Archive for Book Reviews

Jan
27

Mr. Mercedes – Book Review

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MrmercedesMr. Mercedes
Stephen King
Scribner
June 2014
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings

Mr. Mercedes is vintage Stephen King of a particular sort—Stephen-King-without-supernatural-monsters. It is indeed a horror story, much as Misery was a horror story, or Gerald’s Game (although that one remains my least favorite of all of his works), Dolores Claiborne, “The Body,” or other tales in which the monsters look like us, act like us, and in fact are us. In this case, the monster is a psychopath determined to destroy as many people as he can in as spectacular a way as possible, yet to everyone around him, he is simply a pleasant, rather nondescript young man, as unthreatening as anyone else.

Opposing him is another of King’s older protagonists, reminiscent in some ways of Ralph Roberts in Insomnia. Hodges is a retired detective, arguably near-suicidal, certainly at odds with himself for having failed to solve several crucial open cases. When he receives a long letter signed “THE MERCEDES KILLER,” he rediscovers his sense of purpose and recommits himself to capturing the serial killer that had eluded him for years.

Mr. Mercedes touches on a number of contemporary themes, including the isolation of individuals in our world and their paradoxical lack of privacy (Mr. Mercedes seems to know a great deal about Hodges personal moments, far more than he has any right to). It looks at the fact that there are killers—either real or potential—among us, waiting for the right moment, the right stimulus, to destroy. It considers the increasing significance of electronic media in our lives—much of the ‘detecting’ in the novel takes place using computer networks. And, as do so many of King’s stories, it depends upon bonds of friendship, even love, forged through common loss, common sacrifice, and common danger.

Beyond being a meticulously developed examination of sanity and insanity, responsibility and ultimate selfishness, the novel is intriguing for several additional reasons. One is that the present-time episodes are told in present tense: “Hodges sits where he is for two minutes, four minutes, six, eight.” Normally this approach bothers me; I am traditional enough to prefer past-tense, third-person narratives. Still, I was halfway through Dolores Claiborne before I realized that that novel was not only technically first-person but a single, uninterrupted monologue told in present time about past events. In Mr. Mercedes, King employs a variation of the device carefully, integrally, differentiating between past and present actions accurately and effectively. After a while, the shifts come to seem natural, actually facilitating the flow of the story.

Another reason is extra-literary but fascinating. I read Mr. Mercedes on my Kindle—which seems appropriate considering the importance of such devices to the story. About three-quarters of the way through, I came upon the following comment, already underlined, with the note that it had been highlighted 603 times by previous readers:

Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue. (324)

Six-hundred-and-three highlights! Reading through the passage, I could imagine seeing it appearing eventually as a meme on Facebook or one of the other social media sites, accompanied by an a suitably Mephistophelian photograph of King, as evidence for the ineffectiveness, if not total uselessness of faith in a science-oriented, objective world. Certainly I’ve seen sufficient other quotations attributed to famous people to evoke the same belief.

There is only one problem with the fact that 603 people apparently felt the comment correct enough and important to highlight it: it is spoke by a madman, a sociopath, a human monster, and therefore does not—in fact cannot, considering King’s other overt statements about God in such works as Needful Things and Desperation—represent King’s beliefs. Context is everything. And some pages later, King writes the following: “Gallison doesn’t reply, and Hodges turns back to the two unlikely associates God—or some whimsical fate—has ordained should be with him tonight” (404). While the sentence suggests ambiguity, this time the context of the novel as a whole indicates that emphasis should fall on the first possibility rather than the latter.

These two rather technical matters aside, Mr. Mercedes proved well worth the read. Considering the ice and snow outside and the hint of chill seeping around the double-glazed window panes as I write, it seems appropriate to conclude by saying that Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes is both monumental and glacial.

Generally, words such as these are negative, especially when applied to novels, as in “the pacing is glacial,” i.e., events move so slowly that it would be more entertaining to wait until summer and watch the grass grow. In this case, however, I refer more to the physics of glaciation than to apparent movement. Mr. Mercedes at times seems slow, almost as if the plot had come to a halt, but beneath that stillness, events and understands move, imperceptibly perhaps, but with a powerful sense of inevitability and even—perhaps—destiny.

Recommended.

