Thursday, March 31, 2016

Book Review: X,Y by Michael Blumlein

X,Y by Michael Blumlein

Mass Market Paperback, 340 pages Published October 1993 by Dell

I have certain friends who recommend a book to me and and instantly take that to the bank. Robert Garfat who I met running Dark Horse books in Victoria Canada for example that guy tells me to read something I'll check it out. Nick Cato of Horror Fiction Review I trust, and author Cody Goodfellow. I have discovered several writers by way of Cody's advice. One such author was Michael Blumlein, Cody suggested this author and this title X,Y.

I spent years trying to track down X,Y after reading Blumlein's genius and very surreal science fiction novel "The Healer." I loved the Healer reviewing it here on this blog in 2014 "The Healer is an almost surreal deeply political exploration of healing as an art. It has many moments of beauty, but many more disturbing moments. The world building here is vague. Is this a purely fantasy world, or a far future dystopia I can’t say? Blumlein leaves that a mystery and open to the imagination. Don’t get me wrong it is a well realized world. Set in four different locations ranging from a mine, a Las Vegas like city and a prison. It is all very interesting..."

Out of print I looked at used bookstores, thrift stores as I always do for old Abyss paperbacks. I mean I collect horror-boom paperbacks. I finally found X,Y at a half price books in my hometown for a buck. Sweet.

I was very much looking forward to what I hope would be a lost gem of the 80's (in this case 90's) horror boom. I bumped it up to the top of my to be read pile. I was excited even if it made me uncomfortable reading a book on the bus that says "Psychosexual thriller" on the cover. I had some expectations about the plot that were not exactly correct. I was under the impression that Frankie the man character passes out at a strip club and wakes up another gender. I thought she was full on given gender reassignment, ha-ha. No she just wakes up thinking and believing she is a man.

Blumlein is great writer and certainly I finished this book quickly, curious of where it was going to go. in the end however I didn't like it. This set-up can and should lead to a bizarre mystery that explores the various dynamics of sexual politics. Some of the politic of gender are a bit dated but that is not all. I found the characters and their motivations to be ridiculous. Frankie's suffering boyfriend Terry makes choices that are not only wrong but baffling. He does things that took me straight out of the novel. Shaking my head and rolling my eyes in disbelief. I could not suspend disbelief in the second half of this novel.

I mention Cody's recommendation because he is brilliant reader of horror, and perhaps I missed a great novel. Maybe there is something there I just didn't get. The prose is engaging, and Blumlein kept me turning pages. It was just the story I couldn't get into.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Book Review: Tin Men By Christopher Golden

Tin Men by Christopher Golden

Hardcover, 368 pages

Published June 2015 by Ballantine Books

It is amazing that I have never read a A Chris Golden novel before. I am sure we have met in passing at a World Horror or World Fantasy somewhere, and I listen to his "Three Guys With a Beard" Podcast (co-hosted by Jonathan Maberry and James A Moore Check it out)on a regular basis. I know I have read short stories and anthologies edited by the man. But this is my choice for first Golden novel. Last summer I saw this book in the new releases at Mysterious Galaxy and was sold by the concept right away.

As a fan of military science fiction in general this one caught my interest a paragraph into the dust jacket. It is not a space opera but a near future tale set against the back drop of our society collapsing. It certainly was released with plenty of well deserved praise, I was afraid that the bar was impossibly high. One blurb compares it to a cross between American Sniper and Avatar, another a mix of Terminator and Saving Private Ryan. Both comparisons are accurate if that is something you need to sell you on a book.

Tin Men is set in a near future when the global infrastructure is falling apart. The U.S. Military is filling the void trying to end conflicts around the globe. At least that is their argument. It is impossible to imagine a future where Americans would support the use of their blood and treasure to be cops of the world. But what if they could put soldiers in country around the world but not actually risk their lives. Enter the Tin men program where U.S. Soldiers navigate robotic bodies by satellite link.

