Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review: Sweet Dreams Cthulhu: A Lovecraftian Bedtime Book

Sweet Dreams Cthulhu: A Lovecraftian Bedtime Book Sweet Dreams Cthulhu: A Lovecraftian Bedtime Book by Jason Ciaramella
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cthulhu has a bad dream and needs some reassurance from his friend, Howard Lovecraft.

I put in on the Kickstarter for this. It's a pretty adorable kids book. HPL helps Cthulhu get back to sleep, showing him that the shadows and monsters under his bed are nothing to be afraid of.

It's a slim 23 pages. While the story is as simplistic as every kid's book ever, the artwork is fantastic. It's a fun kid's book but not as good as C is for Cthulhu.

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Review: The Roanoke Girls

The Roanoke Girls The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After her mother's death, Lane Roanoke spent a summer with family in rural Kansas. Now, years later, her cousin Allegra is missing and Lane goes back to Kansas to figure out what happened and face the events of the summer that changed her life...

I saw the title Roanoke Girls being thrown around but I knew nothing about the book when it went on sale for $2.99. Going in cold made it all the better.

The Roanoke Girls is part mystery, part horrible coming of age tale. Lane Roanoke is a damaged limb on a diseased family tree, trying to forget the events of the summer after her mom died. When her cousin Allegra goes missing, Lane has to face the music.

Much like Tampa, this will be a polarizing book. Also, much like Tampa, it's compulsively readable, a trainwreck on the page. The best villains aren't the scene-chewing maniacs. They're the ones convinced what they're doing is right. The Roanoke Girls shares that with Tampa as well.

The writing style reminds me of Megan Abbott, and the subject matter as well. The story is told in two threads: the summer after Lane's mother's death and her return to Kansas to find out what happened to Allegra. In both of them, Lane turns over rocks to see the horrors lurking underneath, horrors she's tied to by blood and more.

The way Lane handles relationships keeps the story going even when nothing much is happening. She's damaged by her past relationships and can't help but wreck her current ones. She's a sympathetic figure, even when she's being a bitch.

The mystery wasn't all that complex but it was fun seeing Lane connect the dots. Like I said, the book was really hard to put down. I read it in two long sittings.

I was tempted to give it five stars but little things about it bugged me. Do women talk about boobs so much? Also, I'm pretty sure it's impossible to shoot a hole in a metal sign with a BB gun. And I wish certain parties would have suffered much worse fates. Other than that, I can't think of anything to bitch about. I loved the small town setting, the mystery, pretty much the whole thing.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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Monday, August 28, 2017

Review: The Talisman

The Talisman The Talisman by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twelve year old Jack Sawyer's mother is dying of cancer and the only thing that can save her is The Talisman. Can Jack cross America and The Territories to claim it and save his mother?

I first read The Talisman while waiting for the last three Dark Tower books to be published. Thanks to the magic of getting older, I forgot 95% of what happened. When the ebook fell into my lap, I was ready for a reread.

Brief Side Bar: This book fell into my lap because Goodreads offered me an ebook of my choice in order to share my notes and highlights. At first, this seemed like a pain in the ass but it wound up being pretty useful when formulating my review. Also, it beat carrying the massive hard cover around like a cave man.

The Talisman is a coming of age tale and also a quest story. Jack Sawyer's mom has cancer and the only thing that can save her is The Talisman, a mysterious McGuffin housed in a haunted hotel all the way over on the opposite side of the country. Fortunately, Jack can cross over into The Territories, a fantasy/pseudo-western that exists alongside earth. Still with me?

Co-written with Peter Straub at the beginning of the 1980s, The Talisman simultaneously feels like a dry-run for the Dark Tower and a collection of Stephen King's greatest hits up to that point. Jack's trek across the country is not that unlike the ka-tet's journey to the Dark Tower and the Talisman is referred to as "the axle of all worlds" on several occasions, just like a certain Tower. King flirted with the concept of twinners in other books, though not by name. I have to believe Jack Sawyer is linked to Jake Chambers in some way. Maybe King didn't think he'd ever finish the Dark Tower so he worked as many ideas from it into The Talisman as he could.

The "greatest hits" notion I mentioned? Specific scenes seemed like they were almost lifted from other king books. The talk Speedy gives Jack is a lot like the talk Danny Torrance gets from Scatman Cruthers (I know that's not his name but I can't think of it at the moment) in The Shining. You also get King staples like the spooky tunnel. There were echoes of other, earlier King books in the mix that I've already forgotten. Not only that, there were some future echoes as well. The Alhambra hotel, anyone? Also, there were numerous things that would be revisited during various points of The Dark Tower.

So where is Peter Straub in all this? Honestly, I can't say since I've never read any Straub solo books. However, there are a few times in the text where the writing lacks a certain Kingliness. I'll chalk those up to Straub. There was some backtracking I didn't care for that I'll also blame on Straub.

