Friday, June 30, 2017

Book Review: Jigsaw Youth by Tiffany Scandal

Jigsaw Youth by Tiffany Scandal

Paperback, 166 pages

Published March 15th 2015 by Ladybox Books

These last two books have alot in common, I shared the stage with both authors at the Vermin on the Mount, they are short powerful books, well written punk rock stories that feel so personal they feel like they must be memoirs. They are not memoirs but well worth your time. I have know Tiffany through the bizarro lit community for a few years, but I have to admit this is the first time I have actually read one of her books. I feel like a giant asshole for that but I fixed it and so glad I did.

This book feels so raw and real that it would be easy to assume that Ella who has alot in common with her creator and is just a stand in for her. I am not sure how much that is true but I feel like some things about her are very Tiffany and some are not. Who cares this is novel and all that makes is when you are turning pages Ella will feel real.

Ella is an artist, punk rocker, waitress and Photographer. She lives in Portland, her story involves losing a best friend for coming out of the closet, a shitty job, a band, lots intense relationships.

The fragmented narrative might look from the outside like a mess but it has a well plotted non-linear drive. Ella is presented with obstacle and parallels that if the story were told in a straight line word not have been as powerful. Scandal is a great storyteller, very aware how how things are unfolding and what things we need to know and when for impact. This is a key that many young writers never grasp.

So yeah she can tell a story but it is the rich characters and raw moments that make the book come alive in your hands. She is describing a scene that feels real. You can smell them, taste them. The chapter New York for example was a short but sweet tender moment in the book that contained more romance and tender-ness than novels devoted to the genre of sappy love. There are also moments of family drama that sting like a slap to the face and swing back. Moments of violent assault that feel so strong that they should not be able to co-exist in the same book but they do.

While this book is more straight forward than many that have come out of the bizarro scene, it is one of the best. It is no shock that some of the best novel entries have come from women like Gina Ranalli, Laura Lee Bahr and now Tiffany Scandal. I loved this book if you could not tell and think y'all should read it.

Book Review: The Sub by Jimmy Jazz

The Sub by Jimmy Jazz

Paperback, 106 pages

Published January 1996 by Incommunicado Press

So this is kinda of random out of my typical genre read, although I am ALWAYS looking for more punk rock fiction. How I ended up buying a copy of the Sub is a fun story. I shared a stage with Jimmy as a part of a famous and long running author reading series held in San Diego (and LA) called Vermin on the Mount. Jimmy was the headlining reader and blew the rest of us away with a reading for his epic release Book of Books. that book is 1,000 or so pages a memoir that uses the framing device of Jimmy writing a piece inspired by every book he has ever read. Some times memories of reading the book, sometimes about the or just pieces that reflect the time in his life when he discovered the books.

It was fascinating concept but I admit I was a little scared off by the size. I knew I wanted to go home with one of his books, and when I read about this one I had to have it. I am a punk kid who works in education, and am aware of the trouble and trials that substitute teachers go through. I assumed there would be some cool stories and laughs.

The book is called a novel but it feels like a memoir (same could be said of Tiffany scandal's book that I read next)and it is Mice and Men length. Despite the short pages it is filmed to the brim with lyrical prose and moments of stunning beautiful prose. This all comes with moments of tenderness and compassion. Don't worry there are moments of humor and reflection.

This is a short but beautiful book, a first person look at time spent going around to San Diego schools in the 90's. It deserves to be read.

Book Review: World Revolver By Gina Ranalli

World Revolver By Gina Ranalli

Paperback, 176 pages

Published March 2016 by Bloo Skize Books

Gina Ranalli is one of the weirdest writers to come out of the bizarro movement. I am talking about her writing, personally I have lots of love and respect for Gina. She has written books ranging from the surreal Wall of Kiss, to the monster Sillyness of Swarm of Flying Eye Balls to my personal favorite the creepy ghost story House of Fallen Trees. It would be hard to pin rules down on a writer who wrote a love story about a woman who falls in love with a wall. It has been awhile since I reviewed one of her books and that is my bad.

This novel is the story the story of Jeffery Eon who is offered a chance to indulge his drug habit with an experimental drug called Satellite. It has a crazy effect it sends the users mind through universes to alternate realities in the body of his multi-verse duplicate. Each time he finds a different version of himself, from the rock star to the bartender to the transgender version of himself.

