Sunday, October 30, 2016

Book Review: Before The Fall by Noah Hawley

Before The Fall by Noah Hawley

Hardcover, 391 pages

Published May 2016 by Grand Central Publishing

I am a huge fan of the FX series Fargo. The first season rebooted the classic Coen Brothers film, and it was pretty good, with some moments of genius dialogue. The second season kicked my ass. I loved it. The story tried to capture the feel of a Coen film in tone, look and sheer story telling force. The show runner Noah Hawley did a amazing job and when I saw he had a brand new novel in the new releases at Mysterious Galaxy here in San Diego I knew I wanted to read.

Before the fall is a curious novel that has many layers all of which are subtle. It is in many senses a slow burn mystery, and a fable that explores social issues. Hawley creates a novel that is tapestry of influences. I am not sure he would list this wide variety of sources but the novel feels at times like a Dennis Lehane New England crime novel, Coen brothers combo of tension and subtle humor, with moments Of Tarantino like dialogue and through it all A Dostoevsky like examination of class and social reaction to extreme events.

The story is about a private plane crash, 12 passengers, all but one man come from a life of privilege. The odd man out is painter named Scott the novel starts with Scott waking to in Ocean, he is hurt and doesn't remember the plane crash. He is about to start the long swim back to shore when he hears the voice of a child. He knows this is the son of a TV news network Icon. He is not thinking about the money but makes the impossible swim to shore. The aftermath of the crash and the events that lead up to it dance back in forth in this intense narrative.

It is sorta of a crime novel, sorta a thriller and it certainly is structured in a non-liner way to show-off Hawley's serious story telling chops. It comments on how the media reports scandals, in part through the ugly character Bill Cunningham who is a cable news anchor. The various characters drive the story, each fully realized. There are twists but none are jarring or too intense. The power of the story comes from the characters and dialogue.

I will be checking out Hawley's earlier novels. This one was solid, Fargo season two was solid. He is a story teller worth reading.

Oh yeah...Some of the most powerful moments in both seasons of Fargo hinged on fantastic dialogue. The same is true here. One scene really got me enough that I dog-eared the page and read it to a friend who also loves witty dialogue. Page 142-43 just amazingly funny dialogue.

Book Review:The Wild Shore (Three Californias Triptych #1) by Kim Stanley Robinson

The Wild Shore (Three Californias Triptych #1) by Kim Stanley Robinson

Paperback, 384 pages

first published March 1984

Nebula Award Nominee (1985)

Locus Award for Best First Novel (1985)

Philip K. Dick Award for Special Citation (1985)

SF Chronicle Award Nominee for Novel (1985)

The last two Kim Stanley Robinson novels I read (2312 & Aurora) were high on my yearly list of best reads. They were the first I read by KSR since the release of Mars trilogy which I read as they were brand new. These last two books gave me a really strong sense of the man's skill not just at telling scientifically strong speculative fiction but also his amazing ability to create characters and tell story.

I had no idea until I was almost finished with the novel that the book was first published in 1984, and not until I started this review did I know that it was his first published novel. I am sure that there is a trunk novel or two but this is a fairly advanced work for a first time writer.

I knew that this trilogy of California novels looked at three possible future California. They are connected only by theme and I have to say it was the idea of Kim Robinson looking into the future of our state was to good to skip. This novel set after a nuclear war that appears to have happened in the late 80's takes place in southern California 60 years after the bombs went off. It is clear from the event that the bombs were planted.

The Main Characters live in a wild OC that is cut off from the world with bombed out cities to the north and south. The main POV character is Hank Fletcher who struggles to survive and is slowly documenting his story in a notebook. He learned how to write and read by a teacher Tom who is the only survivor from the "Times before." This post apoc setting is a fully realized future California, when the novel travels here to San Diego I could see it vividly. The Flooded Mission Valley, to the changed jet stream and the suddenly green California was very interesting.

What confused me was the political aspects of the novel. I understand that the characters might not know or understand who bombed the U.S. As the mayor of San Diego starts organize a resistance it is Japan bombing them from off the coast. Who by the way should not have a military. Then sometimes they are attacked from Mexico. Either way it was the political aspects of the novel that caused eye rolling from me and kept this book from being perfect for me.

KSR is a master of style and character even this early in his career. While he has just as much skill at the hard science he never loses track of what makes a reader connection a story.

