Saturday, December 9, 2023

Book review: 101 Horror Books to Read Before You're Murdered by Sadie Hartmann


101 Horror Books to Read Before You're Murdered by Sadie Hartmann 

168 pages, Paperback
Published  August, 2023 by Page Street Publishing

*In January Sadie is returning to my podcast

Her first appearance was on this panel about favorite horror novels...

Sadie's first time on the pod, top horror novel panel

Sadie Hartmann was first on my radar as the trusted source of book recs on Twitter and Instagram for probably a decade now. While we don't always agree on books I always respect Sadie's opinion.  Even if I think being a horror fiction expert and not liking horror movies is a little strange.  This review will be shorter than my fiction reviews but I want to tell you how it can be helpful, and why if not on your shelf at least get it from the library.

One thing that was helpful for me about following Sadie online is that she gave me a window into some of the modern, and indie books that are hard to follow. I mean there are as many new indie horror authors as there are local bands out there. How do you find the gems?   Sure I don't need this book to tell who Alma Katsu and Paul Tremblay is, but I know I am also not the target audience. At the same time, it is fun to read the commentary.

Part of the fun is seeing the commentary that you agree with and disagree with. I think the dark bizarro arm of horror is largely missed. Important voices to me like Gina Ranali and Cody Goodfellow for two examples that I personally think should be on everyone's list. No project like this will have everything you are personally looking for. I mean I can't understand this book not having one Sarah Pinborough title, but considering how many new to me authors I found I can only split so many hairs.

Sadie did an amazing job and the best part she is working on something new. Author spotlights, essays, book reviews based on subgenres. This is a must-have for horror readers, make a list and make requests at your library or take it to the horror section at Barnes and Noble. It will help you find what you are looking for.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Book Review: Whalefall by Daniel Kraus

Whale Fall by Daniel Kraus

327 pages, Hardcover
Published August, 2023 by MTV Books

I am surprised more authors don’t admit to jealousy when they read a fantastic novel. For me, it is often a genius concept that makes me shake my head and think “What a lucky person” this writer is to explore this amazing concept. I think many writers had that reaction to this novel. A modern hard science horror novel retelling of Jonah in the Whale that uses the disconnecting way we as a culture dealt with death during the pandemic was nothing short of a stroke of genius. I knew it was genius when non-readers at my day job when hearing the concept would say “That should be a movie,” or “I would read that.”

The writer behind this strike of genius is a writer whose brain I got to pick once before.  Not everyone could be chosen by the Romero estate to finish the ultimate zombie novel he was writing when he died. That novel is filled with smart, bold, and inventive moments, so when I saw the concept of Whalefall I fully expected an amazing novel.

Then came the hype, blurbs from writers I trust Gabino Iglesias, Stephen Graham Jones, and outside of the unusual horror suspects Gillian Flynn. The readers that did beat me to it as I waited for my library hold, one after another heaping praise. The crime writer Daniel Vlasaty said he couldn’t put it down, and bizarro horror writer Grant Womack said simply amazing. On and on.

So the first question I have to answer. Is the hype real?  One hundred pages and I was hooked and having the same problem putting it down. Whalefall keeps you engaged and turning pages for a variety of reasons. As crazy as the set-up, Jay our hero's survival minute to minute is so impossible that shutting the book gets harder as the story goes. To make the book even more addicting Kraus uses a trick that I associate with action thriller writer David Morrell who mastered this technique. Short and powerful chapters that keep you thinking "I might as well read one more it is just a few pages." Next thing you know you read 50 more pages. Whalefall also uses parallel storytelling. Some crazy thing will happen in the present of the story and you will be on the edge of your seat, and get a chapter or two of backstory. The back story is emotionally rich and involving too. But even if you are less interested in the family drama, you want to read it just to get back the whale and present action.

