Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Book Review: The Cabin at The End of The World by Paul Tremblay

Cabin at The End of The World by Paul Tremblay

Hardcover, 272 pages

Published June 26th 2018 by William Morrow

When Donald Trump won the election I went to work the next day in a state of disbelief as many of us in California did. It was hard to grasp how the rest of the country saw such a different human being asking for the most powerful job in the world. It was a really interesting time in our country. The system is designed by the framers to focus on two main political parties and the two sides in America rarely see the world the same way.

Written just after the election Cabin at the End of the World is horror novel that builds scares in part from that disconnect. Comedy is often built on a foundation of set-up and punch-line. Effective horror novels are built on a foundation of tension, suspense and placing the reader in fear for the characters. The set-up of CATEOW is genius because it not only sets up those elements but explores the themes that plague our nation every time we watch the news.

Sound like hyperbole? I was worried about that. You see my first experience with Tremblay was his break-out hit "A Head Full of Ghosts." I really liked HFOG, but when I read it, but I had heard so much hype it was almost impossible for the book to live up to my expectations. So I am nervous to do the same thing to you reading this review. The problem is Cabin at the End of The World is that good. I don't use the word masterpiece lightly and I have to use here.

The story opens with seven year-old Wen. She is outside her Dad's vacation cabin in New England near the Canadian border. This first chapter is an amazing hook when a stranger walks out of the woods and starts a conversation with the young adopted daughter. This conversation is nerve wracking to read and it perfectly sets the table with all the ingredients for the perfect horror novel. It ended up unfolding a little differently than I expected.

This novel worked on every level for me but I will say I was happy I went into it cold. I didn't know anything about the story so I hope I have sold well enough to go buy/read this novel. Still need to hear more....

This novel is Tremblay's attempt to tackle a horror sub-genre he is not a big fan of. The home invasion story. This one may or may not include a supernatural elements. As the invaders claim that they are here to prevent the end of the world. They didn't know each other but came together because of shared visions. They believe the only way to prevent their visions from coming true if Eric, Andrew or their daughter Wen choose to sacrifice a member of their family.

Is it real? are they crazy? This novel contains tons of gut wrenching suspense, the pages turn quickly and all he while Tremblay tells a story that explores belief and perception. Those questions are asked as a family goes through a brutal terror and thus it makes the novel a harrowing experience.

No horror novel works if you can't put yourself in the shoes of the characters. Eric, Wen and Andrew are a beautiful family. PT writes this family with care, love and attention to detail. It never feels unnatural, gimmicky or exploitative that the leads are a gay couple. They just are great parents, and thus they are the heart of the novel. Certainly in the days after the election when Pence is a heart beat from the presidency and the right-wing controlled all branches of government it was not a stretch to view the LBGT community under assault. It is just another level this novel works on.

Anyone who thinks of this novel as a simple horror are missing the point. This is a multi-layered novel that packs massive amounts of entertainment and meaning into a book that is less than 300 pages. Eight months into the year it is easily my read of the year so far.

Dickheads Podcast/ Book Review: Eye in the Sky by Philip K Dick

Podcast video for visual learners:

Eye In The Sky is PKD's 5th published book and a Dickhead favorite (so far.) We have a lot to discuss in our longest episode yet. See Dick's world through our eyes. We have also introduced a new section this episode where we answer your questions. Plus: PKD bullied by editors? PKD VR. Jaunty little tunes. And Dick's mom.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Book Review: How to Set Yourself On Fire by Julia Dixon Evans

How to Set Yourself On Fire by Julia Dixon Evans
Paperback, 312 pages Published May 8th 2018 by Dzanc Books

I have to admit something right off the bat. On paper, reading the back cover description of this book there is no way I would normally have chosen to read this book. I would have shaken off the idea as just not for me. The old saying about judging books by their cover can be extended to many aspects of books which are complete experiences. I read this book because frankly I like Julia. She is a San Diego writer and yeah I naturally root for San Diego writers. I have read a few of her stories and they have all been great. More importantly for me I have seen Julia read/ perform her fiction before and I started this book knowing absolute zero about the plot. I got it and read it purely on the strength of the author.

