Widow’s Point

May 25, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

point

Widow’s Point by Richard Chizmar & Billy Chizmar

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The “found footage” horror story has been done to death. I saw The Blair Witch Project in the theaters twenty-nine years ago, and even then, it wasn’t an original idea. I get that writers like to go back and do their own version of their own genre’s tropes, but where some authors can make the story original enough off of style alone (Stephen King’s “1408”, for example), the Chizmars can’t quite give this story the depth or presentation Widow’s Point needs to make it stand above the other examples.

The story is about an author, Thomas Livingston, who writes nonfiction books about the supernatural, and arranges to spend the weekend in a lighthouse with a checkered history. The site of suicides and murders, the lighthouse has been fenced off for years, since even trespassers have a habit of ending up dead. Livingston, looking for his next bestseller, and against the advice of the owner of the property, moves in to record his experiences on camera and audio. The story is told through those notes, which, of course, are the only things recovered from the lighthouse at the end of the weekend.

Widow’s Point has some effective scenes, both in imagery and atmosphere, since the Chizmars are going more to unsettle than to scare. Some of the details from the story will stay with me, but I can’t say that the characters will. Thomas is an unlikable character (he’s intended to be so), so the events feel somewhat removed, so I can recognize the effectiveness of the events, but not the effectiveness of the story. We learn the history of the lighthouse through Thomas’ residency, and it’s interesting, but without that connection through the character, the story reads more like a “nonfiction” account rather than a ghost story. Maybe that’s intentional. Regardless, the story remains a little flat.

This novella was published by Cemetery Dance, Richard Chizmar’s own publishing house, and he’s described as a “NYT Bestselling Author” in the blurb. While technically true, it seems disingenous not to note that he received that accolade for being the coauthor of a Stephen “The Reason Why ANY Co-Author Would Be a NYT Bestselling Author” King novella. Either way, this novella feels like it’s been self-published, and that Billy is Richard’s son, this feels way more self-promotional than I like. I’m still looking forward to A Long December, though.

Started: April 8, 2018
Finished: April 8, 2018

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Prodigal

May 24, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

prodigal

Prodigal by Melanie Tem

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Two names seem to still have some clout from the Dell/Abyss line: Kathe Koja is one; Melanie Tem is the other. Both are known as authors who write unusual books that are more about unsettling than scaring, and are (so far, at least) closer to the “cutting edge” that the publisher claimed these books would be. Prodigal was Tem’s first novel, and it shows what to expect with her career.

The story is about a family of nine who, as the story opens, is still recovering from their oldest son, who has run away. Told from the point of view of Lucy, the third-oldest child who is eleven years old, we get a somewhat skewed look at the state of the family. We see the grief and the denial of the parents, the anger and confusion of the children, and the interference of the family’s therapist, but through the eyes of a character who doesn’t have the maturity to understand much of what she sees. She’s still in the “I hate you!” stage of her emotional development, and as her family slowly crumbles around her, we see a pattern emerge among the oldest children and how they relate to their parents and their therapist.

Prodigal is not out-and-out horror. It contains disturbing imagery and characters, but Tem gives us hints at things being not right, as opposed to giving us the shock of the monsters fully revealed. Events are ordinary, but hardly mundane, and when Tem does show us events that aren’t normal, or even natural, they stand out even more against the backdrop of the family. Her horrors stand in as representations of the Brill family dynamic, but since they’re told to us from Lucy’s perspective, we know that they’re actually happening, since she’s not old enough to understand allegory or metaphor.

This book is another re-read for me, but I didn’t remember any details of the story as I read it. This doesn’t surprise me; when I read this book for the first time, I was looking for out-and-out horror, and I’m sure it disappointed me. Like Lucy, then I didn’t have the maturity and experience to recognize the book for being as effective as it is, but now, I can recognize it as the achievement it is. Prodigal, almost thirty years after its first publication, is still relevant.

Started: April 2, 2018
Finished: April 8, 2018

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Specters

May 22, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

spectersSpecters by J.M. Dillard

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Even twenty-seven years ago, books about child molester serial killers were cliched. That premise doesn’t automatically mean a story using it would be terrible, but Specters doesn’t do much original with that idea. That this was one of the first books published under the “Cutting Edge” of the Dell/Abyss line is that much more disappointing.

To be fair, Dillard does a good job with the story. She writes well, and her characterization is convincing. Bruder, the antagonist, could have been evil simply because he molests children, but Dillard doesn’t rely on just that to make him evil. He’s a bad person because he lacks empathy and treats people as disposable; the whole molesting children thing is just an extension of all that. He begins to break down toward the end of the story, but that could be because the author is making him more and more unstable as his insanity goes deeper and deeper. The parts didn’t cohere into a solid enough story for me.

