Making Wolf

April 2, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

wolfMaking Wolf by Tade Thompson


Tade Thompson took me by surprise with The Murders of Molly Southborne. It was a vivid story, told well, with a vivid main character and a fantastic premise. It was such an impressive story that I immediately tracked down the other books he had written and put them at the top of my to-read list. Making Wolf is the first of those, and Thompson’s debut novel.

The story is set in the fictional country of Alcacia in West Africa, where Weston Kogi returns for his aunt’s funeral. He left when he was still a teenager, boarding a plane just as riots broke out across his country. His aunt was the one who got him out of the country, so he feels the obligation to return from London to pay his respects. While there, he makes a connection with an old schoolmate and bully who ropes him into investigating the death of a well-loved hero of Alcacia. Things slowly go from bad to worse, though, with Weston seeing first-hand the brutality of violence of living in this divided nation.

The story itself is a noir crime thriller, with Weston being the investigator and Alcacia standing in for the darkened, gritty streets. The plot carries us forward, revealing itself pieces at a time, through betrayals, double-crosses, and intrigue, complete with the long-legged dames and characters with questionable morality. The story is modernized and relocated, and it feels like Thompson has things to say about Africa as perceived through the Western eye, but it’s also a solid, page-turning crime thriller with a satisfying conclusion.

Making Wolf feels like it could be the start of a series, but since the point of the story is Weston’s character growth, it’s hard to imagine there being anything else to tell. Thompson couldn’t start over again with Weston, and there aren’t any other characters in the book that could serve as the growth for a sequel. It’s not an unfinished story by any means, but it does feel like there’s more to tell. Were Thompson to write that book, I would read it because I admire his skills as a writer, and because I trust he would be able to find a way to make a sequel fresh.

With all the Swedish crime thrillers that are populating the best-seller lists, there should be room for one more set in West Africa. Making Wolf is that book, and I think anyone looking for a well-told crime thriller, set in a new place, would do well to read it.

Started: January 4, 2018
Finished: January 6, 2018

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Off Rock

December 7, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

rockOff Rock by Kierna Shea


Jimmy Vik works for an outer space mining company, drilling what needs drilling out of asteroids and such. His ex-girlfriend is his boss, which complicates things when he finds a vein of gold in his mining shaft, and comes up with the grand idea to smuggle it off the rock to live high on the hog. The problem is, smuggling something off the rock is a lot more complicated than it looks, and as every potential smuggler already knows, it never goes as planned.

Off Rock is a heist novel, and pretty much nothing else. Shea tells an engaging, ripping tale, but he sacrifices characterization and theme for his plot. Near the end of the book, he tries to give the story a point, but it feels clumsy and forced, and it’s ultimately unnecessary, since the story doesn’t require one. We’re simply along for the ride, and aren’t looking for anything deeper than “Will he pull this off?”

Jimmy’s ex-girlfriend, Leela, is a bit troublesome, not because she’s his boss, but because her character takes an about-face near the end of the story. There’s a reason for it, but it doesn’t feel true, and it feels like Shea forced it in there because he needed it, to give the story a (kind of) happy ending. The other secondary characters also serve their purpose, but feel inserted into the events, again because Shea needed it, not because the characters were significant enough on their own.

The beginning of the book has a lot of info-dumps through dialogue, making the characters sound unnatural. I work in IT, so I get that some conversations require passing along a lot of technical information, but somehow these didn’t feel realistic. Beyond that, the dialogue focuses on the heist, and is less necessary to relay a lot of information to the reader (or I just stopped noticing it), but it was tough getting into the book at the start.

Regardless, Off Rock is a romp of a read. It doesn’t try to be anything else than fun, and even if Shea gets a little bogged down in the snarkiness and irreverence of his characters, he still succeeds. I’m not sure if it’s the kind of book that encourages me to read everything else he’s read, but if you’re looking for the science fiction equivalent of a beach read, Off Rock is it.