Now that said I would LOVE, LOVE, LOVE to see her tackle a horror novel, I mean she has written some great horror short stories but I have to admit to you loyal blog readers this is NOT a horror novel. It has some dark humor, but HTSYOF is a excellently written character focused novel.

Set here in San Diego this novel is the story of Sheila who struggles with life a little. She is temp who hates working and is reeling from the death of her Grandmother. Her life is thrown upside down when she finds a box of extra martial love letters in her Grandmother's shoe box. Before these letters the most exciting thing in her life was masturbating to PBS and ease dropping on her neighbor Vinnie's skype calls with his daughter on the east coast. For hilarious reasons Vinnie's daughter ends up moving out west to live with her father. She and Shelia strike up a friendship over the love letters and finding her Grandmother's long lost love Harold C. Carr.

I want to note that for some reason I pictured the Character of Vinnie, as Vinnie Paul of Pantera which made some turns with the character hard for me to take but that is a me problem.

OK back to How to Set Yourself on Fire. So yes Sheila is not exactly what I would call a winner, but she is such a excellently written character as are all the side characters in the piece. Vinnie, his daughter Torrey and Sheila's cringe inducing mother all make this book a page turning experience. I think the weird thing is that this is somewhat of a coming of age novel even though the main character is an adult. Shelia has alot of growing to do.

The most effective moments of writing are found in the moments of parallels, found between Shelia and the letters. Shelia wanted to believe in the romance as much as Harold Carr did. It is not her love story on the surface but it doesn't make it any less heart-breaking. There is a love story here, not a romantic one but Sheila, Vinnie and Torrey come together in a way that is heartwarming. A less talented writer would have spelled out this happy ending, but Julia Dixon Evans is to good a storyteller for that.

Five stars, big thumbs up. Another woman coming out of the San Diego writing scene this a first novel we should all salute. She might not have the sales of Tomi Adeyemi's Children of Blood and Bone, but Evans wrote the better novel in my opinion. Read this excellent novel!

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Book Review: Now That You're Here by Amy K. Nichols

Now That You're Here by Amy K. Nichols
Hardcover, 304 pages

Published December 9th 2014 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

This is not a typical read for me. It is not that I have not read the occasional YA novel that I thought was interesting, either in concept or an author who interested me. In this case I met the author Amy Nichols briefly at a comic-con party. I was impressed by her knowledge of Science Fiction and clearly obvious attention to science in her work. When she explained what this novel was about I knew I would want to check it out.

Now That You're Here is not written with an audience like me in mind. This YA sci-fi novel has a sub-title 'When Worlds Collide Hearts Break.' I think the target audience is nerdy hopeless romantic teenage women. I am a nerdy hopeless romantic so that was more than enough for me. Some of the romance was syrupy sweet, but I kept in mind the target audience and was enough to enjoy the story telling craft of the romantic elements.

So keep in mind these romantic moments are woven into a ultra-nerdy tale of multiverses, alternate realities, chaos theory and super sciencey science fiction. The story follows Danny Ogden who is fighting for survival in a dystopic Phoenix Arizona when suddenly he is thrust into a reality - Maybe our reality. He wakes up in English class, and things are different. His parents are dead, he lives in a foster home, there is still a functioning democracy in america and the outsider artist he had a crush on Evee Solomon is a straight A student. Evee becomes his one hope, she is the one who believes him.

Together two souls born in separate realities come to together to solve the mystery and seek a solution for Danny. Will he go home? If he does can he ever see Evee again?

None of this works without excellently written characters I liked all the characters I was meant to like, and was annoyed and hated the ones I wasn't supposed to like. Nichols does lots of things well, she weaves a story that handles, character plot and complex science very well. The most impressive trick is doing all these things in a story that manages to make it appealing to a young reader. I was super entertained and flew through this book in three commutes. I am looking forward to reading book two!

