Marvin's Bookish Blog

Another darn place to list my reviews and to obsess about books.

The Intern's Handbook

 

 

John Lagos is an assassin. He has been an assassin since he was 12 years old. He is 25 and ready to retire although he is a bit suspicious on what "retire" means in his business and especially to his boss. He works for a mysterious company that specializes in high end assassinations usually putting the hit man into an intern's position at the company where their high profile victims reside. Why interns, you ask? As John Lagos' boss, Bob, states...

"Interns are invisible. You can tell an executive your name a hundred times and that executive will never remember it because they have no respect for someone at the bottom of the barrel, working for free. The rapport they have with their private urinal far exceeds the rapport they will ever have with you."


All this is pretty cynical and John is a cynical man. Having your mother die before he was born, being raised in abusive foster care families and being cared for by a sociopath slightly colors your view on life. John Lagos places that cynicism up front in his manual for future hit men but, being the sociopath he is, he can't help talking about himself...to our delight.

Shane Kuhn's The Intern's Handbook starts out a little normal for a thriller like this. John is trying to get out of the business, he gets one last hit with no clear target, shit hits the fan, and there's a woman involved ready to make life complicated. Sounds like some movies you seen? That's not surprising considering the author is a veteran of the film business. Yet there is enough original twists and turns in this book to make us realize that Kuhn is on to something original. John Lagos may not be the guy you want to have a beer with but there is something sad and redeemable about him, so he is easy to root for despite his profession. His evolution from professional sociopath to ??? is quite believable, thanks to a some nice back story involving his parents. (I'm predicting Bradley Cooper for the main role assuming there ever is a movie) I must admit I felt the intern hook was a little farfetched at first but the author builds us into the idea well and pretty soon I am a believer. There is nice structuring and good overall characterization throughout. (While I'm fantasizing, how about Terry O'Quinn (John Locke from Lost for Bob?). As you can tell from my asides, this book does read like a fast moving thriller and would make for a nifty movie. But as a novel, it may rank as one of 2014's first top notch summer reads. If you like good thrillers that you can immerse yourself in, then The Intern's Handbook comes highly recommended.

Phone Call from Hell and Other Tales of the Damned


It is a given that when a person makes a declaration about something, Life, the internet and everything will smack you upside the head. This happened to me when in a recent review of Jan Burke's short story collection Apprehended, I remarked that the mystery/ suspense short story is a critically endangered species. Not soon after I wrote that, I received a index from someone that listed all the markets for mystery short fiction. Most of them were internet or very indie magazines, but the case was made. There is still a demand for mystery short fiction. Then a friend clued me to to Jeff Strand's darkly funny Stalking You Now to which I gave a nice review to. As if I wasn't chastised enough, New Pulp Press, a small but hearty bastion of literary crime noir books, sent me a copy of Phone Call from Hell and Other Tales of the Damned by Jonathon Woods. OK, I get the message. Mystery and crime short fiction is doing fine...but you have to know where to look.

If you are looking for short thrillers, you can't do better than Jonathan Woods' new collection of literary crime noir. It isn't really mystery. I don't think there is a real whodunnit in the stack of 17 short stories. But these are rough and gritty pieces of crime noir that equal anything coming from Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, or any other major writer in the genre. Woods even gives the contemporary crime noir writers like Joe R. Lansdale and Charlie Huston a run for their money although his style is a little more hard-nosed and more retro partly because he seems to like settings and exotic eras like corrupt tropical countries and sleazy LA underbelly environments. I noticed that the author christens his works as "Southern Noir" on his website but I didn't see anything exclusively southern about them although there is definitely a strong sense of influence from writers like Flannery O'Connor and David Grubb. The stories are the kind that will have readers swooning over Chandleresque lines like "A wave of lust oozed over me like the melted cheese from a perfect enchilada," or"She was as drinkable as a Black Russian on a slow night."While many of his stories have little twists at the end they are usually the kind of intelligently subtle kind that makes the reader thinks, "I better read that again". And others are more like character studies that examine a certain type of loser mindset. I say 'Loser" not because these people are unlikeable although they often are . It just that they are people who you wouldn't want to be or, at the very least, wouldn't want to be in their shoes.

