Thursday, December 28, 2017

Book Review: Engines of Ruin by Lucas Mangum

Engines of Ruin by Lucas Mangum

Paperback 282 pages

Published November 1st 2017 by Doom Kitten Press

Lucas Mangum is a writer who has been on my radar for a long time. I only know him from social media, his opinions on fiction, horror, food are all ones I tend to agree with. I was excited to first sample his work with this collection featuring eight tales and an introduction from extreme horror author Shane McKenzie.

The length of the stories range from very short to several novella length pieces. It comes with detailed story notes at the end. I do this in my collections and I love when authors do it. I think those of us introduced to short horror fiction by Stephen King learned so much from reading these. The notes provide insight into the creative process. It is clear Mangum is a thoughtful writer very dedicated to the art of storytelling.

That is important when you read a collection. A few of the stories were an experiment like "A Killing Back Home" which was a very effective murder mystery, played more straight forward than LM normally writes. The story hinged on characters and it is clear from the first story that Mangum is very interested in the details that make characters.

"Hell and Back" the first story is very effective with character beats and the whole story centers around a Preacher turned bartender who goes a little to far to help a friend. "Occupy Babylon" was cool story that explored the occupy movement that was hot when the story was written. The story lost me a little men it went to classic horror monster. None the less the story was strong enough to justify the use of said monster. That made sense because said monster is not really the point."Our Lady of the Sea" was the best example of setting in the story. It was one of my favorites in the book.

Lucas is a author who writes with confidence, one of my favorite things about this collection is how sure of his abilities he is. Even when experimenting, you feel like you are in the hands of a gifted storyteller. This is uncommon for a self-published author. I don't say that as a insult but a strength. I know this from following Mangum on facebook/twitter he has only one weakness. His impatience to get his stories out there. He has the ability to go with a traditional publisher but seems unwilling to wait for that process. This collection is filled with wild and entertaining stories but is wrapped in a super vanilla cover that says nothing about the style or tone of the book. We all know not to judge a book by the cover, but it is also hard when you are competing with every form of entertainment in the world to separate yourself if you don't take that seriously.

I am however completely and totally sold on Lucas Mangumn the storyteller. I will be reading his longer work. There is plenty of grizzly and weird moments but it is the sure hand of master story-teller growing into his strength. This is the kinda book that if you get it now you can say you read that author before the world caught on.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Book Review: Leia Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray

Leia, Princess of Alderaan (Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

by Claudia Gray

Hardcover, 409 pages

Published September 2017 by Disney Lucasfilm Press

Part of the Disney plan for Star Wars that I enjoy as a nerd is that they are publishing canon books up to the events of each new film. Before Force Awakens there were several "Journey to the..." books I enjoyed that I felt added depth to the story and even answered questions. The absolute best of those Journey to the Force Awakens novels was a General Leia novel called Bloodline written by Claudia Gray. I am quickly coming to the opinion that Gray is the best author writing expanded universe novels at the moment. Her short story was the best in "From a Certain Point of View" and bloodline was a stunner.

For fans of Leia as a character Bloodline is a must read. It details more of the how how and why the first order happened, and the resistance to it. All of this happens against the back drop of the galaxy finding the true bloodline of Leia. Claudia Gray nailed that story in way that you understand why Lucasfilm came back to her to tell this prequel story that is about a young teenage Leia.

You might wonder how this serves to bridge the story to Last Jedi but it does. Introducing us to how Leia the rebel was born and forged despite her privledge. It introduces us to the young Amilyn Holdo who was played by Laura Dern in the film. Some of this books best moments add a depth to Holdo's sacrifice and her last scene with Leia. A scene that Carrie Fisher suggested herself.

It also introduces us to one of the most important settings of Last Jedi and explains it's existence. So yes it is tied to the new film in ways that are sometimes small sometimes big. I enjoyed alot of the scenes that should the resistance in-fighting that tied to Rogue one and saw Bail Organa butting heads with radical Saw Gurrea.

To me the best moment in the book is when Grand Moff Tarkin surprises the Organa family on Alderaan and is invited for dinner. He suspects them of being in the rebellion. The dinner is fantastic scene that shows Leia and her whole family working together to deceive Tarkin and protect rebels. It also adds an extra level of evil to his actions in New Hope. This scene stole the whole book for me.