In a more hard sci-fi book the different worlds would not develop such wildly diverse takes on the same person. Ranalli is exploring lots of different things in the short page count of this novel. Certainly she is exploring identity and how we choose to become the people that we are, and the paths we take.

The concept is science fiction sounding, but Gina doesn't really write science fiction, she skirts it in this book and one of my favorites of hers the dystopian Mother Puncher. This is short and effective book that tells the story needs to without alot of frills. Most important is the idea it explores - finely realized in the last few pages.

Also my favorite first sentence I have read in awhile. infact the opening prologue seemed at the start to be kinda of a different tone or set apart from the story. That is not the case at all. It was not until right at the end that I realized that we were revisiting that opener, that the book was coming around. Not a twist at all, but an excellent pay-off.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Book Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Paperback, 384 pages

Published June 2016 by Solaris Books

Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (2017)

Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel (2016)

Locus Award for Best First Novel (2017)

Arthur C. Clarke Award Nominee (2017)

Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Science Fiction (2016)

This book came on my radar when Luke Barrage of The Science Fiction Book Review podcast devoted a second episode to it. I didn't listen to much but when he said this book would re-wire your brain or how you think about I was sold. Paused the podcast,decided to read it myself. I didn't know it was a military sci-fi space opera with a far future setting. I didn't know anything going in. That is a good way to read this novel, but I think it could easily go over the head of many readers. If you are into mind bendy sci-fi and like space opera you will probably like this. Mind you those two kinds of sci-fi don't often come together. Most military themed science fiction are 10th generation copies of Starship troopers.

There are elements of traditional tropes but for the most part this novel strikes excellent new ground. There is a reason it has been nominated for so many awards. On the surface the story takes place in our future, but very far into the future. Lee keeps elements of humanity, but this human race has changed alot. I admit there were times that the language annoyed me like the glooks and glops style of made up words, that is not my favorite aspect of sci-fi. The moths being the far future word for starships and the dates are named the Year of the fatted cow and things of that nature. I liked all that stuff, but the best aspect of this was the gender issues. Gender is fluid but not a huge issue like it was in Leguin's classic Left hand of Darkness, infact it would be easy to not even notice. I was 3/4 of the way through the book when characters who identify as female off handily mentioned her penis. It was jarring and then I realized that through the book I was viewing the book all wrong and had to re-think it with one sentence. There is no binary normative in this novel and that was cool.

In that sense it feels alot like a fantasy novel. This has a very oriental influence also in the way the story is and narrative moves forward it is the story of a General her name Captain Kel Cheris She has the job of closing down an insurrection in a colony outpost. So she is giving "the ghost" or saved memories of a long dead general to assist her. As an adviser Shuos Jedao was seen as a little of a live wire notorious for the murder of his own army in an act of Pyrrhic Victory. He is undefeated in a ghost role but this battle for the Fortress of Scattered Needles is near impossible. Cheris has unique skill as well, being gifted at numbers a skill that eluded Jedao.

The battle is fought with arms, but also in the mind as the dead general pauses at times to invent games to be played, in part to test Cheris as much as the enemy. This is a trick we have seen many times in classic stories of Chinese Wuxia fantasy. While nothing is expressively Chinese the society and it's calendar have a Chinese feel to them. Perhaps I reading to much into this based on the author's background, but I like to think it has to do with the dozens of Wuxia novels I have read personally.

That said this book is filled to the brim with ideas and as challenging as it is if you stick with it there is a fascinating twist at the end. Lee doesn't cheat, the clues are all there if you do what I did and skim back through the pages to make sure that I read it correctly. I don't think this novel is for everyone, in fact I think as genius as it is I think your average reader will probably be totally lost. So how intense of a sci-fi reader are you? How out there can you get?

This is the weirdest military sci-fi novel I have ever read. This novel is imaginative on the scale of Hyperion or even Dune but also an action adventure story as harrowing as Old Man's War, but even cooler is after all that it requires deduction to figure the twists and turns in a PKD kinda way. That is alot of cool elements for one short novel. It is not easy reading but if you stick with it and really try to decode it it is worth it.