What could do wrong? How about a EMP pulse that sends society back to the dark ages. A G20 summit with world leaders in the middle of chaos and the Tin men have a mission to survive. It is sci-fi sure but like the best novels in the genre it is updating the war novel for the drone age.

The best moments of this novel come from the pacing and non-stop action which make the book a page turner. The plot itself could carry two novels weather it was the Tin Men saving the world leaders or getting back to the base where their bodies are on ice. The majority of characters are fully realized and well composed. From The tin men like Kate Wade and Danny Kelso to President Matheson and Syrian Ambassador's daughter Alexa. Indeed the female characters were the strongest and most compelling characters. Each death and moment of suspense worked for me on a deep level and kept me turning pages.

This concept sounded to me like something the cyberpunks most notably John Shirley or Bruce Stirling might have tackled. It is an important one when you have a generation of soldiers growing up on video games and simulated violence. There are lots of important themes going on, ranging from U.S. intervention, to technology and warfare.

There were weaknesses for the book, that might not effect all readers but really hurt the book for me personally. Golden is a talented story teller and those aspects of the novel work on a five out of five star level. It was some of the world building that were lacking for me. Not one mention of who built the Tin Men or what corporations were contracted to build them? No mention of how the corporations drove the global agenda. This was something I think the Cyberpunk authors would not have missed.

The bad guys in this book are Anarchists, and they are hardly given more motivation than cobra was in GI Joe Cartoons. There was one fully realized character who worked with the anarchists and his personal agenda was well defined. There were battles with entire squad of anarchist snipers and to me their existence was somewhat glossed over. It could be my leftist background having worked with anarchists and studied the Spanish civil War I know better than to think of people under that title as just hell bent on chaos. It is kinda like calling Bernie Sanders and his supporters commies. Corporate agenda and ties to Occupy or anti-globalization movement.

Over all I enjoyed Tin Men alot I just think the future it takes place in could have been more fleshed out. I probably wouldn't be so nitpicky if I didn't think the novel was so well executed overall. One thing is for sure I will read more Christopher Golden and I can't say aything nicer about it. I want to read more about this world and I hope those themes get explained deeper in sequels. Certainly I could see a novel set in this universe where the anarchists are heroes. Call me crazy.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Book Review: Star Wars: Shattered Empire (Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

Star Wars: Shattered Empire (Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
by Greg Rucka, Marco Checchetto (Illustrator), Phil Noto (Illustrator) Paperback, 136 pages Published November 2015 by Marvel Comics

I picked this up at the library for a couple reasons. I enjoy Star Wars tales always, but I was interested in what Greg Rucka would do with the universe. A novelist who writes crime and thrillers he has written really good runs on Batman, The punisher and more. I also was interested in what Marvel/ Disney was doing to reset the expanded universe now that they have thrown out the old EU.

The cover is super cheezy but the internal art and the indivdual covers of the Shattered Empire comic were very good. While the saga characters are all there the main character is a pilot named Shara. In the aftermath of the Death Star attack she is considering leaving the rebellion to start a life with her husband who is also a rebel. They have a young child they never see. My favorites of the stories is one where she goes on a adventure with Luke.

This issue also comes with a teaser first issue of A Princess Leia comic that was better than I expected. It also has a copy of the adapation of A New Hope Marvel did back in 1977.

Marvel seems to be doing an OK job with Star Wars I am not yet sold that they are doing better than Dark Horse did, but will keep reading.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Book Review: A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson

A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson

Paperback, 240 pages Published February 9th 2016 by Coffee House Press

I once went to Powell's in Portland with the purpose of bringing home several Brian Evenson books. I had gone to reading he had done at Powells a few weeks earlier and didn't have money that night. I went to the horror section and couldn't find it. He had done a reading there the week before, you think they would have it. So I looked him up on the catalog. Literature. I'll be damned. I mean anyone reading my blog knows that I feel the genre ghetto is really a false wall, but I was surprised by this. Six or so years later and four Evenson books under my belt, including a super cool and underrated Alien tie-in written under a thinnly veiled pen name I get it.

