Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Book Review: She Said Destroy by Nadia Bulkin

She Said Destroy by Nadia Bulkin

Paperback, 258 pages

Published August 2017 by Word Horde

I first noticed Nadia Balkin with her stand-out story in A World Of Horror edited by Eric J Guignard which Anthony and I reviewed on youtube, and we were both impressed by Balkin's story. You can listen to that review here:

I read stand-out stories in anthologies all the time but that is not the reason I ran to Amazon to order this collection. It was the fact that she was published by Word Horde and given the publication by Word Horde editor Ross Lockhart whose opinion I trust, I decided I had to read this. I am super glad I did.

Nadia Bulkin is a writer with massive talent and finely honed skills. Her stories are perfectly tuned and there is hardly a wasted word. The last short story collection I read and reviewed was the newest from Brian Evenson who I consider to be one of the best writers alive. This might sound like hyperbole for an author with a first collection but hot damn she is that good, very close to that level.

The stories are all weird fiction the levels of horror and Lovecraftian-ness vary at times but they are worth reading. Like any collection, I had favorites and stand-outs. Since Bulkin spent a good part of her childhood in Indonesia this influences many of her stories in a positive way. The opening story Intertropical Convergence Zone was a stand-out in this regard. This dark tale of a third world General is a great example of a story that only THIS writer could've written. Those to me are the best short stories that tend rise above the rest.

Another favorite for me was Only Unity Saves the Damned. This is a very weird story about teens hoping to go viral with a prank video that accidentally catches something unexplainable. The story Girl, I Love You was a very haunting tale that touched me the most on an emotional level. I also liked the cosmic nature and big ideas of the last story No Gods, No Masters. There was a beautiful paragraph in that story that highlighted how Balkin balances weird and beautiful.

This is a must read that I can't recommend enough. I really want to read a longer work by Bulkin and I hope a novel is in our future.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Book Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Hardcover, 531 pages

Published September 2013 by Scribner

Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel (2013)

Locus Award Nominee for Best Fantasy Novel (2014)

ITW Thriller Award Nominee for Best Hardcover Novel (2014)

Audie Award for Fiction (2014)

Goodreads Choice Award for Horror (2013)

This is Horror Award for Novel (2013)

Well, I reviewed this novel the year it came out and it is tempting to go back and look at what I said, but I am not going to do that. My first experience with this book was listening to an audiobook. At the time that was the quickest way to get it from the library, and I couldn't afford to drop $30 bucks. This experience might have put me off audio books forever as I retained very little of the story.

This time I read the paperback in the most ideal of situations. A flight from Indiana to San Diego. This meant despite the 640 pages of mass market paperback I was able to digest the first half of this massive book in one sitting stuffed next to a snoring married couple on a southwest airlines plane.

I have been hit or miss with Stephen King. I am a huge fan of the person and the industry that is Stephen King. I have massive respect for him, but I am not the biggest fan of his novels in this century. Most of my favorites include The Dead Zone, The Shining and The Stand. I have liked some of his 21st-century output like Bag of Bones and most of all I loved his four novella collection Full Dark No stars. That said many of the last few novels like The Outsider just didn't work for me. As brilliant as King is he can't put out that many books without a few stinkers.

That said Doctor Sleep to me is his best work since this century took over. The stakes have not been this high for King since early in his career with exception of maybe The Dark Tower sequels. SK has been aware that many of his readers would buy the phone book if his name was on it. There has not been much fall-out for the books that were less well received. Being that he was writing a sequel to one of his most beloved books The Shining after decades it was quite a risk. No one would be surprised if he didn't do it and when the rumors slipped out that he was working on it the excitement level was huge.

I am not sure everyone felt that Doctor Sleep was a worthy sequel or a good answer to what became of Dan Torrance after surviving the events of the book. I for one thought it was perfect. On the surface, The Shining is a Haunted House novel but it is equally about alcoholism. Doctor Sleep is a worthy sequel because it is on the surface it is a monster novel but it is equally about recovery. The parallels to the author's life are obvious and the key to what makes this novel a powerful and logical follow up.

There are almost two novels here and it is possible that SK could have split this into a trilogy. The first half is a creepy but subtle tale of Dan's recovery and follows him working as an orderly at a hospice. There are excellent and heartbreaking moments where Dan reaches rock bottom and then we see him use his shine to comfort the dying. Some of these moments are the most affecting of the novel. I really felt for the characters who at the end of a long life get visits from a cat (who always knows when someone is about to die) and provides Dan the knowledge to help the dying to Sleep. To me, this could've been a novel itself.