 

 

 

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Jan
26

The Lost Level – Book Review

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Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00020]The Lost Level
Brian Keene
Apex Publications
December 17, 2014
Reviewed by Marvin Vernon

Brian Keene’s The Lost Level is the first book of a projected series. If you’re familiar with the works of Keene, then you know him mainly as a writer of visceral horror. His zombie filled Rising trilogy is probably the best known of his books yet he’ll occasionally venture out in to other territories, like with The Lost Level. While having its moments of horror, it’s steeped in an earlier tradition of the fantasy/science pulp fiction of the past. Think Edgar Rice Burroughs or Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Even Sid & Marty Kroft’s TV show Land of the Lost is mentioned by the author as an influence. I will venture out on a limb and suggest that another influence is Phillip Jose Farmer’s epic sci-fi trilogy, Riverworld, where an alternate reality is created by bringing in various other cultures and people from many places and time, yet suggesting that there may be a secret controller of the dimensions. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Aaron Pace is a young but resourceful man who has an interest in the occult. Through his mystical research he discovers something called the Labyrinth, “a dimensional shortcut through time and space. It touches and connects everything.” He explores the various worlds through the Labyrinth with enthusiasm and recklessness, until he accidentally enters the Lost Level, “a dimensional reality that existed apart from all the others.” Anything in all of time and space can end up there and there is no escape.

The veteran Keene fan will pick up a theme instantly; the Labryinth Mythos is an integral part of all of Keene’s fiction. Here we learn of the Lost Level but the author is also giving us more subtle hints regarding the mythos’ multiple realities in this series. If you have never read anything else by Keene, this will not ruin this exciting adventure tale for you. The author sets up what he needs to for his story and makes sure it is a thrilling ride.

Aaron Pace is the perfect hero for this tale which does owe the most to Edgar Rice Burroughs. He is daring and capable with just the right amount of naivety and wonder to make him believable; he’s likeable and easy to identify with. The story is told through his perspective as he writes his adventure in an old school notebook he finds on an abandoned bus. Most of his rivals and allies may sound familiar to readers of this type of epic. He borrows from many times, legends, and science fiction war horses. There is even at least one reference to another Keene novel and I expect there are more that I was not aware of. Stories like this bring out the inner teen in me that thrives on lost worlds, time travel stories and adventure tales where I can pretend to be the young, muscular hero that manages to slay the monster and win the heart of a buxom, bronze, and half-naked tribe-woman. The nice thing about Keene’s tale though is that it may be derivative but it doesn’t feel like it. There is enough flair and originality to make even the most frequently used creatures in the book fresh and exciting. And the last thing Keene will ever be accused of is not being exciting.

So who is this book for? It’s for anyone who enjoys adventure tales, sci-fi and fantasy. It’s for those who remember the early “Weird Tales” type pulp fiction and wants to relive it. It’s definitely for the Keene fan. And, despite some rather grown up scenes that tells us it’s not YA, it’s for the mature teenager who is ready to bridge the gap from young adult to mature audience. The Lost Level is a good start to a series that promises to send your mind to lost levels of its own.

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Jan
23

Grave Events – Book Review

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81P8wbXQa8L._AA1500_Grave Events
Jeani Rector
The Horror Zine Books
September, 2014
Reviewed by Jess Landry

Two loosely-intertwined stories of the supernatural and not-so-supernatural set the pace for Grave Events, the latest title from The Horror Zine editor and founder Jeani Rector.

The first story, Open Grave, tells the tale of Rick, a struggling University student that needs a subject for his term paper. After meeting a girl named Carley and her intensely spiritual roommate Amanda, Rick (ever the skeptic) decides to do his paper on communicating with the dead. Carley directs him to a candle shop where he meets a mysterious woman named Raven who immediately catches his eye. Raven invites Rick to attend a séance at her house the following evening to which he happily obliges. During the séance, a presence familiar to Rick materializes with a message, ultimately unearthing a family secret that only gets more twisted the deeper it goes.

Following Open Grave is Grave in the Woods, the story of rookie cop Melissa Meyers who’s looking to be taken seriously in the force. When Meyers and her partner are the first to respond to a possible murder, things quickly spin out of control as Meyers struggles with mortality and as the hunt for a killer begins.

Although an interesting read, Grave Events has its issues. Throughout both stories, the thoughts and feelings of the characters are repeated to the point where they simply become redundant. There are even a few instances where exact sentences are repeated in error. That, paired with some awkward dialogue, makes it difficult for the reader to fully commit to the intriguing stories being told.

It’s clear that Rector has some serious skills seeing the success of The Horror Zine and all its offshoots but Grave Events is not her strongest venture to date. We can only look forward to what she has up her sleeve in the near future.

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Jan
22

Cracked Sky – Book Review

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cracked-skyCracked Sky
Brian Eads
Omnium Gatherum
January 12th, 2014
Reviewed by Marvin Vernon

The strength of Brian Eads’ short novel Cracked Sky lies in the ability to express and illustrate strong and intense emotions. His story centers on Stephen and Shelly Morrison whose child was murdered. The author wastes no time in getting into the deep emotions involving the death of a child. Stephen is practically mentally comatose, depending on his doctor prescribed medications to get through the day. Shelly isn’t much better, disguising her difficulty to deal with the death of her child onto her husband’s behaviors. Stephen’s brother Josh tries to help but he is losing patience and his own drug issues aren’t helping either. He relays the news to the grieving parents that their child’s killer is dead but that does not relieve the pain partially because Stephen is seeing things, things like his daughter’s alphabet blocks on the floor spelling out “Help Me.” It appears that the killer’s power to hurt goes beyond the grave.

