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DEAD FUNNY: HORROR STORIES BY COMEDIANS Edited by Robin Ince & Johnny Mains – Review

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Dead Funny: Horror Stories by Comedians edited by Robin Ince & Johnny Mains
Genre: Horror Anthology
Publisher: Salt Publishing
Release date: October 2014
Source: Finished copy from publisher
Pages: 199

three stars

The nitty-gritty:  A healthy dose of horror from famous British comedians, and a unique collection, but only moderately successful, in this reader’s opinion.

So, under normal circumstances, stand-up comedy and I don’t get along very well. It’s too bad, because I have some genuine comedians in my family (and by genuine, I mean they get paid to stand up and say funny things!) My sense of humor often clashes with those around me. My husband, for example, tends to enjoy telling me jokes, most of them pretty terrible. Hence my disdain of canned humor. So why am I telling you all this? I guess to explain my reaction to Dead Funny, a new short story collection from the respectable and always interesting UK publisher, Salt Publishing, whose books I’ve enjoyed immensely.

Co-editor Robin Ince says in his Introduction, “… remember that the goriest deaths will have been created while the writer was imagining their worst heckler. Interrupt at a comedy club at your peril, now you know you what goes on in the minds of the stand-up.”  I was very curious to read a collection of fiction written by comedians, because while I may not always enjoy stand-up comedy, I do love humor in my fiction. Glancing through the list of contributors, it didn’t surprise me that I only recognized one name, Charlie Higson. After all, I’m an American who doesn’t really follow comedy in the first place.

This collection is quite varied, both in subject matter and skill level, and I was surprised to discover that when comedians sit down to pen horror stories, the results aren’t necessarily funny. Some of them are very well written, but others read like comedy routines instead of short stories. Out of the sixteen stories in this collection, I really enjoyed five of them, I liked six others, I was frankly baffled by or did not like the writing of four of them, and downright HATED one story. (And I don’t think I’ve ever said I’ve hated something on this blog before!) So quite the mixed bag.

Here are the five stories that I thought were well-crafted and creepy and yes, had some black humor as well:

The Patient by Mitch Benn

A man whose wife and daughter were killed in a car accident abducts the man responsible and tortures him in his basement. A twist near the end was a nice surprise and made this one of my favorites.

Possum by Matthew Holness

This story was crazy and sick, but I thought it was really well done. A disturbed man who makes puppets tries to destroy one of them, but the puppet doesn’t go down quietly. I’m not sure I completely understood this story. The man goes back to his childhood home and tries to get his father (?) to help him destroy the puppet. It was just weird. But in a good way!

For Roger by Katy Brand

This was my favorite of the bunch. It had a fantastic Twilight Zone vibe to it. A man discovers a hidden diary in his attic, but strangely, the diary appears to predict the future. This story shows us that knowing what will happen in the future is not necessarily a good thing.

Anthemoessa by Phill Jupitus

In some versions of mythology, Anthemoessa was the island home of the Sirens. In this story, a  man (again with all the male characters!) who is trying to climb the corporate ladder, gets caught up in the siren song of two mysterious women, and unfortunately for him, follows them. This story was very well written and also very funny. This was the vibe I was expecting from all the stories in this collection.

Filthy Night by Charlie Higson

Another funny story that I really enjoyed! An aging horror actor visits the home of one of his fans, to see his movie memorabilia collection. I loved the surprise twist at the end (although I didn’t care for the punchy comedy “last line”). More humor than horror, but still very good.

I have to mention the story that set my teeth on edge, the one I didn’t like at all. It was called Dog by Reece Shearsmith. The writing was pretty good, and Shearsmith certainly has the talent to give us a gut-wrenching story. But unfortunately, it was about a psychopath who kills dogs, and since I’m a dog person, I just couldn’t stomach it. Perhaps the author meant to elicit such a response, and if that was his intention, then bravo!

So while the concept of having comedians write short horror stories was certainly a good idea, this collection only manages to sort of pull it off. But as Johnny Mains says in his Foreword, “It’s an experiment in terror. Not all of the stories will make you laugh. Some of them might make you vomit or be scared to go outdoors after 6 p.m.” Johnny, I believe you hit the nail on the head.

