Sunday, December 31, 2023

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

(Originally posted in 2013)

Wowzer! Awesome! etc. etc.

OK, anybody that has read any of my previous reviews of Sanderson's work knows just how much I admire his writing. I've really run out of superlatives to describe his work, both the quality of it and the sheer amount of output he generates. I don't know of any other human on the planet that can write/publish so many books and sustain such high quality. He is simply amazing.

This novel is, of course, no exception. From the very first page, I was absorbed in this new world Sanderson has created. Yes, it's a young adult novel, but the only reason to classify it as such is that the main character, David, is 18 years old. But in every other way, this is a main-stream novel, filled with violence, action, and thought-provoking characters. In essence, this could be called a "super-hero" novel (mostly evil super-heroes) so I suppose that's another reason to classify it as YA. And we are treated to some inner thoughts from David that testify to his late-teenage attitudes towards others and self doubt. But I found them to be very true to the nature of the character, and essential to the plot.

The story takes place here on approximately present-day Earth, about ten years after an unexplained burst in the sky (subsequently referred to as 'Calamity') caused the appearance of 'Epics'. Epics are humans that have abilities, amazing superhero-like powers, and tend to use them for personal gain and power. They are so powerful that nobody fights them. Nobody except the 'Reckoners'. Epics are essentially bullies (bullies with incredible destructive power) but each one has a weakness, and thus can be fought by ordinary folks like us.

OK, that sounds like a plot for a YA novel for boys age 10-14. But I say 'Nay, friend.' This is a novel for all of us. The plot is only the superficial top layering of this 17-layer cake and, believe me friends, this cake has a lot of delicious calories. Sanderson is known for his unique, complex magic systems that he constructs for his novels. So, of course, the system that he has built for superheroes is equally complex and interdependent. He doesn't just come up with weird cool powers and sprinkle superheroes around. Epics' powers work the way they work for a reason and discovering just how they relate to each other is pure fun. And all through this novel (as well as in future novels in this series), we learn more and more about just how well thought out this system is.  

All of that stuff makes for fun reading and good movie entertainment but it's the characters that allow a story to rise to the top and be memorable for months and years afterwards. The core group of characters in this book are multidimensional and each one is intriguing. They are a delight to read about. I cared about each and every one, their roles, their fates. And, due to the high stakes action in this book, their fates are far from certain. Surprises await the reader at every turn; it definitely keeps the pages turning.

So, once again, my hat is off to Mr Sanderson. This is the first book of what is sure to be a great series. And although the main plot does conclude in this one book, it serves as a gateway to many more awesome books to come. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

The Senior Girls Bayonet Drill Team & Other Stories by Joe R. Lansdale

Joe R. Lansdale has always been one of my go-to authors when I need something “different.” In this book, he mentions that he likes writing both novels and short stories but if he had to choose, he would write only short stories. His love for the form is on full display here and this collection offers some of his best.

Contrary to other reviews I’ve seen for this book, these are not all new stories. Most, according to the information at the back of the book, details where and when the stories first appeared. They range from horror ‘zines like “Fangoria” to popular anthologies to fairly obscure places like “Ferrari Magazine”. Quite a few, including the titular story, were originally published in various anthologies edited by Lawrence Block, which is where I first encountered them. Almost all the stories originated in the last five years.

As for the stories themselves, they vary widely in subject matter, scope, and from serious to silly. Some are gruesome horror pieces, some are intense crime stories, while others can best be described as fables. It’s hard for me to pick favorites but I think I’ll go with the weird westerns due to my own love for that sub-genre. By the way, I owe that love to Joe Lansdale who was among the first writers to delve into such tales back in the 1980s when such stories were still rare. As with any anthology, I enjoyed some of these stories more than others, but I can honestly say, there isn’t a stinker in the bunch. 