The story of Whalefall follows Jay, who is just barely an adult, he has given himself an impossible task, find his father’s body after he went into the ocean to kill himself.  His father taught him to scuba dive but this mission is a crazy dive with little hope of working. What is crazier is he ends up getting swallowed alive by a giant whale. With oxygen tank and plenty of feelings of guilt over how he dealt with his father this becomes a tale of survival that I am surprised doesn’t get compared to Gravity. It has the structure of Gerald’s Game and the bleak survival aspects of Gravity or 127 Minutes.

The structure and pacing of the book is brisk. The chapters are generally short, but there are moments of character or description that show a real command of the form. You might think the flashbacks would drag down the pace of the whale story but it doesn’t do that ever. Interesting too, because it is one of the first books I read that kind of has the pandemic in the rearview mirror just a fact of time.  Daniel Kraus is an excellent writer, and beyond the high concept, he clearly researched the whale science and never cheated the concept.

So before we get into the details add my voice to the chorus of hype. Buy it, borrow it from a library, and spread the good word.  Whalefall is more than just survival horror, and family drama in not-so-subtle ways the book gives the reader a strong sense of the power, scope, and majesty of nature in the ocean.

A ship of gods for primordial tar, yard after yard of wrinkled black bulk, a farce of size displacing the entire ocean. There’s an Omega shape in phosphorescent white, and Jay’s stupor permits the dull understanding that this crescent is a mouth, twenty feet of closed mouth, and this obsidian skyscraper is no surfacing Atlantis. No colliding planet.
It is a living thing.”

Jay’s position inside the whale creates intense claustrophobia, moments of suspense and action but it is those moments when the reader is confronted by the power of nature that made this book special to me. Every scuba diver is kept alive with the equipment on their back gets a crash course in the power of the ocean, this novel puts you right there. Jay being in the belly of the beast, gets a lesson about the dangers the whale faces.  

These moments and all the tiny details sometimes based on science really sell the book. The action is not just propulsive but also well-written. It is a bit of a trick to imagine the inside of a whale, something Kraus does an amazing job of.

“A slam against the back of his skull, his body against the whale’s nose, a hard pop inside him, something broken. What feels like bottle caps grind into his left side, and when he rolls, he finds himself face to face with eggy pile of what look like eyeballs, except hard and sharp as rusty tin barnacles.”

Some of the most harrowing moments for me came when the whale was rising and lowering quickly in the ocean. The whale designed by evolution can handle but the change in pressure is deadly to humans, and unlike a submarine, the whale's stomach is not pressurized. This scene messed with me.

“A dull bang inside his right ear. Crackling sonic fire through his skull and hood. His right eardrum has exploded. Jay smiles, tastes the bitter cherry of collapsing lungs.
Everything’s fine.”

But Jay's inventiveness to try and survive was also neat. like when the whale grabbed a glowing squid to light his way...

“Jay’s left fist is a torch. Preposterous. Incredible.”

That is also a way to describe this novel. Preposterous. Incredible.  A preposterous concept so well executed it is Incredible. One of the best horror novels of the year, and this year has had some great stuff. This is an excellent example of high-concept action. This and Vertical by Cody Goodfellow were the worst tense action and survival stories I read in the year.   

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Radio drama/ Audio book Review: No Man's Land (Star Trek: Picard) by Kirsten Beyer and Mike Johnson

 No Man's Land (Star Trek: Picard) by Kirsten Beyer and Mike Johnson

Audible Audio, 2 hours

First published February, 2022

  Technically this was a radio drama, and as such my review will be short, as it is not my thing to  break down radio dramas. Set after the events of Picard Season one. (by the way as a person who has been calling for more Star Trek set in-universe with not Starfleet settings and characters I actually really liked Picard Season one).  The opening scene is a kinda touching flirty dialogue between Rafi and Seven.

 The performances were as good as you could expect, and it is awesome to hear Jeri Ryan and Michelle Hurd doing these scenes. As the story progresses there is some forced dialogue for the format, but it shows how controlled Jeri Ryan is as Seven. Fun little Fenris Ranger story, (my first reaction is I would consider giving up a toe to write Seven Fenris Ranger novels. Just saying Titan books.) I have learned since I listened to this that David Mack was given this job and his next Star Trek novel is exactly that. First in line.