For a kitten squisher of this size, there wasn't a whole lot in The Talisman that felt like it could be pruned. It takes a long time to hoof and thumb across America and The Territories and Jack Sawyer goes through several hells on the way. Oatley and Sunlight Gardener's boys home were the worst, in my opinion. Give me a railroad trip over a radioactive wasteland over those two places any day.

A co-worker of mine said King is at his best when writing about kids. I didn't agree with him at the time but I saw where he was coming from some ways into this book. While I thought Jack, and later Richie, talked more like seventeen year olds than twelve year olds, what twelve year old doesn't want to go on an adventure? I'd visit the Territories now, as a 40 year old kid.

I felt for Jack's companions at times but I would also be frustrated trying to travel with Wolf. More than once, I would have left Richie behind, though. When Jack finally reached the Agincourt, I had the put the book down so I could finish it at home rather than sneak read the rest in my cube. The big showdown at the end reminded me a lot of something that happened in The Wastelands. I was also really glad of how the ending turned out, the ending of Cujo still fresh in my mind.

The second time through The Talisman was just as enjoyable as the first time thanks to the magic of forgetting. Trial run of the Dark Tower or no, The Talisman is an enjoyable epic and a taste of things yet to come from Stephen King. Four out of five stars.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review: Money Back Guarantee

Money Back Guarantee Money Back Guarantee by Hunter Shea
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Dwight saw the ad for the nuclear sub in the back of a Spider-Man comic, he just had to have it. His mother Rosemary, flush from tupperware sales, was happy to get it for him. When Dwight nearly drowned in a mass of soggy cardboard, Rosemary wanted her money back!

I'm a fan of Hunter Shea's Mail Order Massacres so I snapped this up when it popped up on Netgalley.

As I said in my reviews of the previous two novellas in this series, I have fond memories of looking through the dubious ads in the backs of comics in the early 1980s so this series has hit all the right spots for me. Money Back Guarantee is no different.

When Dwight's cardboard nuclear sub arrived in the mail, I felt nostalgic but also sad for him. Once the sub became a soggy mess, I was solidly behind mother. Who knew the faceless corporation behind all that novelty garbage could be so sinister?

Hunter Shea's writing took me down a nostalgic road to the early 1980s, when I was a kid and everything was possible, including the stuff you could order from the back of comics. There are little nods to the early 1980s, like Tupperware parties, music, and movies, but I didn't feel like it was nostalgia-pandering. AdventureCo, the diabolic faceless corporation behind the junk, was much worse than I imagined.

While I think Mail Order Massacres is just a trilogy, I'd happily gobble up more of these like one of the flesh eating plants I saw in the back of Batman comic once upon a time. Four out of five stars.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Review: Winter Tide

Winter Tide Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Aphra and Caleb Marsh, survivors of the government's raid on Innsmouth in 1928 and the internment camp that followed, head to the east coast to find the lost books of their people. Will Miskatonic University give up its secrets? And what of the rumors of Russians researching body-swapping magic?

After reading Litany of the Earth in Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis, I was intrigued by Ruthanna Emrys' tale of the plight of the survivors of the government's raid on Innsmouth and wanted more. Tor turned me down for an ARC of this but good old Richard came through.

The Marsh siblings, the last known People of the Water, or Deep Ones, left on land, head east to reclaim their birthright, the accumulated knowledge once housed in the homes and libraries of Innsmouth. With a couple friends in tow, and a couple more new friends met on the way, they rediscover their lost heritage and cross paths with magic most fowl.

I love what Ruthanna Emrys has built atop the foundation that HP Lovecraft laid a long time ago. Her bricks aren't mortared with hate, however. By mirroring the experiences of the Innsmouth survivors and the interned Japanese Americans in World War II, she humanizes the Deep Ones quite a bit and gives a much greater depth to their culture. The book has a message of tolerance throughout, something the world could use more of in this day and age.

The relationship between Aphra and her students, the confluence, drive the story, making it much more nuanced than I thought it would be going in. You wouldn't think a book that's primarily people researching magic would be this gripping. I love the magic system and the way Emrys wove Lovecraftian concepts with her own ideas.

There's not a lot I didn't find fascinating about this book. If I had to pick one gripe, it would be that there wasn't a big showdown at the end, though the end was pretty satisfying and felt truer to the rest of the book than a monster smackdown would have.

As I've said many times before, I like the concepts HPL created better than works by Old Howie himself. Ruthanna Emrys uses those concepts better than most. Four out of five stars.

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales

Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The wife had me watch 1408 a while back. I remembered it was in this collection but the only stories I even vaguely remember are the titular one and Little Sisters of Eluria. I figured 2017 was as good a time as any for a reread.

