Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tales from Lovecraft Middle School #2: The Slither Sisters (Quirk), Author Charles Gilman

Robert Arthur is finally starting to settle in at Lovecraft Middle School. He’s managed to secure a solid friendship with the boy who once demanded a regular “dweeb tax”, found a new two headed rat for a pet and enjoys the company of the lovely, if slightly dead, school ghost. All while defeating the plans of an evil outer being posing as a science teacher (aren’t they all?). But now Sarah and Sylvia Price have reappeared noticeably altered. Worse, Sarah is running for student body president so that she can abduct the entire student body. Robert has less than a week to get the students of the school to notice him and beat the two most popular girls in school and not get eaten or possessed in the process.

Like the previous LMS book, this one is a breeze and a joy to read. It’s fun with a hint of crazy, has some inventive and interesting monsters. Gilman keeps walking that line between silly and frightening in a way that never leans too much on either side and the tension is built and released well. Also, the more I distance myself from my Lovecraftian purist predisposition, the more I have been able to enjoy myself. Yes, it is Lovecraft in little more than name and lacks the deep sense of existential dread that made his works so great, but, damn it, it’s fun. 

I also very much appreciate the wry, underhanded comments on the American political system and our approach to it. We have a student body that ignores the one person whose agenda seems to be in their best interest in favor of charisma, give aways and empty promises. My favorite moment is during a debate in which the titular sister answers her questions with gracious aplomb and style while not saying anything at all. Marvelous.

On the down side, the characters are still coming across rather flat. Our heroes don’t seem to be growing or facing any real internal struggle. The villains are all slimy, goopy, scaled or otherwise easily denoted with no actual motivation. This lack of depth to the characters makes it hard for me to particularly care for them all that much. I’m mostly waiting for the next monster to appear. Also, as absolutely amazing as the cover art may be, I'd have a tough time justifying the $15 purchase price for a book I read in a single afternoon.

To sum up: Like a twinkie, this entry into the LMS mythos is quite fun, but fairly empty and quite expensive. Still, fun is a heck of a word, so do what you will with that.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Nowhere Hall, by Cate Gardner

"Someone stole the world and packed it up in a briefcase."

We all know how to deal with ghosts (salt, prayers, just move out of the friggin house already), vampires are old hat (stake, decap or wait til sunrise for the sparklies) and no matter what new permutation on zombies you may come up with, we have our plans ready (we won’t go into that). Physical threats are blasé, but many of us have to face a new horror: economic uncertainty. Yes, this is nothing new for the blue collar world (Braunbeck’s “Union Dues” pretty well sealed that one up for us), but now those who had always felt safe behind a desk aren’t so secure anymore. White collar Willy Lomans litter the pavement and we all know that we might be next. Enter Kate Gardner’s novella Nowhere Hall to poke and prod at this new chink in our psychological armor.

Meet Ron. We’re not sure where he’s going or even where he’s been, but neither is he. We just know that this poor soul seems snapped in a few places and that he’d been let go because he’s let himself go. His world seems familiar enough, but its logic doesn’t work quite right, things don’t make the sense that they should. And he finds himself at the door of a building, crossed with police tape and heralded by a falling umbrella with a simple note attached: We want to live. Help us.

In a way, Nowhere Hall can be looked at as in inwardly aimed ghost story that twists reality in the same vein as Poppy Z. Brite’s Drawing Blood. It is surreal, but in a way that slips through the spaces between dendrites rather than slamming against the forebrain, shouting “Ooooh booga booga. I’ve got a marshmallow in my eyes!” Cate paints Ron as one who haunts as much as he is haunted, an empty shell roaming halls that have long forgotten him, and the effect is emotionally devastating. In this case, the slipstream flow of illogic is used to great effect in reflecting the inward confusion that Ron is experiencing as his world dissolves instead of simply being used for shock value.

Yes, if you prefer your narratives to be of the more direct variety, then you will not enjoy yourself here. It certainly took me several attempts rereading whole paragraphs multiple times to make sense out of the situation. But, as I said before, that’s the point. It should be confusing and disconcerting, it needs to be. It also isn’t a particularly cheery tale, ending with a question none of us really want answered (I want to say that we do, Cate, but I’m too afraid to find out the truth). However, the resulting experience is well worth it all.

