Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Review: Epitaphs: The Journal of the New England Horror Writers

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


I love short stories. I love to read them, I love to write them. But you know what’s better than a short story? A whole freaking collection of them! And someone recently shipped me over a copy of Epitaphs, a Stoker-nominated collection of tales and poetry from the New England Horror Writers, a group that is very close to my heart. Of course I had to dive right in.


Okay, enough banter. Let’s get down to the daunting task of looking at the stories themselves.


To Sleep, Perchance to Die by Jeffrey C. Pettengill: Well, let’s just say the collection didn’t start out so well for me. Here we have a tale of a CPAP machine gone horribly wrong. The tone just seemed to lag, and honestly the ending seemed a bit campy, though without the fun that camp implies.


The Christopher Chair by Paul McMahon: And here we go! One of the better stories in the collection, about an antique wheelchair blessed by St. Christopher that can supposedly heal the sick…for a price. Atmospheric and full of confliction, McMahon really packs a punch with this one.


A Case of the Quiets by Kurt Newton: The first poem in the collection, and a doozy. It brings to mind horror poetry of old, with a very Poe-esque flow, and comes very close to matching the former master’s penchant for nailing the dark side of human nature coming from within the mundane.


Build-A-Zombie by Scott T. Goudsward: This one was quirky and fun, telling of a boy assembling an unusual gift from a new sort of gift shop. It made me want to know more about the world in which it takes place, which is a good thing.


Not An Ulcer by John Goodrich: Wow. This story, to me, was far and away the best of the bunch. In it a man who hates everything about the world, including himself, literally separates himself from his emotions. It’s “Be careful what you wish for,” taken to the extreme. Tremendous, and the ending gave me chills.


The Possessor Worm by B. Adrian White: A quaint little tale told through emailed correspondences between characters, kind of an updated take of Lovecraft, if you will. In the end the payoff fell a little flat. Still pretty good, however.


Make a Choice by John M. McIlveen: Truly haunting, telling the story of a madman who torments a family for a night, forcing the parents into a decision that no parent would ever—or should ever—have to make. It’s a fantastic exploration of the human condition and how survival of the fittest might not be completely erased from our cellular memory. As an added bonus, the end is shocking because of what doesn’t happen, which surprisingly makes it all the more disturbing.


The Death Room by Michael Allen Todd: Another poem, this one not nearly as good as the first, but I still appreciated the creepy undertones.


Perfect Witness by Rick Hautala: Now this is a twist. A murdered man is brought back to a sort of pseudo-life for a short time in order to testify at the trial of his murderer. The interplay between his thoughts and what might actually be happening in the world outside his rotting brain was really well done. Also, the author hints that this experiment might have grave repercussions down the road. Do I smell a novel coming? Given the author’s enjoyable style, I hope so.


Stony’s Boneyard by Glenn Chadbourne and Holly Newstein: Atmosphere, sorrow, and forgiveness rule the day in this excellently (and traditionally) crafted short. It deals with a tattoo artist and the biker whose back represents the greatest achievement of her life. Unlike a lot of stories in the collection, this one actually ends on a bittersweet note, equal parts solemn and hopeful. Really well done.


Kali’s Promise by Trisha J. Wooldridge: The third poem, and another traditionally-inspired example of getting exactly what you ask for. It’s quite entertaining and told in a repetitive way that added to the tone of dread. I knew it was well written because I guessed the ending after the very first stanza and it still had me captivated.


Sequel by David Bernard: Not my favorite. I’ve seen this sort of plot—about a horror writer who takes his inspiration a bit too literally—many times before. It’s well written, but predictable.


Malfeasance by David North-Martino: This was perhaps the most maddening story in the bunch. Just as with the previous story, I knew how it would end very early on. And yet it was crafted so intricately, I kept thinking no, I’m wrong, there’s a twist here I’m not seeing. But then…it ended just how I thought it would. Disappointing in that regard, yes, but it was still very much worth the read.


Private Beach by Stacey Longo: A fun little romp that harkens back to the pulp horror era, about two beachgoers who of course ignore a No Trespassing sign and pay the price for it.