Even though I've been a Constant Reader for twenty years now, I always forget just how good Stephen King is at what he does until I start reading. The man knows his way around a story, though he gets a little wordy at times.

Like all short story collections, the stories vary in quality. I was surprised at how much I'd forgotten since I originally read this in 2002. Little Sisters of Eluria was better than I remembered, though Roland's story is missing something without the rest of the ka-tet. Everything's Eventual was great but since I came to it with more experienced eyes, it somewhat reminded me of Time Out of Joint. Autopsy Room was another great one. I liked The Road Virus Heads North but I feel like I read something similar a long time ago.

Some of the stories seemed a little out of place. I wasn't enamored with LT's Theory of Pets, The Death Room, or The Death of Jack Hamilton. As for 1408, the story that prompted me to pick the book back up... I actually preferred the movie. It was an okay story about a hotel room haunted by something but the movie really fleshed things out. Also, the Mike Enslin in the book is couple notches higher on the douche scale than the one John Cusack plays in the movie.

As with all short story collections, this one is a little hard to rate. Do Everything's Eventual, Little Sisters of Eluria, and Autopsy Room overcome the drag factor of the stories I didn't care that much for? At the end of the day, I'm slapping the traditional safety rating on this one. Three out of five stars.

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Review: Sacculina

Sacculina Sacculina by Philip Fracassi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jim, his ex-con brother, his father, and Chris, a friend of his brother's, go fishing in the sea on a charter boat. But on that fateful day, their only catch is DEATH!

Sacculina is a short creature feature about killer barnacles. That's what you're getting. The characters are more developed that is necessary for a book of this time. Who would have thought a creature feature would have so much in the way of familial relationships in it?

Anyway, the barnacle threat is really well done. The fact that the barnacles are everywhere reminds me a lot of the "floor is lava" game everyone played as kids. Will any of the fishing party return? There's some gross body horror thrown into the mix, making Sacculina a nice morsel of horror fiction.

The ending was one of those chilling Twilight Zone endings. While it wasn't remarkable, I can't find anything really negative to say about it. Sacculina is a fun horror tale and a perfect read for a lazy Saturday morning. Three out of five stars.

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Review: Lost Boy

Lost Boy Lost Boy by Christina Henry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A young man named Jamie tells the tale of the worst villain he's ever known... an impish boy named Peter.

I've long been a fan of dark retellings of classic tales, like Alice and The Child Thief. When I saw the Bibliosanctum was having a giveaway for this one, I jumped at the chance.

Lost Boy is a dark retelling of Peter Pan from the point of view of the boy who would become Captain Hook. And it's fantastic. What would an island populated by eleven year old boys really be like? It's way more like Lord of the Flies than Neverland. Lost Boys die all the time and Peter goes to the Other Place to retrieve more, just like he did with Jamie, the boy who has been his right hand for 150 seasons, at least.

Peter as an uncaring sociopath makes a lot of sense and is very well thought out. Peter has a short attention span and is extremely selfish and self-centered. The Lost Boys and the pirates are just playthings to him, to be tossed away as soon as they become uninteresting. Actually, he acts more like a cat than a little boy, now that I think about it.

After being on the island with Peter for nearly a century, Jamie starts seeing the chinks in Peter's armor and knows a bloody confrontation is coming. Peter isn't happy unless he's the center of attention so when Jaime spends more time with some of the newer Lost Boys, things go south in a hurry.

The book has a lot of brutal, heart-breaking plot twists. I set the book down to tell my wife about them a few times but, for the most part, I wolfed this book down in three sittings. It's a really gripping read and I couldn't wait to see what psychotic gesture of "friendship" Peter would make next.

The dark spin on the Peter Pan mythos was fantastic. This book postulates answers to age-old questions like "Why don't the boys age?" and "What's with the vendetta between Peter and the pirates?"

When Christina focused her dark lens on Peter Pan, she crafted a winner. If you like dark takes on classic tales, this is the book for you. Five out of five stars.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review: The Resurrection of Joan Ashby

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Joan Ashby was on the fast track to being the next great American novelist until she got pregnant. She spends the better part of the next three decades writing off and on in secret while taking care of her family. Can she overcome age, obligations, and a crushing betrayal to take back her destiny?

This isn't the kind of book I normally read but I'm a sucker when a publisher, Flatiron, in this case, offers me an ARC directly, I usually take it. For most of the book, I was glad I did.

Since people are thin-skinned about what constitutes a spoiler these days, go ahead and turn back now if you don't want to know anything about the book. I have lot of conflicting thoughts about this book and can't be bothered with spoiler tags.

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby is a very well written book. The writing reminded me of Donna Tartt quite a bit and I was glued to the book for long periods, savoring every word. Cherise Wolas knows her way around a sentence, that's for sure.