Nowhere Hall ends up as a journey that is bewildering and heartbreaking, a painful search for worth where objective value has been removed that would fit perfectly along side of Tom Piccirilli’s Every Shallow Cut, if you have a favorite razor you’d like to cuddle up with.

GRAVEMINDER (Pinnacle) by Melissa Marr

What is it that makes a novel “gothic”? We all know that it sure as hell isn’t pouty teenage girls fainting in the embrace of sparkly vampires, but negative proof is never much help. Is it old, crumbling manses or castles sinking into the unbearable stench of a cursed moor? Ghosts that haunt the periphery of the damned? Some alchemy made from cobwebs and wrought iron posts? Or, is it old secrets, buried deep but still boiling to the surface? The inescapable past sneaking up on the unknowing present?

If, like me, those last two are what really make the genre for you, then you’re in for a dilly of a tale with Melissa Marr’s Graveminder.

Rebekkah Barrow left Claysville a decade ago and did her best to never look back, despite the deep connection to her step-grandmother Maylene and long running ignored relationship with the town’s Undertaker in training. As with all best laid plans of meece and menses, this all goes to hell when Maylene is murdered. Someone or something tore her apart and finding out who only begins the mystery that forces Rebekkah back into the town she never truly called home and the arms of the man she never admitted into her heart, ByronMontgomery. It seems that the town elders had made a pack in the long ago that binds everyone within its borders and more than just ghosts are worming their way out of the ground.

Graveminder takes an interesting approach to the traditional gothic ghost story in that it is the town itself that is haunted, instead of a specific person or house. Not so much haunted by ghosts (though the dead do walk within these town limits) as by the remnants of decisions made long ago. That aspect is what makes it a uniquely American, distinctly post-millennial Gothic novel while maintaining the sense of history and age associated with the genre, this sense that even as we strive for personal freedom we are bound by the sins of our fathers. No matter how much we may strive and struggle against this hold of the past, we inevitably find ourselves unable to escape and must find some way to live with it. Melissa Marr beautifully captures this age old strain of freedom versus fate in both Rebekkah’s constant fight against it and Byron’s passive acceptance.

Of course, you could ignore that and lose yourself in the loamy, dusty ambiance (you’re soaking in it) while the hungry dead chew at your flesh.

On the down side, the ending seemed a tad rushed to me. The setup was far too rich and the emotions seemed too complicated to play out as quickly as they did. Also, the romance portion fell flat for me. I didn’t feel the connection between the two in any way beyond the superficial and still have a tough time buying it. These aren’t story killers by any means, but it could’ve played out a little stronger with more patience.

Regardless, Graveminder goes well beyond the standard penny dreadful and kept me up well into the dreary hours with Ms. Marr’s combination of originality, heart and whip quick pacing.

BLOOD SOCIETY (Necro Publications), by Jeffery Thomas

 It’s tempting to start off with a trite rant about how defanged and bloodless vampire stories have become, but Blood Society isn’t really about vampires. I don’t just mean in the sense that we never truly know what protagonist Dragna and his ilk are; the monsters simply are not the focus. This is more of a traditional gangster story with the presence of vampires being used as a metaphor for the parasitic nature of the mafia. That’s where things get interesting.

 Back in the early 1900’s, Attilio Augusta met a woman who turned him into something other than human: an immortal with the ability to transform into a hideous and ravenous beast. Unsure of what to do with his new unlife, he opts for following the family tradition of becoming a Mafioso. The rest of the book chronicles his life among Italian-American mobsters until his eventual reunion with the one who turned him and a run in with rivals like unto himself. Hijinks, blood and bodies ensue.

 Dragna (Attilio’s immortal pseudonym) is no Don Corleone. He runs his organization with a firm fist and sheds whatever blood is needed, but spends quite a bit of time reflecting on how he feeds upon society and the destruction his parasitism helps to wreck. Consequences follow him around like a shadow, destroying everything that matters to him and he is never truly at peace with what he does. This internal conflict within a type of tale that is usually too morally simplistic is refreshing, to say the least.