It would be impossible to cover all 17 tales so here's a few that will give a inkling of the range and quality in this collection. The opening tale, "The Handgun's Story" is a short and sweet perspective of murder by the gun's perspective. It's a clever answer to "Guns don't kill people, People kill people". Perhaps those people had a little help, don' t you think? "Writer's Block" is one of those character studies involving Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene dealing with the title problem. As far as pure reading enjoyment, this is one of my favorite. "The Old Man" is also a favorite mainly for the buildup and unexpected ending. "The Other" features escape and a manhunt that not only go beyond expectation but is maybe the best story of a superlative bunch. For some reason that I am not sure why, but "The Other Suitcase" reminds me of John Huston's film Beat the Devil, perhaps because they both seem like parodies of The Maltese Falcon. Finally the title story and "Hearing Voices" are especially interesting because they straddle the line between an implausible reality and madness, letting the reader to decide.

It's safe to say that Jonathon Woods doesn't take it easy on his readers. He expect them to work at reading these slightly crazy and dark suspense tales and he doesn't expect them to come out indifferent and detached to what they read. That is a major strength. These are the type of crime noir tales that will be read for decades and they will make sure there are readers still around for this seedy but insightful form of entertainment. OK, I relent. Suspense and mystery short fiction is alive and well as long as we have writers like Jonathan Woods stirring the pot.

Dead Man's Drive


Zombie with amnesia. Check. Hot witch. Check. Zoot Suiter shaman sidekick. Check. Teen wizard with pet yeti. Check. Bank robber muscle with a secret. Check. Professor Xavier type who keeps them focused and on the right path. Check

And in the other corner...

Tough guy with zombie army. Check. Crime syndicate boss. Check. Demon summoning motorcycle gang. Check. Fanatical minister. Check. Crooked cop. Check. Evil tycoon with Nazi connections. Check. Evil tycoon assistant with conflicting emotions. Check.

Now place them in a little town called La Cruz, not too far from Los Angeles in the 50s with hot rods, stir a lot and you have the premise of Dead Man's Drive by Michael Panush.

La Cruz seems to be a nice town but it is perpetually on the verge of chaos. The previous mentioned group of anti-hero types called the Donovan Motor Team protects the town but a new series of demonic attacks become a big challenge for them especially since the stalwarts of said town are not all that comfortable with zombies and shamans even if they are good guys. The main protagonist in all this is Roscoe, a recently created zombie with no memory of his past life and deep struggles with who he was and will be.

Dead Man's Drive is one part supernatural adventure and one part crime noir. Michael Panush has his fingers on both styles and bring them together quite well. At times though, I thought the feel of the book tended to lean toward the "cops and robbers" aspects more than the horror side for my taste. The battles are well written but even with demons coming out of the woodwork, I had to remind myself of the supernatural elements. But even if I felt the two elements could have been mixed together a little better it doesn't take away the fact that the novel is a lot of fun and very original. Its best quality is found in the character of Roscoe. He is having quite a struggle remembering his past and when he does, it brings a out a nice back story to the plot. While there is a clear ending to the book, I understand there will be a sequel. I don't know if Roscoe will be the main character in the sequel but I hope we find out more about the rest of the gang and hopefully each will have their turn at the helm, so to speak. It's an intriguing motley crew and that will be what keeps this series enjoyable.

Dead Americans and Other Stories


Australian writer Ben Peek writes very literary sci-fi/speculative fiction. These are the kind of stories that bear reading twice since what is happening with his prose may not be obvious the first time. It reminds me distinctly of R. A. Lafferty and Gene Wolfe's tricky little stories that catch you up in the prose so much it makes you wonder if you really "got it".

Unfortunately Peek is no Lafferty or Wolfe. While Wolfe and Lafferty pulls you in with their exquisite even intimate style, Peek's writings end up too academic, even cold. It's not that he isn't a good writer. He may be a great writer. But there is too much calculation, too much of a "See how good I am" feeling in his stories. In this way he reminds me of Michael Chabon in that he is such an excellent writer that he forgets to connect past the mind and into the heart.

Dead Americans and Other Stories consists of 10 short stories. They seem to be split between stories about a world with a red sun and "Dead Americans" tales which puts famous Americans into some fantastical situation. The "Red Sun" stories are the better of the two. Yet there appears to be Australian references that may hinder the enjoyment of non-Australian readers. Regardless, they are good stories that just don't rise above the ordinary. The "Dead American" tales seem experimental to the point that they are literary exercises more than stories to be read for either entertainment or revelation.

In a way, this is a hard one to rate. I appreciate the level of skill in these works. Yet ultimately a story needs to reach the reader and these pieces of fiction do not accomplish that. For that reason I can not rate this collection any higher than 2 stars.