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A Scent of New-mown Hay

November 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

hayA Scent of New-mown Hay by John Blackburn


I had high hopes going into this book, in part because it’s been republished by Valancourt Books. I’ve read ten of their books so far, and none of them have disappointed. They’ve republished a bunch of Blackburn’s books, and what I’ve read of them — that they’re a combination thriller, science fiction, and horror romp — engendered excitement. While A Scent of New-mown Hay wasn’t bad, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

Published in 1958, the book is, as promised, part James Bond thriller (complete with villains who are damned Ruskies), part science fiction, and part horror. In fact, taken together, the three genres make it a Lovecraftian Bond novel, which, honestly, sounds pretty bad ass. The thing is, the story is mostly plot, with the characterization left behind in order to increase the tension and excitement of the plot. This isn’t a problem, but much of what I’ve liked about Valancourt’s reprints is that focus on character, and I was expecting the same thing here.

Additionally, Valancourt’s focus has been on the slow burn, the buildup of tension over several chapters, leading us to an ending that’s not explosive, but at least conclusive. Hay isn’t that kind of story, either. It starts fast and keeps the pace going all the way through to the end, and I’ll admit, I felt the excitement as we neared the end of the story, thinking How is our hero going to get out of this? It just didn’t quite fit what I thought it would be.

It seems ridiculous to base how much I like a book on what I expect it to be, but Valancourt has done such a good job setting up my expectations on all of their works that I didn’t expect anything else. I had those same expectations with the other books I read, by Ken Greenhall, Michael McDowell, Bernard Taylor, and Robert Marasco, and wasn’t disappointed. Here, the characteristics shift a bit, even though it’s not a bad story.

One might expect the story to be a bit dated, and in some ways, it is. The way men talk to women is condescending (“Good girl” is said to them more than once), but one of the central characters is a woman, and a strong one, to boot. Sure, her involvement is based on her husband, but once she’s involved, she shows that she’s just as capable as any of them men. Then there’s the antagonist, also a woman, and more than just a jilted lover or a frigid bitch. In fact, as far as the characters go, she’s the most developed and the most interesting.

Valancourt has sixteen other books by Blackburn, and I still plan to read them. Having read this one, I should be able to adjust my expectations on the rest of them to appreciate them more. Plus, A Scent of New-mown Hay was his first novel, so maybe they will improve as I move forward. Fans of weird fiction will like this the best, though it’s not as atmospheric as standard weird fiction.

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Dark Screams: Volume One

July 6, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

screamsDark Screams: Volume One, edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar


For the most part, I avoid short story collections unless they’re by authors on my Must Read. Everything. Right Now. Or As Soon as It’s Available. list. The last significant anthology by various authors I’ve read (not counting Six Scary Stories) is 999, from way back in 2000. This collection was only 99 cents, though, and it included a rare Stephen King story, and I couldn’t resist.

The first story — the headliner — is Stephen King’s “Weeds”, a story not reprinted since its initial publication in 1976. “Wait!” I hear you saying. “It was in Creepshow!” Well, yes, it was, but after reading this story, you’ll find they’re very different. Sure, the high points are still there — Jordy Verrill, a simple-minded handyman finds a meteor that sprouts grass on whatever it touches, taking over Jordy and his house — but the version in Creepshow is remarkably better. There’s something scarier about a passive threat to the planet than a thoughtful, malicious one like King presents in the original story. Still, it’s early King, when his style wasn’t quite as overwrought as it is now, and it’s fun to be able to go back and experience it again.

“The Price You Pay” by Kelly Armstrong is the next story, and might be better classified as a thriller than a horror story. It’s about toxic relationships, and how men and women react to them. It’s somewhat pedestrian, in that this is a story written and read time and again, but the author mentions that in the story itself, making me question if that’s the point. Stories like this are only relevant when they affect you in some way, otherwise they’re just “the same old story”. That alone makes it thought-provoking.

