Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Book Review: City of Boom by Bonnie Bee

City of Boom by Bonnie Bee

Paperback, 120 pages

Expected publication: December 1st 2019 by Anti-Oedipus Press

I always look forward to books in the mail, but when they come from Anti-Oedipus the press edited by the author, professor and diabolical genius D Harlan Wilson I move stuff up to the top of the TBR. Any book he puts out I am interested in.

From the back cover:

A banished criminal. Two demons, a maiden, and a beast king. A holiday devoted to arson. Adventures in adult babysitting. Drugs, sex, and violence . . . In this innovative collection of short fiction, Bonnie Bee performs a delicate vivisection on pop culture and our collective unconscious to create myths out of common moments and legends out of unremarkable people. Through ancient allegory, modern celebrity, corrupted Shakespeare, and the shimmering oppression of West Texas, City of Boom reveals what we inherit from generations before us while showing how we cut out what’s dead to repair the living.

Let me start by saying that the events of the story didn't really matter to me during the experience of reading this book. Bonnie Bee is a talented writer, after reading this short novel I think her greatest strength is a strong voice. It is fitting that the book opens with a Kathy Acker quote, as I would have pegged her as an influence.

In many ways, City of Boom operates like a short story collection. Some of the experimental surreal tone of the paragraphs are so unsettling that reading this feels like swimming in the ocean. Bobbing to keep your head above water, just when you think you have a handle on what is going on a sentence, a genius turn of phrase dunks you under.

This makes sense as an AOP book, and from the binding genre title, Schiz-Flow Wilson is trying to create a sub-genre similar to the early days of Bizarro when the books came with "File Under Bizarro" on the back. I am here for Schiz-flow which makes for a fun and disorientating read.

If there was any negative it was a minor one. The last couple of pages got into what the back cover called a "vivisection on pop culture." This was the most entertaining part of the book, and I would have enjoyed more moments peppered through-out that were as razor-sharp as these moments towards the end. That said you should come to this book for wordplay and that happens on every page. Big thumbs up for fans of surreal and bizarro fiction.

Book Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Hardcover, 422 pages

Published September 2019 by Nan A. Talese

Booker Prize (2019)

Scotiabank Giller Prize Nominee (2019)

I first read Handmaid's Tale in the 90's when I was living in Syracuse. I have a very distinct sense of memory of reading it while waiting for a bus in freezing cold weather. Probably a fitting way to read the classic novel of this Canadian author. What is funny is I remember very little of that experience or the novel, when I watched the TV series a year or two back some of it came back to me the setting and broad strokes but few details. So I was kinda coming into this novel cold. I gotta be honest the TV didn't hook me past the first season.

I did, however, want to see how Atwood came back to the material and how a HT sequel written in the post Trump era turned out. Testaments is a fantastic dystopia but as to how it compares to the first book you'll have to ask a different reviewer I am basically going to talk to you about this book as it stands alone. The most important thing here is that it does.

Atwood might not consider herself a Science Fiction writer, as Ursala K Leguin famously refuted in 2013, but this novel is science fiction or speculative Dystopia whatever you want to call it. I mean there is no shame being in the same genre as Orwell's 1984 or Leguin's The Dispossessed for two really high-class examples. This takes place in an alternate America that has broken up into at least 4 nations, one of which is Gilead an ultra-conservative super sexist religious nation that is made up of bible-belt states.

The actual story follows two alternating first-person narratives, speaking directly to the reader. One is a free Canadian woman and the other is a woman in the Gilead breeding program. Atwood never cheats the form and normally I find the first person style to be the least effective of the three narrative styles. Many writers cheat the details but Atwood writes smoothly enough that I lost myself in the story, forgetting how it was written. I will say I sped through the 413 pages of the story very quickly. I did slow down a few times and about 60% of the way through the story took a turn that I really enjoyed but it is a major spoiler.

I think if this had come out during the Bush years it would have held an equal feeling of being relevant, but in the time when the supreme court is in danger of overthrowing Roe V Wade, this book feels extra powerful and needed. This book takes place at times on an underground railroad for women trying to get to Canada. You want to think that dystopias are out of reach but the painful process of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation is in our memory clearly.

Testaments is just as much horror as Science Fiction and I wish Atwood would embrace that. The tradition of using dystopia to exaggerate and clarify is an important one.