Jeffery Thomas also does some amusing things with the vampire aspect. Right off the bat (yes, that pun was intentional), he is shown to be a violent and predatory and it is always nice to see vamps using their teeth for more than biting pillows during Mormon-friendly sex. At the same time, he toys with the traditional vamp tropes, warping them into a new being that may not even be vampire. Best of all, none of the characters are magically aware of what they are or all of the rules and reasons of their condition (I always hate it when characters “just know” damn near everything). They’re just kids trying to figure out who and what they are, knowing only that they seem to be immortal, drink blood, turn into a monstrous form and travel between alternate realities at will.

On a negative note, the cover art is a tad uninspired and bland. As much as we get told not to judge a book by its cover, it’s sad to see this from Necro, a company I can usually depend on for high quality presentation. More pressingly, Dragna’s journey has no real arc to it. ***warning: minor vague spoilers may be present*** The end seems to point to a redemption through sacrifice but I don’t quite buy it, Dragna never seems to change in any fundamental way. ***End possible alert*** That may very well be the point of the metaphor of the nature of the mafia, but it comes across as cheap and is unfulfilling.

Overall, Blood Society is an intriguing take on two overused genres that blurs them in a way that makes a statement while drenching us with blood. Can’t complain about that.

Hunter's Moon (Omnium Gatherum) by R Scott McCoy

 As a species, we are born hunters. No matter how removed from our distant past we may get, buying slabs of neatly packaged and processed meat from brightly lit coolers at the local grocery store, the genetic memory is still buried somewhere deep in our subconscious. That need to pounce and destroy. To feel the sweet, tangy taste of blood dripping down out throat. At the very least, to avoid being eaten ourselves. The stories in Hunter’s Moon deal with that relationship of predator and prey, approaching it in ways that are sometimes surprising and often quite entertaining.

The best stories in this collection showcase R Scott McCoy’s more playful side. “Jihad” is a great example of this, placing the reader in the head of a man obsessed with destroying the rodents that have overrun his house. Certainly, the analytic in me loves that I was never sure what was real and what was purely a figment of the protagonist’s growing psychosis but then he hit me with this: “I’m not leaving my post, Steve. If I do, this position will be overrun. If you want to help, bring me more peanut butter for the traps.” If you didn’t fall in love with that line, I’m not talking to you any more.

I could go on, with stories like “Bitch Queen” (kegel enhanced coochie and all), “Garbage Man” (always use a full sized portrait) and “The Find” (bigfoot-‘nuff said) but you get the point: McCoy knows how to tell a tale that is just downright fun. At the same time, his knack for building honest and true feeling characters gives the more serious tales like the heartfelt “The Last Line” and damn angry “Best Served Cold” the punch they need to truly hit home.

Unfortunately, there are times that McCoy’s old school, Serling-esque aesthetic gets a tad too repetitive and predictable. Most of the time, the personality and characters save those but there are times, specifically in the cases of “Stream Scream” and “Regular Customer”, where the story’s lack of a sense of cohesion or direction kills the experience.

McCoy isn’t out to change the world or shock us with his new and outrageous approach to story telling. His work makes it clear that he is out to do one thing and one thing only: spin a good yarn. Overall, despite a few minor missteps, he certainly succeeds with this collection.

The Last Kind Words (Bantam), by Tom Piccirilli

 “The last kind words ever spoken to Jesus were spoken by a thief.”

Normally, I'd start off with some kind of hook, a generalized statement that ties into my feelings about the book being reviewed. Summary. A well reasoned list of pro's and con's. Professional and clean, if a bit self-conscious at times.

That's not what you're getting today, because this isn't that kind of book.

The back flap breakdown would have you believe that this is a story of a man forced to return home to a broken family of crooks and thieves. Faced with the brutality of his brother's murder spree, he's been asked to find the killer of the one person his brother didn't kill. A murder mystery wrapped in the barbs of crime fiction curled in the velvet black drapes of noir.

But that is also not what you are getting today, because it isn't that type of book.

It's not really about any of those things, at least not to me. To me, this is a tale of the sicknesses and sins floating in blood, embedded in flesh. It's about a man's struggle to find out if he is bound to the same fate as his family, if genetics, like anatomy, is truly destiny. The murderous brother who went mad dog one night and killed an old woman, a family of five (their little daughter included). The history of graft and theft running generations deep. The dementia whose roots have all but mushed the brains of the family's eldest and have begun to worm their way into the younger ones as well. These things that our dear, humble narrator wants so desperately to believe he can extricate himself from but fears with just as much certainty that he cannot escape.