Big thanks to Salt Publishing for supplying a review copy.

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Filed under 3 stars, Reviews

A Surreal & Dangerous Place: ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer – Review

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This review is part of Sci-Fi November, hosted by Oh, The Books! and Rinn Reads!

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Annihilation (Southern Reach Trilogy #1) by Jeff VanderMeer
Genre: Adult science fiction
Publisher: FSG Originals
Release date: February 2014
Source: Signed paperback from San Diego Comic Con
Pages: 195

five stars

The nitty-gritty:  A beautiful and strange story filled with uncanny mysteries and an overwhelming feeling of dread.

On the seaward side, another wall, an even stouter-looking fortification high on the crumbling dune, topped with broken glass and, as I drew near, I could see crenellations that created lines of sight for rifles. It was all in danger of falling down the slope onto the beach below. But for it not to have done so already, whoever had built it must have dug its foundations deep. It appeared that some past defenders of the lighthouse had been at war with the sea. I did not like this wall because it provided evidence of a very specific kind of insanity.

I’m late to the game in reading and reviewing this first installment of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, but I’m grateful for Sci-Fi November, which propelled me to make time for a science fiction story that I’ve been trying to read, amidst all my review obligations. I confess to never having read Jeff VanderMeer before now, and I feel like slapping myself silly for that! I even own several of his books, so I don’t have an excuse, other than the tired “I don’t have time to read everything!” VanderMeer is a seasoned author, having already written at least seven novels and countless short stories. He’s been an editor of anthologies and won such esteemed awards as the World Fantasy and Locus Awards, to name two. If you haven’t read anything by VanderMeer, I suggest you start with his latest, Annihilation. Although the term “new weird” is often mentioned in the same breath as his name, I didn’t feel as if this book fell into that genre, or if it did, it seemed to be an accessible kind of new weird.

Annihilation was odd and hypnotic and melancholy and it made me dizzy and exhilarated and sad. In some ways it reminded me of the television show Lost, where there are strange things to discover around every corner. If you’re looking for an action-packed plot, you won’t find it here. Rather, VanderMeer builds a kind of dreadful suspense by slowly giving us hints of the weirdness and horrors of Area X. Four women have just arrived at Area X, members of the twelfth expedition (eleven expeditions have come before them, and all have ended in death or disappearance). The biologist, the psychologist, the surveyor and the anthropologist have trained and been analyzed and deemed fit to be part of the expedition. Upon arriving in the lush and multi-habitat area, they set up camp and begin to explore, looking for clues that might shed light on what happened to the previous expeditions. They are given journals where they will each record their own experiences and reactions to Area X.

The story is narrated by the biologist, and the book is her journal. The story begins as the four explorers stumble upon a landmark that isn’t on the map they’ve come armed with—a “tower” that appears to have sunk underground, tunneling down into the earth with no explanation. The discovery of this tower—or “tunnel” as the other three call it—sets off a chain of events that will test the sanity of each member of the team. Wondrous and terrible things, real or imagined, are about to happen, because Area X is quite unlike any place you’ve ever experienced.

Much of what made this story work for me was the ambiguity of what is happening in Area X. Normally that would frustrate me, but VanderMeer manages—somehow—to draw the reader into the chaotic mindset of the biologist, making us question everything she sees and hears. From the unexplainable thing they see in the tower (I’ll let you discover that on your own!) to the wide variety of animal and insect life that lives in Area X, each new mystery is scientifically scrutinized by the narrator (she is a biologist, after all), as she tries to rationalize everything, even if there isn’t any rational explanation. In one of the stranger events, the biologist sees a dolphin swimming toward her that gazes at her with very familiar eyes. This completely creepy scene made me wonder what had actually happened to the people on the previous expeditions.

The story is divided between two main landmarks—the tower and the lighthouse—and I loved the way the two structures, one rising into the sky and the other tunneling into the earth, played off each other. Both are scenes of great violence, because terrible things have happened—and are happening—in Area X.

