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

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: ‘Charlotte’s Story’ by Laura Benedict

Charlotte’s Story by Laura Benedict
Pegasus (October 2015)

CharlotteCoverDeath comes easy in Bliss House, and it lingers.

Laura Benedict established Bliss House (an old country retreat built back in 1878) and its mysterious past in her 2014 novel of the same name. Charlotte’s Story is the follow-up, a ghost story set in 1957 against a backdrop of idealism personified by the pursuit of the American Dream and the Nuclear Family.

Charlotte Bliss recently married into the Bliss family. She and her husband, Preston, along with their children Eva and Michael, have become the sole occupants of the rambling Bliss House upon the death of Preston’s mother, Olivia. It should be a time for happiness for Charlotte, albeit one tinged with sadness over the loss of her mother-in-law. But tragedy strikes quick and it strikes often in this house, and the accidental death of one of her children follows close on the heels of Olivia’s passing. There are other deaths in quick succession, and while each has a relatively simple and believable explanation, Charlotte can’t shake the feeling that there’s something more going on. Something sinister. Something that may be manifesting itself in and around the house in increasingly frightening and dangerous ways.

Charlotte’s Story is a difficult book to categorize because it does several things well. It’s a compelling and suspenseful mystery; it’s a tense and powerful ghost story; and it’s a touching family drama. Benedict creates characters that are worth caring for, and then gives you plenty of reasons to fear for them. She also proves more than adept at providing lush, evocative descriptions without losing the momentum of the story.

Don’t let that soft-focus, Lifetime-movie looking cover dissuade you – Charlotte’s Story has teeth. Lovers of a good old-fashioned ghost story well find it well worth their time.

Review: ‘The Stephen King Companion: Four Decades of Fear from the Master of Horror” by George Beahm

The Stephen King Companion: Four Decades of Fear from the Master of Horror
by George Beahm 

St. Martin’s Griffin (October 2015)

SKCompanionEven when confronted with the sheer bulk of The Stephen King Companion: Four Decades of Fear from the Master of Horror – over 600 pages, enough to rival several of King’s own doorstop novels – I went into it thinking, “There’s not going to be much here I don’t know already.”

That’s not to say I consider myself a King expert. A huge fan, yes, but expert? I reserve that term for folks like George Beahm, author of this book and its preceding editions, along with contributors like Michael Collings and the late Rocky Wood and my Cemetery Dance comrade Bev Vincent. But my “relationship” with King stretches back into the early 1980s, and in that 30- odd year stretch I’ve read all of his fiction and tons of interviews; I’ve plumbed the depths of YouTube for every speaking engagement, reading and Q&A I could find; and I’ve watched clips of every talk show appearance and news profile I could get my hands on. Through it all I’ve gotten pretty good at seeing the patterns, at knowing how he’s going to ask certain questions, at recognizing the anecdotes he often falls back on when asked a question for the hundredth, thousandth, possibly millionth time. I know the themes he likes to write about, and the phrases that pop up from time to time like old friends.

But…expert? Nah. Overly familiar? That’s more like it. However, during a few days of cherry-picking my way through this massive new volume, I found myself repeatedly surprised by the new tidbits and new insights Beahm and his cohorts are able to present.

So. Surprising. Informative. Let me add “immensely readable” to my list of compliments. The way this book is organized plays a big part in its readability. It would have been easy to do a section on the novels and collections, another on the movies, another on limited editions, and so on – easy, and perfectly acceptable. Instead, Beahm has organized a sort of rambling travelogue through King’s career. The high points are all there, of course, but Beahm knows just when to take a side-trip away from the major works and into other, related territories.

For example, after a chapter on The Stand, the last novel published through Doubleday, we get a quick look at Cemetery Dance’s limited editions of the Doubleday books, a bit on the Bachman books, and then an examination of King’s jump from Doubleday to New American Library. Reading about that move in its proper place on the King Career Timeline really helps put it into context, and is much more effective than having an article on all his different publishers at the end of the book.

There are plenty of similarly interesting asides throughout the book: an interview with King’s main research assistant; looks at the artists who have collaborated with King throughout his career (including Glenn Chadbourne and Michael Whelan, both of whom contributed to the Companion); and, one of my favorites, an essay by author/King scholar Kevin Quigley on meeting King, which is one of the most painfully honest and (sorry Kevin) amusing accounts of fan boy vapor lock you’re likely to read.

I could go on and on, but you get the gist. This is an immersive volume of information and insight, written with care, respect and unabashed love for the subject matter. If you’re the type of Constant Reader with a shelf, a bookcase, or a whole room devoted to Stephen King, you’re going to want to find a spot for The Stephen King Companion.