Bill Pronzini’s “Magic Eyes” follows, and is about a mental patient keeping a journal. He’s in the hospital because he killed his wife, but of course that’s not his take on things. This is another kind of story we’ve read several times (if we’re fans of horror, that is), and there’s not much to it to elevate it above all those other tales. At the very least, Pronzini creates an effective reliable narrator, while showing us that he’s the opposite.

Next is “Murder in Chains” by Simon Clark, a pointless story about abduction and survival. And mindless killing. It’s stories like these that remind me why I’m not as into horror as I used to be, and makes me question why I was into it as much as I was when I was younger.

Concluding the anthology is Ramsey Campbell’s “The Watched”. Campbell is a hit-or-miss author with me, with more misses than hits, but his short story “The Words That Count” is a favorite of mine, and is especially chilling. This story isn’t quite as resonant, but it’s definitely creepy. Campbell captures the proper atmosphere of the story, and creates some haunting imagery. It’s a bloodless horror story, and is more effective for it.

Armstrong’s and Campbell’s story are worth the price of the collection, and King’s story is an amusement, especially for his Constant Readers. The rest are just okay, though more hardcore fans of horror might find the stories more to their liking. The collection overall doesn’t inspire me to read the remaining volume, even though some heavy hitters like Peter Straub, Robert McCammon, and Jack Ketchum are among the featured authors.

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June 29, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

riptideRiptide by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child


I first heard about the legend of Oak Island when I was nine or ten, and it’s been a low-level obsession since then, enough that I’m honestly surprised when I discover people who haven’t heard of it. It has pirates! Treasure! Booby-traps! And it’s been around for over 200 years! How have people not heard about it?

Riptide is a fictionalized account of that legend, and this isn’t my first time reading the book. That would have been fourteen years ago, during a vacation at the beach. To say I loved the book is an understatement; combining the legend with being at the beach and tearing through the book in a day or two meant I loved the book. Preston and Child did a great job of translating the story into a ripping read, so when I needed an audiobook for a long road trip, Riptide was at the top of the list.

Of course, combining a re-read with an audiobook means I’m more likely to see the foibles of the story, like the paper-thin characters, the overuse of adverbs, and the story telling more than showing. There are also the technical elements of the story that I questioned (does earth really slow radiation like the authors claim? Would a doctor really not be able to identify radiation poisoning based on so much evidence?), but I still enjoyed the hell out of the story. My affection for the legend of Oak Island apparently knows no bounds (I’m also watching The Curse of Oak Island on the History Channel, though I’m behind on it).

Look: If you haven’t heard of the legend of Oak Island, you should research it. There’s a good article located here, though you could run a Google search on “Oak Island money pit” and find a ton of other resources. If that kind of story intrigues you, you should read Riptide. It’s not a perfect work, but it’s damn good, despite its issues.

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MEG: Primal Waters

November 9, 2016 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

primalMEG: Primal Waters by Steve Alten


I read MEG based on a blurb on the cover of the book: “Jurassic Shark!” At the time, I figured a description like that would make it either awesome or terrible. The book straddled the line for me — it was horribly written, but entertaining as all get out.

Since then, Steve Alten has been a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. I haven’t read one of his books since The Loch in 2005, namely because I’ve been trying to read more than just schlock in recent years. Still, when I saw the ebook edition was on sale for a few dollars, I figured a quick schlock read might be just right for Halloween.

Make no mistake: This book is pretty terrible. The characters are wooden and one-dimensional, the protagonists are barely likable, the dialogue is either cheesy or clunky, details from this book are inconsistent with those from previous books, and Alten can’t seem to decide if he’s writing nonfiction or fiction. The story relies heavily on coincidence, covers emotional moments with the subtlety of a cast-iron skillet in a barfight, the villains are more Snidely Whiplash than Hannibal Lecter, and Alten spends a bit too much time on the family dynamic of the main character than the giant sharks. He should know by now that readers are coming to read about the giant sharks and just get right to the point. The MEG books are like porn movies in that way (though there is a scene where some of the characters swim through whale cum).