Eads does an impressive job melding the issue of grief with a tale that involves the supernatural and the afterlife. I wish it worked a little better than it does. There are a number of reasons for this. The main reason for me lies in the character of the killer. Darryl is never thoroughly explained. He has powers that seem a bit pat and unexplained for the tale. I wanted more explanation for his supernatural influences. Certainly the main focus is Stephen, but Darryl is too powerful a force to simply leave as is. Another problem is that this approximately 100 page story is too short. We are thrown head first into the Morrison’s dread and angst but never get a good grip on their characters. The characters scream for development and the plot screams for a back story. Finally, I found some of the dialog a bit awkward. The author’s strength lies in description rather than dialog. At least it does in this work.

But when the tale gets started, it moves. I mean really, really moves. It takes off in the second half when we are introduced to the netherworld that Stephen’s daughter may be trapped in. As I said, Eads’ strength is in his descriptive talent and that applies both to emotions and the ability to set up an “after world” unlike the one we are expecting. And there is that ending: powerful and fulfilling to the characters and the story. It is a powerful ending for an emotional tale.

So while I have my misgivings about the development and characters, it finally paid off. I often felt Cracked Sky may have been a dry run for something bigger. I hope so because Eads has the ability and the sensitivity to write a powerful horror/fantasy story that sketches the boundary of horror fiction as well as scaring us.

 

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TheBestofRodSerlingsTwilightZoneScriptsThe Best of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Scripts
Edited By Tony Albarella
Gauntlet Press
November, 2014
Reviewed by Chris Obenschain

If you have even a passing interest in The Twilight Zone, this book is worth your money. Rod Serling’s work on this series is phenomenal, and these scripts – his 10 “best” – are some of the greatest ever penned for TV. They forever changed the television landscape, creating not just an excellent, timeless show, but also serving as an unexpected outlet for some of the most effective social and political criticism of the mid-20th century. This, in a time when Hollywood censors purged all media of any controversial or critical contemporary themes, was quite an achievement.

Who can watch (or in this case, read) “Time Enough At Last” and not ponder the futility of nuclear war, or not lament the xenophobia and paranoia of the cold war after reflecting on “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”? Even today, over 50 years after their debut, these stories are still as gripping, emotional and – unfortunately – relevant as they were back then.

The scripts themselves are beautifully written, and are every bit as engaging as the episodes on TV. You can also see the differences in what Serling wrote and what ended up on the screen. For example, in the script for “Walking Distance,” events play out in a different order than they do on the show. And while it was likely Serling himself who made the adjustment, it’s still interesting to see the overt and nuanced changes that were made in the transition from script to screen, many of which are discussed in the “commentary” essays accompanying each script.

If there’s a complaint I can make about this book it’s there isn’t enough of it. Serling wrote 92 of the show’s 156 episodes, and many classic episodes, such as “Twenty Two,” “The Hitch Hiker” and “It’s a Good Life,” are left out. But make no mistake: these scripts do cover the best of what The Twilight Zone is known for. Regardless if you’re looking for aliens, time travel, unique or other-worldly stories or post-apocalyptic narratives, you’ll approve of what’s here.

Serling’s work on The Twilight Zone is just as relevant today as when it premiered, and regardless if you’re interested in his social critique, want to study the alterations that were made in the transition to TV or simply would like a copy of some of the most important television scripts ever written, this book will make a worthy addition to your collection.

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TheArtofEatingThroughtheZombieApocalypseThe Art of Eating Through the Zombie Apocalypse
Lauren Wilson
Smart Pop Books
October 28, 2014
Reviewed by Matthew Baker

I’m not going to outright say that I believe in zombies or that there is actually the potential for a zombie apocalypse…however, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to prepare for the possibility. I mean, I LOVE zombie movies, and in many of them, the guy who states ‘zombies aren’t real’ is usually the first guy to get eaten. I guess, therefore, I am what you might call a ‘weekend doomsday prepper.’ I’m not building a bunker or anything like that, but I am getting my family prepared and in a position to live off the land if need-be.

As you can probably guess, my mouth started watering when I heard about author Lauren Wilson’s recent release, The Art of Eating Through the Zombie Apocalypse. After all, food is one of the basics of standard survival, right? But usually food is scarce in these scenarios, so why not make the best of what you have? That is the inspiration behind this book, and it is an amazing collection that is definitely a must-have for every zombie aficionado.

If you are not familiar with The Art of Eating Through the Zombie Apocalypse, here is the synopsis courtesy of Smart Pop Books:

Just because the undead’s taste buds are atrophying doesn’t mean yours have to!