Book Review: Maeve Fly by CJ Leede


Maeve Fly by CJ Leede

288 pages, Hardcover
Published June, 2023 by Tor Nightfire

Some books and movies become victims of marketing. First off you have a blurb from Tori Amos that goes on the freaking cover. No offense to Grady Hendrix or anyone else. I don’t think CJ Leede the author of this novel minds all the American Psycho comparions but EVERY single review compares these books because to the point that I had that book in my head constantly while reading it. I mean the dust jacket in the description straight up says “inspired by the pages of American Psycho, sales-wise it is a great strategy but for fucks sake Feminist Slasher should be enough to sell the book. So from here on on out we are not going to mention that other book.  We are here to talk about Maeve Fly.

So yes this novel is a feminist slasher whose antagonist whose name is the title of the book works as a Disney princess at Disney World. Her dying grandmother was a Hollywood star and Maeve is a perfect copy of her. It is an encounter with her best friend’s brother that awakens something in Maeve.

"Men have always been permitted in fiction and in life to simply be what they are, no matter how dark or terrifying that might be. But with a woman, we expect an answer, a reason."

If there is a mission statement in the book, and you know I look for those it is that last quote. Maeve Fly is a dark, surreal, bloody exploration of feminist motivations in the form of a slasher lens. There are plenty of ways to approach the stories of slashers – Dahmer is an example of a realistic look at the disconnected realistic disconnection that motivates real killers. Books like these use highly stylized and humorous misanthropy to create killers who express the types of rage we feel and never act on.

“I have tried the way of the misanthrope, the way of the deviant, the philosopher, the observer, the pretender. But there is one road I have not seriously considered walking down, and have not permitted myself to. Perhaps it is time.”

As such Maeve Fly will appeal to readers for the ways it commented on feminist rage, the daily frustrations of being a woman in this culture, and California life. I live in California so that last one provided many of my favorite moments of the book. Your mileage may vary depending on how much life in California is something you understand.

“There are many definitions of insanity in this world. One could argue that spooning a man’s eyeball out of the socket and performing carnal acts of religious desecration with it is insanity -we will revisit that later- perhaps you’d be right, but I argue that true insanity is driving in Los Angeles.”

These moments were my favorites of this novel, and I love it when authors comment on places where their novels take place. A couple of generations of readers know about Maine.  The other favorite moments came from the relationship between Maeve and Hilda the caretaker of her grandmother. That went somewhere I didn’t expect and challenged our ideas of our narrator.

Here is the thing. Maeve Fly is an interesting novel. I respect lots of things that it is doing, but I didn’t enjoy the experience enough. A book like this needed to make have uncomfortable laughs and I didn’t have a ton of those. Lots of authors I respect and Tori Amos blurbed this novel I know my local author friend Brian Asman LOVED this. I think most readers who like transgressive gory horror fiction will love this. I think this is a good novel that I didn’t connect with. I will however be first in line to see what CJ Leede does next.   

Monday, November 20, 2023

Book Review: The Last Action Heroes: The Triumphs, Flops, and Feuds of Hollywood's Kings of Carnage by Nick de Semlyen


The Last Action Heroes: The Triumphs, Flops, and Feuds of Hollywood's Kings of Carnage by Nick de Semlyen

352 pages, Hardcover
Published June, 2023 by Crown


This will be a short review as this is not the kind of book you come here to commentary on. Well I consider myself a pretty high-brow fan of all things speculative and dark literature I also love 80s action movies. I consider Commando the citizen cane of bad action movies. I have read Outlaw Vern's book on Steven Segal, and I have followed the behind-the-scenes articles, and commentaries about all these action stars so I didn't read this book.