Well I am convinced enough I decided to read Gray's original YA space opera novel Defy the Stars. I am reading that now so I will of course write a review. I need to read her SW novel Lost Stars but if Gray writes a Star Wars novel you can bet I'll be reading it.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

My Top Ten Books of 2017! (Tons of bonus audio content!)

Best of the year 2017:

#10 Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan

This balances lots of feelings for the reader. At times the the prose is vivid and crisp and times the narrative is so intensely weird it is hard to believe it is less than 150 pages. I mean this book is loaded with ideas. It is of course a Lovecraft influenced cosmic horror story but not in stereotypical adding tenticles kinda of way. At times it had the delightfully weird transcendental feeling of David Lynch. The story moves through space and time in a totally unpredictable way.

#9 The Voices of Martyrs by Maurice Broaddus

The most powerful collection I have read since Brian Evenson's Collapse of Horses. Both are important reads however Voice of Martyrs goes beyond just being good, it is a book of deep meaning. I have read and enjoyed the work Maurice Broaddus before. I knew he was good but he is a Hoosier, and the fact that he lives a hour drive from my home town gives me a connection to his writing. This book is some next level stuff and I love reading along as a person from Indiana hits that next level.

#8 Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

First let me say that BHE is compulsive and additive read. Pinbrough always had skills for plotting, emotional depth and of course creating terror on the page. The big leap here is just magnetic the pull forward of the narrative. You will tear through this. This book is excellently plotted and when I closed the book the ending got me for sure. I was impressed and seething with jealousy That Pinborough pulled off such a great ending. I mean I am a total geek for story plotting and structure and goddamn it this was so tight it was hard not to be jealous. If you like domestic thrillers like Gone Girl and Girl on the Train you should check this out.

#7 Sip by Brian Allen Carr

Sip is one of the weirdest horror novels I have ever read. The structure of the narrative is a little more straight forward there are no one sentence chapters, but the idea is plenty weird enough. It takes place in a post apaoclyse western setting, the world was not ended by nuclear war or climate change. In this future our world fell apart when junkies developed an addiction for consuming the souls of others through their shadows. Drinking the shadows gives you rest and the dreams of the person or animals you steal from but leaves the creature dry. One neat aspect is how the concept and setting subverts the nothing setting or the dark or darkness being home to horror. In this world the sunlight and light in general is source of terror.

#6 The City, Awake by duncan b. barlow

The City, Awake is a genius surrealist noir that perfectly balances character, narrative drive and experimental prose. Delightfully weird, The City, Awake is an experience. It has the effect of feeling like we are are being lead by expert. Very different types of books but it reminded me of the reading experience that I had reading Brian Evenson's The Warren. Check the interview I did with the author...

#5 End of the World Running Club by Adrian J.Walker

This is my favorite sub-genre of horror in fiction and is my favorite I have read since Brian Evenson's Immobility. The best British end of the world novel since One by Conrad Williams. In a tradition of novel that includes the Stand and Swan Song. The book is almost 500 pages but it is quick read as the story cooks. Once the main characters take off on their run, the journey not only explores survival, themes of family but the limits of endurance. If you like end of the world fiction you MUST read this novel

#4 The Forgotten Girl by Rio Youers

This is one hell of a novel. The publisher seems to be marketing it as a thriller and that is true the book is also very much A science fiction horror novel. The story is very clearly influenced by and modernizing classics like Stephen King's Firestarter and the John Farris Classic The Fury. If you read those novels you understand we are talking about psychic conspiracy road trip thrillers. The strength of this novel is less about the plot and more the characters.

#3 Secrets Of the Weird by Chad Stroup

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.

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.

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

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. 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. Lets not avoid the subject it is a monster novel. Damn good one.

#1 Little Heaven by Nick Cutter

An effective and disturbing horror novel that made the best of a lean prose style. The supernatural elements have surreal quality that brings to mind early Clive Barker. Monsters like the Long Walker were disturbing in how unnatural they were yet described so well you see them in your mind and were nothing short of creepy.