Lansdale fans will love this collection from Subterranean Press while those looking for a nice variety of high-quality, thoroughly enjoyable stories should absolutely check it out. It is due to be published in January, 2024.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Covenant with the Vampire by Jeanne Kalogridis

I’ve tended to shy away from vampire fiction in recent years although I am a huge fan of the original Dracula by Bram Stoker and stories that take place in a similar vein (no pun intended). In other words, I enjoy the historical fiction aspects of Dracula, vampire lore, etc. much more so than the blood/guts, sexual innuendo/love triangles etc. that seem so common today.

This novel is the first of a trilogy and fits my preferences very well. It takes place over the course of just a few weeks in 1845, which is actually about 50 years before the Dracula story occurs. It’s told from the first person POV of three separate individuals, Arkady Tsepesh, his young (and pregnant) bride Mary, and his sister, Zsuzsanna Tsepesh. It is through their detailed diary entries that the entire novel is presented and that method works very well for it allows the reader to access their innermost thoughts when they are confronted with evidence of the impossible. It also allows the characters to sneak in and read the others' diaries to gain a better foothold on what is happening (and convince themselves that they aren't going mad). 

The story takes a deep dive into the history of Vlad Dracul and the family tree as Arkady returns from England to his Carpathian home to bury his deceased father. But it is his uncle Vlad that begins the real horror of the story as it becomes evident who he really is. The pact or covenant that the family Dracul has with the local village population to protect them from the strigoi also plays center stage. What follows is pure vampire horror in the traditional gothic horror style as Arkady and his loving wife struggle in a war for their very souls.

I liked the writing style of the novel as it is very similar to the original Stoker style, reading like Victorian age literature. It drips with authenticity and while I am certainly no expert on all things Transylvanian, the language, the visual tapestry that the words paint, the place names and family names…it all seems perfect. The ending, to me, seemed a little abrupt as a very long build-up nose-dived off the cliff to a very quick conclusion. I would have preferred a little more meat to this part but, perhaps that is just me wishing the book wasn’t over yet. Nevertheless, it does set up the second book and the very real possibility that the plot may move to England.

I will eagerly turn my attention to the next two books of the trilogy.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

The Living Dead - Edited by John Joseph Adams

For zombie literature neophytes, this is an excellent place to start because reading these stories can make one realize there are far more ways to think about zombies than what you may have experienced from George Romero or The Walking Dead. 

John Joseph Adams, as usual has put together a good mix of tales here.  Many are what I would term “literary” while others are heavier on action or the fear factor.  Like most anthologies, some stories are better than others but each one belongs here and serves to round out the sub-sub-genre of zombie horror.  Major authors like Stephen King, Clive Barker, Dan Simmons, Laurell K. Hamilton, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, and George RR Martin offer stories in this anthology but for my money, I tended to prefer the entries by those authors that were new to me.  There are a total of 34 stories included and it is difficult to name my favorites but among them are “This Year’s Class Picture” by Dan Simmons, “Followed” by Will McIntosh, and “How the Day Runs Down” by John Langan.

I read these stories at the rate of one per week, early on Saturday mornings before the rest of my family gets up which is always a good time for me to really get into a story.  I think if I had read one right after another, it would have grown tiresome pretty quickly.  For me this sort of story is best enjoyed in small doses. 

Overall a fairly nice collection of zombie fiction, especially if you prefer a more philosophical approach to the apocalypse. 

Friday, September 22, 2023

West of Dodge - A Western Anthology from Saddlebag Dispatches Magazine

Full Disclosure: I have a story ("Vigilance Committee") published in this volume. My review is based on the entire anthology, taken as a whole.

Saddlebag Dispatches has been publishing western-themed magazines since 2014 and has racked up numerous accolades for the quality of their content, both fiction and non-fiction. For many, it has become the go-to source for up-to-date information on all things western. Happily, they've decided to expand their frontiers by publishing a series of western fiction short-story anthologies. This very first one, published this summer of 2023, features the theme of Dodge City, coinciding with the Summer 2023 edition of the magazine. Future themed anthologies are planned for every six months.

West of Dodge contains short stories from 20 contemporary authors, ranging from vastly experienced writers such as Dusty Richards and Velda Brotherton to the neophyte author. Having read them all, I can honestly say that it's difficult to tell which ones are which.