Stalking You Now

 

Jeff Strand writes killer dialogue...pun intended. No, seriously. Strand is a great storyteller but his talent at writing tight, and in this case funny, dialogue slays me..also intended. Stalking You Now is not only a great example of his execution (cough!) of dialogue but also his ability to knock off (gag!) a frightfully funny suspense tale that doesn't leave the reader hanging (cough, cough) at the end. At 50 plus pages, it is either a long short story or a short novella, But either way it is just the right length to give you an hours worth of dark comedic entertainment. By the time it is terminated (cough!) and finished off (zap!) you will agree that it was not time wasted (ka-ching!).

Good. I got that out of my system.

So what is Stalking You Now about? Therein lies the problem. In 50  plus pages, a lot happens and there is one great little twist not too far into the story. So saying too much will ruin the ride. It is a story of revenge although whose doing the revenge and why may leave you pleasantly disoriented. The story begins as our revenge minded protagonist is stalking his victim. The author gets into the story running and doesn't let up. It's that dialog thing happening. There is also a another little twist involving a third character. Let's just say tables are turned often.

I've always enjoyed Strand's ability to find the humor is the darkest situations and this story is no exception. Good dark humor elicits laughs of the type that may make you feel guilty but...hell! It is only a story. So get this story and enjoy a few evil laughs at characters who may (or may not) end up deserving it.

Severed


Severed is a nice take on the zombie idea even if it isn't really a zombie novel. A strange virus takes hold of downtown London and literally severed the soul from the physical body. The disembodied part of the person rises to the sky and hovers with the other "ghosts" in a halo formation while the physical body is left on earth with impaired reason and randomly committing violence in zombie-like fashion. Or as Professor Stephen Hobbs, our somewhat unlikeable and relationally challenged protagonist would put it, their emotion becomes separated from their reason. While the leaders look to find the antidote to this disease, Stephen Hobbs is given the task to figure out what it is and find out how to reunite the divided part of the persons to a healthy whole while dealing with his own messed up life.

It's a brilliant idea and author Stephen Fry should be given credit for taking on what is probably a difficult plot to pull off. Asides from Professor Hobbs, we learn abut other characters in the danger zone and out. Most of them come together somewhere in that messed up relationship cycle I implied to earlier. And this becomes one of the biggest problems of what is essentially an very entertaining novel. The separate viewpoints fragment the action especially since most of them do not come together until late in the novel. It becomes a little annoying since we are really wondering what the hell those "ghosts" are doing up there. With the arguable exception of Hobbs, none of the characters really stand out. In a epic sized science fiction horror thriller like this, it is sometime best to focus on the idea rather than the characters and this may have been one of those times. But overall, the book is quite good and blends together a nice amount of psycho-philosophical meanderings with a sci-fi / horror hybrid. This is the second novel I've read by Fry and he is definitely one of the writers to watch for in this genre. Three and a half stars.

In It For the Long Run: A Musical Odyssey

 

In terms of music, Americana is a sort of catch-all genre that includes all kinds of grass root American music. It entails folk, country, blues, bluegrass, early (and usually more acoustic) rock and roll, and all the offshoots that comes from the history of American music. The term recognizes the more noncommercial sounds that have been abandoned by the mainstream as American music became more homogenized by corporate interests. Much of what is termed as Americana is the type of music that you experience as you would trek across America, forsaking the top 40 channels and listening to what the locals are creating on their acoustic instruments. Accepted as a genre by The American Music Association in the 90s, I find it a much better description of grass roots American music than country, folk, or any of the more specific terms.

If anyone can claim to be at the forefront of Americana, it just may be Jim Rooney. He makes a good case for that in his autobiography, In it For the Long Run: A Musical Odyssey. Inspired as a young boy by the likes of greats like Bill Monroe and Muddy Waters, he formed his own band which was primary country, but later started an early folk club in the 60s and went on to be a musical coordinator for the Newport Folk Festival. Then in the 70s he went on to form his own record company and produce music with musicians like John Prine and Nanci Griffith. During all this, he kept his hands in the music by performing, playing in his own bands, and composing.