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

Check out this audio review I recorded with author Anthony Trevino after we both read Little Heaven:

Honorable Mentions: The Force by Don Winslow, Feral by BK Evenson, Sea of Rust by C.Robert Cargill, Benti-Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Best Pure Sci-fi novel: Sea of Rust by C.Robert Cargill

Best short story I read: Fail-safe by Philip Fracassi

Best pre-2017 reads: Jigsaw Youth by Tiffany Scandal, Lovecraft Alive by John Shirley, The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, Long Form Religious Porn by Laura Lee Bahr, Grunt Life (Task Force Ombra #1) by Weston Ochse

Here is a one hour discussion I with Critic Marvin Vernon on each of our Top ten reads of 2017:

Complete reading list in order All 2017 releases have a *:

Long Form Religious Porn by Laura Lee Bahr

The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle

The Valley by John Renehan

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough.*

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

Masque by F.Paul Wilson and Matthew J. Costello

Little Heaven by Nick Cutter*

Among Madmen by Jim Starlin & Daina Graziunas

Ratings Game by Ryan C. Thomas

13 minutes by Sarah Pinborough *

Nod by Adrian Barnes

Grunt Life (Task Force Ombra #1) by Weston Ochse

The City, Awake by duncan b. barlow *

Aftermath: Empire's End (Star Wars: Aftermath #3) by Chuck Wendig *

Chills by Mary Sangiovanni *

(Eco-horror kick:

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson *

The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner

Lost Girl by Adam Nevill

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi)

Feral by James Demonaco, BK Evenson *

Secrets Of the Weird by Chad Stroup *

The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency #1) by John Scalzi *

Relics by Tim Lebbon *

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

Dust of the Devil's Land by Bryan Killian *

Death Metal Epic I: the Inverted Katabasis by Dean Swinford

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee *

World Revolver By Gina Ranalli

The Sub by Jimmy Jazz

Jigsaw Youth by Tiffany Scandal

Lovecraft Alive John Shirley

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson

The Voices of Martyrs by Maurice Broaddus *

Binti Home by Nnedi Okorafor *

The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley *

Entropy in Bloom by Jeremy Robert Johnson*

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Forgotten Girl by Rio Youers *

Gwendy's Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar*

Mormama by Kit Reed *

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow*

Cold Cuts by Robert Payne Cabeen *

Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus*

The Boy on The Bridge by M.R. Carey *

His Master's Voice by Stanislaw Lem

Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

What Immortal Hand by Johnny Worthen*

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch *

The Changeling by Victor LaValle *

Behold The Void by Philip Fracassi * (best short story I read this year:Fail-safe)

Blade Runner 2 The Edge of Human by KW Jetter

The Snake Handler by J. David Osborne & Cody Goodfellow *

The Dark Net by Benjamin Percy *

Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan *

Bone White by Ronald Malfi *

The Force by Don Winslow *

The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter *

Pinball Punks by Dave Anderson *

End of the World Running Club by Adrian J. Walker *

Strange Weather by Joe Hill *

Sea of Rust by C.Robert Cargill *

Sleeping Beauties By Stephen & Owen King *

Under the Shanghai Tunnels and Other Weird Tales by Lee Widener *

Sip by Brian Allen Carr *

Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View *

The Best of Richard Matheson (Selected and edited by Victor LaValle) *

Exploring Dark Short Fiction #1: A Primer to Steve Rasnic Tem *

Leia Princess of Aldderan by Claudia Gray*

Engines of Ruin by Lucas Mangum*

81 books 44 2017 books

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Book Review: Exploring Dark Short Fiction #1: A Primer to Steve Rasnic Tem by Eric J. Guignard (Editor) & Steve Rasnic Tem

Exploring Dark Short Fiction #1: A Primer to Steve Rasnic Tem

by Eric J. Guignard (Goodreads Author) (Editor), Steve Rasnic Tem (Goodreads Author) (Contributor), Michael A. Arnzen (Goodreads Author) (Contributor), Michelle Prebich (Illustrator)

paperback, 224 pages

Published July 2017 by Dark Moon Books

Lets talk first about this format, which is fair I think because it is the first in a series. Edited by Eric J. Guignard I think he is on to something special here. If this is the system he is going to follow. This is a really, really cool book and the format is inspired. It has six short stories by the subject of the book, including one new to this edition. A long and complete bibliography, each story comes with academic commentary,beautiful art and an essay on the genre from Tem.

When I closed the book my first thought was all the authors I would love to see in this series. Lisa Morton, Cody Goodfellow, Stephen Graham Jones, to name a few. I have no idea who Guignard has in mind but I am ready to trust him as I love the format.