As expected, several stories take place in Dodge City itself, featuring different time periods in that town's turbulent history. Often, we come across historical characters from Wyatt Earp to Charlie Bassett but more often the stories are about regular folks faced with difficult, if not insurmountable circumstances. Many of the stories do not, however take place in Dodge City but rather roam across the West, fulfilling the title's promise, "West of Dodge". These 20 stories provide a full range of styles, but I can honestly say I enjoyed every one of them. As I do for most anthologies, I chose to read one of these stories between each novel, letting them act as a sort of pallet cleanser. That also keeps these stories fresh for me.

It's great to see new Western-themed anthologies being published once again. This one certainly deserves your further attention.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Rattler's Law - Volume Two by James Reasoner

A couple of years ago I was introduced to a volume of eight western novels featuring the character of Lucas Flint, newly arrived marshal of Abilene Kansas, and known as “The Rattler” for his lightning-fast draw. Those eight books proved to be a rich tapestry of interrelated yarns encompassing an entire cast of towns people including deputies, saloon owners, church leaders, schoolteachers, a female doctor, and assorted others. Much like a long-running television series of yesteryear, new arrivals populate each story, like guest stars if you will. Some are hard-working honest folks looking for a better life while others are seeking fortune of a different kind and don’t care about how they get it. Those eight books were wonderful reads and taken together formed a real saga of western life during those times.

I knew there was a second volume to be had, another eight novels that carried on that saga and it has been at the top of my TBR list ever since. This year, I tackled it, choosing to read one story every month or thereabouts in order to stretch out the experience. Alas, today, I find myself in early September, and have just turned the page on the final story. It’s bittersweet to be honest. These stories are every bit as good as the first volume and maybe even a little more interconnected. It was a true joy to revisit the characters and see them respond to new threats and opportunities. But, at least as of this writing, there are no more.

This volume sees the rise of a dastardly villain, Jason Kent, whose far-reaching plots are the stuff of real conflict. His villainy lasts through many of these stories, and one begins to wonder if he’ll ever meet his match. Author James Reasoner writes multi-dimensional characters even if that means showing vulnerabilities and, in this series, Lucas Flint doesn’t always come out on top. Many of the stories see other characters take center stage and ultimately are the ones to see justice served although Flint’s guiding hand is always present. But in the end, it is the ensemble cast that makes these books work so well.

Those readers looking for an “adult” western need to look elsewhere but those wanting a good story with well-drawn characters, traditional western style, plenty of action, and interesting plots need look no further.

I hope for more of these books someday but will not hold my breath. With sixteen books available over two collections, I can easily go back and dip into them now and again and relish the experience of this delightful series once again. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 21, 2023

The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

At the borders of the empire, contagions are abundant, and leviathans threaten the outer rings. The blood of those same leviathans is a key ingredient in magically transforming people to grant powerful abilities. Dinios “Din” Kol is one of those fortunate enough to have been altered. Due to his extremely enhanced memory skills, he has become an “engraver” and these skills are perfect in his role as a new assistant to Ana Dolabra, perhaps, the greatest living detective. And now that the body of a high-level magistrate has been found, murdered by means of aggressive plants exploding from inside his body, Ana and Din have been assigned the case.

While Ana brings her genius for detective sleuthing, she is also an eccentric who prefers to wear a blindfold most of the time so as to not let her vision interrupt her thinking. Din’s perfect memory is ideal for interrogating suspects and witnesses and is able to “play-back” the facts verbatim if required. Useful in discovering discrepancies, to be sure. The murder mystery is off and running, despite the fact that both Ana and Din have secrets of their own.

Author Robert Jackson Bennett has proven many times before that he is a master at building original fantasy worlds, demonstrating in-depth world-building with all the trappings you’d hope for. This first novel in a new series proves it once again. This is a rich world, with unusual circumstances, cultures, and motivations. The reader is plunged into the middle of it all, but Bennett is adept at providing the knowledge necessary for understanding without resorting to massive info dumps that bog down the plot.