Brian Evenson is that good of a writer. He deserves to be in both sections of the book store really. I have been on record about Evenson before.

In 2013 I reviewed his novel Immobility and said: "This is a strange and unsettling novel, that is so powerfully written it has a spooky feeling throughout. It is all done with a subtle tone, and no wasted words. Evenson is not so in love with his words and never overwrites, he writes with a tight control rarely seen in genre work that is also considered “high lit.” It doesn’t remind me of any other book immediately but if pressed to make a comparison I would have to say a cross between Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with a little bit of a THX 1138." I consider this novel to be one of my top five Apocalypse novels.

in 2009 I reviewed his novel Last Days: "It's a brutal horror bizarro detective story. Evenson's dialogue in this book is a perfect choppy noir with lots of short snappy comical exchanges. The suspense is handled with a minimalist flair and the moments of gruesome reveal are plentiful. This is strange and wonderful piece of horror literature that should not be missed."

This year we got another collection of short fiction with the release of A Collapse of Horses. I normally read collections by bouncing around and reading the titles that most interest me. Since I had put so much work in the order of my collection that came out last year I decided to respect that and read front to back.

As a whole the collection contains 17 tales that are all well written and wickedly smart. They range from straight-up horror to surrealist bizarro with many stories that cross many genres. I felt like the collection got darker as it went along and some of the stories towards the end felt more traditionally horror. Evenson doesn't tell simple stories he forces you to think and consider what is happening and it is rarely surface level.

Several stories stood out for me. "The Punish" was a piece that showed off Evenson's skills at creating characters who despite being odd feel real. A story like "Bearheart" that first appeared in Dark Discoveries magazine felt like a 80's Twilight zone episode. (I really liked the 80's run of the TZ). This story had a simple yet heartbreaking concept at the core. "Scour" packed more apocalyptic gritty feelings and sensations into single paragraphs than many end of the world novels. "Past Reno" was a cool story that plays with a figure 8 narrative structure to excellent effect. "Click" has a Phillip K. Dick what is reality vibe going on without a hint of Science Fiction.

However my favorite story in the book is a short one called "Any Corpse." It opens with "When she awoke, a shower of flesh had fallen in the field." This might be the most grim story I have every read. A surreal horror story about a cannibal trade in what appears to be after the fall of society. This story is bonkers, disturbing and beautifully composed. Worth buying this book for.

Another example of a master at work. If you like weird fiction on the darker side of high lit, you can't miss this one.

Book Review: The Things That Are Not There by C.J. Henderson

The Things That Are Not There by C.J. Henderson

Paperback, 202 pages

Published October 1st 2006 by Elder Signs Press

While many of the various sub-genres of horror are getting saturated the expansion of the Lovecraft mythos has remained mostly a underground sensation. That is not to say that Cthulu plushies don't exist, they do. Just like vampires, werewolves and zombies there are authors who do it right and some who well don't quite get it. CJ Henderson is an author I only have one earlier experience with. In 2011 I reviewed his short story collection "Degrees of Fear." At the time I reviewed that collection one thing I was critical of was the author's dependence on Lovecraft tropes as almost a crutch. Several authors have been heavily influenced by Lovecraft but didn't cut as close to the bone. I think authors like Thomas Liggoti and Laird Barron are great examples. Certainly Cody Goodfellow is a author who orbits closer to Lovecraft while maintaining his own voice and ideas.

Still The collection of Henderson's work was good enough that I picked up a signed copy of this book at a local book store shortly after the author passed away in 2014.

The Things That are Not There is A Lovecraftian hard boiled detective cross-over novel that spawned two sequels. The story of Teddy London a corny Carbon copy private eye that feels yanked straight out of a black and white noir movie. That may sound insulting but one positive for me is I picked this novel happening in black and white. Every once in a awhile some modern aspect of life or the New York setting pulled me out of it. I actually think this novel would have been better served in the 50's. The end of the world is threatened here and think that is why Henderson went ahead and set it in our time.