A memoir by someone who was if not a household name but was still steeped in the Americana tradition, promises to be a seminal and unique look at the development of the music and the scene. Yet Rooney's book falls far short of being that. It isn't that he doesn't write about the scene and the music. He does in much detail. But there is little insight in the music. It is more of a "And then I did this". He writes much about the various artists like Muddy Waters, John Prine,and others but there no real revelations. Pretty soon the book feels like a lot of name-dropping and not much else. When I read a memoir like this I want to get a sense of time and place; a feel for the excitement that the artists and the musical environment brought to the writer and the excitement he transmitted to them as a promoter and producer. That sense of excitement never materializes.

Perhaps this book is meant more for the Americana aficionado or for the ones that lived through the scene. But for someone like me who loves music and would like to know more about a particular kind of music, I just didn't think this worked. Perhaps there is another book out there that does justice to the Americana scene. This is not it.

Eat What You Kill



In some strange way, The pychopathic stock analyst Evan Stoess in Ted Scofield's debut novel Eat What You Kill reminds me of Clyde Griffiths, the struggling lower class dupe from Theodore Dreiser's classic An American Tragedy. Both are from less than desirable circumstances, both are obsessed with joining the privileged class while that same group of people look down upon them, and both become so desperate they consider murder as a desirable option.

But that is where the similarities end. While Clyde Griffiths struggles in the war of the classes, he also believe that he will succeed as long as he works hard and wins the admirable of the upper class. His story is one of the separations of classes in America. Evan Stoess, on the other hand, is a child of the Millennium. He doesn't gives a damn about both class struggle or working hard. He hates the upper class as much as he wants to be them. The only thing he cares about is money. Greed is his disease and he thinks money is the only thing that cures it. He has memorized portions of Ayn Rand and has taken to heart her rants about the evils of altruism and the virtues of selfishness.

Unfortunately Evan is also a sociopath which turns this cynical yet droll financial thriller into a cross between American Tragedy and American Psycho. Though growing up poor, Evan received the advantage of an upper class education which reinforced his view of being an outsiders to the more affluent boys. After getting an entry level position in a Wall Street firm he looks for his big kill (financially at first) only to see it all slip away from him at the sudden death of the company's founder. He is fired and eventually finds a job with a company that deals in short stocks; investments that essentially make money on the failure on an enterprise. It isn't long before our sociopathic whiz kid is devising a way to revive his luck and make a killing, and we are no longer thinking purely financially now.

Ted Scofield have written a tight and always entertaining thriller about Wall Street, the finance profession and murder.. Don't let the finance part scare you as the author does a great job explaining what you need to know without stopping the plot or action. But the best thing about this novel is the main character Evan Stoess. He is as unlikable as a character can get but he is not boring. The reader can marvel as his audacity and wickedness but will stay on the edge in wondering if he is going to succeed or not. Note I didn't say "Root for". Evan is fascinating but he's hard to root for. The question then becomes; Does he get away with it or not? The answer is at the end and if it is not as satisfying an ending as I would have like, it doesn't deter from the fact that this novel is one hell of a ride. This is one of the more different thrillers that has arrived in 2014 and is set to get new novelist Ted Scofield off to a running start.

Missing You


In my humble opinion, Harlan Coben is the Stephen King of mystery thrillers. He is able to take old mystery ideas, like King takes old horror themes, and give them new life, He does not ignore characterization. In fact, his characters' personality and problems never take second place to the plot. And like King, he has a casual easy flowing style that hides the fact that his prose is filled with literary goodness.

But while I always enjoyed his novels, something got in the way of my urge to sing his praises. Usually it was the plotting. He has a nice hand for presenting the plot at the beginning and grabbing the reader's attention. But at the end, it seems that there are just too many pat situations and suspend-your-beliefs moments. It just seems like a little too much coincidence and not enough "I should have seen that coming".

In Harlan Coben's newest novel, Missing You, he not only solves that hurdle but writes what may be his masterpiece. In a Goldilocks world of "Not enough", "Too much", "Just right",Missing You is a poster novel of "Just Right" showing a perfect combination of chance, conspiracy, and daring-do; the things that makes a mystery novel live. Kat is a police officer who is too involved in her job. Add to that the fact that her father's killer is dying in prison and she is obsessed with finding out why he killed her father and if he killed him at all. Her best friend, in an attempt to get Kat out and socializing a bit, buys her a membership in a computer dating site. Kat is not impressed but gives it a shot, until she find her fiancee Jeff, who dumped her 18 years ago, on the site. When she contacts him he first acts like he doesn't know her and when she tells him who she is, he cuts contact with her. This would be simply annoying if not that a boy she never seen before comes to her precinct and asks her to find his mother...who disappears while she was corresponding with Jeff on the dating site.