All Aboard by Christopher Golden: The second-best story in the collection. A disquieting tale of a mother and father’s struggle to come to grips with the death of their child, with a dash of the supernatural thrown in. It really is a heavy-hearted story that thankfully doesn’t come across as heavy-handed. By the end I was on the verge of tears—and I couldn’t tell if they were happy or sad, which is a first for me.


Holiday House by L.L. Soares: This was a decent offering, about a pair of old sisters who live in a ramshackle estate (think Grey Gardens) that might be haunted, or might conceal other, more frightening entities. I particularly liked the ambiguity at the end.


Lines at a Wake by Steven Withrow: A very short poem that brings about one hell of an eerie vibe using an economy of words.


A Deeper Kind of Cold by K. Allen Wood: This one was interesting. On a space station, a woman frets while the love of her life, who is in a rather odd state, struggles to survive a mysterious sickness. The tone was fantastic, and it asks the question of what it is we actually love about a person. Though the ending was fantastic in its grim earnestness, I couldn’t help but think the setting wasn’t used nearly enough. The metaphor of the emptiness of space as compared to the emotional distance between the woman and her mate just never materialized, which I thought was a missed opportunity. That being said, it’s still a wonderful tale. That ending alone is worth the time it takes to read it.


Alone by P. Gardner Goldsmith: A very creepy and very short story of a man wiling his hours away, isolated in his home, as the world may or may not be ending outside. It had a very Twilight Zone vibe to it, which was cool.


Pandora’s Box by Roxanne Dent: I wasn’t the biggest fan of this story, about a woman who suspects her husband is having an affair and gives into her impulse to follow him. The opening sequence completely gives away the twist at the end. If only that had been cut, it would’ve been a much more enjoyable experience.


Chuck the Magic Man Says I Can by Michael Arruda: This was a really fun and idiosyncratic little tale of two sisters staying at their parents’ friends house while they’re away on vacation, friends who just may hold a secret that only the precocious younger daughter can handle. I really enjoyed it.


Burial Board by T.T. Zuma: Very moody period piece about a man and a burial board that does some rather…strange things. Well written, but for some reason it didn’t feel complete to me.


Windblown Shutter by John Grover: A kid sees his mother murdered and is haunted by the memory and the fact he never saw the killer’s face. I found this to be a fabulous study of the cyclical and never-ending effects of grief and guilt, even if the murder mystery fell a little flat.


Cheryl Takes a Trip by Stephen Dorato: Even though it wasn’t my overall favorite, this story, to me, was perhaps the most inventive of any in this collection. When a woman’s spirit is cast from her body after her mysterious death, she decided to go and do the one thing she’d always wanted to do but had never done—take a trip to Bermuda. It’s really a self-exploration piece, focusing on the way fear can rule our lives, and maybe even our deaths. I thought it was great.


Legend of the Wormley Farms by Philip Roberts: A haunted farm draws a trio of brothers into its sticky, legendary web. It lagged a little in the middle, but in the end I was actually quite shocked. I also thoroughly enjoyed how the author delved into the ways familial pressures and support (or lack thereof) can damage young minds.


The Church of Thunder and Lightning by Peter N. Dudar: An interesting choice to end the anthology, about a reporter and her cameraman on a mission to document the odd rituals of a Jim Jones-type cult. The cost of ambition without regard for human decency was certainly on display, and the function of the cult itself was a truly original creation.


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And that’s it! Maybe the longest review I’ve ever written, too.


Overall, I have to say I loved this collection. While every story didn’t ring true to me, the vast majority of them did, and most of those that didn’t were still expertly crafted. There are a variety of unique voices, and in a lot of them you can certainly sense the slightly Puritanical undertones that most people who grew up in New England are saddled with. It’s an anthology well worth your time and money, and the authors are worth keeping an eye on.


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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Review: The Old Ways (Paladins III) by David Dalglish

Rating: 5 out of 5


No one’s perfect, but sometimes everything comes together, especially in literature. It’s fascinating to watch an author grow and grow, slowly improving over time, fixing faults in their writing, finding new ways to explore tired old plot devices, coming to grips with their weaknesses and making them strengths. It’s not all that rare in the world of books, but it’s still special.


And this brings us to The Old Ways: Paladins Book III by David Dalglish.