Dillard also plays around with the idea of the story being a supernatural one, since Bruder sees ghosts or he could be seeing hallucinations brought on by his own deeds. It’s vague enough that the reader can try to guess, but then she also gives the two protagonists (twins) a psychic connection. So it suggests that the supernatural is real in the story, even though it would be more effective to have us guess at Bruder’s ghosts.

Specters is definitely better than Dusk, and doesn’t smack of ’80s/’90s-misogynistic horror like Nightlife threatens to do in places, but I don’t see this as being on the level of what Dell/Abyss promised. So far, it seems like the books from the line written by women hold up better than those by men, but I’m only four books into this project so far. We’ll see.

Started: March 20, 2018
Finished: March 30, 2018

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Blood Colony

May 15, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

colonyBlood Colony by Tananarive Due

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MAN, it took me a long time to finish this book. I like Due’s style, and her plots have been interesting, but somehow Blood Colony took me about three weeks to finish. Even other, drier books haven’t taken that long. Somehow I just couldn’t stay engaged with this story like I did with her other two books (though The Living Blood took me about two weeks).

I do like how Due shifts her themes around from book to book. Each one has been a look at immortality, but where My Soul to Keep was a personal look, and The Living Blood looked at it from a more epic perspective, Blood Colony is a mixture of the two, since Due introduces us to a competing group of immortals while showing us Fana as she attempts to become her own person. As the two groups intersect, we see that the blood reveals a new power, and what it suggests is chilling. It’s reminiscent of Carrion Comfort, in the way that the immortals can control other people, but it’s not a carbon copy thriller.

I like where the book takes us, but I felt like it was a lot of story for not a lot of payoff. Part of it, I think, is how much ground Due has to cover. Not only does she have to give us the history of the new group of immortals, but she also has to show us what’s happened with Fana over the last fifteen years or so. Since both stories take us to the same conclusion, we need them both to get the whole story, but it can sometimes feel long-winded.

The characterization feels weaker here, too. It may be due to Due bringing in so many characters, but I didn’t feel the kind of connection with Fana and Jessica like I did in the first two books. I expected it to be the other way around, since by now I should be familiar with them, and Due wouldn’t need to spend as much time developing them, but somehow I felt the distance. The book forces them apart, so the distance there is physical, but I didn’t expect that to be true of them in the story, too.

Due gives the story a good depth, showing Jessica and Fana having started up a commune to disperse the blood for its healing effects, but the story doesn’t have the same OOMPH as the first two books. There’s one more book left in the series (so far; apparently, readers thought this would be the final book in the series, which would have been a disappointment), and I’m hoping Due can bring it back with that book. I’m eager to be finished with the series so I can move on to other books on my list.

Started: February 25, 2018
Finished: March 18, 2018

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The Walking Dead, Vol. 29: Lines We Cross

May 11, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

linesThe Walking Dead, Vol. 29: Lines We Cross by Robert Kirkman, et al.

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If you already like The Walking Dead, and if you’ve been reading it long enough to make it to volume twenty-nine, then there’s not much I can say about this collection to get you to read it. Chances are, you’ve beat me to it. Plus, I’ve reviewed enough of these collections so far to give you a good idea of what to expect out of the series, even if you’re not reading it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it gets harder and harder to review these collections (unless they’re not very good) the longer I read the series.

A couple of notable things here is that Kirkman introduces a new character to the saga, and that character is weirder than the last few characters he’s introduced. He also manages to make Negan out to be a fully sympathetic character. Sure, it took several story arcs (and several years) to reach that point, but it’s an impressive feat, nonetheless, since he came into the story bashing Glenn’s head in with a baseball bat. Considering that Kirkman makes him sympathetic without sacrificing the character traits that make him so unlikeable makes it even more impressive.

Plus, it was interesting to see how Kirkman manages the death of a significant character in the comic, when the show did such a poor job of managing the death of a different significant character in the latest season. I’ve said before that the show does a disservice to the story and the characters of the comic, but seeing how differently they’re handled, almost back-to-back, is enlightening.

I’m a committed reader, so I’m going to keep reading the series until Kirkman runs out of story. I recommend it to viewers of the show who are growing tired of the runaround and back-and-forth nature of the plot (not to mention if they want to see an Andrea who’s worth reading and a Rick whose character isn’t inconsistent), and want to see what the show could have been. I’m not one who thinks a TV show or movie should be exactly like the book, but the story in the comic is simply a better one.

Started: March 16, 2018
Finished: March 16, 2018

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Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook

May 9, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

lostLost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook by Christina Henry

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A good five-word summary of this book is: Peter Pan as a sociopath. And it makes perfect sense.