OK I am familiar with Steve Rasnic Tem but not a huge devotee. I read and reviewed a collection of stories he co-wrote with his late wife. I had read stories here and there and was a fan of a novel of Melanie Tem but have yet to read one of his. So I was a prime candidate for this book. The Six stories were a great example of various tones and subjects in horror. I finished the book very interested in his most recent novel and I will read more.

Several of the stories had moments of humor but most were dark in all the right ways. "Hungry" the first story was great at setting the tone and I like that we got introduced to the author's work with the same story as the editor. That was a neat touch. The story played with the freak show setting and made for a wonderful story environment. The second story "The Last Moments Before Bed" was to me the most powerful story in the book, this absolute heartbreaker of a story that explores loss.

All the commentaries written by author and PHD Michael Arnzen all added depth to the experience and in a few cases confirmed my feelings on stories. I have admit on the Christmas story new to this book I didn't catch some of the elements Arnzen brought up. It was great because I re-read the story with new eyes.

This is not just a great collection and introduction to a underrated writer, it is great showcase on the nuts and bolts of what makes short horror fiction work. This is a book that may some day be taught, I don't say that lightly.

Book Review: The Best of Richard Matheson (Selected and edited by Victor LaValle)

The Best of Richard Matheson (Selected and edited by Victor LaValle)

Paperback, 384 pages

Published November 2017 by Penguin Classics

It is not Hyperbole to say that Richard Matheson is one of the most important writers of the 20th Century. Ray Bradbury said that and I want to expand on the point. It is not just the novels, or the films and the TV shows. It is all of them. Neil Gaiman nailed it when he said you know his stories even if you don't know him. Weather it is I Am Legend, The Night Stalker, Somewhere in Time or one of his many Twilight Zone episodes. I have met most of my professional heroes and the only time I was ever star stuck in my life was the three times I met Richard Matheson. I often tell that story and people often tell me "I never heard of him," then I say his titles and they know them. Many of them are classics.

Matheson was a hero to me growing up. I started to read him shortly after I discovered Clive Barker and Stephen King. As a young horror reader, I was reading everything I could get my hands on by those two giants. I lived in the used section of Cavet Emptor the used book store in a old house turned into a jam packed used backstore. The store has moved but still exists. When I was young the horror section was in a small room just bigger than a closet.

Richard Matheson had a shelf to himself, his name caught my attention because I knew it, from years of watching the Twilight Zone. I proceeded to buy every book I could. I loved Matheson right away in part because he was a pure story-teller. I loved that he wrote Twilight Zones, novel and movies. He wrote weird but didn't create things so out there that a young reader like me couldn't get it. That was a problem I sometimes had with Clive Barker at the time. He didn't waste words like Stephen King.

So how does one compile a best of book for a author with a long productive lifetime of writing short stories. I am sure it was a huge challenge. It fell on the shoulders of Victor Lavalle (author of The Changling and the Ballad of Black Tom)who is certainly one of the IT writers of the day. He responded by reading everything and choose thirty-two classics.

LaValle's introduction was good, he gave a personal story that set the tone. I had read a good many of these stories before. Several of them you will know from the Twilight Zone, and if you don't know them you need to know them. The selection of stories is thoughtful and shows a good range of what RM could do as a writer. If this is your introduction it is a good place to start.

Stories that stood out for me in this reading include "Shipshape Home" about a apartment building with a mystery. Deus ex Machina that had a great emotional core and the Twilight zone Classics "Button, Button" and "Third From the Sun." Some of the best stories like Duel did less for me because I just watched the film (That Matheson wrote himself) and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet as it is also too well known.

Content wise this is a no brainer 5/5 book that should be required reading not just for genre fans but anyone wanting to understand 20th century American fiction. There are a few little things I wish they had added to the book, and I understand I might be asking for things outside of the Penguin classic Formula. Listing the year of publication under the title of each story and maybe editor commentary after each title. maybe even a paragraph. I would like to know more about the selection process.

Must have read and now that I know about The Charles Beumont Peguin Classics I have to read that too.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Book Review Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View edited by ?

Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View edited by ?