That being said, Alten gets too obsessed with the details of the Megs, telling us more than necessary to show how much he knows about the giant sharks. It reminded me a bit of Dan Brown’s style, and trust me, that’s no compliment. How many times do we need to hear about how the Megalodon is the apex predator? It turns out it’s about as often as we need to hear how the Meg’s teeth and jaws crush blubber into blobs of fat; in other words, once every twenty pages or so.

So, was it worth three dollars and a few hours? I think so. I went into this knowing it was going to be pretty terrible, but I went in for the giant sharks, and I wasn’t disappointed. Much.

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Sleeping Policemen

September 29, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

policemenSleeping Policemen by Dale Bailey & Jack Slay, Jr.


A sleeping policeman, according to the opening pages of the book, is another term for a speed bump. This was my first encounter with the phrase, so I looked it up, and sure enough, this is a common term in Britain, Malta, and the Caribbean. It comes up early in the story because three of the main characters are returning from a night out and run over a pedestrian. One of the characters — oddly enough, the one born and raised amid the Louisiana oil rigs, who was least likely to know the phrase — says it aloud when they hit the man, making the connection, but as the story progresses, we learn that the phrase has a double meaning. As the characters try to escape and evade what they’ve done, they’re drawn into a circle of crime involving corrupt police, who are effectively sleeping, waiting for their opportunity. Their downward spiral is dark, profane, and graphic.

Bailey and Slay seem to be channeling Jack Ketchum with this story. It’s chock full of violence and sex and the fine line that exists between the two, but it’s lacking whatever it is that exists in Ketchum’s fiction (“charm” isn’t the right word, though it’s the one that comes to mind) to elevate it to that level. Part of it, I think, is that the characters aren’t that likable. The authors do a good job of giving them much to lose — three of them come from privileged backgrounds, while the fourth is looking to leave his dead-end hometown — but they don’t do much to make us like them. Nick, the main character, is the closest thing to a protagonist here, but early in the story, a choice he makes distances the reader from him, so there’s a drive to see how the story ends for these characters, but there’s no connection with them to make us care for them.

The authors have a great command of the language. Their style is introspective and poetic, and their observations on the human condition are thoughtful and apt. The story itself, though, is brutal and difficult to read, which is odd because the language and the tension kept me engaged. It’s the kind of story that shocks and might offend, but it’s also the kind of story that you can’t turn away from.

Sleeping Policemen is a dark journey into youth, privilege, and greed. I enjoyed reading the book for the narrative voice, but not for the story itself. I get the feeling that, a year from now, when I try to recall details from the book, I’ll come up blank, though I’ll definitely remember the imagery and certain scenes. Fans of dark, nihilistic fiction, like Jack Ketchum or Chuck Palahniuk, are probably the right audience for this book.

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September 22, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

impactImpact by Rob Boffard


It’s not really a spoiler that this book takes place on Earth. The title of the book suggests it, and if you read the back cover blurb, you’ll know for certain. It makes sense that the trilogy takes us there — Boffard has been hinting at it since the first book — but it strikes me as odd that the catchphrase on the cover is “In space, there are no second chances…”. Why not “On Earth, there are no second chances…”? It’s not a spoiler, after all.

Impact concludes the story of Riley Hale, who crash-lands on Earth after the events of Zero-G. She crashes apart from her shipmates, and spends part of the story trying to find them. While she’s doing that, her surviving shipmates are finding troubles of their own, after tracing the source of the radio message that drew them back to Earth in the first place.

Boffard utilizes short microchapters in this book, as he did with the two preceding ones. I like this style, since it keeps the story moving forward, and makes it harder to stop reading, since it’s easy to justify reading two or three more pages before, say, going to sleep. I found that the microchapters worked best here, though, since Boffard finally started flitting about among his main characters more equally (though Riley still gets the most attention), shifting from Riley to Okwembu to Prakesh and then back through them again. It keeps the tension high, since the reader will have to wait a few more pages before seeing how a scene will end. In previous books, the chapters would end on a high point, and then jump right into the next chapter with its immediate resolution; Boffard avoids that here, and the story improves because of it.