That's a lot of information for the first few chapters and I haven't even told you about the man trapped in a box underground. But this is the strength of the author. He can effortlessly bring together enough ideas that would fill three books by anyone else. But in Missing You, he keeps it going with a string of events and psychological connections that stay believable until the tricky but effective ending. If I was teaching a class in tying together multiple ideas and plot lines, this book would be exhibit A. It doesn't hurt to have a troubled but resourceful protagonist and a wickedly evil villain. Kat is a believable heroine who flaws are noticeable along with her wisdom. One of the best things for me in the novel is the elusive character of her ex-fiancee Jeff. He is purposefully posed as an enigma during most of Coven's brilliant storytelling. We do not know who he really is, although we are given some very disturbing possibilities and a nice jolt at the end when we discover what is really going on.

If you read mysteries at all, this is a must read. It is one of the best mystery thrillers I have ever read and a big contender for best novel of the year. Go for it.

Apprehended


Short fiction mysteries seem to be a vanishing species. Back in my younger days, There were a number of short fiction magazines that specialized in mysteries and detective stories. The most popular ones were Ellery Queen's, Alfred Hitchcock's, and Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazines. Mike Shayne's was basically hard-nose detective tales, Ellery Queen's was a combination of usually more civilized detective stories and similar who-dun-its, while Alfred Hitchcock's went in for suspense mysteries usually with a twist at the end. Yet the heyday of mystery short tales have been over for a decade or two and, while there may still be some esoteric indie magazines out there, I have rarely seen a short tale of mystery in today's choice of reading materials.

Which is why I was intrigued to see this short 100 plus page Kindle book of fiction by Jan Burke who is best known for her novels featuring investigating reporter Irene Kelly. This is especially appreciated at the bargain price of $1.99. This short book of stories features one original story in the Irene Kelly canon, "Unacknowledged" and three other short tales which were previously released in her older collection, 18. Any of these stories would feel quite comfortable in either Ellery Queen's or Alfred Hitchcock. They have an old fashioned charm in which the guilty is always discovered and the violence tends to be off-screen so to speak.

"Unacknowledged", as mentioned, features Irene Kelly but is set back in her college days. It is the more gentler, sweeter tale of the bunch proving that even mystery writers can have a soft side. "Why Tonight" is a tighter tale in which a wife wonders about her husband's death...and so does the local sheriff. "A Fine Set of Teeth" is my favorite partly because I like stories about musicians and I enjoyed the corny musician jokes interspersed throughout. (Q: How can you tell if a stage is level? A: The bass player is drooling out of both sides of his mouth) But the last story titled "A Man of My Stature" may be the best. It would be a gem in any detective magazine, especially Alfred Hitchcock's, and is reminiscent of Roald Dahl's twisty little crime caper stories.

So I am glad to know someone out there is still writing good mystery short fiction. If you are primed to read a few tales, this would be a good book to get. It would make for some good evening reading; the kind that involves an easy chair, a pipe, and a dog curled up next to the fireplace.

The Weight of Blood


Laura McHugh's powerful novel is being compared to those of Gillian Flynn and Daniel Woodrell. McHugh uses the same rural Ozark environment as Woodrell. If it isn't as depressingly steeped in meth and nihilism as Woodrell, it isn't for lack of trying. But McHugh's writing style clings more to the dysfunctional lifestyle narrations of Gillian Flynn. She even uses a alternating first person narrative as seen in Gone Girl at least for the first third of it when she then spices it up with other characters' viewpoint giving us new glimpses in a mysterious and harrowing tale.

But that is where McHugh leaves the two writers and goes off on her own original tale. Seventeen years old Lucy's best friend's body is discovered and appears to have been murdered. It evokes strong feeling in Lucy not just for her friends but for her mother who disappeared shorty after her birth. Lucy begins an investigation into her friend's death while she also tries to find out more about her mother's mysterious disappearance. In alternating chapters, we hears Lucy's mother Lila's tale which starts eighteen years previously and before Lucy is born. The story is dark but not so dark that there are not noble characters and honest emotions in it. It is a tale of family secrets with plenty of twists and turn for the mystery fan but a also a novel where family interaction may be dysfunctional but are truly felt. Lucy is a very strong protagonist whose bond with her friend, who is more of a local misfit than she is, becomes a strong catalyst and makes Lucy the most endearing person in the book. My only complain is that some of the interaction of the brothers, Lucy's father and uncle, seem forced. I felt that Carl was a little too loyal to Crete, enough so to stretch plot credibility. But it is a minor complain considering how well the plot moves and how well the author weaves in the various narrations to make a coherent and exhilarating whole. Recommended.