Hardcover, 477 pages

Published October 2017 by Del Rey

Well first things first I am amazed this book does not credit a editor or team of editors because the first thing I thought of was what amazing piece of a editing it was. Content editing I mean. This is a one of a kind anthology with a hell of a table of contents featuring tons of top notch authors it just has to be about Star Wars. Let me be clear this book is not about the Star Wars universe. It is a anthology on the 40th anniversary of A New Hope.

According to the back cover: "All participating authors have generously forgone any compensation for their stories. Instead, their proceeds will be donated to First Book - a leading nonprofit that provides new books, learning materials, and other essentials to educators and organizations serving children in need. To further celebrate the launch of this book and both companies' longstanding relationships with First Book, Penguin Random House has donated $100,000 to First Book, and Disney/Lucasfilm has donated 100,000 children's books - valued at $1 million - to support First Book and their mission of providing equal access to quality education. Over the past 16 years, Disney and Penguin Random House combined have donated more than 88 million books to First Book."

The title is from a line in Return of the Jedi when Obi-wan said he had told the truth from a certain point of view. These stories fill in moments A New Hope with new short stories from the point of view of side characters and sometime moments that were off camera. Some of these stories are quite inspired and worthy of reading and few I admit I didn't finish. As you can imagine some had alot of fun with moments of new Hope and others actually added depth. A couple the stories did nothing for me or for the universe.

This book features stories from many big name authors including Nnedi Okorofor and Daniel Jose Older who I want to get their own Star Wars novels. Gary Whitta co-screenwriter of Rogue One kicks off the book with a story that ties the two films together. Claudia Grey who is a fantastic Star Wars novelist wrote the best piece. One that includes a conversation between Obi-wan and Qui-gon while Obi-wan helps clean up the jaws.

A fun read but not a must have. Get it for the cause and read a couple of the stories. I thought the Daniel Jose Older one was funny, The Nnedi Okorofor one was weird, The Wil Wheton one added neat little depth to character we saw for a few seconds. The Claudia Grey one gave me goosebumps, Beyond that it was light-hearted fun.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Book Review: Sip by Brian Allen Carr

Sip by Brian Allen Carr
Hardcover, 304 pages Published August 29th 2017 by Soho Press

I reviewed Brian Allen Carr's surreal horror novel "The Last horror novel in History of the World" back in 2015. I enjoyed it as a short but totally surreal novella. At the time I said I laughed alot reading this novel which is some kinda of supernatural small town siege tale set against the interesting back drop of a small border town in Texas. Given the title I expected a satire, or a bizarro send up of horror novels but that wasn't the case. This is more like experimental horror that based on the strength of the strong prose is a really cool quick read.

I was excited about this book and wanted to read it after hearing BAC on the JDO (J.David Osbourne) show podcast. Between then and actually getting around to the book I remembered nothing about it. I am glad I went in cold. SIP is a totally weird novel, those worried that BAC would lose his edge getting published by a traditional publisher - don't worry.

Sip is one of the weirdest horror novels I have ever read. The structure of the narrative is a little more straight forward there are no one sentence chapters, but the idea is plenty weird enough. It takes place in a post apaoclyse western setting, the world was not ended by nuclear war or climate change. In this future our world fell apart when junkies developed an addiction for consuming the souls of others through their shadows. Drinking the shadows gives you rest and the dreams of the person or animals you steal from but leaves the creature dry. Dry means you can't sleep or dream.

On a basic level you have great weird elements like shadow drinkers and limb scavengers, you have western elements with the train and the wasteland setting. Those are lots of neat-o elements but at the heart are human characters. At it's core friendship and loyalty plays as important a role as a mainstream YA novel. There is much to relate too at the heart of the story.

One neat aspect is how the concept and setting subverts the nothing setting or the dark or darkness being home to horror. In this world the sunlight and light in general is source of terror. The characters from Bale and Mira break the tension with momments of humor from time to time. The gee-whiz of the concept was enough to get my interest but it is Characters that made this a step-up from the BAC novel I read.

BAC is a talented writer and the very concept is strong argument for the book. At times the prose is poetic, but it is the world building and setting where the beauty lies. That is a neat trick. Overall I would say this is a weird fiction masterpiece if you like bizarro, horror or science fiction there is something here for everyone. If you think that all the ideas have been exhausted before 2017 then you need to read Sip. It is a book like no other and worthy of massive praise.