Despite the short length of the book, VanderMeer gives us lots of character development, as we get to see the other three members of the team through the biologist’s eyes, and even better, she gives us a peek into her own past. One of the most poignant parts of the story was learning that the biologist’s husband was part of the eleventh expedition, and that he is now dead. As she makes her way through the wonders and horrors of Area X, she reminisces on bits of her marriage, recalling the marital problems they were having right before he left, their early years together, and how utterly wrong they seemed to be for each other. At one point she says:

“…I loved him, but I didn’t need him, and I thought that was the way it was supposed to be.”

By the end of the story, there was still so much left unresolved, so many mysteries still unraveled. What is the border, and why can’t they remember what it was like to cross it? What is the meaning of the strange thing they found in the tower? And how long, really, have expeditions been coming to Area X? Only the Southern Reach knows the answers, and I’m hoping for some myself in the next two books. Highly recommended.

Have you read the Southern Reach trilogy? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Filed under 5 stars, Reviews

Clever but Confusing: SUPERHEROES ANONYMOUS by Lexie Dunne – Review

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This review is part of Sci-Fi November, hosted by Oh, The Books! and Rinn Reads!

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Superheroes Anonymous by Lexie Dunne
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Voyager Impulse
Release date: November 18 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via Edelweiss
Pages: 336

three stars

The nitty-gritty: A clever story that pokes fun at superhero mythology, with some very funny moments, but unfortunately lacked the sizzle and excitement that I was expecting.

So I went on a walk with Blaze, my savior. The man sure to deliver the antidote if I’d been poisoned, who’d personally pulled me out of more fiery buildings than I cared to count and, on one notable occasion, a live volcano. He waited for me to take the elevator down after closing the window. And we walked, silently. Mercifully, the streets were bare, save for us, so nobody gawked at Hostage Girl and her own appointed superhero.

Warning: there may be some spoilers in this review. I just don’t care. I need to speak about the things that bothered me…

I love reading stories about superheroes, especially when the author does something different with the genre. Lexie Dunne gives us a world where superheroes and villains are celebrities, and the general public follows their exciting kidnappings and rescues in real-time on a GPS-like website called the Domino. This story had so much potential, and it certainly sounds good on paper, but it ultimately felt as if all the individual awesome ideas just didn’t gel together. Even worse, it ends on a very abrupt cliffhanger, as if the author suddenly realized she had reached her word limit. But despite this, there were some very funny scenes, and Dunne has a gift for very believable dialog.

The story takes place in Chicago, where superheroes patrol the skies and keep the city safe from supervillains. Gail is a young woman who slaves away at a job she hates, while waiting for the next villain to abduct her. Gail is famously known as “Hostage Girl” because she’s been kidnapped so many times, then rescued by hottie superhero Blaze. Everyone suspects that Girl’s boyfriend Jeremy is actually Blaze, but not even Girl knows for sure. (I’m calling her “Girl” in this review, because that’s what all the other characters call her.)

When Jeremy tells her he’s taking a job in New York City, and then Blaze decides to leave as well, the kidnappings suddenly stop. Until one day, a villain named Dr. Mobius grabs Girl and takes her back to his secret lab. Girl is depressed that no one is coming to rescue her, until she realizes that the drugs Dr. Mobius is pumping into her are changing her body and giving her super strength. Before long, Girl escapes and winds up in a secret complex called the Davenport Industries Superpowers Complex, a training and living center for superheroes. As the doctors unravel the mysteries of what the drugs are doing to Girl, she begins her new life as a superhero.

Let’s start with the positives. This was a fun story, and I loved the humor. For example, superheroes guard their origin stories carefully and only tell them to close friends. A blogger named Naomi dishes about the secret lives of superheroes on her blog “Crap About Capes.” And I enjoyed the “behind the scenes” look at what makes a superhero tick, as we follow Girl and her friends going about their lives in the Complex.

I loved the whole idea of the Superpowers Complex, an underground hidden city where superheroes can chill with their own kind, train, and learn the superhero ropes (if they are new, like Girl). It’s here that Girl discovers the identity of her favorite superheroes, since they don’t wear masks while staying at the Complex. I found that idea charming!

