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: ‘The River of Souls’ by Robert McCammon

RiverSoulsWith The River of SoulsRobert McCammon‘s historical thriller series rolls into its fifth volume with a full head of steam. Matthew Corbett, the problem-solving star of the series, is still recovering from the events of the previous book, The Providence Rider, in which he encountered his arch nemesis, the nefarious Professor Fell. The encounter left Corbett reeling, and his employers urge him to take a cupcake assignment in nearby Charles Town as a way to further his recuperation.

The assignment – the escorting of a young woman to a ritzy ball – proves to be the opposite of restful. Corbett’s date with Pandora Prisskitt puts him in the crosshairs of Prisskitt’s hopeful suitor, a mountain of a man named Magnus Muldoon. Muldoon has already buried a couple of young gentlemen in pursuit of Prisskitt’s hand, and he promptly crashes the ball and challenges Corbett to a duel. Muldoon has an expansive physical advantage, but Corbett lives largely on his wits, and quickly hits on an unlikely solution to his predicament.

This encounter results in an uneasy partnership between Corbett and Muldoon, and the duo soon find themselves swept up in events far more serious than the pursuit of a vapid debutante. A 16-year-old girl from a nearby plantation has been murdered, and three slaves accused of involvement in her killing have gone on the run. A large mob, spurred by the promise of a plentiful reward, has set out in pursuit of the three men, but Corbett learns a few facts about the crime that lead him to believe the real murderer may be hiding among them in plain sight. Determined to see that true justice is served, Corbett and Muldoon join the search, a frantic journey that carries them down a treacherous river known locally as “The River of Souls.”

Being this deep into the series means McCammon can spend less time establishing the world and era the Corbett books are set in, and that freedom results in the leanest Corbett novel yet. The novel is basically one long chase, anchored by a dangerous run down the river that is one of the tensest, bloodiest, most action-packed sequences McCammon has ever pulled off. Alligators, Indians, deranged tribesmen painted like glowing skeletons – the search for the three runaways is as dark and dangerous as anything Corbett has ever faced, and McCammon takes some real chances with the character’s ultimate fate. While the main story is resolved, The River of Souls ends on a cliffhanger that’s going to make the wait for the next book interminable at best.

Although each of the Corbett books is richer for having read the ones before it, McCammon is careful to make them accessible on their own, and The River of Souls is no exception. Even with several callbacks to Speaks the Nightbird, the first Corbett book, this latest entry is accessible enough for first-time fans to get a taste of what the series is all about without being completely lost.

Book Review: ‘The Maid’s Version’ by Daniel Woodrell

MaidVersionOn a quiet night in 1929, in the small town of West Table, Missouri, an explosion ripped through the local dance hall. 42 people died, and although a handful of people were suspected, nobody was charged.

But lots of people paid, and paid dearly.

It’s the aftermath of the explosion, rather than the event itself, that is the center of Daniel Woodrell’s new novel The Maid’s Version. The maid in question is Alma DeGeer Dunahew, and she has a theory on who caused the explosion and why. Her son doesn’t want to hear about, think about it or talk about it, but in her grandson she finds a willing audience. It’s not until a strange visitation at a memorial to the explosion that the boy’s father relents: “Tell it. Go on and tell it.”

What follow is an economical, lyrical tale of small-town secrets and hidden desires. This is not a piece of brightly polished nostalgia – this is a story about a town caught in the Depression, with many of its residents struggling to eke out an existance that’s hardscrabble at best. Woodrell does not shy away from the ugliness of such meager
living. He shows us kids that are thrilled to get a piece of pie with just a bite or two taken out of it that their mom rescues from the leavings of the dinner party she worked; he shows us a boy who lives on the floor of the family shack, his life bleeding out in rattling, gasping breaths because proper medicine isn’t affordable.

But it’s not all ugliness – there’s beauty, too, much of it found in Woodrell’s prose. The author is a natural storyteller, but he’s also a seasoned and exquisite writer. There are passages, sentences and turns of phrase that catch your attention, flag you down and invite you to just stop and stare for a minute. This may sound like he’s breaking one of the cardinal rules of fiction, pulling you out of the story and reminding you that,hey, there’s a WRITER sweating his ass off to bring you all this goodness, but it’s okay. Like pulling over during a long drive to take in the view, these occasional intrusions are worth the interruption.

Some of my favorite bits are the brief interludes in which Woodrell takes a page or two to talk about various victims of the explosion. These brief passages put names and faces to the tragedy so that it becomes more than a mere plot device to move the story forward. In these quick chapters, Woodrell creates characters more realistic than many writers manage to pull of in entire novels.

