Review: ‘Kill Switch’ by Jonathan Maberry

killswitchKill Switch by Jonathan Maberry
St. Martin’s Griffin (April 2016)

If I laid out the entire plot of Kill Switch, the eighth book in Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series, it would read like a synopsis of four or five books in two or three different genres. Most times, that would be a recipe for disaster, but Maberry somehow keeps all the balls in the air for over 500 pages, resulting in a satisfying thrill ride of a book.

Because I feel like I should offer some kind of synopsis, I’ll boil it down like so: Ledger and his crack team of operatives uncover a massive machine of mysterious intent at a remote military base in Antarctica – i.e., another day at the office for these guys. But things begin to diverge far from the norm as a hidden city and some giant penguin-like creatures come into play. Agents throughout the Department of Military Sciences (Ledger’s home turf), as well as agents of the CIA, FBI and other organizations, begin blowing assignments and, in some cases, committing outright acts of betrayal and treason. Strange power outtages in major American cities cause confusion and result in tragedy. Carefully constructed security measures are breached, allowing digital information and dangerous laboratory specimens to fall into the wrong hands. We learn that H.P. Lovecraft’s stories may be more fact than fiction. Meanwhile, a new prophet is emerging in the Middle East, and a child genius who may not be entirely human is constructing something called a God Machine. Continue reading

Review: ‘The Blood Strand’ by Chris Ould

Blood Strand_UK_cvrThe Blood Strand by Chris Ould
Titan Books (February 2016)

Chris Ould’s The Blood Strand is a solid start to a promised trilogy of novels set in the Faroes islands, a small, isolated community that’s just as complicated – and captivating – as the novel’s characters.

British police detective Jan Reyna was taken from the Faroes by his mother when he was just a child, and he’s never known why. Reyna returns when his estranged father falls ill, only to find his father has been implicated in a murder investigation. Evidence from that case points to blackmail, and the entire sordid affair begins to turn back in ever-tightening circles to include more members of Reyna’s family. Continue reading

Review: ‘Hap and Leonard’ by Joe R. Lansdale

hapandleonardHap and Leonard by Joe R. Lansdale
Tachyon Publications (March 2016)

After nine novels and a number of short stories and novellas, sitting down with a new Hap and Leonard book is less like reading and more like meeting up with a couple of buddies to have a drink and swap some stories. That’s just about the highest compliment I know how to pay author Joe R. Lansdale, who has created a set of timeless characters who seem to live and breathe outside of his own considerable imagination.
Continue reading

Review: ‘Obsidian Heart Book Two: The Society of Blood’ by Mark Morris

Obsidian Heart Book Two: The Society of Blood by Mark Morris
Titan Books (October 2015)

societyofbloodMark Morris continues his time-travelling, genre-smashing Obsidian Heart trilogy with The Society of Blood. Like any good trilogy middle child, Society is unencumbered by the need to set up plot points or tie up storylines; instead, it can simply take what’s been put into place and run wild until it’s thoroughly exhausted. And run wild it does, taking readers on a trip from Victorian times back to the modern world, with a plethora of ghastly murders, surreal villains and plot twists along the way. Continue reading

2015: The Year in Reading

ParadiseSkyIn my 2014 reading recap, I discussed how a number of familiar names dominated that year’s Top Ten, and I predicted that several of those names would resurface in 2015 – names like Joe Lansdale, Ace Atkins and Stephen King. Well, not only did that prediction come true, but I’m making a similar prediction for 2016. Lansdale has both a Hap and Leonard novel and a Hap and Leonard short story collection on deck; King has the finale of his Bill Hodges trilogy ready to go; and Atkins will once again favor us with new entries in his Quinn Colson series and his continuation of Robert Parker’s Spenser series. Don’t be shocked if some (or all) of those titles make the Top Ten for 2016. Continue reading

Review: ‘Fender Lizards’ by Joe R. Lansdale

Fender Lizards by Joe R. Lansdale
Subterranean Press (November 2015)

Fender_Lizards_by_Joe_R._LansdaleYou might not expect a guy who writes unflinching horror to also write rawly accurate coming-of-age stories.

You might not expect a guy who writes convincingly about a duo of hard-hitting, blue collar do-gooders to also write convincingly about a small-town girl looking for direction in a directionless life.

If that’s the case, you might not be familiar with Joe R. Lansdale.

Lansdale writes about all of the above, and more. But this isn’t a career retrospective of one of my favorite writers, it’s a review. The book we’re looking at is the one I mentioned about the small-town girl looking for direction in a directionless life. It’s called Fender Lizards, it was recently released by Subterranean Press, and it’s damn good.