This is a sub-genre filled with classics. It is hard to rise above all the others. Aurora is a instant classic in the subgenre of the Generational ship. This is not that good.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Book Review: My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor by Keith Morris & Jim Ruland

Book Review: My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor

by Keith Morris & Jim Ruland

Hardcover, 336 pages Published August 2016 by Da Capo Press

Alright I am sitting on a flight home to Indiana, Circle Jerks rocking on my headphones and I just closed My Damage as my flight reading. I almost never write a review this quick after reading a book. I was lucky enough to see Jim and Keith do a reading and Q and A in San Diego so they really got me excited to read this book, but I was sold as soon as I heard the book announced - Black Flag and the Circle Jerks were one of the early west coast hardcore bands and I have listened to Keith Morris bands for decades. In its simple way that first short Circle Jerks record Group Sex is a undeniable masterpiece and to me Deny Everything is one of my favorite punk songs ever, ever.

Some of it I can’t relate to because songs like Wasted don’t mean much to someone who has been straight edge for over 25 years since he was pretty young. All you have to do is read my last two books Punk Rock Ghost Story and Amazing Punk Stories to realize that I love old school punk I grew-up with far more than the shit kids create today. I love the old scene, and the history of it. The concept of punk ghosts is one I explored in my book are very much a thing in My Damage. If you are not familiar with Keith Morris or his music – he was the singer of two bands who were largely responsible for kick starting the punk scene on the west coast in the late 70’s and early 80’s. While Morris did not have a easy exit from his first band, we should all be glad it happened because we got his second band the circle Jerks.

It is easy to forget that these icons of crazy insane music were human beings with struggles. Kudos to Morris and his co-author Jim Ruland for dragging some pretty gut-wrenching and brutally honest stories out into the light. The book doesn’t disappoint. If you were looking for Morris to shit on Henry Rollins…no he will tell you some pretty harsh stories about his former Black Flag bandmate Greg Ginn.

Tales of backstages, piles of cocaine, drug deaths of friends, disastrous tours, the story behind albums and ins and outs of band drama are all there. For me the coolest moments of the book came from intense details of early venues, punk houses and day to day life of the old punk scene in LA. Stories of now famous members of Fear, Flag and Chili Peppers long before they were stars when they were getting beat up outside VFW halls they rented by the LAPD.

This is Keith Morris raw and he deserves credit for telling his story, and maybe it’s my bias because Jim is local but want to give co-author Jim Ruland a lot of credit. Most reviews will not focus on him. Jim did a wonderful job of putting the stories into a structure and making the book a super easy fast paced read. Morris himself spoke very serious praises of his co-author.

My Damage is a must read for anyone interested in the history of punk rock or takes the music seriously. This a punk history lesson that the young bucks growing up with the internet need to read, but the scene when the struggles were real.

Book Review: The Warren by Brian Evenson

The Warren by Brian Evenson

Paperback, 96 pages

Published September 20th 2016 by

This book will always be special to me and the San Diego horror community since this short 92 page novella was sold ten days before its official release from TOR books at Horrible Imaginings Film fest. 2016 was the first time HIFF included literature programming and when Anthony Trevino and I approached the event we wanted our first key note literature speaker to be Brian Evenson. Not only did we get the joy of seeing him read his short story “Invisible Box” at a live campfire style read but we got a chance to buy this book before the rest of the world.

The Warren is loosely connected to his last Science Fiction book released by TOR – Immobility. That book was one of my top reads of the year it was released and I listed it on my top 5 apocalypse novels list as well. Immobility took place after the end of the world in a scorched earth Utah and this novella may or may not be in that world it is hard to tell. Evenson told me in conversation that he wanted to write this because themes he started to explore in immobility still interested him. Might not be a strong connection but hell it is reason enough for me to tell to read both.

In the grand traditional of weird surrealist Science Fiction and horror The Warren is a mind bender with more weird moments packed into it’s 92 pages than some novels four times it’s length. It is a philosophical look at the question of what it means to be human. OK look I aware every Science Fiction writer has explored this theme, you may be thinking what can a writer in 2016 bring to the question. Well first off it is the deepest and darkest question in our hearts and fuck you very much there is a lot questioning left to be done. Evenson has a voice unlike anyone else and he brings a dark edge that cuts deep in part because his words are so beautifully composed. I would add that dark edge is something you would never see coming from a man so jovial in person. A curse all friendly dark fiction authors deal with.

The story of The Warren is about a character named X who lives underground and knows very little about his world. He is thinking about exploring the outside world but finds a surprise when he tries to open the airlock and hit the surface. The monitor is his only companion, basically a computer, who is our only connection to anything resembling company.

X has many different aspects to his personality and not all of them exactly function. To say he is a unreliable narrator is a understatement. That said Evenson is as reliable a storyteller as there is. While this story is written with incredible poetic prose and style the story is not lost in the mix. Read it to the end and you will feel paid off for all the creepy build-up. The Warren is tiny book but damn is it powerful and worth every penny, an absolute masterpiece. Will be on my top ten reads of the year no doubt.