I do also think it is interesting that a book from a Canadian author that is so damning of America is popular in this country. I mean know of that bothers me as I don't have a Patriotic bone in my body. America needed the first novel and it needs this one. If you were thinking about it take the plunge and read this important work of speculative fiction.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Book Review: Vampiric: Tales of Blood and Roses from Japan Edited by Edward Lipsett

Vampiric: Tales of Blood and Roses from Japan Edited by Edward Lipsett

236 pages

Expected publication: December 2019 by Kurodahan Press

I am always excited when I get a new book by Kurodahan Press and very thankful to be sent an early promo copy of this book. If you are not familar they are an independent press that brings translations of otherwise obscure Japanese science fiction and horror to an American market. Very cool stuff! Just the basic concept of this one is something I am instantly sold on. A collection of Japanese Vampire tales is all you needed to tell me. I knew like all anthologies there would ups and downs, the good news is that it mostly ups.

As the author of a novel about Chinese vampires (my 2011 release Hunting The Moon Tribe), I have read and researched much about Chinese Vampires. I love hopping Chinese vampire movies but bloodsuckers from the island of Japan and their writers is something I was not familiar with. I assumed there is a tradition as in all other cultures as the vampire is the DNA of almost all cultural DNA.

So, in general, this is a well put together anthology the selection of stories is top notch even my least favorite of the stories had something to grasp on to. There were a few neat touches in the contributors' bios there were random characters from various important Vampire like Van Helsing and Robert Neville of I Am Legend. That was a fun touch. The stories all have excellent translations, that help bring out a Japanese feel despite being in English. The stories range from the early 20th Century to modern with two excellent essays on the impact of Vampire fiction in Japan. Those essays totally sold me on several of those novels and I Kurodahan brings us some of those - I mean Bloodlines of Stone sounds amazing, and the idea of Japanese feminist Vampire novel in Ephemera the Vampire by Mariko Ohara sounds fascinating.

The only weakness here are minor but things that could have really strengthened the book for me. One of my favorite stories in the collection was the odd story One Legged Woman by Okamoto Kido. By reading the bio in the back of the book I learned he was an early 20th-century playwright who was an actual Samurai early in his life. I started to think that I needed just a little more information with each story. Even just having the year of publication with the title would have given more context. I think I would enjoy having the bio with the title page of each story.

That is a minor detail I loved this book, besides the One-Legged Woman my other favorites the bizarro The Husk Heir by Kaijo Shinji, whose Science Fiction novels I really want to check out, and the cosmic "Crimson Cloak" by the Japanese Lovecraftian master Asamatsu Ken. Each story brought something. I think this is a must-read for serious vampire fiction fans, but also for readers who want to read speculative and horror fiction from other cultures. Kurodahan Press delivers another important cross-cultural bridge in the form of super entertaining vampire tales. Big thumbs up!

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Book Review/Podcast: Dr.Bloodmoney by Philip K Dick

Dr.Bloodmoney by Philip K Dick

Paperback, 272 pages

Published October 2012 by Mariner Books (first published 1965)

Wow, I really loved this PKD book and I am surprised I had not read it sooner. This is a weird post-nuclear novel that is equally dark and sarcastic at times. Saving my thoughts for the next episode of Dickheads podcast recording soon.

Book Review/ Podcast 60's Hugo Winner series: Dune By Frank Herbert

Dune By Frank Herbert

Paperback, Special 25th Anniversary Edition, 535 pages

Published 1990 by Ace/Berkley Books (first published 1965)

Hugo Award for Best Novel (1966)

Nebula Award for Best Novel (1965)

Seiun Award for Best Foreign Novel (1974)

Dickheads Podcast bonus episode coming soon.

I know this is not exactly a hot take as Dune is considered one of the greatest classics of Science Fiction but it is really amazing. Like many, I read it first when I was 14 years old and know much of it flew straight over my head. The last time I "read it" was by audiobook shortly after watching the Sci-fi channel mini-series.

The skill with which it was written is only outmatched by the impact it has had on the genre as a whole. World Building, adventure, mysticism, environmentalism and politics. The Themes are not over-explained but perfectly woven into the story. Dune does all these elements with skill that has few peers before except Lord of the Rings and maybe The Foundation books. A reader in this day and age might recognize many of the elements here, they may be tropes now, but remember Star Wars and most of the Space Opera you have read in your life came after Dune.

The story is not a simple one, and I admit I was daunted to jump back into all the royalty and fantasy stuff. Now that brings me to a key point. This book has a lot in common with high fantasy, and while it is fair to say Star Wars is not true Science Fiction, but Dune is at home in both. The ecology of the planet Arrakis alone is enough to qualify as science fiction. OK enough let's get to the story.