That said I am not entirely motivated to read the rest of the trilogy I don't feel the story set up for more in my mind. It is a thumbs up, and with alot of respect for this novel I have to say it was not my thing. I respect the hell out of this novel. Am I glad I read it? I sure am.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Book review: Death Metal Epic I: the Inverted Katabasis by Dean Swinford

Death Metal Epic I: the Inverted Katabasis by Dean Swinford

Paperback, 160 pages

Published June 2013 by Atlatl Press

This book needed to happen. Punk rock, skinheads, straight edge and various other youth subculutres all have coming of age novels or movies some good and most bad. I know I am known for writing punk rock books, and I grew up on punk rock but I am just much if not more of a Death metal dude at heart. I don't want to be the white guy explaining his hip-hop credentials but I rock Morbid Angel,Carcass, Suffocation and Misry Index far more than I do Black Flag. Some people live and breath death metal like my homeboy Steve Crow who plays guitar in our San Diego locals Condemned. That dude sweats brutal riffs out of his pores. Infact their latest record is the soundtrack for writing this review.


I Digress but I think Swinford probably doesn't mind. Death Metal was desperately in need of a coming age story, and believe me this not the easiest task for an author. You can't really playing super seriously, because lets face it Death metal as genre is pretty funny. I have a story about a death metal band in my collection Amazing Punk Stories and I played it for laughs. At the same time if you are devoting an entire book to it you don't want to go full Spinal Tap because you want to give respect to the genre you love enough to write about. That balance is the spine of this short but fun book.

This novel is the story of Azreal AKA David Fosberg, a Florida teenager who is far too brutal even for Florida. He is trying very hard to put together a death metal band Valhalla. He keeps trying and burns through members including tolkein worshiping wizard who doesn't want drums. Things click when they start to get positive reviews for their demo Zombichrist.


So what is next but a euro-tour, which makes sense because that is the way it is for American bands. Can't draw twenty dudes in their hometown but rock euro-tours and 50,000 raging fans in Indonesian. The struggle is real, and if you have a back on your jean jacket filled with unreadable logos that look like the root system of tree knocked over by a storm then you find this book brutal in all the right ways. I gave this book 3/5 stars on Goodreads because it is not for everyone. Swinford knows his audience - if you grew up on this style of music the book will be better. You will get the humor, you will get the jokes about logos etc. If you don't like Death metal this book is probably a one star book. I hate to say because I like it personally.

Did I love it? Was I dying to read the second book already on my shelf? I liked, not loved the book. It is already there and I think Swinford will likely have grown as a writer in between books So I am interested in that aspect. The story was a little too straight forward to me. I was hoping for more of a surreal brutal death metal fantasy, in that regard perhaps book one is origin story and that is coming.

For those of you who love Death metal I think you should buy these books, support Death metal fiction and put this up on your shelf. I think you'll laugh and that is worth it.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Book Review: Dust of the Devil's Land by Bryan Killian

Dust of the Devil's Land by Bryan Killian

258 pages

Published November 2016 by Grand Mal Press

I have to start with some disclosure. The first time I met Bryan Killian he handed me a tattered and and worn copy of my novel Boot Boys of the Wolf Reich and asked me to sign it. Always a great way into a writer's heart, Bryan and I have shared two publishers now, but we approach our novels very differently.I plan and outline in detail, and BK just goes for it. I really enjoyed His short stories in the San Diego Horror Professionals and consider his Vol.1 story to be the best of collection. So I love the guy.

This novel is a follow-up to BK's debut on Deadite press Welcome to Necropolis, a very traditional zombie novel that uses the standard zombie tale tropes like a power cord on a guitar. These types of zombie novels are sorta like AC/DC riffs, they are not complicated, or ground breaking but often powerful. I am not against zombie novels (hell I wrote one myself)but I tend to like the entries that break new ground like M.R.Carey's The Girl with all The Gifts for example. Certainly you actually see the word zombie anywhere.

Dust Of the Devil's land is a Zombie novel with a capital Z. It is certainly one that with be popular and enjoyed by the traditionalists who can't get enough zombie books. It has excellent moments peppered thought-out highlights include a flashback to the early moments of the outbreak for a substitute teacher. All the marks of a a zombie novel are met, government intervention gone wrong, the stress of being locked away (a convention center) and the struggles to survive.