Book Review: Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Paperback, 272 pages

Published February 2015 by Solaris

Locus Award Nominee for Best First Novel (2016)

Sunburst Award Nominee for Novel (2016)

British Fantasy Award Nominee for Novel (2016)

Prix Aurora Award Nominee for Novel (2016)

It can seem like a waste of time for authors to sit on convention panels. Four or five writers talking about a subject often and they are not normally given enough time and poor moderating doesn’t help either. That being said there have been a few times when thought to myself, that is a author I never heard of and I want to read their work. Silvia Moreno Garcia is one of those cases.

A few years back at the Lovecraft film fest in Portland I saw her on a panel and made a note to read her work. OK, OK it took me a little while or two years to get there but I finally read Signal to Noise. While it is not Lovecraftian or even really horror, the novel is dark fantasy and a terrific read.

I mean this in the best possible way, but I can’t think of anything directly I would compare it to. Here is the bottom line it is a good novel with elements of urban fantasy, teen angst and magic realism. It is a wonderful blend of those elements plus a very personal feeling snap shot of being a teen in Mexico City in the 80’s.

This novel is about the magic and power of music, and the author being the child of two radio DJ’s certainly knows and infuses the novel with music. Told in an effective structure of story present (2009) and story past (1989/90) the story has a song like rhythm where there two timelines make perfect harmony. The tacks build off each other and perform a perfect dance of set up and pay off.

The main character Meche is not exactly the most likable teenager and we get a strong sense that the adult returning to her home town of Mexico City doesn’t mind being home as much as she doesn’t want to confront the person she had been. How many of us would like the younger versions of ourselves?

Meche had two best friends Sebastian and Daniela they were not the cool kids but they found that together they could make magic. Their talisman for magic rituals were records, special records individual copies of certain records alone carried the magic they needed. Ineed certain recording and copies of songs become a quest to them, and they end up fighting over the records. You see when they made a circle they could create love, popularity but not without consequences.

While the music involved doesn’t really hit my personal taste I think SMG did a great job with the music getting the feeling and the vibe of the magic. Meche is a teenager and despite being our main POV it is hard to see how she treats her friends at times. There are some moments of cringe worthy behavior by her.

Signal to Noise is an excellent novel, it is not a mind bending piece of fiction that will tear down new walls but it is a solid work of talented writer. It seems that the novel is very autobiographical at moments but judging from interviews I have listened to on podcasts that SMG did not copy her life. I am very excited to read her next novel and see her stretch her wings in most weird genre territory – the next novel about drug dealers and Mexico City vampires sounds amazing.

Look it cannot be said enough that the horror lacks diverse voices, it is true we need more women writers and certainly more voices of color no matter the gender. SMG’s voice is very welcome not because she fits the diversity we are looking for but she is welcome because she is one hell of a writer that much is already clear. I hope you will check out Signal to Noise. I think it is with it.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Hardcover, 262 pages

Published May 2014 by Ecco

Bram Stoker Award Nominee for Best First Novel (2014)

Shirley Jackson Award Nominee for Novel (2014)

Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Horror (2014)

James Herbert Award Nominee (2015)

This is Horror Award for Novel (2014)

I admit I was a little afraid to read this one, and had it in the mental TBR pile for almost two years. At the 2014 world horror convention there was alot of buzz for Bird Box that was nominated for best first novel. look at that list of awards. Could this book really be that good?

To put it simply yes Bird Box is worthy of all of the hyperbole it has gotten. I have not sat down to make my top ten list of books that I read this year but Bird Box will be somewhere on that list. Interestingly enough this novel is alot like my number one novel from last year the Silence by Tim Lebbon. The two novels are similar in so many aspects it is almost impossible for me not to compare and contrast them through out this review. Let me focus on Malerman's novel and I'll swing back to The Silence.

Bird Box is one of the strongest most frightening horror novels I have read this year, and it is built on a high concept. The execution with a non-linear plot structure is so well done it is hard to believe this was the novel of a first time writer. The first 50 pages are almost impossible to put down. I went into the novel completely blind (pun intended) and I believe my enjoyment of the novel was boosted by that. So this is your last warning before I discuss the plot and events of the novel. I would go into this novel and not even read the dust jacket.

The novel opens with Malorie a young mother making the hard decision to leave the safety of her home and venture out into the world with her two four year old children. She insists that they wear a blindfold and not even peek at the outside world as they stumble their way to a boat and try to make it up the river. Instantly Malerman creates an intense mystery and misdirects the reader. Having not read anything about the plot I assumed the young mother was crazy and had sheltered twin children from the world. I assumed it was all in her mind and this was the story of abused children. I didn't suspect a global end of the world story at all.