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Book Review: Burning Sky by Weston Ochse + Update with a interview

Burning Sky by Weston Ochse

Paperback, 420 pages

Expected publication: September 25th 2018 by Solaris

There is a long and storied tradition of military science fiction. One author Weston Ochse knows well. His last trilogy of novels were firmly in the vein of that sub-genre best known for classics like Forever War and Starship Troopers. As for military horror there are random novels here and there but the undisputed master of this sub-genre is Weston without a doubt. Starting with the Seal Team 666 trilogy that were like a special forces take on the X-files. This sub-genre was inevitable and in less capable hands it could have been very hard to handle.

Weston has experience, he has served in Afghanistan and over 55 countries that brings us to Burning Sky. There is one human being with that much military experience who also teaches English and creative writing. Who else could write such a heavy novel set is Afghanistan that combines experience, horror, fantasy and has a thoughtful message. On top of that Burning Sky is well written and explores the very nature of violence and war that plagues our species. Yeah that sounds heavy because it is.

This is also a fun novel at times, with entertaining action, monsters, ancient gods and Philip K Dick worthy time shifts and alternate realities that will remind readers in all the right ways of Jacob's Ladder. There is a What the hell is real twist that is so well executed I was shocked when Weston told me in a e-mail that he has not read much PKD. That is a round about way to say this is a mind expanding cross genre read that I can't recommend enough.

Much like his last Grunt trilogy Burning Sky is very much about PTSD, but Burning Sky takes that theme and goes beyond. This novel is about what drives war. It explores the deep trauma not just of the warriors but society. The book points to key moments covered by the news in the last few conflicts that lead to Trauma that we felt collectively. The theme is expressed so beautifully in some of this novel's most horrific moments. As a writer, reader and fan of Weston I honestly pumped my fist in the air at one of these moments.

I enjoyed the Seal Team books, I like Grunt Life and respected the heck out of it. Burning Sky is masterpiece that I am more impressed by the longer I think about it. If you like your horror, political and thoughtful I would say you should pre-order this novel. It will be on my best of the year list for sure.

Couple of notes on this review:

1) We have a already recorded a long form audio interview with Weston Ochse for the Dickheads podcast that will be posting in a few weeks. The first half is spoiler free. The second half is a serious deep dive into the craft of the novel. I recommend reading the book and listening to the whole thing. Weston has alot to teach us.UPDATED WITH THE INTERVIEW:

2)I have to say off the bat that I was torn. When Weston Ochse offered me a chance to read his as yet unreleased new novel I was excited but he didn't have physical books yet. I am not much of an e-reader and trying to upload this PDF to my kindle taught me that it didn't work anymore. Thus this was my first experience reading an entire novel on my phone. That was not easy for me. So my process for tagging pages and taking notes was a little off.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Ring of Fire book signing at the Verbatim table during the San Diego Festival of Books

Press Release for the signing!

San Diego Author’s Novel Addresses Climate Change and The Horror of California Wildfires!

Long before the publication of his sixth novel, Ring of Fire, San Diego author David Agranoff had been in the trenches fighting for environmental causes. With two decades of environmental and animal rights activism in his wake, Agranoff believes that the timing of this novel’s subject matter is unsettling.

“I’ve been working on this novel since I first had the idea during the Cedar fire in 2003. It seems that now, in 2018, our entire world is on fire, and the time for action is running out. I honestly hate the feeling of being right.”

In the August 2nd issue of The Economist, the magazine stated it well: "EARTH is smoldering. From Seattle to Siberia this summer, flames have consumed swathes of the northern hemisphere. One of 18 wildfires sweeping through California, among the worst in the state’s history, is generating such heat that it created its own weather. Fires that raged through a coastal area near Athens last week killed 91. Elsewhere people are suffocating in the heat. Roughly 125 have died in Japan as the result of a heat wave that pushed temperatures in Tokyo above 40°C for the first time."

With a local setting and a global perspective, Agranoff released Ring of Fire through the world’s largest cult horror publisher Deadite Press. “Ring of Fire is both a horror novel and a warning about global climate change. It takes place in San Diego, surrounded by massive wildfires. Inside the fires, our city becomes ground zero for a storm of environmental disasters, from cancer clusters, to polluted drinking water. It is a horror novel, with some sci-fi elements at work.”