I, for one, am a huge fan of the author’s work. (Surprised? Look through my archived reviews and you won’t be.) I’ve read every book Dalglish has come out with, and either loved or really liked every one. But this one is something special. Gone is his penchant for rushing, for occasionally taking the easy way out and brushing aside important internal conflict. Instead, what the author has given us in this book is a pace that moves slowly, fluidly, that gradually builds the tension and grows the characters until they explode off the page in the last act.


The Old Ways continues with the struggles of Jericho, paladin of Ashhur, and Darius, former paladin of Karak. The story picks up where we left off in Clash of Faiths, with Darius being converted to the side of light in his trial-by-fire (and unnecessarily rushed) clash with his old friend. He’s a man isolated even when he’s surrounded by people. He’s haunted by his past deeds, both inwardly and outwardly, and the fact that many of those past deeds hurt a great many people does nothing but make life much more difficult for our poor antihero.


But he’s learning, changing, determined to become a better man, even if it kills him.


On the other side of the coin we have Jericho, the sometimes too-good-to-be-true goodie-goodie. While I loved his character when he first appeared in Half-Orcs, truth be told he can be a bit one-note with how honorable and loyal he is. But then again, his purpose in this story is to act as foil for Darius, for Darius is the true star of the show, the character that grows and experiences pain and redemption and acts like a living, breathing human being. He is the backbone of this novel—the backbone of the series, really—and in this book he really shines.


Along with Darius’s redemption, Dalglish also pushes the envelope with his new cadre of villains. We have Valessa, the Grey Sister who died in Faiths, only to be reborn as something dark and complex, a being of shadow that cannot rest until her mission (killing Darius) is accomplished. The scenes involving her were brilliantly done, full of contradiction, self-loathing, and doubt. If there’s one character that I hope future books explore deeper, it’s her.


Then we have Luther and Cyric, priests of Karak who start up the journey toward changing the world to fit their god’s image. The complexity of each character is fantastic. They’re literary interpretations of different ways of obtaining political power—subterfuge cunning, and force and tradition. Both are effective in their own ways, and to watch their respective plans unfold on the page was awe-inspiring. Especially with Luther, who offers a surprise at the end that literally left me speechless.


So yes, I can say that David Dalglish has done it again. He’s written a book full of trepidation and turmoil, full of violence and self-discovery, a book that I fully ingested with aplomb. I may not be someone you really want to listen to in regards to my opinion on this book, since I’m a little more than biased toward him, but in my humble opinion he has created a work that goes far beyond simply being a third book in a series.


And that’s because The Old Ways, while not perfect, is just about as close as any writer can get to that unreachable ideal.


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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: Best Laid Plans (Shader Book II) by D.P. Prior

Rating: 5 out of 5


Sequels are a tricky business. I consider it a rarity when books actually get better after a fantastic opening volume. Off the top of my head, I can only think of three series that hold this distinction: King’s The Dark Tower, Dalglish’s Shadowdance Trilogy, and of course the Harry Potter books.


In other words, with Best Laid Plans: Shader Book II, D.P. Prior has joined some pretty select company.


Best Laid Plans picks up the story of the events on Sahul (and in other, more surreal locales) with the characters in dire straits. The undead army of the liche Dr. Cadman has overwhelmed Sarum, the Templum fleet is approaching Sahul, and Deacon Shader, our hero, is, well, dead…none of which will stay true for very long.


To say this book has a busy plot would be an understatement. At my count, there are at least nine storylines going on at once: Deacon’s experience in the afterlife, the struggles of the White Order, the survival of those trapped in Sarum, Cadman’s angst and rise to efforts to retain power, Maldark the dwarf’s guilt over his past, the dreamer Huntsman’s continuing education of Rhiannon’s brother Sammy, Sektis Gandaw’s quest to assemble the statue of Eingana and begin the unweaving, Shadrak’s growing importance to the whole (possibly) preordained events unfolding, Shader’s resurrection and subsequent quest, and Emperor Hagalle’s double-handed dealings. Throw into this mix vast battle sequences, and you have a piece of literature that could very well have become disjointed and confusing in a lesser author’s hands.