You duck into the safest-looking abandoned house you can find and hold your breath as you listen for the approaching zombie horde you’ve been running from all day. You hear a gurgling sound. Is it the undead? No—it’s your stomach.

When the zombie apocalypse tears down life and society as we know it, it will mean no more take out, no more brightly lit, immaculately organized aisles of food just waiting to be plucked effortlessly off the shelves. No more trips down to the local farmers’ market. No more microwaved meals in front of the TV or intimate dinner parties. No, when the undead rise, eating will be hard, and doing it successfully will become an art.

The Art of Eating through the Zombie Apocalypse is a cookbook and culinary field guide for the busy zpoc survivor. With more than 80 recipes (from Overnight of the Living Dead French Toast and It’s Not Easy Growing Greens Salad to Down & Out Sauerkraut, Honey & Blackberry Mead, and Twinkie Trifle), scads of gastronomic survival tips, and dozens of diagrams and illustrations that help you scavenge, forage, and improvise your way to an artful post-apocalypse meal. The Art of Eating is the ideal handbook for efficient food sourcing and inventive meal preparation in the event of an undead uprising.

Whether you decide to hole up in your own home or bug out into the wilderness, whether you prefer to scavenge the dregs of society or try your hand at apocalyptic agriculture, and regardless of your level of skill or preparation, The Art of Eating will help you navigate the wasteland and make the most of what you eat.

This book is an absolute joy to read, and I’m proud to have it on my bookshelf. I have mentioned it to several friends of mine who share my same love of the living dead, and they have all purchased copies. I am now going to say the same to you: do yourself a favor and pick this up now.

The Art of Eating Through the Zombie Apocalypse is written very well, but it also contains hundreds of helpful illustrations, courtesy of talented illustrator Kristin Bauthus.  Each chapter is carefully crafted to give information in an entertaining and insightful manner. In addition to recipes, the book also gives tons of enlightening information on a variety of topics, including how to eat bugs and which ones to eat, tips for hunting, how to make squirrel jerky, cultivating your own window gardens, and much, much more. The book even tells how to make alcohol for your adult beverages using minimal ingredients!

Probably my favorite aspect of The Art of Eating Through the Zombie Apocalypse is the simplistic way the information is presented. The book never talks over a layperson’s head, and yet it is chocked full of information the average citizen-on-the-street would probably not know. Heck, I’m a Southerner who grew up in the woods, but I didn’t know even half of the wild plant data contained within. The knowledge provided within this tome is truly amazing.

The Art of Eating Through the Zombie Apocalypse is an excellent how-to guide, and it’s a must-have for zombie fans and/or doomsday preppers of all varieties. I highly recommend it, and I suggest you snag a copy now before the outbreak happens and the dead start to rise! You’ll be sorry if you don’t have this handy guide available when it does.

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Jan
16

Modern Mythmakers – Book Review

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modern-mythmakersModern Mythmakers: 35 Interviews with Horror & Science Fiction Writers and Filmmakers
Michael McCarty
Crystal Lake Publishing
Reviewed by Alex Scully

Why read nonfiction? Does it really matter where an author gets an idea? Does it matter what drove the inspiration for a novel, a story, or a film? After reading Crystal Lake Publishing’s Modern Mythmakers: 35 Interviews with Horror & Science Fiction Writers and Filmmakers, the answer is a firm yes. It does matter. Why? These people are bizarre yet normal. They are just like us, but they are somehow different. These are the people that can see into that place, interpret it, and hand us back some of our most frightening nightmares.

The first interview features the science fiction/ fantasy master Forrest J. Ackerman. His perspectives over the decades give the reader a strong sense of where we’ve been in genre, and where we might be headed. When he talks about scaling down his valuable memorabilia collection, it’s not with a sense of loss, but a sense of priorities. His enthusiasm has not dimmed a bit, and we could all use that reminder. This is fun, people! C. Dean Andersson’s interview opens with the same: “I find it fun.” Adrienne Barbeau’s contribution was one of my favorites. From her role in The Fog to Carnivàle, she’s never been afraid to tackle the bizarre and make it her own.

Modern Mythmakers: 35 Interviews with Horror & Science Fiction Writers and Filmmakers works so well because it doesn’t confine itself to one side of the artistic fence. Writers and filmmakers bring their craft alive, and complement one another. We see the intersection of these two art forms, and how they bring stories to life in different, but equally powerful ways. John Carpenter, Dan Curtis, Neil Gaiman, Laurell K. Hamilton, Jack Ketchum, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Bentley Little, Kyra Schon, and the many others interviewed for this collection tell us that this creature that we love, horror, is one and the same no matter its form. Celluloid or paper, beware the dark, and what lurks in the minds of those you read and watch in the wee hours. Highly recommended.

 

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