Don't get me wrong Nick de Semlyen (whom I know from the Empire podcast) did his job. Most of the details were things I already knew. I knew that Chuck Norris's real name was Carlos but his friends stories of the early days were pretty cool, Van Damme's first stage name was Frank Cujo and the scope of Segal's derangement on the set of On Deadly Ground were the things I felt I learned for the first time. Seriously a biopic TV series about the making of On Deadly ground would be hilarious.

It is great to have all this history between the covers of one book, for that, I give this book five stars.

In the spirit of this book:
Ahhhnold- Commando
Sly - Rambo (IV)
Chuck - Invasion USA (just beat the Octagon)
Van Damme - Sudden Death
Segal - Marked for Death
Bruce Willis - Last Boy Scout
Jackie Chan- Supercop 3

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Book Review: The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Ann Older


The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Ann Older

169 pages, Hardcover
Published March, 2023 by Tordotcom

 Sometimes the concept of a novel is so good you marvel at the fact that it wasn't done before. The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Ann Older is  The first of a novel series of novels meant to invoke a cozy gaslamp mystery feeling.  In the  Holmes and Watson tradition, our detectives are two characters Mossa & Pleiti who have survived the ecological devastated earth to live in tightly packed platforms high in the atmosphere of a gas giant we assume is Jupiter but referred to through the book as Giant.

This is my second time reading Older and I really enjoyed the blend of social justice activism and near-future world-building of Infomocracy. That novel had more in common with political thrillers than the weird works of the Cyberpunks although the comparisons were out there. Think the Ryan Gosling movie Ides of March meets Leguin. It is part political and part spy thriller.  So yeah I am still four years later suggesting Infomocracy.

This novel which was born out of the isolation of the pandemic, is a great high concept that is not exactly for me. I am not a cozy gaslamp mystery reader but I highly respect the idea and execution. Someone who is Holmes-head (I don't know what they are actually called) would probably find lots of easter eggs and stylistic touches that are sailing over my head.

The mystery is cozy in the sense that the unexplained suicide of a character who didn't seem like he wanted to die is low-stakes. It is not the fate of the universe. There are details that set a Holmes-like mystery with facts that twist and turn the story.

The novel is written in first person from Mossa's point of view. I am rarely a fan of novels told in first person but the story was told well enough that I forgot about it. Unlike Ascension by Nicholas Binge it CONSTANTLY reminded me.

The thing that worked for me was the world-building that expressed the details of an ecological crisis and Earth's postmortem. Page 31 of this book is an info dump but it does an amazing job of answering the many questions the first thirty pages gave me. I liked the way you are through into the world and that was just the right amount of pages to leave the reader wondering.

"There had after all, been many species on earth, once.
Even the small subset of that number whose genetic information had been collected before they were driven out of existence,  and a smaller faction of those who had been resurrected for the Mauzooluem, still resulted in an extremely large panoply of species."

The setting provides a set of stakes and pressures that counterbalance the so-called "cozy" nature of the mystery. The world-building is so well done, subtle at times, intense at others but always handled with skill.  As a real-life Animal rights person I noticed a shout out to my peeps in this future.

"There were of course Animal rights activists who argued that the animals shouldn't  have been reconstituted to live in what is essentially captivity."

Mossa points out that few have taken up this view because that is what humans are dealing with. What is interesting to me about this is what this means for this mystery series. All the mystery cases will be a result of the characters essentially existing in captivity.

Mossa as a character has Holmes's careful considerable intelligence when he calls the academic Pleiti we get the idea that their partnership is more than the mystery. As curious as I was about them I admit I was also interested in the street preacher who only appears on page 46. I am probably the only reader who felt that way but I wanted to know his deal.