Many reviewers compare the mystery elements of this novel to a Sherlock Holmes/Watson experience, but I think a much better analogy are the works of Rex Stout. Here, Din is the fact finder, the one who goes out and about gathering evidence much like Archie Goodwin. We get most of the story from his perspective. Ana, like Nero Wolfe, largely remains behind and waits for the information to come in where she then analyzes, deduces, and brings her genius to bear.

The entire novel moves along swiftly as more deaths occur, and the danger level rises. Din discovers more about himself but his anxiety over his secret threatens to overwhelm him. I loved discovering new abilities in other characters, engineered enhancements like strength, amazing math skills, and another that I shall not divulge for fear of spoilers. There are numerous characters from all walks of life thrown into the mix and like many fantasy novels, the names are not common to our experience and can be tough to keep track of. This is “smart” fantasy to be sure, neither a D&D adventure nor a Hercule Poirot murder mystery. No matter what you call it, it is exceptional, and certainly a fun read. I look forward to the next book in the series, not only for another complex murder mystery but also to learn more of this unique world.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Callback for a Corpse by Teel James Glenn

Moxie Donovan is a freelance reporter and movie studio promotion specialist in 1930’s Hollywood. He’s married to a beautiful up-and-coming red-headed actress named Maxie. After the murder of one of Moxie’s sources, they find themselves embroiled in an old-fashioned whodunnit. Fortunately, they are able to move in the circles of the Hollywood movers and shakers but when further murders occur, they begin to wonder if they are in over their heads.

I’ve always been a sucker for early Hollywood mysteries, especially those involving a wise-cracking protagonist. So, I was prone to like this one coming in. It’s my first novel by this author but I can happily report he certainly turned in a fun and engaging story here. Moxie is the lead character and, indeed, the story is told through his first-person narration. He doesn’t shy away from shining the spotlight on his own foibles but his love for his beautiful bride, Maxi, doesn’t take a back seat to anyone, even when Moxie finds himself amidst many a beautiful starlet.

The author unleashes his extensive knowledge of early Hollywood and how it worked. He also sprinkles in a lot of cameos from real people, including Bela Lugosi, newly-minted Roy Rodgers, and many others that were less familiar to me. The dialog is snappy and energetic. Moxie, in many ways reminds me of characters such as Shell Scott, getting themselves into the deep end but always with a verbal comeback as sharp as a razorblade.

Looking forward to reading more in this series from the good folks at Bold Venture Press.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Doc Savage - The Infernal Buddha by Kenneth Robeson (Will Murray)

Will Murray does it again with this installment of Doc Savage’s continuing adventures. This time Doc’s team only includes Monk, Ham, and Renny along with Doc himself as they find themselves drawn into an adventure in the South Seas. Seems there is a Buddah-shaped artifact of some kind, possibly delivered to Earth in a meteor, that has the horrific effect of sucking the moisture out of everything nearby.  Living beings are reduced to dried husks in seconds. It is not known if there are any limits so, theoretically, if this thing were to be unleashed ala Pandora’s Box, it might well suck up all water on the planet.

Definitely a job for Doc Savage!

This was another wonderful adventure from the pen of Will Murray. Probably my favorite of his that I’ve read so far even though he is content to let the science behind the artifact remain vague. The adventure takes them among 1940’s era Malay pirates and we even get to see Doc going undercover as a swashbuckling scourge of the South Seas pirate captain himself. Awesome! But at the same time, the terrible nature of the artifact leads Doc to one of his most challenging adventures ever. Rarely have I seen Doc so vulnerable and even unsure of himself as he confesses to have been in the final pages. This brings an extra edge to the story; it’s just not good to have a completely invulnerable hero.