A lot of young writers will probably identify with Joan Ashby. She's a determined young author, disdaining love and motherhood in favorite of writing. At a young age, she had two award winning short story collections published and damn near everyone, Joan included, can't wait to read her first novel. However, soon after getting married, she gets pregnant and everything changes.

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby is the story of Joan's long road back, kicking, screaming, and clawing. She finds unexpected joy in motherhood but, at the same time, wonders what might have been. There are ups and downs in the ensuing decades, including a horrible betrayal at the hands of a loved one.

Excerpts from Joan's writings are scattered throughout the book, some providing parallelism, and foreshadowing in some cases. It also gives a window into a character who keeps part of herself hidden most of the time. Other excerpts feel like they may have been added to provide some padding. For what this book is, it's a little on the longish side.

For the first two thirds of the book, this one was a no-brainer for an easy 4.5, possibly even 5 stars. Sure, some of the characters are a little thin but the writing is great. However, the third act turned into Eat, Pray, Love. Granted, it was a very well-written Eat, Pray, Love but for my money, a rich person running away from their problems in India doesn't make them seem sympathetic. It makes them seem selfish and self-absorbed.

I actually contemplated not finishing the book once she went to India, thinking it cowardly and out of character, but upon further reflection, her entire adult life was fueled by cowardice and selfishness, keeping her writing life separate from her family life at all costs. I thought she was going to turn things around near the end but she kept being a craphead. It wasn't poor Martin's fault their lives turned out the way the did! She had every opportunity from the start to change things and she never did. While I found Joan an interesting character, any sympathy I may have had for her evaporated when she got on the plane to India.

After the monumental first 66%, the book went into a downhill slide it never recovered from. The ending was a fart in the wind. Nothing really got resolved other than Joan finishing her book.

As far as I know, this is Cherise Wolas' first novel and it shows. The book could have easily lost 75-100 pages and would have been better for it. That being said, she's a smooth pimp when it comes to whipping the English language around. Since I was thinking about slapping a 5 on this badboy for 2/3rds of the book and a 2 for the last third, I guess I'll go ahead and give this a 3. The ending doesn't live up to the promise of the beginning and it's long for what it is.

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Review: Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers

Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers by Joe R. Lansdale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the early 1070's, Elvis and his team of monster hunters go up against bloodsuckers from another dimension.

While Hap and Leonard are the Joe Lansdale creations I enjoy the most, the really weird stuff like Zeppelins West are what brought me to the dance. When this came up on Netgalley, I couldn't resist.

Ever wonder what landed Elvis in that nursing home in Bubba Ho-Tep? This goes a long way in explaining things. I remember at least one other Lansdale story featuring Elvis from one of his short story collections. Anyway, Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers is one of Lansdale's stranger tales.

When Elvis wasn't performing in Vegas, he was fighting monsters and spending a lot of time in an isolation tank, drugged out and searching for some cosmic truth. The Colonel held Elvis' mother's soul captive, which explains why Elvis hooked up with the son of a bitch in the first place.

When strange things show up on an unfinished film of Elvis', the crew springs into action to fight some parasites from another dimension. It's way funnier than it sounds.

The trademark Lansdale wit is in full effect. My wife was clearly wondering what I was laughing at but learned long ago that it was better not to ask. The story was short and satisfying, like a hand job in a porno theater. Landale does a great job juggling humor and violence and Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers is no exception.

To say more would be to risk spoilage. If you're a fan of Bubba Hotep or any of Joe Lansdale's crazier tales, this one is not to be missed. Four out of five stars.

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Review: Seven Days of Us

Seven Days of Us Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Olivia Birch heads home for Christmas after relief work in Liberia, she dooms her family to spend seven days in quarantine. Can the family survive its own company?

This is not the type of book I usually read. The publisher contacted me and I accepted a print ARC for some reason. I'm quite glad I did.

Seven Days of Us is a tale about secrets, the secrets a family keeps from one another. Being locked up together over the holidays is like a steel cage match, even for a stiff upper lip British family like the Birchs.

Secrets can devour a person and the Birch family and their associates get hit by a swarm of piranhas. Illegitimate children, gay fiances, cancer, secret relationships, you name it. Some of the twists were predictable, unbelievable even. Others were like a punch in the groin. The last one was like bungee jumping, having the band snap, and landing on a mountain of broken glass. Once I got into the groove, I felt like Seven Days of Us was glued to my hands and eyes.

It's a compulsively readable book. The characters are well-nuanced and I couldn't wait to see what happened to them. It's begging to be made into a movie starring probably Colin Firth.

It's not my usual cup of tea but we all need a sip of Oolong instead of the usual Earl Grey now and then. Four out of five stars.

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