The main character of this story is the planet Arrakis, the desert world that is important to the power of everything in the universe is a not so subtle analogy for the middle East. This story set in our far future (we only know this because of one tiny reference to an ancient bible) where families contest for control of the various planets. This is a space-faring era, but thousands of years in the wake of a great war between humans and machines. Thus it gives the world an odd sci-fi midevil feel.

The main characters are the Duke, lady Jessica and their son Paul of the house Atreides. The Space guild has just given them this important planet after years of brutal rule by House Harkonnen. Paul is being trained by his mother who is a priestess of a mystical order known as the Bene Gesserit who believes he might be the Kwisatz Haderach a great leader foretold in prophecy. Once on the planet Paul and Jessica survive an assassination attempt by going native.

The power of this story is in the rich world-building, the attention to detail and the interesting characters and universe. This novel is considered one of the best all-time and it may still be underrated. I will save some of my deeper thoughts for the podcast but I really loved this book all over again.

I also want to add that many reviews online talk about the sequels as not matching this first book. I disagree. Dune Messiah was an unfortunate sequel as it was not meant to stand alone. It is not until the third book that many of the major political themes until the later books, certainly not until book three. Certainly, Herbert took great effort to the first book that was written without expectations.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Book Review: Skinwrapper by Stephen Kozeniewski

Skinwrapper by Stephen Kozeniewski

Paperback, 81 pages

Published August 2019 by Sinister Grin Press

My two favorite genres are Science Fiction and Horror so when I first heard about The Hematophages I was stoked. The Hematophages is a blend of horror and science fiction. Kozeniewski had been most well known for his zombie detective bizarro novel Brain-eater Jones. The Hematophages is clearly Aliens worship and that is OK because it was awesome. Without standard tropes, it is a space vampire novel that was overflowing with ideas. I had it as a 'Dick like suggestion' on an episode of the Dickheads podcast and reviewed that novel here.

I said: "The Hematophages is one of the best books I have read so far this year. It is bold and weird science fiction that feels old school and insane at the same time. It is bizarro, dark sci-fi and horror in equal measure. A super neat book that I am glad I picked up. It is a little bit a parallel of Aliens, A reversal of Carpenter's The Thing (paranoia with all women) and with a world-building that reminded me of Neal Asher's The Skinner. That is a good mix."

Why have I spent so much time talking about that book? Well, Skinwrapper is a prequel and expansion of one of the coolest ideas found in The Hematophages was Cancer-ridden mutant mummy-like pirates that are forced to live in Zero-G called Skinwrappers.

Yes, you read all that correctly. The characters in the first book that introduced the Skinwrappers was so powerful that I thought they deserved their own book. They only had one chapter in the first book. So thank you Mister Kozeniewski because you delivered more texture to a universe I already enjoyed. Now an 81-page novella is fun but I still could have lived with a whole novel with this story, in this universe. I didn't read the back cover and went in spoiler-free and I suggest you do that. I hope I sold you on the bat-shit crazy bizarro space opera that has tons of ideas per page. Both books are super recommended. Anyhoo Spoiler warning has been given.

So this book is a prequel and gives an effective back story to one of the Skinwrapper pirate characters from The Hematophages. SK uses vivid description and characterization to make this world feel lived in. I think the story benefits from the first book but I suppose it could stand on its own. The descriptions of the Skinwrappers and their lives are pretty powerful. It is funny because I thought this was almost a perfect novella. Almost, except for two things, the major problem is it was painful realizing that I only had 60 pages left as soon as I was totally invested. Damn you Kozeniewski I am going to end up reading The Hematophages again. The other complaint is silly and might just be me but for some reason, a character described herself as falling on her butt, and later the word butt was used and it just kinda amused me and took out of the story for a moment. I know that is a silly complaint after reading such a neat book.

Alright Kozeniewski you are hereby ordered to write a dozen more books in this universe. I am a fan.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Book Review: The Institute by Stephen King

The Institute by Stephen King

Hardcover, 561 pages

Published September 2019 by Scribner

A new Stephen King book is still an event even though he is probably in the triple digits in releases at this point. I put this book on hold at the library the day it was ordered and was in the first round of people who got it and I managed to stay spoiler free. I am glad I read it that way. I have a very mixed feelings when it comes to Stephen King. As an author and figure in the genre and the tradition of story tellers I love him. I think he has written more than his share of masterpieces. I think he is a better short story and novella writer, but when he is firing he is one of the best.