The Maid’s Version is the author’s first novel in seven years, and it’s a welcome return. Spare in length but abundantly rewarding, it’s further proof that Woodrell is one of the finest writers working today.

Vincent’s new Dark Tower book is a worthy ‘Companion’

DTtradeCoverBev Vincent had a double-tough job in front of him when tackling the writing of The Dark Tower Companion. He had to find compelling new material that would be of value to readers who’ve been reading and studying the series for years, and who’ve had already had access to a comprehensive guidebook in Robin Furth’s The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance. He also had to find ways to separate this new project from his own book The Road to the Dark Tower.

Fortunately, a lot has happened in the world of the Dark Tower since Stephen King published what was then thought to be the final volume in the series in 2004. Marvel Comics produced several series adapting and expanding material found in King’s Dark Tower books. Hollywood powerhouses Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman hatched an ambitious plan to adapt the material in a series of movies and television programs. And King himself revisited the series with an eighth novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole, a story set between the fourth (Wizard and Glass) and fifth (Wolves of the Calla) books in the series.

This flurry of creative activity provides plenty of fodder for Vincent’s new book, due out on April 2nd from New American Library (and in special editions later this year from Cemetery Dance). Vincent conducted a number of new interviews with the creators behind these new Dark Tower side projects, from artists and writers involved in the comics;  to Howard and Goldsman giving separate interviews on their movie-making plans; to King himself, who discusses these new projects, sheds additional light on several key Dark Tower characters, and touches on his own relationship and approach to the series.

In addition to these interviews, Vincent provides a synopsis of each Dark Tower book, discussing events and characters while saving the major spoilers for a clearly-marked section at the end of each chapter. There’s also a wealth of information on the important “people, places and things” in the series, handily divided into “Mid-World” and “Our World.” Maps, timelines, Mid-World history…you’ll be hard-pressed to find any corner of the Dark Tower mythology that Vincent hasn’t shined a light on.

Books like this are made to be perused, dipped into here and there when a question or confusion about something Dark Tower-related arises. However, Vincent’s open, thoughtful approach to the writing makes it a book that you could easily read cover-to-cover. The material flows in a way that most guidebooks don’t. Vincent’s knowledge of the material is encyclopedic, but his writing style reads nothing like an encyclopedia. It’s incredibly readable, packed with detail and information and insight, and completely approachable. Vincent set out to write something that would appeal to Dark Tower junkies and newbies alike, and in that he has succeeded handily.

Oh, and one more thing – after reading a few pages of material, I was fired up and ready to dive headfirst back into the Dark Tower series again. So, if you pick this book up, make sure your reading schedule is clear – not only are you going to want to absorb every word of Vincent’s book, you’ll likely be stacking up those eight Dark Tower novels right behind it.

2012: The Year in Reading

edgeOverall, 2012 was a great year for me and the written word. I read a lot of books (you can see a list of them all here) and, most importantly, I enjoyed the overwhelming majority of them. I got new books by favorites like King and Barker, and discovered new voices like Adam Cesare that I’m excited about following into the future. Here, countdown-style, were my ten favorite books of 2012. I should point out that not all of them were published in 2012 – I give books I read for the first time a chance to make that year’s list no matter when they were published. I reviewed a good many of these and have provided links to those reviews if you’d like to read more about why they made the Top 10. The short answer is these are the books that thrilled me, surprised me, impressed me, and stayed with me.

As always, the comments are open and I’d love to hear what your favorite books of 2012 were, or how wrong I was to include some of these and what an idiot I am to have excluded others. Who knows? Maybe we’ll introduce each other to one (or more) of our favorite reads of 2013.

Now, without further ado, my favorites of the year that was…..

10. Kinsmen by Bill Pronzini

9. Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden

8. Abarat Book Two: Days of Magic, Nights of War by Clive Barker

7. Abarat Book Three: Absolute Midnight by Clive Barker

6. Video Night by Adam Cesare

5. The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King

4. The Last Kind Words by Tom Piccirilli

3. This Dark Earth by John Hornor Jacobs

2. The Lost Ones by Ace Atkins

1. Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale

Literary Stocking Stuffers

Everybody in my family knows what a bookhound I am, so it’s inevitable that a book or three comes my way each Christmas. This year was no exception. One of the perks of running your own blog is that you can occasionally make self-indulgent posts like this one, where you brag about the great gifts you got. So, here’s a rundown of the books I found under my tree this year – I hope you’ll share your own holiday haul in the comments!


Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
I fell in love with Chabon’s work with Wonder Boys, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay sealed the deal. I can’t wait to dive into this novel about friends, family, music, and whatever else Chabon can layer in. Also, my vocabulary increases an average of 10-15% every time I read a Chabon book, which is just a bonus.

LifeAfterDeathLife After Death by Damien Echols
Like many, I began following the story of the “West Memphis Three” after catching HBO’s documentary, Paradise Lost. The events surrounding the case are horrific for everyone involved, especially the three young boys who were murdered and the three young men who lost a significant portion of their lives to prison for a crime that they didn’t commit. This will be the first glimpse inside the head of one of the accused killers, the supposed ringleader of the group, Damien Echols, and I can already tell it’s going to be a heartbreaking piece of work.

The Flame Alphabet
by Ben Marcus
FlameAlphabetIn a truly unique premise for a horror novel, Marcus reveals what happens when the speech of children becomes lethal. How do the adults handle it when their most precious creations turn on them? How do kids handle these new abilities? I had the pleasure of interviewing Marcus about this book earlier this year, and it’s clear he’s tackling some big ideas in the book. I can’t wait to dig in.

Short Story Review: “Gunboat Whores” by John Shirley

“Gunboat Whores” by John Shirley
From The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan
Cycatrix Press, 2011

“Gunboat Whores” (which so far is leading all entries in The Devil’s Coattails for the “Best Title” award) is a quick peek into the early life of Wyatt Earp, the renowned Old West gunslinger who’s been immortalized in countless stories and films. In John Shirley’s tale (excerpted from a longer work-in-progress, according to the author’s note), Earp, reeling from a personal tragedy, has left his home in Missouri and has blazed a trail of drunkenness and bad decisions across the country. Eventually he falls in with a man known as Walton, the proprietor of a floating brothel called a gunboat. Earp marries one of the gunboat’s working girls and settles in as kind of onboard bouncer, an arrangement that works out for a while – until the night that one of the customers feels he’s not exactly getting his money’s worth, and decides to take things in a more violent direction.

It’s a straightforward Western, and although the episode itself has a definite conclusion, it still reads as what it is – a piece of something rather than a completely stand-alone story. It’s certainly well written and enjoyable, as Shirley brings an authenticity to the settings and dialogue so that it never feels like a campy, Saturday morning serial, and it’s an interesting look at how tough just living could be back then. That being said, the lack of any fantastical elements makes it something of an odd fit for this particular anthology.

More reviews from The Devil’s Coattails.

*A little background on Short Story Reviews, and why I’m doing them this way*

King, O’Nan combine to make a scary ‘Face’

Stephen King isn’t publishing a new novel this fall, but Constant Readers have had plenty of material to occupy them as of late. One of his most recent releases is this second collaboration with Stewart O’ Nan (co-writer of Faithful), the digital-only short story “A Face in the Crowd.”

“Face” introduces us to Dean Evers, a typical King character if there ever was one. He’s a displaced Red Sox fan, living in Florida and grudgingly pulling for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. His wife died months ago after a second stroke, and since then Evers has been floating through a lonely existence, waiting around for something to happen.

“Something” comes in the form of his childhood dentist, a man long dead who appears one night on Evers’ television during a Devil Rays game. There the man sits, looking exactly as he did when Evers knew him decades earlier. That’s bad, but not as bad as the next person Evers sees in the stands, a young boy Evers went to school with. A young boy who would be an old man now, had he lived. A young boy who points at Evers from his seat behind home plate as though he can see him through the television screen and mouths ominous words at him.

That’s bad. And it’s only the beginning.

King and O’Nan have combined seamlessly to produce a Twilight Zone-ish tale of regret. Evers seems likeable enough at first, but as more and more phantoms begin popping up at Tropicana Field a lifetime of selfishness comes to the surface, forever changing our perception of the man as well as his perception of himself. Most will spot the ending from a mile away, but that doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of the path the authors take to get us there.

While not as creepy as King’s recent “The Little Green God of Agony” or as visceral as “In the Tall Grass,” his twopart collaboration with son Joe Hill, “A Face in the Crowd” is an enjoyable diversion, a little something else to tide us over until the next short story or novel appears.