It says so much about the effect of Piccirilli's writing on me that I cannot remove myself from it, that I can only speak of it in terms of myself. That's why I, quite frankly, ride his nuts as if they are my favorite stallion. His writing is always so intensely personal, that it becomes personal to me. Here is this man whom I have never met, who knows nothing about me, yet whose words seem to understand the deepest fears and hopes bursting inside of me.

Its a bit scary, really.

I'll just end with saying that The Last Kind Words resonates against my own experiences in ways I don't care to share with strangers, but it's there all the same. There will be those of you put off by the first person narration and the somewhat overwrought and bruise-purple prose but my own experience was sublime in the truest, most Longinus(ian?) sense of the word.

BLACKOUT (Orbit ) by Mira Grant

***BLACKOUT is the third book in a trilogy that builds heavily upon itself. Because of that, there is no way that I can talk about this work without spoiling several key events of the previous books. It isn’t designed in a way that you would enjoy it without reading both of those first anyways, so start there. We’ve got reviews of both FEED and DEADLINE to check out in the meantime.***

Here it is people, the one you’ve been waiting for. Our oldest got us all excited, the middle kid left us agitated and confused and this one is supposed to wrap it all up. This is the point where Newsflesh will either be remembered as a great trilogy in a sea of limp, processed zombie crap or it will just leave us all pissed off for getting us so worked up. Does it satisfy?

Yes. Go buy it if you don’t already have a half-devoured copy on your bookshelf.

You want details before you blindly follow my orders? Fine. The conspiracy that overran the Ryman presidential campaign, leveled Oakland and left the team at After the End Times with too many corpses in their wake has only gotten broader. The heads of AtET are all hunted fugitives hiding out with a mad scientist. Florida has been lost completely, due to a surprise insect vector of Kellis-Amberlee, just in time to distract from the raid on the CDC. People with reservoir conditions are being killed off because they carry a possible immunity to the disease. And they’ve brought Georgia back as a clone?

That last bit had me worried, since it smacked of a cheap way to bring back a beloved character, but her resurrection is integral to the larger issue of criminal misuse of science for the purpose of maintaining control. Sure, we do get a nice comfy feeling having good old George back but we also know enough not to trust it in the hands of an author who has made it perfectly clear that she won’t treat us with kid gloves. Her presence, and the reason for it, alters the path of events in integral and powerful ways that certainly calmed my initial qualms.

Overall, the dangers compound, hope rises and gets smashed against the ground, the stakes escalate and the conspiracy we’ve been following deepens. Yet, through it all, Mira maintains the sense of regular people unwittingly and unwillingly thrust into desperate times and situations determined to do what’s right, even when they don’t necessarily know what the right thing to do is, or how to do it. They’re not special, just schleps who want the truth to be heard.

And damn do I love those schleps. I can’t gush enough over how comforting it was to settle back into this crew of crazy people. Shaun’s headlong rush for vengeance and crazy discussions with the dead sister living in his head. Becks’ anger and pure sincerity. Mahir’s dry and incredibly British sense of humor. Maggie’s energy. Aleric being an asshole. They feel like friends I never got to meet in person and I still enjoyed getting a chance to sit in their heads while the world crumbled around them.

Now, those expecting a denouement to the grand, global issues revolving around the Masons and their fellow newsies may find themselves a bit disappointed. Changes and resolutions are moved toward, but we don’t get to see the long term effect of them, so we don’t know how it truly works out. However, in my mind at least, this was never a story about those issues so much as how these people dealt with them. In that, we do reach a very satisfying conclusion that wrapped up their stories quite well. However, I am biting my tongue about a certain revelation that I didn’t think was necessary, except to give a romantic edge to the story that wasn’t really needed and made it a bit creepy.

All in all, this is a great last third to the Newsflesh story that manages to keep the focus clearly on the characters while still revealing incredible and frightening things about both their world and ours.

Bloodstar: Star Corpsman, book 1 (Harper Voyager), by Ian Douglas

Before we get this under way, it is definitely worth warning you that I am not in any way a fan of either Hard or Military Sci-Fi. As far as I am concerned, they both tend to be overloaded with information that gets in the way of the story, instead of aiding it. I know that there are people out there who are highly interested in the intricacies of propulsion units and methodology as well as tactical data, but I am not one of those. I want the story itself and any information pertinent to that story or an understanding of its characters and the world they live in but anything more bores me. Please keep that in mind as it is something that highly flavors this review.