The second half is where the monsters get involved. Dan connects with a young woman strong in the shine. He fulfills his promise to Dick Holleran to return the favor of mentoring a young person with the shine. She has accidentally caught the attention of a tribe of monsters who steal the "steam" or lifeforce of those with the shine to never die and stay young. While this part was not as powerful to me I enjoyed every page of it. It was also more connected to the events or at least the locations of the Shining and thus made this novel really work.

With the release of the Doctor Sleep Trailer (I saw it when I was 435 pages into it), there were are many "hot" takes. Most of which I found interesting but disagreed with. Many SK Constant readers seem to object that the movie is a sequel to the Kubrick movie and not the book. I think this is silly. The King novel is the sequel to the novel. It makes creative and commercial sense to make the film a sequel to the film. Keep in mind I prefer the novel, and actually think the Kubrick movie is over-rated. None the less I would do the same if I was making a Doctor Sleep movie.

I saw a tweet that said this was insulting to King and his readers. Really? Come on. That is as silly to me as the tweet I saw saying director Mike Flanagan was brave for connecting it to the film? What? Nothing brave about making the smartest commercial decsion. I listened to the director on a Q and A and he said they had to go with the end of the film. SK approved Flanagan going with sequelizing the movie it appears.

Doctor Sleep is a true masterpiece as a stand-alone novel, and as a sequel. I think it is the best novel SK has done in decades.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Book Review:Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson

Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson

Paperback, 240 pages

Expected publication: June 11th 2019 by Coffee House Press

Maybe this is not the most appropriate time to write an elegy for a writer but hear me out. I know we have lots and lots of years left of Brian Evenson stories but last week we lost Dennis Etchison. If you are not familiar with Dennis he was a writer who despite a few novels, screenplays, and radio dramas was an absolute master of short horror fiction. As a short story writer few reached the level of balancing creepy, delusional and paranoid scares that Dennis Etchison did with 10 or so pages. All with a level of literary prose that is equal to the strength of writers in any genre.

This collection like Evenson’s last "A Collapse of Horses" gives me that same feeling that Dennis did. There is rare company at this level of quality. Song for the Unraveling of the World is a truly and deeply amazing collection of horror that has every right to be shelved in the same section of the bookstore as Clive Barker and David Foster Wallace, Ursula Leguin and Louise Erdrich. He is that freaking good.

This book features just over a dozen short stories, there are certainly a few that stand out as stronger than others but there are no stinkers in the bunch. Not every collection can boast like that. If forced to explain what makes this collection different from his Collapse of Horses (which has my favorite Evenson story "Any Corpse")it is the the surreal nature of the stories. Evenson is always weird but in this collection he is using words to warp reality on almost every page. Sometimes it is subtle, other times it is jaw dropping, but always done with beautiful razor sharp prose.

My favorite stories in this collection play with themes of false skin and go closer to more straight forward sci-fi by going into space. The Story "Smear" is a fantastic sci-fi horror story that has one of the most subtle yet scary monsters I can recall. The monster was just a feeling, fleeting something just beyond sight, but goddamn did it creep me out. "The Lord of Vats" might be my absolute favorite this super PKD style sci-fi story is one of the coolest and creepy takes on hypersleep I have ever read. In the short page count this story explores what is reality?, what is human? All that and it has a great reversal.

On the straight horror side I loved "Sisters", "The Tower", the title story and the entry from the Lost Films Anthology "Lather of Flies." Sisters is a great Halloween story but don't mistake that for a traditional horror story. I struggle with even trying to describe that one. The Tower is a cool post apocalyptic story, and the title story has some of the most unsettling moments of character paranoia and delusion in a book filled with that feeling.

Evenson has quickly become one of my favorite working authors, and his work is a must read, I mean all of it. I read a few of these before they were collected. There is something about reading Evenson stories collected. I hang on every word, each story is strong. If you are not reading Evenson you are missing one of the best weird fiction voices.

Thank you Coffee House Press for giving me an arc, keep your eyes peeled for Brian Returning to the Dickheads Podcast, in the mean time you can look up the interview we did with him about his fantastic novella The Warren.