Magazine Review: Deciduous #1

Deciduous #1 Edited by Tara Blaine

169 pages

Published by Deciduous Tales

I am a huge fan of the horror short story. One of the biggest problems is the markets for the horror short story shrinks each year. It is always a good thing when a new source comes around. Featuring new fiction and and few classics reprinted Deciduous is a fine entry to the world of dark fiction that comes with a San Diego connection. Associate editor and contributor Brian Asman is here and a part of our local community.

As dark fiction journals go this is a great start, with 169 pages it is pretty much a paper back anthology and while the $14 cover price might scare off a few it shouldn't. The quality level in these pages are really high. The selection of stories is very good, there is not one story that turned me off completely and I tend to expect that in any given anthology. Almost all of them has a stinker.

That said there were stories that were stronger than others and I am not totally sold on what the classic stories added outside of slight vibe. The stories here are generally more on the surreal side of dark fiction. Bless the cracks for example by Brian Asman had Clive Barker ish concept of a world inside the cracks of sidewalk. The interplay between the people who see it and those that don't made it a fun read.

My favorite stories in this issue were Bone Dust by Joshua Chaplinsky and Getting Wet by Adrean Messmer. The dark tone and beautiful written prose of Bone Dust created a rich misery. Reminded me of some the post Apocalypse stories of Brian Evenson. Bone Dust was worth getting the whole thing. Chalinsky is on my radar now.

I didn't know any of the authors by name so I enjoyed the discovery process and that is how it is supposed to work. I would read it again and for those who are serious about short horror fiction should get for sure.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Book Review: Under the Shanghai Tunnels and Other Weird Tales by Lee Widener

Under the Shanghai Tunnels and Other Weird Tales by Lee Widener

Paperback, 188 pages

Published by Strange House Books October 2017

Coming from Portland based bizarro and weird fiction author Lee Widener Under the Shanghai Tunnels is a neat little collection. It was not entirely my thing but I certainly respect the the book. The author is clearly heavily influenced by the works and mythos of HP Lovecraft. I should not have to explain who that is to horror readers. Certainly there is a seriously overwhelming amount of fiction released each year by writers who want to play in Howie's sandbox. There are two styles of Lovecraftian fiction the ones that directly try to write in his style and the ones who write in their own voice using the mythos.

I grew-up on Lovecraft like alot of horror fans and writers. I am not against Mythos writing in fact one of my favorite reads of the year is Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan. I admit I get a little tired of Lovecraft tropes and this book is 100% Lovecraftian. Lee Widener brings a off beat sense of humor that provides a cool counter balance to the atmospheric moments. Those of you who can't get enough of old school Weird Tales should not miss this book.

The title story is my second favorite of the collection. As someone who lived in Portland for several years I enjoyed how Widener was able to weave in this location and local lore into the mythos. The story was told in third person at time and slipped into a first person narrative that was a journal entry. This journal style was where we got the Lovecraft tone and almost his voice. There is no new ground really broken here but I don't suspect most readers of this style of fiction are looking for that. The title story feels like slipping on a favorite familiar sweatshirt.

My favorite story in the collection was a funny and very weird tale of a Shoemaker called "At the Shoe Shop of Madness." This kinda off beat humor is Widener does best. This is a really cool book for Lovecraftian fiction fans, and it is clearly written by a talented author. I know I would like to read his work that is not in the shadow of Lovecraft.

Book Review: Sleeping Beauties By Stephen & Owen King

Sleeping Beauties By Stephen & Owen King

hardcover, 702 pages Published September 26th 2017 by Scribner

When Stephen King released Doctor Sleep (his best novel of this century in my opinion) he went on a book tour with his son Owen who had just released his first novel Double Feature. While on the road apparently Owen pitched his father an idea that he thought sounded like a Stephen King novel. On that tour more than once King suggested that he wanted to write it with Owen. Five years later we have 700 page door stop and The King family has three members in the NY Times bestseller top ten at the same time.

I reviewed Owen King's debut novel Double Feature here on my blog when it was released. The book was humorous and I really enjoyed the first 100 pages but I didn't enjoy the book as a whole. Owen King certainly has talent and it has got to be hard to be the youngest in a family of writers who have all (Tabitha King included) seen the bestseller list. While Joe Hill has done everything he can to forge his own path without the help of his Dad's legacy. Owen has been more indifferent. I don't blame him for wanting the experience to write a novel with his Dad, what an amazing experience that would be.