This novel started strong with a atmospheric opening 50 pages. The set-up of the case was spooky and weird. Many Lovecraftian horror tales get a little less interesting when the source of the horror is revealed. This is a mythos problem how can the reveal ever equal the build up of something so mind-bendingly fear inducing it can't be described?

Looking at CJ Henderson's career it is clear he loves hard-boiled private eye stories as much as Lovecraft. The two styles crossed more effectively early but I did like an exchange on page 85:

"Spooky ain't she?"

"Well, what ain't these days."

I was entertained by this novel, but I am not sure I was excited enough to read the second or third book in the series. The book boasts an epic concept but pretty flat prose and short narrative. The scope is not all that epic considering this is the end of the world.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Book Review: Junior Seau: The Life and Death of a Football Icon by Jim Trotter

Junior Seau: The Life and Death of a Football Icon by Jim Trotter

Hardcover, 240 pages

Published October 2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

It is really easy as football fans to forget that the players are human beings. If you are a casual fan of the sport you might only watch games and it is easy to forget. Jim Trotter has done an amazing job painting a picture of the human being Junior Seau. After hearing Totter do many radio interviews to promote the book locally it was clear the respect and love the author had for the man and his family. If you think this a glowing celebration of his life without realistically looking at the man's faults you'd would be wrong.

The most impressive aspects of the book center on that tightrope the author walked of celebrating the accomplishments, and fun loving public persona while shining a light on the man's demons. There is alot of information packed into the short 214 page count. Junior was know for his friendly and giving nature off the field and being a straight killer on the field. This explains where the player grew up through stories that reveal his competitive nature. I enjoyed the background on his career as Charger and dreaded the eventual tragedy that came with the end to his life.

Jim Trotter doesn't gloss over the controversy, perhaps he doesn't hit it as hard as Frontline did but this was Junior's story and it was not Trotter's job to break down CTE. I'll tell you the story about Jason Taylor almost losing one of his legs was the story that blew me away. The end of Junior's story was sad and awful but it was one I am glad I read.

Me personally it was important to read this book. In my position as a co-founder and organizer of Save Our Bolts. Junior is one if not the most important player in Chargers history. As we gear up for the fight to pass a vote that get the franchise a new stadium, the legacy and the history of the team is key. I believe teaching the legacy of the Chargers is so important to convincing San Diego to vote for the stadium.

I had to learn it myself, you see I never watched Junior Seau play. LT is the reason I became a Chargers fan. I grew-up in Indiana and my family were IU basketball and Football season ticket holders. We were there when Bob Knight threw the chair, but as a teenager I got into horror movies and punk rock and I didn't watch sports for almost 15 years. When Junior took the Bolts to the super bowl in 1994 I was going to Wright State in Dayton. My life was studying history, my life was music and animal rights activism. I never heard of the guy honestly. When I first moved to San Diego my bank gave us Chargers themed checks and didn't even realize that my new city had team. A few years later LT, Brees and Marty Ball made me a fan.

The Chargers became important to me, and so did learning the history of the team. I found videos online was games throughout the teams history and watched them. I went back and watched Junior play in youtube videos of the AFC Championship win against Pittsburgh. For the younger fans who didn't live through this era they NEED to read this book.

This book is a must for Chargers fans, but really any football has alot to get out of it.

Junior Highlights...

Frontline segment on Junior...

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Book Review: A Splendid Chaos by John Shirley

A Splendid Chaos by John Shirley

Hardcover, 357 pages

Published March 1988 by Franklin Watts

I have been saving this novel for a special occasion and decided a train ride to and from LA would be it. If I have not already expressed this a million times John Shirley is my favorite author. With both Horror (Wetbones) and Science Fiction (City Come a Walkin') masterpieces I have only so many classic era Shirley novels left to read. In a attempt to savor it I held off on this novel that had won praise not only from publisher's weekly "the world he's created is a knockout, from telepathic Venus's-flytraps to the floating radioactive Current that instantly Twists a person into a grotesque parody of his inner fears and desires." but also China Mieville who said "... a revel of delirious, intoxicating, popular surrealism."