I mostly enjoyed the character of Girl, and she takes all the changes in her life in stride. But I wasn’t crazy about how resigned she seems about being called “Hostage Girl.” She’s almost proud of the fact, and the kidnappings are so common that they’ve practically become a normal part of her life. My feminist side wanted to wring her neck and say “Snap out it! You don’t need a man to rescue you!”

Romance doesn’t play a big part in the story, but Girl does seem to be torn between several men. Although she’s bitter about Jeremy dumping her, she develops some complicated feelings for Blaze once she reaches the Complex. And a third guy named Cooper catches her eye. Overall, the romance was kept on the back-burner where it belonged, in my opinion.

My main problem with Superheroes Anonymous was that the plot was so convoluted and scattered that it felt as if it never went anywhere. Once Girl becomes a superhero-in-training, there are pages and pages where she does nothing but train (with a very sadistic woman named Angélica), eat (since she’s been pumped full of an unknown drug by Dr. Mobius, Girl’s been constantly hungry), and  worry about her new powers. This section was downright boring, and I wanted an editor to go back and make the story a) more streamlined and b) more exciting. Angélica makes her eat some kind of protein bar that she calls “crap cakes,” and Girl eats a ton of these nasty things. Not only does she eat a lot of them, but we, the readers, are told about each one she forces down her throat. Enough already of the crap cakes!

A couple of plot points made no sense at all, and both involve the drugs that Dr. Mobius forces on Girl. First, ugh, forcing Girl to take drugs just doesn’t fit the light, humorous tone of the story. And then he tells her he’s given her an addiction so that she will have to come back to him in order to get a fix, or die! (Presumably after she’s escaped.) Then—and this is the spoiler, so close you eyes if you don’t want to know—Girl finds out that the drug is giving her cancer, but that’s ok, because at the same time it is curing her of the cancer! WTF??? People, I just can’t. Girl goes through the last half of the book worried that she’s got cancer, but actually not too worried because the doctors say that eventually her body will cure itself. *keels over from too much confusion* The idea is actually pretty cool, but it just wasn’t executed very well.

So, Superheroes Anonymous gets three stars for its humor and potential, but I can’t really recommend it. (Although a lot of readers seem to love it on Goodreads!) It definitely had some funny, cute moments, and the potential was there, but in my opinion, it needed polishing to make it a cohesive story. The superhero field is starting to get crowded (which is a good thing!), but in order to stand out for me, you’re going to have to step up your game.

Thanks to Harper Voyager Impulse for supplying a review copy. Quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

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Filed under 3 stars, Reviews

“I’ll Take My Weird With Mushrooms, Please” – THE BEAUTY by Aliya Whiteley – Review

The Beauty 3D

The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley
Genre: Adult SF/Weird Fiction
Publisher: Unsung Stories
Release date: September 2014
Source: eBook from Publisher
Pages: 104

three stars

The nitty-gritty:  A short but powerful story that will make you think about what “gender” means, but seriously, one of the strangest things I’ve ever read.

The Beauty were small at first but they grew, and they took all the best qualities of the dead. They sucked up through the soil all the softness, serenity, hope and happiness of womankind.

I’m not the sort of reader who shies away from anything odd or bizarre, and many of the books I’ve read and enjoyed can be described in just that way. I was anxious to check out Unsung Stories, a new UK-based publisher who “…are publishers of great weird fiction that defies categorization.” After some very positive experiences with other small publishers of the weird and uncategorizable, like Apex Books and Salt Publishing, I eagerly accepted The Beauty for review. And I can honestly say that, yes, this book defies categorization, and it most certainly falls under the genre of weird fiction.

So while this story was visually stunning and creative and strange, did I enjoy it? I guess up to a point I did, but then the weird kept escalating and ultimately became too much for me. (I can’t believe I just typed those words!) I do believe the author’s point to the story was to take a look at the way we define “gender” and turn that notion on its head.