Yet Prior is up to the task in this opus, and the narrative he builds is a fascinating one. There is mythology and philosophy, questions as to the nature of reality and time, scathing observations on government and religion, and even a few references to modern-day events and objects that bring this beyond the realm of just a great epic fantasy adventure. All of these tropes and points meld together, creating a work that is exciting while at the same time thought-provoking.


This book questions everything. While there are certainly protagonists and antagonists, these characters are as far from being cardboard cutouts that you can get. Perhaps the greatest achievement is the way Prior allows us, through differing points of view, to see inside the minds of virtually every major character and allows us to develop at least an inkling of empathy for them. Even the despicable Cadman and the perhaps more-despicable Gaston (who performed a virtually unforgivable act in the first book) are given time to show they’re real, flesh-and-blood people with doubts and fears and even remorse. It allows them, the characters, the move the plot forward rather than the plot moving them, which for a work that deals a lot in fate and preordination is a feat in and of itself.


The battle sequences were well thought-out and exciting—much more so than in the first book—and particularly the scenes that take place at sea, while Deacon is attempting to find the albino who stole his pieces of Eingana, are captivating. They’re a mixture of new and old, a melding of science fiction and Tolkien-esque fantasy that is truly original and awe-inspiring in scope. There were very few times where I became confused, and even on those rare occasions all it took was a small step backward to realize that I’d simply missed a sentence or misunderstood the usage of a certain word or phrase.


In conclusion, I can say that Best Laid Plans not only matches Cadman’s Gambit, the first book in the series, but enhances it. This is a book chock full of imagery both beautiful and hideous, with a mixture of genuine comedy in places to break up the despair and tension. It was a beast of a story to read, one I didn’t want to put down. And by the time I reached the cliffhanger ending, I wished more than anything that I had the third book on hand so I could get right to it.


That’s right, folks, D.P. Prior has crafted a wonderful mythology that goes perfectly with his spot-on writing. This is a series that should be savored like a fine scotch, one whose sweetness lingers in your mouth long after you’ve swallowed.


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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Top 15 Books of 2011

Well, I'm a tad bit late to the game here, but better late then never, right?

Once again, I looked over a great deal of outstanding fiction over the past year, and here are my top 15 (well, sort of 16) in ascending order.

(Disclaimer: All of this is according to me, of course. Obviously there are many books I haven't read.)

#15 - Spirit Storm by E.J. Stevens (4.5) - Lighthearted but meaningful, the second book in Stevens's Spirit Guide series came this close to being much higher on the list.

#14 - The Stasis: Powerless book 3 by Jason Letts (4.6) - The best book of the Powerless series, full of despair and dark emotion.

#13 - The Miracle Inspector by Helen Smith (4.7) - A fantastic literary exploration of dystopian Britain. Darkly comedic and unsettling.

#12 - Draculas by Blake Crouch, Joe Konrath, Jeff Strand, and F. Paul Wilson (4.7) - Quite simply, this was hilariously gory fun.

#11 - Anomaly by Thea Atkinson (4.7) - Heartwarming and disturbing at the same time, a fascinating (not to mention revealing) look at addiction and the nature of sexuality.

#10 - Freeze by Daniel Pyle (4.8) - A short, powerful story that left me breathless.

#9 - The Gods of Dream by Daniel Arenson (4.8) - This hallucinatory look at the world of our sleep is meaningful and full of wonderful description.

#8 - The Ryel Saga by Carolyn Kephart (4.9) - A work of epic fantasy that is almost poetic in its prose and pace.

#7 - Jenny Pox by J.L. Bryan (4.9) - In the first book of his Paranormals series, author Bryan creates a work that very much stands up to the likes of Carrie and Weaveworld.

#6 - A Dance of Death and A Dance of Blades by David Dalglish (5.0) - Okay, so I'm cheating a little, but since these two books are the 3rd and 2nd in a trilogy, and are both now available in an omnibus, I figured I'd combine them here. Let's just say that Dalglish's Shadowdance books are so well-written and plotted that he'll have a hard time topping them in the future.

#5 - Dismember by Daniel Pyle (5.0) - A truly compelling journey of horror into the broken mind of a man who only wants his family back.

#4 - Cadman's Gambit (Shader Book I) by D.P. Prior (5.0) - With a compelling mix of science fiction and hard-boiled fantasy, this book captured me from the first sentence and wouldn't let me go.