To me the biggest negative of this novel is the idea of two young boys riding out the apocalypse in a tree house is fantastic, but the boys leave the tree house so quickly that the concept is still largely unexplored. The Characters are engaging, the writing is good all around but it comes down to this. Are you burned out on zombies or are you in the can't get enough camp?

Killian is a good writer,and a better person so me personally I am ready to see him move past zombies. He showed growth as writer from book one to his follow-up, now I can't wait to see where he goes next.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book Review: In the Valley of the Sun: A Novel by Andy Davidson

In the Valley of the Sun: A Novel by Andy Davidson

Hardcover, 384 pages

Published June 2017 by Skyhorse Publishing

I went to into this novel cold. My editor at Monster librarian thought it sounded like something I would like and I decided to trust her. One thing is for sure this is literary horror. It is well written with a host of influences just below the surface. If I didn't already know this was a debut novel I probably would have never guessed this novel was written by a first timer.

I will avoid major spoilers however, I think I benefited going in as cold as possible and if you trust me go ahead and read this southern Gothic that I feel is like the movie Near Dark if it was written by Cormac McCarthy. The official statements by the publisher makes that Macarthy comparison as well as Joe Hill and Anne Rice. Hill sure, but Anne Rice not so much for me. Hell I see more in common with True Detective writer Nic Pizzalto's books that any of those three. I like his books by the way.

OK last warning before I into the book, nothing you couldn't figure out by reading the dust jacket. While this novel walks a thin line between the gothic of southern and western feel it is 100% a monster novel. It is not the kind of horror novel that would benefit from any marketing department blasting out it's nature. There is plenty of grim settings balanced by beautiful prose to make this book for horror and non-horror literature folks.

The writing is gorgeous, at times the west Texas drips off the page and you almost feel the humid air. You can picture the rust on the trucks, the stress of the sheriff's belt and many things that make this world vivid. The word vampire is never mentioned, but 60 pages in there was doubt. Had I read the dust jacket I probably would have had a clue sooner, but as such when the story kicks off with the main character Travis waking up covered in blood my mind didn't go there. Once it was clear the novel took on a dangerous edge, this was not Anne Rice's sexy vampires at all. Travis is in trouble, even if he doesn't come to grips with it.

Travis wants to maintain, he doesn't have the money to pay to park his truck and camper at the campgrounds run by Annabelle Gaskin and her ten year old son who I don't recall being called anything but boy. So he works odd jobs and transitions to undead life. Many of the best moments of the novel are conversations between Travis and the boy. These moments are both tense and emotional. It added an important emotional depth to the story that held the room together like the Big Labowski's carpet.

The narrative is excellent jumping between third person point of views, and different time periods with easy. We watch the investigation unfold into the murders tied to Travis. It all works and is not jarring at all. In the Valley of the Sun is a good spiritual cousin to the Stephen Graham Jones novel Mongrels. Different monster and different cultural backgrounds but the same off-color look at the American south.

Enough with the comparisons, it is hard not to do but the reality is this is fine debut of a strong new voice in horror fiction. The better a book is the harder critics will compare to the greats. In the Valley of the Sun is a first novel, so it is too soon to ask "is Andy Davidson one of the greats?" That remains to be seen but in the Valley of the Sun is a great book. It should be in every library collection, and if librarians check it out it will likely ended up in the staff picks.

I suspect we will revisit this title in December when I compile my top ten reads of the year, and I know I will revisit Davidson next time he drops a novel on us.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Book Review: Relics by Tim Lebbon

Relics by Tim Lebbon
Paperback, 384 pages Published March 2017 by Titan Books

Two years ago Tim Lebbon's The Silence was my favorite read of the year. I was already a fan of his work, and I decided to pick this book up off the new releases shelf at the library on the strength of that experience. I went into Relics totally cold. I read nothing about it, not even back cover. I am not sure if I had read those things if I would have been super interested. That said I am glad I read this book, and even though I did not dig it as much The Silence I think it is a good novel.