Mossa calls back to the street preacher in chapter 17 and that was the first time in a while I really thought about the first-person narrative. Really cool high-concept science fiction and an excellent translation of the concept.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Audiobook Review: Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov, William Dufris (Narrator)


 Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov, 

William Dufris (Narrator)

399 pages, Paperback
Published November, 1984 by Del Rey/Ballantine Books

 Literary awards: Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (1984), 

Locus Award Nominee for Best Science Fiction Novel (1984), 

Prix Cosmos 2000 (1985)

Series  Robot (#3), Robot, chronological order (#3), Greater Foundation Universe (#4)

My copy of Robots of Dawn has yellowed paper but I bought it brand new first edition paperback at Waldenbooks when I was too young to understand what I was reading for the most part. It sat on the shelf for a few years then. My first read of this trilogy (there is a fourth book that will come later)  was when I was in 8th grade if my memory serves me.

 Our understanding of Issac Asimov has changed as much as robotics have in the years since this trilogy started with Caves of Steel in 1954 and The Naked Sun in 57. Thanks to wonderful research most famously in Alec Nevala Lee's Fantastic must-read book Astounding, we have a warts and all history of Asimov who kept detailed notes on his own life. In the past, there was a lot of shoulder-shrugging about the heroes of Science Fiction who had some pretty ugly behavior. I remember Watching Harlan Ellison speak to a packed house at Worldcon he made a joke about another writer’s breasts and he paused for laughter and was met with disgusted silence. The community has changed dude,  and soon after a veil of silence was lifted we know some ugly things about Asimov. He groped women, made sexist comments, and was generally gross about using his stardom in the community.  It also appears before his death his behavior had gone away. Did he get it? I hope so.
 I like lots of art by problematic artists. For me, it is a case-by-case basis. I am not a fan of British SF writer Neal Asher’s right-leaning views, but I don’t mind that we don’t agree. Dan Simmons on the other hand crosses a line into racism. I have been turned off on his books. With Simmons and Crichton it began to affect the fiction in a way that I couldn't ignore.  I think what we have learned about Asimov affects this book more than most of his canon. Mostly I try to judge books on their own merits but as you’ll see it is hard in this case.

I have no idea if Asimov was planning a trilogy featuring Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw when he wrote the first book Caves of Steel, it is hard to say because it was decades between books two and three. To mirror that a bit I intended in 2019 to re-read this trilogy and The Naked Sun was one of my wildly too close to reality lockdown reads of 2020. I admit also that I listened to this novel on Audiobook. Something I normally reserve for tie-in novels.

That first book was a very character-driven spin on the detective noir that was augmented by the fantastic world-building. The world of the first book was Earth in the far future, although set in the same universe as the Foundation centuries before the events of that series. Part of the strength of the first book was the dynamic between Baley and Olivaw. One of the complaints about genre works from this era (the 50s) and Asimov, in general, is that he was more focused on the gee-whiz than the actual characters.

None the less The Naked Sun is an excellent sequel to Caves of Steel. Robots of Dawn is more complicated, written in the 1980s it serves a very important role in the Asimov canon. On the surface, it is the story of a Humaniform robot Jander that is “killed” on the colony world of Aurora. It is almost impossible to discuss without spoiling the ending. Caves and Naked Sun feel like they could be translated into exciting detective movies/ TV shows.

Robots of Dawn is talky book, and the tension comes mostly from interactions written by an admittedly awkward scientist writer who was not exactly known for his characters.  
Sometimes it works…

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ Is that it, Daneel?”
Daneel paused, then said, “I am not certain what is meant by the smell of a rose, but if a rose on Earth is the common flower that is called a rose on Aurora, and if by its ‘smell’ you mean a property that can be detected, sensed, or measured by human beings, then surely calling a rose by another sound-combination—and holding all else equal—would not affect the smell or any other of its intrinsic properties.”
“True. And yet changes in name do result in changes in perception where human beings are concerned.”
“I do not see why, Partner Elijah.”
“Because human beings are often illogical, Daneel. It is not an admirable characteristic.”

But often entire chapters are mucked up in which characters set up how impossible the mystery is. I admit as this was a re-read (well Audio) I knew the ending, and since it is the most interesting part that may have added to my annoyance with these conversations. This is when we get into the uncomfortable Asimov zone that has to do with the character Gladia Delmarre and her relationship with the victim Jander.