A Splendid Chaos is really John Shirley at the top of his game combining many of the elements that make him one of a kind. The novel is bonkers sci-fi that is more bizarro or surreal that your average entry in the genre. Despite hitting on on Sci-fi adventure power cords like the hero's journey and the plot of a character kidnapped and plopped on a alien world. Shirley was going for weird. On his website he said "A Splendid Chaos was an attempt to write surrealism that nevertheless made sense...writing allegorically and using archetypal characters."

The surrealism infests every page but it is not so surreal that you can't follow the story it is excellently plotted for humor and most importantly in the Shirley cannon- it reflects and comments on our world. Fellow cyperpunk Rudy Rucker wrote more transrealism, it was sorta his thing. What I liked about this novel is as weird as it was it remained ground in the narrative. I never lost track of the story of the characters.

The story of Zero a musician who is kidnapped off earth and stuck on a world called Fool's Hope. Home to 31 other races in the same situation they are meant to compete to survive. Along the way Zero learns about society, has a truly weird adventure. Many of the villains, and characters called twists were humans who were genetically manipulated, and provided many of the the novel's most daring moments.

I still think Transmaniacon is a weirder more bonkers science fiction novel. The Song Called Youth trilogy is his most epic City come a Walkin' is the author finest idea and execution in Scienc Fiction. The Other End is probably his most IMPORTANT in the genre but A Splendid Chaos deserves to be right up there with all those. A bizarro classic before the sub-genre existed. This is social justice themed bizarro science fiction novel will not disappoint.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Book and Film Review: The Howling (novel) by Gary Brandner (Film) by Joe Dante

The Howling by Gary Brandner

Mass Market Paperback, 215 pages

Published June 1986 by Fawcett (first published January 1977)

I was inspired by Desmond over at the Dread Media Podcast to read and watch the Howling. I had seen the movie many years ago and it was a classic of horror I had not read. After listening to Des and Darryl review the movie I thought I it would be fun to review the book. After reading it I felt the need to see movie again which I remembered liking more.

This is a rare case of the movie that is head and shoulders better than the book. I mean the book comes from a different era, with different expectations. 1977 was early in the Stephen King horror revolution, a time when all fiction ballooned into massive novels. At the time short novels were more common. This novel is tissue paper thin in every sense. Plotting, character and prose are all minimal. More interesting things happen in the first 20 minutes of the movie than the entire book.

I think this is a result of really talented filmmakers like John Sayles (who went on to write and direct arthouse films) and Joe Dante (Gremlins) directing. Both learned under Roger Corman who had a brief cameo at the phone booth early in the movie.

Contrast the prologue of the book with the movie. The plot hinges on the main character Karyn surviving a violent attack, a graphically told rape that happens with very little preamble or establishment of character. In the novel she is a housewife left at home alone when the apartment caretaker breaks in and attacks her. In the film Karyn is a TV news reporter on the trail of a psycho killer who has been sending her lurid letters. Already this is a more interesting concept, and creates story and character texture.

In the book when Karyn wants to escape the city there is very little logic to the decision, and the community with no phones and tucked away seems just accidentally chosen. Smartly the filmmakers gave a Karyn a connection and reason for ending up in the werewolf village. The killer played by Robert Picardo (who played the doctor on Voyager and worked with Dante again in Innerspace)was a part of the wolf cult, and so was one of her boss, who connected her to the story and eventually suggested a place where she could get away.

The novel has a few great moments including the first time Karyn hears the far out howling, this scene survives into the film and the over vibe is there. The movie simply enhances the story and gives it more strength. The story is told without almost zero depth, the mythlogy is barely touched upon and even the death of characters carry no weight.

I can't say I would recommend this novel, although I remembered liking Cameron's Closet a later novel by the same author. Whitley Strieber's novel from a year later is 1,000 times better. If you want to read a 70's werewolf novel go with Wolfen. Cool movie, really not so great novel.