Haunted Rock & Roll: Ghostly Tales of Musical Legends

 

There are two things I love: Music and tales of the supernatural. But I don"t believe there are ghosts, curses etc. I just find them fascinating. I like the chills a good horror tale delivers or remembers the fun of telling ghost stories around the campfire. Plus I love rock music. So <i>Haunted Rock & Roll: Ghostly Tales of Musical Legends</i> seemed a natural for me. And, by Ghost, Matthew L. Swayne does a great job in pulling the two together.

I don't think anyone is surprised that there are plenty of supernatural legends involving rock stars. Swayne runs the gamut from Robert Johnson to Janis Joplin to Curt Cobain to Whitney Houston. His tales are grouped into "Rock Star Ghosts", "Haunted Rock Spots", "Premonitions, Signs, and Omens",  and "Rock Stars Most famous Curses and Mysteries". There is inevitably a bit of overlap and redundancy that probably can't be avoided considering the grouping. For instance, we hear about Buddy Holly's accident in the Ghost section and Again in  the premonition and curse sections. I tmay have been better to group them by the rock star's name but that is just hindsight on my part. On the other hand, it is fun to hear the stories again, each time looking at a different angle.

It is easy to be too serious with a book like this like narrating each tale like it is the absolute truth and with no skepticism. That is the downfall of many true hauntings books. Swayne has just the right amount of "Hey this could have happened." and campfire storytelling skills. As a skeptic, I still enjoyed the stories immensely and didn't feel the author was trying to convince me they were real. Again, the author has a good mix of wit and spookiness.

So what about the tales. Of course,most of the stories are anecdotal, yet the author blends the anecdotal with the historical facts very well. The farthest he goes back is to the Delta Blues master Robert Johnson and the story of how he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. If you never heard of Robert Johnson, shame on you. Go right out and buy a CD of his music and be amazed! When people say Rock & Roll starts with Robert Johnson, they are not lying. But then the author goes on to the usual suspects; Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, etc....and a few that may surprise you; Mama Cass, Sid Vicious, Ricky Nelson, Harry Nilsson and others. But I really enjoyed the mix of devil stories and witchcraft centered around...who else?...Black Sabbath. The story about Black Sabbath, and specifically Bassist Geezer Butler's exploration into the occult, brings out the author's droll side in sentences like "For Butler, seeing the devil was not as fun as writing songs about him."

One fascinating thing is how often the name of Aleister Crowley comes up. It seems like rock stars were fascinated by the occult figure and self proclaimed "evilest person in the world". Perhaps someone should write a book about the influence of Crowley on Rock & Roll. Just saying...

Another thing I liked is the story about the Devil's Chord. The Devil's Chord predates rock all the way back to classical music but...No..I don't want to spoil it for you.

I could continue and analyze each story. I could scoff at some of the more outrageous and give more mundane explanations for some of the events and interpretations but that would be killing the entertaining qualities of this weird and spooky book.. Simply put, this is a fun book that will delight the Rock & Roll fan, the ghost hunter, and ghost story aficionado. For a little dose of eerie, put on Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" or the versions by Cream or the Allman Brothers. Then enjoy a little chill to the bones as you read aboutits curse.

Happy hauntings.

Marrow's Pit

 

Marrow's Pit is another book from DarkFuse's novella series. It is a dark 1984-type story taking place in a world where all serve The Machine. Their world is an inhospitable where they exist serving and worshiping a mechanical contraption whose origin is never quite clear. Our main protagonist is an unhappy man with doubts and resentment that are only increased by his nagging wife. It's a story holding a lot of promise but with a disappointing delivery. Ballard, our protagonist, is a hard man not just to like but to feel any sympathy for. He makes a severe mistake and stupid responses early on and it is difficult to really care about it. We are left waiting for him to leave the relative safety of the Machine yet by the time he does, it become clear that not much is going to come out of it. The novella had the feel of an over-serious Twilight Zone episode with a predictable build-up and a unsatisfactory pay-off. I would call the book mostly dark Sci-Fi but with a touch of psychological thriller in it. Unfortunately there is not enough of one thing to pull in the reader and immerse them into really experiencing the tale. This is the first of Darkfuse's novellas that left me cold. But hopefully something will come up that leads me to read more of Keith Deininger's work because he does have a firm talent, just the wrong idea to display it with.