Book Review: Soft Invasions by James Reich

Soft Invasions by James Reich

Paperback, 150 pages

Published December 2017 by Anti-Oedipus Press

I read my first James Reich novel earlier this year shortly after recording a bonus episode of The Dickheads podcast with him about Barry Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo, a book we both love. I was not super familiar with JR’s work before that point. His novel The Song My Enemies Sing quickly became one of my top reads of the year. This book had been on my radar since it came out as I always thought it sounded incredible.

The back of the book calls for it to be marketed as “Literary Fiction” and rightfully so. It is so much more than that in fact I would consider it to be alternate history, paranoid multi-verse science fiction with hints of horror in all the other super weird moments. Meta-old timey Hollywood mixes with counterfactual Japanese bombing air raids of California, UFO abductions and the battle of the Midway.

In 140 short pages of elegantly surreal prose James Reich gets wibbley wobbly with space-time and reality and creates a one of a kind reading experience. It is perfect for anyone looking for something that gets on the level of weird that PKD and Malzberg reached when they chained them selves to their typewriters in the 60’s and 70’s and pumped out dozens upon dozens of mindfucks wrapped in pulp covers.

Sure it is literary fiction but lets be clear PKD always was lit fiction long before the establishment pulled their head out of their asses and realized it was more than JUST sci-fi. This book is Science Fiction, Horror and psychedelic mind-fuckery strained through straight up beautiful prose. Hyperbole aside James Reich is great. The story has multiple characters and the narrative goes back and forth between times and realities. Readers who want everything to make easy sense, and have everything explained perfectly should keep looking for another book. I always trusted that Reich knew what he was doing.

We mostly follow Max McKinney, his wife Joan and his son George. But we also get to know Hollywood screenwriter Sid Starr. George is at war, Max is a psychoanalyst whose many patients are feeding drama to Sidd. Along the way reality comes down and the war comes home. Some of the chapters about the Japanese planes over Los Angeles were as haunting as anything I read this year. With perfectly executed sentences Reich reached almost mystical level of unreality that left this reader wonderfully stunned. I am sure there were elements and levels working in this novel that flew over my head but damn it was great. I would read this again for sure.

I loved this book. Sign me up for anything James Reich wants to gift to this reality.

Book Review: Star Wars: Master and Apprentice by Claudia Gray

Star Wars: Master and Apprentice by Claudia Gray

Hardcover, 352 pages

Published April 18th 2019 by Del Rey

Who follows up reading and reviewing Laird Barron a master literary crime fiction writer with a Star Wars novel? Apparently this guy does. Well honestly it was just timing with what came in at the library on my hold shelf but it was a fun escape after a dark read.

Claudia Gray has become one of the best things happening to Star Wars in the last couple years. Don’t get me wrong I am not a hater, actually I loved Last Jedi enough to buy a hat so I could give it props constantly. That is besides the point. Gray has written several good Star Wars novels the best being Bloodline an excellent gap filler between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. For Lost Stars it is the epic saga spanning story in universe re-telling of Romeo and Juliet. (If that sounds terrible it is not trust me)

The folks at Lucasfilm clearly know what they have on their hands and I don’t think how this novel happened is a mystery. Gray wrote an excellent short story that explored Qui-gon Jinn and Obi-wan’s friendship after his death and against the back drop of A New Hope before. This was in the cool anthology From a Certain Point of View. It was the highlight of the anthology and at the time I said it was the best in the collection and I hoped Gray would get a chance to write those characters. I wasn't alone in that hope.

Here we are.

It was not as good as some of Gray’s other SW novels and felt like it lacked the scope of those. Here is the thing. This woman set the bar for herself really, really high. I did enjoy this novel and it had a very strange affect on me. It made kinda want to watch Phantom Menace. That was an odd feeling I am not used too. In that sense this was also a nice 20th anniversary gift for fans.

The story centers around a mission that Jinn and Kenobi are sent on involving a hyperspace tunnel and the debate between governments. Rebels have attacked this government run by a former Jedi and friend of Jinn. This old Jedi is keeping the throne warm while the Princess gets old enough to take over.

There is political this and that, battles and light sabers. Everything you need but it is the little character moments between Jinn and Obi-wan that are really fun. Even Yoda and Count Dooku get in the action. It doesn’t add a ton to the canon but it is fun read for serious SW nerds. If you have not read Gray’s SW I would star with Bloodline and then Lost Stars before this but if you love Obi-wan like I do you couldn’t miss it.