Think about it. He’s impulsive, manipulative, insincere, unreliable, and exhibits superficial charm. He’s also smart and self-centered. Even in the context of the original story, he’s a textbook sociopath. Henry takes this idea and uses it to develop Peter Pan’s origin story, told through the eyes of James, later to become Captain Hook.

The pivotal point of this story is Charlie, a new recruit to the island, and the youngest boy Peter has ever brought to the island. Only five years old, Charlie is adopted by James, who has always served as the protector of the Lost Boys. Their relationship makes Peter jealous, since James is supposed to be Peter’s best friend, and over the course of the book, we see the relationship between Peter and James break down. Along the way, we find out what keeps Peter young, how he meets Tinkerbell, and how Captain Hook came to be Peter’s enemy.

Henry has had good success with translating children’s stories into darker, adult tales, and part of that success is in how well she draws her characters. The main characters here (James and his circle of friends) are convincing, and the relationship they share feels real. Their personalities and challenges carry the story, and it’s them who kept me engaged. Parts of the story didn’t work for me (the origin feels somewhat simplified, and Henry incorporates beings who don’t live on the island in the original work), but overall, it was riveting.

I’ve started listening to nonfiction audiobooks, since I find I can focus on them better than I can audio fiction, but Lost Boy was an exception. I found it on sale, and liked Henry’s Alice books, so I figured it was worth a shot. I’m glad I gave it a try; Lost Boy kept my attention from start to finish.

Started: March 8, 2018
Finished: March 11, 2018

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Dusk

May 7, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

duskDusk by Ron Dee

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I would have expected the Dell/Abyss books to start dwindling in quality over time. I wouldn’t have expected that to happen with their third book, but here we are. Dusk is a terrible novel, with nothing to redeem it.

Abyss was known for two things — original ideas, and cutting-edge stories. Dusk is a typical vampire novel, and the only thing that could be considered cutting-edge would be how much sex it contains. I’m no prude, but I expect the sex in a story to be relevant; in Dusk, it’s excessive. It’s there just to show that the author can do it, and it reads like it was written for thirteen-year-old boys. In fact, it reads like it was written by one.

What’s also unfortunate about this book is how it portrays its women and minority characters. Women are oversexed (even before the vampirism), and the black characters are frequently called “niggers”. Dee uses this term to show how terrible some characters are, but it still felt like he was using the term just because he could. Joe Lansdale uses the word in his Hap & Leonard books, but it’s used with more subtlety. Hell, that scene with Alan Tudyk in the Jackie Robinson biopic used the word with more subtlety than Dee does here.

That the Abyss line survived beyond this book is a shock to me. That the Abyss line even agreed to publish this book is a shock to me. The plot is pedestrian, the characterization is weak to nonexistent, and it relies far too much on telling to be engaging. That I’ve read this before, and had no recollection of anything from it is telling. Fans of Richard Laymon might like what Dee does here (sex and violence just for the sake of sex and violence), but beyond that, I don’t know what the target audience is for this book. It’s one of the worst books I’ve ever read.

Started: February 28, 2018
Finished: March 3, 2018

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The Living Blood

April 30, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

bloodThe Living Blood by Tananarive Due

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The Living Blood is the second in Due’s Immortal Africans series, and given the way My Soul to Keep ended, I expected the book to pick up right where the first ended. I wasn’t quite prepared for it to start slightly before the ending and carry us through the events of that ending in more detail. It’s almost like the prologue for this book was swapped with the epilogue for the first one, the way it all fits together.

The good news is that this isn’t a bad thing. My Soul to Keep ended in such a way as to suggest it was the start to a series, and The Living Blood shows us more behind Dawit’s culture, and how Jessica fits into modern society as a new part of that culture. It’s brilliantly paired with a single widower searching for Jessica as the miracle cure for his son, who is dying of leukemia. Due takes us through the heartache and turmoil of having a sick child, and having to make the decision to leave that child behind to find a cure, knowing he may die before he can return. It’s harrowing in a way that’s not usually seen in standard horror.

The story here is more expansive, and feels more epic, than My Soul to Keep. I enjoyed that book, but The Living Blood gives it more depth to make it more important, more significant. Soul looks at the idea of immortal Africans on a personal level, while Blood looks at it from a larger perspective. The two books together make a nice duology, which will make for interesting reading since there are two more books in this series.

Less horror and more dark fantasy, The Living Blood is an excellent continuation of Jessica’s story from My Soul to Keep. I can see this book appealing to a wide audience — horror readers, fantasy readers, even readers of alternate history — and it’s easy to see that its roots lie in horror, but Due rises above the tropes of the genre with this book. It even has hints of the scope of A Song of Ice and Fire, especially if she continues down the path she’s forged here. I’ll be an eager reader of the rest of the series.