Oh Myyy! (There Goes The Internet): Life, the Internet and Everything

 

It was 1988. My date and I went to see a popular Japanese film, A Taxing Woman's Return, at the Royal Theater in Westwood. It was a weeknight and the theater was almost empty. Then a group of people came in and sat about four rows in front of us. My date grabbed my arm and said, "Isn't that the guy that plays Sulu in Star Trek?" Yes, it was. But I was not looking at him. I was staring at a woman who was with his party. She was, simply put, the most beautiful woman I have ever seen and ever hope to see. She was a tall slim Asian beauty with long flowing hair. On a scale of 1 to 10, she was a 153. My date looked at me weirdly, probably because I was drooling. It didn't take her long to realize that I was not looking at Mr. Takei.

"Beautiful, Isn't she" She said in a voice that, translated, meant, "You're not getting any tonight".

I tried to tell her that line every man knows to use. "Yes, but you're prettier." Unfortunately it came out something like, "Mmmmm. gadda dummgh mutter DROOOOOOOOOL!"

The date didn't go too well after that. But I never forgot the fleeting glimpse of that gorgeous woman and thinking, "GOD! That Takei guy is lucky."

Little did I know...

Now it is 2014. George Takei is no longer just the guy that played Sulu but an established actor of TV, film and stage. He is a respected gay activist and clever observer of human nature. He also has one of the most popular and followed pages on Facebook.

So what does this all have to do with that moment in 1988? The internet was in its infancy and I am fairly sure the "World Wide Web" was not yet in existence...at least not yet publicly. What we knew about public figures in the 80s is what they chose to show us in public and in the media or what gossip columnists chose to tell us or make up. There were paparazzi but I'm pretty sure they have not yet reached the frenzy of today's culture. And there was, for everyone, a sense of privacy and choice to what you presented. Perhaps there was less tolerance for some behaviors but, for better or worse, there was a feeling that you could keep your public mask on no matter who you were...and you knew when to do it.

Then came the interest. Then Facebook. With it came a loss of privacy. "But Marvin," You say. "I haven't lost any privacy. I can still choose what I share and what I won't share. " Can you? That's just what the internet wants you to believe. The momentary illusion of fame or infamy can be very addictive even if you are only sharing it with 450 of your closest friends of which 75% you never met. Do you really think people want to know that you drank your first chocolate beer yesterday, or that you love Grumpy Cat. Do you really think they want to hear about the weird pick-up date you experienced last week in all its embarrassing details. When you think of it, it is really kind of scary what we will share on-line for the want of a few "likes". You know. Things like drooling over a stranger you glimpsed at for maybe 3 minutes 24 years ago. Facebook can be a exhilarating ride but it can be rude, embarrassing, and sometimes dangerous for those who are not knowledgeable with its risks to enjoy the ride.

George Takei discovered social networking in his 70s, first on Twitter then on Facebook. He discusses his virtual adventures in social networking in the pages of Oh Myyy! (There goes The Internet): Life, The Internet and Everything. His forays into the internet starts out as cautious and tenuous but soon he is not only social networking like a teen but getting a huge following. Takei's casual but droll style makes this book a delight to read. It is a joyful look at someone who, despite a few jolts and prat falls, got it right and is enjoying the harvest of his sharing. He intersperses the book with popular memes that illustrate various aspects of Facebook or incidents that happened during his networking. It can be funny but there is a lot of wisdom through this book on the social aspects of our virtual life. For anyone who is new to Facebook, it can serve as a primer on what to do and what not to do when you make your way around this virtual community. The author also ends up delving into a number of social issues, not the least Marriage Equality. And of course there are plenty of nerd jokes and insider laughs regarding Star Trek and the full range of Sci-Fi geekdom.

I have followed Mr. Takei's Facebook page for a while now. I like the way he know how far to take things, letting us into his life and his mind but knowing where to set the limits. His book does the same yet you can not help but feel you have spent the time with a very interesting man who knows how to make you laugh and feel good. So if I ever meet Mr. Takei I will go up to him, shake his hands and ask, "Do you still have the number of that girl you were with?"