Dorothy “Dot” Sherman is a seventeen-year-old Fender Lizard, which is to say she’s a roller-skating waitress at a local diner called the Dairy Bob. Her father took off years ago – a classic case of “gone to get a pack of cigarettes and never came back” – and she’s living in a small trailer with a fairly large group of people. Her family has added a new member, an uncle she never knew she had named Elbert. Elbert has parked his van in their front yard and is living out of it, trying to connect with his brother’s family.

In fact, it seems like everyone in Fender Lizards trying to make some kind of connection – some with other people, and some with life itself. Elbert’s sudden appearance is just one of a handful of sparks jolting Lansdale’s richly-drawn cast out characters out of their stupors. There’s also a new suitor for Dot; an escape from an abusive husband for Dot’s sister, Raylynn; and a travelling roller derby for Dot and her fellow Lizards from the Dairy Bob. Lansdale lays out these various threads and developments just as natural as you please, and it’s a delight watching these people all realize that there really is something out there for each of them to strive for.

I could go on for days about Lansdale’s natural storytelling ability, in particular his exceptional ear for dialogue. But perhaps his most amazing achievement in this particular book is his ability to write a teenage girl that is not only recognizable as a vintage Lansdale character, but is also recognizable as, well, a teenage girl. Dot is not a caricature; she is a fully realized person, a young woman with a bit of a short fuse and a sassy mouth; a girl who can get her feelings hurt, who can be a bit jaded sometimes, but who hasn’t completely lost the ability to dream of something different, something better. There’s hope in her, and it’s something she shares with everyone around her.

Fender Lizards is a relatively short novel, and Lansdale doesn’t attempt to put a neat bow around everything, which is refreshing. We come into Dot’s life at a certain point and we leave at a certain point, and at that point some things have changed and some things are still up in the air. I’d like to know more, and perhaps Lansdale will revisit Dot and her friends and family one day; but if not, I’m happy with the time I got to spend with them. I think you will be, too.

Review: ‘Voices of the Damned’ by Barbie Wilde

Voices of the Damned by Barbie Wilde
Short, Scary Tales Publications (October 2015)

VotD-FRONT-CVRBarbie Wilde cemented her genre credentials way back in 1988 when she appeared as the Female Cenobite in Hellbound: Hellraiser II. Her career since then has bounced between music, television hosting, and writing. Voices of the Damned is her first short story collection, and, much like her resume, it’s an eclectic and varied journey with deep roots in the imagination of Clive Barker.

The centerpiece of the collection is “The Cilicium Trilogy,” three stories that breathe further life into the Cenobite Wilde portrayed on film. Part one, “Sister Cilice,” tells of a nun with some rather unwholesome fantasies about a priest who serves her convent. She seeks refuge in the bowels of the convent’s library, hoping to bury her true feelings beneath a mountain of research. She discovers documentation of something called The Order of the Gash, and soon opens a portal that brings her face-to-face with some familiar demons who specialize in combining pleasure and pain. And when they can’t break her, they decide to recruit her instead…

This leads to the second story of the trilogy, “The Cilicium Pandoric.” The nun is now a first level Cenobite, but she’s yet to conquer the bored and restless nature established in the first story. She travels back to the human realm to visit a man known as the Toymaker – he
specializes in puzzle boxes – and asks for a device that will help her create a new female order in Hell. This brings us to the trilogy’s concluding chapter, “The Cilicium Rebellion,” in which Sister Cilice leads an all-star team of of sorts in her quest for control.

Wilde is clearly heavily influenced by, and having a ball playing in, the world Clive Barker created in his novella “The Hellbound Heart.” Her stories share the ideas that Barker examines in so much of his fiction: the co-mingling of pleasure and pain to create sensations to sate even the deepest, most depraved appetites; the desire to break free of normal boundaries to become something more, something better; the reality that a bargain isn’t always a bargain, and that you may not get what you want, but you’re sure to get what’s coming to you.

As companion pieces to Barker’s unique vision of Hell, the stories in “The Cilicium Trilogy” work well enough. But, to be honest, I think the most fun to be had in this collection is when Wilde roams outside Barker’s ranks and follows her own distinct muse. My favorite example is “Zulu Zombies,” in which a guy doing a terrible job of looking after a family heirloom sets off a horrific series of events. Also good is “Writer’s Block,” in which an author whose muse has fled him tries to recharge at a local horror convention. A sordid tryst with a witch and the Devil himself promises great results for the writer…but we all know how deals with the Devil usually turn out.

Voices of the Damned is the work of a fearless artist who is still trying to lock down her own voice. Readers checking out this first step on the path will find that it’s a bit uneven at times, with some rocky stretches along the way, but definitely worth the time in the end.