The story continues to strain credibility with me. I forgot to mention in my Zero-G review that Riley had bombs in her knees, which didn’t prevent her from running, nor did her immediately waking from the surgery and having to run halfway across the station. Within just a few hours, she’s performing high-kicks and breaking people’s jaws with her feet, with freshly-stitched incisions in the backs of her knees providing no problems. Sure, she has painkillers, and suffers a few aches in her knees, but overall she’s moving around as well as Elizabeth Shaw did in Prometheus after having abdominal surgery, and I couldn’t believe it. It happens in Impact, too. In one case, the crew in the escape ship aims for Alaska, and after entering the atmosphere earlier than they expected and losing control of the ship on re-entry, they still manage to hit their target close enough to count.

I also had some problems believing what some of the characters do in the story. A complaint I had about the previous books was how Boffard had his characters react however was necessary to keep his story moving, and I found that in Impact, as well. I can’t go into specifics without giving too much of the story away, but a critical decision one of the characters makes in the last third of the novel goes against everything they believed in the previous chapter. Boffard makes an effort to give us some of the difficulties the character goes through before making the decision, but it didn’t feel like enough to me. Why create such a principled character if they can waffle like that on such an important choice?

The characterization overall felt weak, but I can let it slide some since the book is more about plot than character. That being said, I’ve read books that have both, so I know it can be done. Even the characters with so much to lose feel flat, when we should have more of a connection to them. Boffard has a habit of glossing over large chunks of the story that seem pretty important, which I think plays into how I feel about his characters. He’ll jump from a riveting scene with a lot of tension to its immediate conclusion, robbing the reader of the chance to feel concern for the characters. How can we make that connection if we never worry for them?

Impact is entertaining, as much as either Tracer or Zero-G was. They don’t break new ground, and they won’t leave a lasting impression on the readers, but for engaging science-fiction thrillers, they work well enough. They lack the emotional impact of books like The Martian, namely because Boffard’s characters don’t quite hit the mark, but they’re compelling. They’re solid beach reads, but not much more than that.

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September 19, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

zeroZero-G by Rob Boffard


I’ve gotten to where I’m leery of second books in trilogies. Lately, it seems like most of them aren’t really novels, so much as they are a bridge between a self-contained first novel and the conclusion to a larger story tangentially related to the first one. I think The Matrix set this trend, and going into Zero-G, I expected it to be the case with the Outer Earth series, too.

On the bright side, Boffard did a good job of creating a story that’s more-or-less self-contained. It has a distinctive beginning, middle, and end, but it also ends on an incomplete note, since this isn’t the whole story. The plot of Zero-G is about a group of rebels who plan to return to Earth from the space station where humanity has lived for the past 100 years. Riley, the main character from Tracer, the first book, is the main character here, too, and to complicate matters, Boffard includes an unhinged doctor who wants to take revenge on her and Okwembu, the councilperson whose plot from the first book killed a woman he was infatuated with. There’s also a third plot involving a sickness that overtakes Outer Earth, and all of it comes together in a gripping story that kept me reading.

(Spoilers ahead.)

Unfortunately, there are parts of the story that simply don’t make a lot of sense. In my review of Tracer, I wrote about how certain elements of a story are sacrificed for an action story, and those elements are missing from Zero-G, too. Characterization is weak, as is any connection to other characters in the novel. The sickness I mentioned above wipes out 90% of the population of Outer Earth, but we only know this because it’s mentioned in passing late in the novel. We see the effects of it here and there, but we’re never given the scale of it all until then, and the other characters don’t give the threat of it much concern, since it winds up they’re all immune to it. Later, a breach in the hull of Outer Earth presumably wipes out the rest of the population of the station, but the other characters treat it like it’s just any other day. There’s no real emotion or concern over the loss.