Started: February 11, 2018
Finished: February 25, 2018

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Nightlife

April 27, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

nightlifeNightlife by Brian Hodge

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A new drug has arrived in Florida from the deep jungles of South America, and Justin Gray, a convicted drug dealer and recovering user from St. Louis trying to make a new life for himself, is introduced to it by a local dealer. He witnesses its use in a nightclub, along with its animalistic, murderous aftereffects, and then finds himself engaged in a war with the dealer. Justin finds himself allied with a South American native and the woman with whom he is developing a relationship, along with the jungle magic that is the source of the drug’s effects….

I’m not much of a back-cover blurb writer, but that’s a decent summation of the story. Does it sound cutting-edge? New and original? Or anything else that Abyss was supposed to be in the 1990s? No? OK, good. That’s how I feel, too. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with the premise, but for Abyss to follow up The Cipher, which was all those things, with this book just feels like a step backward.

Nightlife is another re-read for me, and I should note that I was a huge fan of Hodge’s after reading this book. Twenty years later, it’s still a solid read, but it’s not as good as I remember it. For one thing, Hodge uses a lot of sentence fragments in his narrative. He drops the subject of his sentences. Picking it up with the next sentence. Assuming the reader will carry the thread. To his credit, he usually makes it work, but it comes across as distracting to me. I can see a writer doing this kind of thing when the action kicks in and he’s trying to carry that frenetic pace through to the narrative, but Hodge does this a lot, even when he’s just describing a character walking into a room. It didn’t sit well with me.

The readability improves as the story progresses and the characters become clearer. The story is still pretty dated, though, with cordless phones being the newest technology. Hodge takes great pains to show his characters extending and compressing the antennas on these phones, as if it’s the most important part of a scene. I can’t blame Hodge for not including cell phones, but the rest of the story stands somewhat timelessly, so it’s jarring to run across something as antiquated as a land line.

Plus, this is a very male book. The central characters in the fight are Justin, the drug dealer, and the South American, all of whom are testosterone-laden men. They’re different in their own ways (Justin is sensitive, the drug dealer is Scarface, and the South American is a noble warrior), but they’re the focus of the battle. Angel, Justin’s love interest, plays a role, but she’s less central. It doesn’t help that a major conflict for Justin to overcome is Angel’s role in a porn film she made before they even met, or that Angel feels guilt toward Justin over it and worries that he’ll leave her over it. Hodge gives her reasons for all this, but it just feels out of place from 2018, where society is (mostly) progressive enough for this to be his problem, not hers.

Still, the story is solid, the characters are engaging, and the plot is compelling. It’s just surprising to find that a book published in 1991 has to be viewed as a product of its time the same way a book published in the 1950s should be. It has been over twenty years, but there’s still a part of me that feels like the 19-year-old reading this for the first time, and it doesn’t feel like so much has changed in that time. Maybe that’s just me complaining about getting old, though.

Started: February 13, 2018
Finished: February 25, 2018

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My Soul to Keep

April 20, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

soulMy Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

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My Soul to Keep is another book I remember from my horror days. At the time, black writers and female writers were not well-represented in horror, so it was surprising to find a well-regarded book written by a black female author. I bought it and kept it for many years, but never got around to reading. Now, twenty years later, I found the time to read it, and I’m glad I did.

The story is about Jessica, a happily married journalist with a young daughter whose life is upturned when members of her family and friends wind up murdered. Despite her love of David, her husband, evidence keeps pointing back to him as a murderer, but what she finds there is far more significant, and far more revealing, than she would have expected. That revelation forces her to question her love for him, and the stability of her family.

The book is reminiscent of good ’90s horror. It focuses on character, plot, and development above all else, even though its themes are deeper than the standard fare of its time. For all the white male authors who dominated the genre, it’s refreshing to see a book from that time that presents a different perspective, but still fits in easily with the other books on the shelves.

The story trends more toward dark fantasy than horror, as Due’s story reveals something bigger than just an investigation into a serial killer. I don’t want to reveal too much, but the name of the series of books that starts with My Soul to Keep is a bit of a spoiler. I like how Due takes the story through these twists, without ignoring the threads that began the plot. By the end of the book, there were a few too many coincidences for me to keep from rolling my eyes, but Due’s prose and plot kept me reading enough to keep me up late to finish the story.

I was impressed with this book for several reasons, not the least of which is how well it holds up twenty years after its first publication. It could easily have been released today, among Jemisin’s and Okorafor’s classics, but it’s interesting to see how Due’s novel helped pave the way for those epic storytellers. After finishing My Soul to Keep, I went and ordered five other books of Due’s, and I can’t think of any higher praise for the author. This book is the first in a series of four, and I plan to move on the rest of the series immediately.

Started: January 27, 2018
Finished: February 6, 2018

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