“Did they know that you had a robot husband?”
“I had a husband. Don’t call him a robot husband. There is no such expression.”

There is a lot of talk in the section about her needs sexually, this is where Asimov is clearly a man writing a woman, and it feels super icky. At some point in the 70s Asimov was accused of writing prude-ish sterile Science Fiction and considering how grown-up the new wave was writing it did make his books feel a little old-fashioned. Considering the new wave included voices from Malzberg to Joanna Russ, Asimov's lack of sexuality both in horny stuff and political gender stuff was noticeable. For readers anyway. Considering that mutton-chopped minor celebrity had at conventions a bad reputation for being all hands and horribly sexist maybe it was better he left it off the page.  In Robots of Dawn, it is not so much the plot, but the red herring and misdirection of the story.  As such it takes up many pages and all that stuff that made me cringe.

At the end of the sixties, most of Asimov’s publishing was non-fiction books, and he was constantly on National TV for moon shots but the reality was Asimov was in a 15-year Science Fiction drought. That ended when he released the excellent 1972 The God Themselves. This second part of that book is a reaction to Asimov being called him a prude, and there is tons of para-dimension sex just because. I know it sounds weird and it was. I also believe that Robots of Dawn is a reaction to the prude accusations. That is the kindest possible way to look at it, as there is another.

Asimov was very intent on making colony worlds like Solaria (in Naked Sun) and Aurora in Robots of Dawn have very different moral values from Earth where the human species was born. This is most glaring in how these societies view sexuality. There is a whole storyline involving incest and Galdia’s anger over being rejected sexually by her father.  The ick factor is bad no matter who wrote it but considering who wrote it adds an extra level.

Someone writing a  review who was not a part of the SF community probably wouldn’t devote so much attention to this minor aspect, but I can’t help it in this read.  There is one excellent scene where Bailey is trapped in the rain, which doesn’t sound like anything but for a person raised on earth his terror is really felt. From a pure storytelling perspective, this moment of terror from Bailey is one of the better individual scenes of Asimov’s canon.  It is one born purely of the world-building and character-meeting concept.

We also know famously that Foundation was an idea John W. Campbell handed A young Asimov, he wrote the first stories not even thinking of a novel, let alone a saga stretching multiple books. Asimov is dinged for not being able to write characters. Bailey and Olivaw are not exactly the most dynamic characters but they are memorable. Because Asimov started Foundation it really until the second book when The Mule is introduced that you get any sense of plotting at all. The Twist ending of Robots of Dawn is right in the title, which reminds me of Matherson’s  I Am Legend in that sense. Asimov hinted that these stories took place in the Foundation universe just centuries before. The twist is that this roboticide was committed as part of a plan to spread humanity through Humaniform colonies. This connects these robot novels directly to the Foundation series. 

That is one reason I think of this book as the end to the trilogy. The story is continued in Robots and Empire, but is that a Foundation book? I think it is.  Robots of Dawn is a book with ups and downs. There were moments I thought this was a 2-star book, but the ending makes up for a lot. It is impossible in 2023 to not read this any other way than the acknowledgment of creepy Issac. That makes the misdirection of the mystery really tough to read. It is talky, but it is the Science Fiction version of a locked door mystery that in the final act opens up to a wider universe.

As a novel Robots of Dawn shows the strengths of Asimov’s imagination while showing many of his weaknesses as a writer. Overall I think it is an important book in SF canon, as long as the reader can balance the context. I understand if readers might want to focus on writers of the past who were not as problematic, or not problematic at all. To me the books outlive the person and the behavior, the question is does Robots of Dawn highlight the problems with Asimov? It gets damn close, a writer who deserves the benefit of the doubt might not get the same critical to the uncomfortable sexuality. Robots of Dawn is interesting because I believe it is canon and a 3/5 star book at the same time. Important, at a few key moments great but not something I can’t fully get behind.