Also like TracerZero-G follows an odd structure where Boffard writes from multiple viewpoints in each chapter, though the lion’s share of them go to Riley. I’m fine with him doing that, but what makes it odd is that Riley’s chapters are written in the first person, and the other characters’ are written in third person. He also notes at the start of each chapter who the focus is, so I didn’t understand why he made that jump in voice. He could have made the entire book first person or third person and it would have been fine, but the alternating voices were jarring. Plus, as much as Riley narrates the story, it’s odd that he brought in the other characters at all. I can see why he did it — Boffard wanted to give additional perspectives to the story — but I think it would have been a stronger story had he limited the perspective just to Riley.

Zero-G is also written in the present tense, which still throws me. I’ve read plenty of books written in the present tense, and in some cases I didn’t realize it until much later after I had finished them. It doesn’t work as well for me in these stories, though I’ll admit I got used to it the more I read the book. I think doing so is an attempt by the author to give the story a sense of immediacy, but having it written in the past tense wouldn’t remove any of the drama of the story. It just seems like an odd choice.

Speaking of the drama of the story, parts of it were lacking because of the way Boffard structured it. When there were moments where the characters were faced with a dilemma, it was solved by the next paragraph, or sometimes even in the next sentence. It’s not unusual for a character to make a decision, have another character tell him not to, because of some reason, and then the other character to immediately change his mind. There was never a chance to feel the tension of the moment while the reader has to wonder how it’s going to play out. This didn’t happen all the time — there were still key elements of the story that stretched out as one would expect — but it happened often enough to make me question the motivations of the characters and the overuse of coincidence in the plot.

The story is still entertaining and engaging, but it lacks some characteristics which would have made it a great story. As it is, it’s OK, at best (enough so for me to jump straight into the third book in the series), but I can see how, with a little more work, the story could have been extraordinary. For sheer story-telling power, though, the book succeeds.

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Hot in December

August 24, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

hotHot in December by Joe R. Lansdale


Now, this is the kind of Lansdale book one should expect. A random encounter starts off a downward slide into criminal activity, forcing the good guys to make a stand against them and fight their way through. This time around, someone witnesses a fatal hit-and-run. Given that the driver of the car is in a local gang and Tom is the only witness, things get hairy when he presses to be a witness to the crime.

One of my favorite things about Lansdale as a writer is how well he understands the “show, don’t tell” adage of writing. Here’s a good example:

I rinsed them and opened up the washer, put them in, poured myself a cup of coffee, sat at the table and thought about things. The coffee went cold in the cup.

A less experienced writer might tell us “I thought about things for a long time”, but Lansdale shows us by writing “The coffee went cold in the cup.” If I taught a fiction writing class, I would use Lansdale as an example for how to do it right.

This novella exists in the same universe as Hap and Leonard and Cason Statler, and Lansdale throws in references to those characters here. For the most part, they work (there’s reference to Leonard that establishes mood, and could have been anyone, and Cason is an integral character to the story), but the reference to Sunset and Sawdust doesn’t make any sense unless you know the story. Later, Cason tells the narrator that Hap and Leonard would be perfect for what he needs, but they’re not available. The narrator then tells him what we’re thinking: “Don’t tell me about the guys I can’t have.” I wonder what readers unfamiliar with those characters think of the references.

The story hits the usual Lansdale beats, so longtime readers might be able to predict what’s going to happen when, but what makes his stories unique isn’t so much the structure as the way he tells it. There’s a certain cadence, a particular flow to his narrative that I’ve never found in other writers. Other writers may be as compelling or as tight as Lansdale, but there’s simply no one else who writes the way he does.

Lansdale’s novellas are the perfect length for these kinds of stories. His stories are already lean, but stripped down to this length (about 120 pages), they move quickly, enough so that it’s easy to sit down with it and not look up until you’re finished. That wasn’t quite the case with this one (stupid work), but had I not had any interruptions, I would have torn through it like rice paper. Lansdale fans should like it just fine.

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