#3 - The Infection by Craig DiLouie (5.0) - I'm a sucker for zombie fiction, and let's just say that DiLouie's opus is a new take on the end of the world and just about as good as it gets.

#2 - A Sliver of Redemption by David Dalglish (5.0) - Sure, his later series may be tighter and more refined, but as far as emotion goes—and I'm a sucker for emotional threads—Dalglish has never been better than in the final novel of his Half-Orcs series.

And finally...

drumroll

#1 - Burying Brian by Steven Pirie (5.0)

My favorite author over the last 20 years doesn't disappoint with his follow-up to Digging Up Donald. It's a hilarious and poignant journey of one inept man's attempt to save humankind, and heaven, from themselves.

And that's it, folks! Here's to a great 2012, to great books and great writers, so go out there and read!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Review: The Legend of Witchtrot Road (Spirit Guide #3) by E.J. Stevens

Rating: 4.7 out of 5


Man, do I love E.J. Stevens. She has such a pure innocence in her prose, as if she’s capturing just what it means to be young and in love and also, at the same time, have the weight of the world on your shoulders.


In The Legend of Witchtrot Road, the third installment in her Spirit Guide series, Stevens steps back a bit. The far-reaching story arch that encompassed the first two books is still present, but it is allowed to linger in the background, to heighten naturally. As a storyteller she reins herself in, focusing on the tale at hand rather than building her world outright.


In many ways, The Legend of Witchtrot Road is very similar to a midseason “event episode” of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yuki, our main character who smells the dead, has her own Scooby gang, and together they must solve the mysterious death of a classmate, whose untimely end came on the Witchtrot Road of the title. The road itself is steeped in myth, superstition, and dark history, and if the always stalwart Yuki is going to have a semblance of peace from her classmate’s lingering ghost, the answers to the mystery need to come quickly.


This is a tale of social conscience and, just like the great television show I mentioned earlier, takes some of the more pressing concerns facing our nation’s youth (bullying, eating disorders, the proliferation of drugs in the community, etc.) and presents them in a fantastic manner. It’s a type of storytelling that’s pure in intention and beautiful in message, especially when presented in a professional manner, which E.J. Stevens does with every book she puts out.


Now, even though the specifics of Yuki and company’s world aren’t explored in-depth, as I already stated, they are still there. There are some interesting developments when it comes to Simon (perhaps the best character in the series), and also certain events that made me, the reader, question whether or not Yuki and werewolf boyfriend Cal will indeed have the happily ever after they’ve seemed, until now, destined to live.


Yes, The Legend of Witchtrot Road is a fantastically na├»ve, touching, and thoughtful novel. Stevens continues on her journey as a writer, and you can plainly tell when you read the words she puts on the page that she continues to grow. The author has a wonderful story to tell, one that I thoroughly enjoyed and will certainly be passing down to my own daughter. To me, this is a coup of the YA genre, one that shouldn’t be missed.


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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Review: Livin' La Vida Papa by Louis Mack

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Being a father, I understand the parental duty. However, given the fact I’ve always had a job, I don’t have a clue what it would be like to be a stay-at-home dad.


And now here comes Louis Mack, in his hilariously real Livin’ La Vida Papa, to fill in those gaps.


This is a tight and amusing read, as the author—who is himself a rather well known horror novelist writing under a pseudonym—intersperses bits of his personal experience in raising his daughter and infant son between offering advice to young parents that is surprisingly sincere despite its mirth…or perhaps because of it.


Each personal anecdote is humorous and sometimes gag-inducing, while at the same time imparting a sort of innocence and sense of self-exploration that is refreshing. It’s a short read as well, one you can read in perhaps a couple hours. This briskness allows the words to pack an even greater punch than they would have if this was some four-hundred page magnum opus.


So yeah, Livin’ La Vida Papa is a darn good experience. I recommend it to young fathers, to writers who falsely assume that if they were just able to stay home all day they’d get that much more accomplished, and, well, just about everyone else. It’s funny and heartfelt, and no matter what, you’re guaranteed to come out of the experience with at least one story you can rest assured no one else will have heard of.



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