Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Act Three, Scene Four by Inanna Gabriel

If anyone had thought to ask me if I was interested in reading a psychopathic serial killer novel, I would've answered with a bland, empty shrug in place of a no. Yes, I know that man is the real monster and all of that, but still like to see some more literal monsters among my literary carnage. Then, as usual, I get one in the mail and find myself quite enthralled. It's amazing what a well written story can do to a cliché.

Madison, as an act of charity, set Kyle up to read for a part in a movie that he is in no way qualified for, so imagine her surprise when he actually gets it. Now, much to the consternation and horror of the other cast and directors he is bumbling his way through his lines while periodically destroying props and setting sets on fire. When he suddenly, inexplicably improves, everyone is thrilled. Until his obsession over perfecting the film's pivotal scene (care to guess which act and scene it is?) bleeds beyond the page and the stage.

What stood out the most for me here was the patience Ms. Gabriel shows in building and revealing the characters that make up this tale. Impetuous readers will notice that not much action occurs for the first hundred and twenty or so pages but I appreciated the classical approach she took, as it allowed me to get comfortable in this world and with the characters she created before they started getting chopped into little bits. In point of fact, I could not see this particular story working without such a methodical pace since, while nominally about a serial killer, this is really about the relationships people build and destroy. It is Kyle’s inability to empathize, and thereby form a meaningful relationship, with anyone outside of his own head that eventually leads him around the bend. She also shows the same level of patience while building narrative tension, allowing us glimpses of the slow unraveling of Kyle’s mental state as it builds to a crescendo as Kyle finally tips over into the dark and bloody side. The moment of that conversion is one of those rare, truly chilling moments and owes its impact to this patience. It’s refreshing, in a time where you are constantly told to make your stories snappier and to keep the pace as frenetic as possible, to be presented with such a measured and calm method of storytelling.

That said, I have to nitpick a little bit. Inanna’s writing style feels very clunky during the first quarter, with the words tripping over themselves rather than flowing into each other, though it does eventually fall into a very comfortable groove. Also, the overuse of the title, referring to act three, scene four repeatedly in dialog even though every other scene is referred to by its defining action (i.e. Mr. Finch’s death scene, Brandon and Mary’s love scene, etc.), is a tad grating. This next thing may seem a bit petty, but it pulled me out of the story too often for comfort: The names were distracting. Unusual names like Wren, Balthazar (who goes by Bal), Kyla (goes by Ky) and Madison regularly being referred to as Madi are not necessarily a bad thing but so many among so few characters drew my attention to the artifice of story creation instead of lulling me into the world of the story. Finally, the very last section didn’t really need to be there and I felt a little insulted that Inanna believed the reader would need the underpinnings of the character explained to that extent.

When the last clacker has clacked and the filming is done, the classical structure and patience building both character and suspense made for an enjoyable and surprising read.

buy it here.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The ultimate Guide to Survivng a Zombie Apocalypse by Kim O'Neil

The way I look at it, there are three main reasons for purchasing a zombie survival guide: 1.) An honest belief in the eventual rise of the dead from their graves and an earnest desire to survive such an event, 2.) as a reference book for zombie fiction and/or role-playing campaigns and 3.) Simple and pure entertainment of moderately geekly dimensions. Please notice that I've left out "solving late night whiskey-fueled arguments between friends over who would survive the longest during a zombie apocalypse," which was omitted on purpose. We all know those arguments can only be resolved by the requesite sloppy-drunk fistfight in the parking lot.

With that in mind, I'll keep my review based off of those criteria.

Utilitarian: The biggest calling card to the hard core zombie survivalist here is that it is a very streamlined guide. The information is clearly labeled, bullet-pointed and logically organized, which certainly makes finding what you need simple and quick. Combat and weapon use techniques are illustrated as well as explained. Information-wise, my only issues are based in philosophical differences, the biggest of which deals with the avoidance of any other gatherings of living human beings (otherwise known as this funky little thing called civilization). While F. Kim seems to feel that any large group would be run by an evil dictator out to quash all freedom and probably rape your children, I believe that staunchly keeping to your own insular, small group would restrict long term survivability to one or two generations at most. The worst problem I see here, though, is the format of the book. It is light, but a tad too bulky to easily fit into a pocket or similar clothing based container in the event of an immediate bug-out.