The thing is I have not liked many of his 21st century novels as our styles are a bit like oil and water. King overwrites and without a plan, in lesser hands those are cardinal sins to me, but he is one of the few I come back too who does that stuff. That said I generally feel his novels are 200/300 pages too long. Dr. Sleep and 11/22/63 is my favorite of the last few years but when I read and reviewed The Outsider I was pretty disappointed as the novel started well and fizzled out. That said I quickly read it so I was very willing to read this new one.

When you have a half century of very productive writing under your belt as SK does it should not be a surprise that he recycles ideas. This has some of the Firestarter DNA, The Institute is pretty much The Shop from that novel. Here we have a secret government off shoot that is kidnapping kids. The kids are being developed for remote viewing experiments. Unlike the earlier novel this one hits at a global conspiracy. In that sense it reminded me he 70's horror classic The Fury by John Farris.

The first 75 pages SK flexes his story-telling muscles by fully developing a character that we become very invested in quickly. It is clear King wanted us to forget about him, and be surprised when he shows up again. Maybe it is because I am a writer and I was looking for the narrative connection, or maybe he wrote him so clearly I spent 300 pages wondering when we would see Tim again.

Our main character is Luke Ellis a gifted child who is already taking the SAT at 12 years old.It is interesting his intelligence is not what he is wanted for but it is the thing that makes him dangerous. The cast of young characters are well written kids which is not a surprise considering this book was written by the guy who wrote The Body) Stand by Me and IT.

The characters are all good and surprisingly King stuck the landing, ending his 500 plus page novels are often a problem. My biggest problem is the plot. The story with psychic kids doesn't really break any ground. This concept is pretty-ho-hum and only works because King characters are always good enough to keep the pages turning. No agent would touch this story from a unknown or starting author. There is very little there, there.

None the less I enjoyed it enjoy but nothing much stood out. SK constant readers will enjoy it but if you are looking for a King book I can think of two dozen titles that I would consider a priority over this one.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Book Review: Exploring Dark Short Fiction #4: A Primer to Jeffrey Ford

Exploring Dark Short Fiction #4: A Primer to Jeffrey Ford

by Jeffrey Ford, Michael Arnzen, Eric J. Guignard

Paperback, 234 pages

Published September 2019 by Dark Moon Books

I am always excited to see a book of this series in my mailbox, the first three books in this series confirmed to me Eric Guignard was really on to an excellent format to highlight authors. I trust Guinard to find the right authors for this series but let me make a few suggestions for who I think would be great in this series. John Shirley, Maurice Broddus, Cody Goodfellow, Lisa Morton, Silvia Moreno Garcia...Damn it I wish every author could get this treatment and this one of the best things I can say about this series. I mean it does such a wonderful job of highlighting an author and showing many sides of their skills. I really do wish every writer could get this kind of treatment. What do I mean by this treatment?

• Six short stories.

• Author interview.

• Complete bibliography.

• Academic commentary on each story by Michael Arnzen, PhD.

It is not just the variety of stories by each author in the series which are all carefully chosen by Guinard. Ford delivers six traditional dark fiction stories that are by themselves a powerful example of excellent writing. Add to it that you have the Arnzen commentary. The interview gives more personal insight compared to the academic insight of Arnzen. Now that we have four books in this series I could see this series being used for a teaching prompt and you bet your ass it would be a great way to teach the art of the horror short story.

As for Jeffery Ford, he comes the apology, I can't say I have read more a short story or two before. Not sure why he had not caught on with me before. That said is why this series exists, because I got a great introduction to a fantastic author. All six stories were well written and it is clear that Ford is an excellent writer whose influences go far beyond the genre ghetto. He has a great style that feels classical at times, conversational at other times.

My favorite stories were Boatman's Holiday and The Night Whiskey. That said I really loved the Japanese setting of the opening story. The most powerful piece by a country mile was the Boatman's Holiday. Hell and the river Styx is a really tricky subject to write about. There is a balance between not being dark enough and being goofy that is really hard to strike. There is a dark beauty to this piece that is worth the whole book. I loved every word that dripped with vivid humidity and pain. Ford gave the Boatman and the setting of Styx a painful reality and I loved it.

The Night Whiskey showed Ford's skill for characters. Boatman's holiday and A Natural History of Autumn showed off his ability to use the setting. As this series tends to do there is a little bit to learn about every aspect of the horror short story. The book succeeds in the sense that I am now primed to read more Jeffery Ford and it will happen.