But part of my enjoyment of fiction stems from being able to connect to the characters, to understand them and root for them and feel emotions right along with them. And unfortunately, I had a hard time with both the men and the women in The Beauty. Let’s set the scene for you, shall we?  The story takes place some time in the future after a horrible fungus begins killing all the women. People have moved out of the cities and set up camp in small groups, perhaps in order to better survive this virus. One such group lives in a wilderness area, and the wives, sisters, and mothers of all the men have died, leaving them alone, with no female companionship. The men are sad about this, but nevertheless they gather around the campfire each night where one of them, a man named Nathan, tells stories about their past, reliving the memories of the women they loved and lost, and generally trying to keep these memories alive for the younger members of the group.

But something strange is happening. Odd-looking mushrooms are starting to grow over the graves of the women, and one day Nathan falls into a pit in the forest and is attacked by a monstrous creature that seems to be made of mushrooms. When he regains consciousness, he takes the creature, who he calls “Beauty,” back to camp with him. The men are shocked by the Beauty’s yellow, spongy skin and strange, non-verbal way of communicating. But Nathan convinces them that she has come to make their lives better. Eventually, more of the creatures join the group and soon each man has his own Beauty. It’s almost as if their dead women are back again.

But not all the men are happy with the sudden arrival of the Beauty, and before long, dissent threatens to tear the group apart.

So what happens when a society loses its women? Well, aside from the obvious—no sex with women!—the society is in danger of disappearing, because hey, no more children. Whiteley takes her story in some unexpected directions with this idea as a jumping off point. I won’t tell you what happens, because that would spoil things, but I did like the way the men react to what unfolds after the Beauty join them. I love when peaceful groups of people suddenly turn on each other, and Whiteley’s story shines the most when the group begins to unravel.

Whiteley’s Beauties are strangely compelling creations. Although they don’t speak, they work out a way to communicate with the men. They seem to appear just when the men need them most, but the Beauty also have a violent streak that was quite shocking. To be honest, I liked them more than the men in the story, but only just.

I guess what bothered me most about this story was the oddness of the men’s feelings for the Beauty, who seem to come out of nowhere and mesmerize the men until they can think of nothing else but being with and having sex with these odd, mushroom women. I’m sure the author is making a statement or two about sexual role reversals, but by about the mid-point of the story, Whiteley takes the weirdness to a very unsettling level, and at that point I began to mentally check out.

Many reviewers loved this book—you have only to look at all the four-and-five star ratings on Goodreads. If Whiteley’s goal was to challenge the way we think about gender, then she certainly accomplished that task. Unfortunately, The Beauty had just a little too much “weird” for me to completely enjoy.

Big thanks to Unsung Stories for providing a review copy.

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This review is part of Sci-Fi November, hosted by Oh, The Books! and Rinn Reads!

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Filed under 3 1/2 stars, Reviews

A Creepy & Gothic Tale: THE BOY WHO DREW MONSTERS by Keith Donohue – Review + Giveaway

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The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue
Genre: Adult Paranormal/Psychological
Publisher: Picador
Release date: October 7 2014
Source: ARC from publisher
Pages: 272

Don’t forget to leave a comment, because I’m giving away a finished copy to one U.S. resident!

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: A creepy, atmospheric tale that delves into the terrors of childhood and the regrets and disappointments of adulthood.

Believing himself invisible,  Jack Peter was surprised when they remembered to invite him to the table. He saw how they had changed. They were a team again, and he would have to see what he should do about that. The blush of red wine filled the room when his father uncorked the bottle. Piping hot, the spaghetti was no sooner set on the table than they were at it like a pair of wild beasts. They chomped at the bread, slurped at the sauce, and drained their glasses to the lees. They ate as though they had been starving, abandoning themselves to desire, as if the raw act of eating was somehow wicked when true wickedness was just outside the door.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I started this book, but it completely surprised me, in a good way. I had read Donohue’s first book, The Stolen Child, when it came out, and I remember really enjoying it. So I was looking forward to reading his latest. The story starts out creepy and the creepiness just keeps escalating. Donohue clearly loves exploring themes about childhood fears, real or imagined, and in this multi-POV story he gets right into the heads of Jack Peter and Nick, two ten-year-old friends who come face to face with the “monster under the bed.”