Relics is a weird crime, urban and dark fantasy story that has elements of horror. There are many elements that Lebbon is weaving into this story which sets up a continued story. The main character Angela is a academic who is thrust into this world of poachers when her boyfriend Vince disappears and the search forces her into a secret second life he was living.

These poachers are not selling tusks or rhino horns but parts sometimes living, sometimes long dead of mythological creatures. The underworld of creature hunters is by far the more interesting aspect of this novel. The criminal underground of mobster monsters hunters was far more interesting than Angela who is our main point of view. Don't get me wrong in the 70 pages I was very invested in her search and mystery for her lost Vince.

Once we actually start to solve the mystery the underground of mobsters and monsters eclipse Angela and that is somewhat of weakness in the narrative. The criminal underground is fasinating and the mythological creatures even more so. One thing I really liked is how the story built to the revalations and yet the book ends with hints of much more to come.

I bet many of the reviews on line that are positive will focus on the ending. While I was certainly not completely sold on this novel/or story universe until the ending, as it was a perfect set-up. Lebbon's powerful ending perfectly sets the table a far more interesting second book.

In many ways when I closed the book it felt like I was reading a prequel. I don't know how else to explain it. I really liked, but didn't love this novel. That is OK, because I am glad I read it. I suspect the second book will be awesome and the fact that I want to read is the best thing I can say.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Book Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency #1)

by John Scalzi

Hardcover, 333 pages

Published March 21st 2017 by Tor Books

This is a very intensely political Science Fiction novel. It is not surprising that John Scalzi would do that, I mean his twitter feed is a source of hot button opinions. The right wing sad puppies (for those of you who don't know them, they're the sometimes far right and some times Libertarian sci-fi writers) despise him. I mean they tend to twist his words and critically tear about all he says. I think it is the fact that no one has been more popular or sold books more consistently in genre than Scalzi this century that breeds this kind of hatred. Personally I can set politics aside, Neal Asher is perhaps my favorite 21st century Sci-fi writer and his views are almost always opposite of my own. Enough on that, how about this book?

Despite the title Collapsing Empire is not ripped from the headlines look at Trump's blundering presidency or Hillary Clinton's almost guaranteed ascension. Nope this is a political but it is more of a statement on the sixteenth century than this one. Which is fine. This was a time when colonization was just starting in the Americas. It seems that Scalzi wanted to explore a world where this far flung space opera was dependent on something like trade winds were to Spain or the dutch east trading company part in the day. I suppose there is some modern climate commentary, but mostly I felt the commentary was old school.

I assume this is the reason so much of the story centered on the emperorox and the transition of power in the royal family. You see this novel takes place in a far future where a human empire has spread to the stars, and is cut off from earth. The vast empire is connected by faster than light travel that hitches on river like streams called the flow. The capital city Hub is on planet near spot where the flow all connects. The story kicks off when it is learned that the flow will soon be ending and this vast empire will have to face its demise.

With the dependence on a galactic ecology, and the great royal houses at conflict it would be easy to declare this Scalzi's answer to Dune, much in the way Old Man's war was his take on Starship Troopers. I am glad I didn't hear that comparison before hand. While Scalzi lived up and in my opinion out did his inspiration in Old Man's War. This is no Dune. Which is totally fine by the way. kinda sorta a really freaking high bar.

I have mixed feelings about this book and that comparison. Because I don't think this book can hold a candle to Dune on the world building. For one thing the world building is done in cheapest most simple way with a teacher explaining the world to school kids. It is effective but so on the nose I laughed at the book. I think a book would need probably two hundred more pages to build that kinda scope. Here is the thing, I didn't actually want two hundred more pages. It was just the right length, it didn't have scope, but that is fine. Not everything needs to be epic.

I didn't like this book as much as the Old Man's War books, and honestly I picked this up because I thought it was in that universe until I was on page 2. The characters were all good, but characters like Kiva who is the captain of a starship in the book gave me mixed feelings too. Great character, very funny and cool. The thing about Kiva is she felt like a Old Man's war character. She felt out of place. The characters at times felt to much like characters of today, not in this far future. You mean to tell centuries in the future cut off from earth and they still talk like us? Just some subtle changes in dialogue would be cool.

