspense is lacking here compared to some of his other works. What makes the novel enjoyable is how the characters interact and how Schow plays with convention.

The negative is that this novel is not a easy breezy read, you can end up scratching your head from time to time trying to figure out what Schow is doing, but if you pay close attention you will be rewarded.I don't think it is Schow at his best, but Schow is such an amazing writer you still end up with a very fun piece of work.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Book Review: The Silence by Tim Lebbon

The Silence

by Tim Lebbon

Paperback, 363 pages

Published April 14th 2015 by Titan Books

Some times the best movies of all time come out in the wrong year. It is hard for me to believe for example that Boyhood didn't win best picture, but none the less Birdman came out the same year. Personally I would have voted Boyhood but you know most critics thought Birdman was the better film. I mean both were great right? Why do I bring this up?

This has been an amazing year for horror. For myself I think of Jeremy Robert Johnson's Skullcrack City, Sarah Pinborough's Murder and Paul Tremblay's A Head Full of Ghosts all as contenders for horror novel of the year. That said I just closed the final page of a book that simply floored me.

All those novels will come in second at least because they all came out the same year as Tim Lebbon's The Silence. This novel is in the tradition of British dystopias ranging from Day of the Triffids to 28 Days Later. The Silence is a high concept monster novel that creates terror in the reader by milking every drop of the idea. There is a moment 2/3 of the way through the narrative that was the most brutal scene I have experienced since the ending of the Mist. I knew this scene was coming, it was obvious and Lebbon gave the reader plenty of warnings. Despite all the warnings reading it still hit me like a gut punch.

The Silence is classic monster novel, while the world ends with frightening monsters it is the full realized family at the center of the story that makes this novel so great. The story kicks off with a live television broadcast of a caving expedition that unleashes these vicious flying creatures, blind rabid like bats called Vesps. They are deadly reproducing fast and spreading across Europe quickly toward the British home of our main characters. The Vesps are blind, after having been dormant in the earth for millions of years. Unleashed they are hungry and hunt by sound.

The challenge for the survivors living in a quickly disintegrating society is to stay silent. It is a matter of survival, even the sound of a voice can be enough to bring the Vesps upon you. You can't drive, too much sound. You can't scream that will bring them on you. Lebbon uses these rules to build suspense masterfully.

Set in the English countryside the main POV of the story is Ally a disabled Teenager whose spent most of her childhood deaf after a terrible accident. Ally's family do as most families would they run looking for safety and have to go to incredible lengths to survive. Along the way their limits are tested, and through it all they have to contain their urges to scream, cry or panic. Lebbon never misses beat, using the concept to ramp up the horror.

Her Father Huw is often the hero of the story but in tragic and realistic manner which serves to guide the reader through the horrors that will have anyone with a heart cringing and considering putting the book down. I am sure many will not make it past page 207.

Lebbon balances the personal with the global using the internet and Ally's Ipad as a story telling tool, I am sure this is the first time I have seen the internet effectively weaved into a end of the world narrative. The internet is used here much like newspaper clippings in King's Carrie. This is effective in many ways, Lebbon manages to dump information without hurting the narrative, and uses the tool to unfold the story right up to the very last page.

The Silence is a must read for fans of end of the world novels, monster novels or family horror. I can't recommend this enough. Absolute horror masterpiece.