Book Reviews

Crimewave 12: Hurts

Crimewave 12: Hurts cover

You know, I keep referring to Crimewave as an anthology series when I talk about it elsewhere—and because of the way it’s put together I’m going to discuss it analytically as though it were an anthology—though it’s technically a magazine. The truth of the matter is that it falls somewhere between the two states. Much as its stories are wont to do: crime, mystery fiction, the occasional supernatural piece, all doing their damnedest to defy direct classification. Instead, Crimewave is composed of stories that are decidedly more interested in just telling a good story.

And in that effort the latest volume of Crimewave—Crimewave 12: Hurts, edited by Andy Cox—succeeds, in really rather spectacular fashion.

Granted, there are some stories that aren’t holding their own alongside the better pieces in the issue. But they’re few in number, and don’t hurt the whole overmuch. The more interesting dichotomy is the distinct split between pieces that provide closure and those that end prior to, or without, resolution. Indeed, in many ways, Crimewave 12: Hurts is a volume of anticipations.

This issue of Crimewave leaves one feeling always on the edge of something; always seizing one’s breath, and forever holding it. And, ultimately, the stories on display here that court a firm resolution are somewhat stronger in tone and execution, though all of the stories linger in their own respects. And some of the best stories in the issue are among the longest, allowing them to explore fully the dissolution—of lives, of relationships, of self—that they cover.

Moreso than a direct adherence to one particular genre, that sense of wounding, of loss, is what is pre-eminent in the aptly named Crimewave 12: Hurts. And in that territory there’s a lot of thematic...

Annihilation (Book 1 of The Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation cover

I feel compelled to point out, up front, that Annihilation, the first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, & Acceptance; all to be released over the course of 2014) is an absolutely fucking brilliant book. Really, one expects no less from Jeff VanderMeer at this point, but still. And, yes, I’m being a bit of a bastard by pointing this out at least two months before you can pick up a copy of the book yourselves. Which you will absolutely want to do the moment this book becomes available.

Now, I’m assuming that if you’re reading this you need no introduction to Jeff VanderMeer’s work. On the off chance you have for some reason not already been exposed to VanderMeer’s oeuvre, then you’ve clearly been trying very hard to avoid the man’s prolific output, across both fiction and non-fiction. You should correct that immediately. Here, have a link to his (mostly up-to-date) Wikipedia page: We’ll be here when you come back.

As those of you who did not have to wander off into the vast digressions of the internet’s larger sprawl (and for those just returning: welcome back) already know, VanderMeer’s work is largely concerned with perception, transmutation, and revelation. His projects are generally shaped by the use of fascinating, story-appropriate voice, a beautiful, malleable prose style, and an adroit hand for characterization. Annihilation follows in those larger traditions, and touches on concepts similar, primarily, to VanderMeer’s work in relation to his Ambergris narratives, up to and including both societal and personal dissolution, the numinous and Cosmic(ally Weird) represented both large scale and in...

Easy Go by Michael Crichton

Easy Go cover

Though Michael Crichton would go on to write The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, The Great Train Robbery, Rising Sun, Jurassic Park, and many more, this is the first of the eight reissued "John Lange" thrillers written by Crichton in the ’60s and ’70s. Of the eight, I selected to read this one first specifically because it's a caper novel about locating and robbing the long-lost tomb of a little-known Pharaoh. For me that's a win-win, because I love capers, and I tend to love anything Egyptology-related in just about any genre. I also loved the Glen Orbik cover painting on the typically handsome Titan trade paperback enough that I'd frame and hang it, though it depicts a scene that never happens in the book.

Harold Barnaby is a bored archeologist specializing in Egyptian hieroglyphics who believes he has discovered a secret message hidden in a routine bit of Egyptian invoicing. It appears a secret (robber-proof) tomb was built for a minor Pharaoh and the secret died with the builders and architect, all of whom were slain as payment for their efforts. Barnaby concocts a crazy idea: why not rob the tomb, rather than discover it and turn it over to the antiquities-savvy Egyptian government? The book was written in 1968, during the very days the Aswan Dam project was being completed and the temples at Abu Simbel had been cut apart into thousands of stone blocks and moved to save them from the imminent flooding (as an aside, I remember reading about this and being fascinated as a 9-year old, for it sounded highly adventurous; even then my own interests were solidifying). Barnaby meets Pierce, a burned-out and disillusioned American journalist-photographer on his way out of Egypt. Once he hears Barnaby's story, however, Pierce is energized by the idea of...

Joyland by Stephen King

Joyland cover

I've read Stephen King since 1976. Two elements that can reliably be found in much of his work are the heroic, wise-beyond-his/her-years kid, and a palpable sense of nostalgia (either the author's or the protagonist's or both). These elements are like old friends when I pick up a new work by King, though I don't pick up everything as soon as it appears. But this time the Fates made sure I would take a second look at Joyland: it was short, I was sent a review copy right between project deadlines, and its publisher is one of my favorites (Hard Case Crime by way of Titan Books). In case you wonder, yes, I own all the Hard Case Crime titles (I haven't read them all, but I'm trying). I love the old-fashioned pulp covers, and they never disappoint with either the reissues or the originals. And here was an original Stephen King novel with a typically awesome (if slightly overwrought) cover. Oh, and it's set in the ’70s, the decade where I went from 5th grade to halfway through college. It was a natural selection, and…well, I really enjoyed it.