Book Review: Black Mountain (Isaiah Coleridge #2) by Laird Barron

Black Mountain (Isaiah Coleridge #2) by Laird Barron

Hardcover, 320 pages

Published May 7th 2019 by G.P. Putnam's Sons

In the wake of True Detective there was a rush of readers and interest in the various influences Nic Pizzolatto drew from in that first season. One of those influences was the often stunning cosmic horror of Alaskan ex-pat Laird Barron. Know in his early years for writing some of the most dread filled short stories in the weird lit field Barron is a house hold name in the horror lit world.

We didn’t need internet articles pointing us to these so called hidden gems that inspired the tone if not the story of True Detective. Look I like weird brooding cosmic horor Laird Barron as much as the next horror reader, but it is his last two novels that really spoke to me.

Black Mountain is the second in a series featuring ex-hitman Isiah Coleridge who is forced to leave Alaska and the Mob. Now serving as private detective we have Coleridge returning as the same interesting character in pleasantly different feeling book. The second book does not feel like a rehash that is perhaps the best news.

Let me go deeper on why that news will be music to the ears of Laird Barron’s readers. The dark tone and plot of this novel shows more of that super dark tone we all know Barron is capable of, while still delivering a fun crime read. Even as the story goes darker, a brutal serial killer that appears to be targeting mob killers is weird enough. Mix it with the fun sarcastic almost Elmore Leonard style dialogue and you have a great combo.

The serial killer part of the story certainly would have worked in its own novel even with a dark SEVEN like feel. Coleridge investigating the killer known as the Croatoan is interesting enough for a novel alone, this killer was thought to be dead long ago. But Coleridge and his attempts to leave violence behind is equally compelling and that is where the fun comes in.

Barron blends in a variety of influences that you don’t notice in the moment, but after you close the book it stays with you. That is when you smile thinking about the last pages feeling like Ellroy or Chandler. That is great, and plenty of writers do that, but how many can get a Harlan Ellison or Thomas Liggoti feel into that mix? Not many. I love reading a novel and getting a feeling for what their book shelves look like. That is a compliment even if some might not see it that way.

The first book Blood Standard took me by surprise a bit more, but that is to me expected when a author takes a big turn. Both these books are solid entries in a series that will have me locked in.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Book Review: 48 by James Herbert

48 by James Herbert

Hardcover, 336 pages

Published November 1996 by HarperCollins

I discovered this novel while doing research for the Man in the High Castle episode of The Dickheads podcast. I saw this on a list of WW II alternate history novels. The concept won me right away. What if Hitler in a last desperate act took down England by launching a biological attack. This novel is about the survivors.

Herbert did his research but much of what takes up the novel is a survival tale. I like those but what interested me in the concept was the twisting of history. There is surprisingly less counterfactual history than I expected. Much of the action takes place following an American pilot and an German ex-POW who have to work together to survive in the wasteland of a mostly devastated Britain. The only survivors are the ones with a rare blood type and the Black shirt British fascists are trying to capture them.

I know James Herbert is considered one of the greatest authors of 20th century British horror. For me every time I read one of his books I have the same experience. I read the back cover and think to myself "Wow what a concept." I never enjoy the novels as much as I think I will. One problem I have with the style of writing Herbert uses. It maybe personal for me but Herbert goes pages and pages without any dialogue. All action that to me needed to be broken up with short lines of dialogue, or even just a short sentence. The long blocks of texts becomes hard on the eyes. Maybe it is just me.

To this day I think Domain Herbert's post nuclear war novel about the people who survive a nuke attack on London by going in the Tube tunnels and end up in a battle with radiation poisoned super rats is the bleakest concept for a novel ever. Not sure the resulting novel is as good. I love the concept of this novel, but I only liked the execution.

I also tend not to prefer first person narrative, and here is an example where there were lots of rich characters that in a multiple POV book would have made for interesting character dynamics. Our Point of view character is interesting enough but to sustain all the inner dialogue I thought we missed out because of the format. The action seems to be more fitting for a film and takes up much of the word count. The back story of the Blackshirts - the British fascists is an example of stuff that could have been more deeply explored but hey it was not bad. Solidly three out of five stars. It could could have been more.