Good setting, good characters for Doc and team to work with (or against), a good peril to be dealt with, and a good plot with plenty of action that keeps the pages turning. Everything I want in a Doc Savage yarn.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Faceoff - Edited by David Baldacci

Back in 2013/14, the International Thriller Writers came up with a way to earn money to finance their organization and eliminate dues from members. The result is this first anthology of eleven stories, written by 23 world-class thriller writers for zero compensation. All proceeds of the sale of this book go directly to support the activities of ITW. The idea must have worked because they followed up with MatchUp in 2017.

It’s a cool idea. Each story pairs up two iconic characters from different series. Even though the title is “Faceoff”, they tend to work together during the story, almost always coming away with a healthy respect for the other. That’s good because I would hate to read a story where Repairman Jack actually works against Jack Reacher, for example.

I’ve read most of these authors and feel like I know the characters well. The few I hadn’t read…well, of course now I want to read them too. Most were pretty good tales although a couple of times the plot just to get the two characters to meet each other in the first place was a little too contrived. I listened to this one on audio while driving on a lengthy road trip this past week and the format worked well. Just one story or two at a time depending on what I was in the mood for. David Baldacci served as editor for the book and also read the introductions to each story for the audio version.

For completeness, here is a list of the stories, characters, and authors included in the book:

1) Harry Bosch vs. Patrick Kenzie in “Red Eye,” by Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane

2) John Rebus vs. Roy Grace in “In the Nick of Time,” by Ian Rankin and Peter James

3) Slappy the Ventriloquist Dummy vs. Aloysius Pendergast in “Gaslighted,” by R.L. Stine, Douglas Preston, and Lincoln Child

4) Malachai Samuels vs. D.D. Warren in “The Laughing Buddha,” by M.J. Rose and Lisa Gardner

5) Paul Madriani vs. Alexandra Cooper in “Surfing the Panther,” by Steve Martini and Linda Fairstein

6) Lincoln Rhyme vs. Lucas Davenport in “Rhymes With Prey,” by Jeffery Deaver and John Sandford

7) Michael Quinn vs. Repairman Jack in “Infernal Night,” by Heather Graham and F. Paul Wilson

8) Sean Reilly vs. Glen Garber in “Pit Stop,” by Raymond Khoury and Linwood Barclay

9) Wyatt Hunt vs. Joe Trona in “Silent Hunt,” by John Lescroart and T. Jefferson Parker

10) Cotton Malone vs. Gray Pierce in “The Devil’s Bones,” by Steve Berry and James Rollins

11) Jack Reacher vs. Nick Heller in “Good and Valuable Consideration,” by Lee Child and Joseph Finder

Sunday, July 2, 2023

The Jericho Iteration by Allen Steele

In the year 2012, a huge earthquake destroyed much of the Midwest United States.  Now, a year later, the city of St Louis is trying to come back from the brink of extinction and the heavy-handed Emergency Relief Agency carries out their tasks utilizing martial law. Gerry Rosen is an investigative reporter who finds himself chasing after a big story but not quite sure where it will lead. What he does know is that people around him are getting killed and it all involves a mysterious something with a code name, Ruby Fulcrum. As he follows the trail and becomes a fugitive himself, Gerry uncovers a conspiracy of monumental proportions involving the federal government and artificial intelligence.

It sounds like a techno-thriller and, indeed, that’s the way this novel reads. However, it is actually science fiction, having been published in 1994 and with the setting being the “near future” of 2013. Reading it now is much like reading a contemporary thriller albeit with a few twists where the author’s guesstimate of then-current trends would lead. I confess that part of the fun I had reading this novel was being spoon-fed those little tidbits that turned out to be mostly incorrect. But even though CompuServe and Commodore did not last to be the tech mega-companies that they are in the book, and neither did we concern ourselves with fax machines and long-distance rates in 2013, all that really doesn’t matter. The fact that the states of Oregon and Washington succeeded from the US and became the country of “Cascadia” however, is integral to the plot and so the book, in fact, becomes a bit more like reading a sci-fi thriller.

This book is quite a bit different than most of Allen Steele’s more space-adventure works but his fans will still appreciate his tight prose, quality characterization and tech-savvy climactic scenes. Another good one from Mr. Steele.