Dungeon Master/Writer: Many of the same benefits of the last category hold up here as well and this use makes the negatives irrelevant. Plus, the inclusion of different types of zombie (viral, supernatural and voodoo) and type-specific strength and weakness comparisons go far to make this stand out. The lack of damage tables will annoy DMs, so plan on some hefty conversion work from your existing manuals. Writers should find plenty to run with, though much of it is compiled from existing texts that they probably already possess.

WEEEEEE!: This is where I am going to come across the harshest because I didn't enjoy myself in any way while reading this. The big killer was the arrogant "you all are way too stupid and complacent to have any chance surviving this but I am the great, mighty last hope of humanity in these dark days to come" tone. After the first thirty pages or so, it became incredibly grating and hard to stomach. Especially after the following statement: "the best way to determine the difference between a homeless person and a zombie, if you need to (italics placed by the author), is to take his pulse", which leaves me curious as to where he's finding homeless people that are both rotting and trying to eat his flesh. Worse, does that mean he shoots them in the head to destroy the brain and prevent them from infecting him with poverty? At the risk of exposing a lack of professionalism unbecoming of a reviewer of such high esteem as myself (go ahead and laugh), I must admit to skimming through the last quarter of the book because I simply couldn't bring myself to read any more. Take that for what you will.

Those comments aside, the real problem this book faces is its competition. There's a sea of similar books out there, including the hulking beast rampaging through the city that is Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide. At more than twice the price (you can find new copies of ZSG on Amazon for less than six bucks), TUGtSaZA doesn't present any solid reason to purchase it over what is considered by many to be the definitive guide of its type. Heck, the All Flesh Must Be Eaten core book is much more versatile of a sourcebook, vastly more entertaining and only runs four bucks more for a hardbound version- with damage tables!

available through Paladin Press.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey

I know the stigma a YA stamp carries among the horror community, but we, as a community, need to get over that crap. We already know, thanks to the huge popularity of Harry Potter, that works aimed at the low to mid teen age group can not only work, but be damn powerful so long as they don't underestimate their audience. With The Monstrumologist, Rick Yancey leaves no room for underestimation and puts together a damn fine, chilling and emotionally affecting tale in the process.

With monsters that will eat your face and enjoy every moment of it.

This story, under the found-fiction guise of a journal, places us in the head of young William Henry, an orphan in the care and tutelage of Pelinore Walthrope, a dour and no nonsense studier and hunter of what many would call monsters, though he most certainly would not. The town is facing an imminent infestation of Anthropophagi and dear Mr. Walthrope is the only one with the knowledge and ability to deal with it. Over the course of the adventure, Will learns a few things about his master that force him to rethink the way he sees the man to whom he's handed over his fate. And people die in incredibly messy ways.

When I said before that Rick doesn't underestimate his intended audience, I wasn't blowing smoke up your ass. This puppy is full to the gills with the type of guts n gore that made Peter Jackson's career in the way back when. Heck, the mouth full of pus scene gave me shudders that I haven't experienced since the smegma incident from The Bighead. More than that, though, is the emotional and intellectual maturity this work demands of the reader. Picture something written with the austere style of Dickens, the moral ambiguity of Lovecraft and the emotional heart of… In all honesty, I can't think of anyone else who so well captured how it feels to see the cloak of omnipotence and omniscience ripped away from those who control our lives, to see them as frail and flawed beings who have, on occasion, screwed up really bad and continue to do so, followed by the realization that they are doing the best that they can, the best that they know to do with what they have. It's a screwed up time that we all have to go through and he deals with it with a frankness and grace that is down right astounding. I won't bother going into detail about the references to Darwin, Nietzsche, Shakespeare and Herodotus because you've got the point: he trusts that you have the brains and ability to read it and he isn't going to talk to you like an idiot.

Beyond that, if you find yourself in need of more, there is no lack of action within these pages and, as a lover of monsters, I adore Yancey's choice for this go round. Anthropophagi (large, vaguely anthropomorphic beings without heads but possessed of faces in their chest, large mouths filled with row upon row of razor sharp teeth and a voracious appetite for human flesh) are a far cry from the over used fanged or moaning brethren that saturate the market and are among my new favorites. Those bastards are pretty badass. The pacing also settles into a nice ebb and flow that never left me bored.

But… look back at that mention of Dickensian language and style. If anything is going to put someone off of this book, that would be it. If you are impatient, lazy or unwilling to look the occasional word up, you probably won't dig this. Of course, much like Lemony Snickett, I don't think he is going to change anything for your intellectual inertia.

buy it here.