On the surface Sleeping Beauties is a very Stephen King idea, in the vein of Cell or Under the Dome it is a weird speculative Apocalypse novel. The story is global but the point of view is narrow and focused much like Cell. It has almost the page count of The Stand but not the scope. There is a very clear influence or feel of the HBO show The Leftovers. The book is 700 pages and honestly didn't need more than 400 pages to tell this story.

In this novel the women of the world are subject to a pandemic called Aurora. The women affected fall asleep and their faces break-out in a cocoon that keeps them asleep but alive. In the days that follow men have to deal with the loss and certainly most men in our world don't understand everything important that women do. A few women are trying desperately to stay awake and some of their struggles provide the novels most suspenseful moments.

Focused on a fictional West Virginia town called Dooling the novel follows events in the town and in the near-by women's prison. The book has enough characters that it starts with a glossary of them, I suspect most regular King readers wont need it. The Kings do a great job of making the characters vivid. We know this is a family strength. The early build-up is great and there are many really intense moments of creepy-ness related to the face cocoons which I found scary to think about.

Alot of the best moments of horror and story come in moments that I consider spoilers. There are lots of really great character moments. I have seen reviews that diminished Owen's role in the overall book but everyone has to remember he pitched this idea as a SK novel and I am sure he was writing to match that feeling. There are moments of syntax, dialogue and structure that felt different to me as a life long King reader, but I think that was symptom of a third voice.

The early tone of the novel is science fiction but over time the pandemic and related events become more and more supernatural. The story makes less and less sense as the scope narrows and gets more weird at the same time. Almost 100 pages is devoted to a siege of the prison that should have been a chapter at most. None the less the book is peppered through out with great moments of character and tension so I kept turning pages. I think most readers not thinking like writers will not have as many problems as I did.

Story wise I still found it compelling and enjoyed the ride the less I thought about it.I think story wise it is a four out of five star book, Politically it is a 2 out of five. So I am ending up with a 3/5 rating. It is hard to talk about it without mostly major spoilers. I am going spoiler ahoy. Without spoilers I will say this novel has problematic political implications from unintentional patriarchal notions despite being written by two progressive men. This idea is one that would have benefited from a female voice.

In some of the press tours Stephen King has said some cringe-worthy things about how men would react to a world without women. "Who would do the dishes?" I know this can be a generational thing but thankfully The book handles this a little better until the final act. There are plenty of excellent female characters including the Sheriff Lila, that was not the issue it was the notions that were under the surface. More details in Spoilers...

Spoilers: First the positive. There was a chapter about half way into the book where the story took a huge turn, and I admit when it happened I groaned. You see it is 500 pages into the novel that we discover that the sleeping women are living on in an alternate reality without men. This reveal shifted the tone so heavy at first my reaction, was no, just no. But after one chapter it was paid off. The chapter before featured the novel's bully and prime asshole Don Peters talking about wanting set one of the sleeping women on fire just to see what happens. I forgot about them doing this, because of the slight of hand in the form of a huge story shift. The first chapter ends with a woman in the alternate reality suddenly and shockingly dying. When you flip to the next chapter you realize it was the work of Don Peters and young recently deputized man just experimenting.

This was a super effectively reveal. Great storytelling for sure.

As for the bad. I can't believe after Spike Lee complained about Stephen King's use of the "magical negro" in books like the Green Mile and the Stand he would return to the trope but he does. Even naming the woman Evie Black. Evie is in prison for killing a meth dealer and she becomes the key to the whole thing. She is like the gatekeeper between the two worlds.

Even worse is that when she leads the women to discover the path back to our world through this tree portal there is a scene where the women in this new world meet and decide what to do. For a reason I was not clear about they all had to agree and vote on weather to to say in the male-less world that most agree was a better place. In the end they all have a unanimous vote to return to our world.

I can't believe that EVERYONE of them would vote that way. The Kings give the reason that many did not want to be separated from their sons. A better argument is would be that their bodies would always be at risk in the male world. I also didn't understand how the rest of the globe was liberated by Evie's action.

I came away feeling uncomfortable about the ideas at the end of this novel and felt that this story needed a woman's touch.