The novel is written with a structure I love with the "story present" and "Story Past" taking chapter by chapter turns thus making Bird box a textbook example of obstacles and parallels throughout. The story builds tension of through parallel tracks, the story and character develops perfectly in story past because we know where things are going.

The moments of terror was so well down because Malerman builds off the paranoid thoughts and behavior of the survivors and we can feel and understand their fear. You see in this end of the world something, we don't know what is driving people crazy. It drives them insane with a the very sight of it. What it is we don't know, they don't know. Is it sunlight? is it a monster. The survivors only know they can't look, they hide inside and only go outside with blindfolds.

Reading this novel you really come to feel the safety that the blindfolds bring the characters and even moments where the characters were feeling light through the blindfold created tension. There is a moment when the blinds are pulled off a window that provided one of the best moments of terror expressed on the page that I have seen in a long time. Trapped in the home in the "story past" Malorie faces giving birth cut off from the world, while exploring human dynamics that writers have explored in these stories since Romero's Night of the Living Dead. in this aspect Malerman finds a way to make that fresh and doesn't waste time. This over took and ruined Joe Hill's The Fireman, which forgot the concept for stretches and got lost over doing the human dynamic.

So that brings me back to the The Silence by Tim Lebbon. Yes they are different Lebbon's novel is a straight up monster novel that uses the family unit as the basis for much of the suspense. The concept of the Silence was that the characters had to be as quiet as possible as the slightest noise would attract the attention of the monsters who would swoop in and eat you. While not that close these novels came out around the same time and I loved both for the high concept end of the world. One is about sound and the other is about sight.

Both are fantastic novels, and I might give the slight edge to Lebbon's The Silence, despite the massive support and love that Bird Box received. Lets just focus on Bird Box here. It is a masterpiece. A fantastic debut that should fill Malerman with anxiety in the sense that I would not want to have to follow this up. Ha-ha. Here is hoping he does, I am rooting for him.

This novel is everything I wanted in Joe Hill's the fireman, high concept end of the world this time written with focus and no fat.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Book Review: The Last Days of New Paris by China MiƩville

The Last Days of New Paris by China MiƩville

Hardcover, 205 pages

Published August 2016 by Del Rey

It is easy to blame yourself as a reader when a China Mieville book doesn't make sense. I mean there is no way to read any of his books and not realize that the man is a genius. I like to think I am a pretty sophisticated reader but I scratch my head alot when I read his books. Sometimes like Embassytown and the Census Taker the books worked for me. This time I don't think the book works and I don't think it's my fault. There are times with some well known authors when you wonder if the editor has the power to sit them down and say "Dude I don't know if this works."

There are plenty of reviews on line that think this book is a masterpiece and maybe if you have a knowledge of french art it will work for you, but not this reader.

This alternative history novel takes place in two moments in the history of Paris 1941 right after the Nazis took over and 1950 in a Paris/Europe still at war. You see in 1941 a bomb was set off in Paris called a S-bomb that brought to life the various works of surreal art. The main Character is named Thibault, who I assume in real life was a French painter. He leads the resistance and in that sense Mieville has a chance to really express the concept of art as resistance.

Look I realize I don't know squat about French surrealist art, but the author should realize many will be with me. I know how it is, I wrote a novel about punk rock and I had to assume that not everyone knows that world. I had to write about that world so it made sense to someone who has never heard of the Dead Kennedys. I don't think Mieville gave a shit and that is his right, but you know I found the book to be almost unreadable. That is my right.

I only understood what happened with the S-Bomb when I looked up a review that explained it on Goodreads. I don't think I can get behind a novel needing 88 numbered notes in the afterword to explain what everything meant. He already lost me. I mean I read every word in the book but I was confused almost the whole time and that is not what I consider a fun reading experience.

It was funny in each of the 1941 chapters Mieville wrote in a more simple style and for a few pages I relaxed a little and said to myself hey - there is a story here. Those few moments and the first part of the afterword were the only times the book really hooked me. I wont spoil the afterword but it did not justify the existence of this book.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Book Review: A Brutal Chill in August by Alan M. Clark

A Brutal Chill in August by Alan M. Clark
Paperback, 300 pages Published August 2016 by Word Horde

Alan M. Clark is better known for his beautiful award winning covers and illustrations that have been in the interior and the covers of works from authors ranging from Stephen King to Cody Goodfellow. His art is amazing but many forget that he was also nominated for a Bram Stoker award for co-writing Siren Promised with Jeremy Robert Johnson. Alan of course has his artists eye for detail and has written historical horror before. Brutal Chill is the third in a series of novels about the victims of Jack the Ripper.