That said it was a page turner, filled with interesting ideas and I wasn't bored. I read it quickly enough. Not sure if I hooked enough to check out book two. Scalzi is a good writer filled with ideas, this is just not my favorite of his. It does have some neat concepts like the flow, the Memory room and Kiva has some really fun moments. Good but not great. If you have not read any Scalzi I would start with Old Man's War and it's totally genius sequel Ghost Brigades.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Book Review: Secrets Of the Weird by Chad Stroup

Secrets Of the Weird by Chad Stroup

Paperback, First Edition, 294 pages

Expected publication: July 11th 2017 by Grey Matter Press

So I was pretty sure for many years I thought it was safe to assume I was the only Vegan Straight Edge kid turned horror author, I mean in the whole planet. Well a few years back I learned that I was not the special snowflake I thought I was. Not only does the world have another horror author who grew up on punk rock, draws X's on his hands and eats way to much vegan treats but there is another vegan straight horror author right here in freaking San Diego. Chad and I are very different writers, with very different training. We have similar influences and think alike often but what is cool is that we have both released books this year and they are very, very different.

Very very different is a good place to start in this review. Secrets of the Weird is not really like any other novel I can think of, while Stroup clears hints at influences it is not exactly in vein of anything else. Set in slightly surreal fictional town of Sweetville we get no sense of outside geography, or that any kind of world exists beyond the Sweetville city limits. Characters reference lyrics by real world bands, but not by name so in that sense we still do not have conformation that this world exists in our reality.

Our hero is a character named Trixie, she was born male but never identified with that gender. She is transitioning while I have had a few friends go through this process it is not one I have experienced. So it hard for me to say if this novel gets it correct. This was a bold choice for Stroup, one wrought with many pitfalls. It is a subject filled with landmines for author that clear in his dedication that he sides with those this society deems the weirdos and freaks. It is clear that Stroup had good and respectful intentions. I found Trixie to be a wonderful character and she is the main reason why I hope the book does well and we get another book with her at the center.

Trixie is has left home in the suburbs and is trying to make a life for herself on the street. After some time turning tricks and a period living with sibling sugar daddies she has settled into life. Sweetville is home to intense street drug. Sweet Candy is powerful designer drug, one she is trying to stay off of. Her life is turning around when a back alley drug addicted surgeon Julis Kast offers a radical underground surgery to become the woman she always wanted to be. At the same time she meets the boy of her dreams punk rock singer named Kristopher who she hides her big secret from.

At times this novel has a middle era Clive Barker feel of dark fantasy without the elaborate over writing that books like Imajica or Everville fell into. Certainly the world of this novel has it's share of erotic fantasy and that is why you'll hear Barker comparisons. But Sweetville was a setting written by a hardcore kid, and not a theater nerd so secrets of the weird is filled with Neo-nazis, punks, metal dudes, non binary prostitutes and more. These characters are not marginalized like extras on the punk episode of Quincy or freak show on stage at 90's Jerry Springer taping. They are all written with depth even the characters who only briefly appear in the pages. Even the villains of the piece are given depth.

I imagine a novel like this written by a straight male might be scary for readers of this community. Certainly Stroup handles the gender issues better than Brian Keene did in the Complex. Not that Keene was disrespectful he wasn't, but Stroup worked very hard to make this as natural a part of the world as he could. This is not over preachy or as direct as some of the fiction marketed "alternative sexuality." He didn't try so hard to be progressive that the book goes over board. Trixie is a complex character.

The prose is tight, well written and the narrative is straight forward. For as strange as the settings the actually writing is thankfully grounded. I read it quickly. Is is perfect? Look Chad is friend but I can't review books if not afraid to give my opinion. Personally I would not have used the dairy entries as a device. They were fine, didn't ruin my experience but took me out of the novel a bit. The book was a quick read because he didn't waste a bunch of word count on world building but I could have used a bit more of the fucked up world in Sweetville. Show us more of the gutter in book two Stroup. Oh yeah the ending was excellent but it leaves us hanging so you folks better get out there and read the book. I mean I turned the last page assuming there was at least a few more. Shit I wanted to yell at Chad for ending when he did.

Secrets of the Weird is a fantastic read. This novel paints an erotic and dangerous picture of a city that you would only want to visit in the safety of a novel. I hope you'll take the trip and check it out.