Now that I have that out of the way, a quick description and a couple nitpicks. It's 1973 and Devin Jones (a name that didn't quite ring true for me, by the way) is nursing a broken heart because the love of his life has dumped him. He decides to spend a summer recovering by hiding in a second-rate North Carolina theme park about as far as you can get from Disneyland, but along the same general lines. A doggy mascot based on a cartoon, fading glitter, a degenerating midway, slowing business. Reminded me of a small park my grade school took us to for year's end, a place called Muskego Beach (and later the much more ’70s Dandelion Park), which also had a Wild Mouse and a wooden roller coaster, plus rides such as the Tilt-A-...

Crogian by John Leahy

Crogian cover

At one point, there was nothing cooler in the horror genre than creature features and novels dealing with man-eating monsters. Packed with action, adrenaline, and gore, these narratives were entertaining even when their literary or cinematic merit was nonexistent. Then something happened and monsters became cheesy (the unbelievably awful low budget movies constantly churned out by a certain channel had a lot to do with it). Now, however, creature lovers have reason to celebrate: John Leahy's Crogian makes giant insects cool again.

A strange metallic object is unearthed in a shallow creek in Alaska. The mysterious thing turns out to be much bigger than the man who found it originally thought, so soon he's getting help from other folks in town to dig it out. Eventually, the buzz reaches the right ears and the U.S. Air Force intervenes and finishes the unearthing. What they find is unlike anything else in human history. Seven years later, and after much research, the military shows up in Speaker, Texas, and starts setting up a base in an abandoned chemical plant next to Ken Forde's farm. Ken is a family man, and he will have to do everything in his power to protect his family because the shady project that was being worked on inside the plant, something called Crogian, an acronym for CReator Of GIANts, goes horribly wrong and it leaks out when the base is destroyed. The apocalypse takes over the town: insects, fish, and reptiles turn into gigantic, fearless monsters, and people quickly drop to the very bottom of the food chain.

Crogian is a nice mix of horror and science fiction. The first third of the narrative is very descriptive and successfully sets up the catastrophe. From then on, the running, screaming, and dying start, and this is where the...

Watcher of the Dark by Joe Nassise

Watcher of the Dark cover

What’s worse than waking up in a fleabag motel on the wrong side of Los Angeles? How about being kidnapped by an assemblage of wicked sorcerers and demon half-breeds hellbent on taking over the world? That’s the predicament fugitive Jeremiah Hunt finds himself dealing with at the start of Watcher of the Dark, the third book in Joe Nassise’s ongoing Jeremiah Hunt chronicles. Hunted by police and plagued by the frightening visions of his “ghost sight,” Hunt finds himself navigating the “City of Angels,” now ground zero for a power struggle between some very powerful, very evil beings.

When we last saw Hunt in sweltering New Orleans, he was forced to part ways with his companions Dmitri and Denise, the latter whose heart he sunk an ancient dagger in to save her soul (and his own) from Death personified. Now, Hunt is taken by Fuentes, the Magistar of an L.A. underworld replete with spectres, wizards, poltergeists, and demons. Fuentes has forcefully enlisted Hunt to join his band of “gifted” beings in a quest to obtain a mystical key rumored to unlock the gate to Hell and ensure Fuentes’s rule. Fuentes, however, doesn’t consider that the sardonic Hunt may have plans of his own, not the least of which is reuniting with his lost friends.

Just as he did in Eyes to See and King of the Dead, Nassise keeps the story trimmed of excessive exposition and moves things along at a fast clip. Temperate Los Angeles may not possess the enchanting creepiness of Louisiana or the spooky ambiance of picturesque New England, but Nassise is still able to deliver frightening sequences involving a plethora of vicious paranormal monsters. Los Angeles is not without its own occult legends, and Nassise serves up a surreal cocktail of chilling L.A. folklore where supernatural...

Exit Reality by Robert S. Wilson

Exit Reality cover

It almost becomes second nature, prying the vise-like grip of a dead man’s hands from his computer keyboard, once you’ve done it a couple hundred times…

So begins Robert S. Wilson’s Exit Reality, a novella set in a near future society in which people connect their brains directly to the internet via a piece of technology known as the HPDID (Human Perception Digital Interface Device) and experience new worlds and, yes, new realities limited only by the human imagination. Sounds pretty cool, huh? For the most part it is. Only one little problem though. Like the internet of today, viruses do their part to ruin the fun. And when said viruses can wreak their havoc not only upon a user’s computer but also his brain, well, the results can be rather…traumatic.