Nightcrawlers

 

If you like horror novels with non-stop action and descriptions that will give you nightmares, then Tim Curran's Nightcrawlers is for you. This is the first book I have read by Curran and, if this is an accurate representation of his talents, he is bound to be a major name in the fields. Nightcrawlers read like a Lovecraft tribute except that the actual Cthulhu Mythos isn't really used by the novel except as a fleeting reference to a character's knowledge of the horror sub-genre. Yet the book does bear a eerie similarity to Lovecraft's "The Colour out of Space". However, That similarity is slight and the story becomes Curran's own unique take on the idea. In Nightcrawlers, A plethora of corpse are unearthed by a bulldozer. At the same time, an officer is reported missing with his partner telling a terrifying account of what happened. Lead officer and out-of-towner Kenney starts to look for the missing officer, soon to be plural, and he start to uncover a secret that the town of Haymarket is terrified to reveal.

For the most part, Nightcrawler is all action. The only time it lets up is when Kenney researches past stories and the writer shares the antidotes with us. While it is essential to the story, it is the only part of the book that bogs down the telling slightly. But no matter. soon we return to the excitement. But what is special about Curran's story telling is that he is excellent at merging the action with descriptions and thoughts that let us know what may be happening. I just love the grotesque and almost psychedelic descriptions. One may fault him for having less developed characters but this may be one of those novels where three dimensional protagonists would actually reduce the effect.

However you look at it, Nightcrawlers emerges as a contender for best horror novel for 2014. If you don't mind a few sleepless nights, I highly recommend it.

 

Above

 

16 years old Blythe Hallowell is abducted and imprisoned in a abandoned Kansas missile silo. Her captor is a survivalist who tells her that the world as we know it is ending and they will be the only survivors. Through first person narration. Blythe tells of her years of imprisonment which include the birth of her son and his upbringing in this hell of an existence. She tells her child  her own fabricated story of why they are kept underground which, along with her captor's seemingly crazy raves, she is hopeful will satisfy her son and lessen his own misery. Eventually they escape and...

It is hard to evaluate Above by Isla Morley without bringing up the recent bestseller Room. Anyone who read Emma Donaghue's book will see the similarities in my short synopsis. Yet for the first half of Above, it is clear Isla Morley brings alive the drama and the terror of abduction in a much more empathic way than Donoghue. One of the reasons is that Morley writes of the experience in the first person narrative of Blythe rather than Donoghue's very difficult and ultimately unsuccessful first person narration by a 6 year old child. But Morley also does a nice turn in being able to start the narration in the eyes of a teenager yet lets the narration become more mature yet still a little mentally stunted in the teens as one would expect with such a long imprisonment and the lack of social interaction and normal development. It's a very nice trick and keep the reader interested in her plight. Her captor remains an enigma and, purposely I think, wanders precariously between caring and uncaring. He is clearly deranged and cruel but how and why remains to be seen...or in this case, read.

It's a harrowing read. Isla Morley catches the loneliness and hopelessness quite well. It can be a little shocking and is definitely uncomfortable as we read about the young Blythe giving birth and attempting to care for her child with virtually no help from anyone else and no medical aid. One of the most poignant parts of the novel involve her interaction with a child who is not her son. The book becomes a all-in-one sitting affair as it moves from her capture through her years of imprisonment to her escape.

And then...

Something happens. Without giving any spoilers, Blythe's escape changes the plot, the themes and pretty much everything including, unfortunately, the tense pace of the telling. Even with a few hints in the first half, the second half feels disjointed like it is a different book. The author stills write well and moves the plot along. But there is no longer the taut suspense or the single-minded intensity of Blythe's Plight. (Sorry. Couldn't resist the word play.) It is hard to say anything else without giving the surprise away but it was a little of a letdown. That is something both Capture and Room have in common; a second half that pales compared to the first half. Morley ends the book with a poignant wrap-up eliciting the heroine's views on the meaning of freedom. It beautifully ends the novel and brings both halves together but it took a long time for that to happen.

Nonetheless it is easy to recommend this book on the first half alone. I reread the ending to the first part and couldn't help thinking what a brilliant ending it would have been if Blythe simply stepped out into the unknown. One of my favorite cult films is John Sayles' Limbo in which a family stranded in the Alaskan wilderness wait for a plane to land knowing it will bring either the means to their escape or certain death. Then it ends abruptly. Sometimes uncertainty is beautiful. Yet even with a not so brilliant second half, Above remains a riveting read favored with a strong female protagonist and plenty of drama.