I reviewed the second book Say Anything but Your Prayers in 2014 and it made my top ten reads of that year. "This book is the second in a groundbreaking series that explores the Jack the Ripper history from an angle never before seen in over century of non-fiction and fiction inspired by the serial killer. This second book follows the life and demise of Elizabeth Stride the fourth victim. Each book in the series follows the life of the killer’s victim. Clark includes a few key Illustrations, but the strength comes from the attention to detail and the humanizing of Elizabeth Stride."

I am not sure why Clark Chooses the order of the novels and subjects but this novel the third in the series is about Polly Nichols the first victim of the ripper. It is the most powerful of the novels so far. If you are looking for novel about the Ripper then go elsewhere. You know the main character is destined to die at in his hands so he looms large but not a part of the novel itself.

Polly Nichols is tragic figure and not just because she was murdered by one of the most famous serial killers ever. Her life was interesting as it was tragic. She lost a battle with alcohol and lost her whole family.

In a interview I did here on the blog with Alan he explained why he writes about the victims not the ripper "The more I looked at what we knew about the women, the lives they led within the extreme environment of Victorian London of the time, the more interested I became in what existence was like for them emotionally and the less interested I became in who the killer was. The more I find out about London of the period, the more fantastical the place becomes in my imagination. As a real world environment in which to stage drama, especially dark fiction, it is almost beyond belief. The rapid growth of British society during the industrial revolution, the disease, the poverty, the crime, the the hazards of unfettered industry, the abusive employment practices, the amount of labor required by most just to live a meager existence, and the endurance of countless simple human beings—these are great elements for story-telling. Researching the lives of the victims is like exploration to me. I’m endlessly fascinated and frequently surprised by what I find."

In a sense this novel is less of a horror novel and more or less a period drama. It would be easy to dismiss such a novel as boring or not horror. Clark has a way keeping the dread alive in the readers mind with subtlety. This time more so with a creeping device a demon that Polly Nichols lives in fear of from her childhood. This sets up a genius pay-off in the end. The novel is so well written that I was engaged on every page with Polly. It doesn't hurt that I knew the tragic end coming. That is the strength of the subject but in the hands of a lesser writer this novel could have been as boring as Baseball on TV.

Ross Lockhart's Word Horde press is quickly becoming the closest thing to lock when it comes to books of quality. This time he brings us the most powerful of Clark's Ripper victim novels yet. I deeply human story that paints a miserable life in 19th century London that is impossible to look away from. Another must read from Clark. I think his last novel he Surgeon's Mate might have been even better. Two masterpieces in a row that ain't bad Mister Clark.

Book Review: Rattled by the Rush by Chris Kelso

Rattled by the Rush by Chris Kelso

Paperback, 134 pages

Published January 2016 by JournalStone

I think Chris Kelso is a writer who will inspire alot of mixed and varied emotions. Lets make one thing clear the guy is talented and can write he writes worlds that are extremely weird. So weird I am not sure they are for everyone. His talent and ability is not in question, The man can write but the setting is so weird it feels like a disservice to use words like surreal and bizarro. This is the third Kelso book I have read all set in his fictional Slave State world. I have to say until p.23 of this book I was not sure what the slave state actually was. I knew it was a alternate reality, or at least I thought so. It was a very nasty world. Now I know that it is another dimension where alien hold humans captive, and in this case this reality with enslaved humans is at risk because a hole to earth has opened up in Siberia.

The main character is a failed comedian named Larry who is on to it all. Like all Kelso I admit I would lose track of the story from time to time. I don't find his narrative to be straight forward. It is easy to lose track of what is happy but the words and moments are so wonderfully weird and funny I am loving the ride. This book contains tributes to the master of surreal pulp sci-fi Phil K. Dick and even speaks to him directly at moments. Kelso has a few clever moments when he and his characters exchange letters.

Weakness...for me it is a short page count at has a couple pages of fluff pages 41-46 for example are unreadbable blocks of unbroken text I am sure had something to do with the book but I skipped and just thought was a waste. This book has about 15 of these pages. I couldn't hang with that.

If you are looking for weird sci-fi that takes elements of pulp, cyberpunk and makes them even weirder Kelso will be your jam. Kelso is a genius writer, while his style is not exactly my thing I can really respect what he is doing. Also I should mention that on page 77 there is hand drawing of a naked Hitler. I was reading on the bus and had no choice but to skip that page. Not public safe.