Short Story Review: “Object Lesson” by Jason Brock

“Object Lesson” by Jason Brock
From The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan
Cycatric Press, 2011

In “Object Lesson,” The Devil’s Coattails co-editor Jason Brock delivers a short, meditative tale on a couple of lives in limbo: a woman who has been in a coma for eight years, and her son, who has put his own life on hold to be with her, letting three jobs and a marriage slip through his hands in the meantime.

The son is struggling with a choice that no one wants to face: continue to prolong his mother’s death at the expense of his own life, or bring her journey to an end so his can begin anew. Unfortunately it’s a choice that many people are faced with, and you’ll learn a lot about yourself based on your thoughts as the son sits at his mother’s bedside, plug literally in his hand, trying to determine the course of his future.

“Object Lesson” is a quick read, very short and to the point, but unlike many stories with more girth, this one sticks with you after the last page has been turned. It’s a nice little contribution by Brock; a touch of human horror in the midst of the book’s more supernatural offerings.

More reviews from The Devil’s Coattails

*A little background on Short Story Reviews, and why I’m doing them this way*

Short Story Review: “The Moons” by Ramsey Campbell

I’ve had the privilege of reviewing a fair number of books over the last few years  – and yes, I do consider it a privilege when someone sends me a book and asks me to publicly share my opinion of it,  especially considering they don’t know if my opinion is going to be good or bad. There’s a trust and an expectation of fairness inherent in the whole situation, and for that reason I want to do each book I am able to review justice. If I think the book is good, I want to be as specific as possible as to why I think that. If I’m not in love with it, I want to be equally specific. I think that’s only fair to the authors and publishers who’ve worked so hard to get their project finished and out in the world.

That’s proven difficult for me when it comes to anthologies and collections. In those, you’re dealing with multiple stories (and, in most cases, multiple authors), which makes it a little harder for me to comment on the book as a whole. If the book has a few more stories that I like over the number I don’t like, is it successful? What if I hate most of the stories, but really, really love a handful of them?

I’ve been contemplating how to approach this for a while now (and, as a result, have several anthologies sitting on my desk that I’ve been dying to get to), and I thought I’d give this approach a try: I’m going to review a couple of anthologies here on October Country story by story. I realize I’m not breaking new ground here. I’ve seen reviews that list every story in a book and give sentence or two about it.  But I’m going to write a short entry on each story to try and give it a little more depth. Once I’ve gone through all the stories in the book, I’ll do a little wrap-up/overview of the whole thing.

I feel like I’ve already spent too much space explaining my “system” here, so I’m going to dive in. The stories I’ll be reviewing over the next month or so come from The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan, and A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones. As always, your comments on this little experiment of mine, as well as on the individual reviews themselves, are appreciated.

“The Moons” by Ramsey Campbell
From The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan
Cycatrix Press, 2011

Ramsey Campbell once again proves that a stealthy approach to horror can be just as discomforting as any in-your-face gorefest with this, the leadoff story in The Devil’s Coattails. In “The Moons,” a young boy named Stuart is urged to get out of the house by his disinterested parents. Most of the neighborhood kids are together at a nearby house, and when Stuart – an outsider who’s barely comfortable in his own skin, much less in a group – arrives, they are dealing with a near-hysterical girl named Valencia who is upset over the loss of a bracelet. When he gathers that she may have lost it at a nearby beach, Stuart takes a chance and suggests they go look for it as a group. Presumably having nothing better to do, the other kids agree and off they go.

Once there, the kids are almost immediately beset upon by some older, tougher boys who begin to hassle them with vague threats about stealing their cell phones and roughing them up for fun. The besieged group makes its way towards a parking lot where they assume they will find some adults, then detour in the woods when they see a man in a green ranger’s uniform beckoning them on.

The ranger calls himself Woodward, and it’s not long before Stuart begins to wonder if he’s more of a threat than the boys who were chasing them. His apprehension grows as Woodward begins to speak cryptically about their journey through his woods while leading them in circles. When Stuart begins voicing his concerns to the group, his outsider status once again comes into play. Nobody listens, and when he finally breaks away to find his own way home, nobody tries to stop him – and nobody follows.

Campbell slowly turns the screws on us as the story progresses, from dread when Woodward first shows up to near desperation as we realize the kids are marching willingly into his trap. Even the palpable relief we feel when Stuart leaves the group is tinged with sadness when we come to fully understand the aftermath of his escape.

All in all, “The Moons” is an evocative, creepy opener for The Devil’s Coattails, and sets a tone that I hope the rest of the stories are able to maintain.

More reviews from The Devil’s Coattails