Agranoff considers himself a part of a new literary movement called Cli-fi, using speculative fiction to address the issues related to global climate change.

“There is a history of addressing environmental issues in sci-fi dating back to the 60’s, but the stakes have never been higher. I wrote Ring of Fire to be a scary and entertaining horror novel. I think San Diego readers will be enthralled when reading about the end of the world right here. I hope the message gets out too.”

David Agranoff will be signing copies of Ring of Fire at the San Diego Festival of Books at Liberty Station on August 25th. The Ring of Fire signing will take place at the Verbatim Books table from 11 am until noon.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation by Ken Liu (Editor, Translator)

Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation by Ken Liu (Editor, Translator)

Hardcover, 383 pages

Published November 2016 by Tor Books

Science Fiction should be a universal language, in many ways it translates better than comedy, which is much more dependent on delivery. I have always loved to read Sci-fi and horror translated from other cultures, the Russian Nightwatch books, the many novels of Stanislaw Lem and various Japanese authors have been favorites.

I have long been a fan of Chinese story-telling, besides having a shelf of Wuxia (kungfu high fantasy) movie DVD's I followed that passion to the hard to find translations of those classic novels. In research for my Chinese Vampire novel Hunting the Moon Tribe I read the classics of Chinese fantasy like the bizarro collection Tales From a Chinese Studio and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. So in that respect I am not a totally averege American genre readers coming to this work, not to mention that I also read few years back the Ken Liu translated The epic Chinese novel Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin'

I reviewed here on my Blog and said: "a really interesting novel, and not just for the fact that it is a rare that a Chinese science Fiction novel published here. That is very significant. The story can't take place in an American setting with the main character losing parents to a Chinese work camp. It is hilarious that the novel is marketed as having "The scope of Dune and the commercial action of Independence Day," anyone reading this novel hoping for that will be disappointed. It has more in common with Asimov's "The Gods Themselves."

So I don't know how I missed that this book existed but until a recent tweet by local San Diegan and bestselling author David Brin mentioned this collection. Glad he did because I am really enjoyed this collection. I enjoyed the variety of voices and styles and feel like I have learned alot about Chinese sci-fi and I want MORE!

The book has four essays, one as introduction from the translator and three in the caboose. Liu smartly reminds the american audience that Chinsese sci-fi can not be stereotyped with one voice or style anymore than American sci-fi can.

The collection starts off with a super weird horror tale called Year of the Rat by Chen Quifan. This story of soldiers in a battle with genetically enhanced neo-rats was a bonkers and a great kick off to the book. The story was imaginative, dark and gritty. The City of Silence while being a homage to 1984 also feels just as Black Mirror or Twilight Zone influenced. The very modern concept of society that takes internet censorship down to the very words we use and this story extends the blurred line between internet and real life. That balance is clearly a huge part of our lives.

Each story is good, all the authors have wonderful voices but it was the neo-noir PKD like stories that hit me perfect. My favorites included the neo-noir "The Flower of Shazui" by Chen Quifan, the high concept story about class "Folding Beijing"by Hao Jingfang and the techo-dsytopia of "The City of Silence" by Ma Boyong. As dark and gritty as they were "Tongtong's Summer" by Xia Jia was equally sweet. Many of the stories have a Black Mirror vibe to them, and it had me thinking that a season of Black Mirror directed by Asian filmmakers set in China, Korea and Japan would be amazing and many of these stories would be perfect. Liu Cixin the hugo award winner ends the collection with a weird and powerful story "Taking Care of God" This story about an advanced civilization that seeded our species and have returned. There are several amazing deep crazy space and physics ideas in this story.

Despite being translated by the same person the stories had a different feel, although Liu has a way with words and in that sense it feels unified. It might seem like hyperbole to say this, but this was a totally amazing experience. I liked every story in this book and I loved three of them. I think this is an important read. Not only will you get mind expanding and interesting Sci-fi but you'll learn about another culture. Can't say enough good things about this book.