Enter Ray Garret. He’s an Antivii agent. His job? Do what he can to find those responsible for unleashing these potentially lethal viruses on the public. And it’s a job he’s pretty damn good at. That is until he comes up against a particularly nasty virus known in the media as “The Chair.” When the story opens, we find Ray investigating another potential crime scene. A man sits before his computer terminal, unmoving, hands tightly clutching the keyboard, the all too recognizable odor of burnt flesh emanating from his body. And there, on the computer screen, the two words Ray has seen far too many times in recent weeks: “Exit Reality.” Yes, The Chair has claimed another victim and Ray seems no closer now than at any other point in the investigation to putting a stop to it.

He catches a break after harassing a low level street punk named Koadie who tells him about a Necro-club called The Dead Retro. Now, Necro-clubs specialize in providing a very specific type of service for the HPDID user...

Dying Is My Business by Nicholas Kaufmann

Dying Is My Business

Dying Is My Business is an immensely enjoyable book. In spite of its flaws, which are owing to a number of different causes.

But it is, nonetheless, a book I’m comfortable suggesting you pick up a copy of. And that has a great deal to do with the fact that Nicholas Kaufmann is an excellent writer. And there are a great many things I like about the book: Nick is very good at creating reader investment, he’s got an excellent handle on grounded worldbuilding (barring some consistency issues, without which the narrative doesn’t work, so…), and he has a flair for writing character.

Specifically characters like Trent, the book’s protagonist. An amnesiac who can’t stay dead. It’s a good basis for the series: a fun hook that immediately creates a sense of mystery and engagement. One wants to know, just as much as Trent does, why and how this is the case. Though Trent’s concerns also run more immediately to figuring out who he is. But, taken in combination, all of those concerns also allow for a gradually widening spiral of introduced worldbuilding elements. And Nick has incorporated some very good material into the book in that regard:

An elemental system out of balance; a world where taking magic directly into oneself leads to Infection and alteration; where effective castes of magic are relegated to the ages of the world (relatively speaking, it’s a little more complex than that), with magic operating differently for those who are older, non-human entities. And a consistent refrain of “stand up and be counted/it’s your duty to fight the encroaching dark,” delivered, albeit, too bluntly. Actually, Dying Is My Business is, in many ways, an unsubtle book. Despite that, though, it’s still an interesting trajectory, and an excellent look at a New York...

Joe & Me by David Moody

Joe & Me cover

The bleak post-apocalyptic horror of David Moody’s tales are delivered with his startling cynical observations about human nature: people rarely react altruistically in extreme crisis. For example, in the Hater series (Hater, Dog Blood, Them or Us), the book’s anti-hero Danny McCoyne makes enormously selfish choices in the name of self-preservation. Even if that means playing on both sides of opposing factions; he’ll kill members of either side if it gives him an advantage. Moody can certainly be described as a pessimist in this regard, but he’s only being honest about how human beings might react when given the choice between principles and starvation.

Moody’s chapbook Joe & Me is an apocalyptic tale with a slightly different cellular composition. It’s still the gloomy look at an apocalyptic event we’ve come to expect from him, but delivered on a much more intimate scale than were used to seeing from Moody. Joe & Me is told at the genesis of a cataclysm from the perspective of those responsible for mankind’s demise. It’s an effective character-driven piece that benefits from Moody’s morose, but no-less-intriguing mix of fantasy and scientifically-sound horror.

Si is a stay-at-home dad who cares for his seven year old son Joe while his scientific researcher wife Gill–the breadwinner–works diligently on a secret lab project aimed at ending disease. Her work is compassionate, but subject to government scrutiny. Gill’s conflicts with the government and military over funding and ethics leaves her with little time and energy for Si and Joe, and the family dynamic is strained as a result. Si has no trouble with his role at home, but does long for quality time spent with the entire family. The family perseveres, but an accident at Gill’s lab leads...

The Tent by Kealan Patrick Burke

As a fan of horror fiction, for my money nothing beats a good old fashioned monster story. Especially one involving a monster the likes of which we haven’t quite seen before. Of course, as the years go by and the number of books and movies continues to grow, creating a truly unique creature becomes more of a challenge. Not that this stops the more creative writers out there from trying. And it certainly did not stop Kealan Patrick Burke from giving it a go with his latest release, a novella titled The Tent.

When the story opens, we meet an old man named McCabe who lives an isolated existence in the mountains of Ohio with his dog Pepper. Night has fallen and something beyond the walls of McCabe’s humble abode has Pepper—a normally calm and even tempered animal—on edge. Her nervousness infects McCabe and, as much as he doesn’t like it, he knows he’s going to have to go outside and see what’s gotten his dog all wound up. So he grabs a flashlight then heads for the door and the darkness beyond with Pepper reluctantly following.

Next we meet Mike, his wife Emma, and their thirteen-year-old son Cody. Mike has decided it would be great if the three of them spent some quality time together camping. Everything goes all right until a brutal thunderstorm rolls in, destroying the tent serving as the only form of shelter they have. Now Mike has to lead his family to safety through torrential rain and darkness. Only one problem with this: He has no idea where the hell he’s going. When his wife confronts him on the issue, the two of them start to argue. Theirs has been a troubled relationship to begin with and the situation in which they now find themselves does little to help matters. The fighting stops, though, with the realization that Cody has gone missing....