Way off in the far-flung future, people have begun colonizing the stars. One of those colonies, Bloodworld, was founded by a group whose desire to suffer for the sins of humanity found an ideal home on its brutal terrain. They’ve lived there for decades, alone and isolated and content with both. However, a war-bound race of aliens, the Qesh, have found them. Not only is their own safety at stake, but the security of Earth and any other human colonies. Enter space marines and combat galore.

Let’s start off with the good things here: I very much enjoyed seeing war from the point of view of a Corpsman (the closest layman's term would be a field medic, but it would not be entirely accurate), someone whose primary concern is healing over harming. This alone tossed much of the over the top, “we kick ass” attitude out the window. And, Ian presents us with a much more likely view of humanity’s early forays into space: tentative and frightful. This is a future where humanity knows that they are outnumbered and outgunned by older, larger and more strategically powerful races in space and are doing everything they can to stay below the radar. The main character is well developed and there isn’t the usual good versus evil delineation so much as a concern for the people he is with.

All of these things are great. I loved the story itself. When I  got to read it.

Unfortunately, most of the time was spent buried under paragraphs and piles of text dedicated to the history of Corpsmen. The changes in medical engineering. Every detail of how each specific bit of nano-technology worked. The operating principles of the weapons systems. Military tactics out the wasoo. Over 150 pages had passed before Bloodworld was reached it still took a bit of discussion of nano-flage and nano-grown encampments before much else occurred.

I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed the story at the heart of this novel, but I could not find it in myself to enjoy the novel as a whole.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Tales from Lovecraft Middle School: Professor Gargoyle, by Charles Gilman

Arguably, Lovecraft’s menagerie of goopy-grimy betentacled and befouled beasties are on the path to becoming the new zombie now that the populace at large is growing rather weary of the shambling undead and nothing proves it more than this. A flashy, lenticular-covered YA series centered around a middle school named after our dear, departed godfather of all the unknowable horrors lurking at the borders of our understanding. As both someone who worked with middle school aged beings (unknowable horrors in their own rights) and a huge Lovecraft dork, I couldn’t have been more excited when I first heard about the series.

Due to local redistricting, Robert Arthur has been moved to the brand spanking new Lovecraft Middle School. A marvel of modernity, the systems are automated and computerized, the library is stocked with e-readers and LED monitors flash school news in every corridor. It was even built from 100% recycled materials. So why did rats appear in the lockers, with no noticeable point of ingress? Who is Karina, the strange girl that no one else seems to know about? What’s the deal with the old, musty room hidden among the PARANORMAL section of the library? And did Professor Goyle just eat a hamster?

Taken on its own merits, the first book in the LMS series is highly entertaining, if a tad overloaded with exposition. The reading is light, but quick and fun. The tone is never quite menacing enough to give pause regarding the mental well being of your little ones, but allows enough evil to create a minor sense of danger. Basically, it makes for harmless good times that I would have a hard time not recommending for the intended age group. Even better if it gets them intrigued about this “Lovecraft” fellow. Also, both Azathoth and Yog-Sothoth make appearances and anyone would have a tough time finding fault with that.

Really, any minor problems I have come from me being a dork and a stickler for details. Azathoth possesses a person and appears as your usual devil-like figure even though we all know the great god piping madly at the center of the universe would never stoop to such paltry tricks. And he is held accountable to a dead scientist. How the hell did this guy get to control the greatest of the Great Old Ones? How can Goyle’s students make it through a class without going insane the moment he begins to speak? My staunch nerd-blood boils at this, but it is important to remember that Mr. Gilman is not out to leave twelve year old trembling, faced with a comsos that views them as less than nothing.

I am a bit disappointed in the lack of depth to the characters and simplistic approach to the situation. Too many authors to mention have proven that the YA market does not have to be dumbed down and that children are not only willing to be challenged, but seem to enjoy it. I’m hoping that future iterations of the series take the time to delve more into the interior workings of both heroes and villains and are willing to muddy the waters a bit more than this one. Otherwise, I had a good time reading this one and, while I wouldn’t be as likely to recommend this for adults as I would Yancey’s Monstrumologist series, it was still plenty fun.