Tim and Holly Keenan and their son Jack Peter, or “Jip” as his father fondly calls him, live in their “dream house” in a small Maine coastal town, where Tim is a caretaker for the grand houses in the neighborhood, whose residents are spending winter in the city. But their home life is far from perfect. Jack Peter has Asperger’s and has recently developed agoraphobia, and he has not left his house—other than monthly visits to the psychiatrist—in three years. One morning when Holly goes to wake him up, she surprises him and he strikes her in the face. This sets off a chain of disturbing events that threaten to cripple the family, as well as their close friends who live nearby. One by one, each family member begins to see and hear strange things. But what is real and what isn’t?

There’s a gothic feel to The Boy Who Drew Monsters that I really loved: I could practically hear the crash of the waves on the rocks, and smell the sea salt in the air. Because the story takes place right before Christmas, snow plays a big part in the story (and here’s where you can tell I’m a California girl. I had no idea it could snow by the ocean!) The swirling chill of the snow added a menacing quality to the story, especially when a monster shows up and some of the characters take off into the snowy night to find it.

As you may have guessed from the title, Jack Peter likes to draw pictures of  monsters, and this odd pastime leads to much of the unsettling scenes in the book. One of Donohue’s talents is pacing the story so that the reader is only given small bits of creepiness at a time, but all those small moments eventually add up to some very real terror. I started reading this book the night my husband left on a trip for three days, and let me tell you, this is not the kind of book you want to read at night, in the dark, alone! I don’t scare that easily, but I found myself jumping at shadows and burrowing under the covers. Part of the genius of the story is that you’re never really sure whether the scary parts are real, or if they are simply manifestations of stressed out people.

I loved the tangled relationship between the Keenans and the Wellers. The story focuses mainly on six characters: Jack Peter and his parents, Holly and Tim; and Nick and his parents, Nell and Fred. The two families live near each other, and Nick is Jack Peter’s only friend. The boys grew up together, but a terrible accident at the beach three years before the story starts (they both nearly drowned) has put a strain on their relationship. Now Nick’s parents are making him stay with the Keenan family for a week while they go on a cruise to try to rekindle their marriage (yes, there’s some back story to the Weller’s relationship that will explain things).  Donohue does a great job of using multiple POV to flit in and out of each character’s head, so that the reader experiences the thoughts of each one. He also uses the classic fear of getting cut off from your loved ones to great effect, as he separates the characters from each other and makes them face their fears alone.

For me, the most interesting character of the bunch was Holly, a mother who must face the fact that she has a special needs child and that there is no escape from that reality. Holly and Tim are at odds with each other over Jack’s situation. Tim is convinced that Jack is “getting better” and will someday grow out of his Asperger’s tendencies. But Holly think he’s getting worse, and it’s driving her to the brink of sorrow. After Jack hits Holly, she rekindles her relationship with the Catholic church, mostly as a way to find answers. She befriends the local priest, as well as his “companion,” a woman named Miss Tiramaku who tells her all about the yurei (Japanese ghosts) who are haunting the town. Holly’s deteriorating mental state, and her journey back around to a sort of acceptance about Jack, was wonderfully done.

The story ends in a fantastic twist, one that I didn’t see coming, but which made me gasp out loud. If you’re looking for a book with a stealthy kind of terror, the sort that builds slowly until you’re about to crack from the tension, The Boy Who Drew Monsters is a must-read.

Big thanks to Picador for sending a review copy of the book! And thanks to the publisher, I have a finished hardcover to give away to one U.S. winner. (Sorry international peeps, but postage is too expensive.) To enter, simply leave a comment below and answer this question: Have you ever seen something eerie that was hard to explain? Giveaway ends December 5th, when one commentor will be randomly selected!

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Filed under 4 1/2 stars, Giveaways, Reviews

A Tortured Superhero: THE HEART DOES NOT GROW BACK by Fred Venturini – Review

The Heart 3D

The Heart Does Not Grow Back by Fred Venturini
Genre: Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy
Publisher: Picador
Release date: November 4 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
Pages: 320

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: Violent, dark, and unexpected, a story about saving the people you love, without destroying yourself in the process.

I took the gun out, a familiar .38 purchased at our local Super Wal-Mart. At first, I kept it under the middle couch cushion and didn’t bring it out for weeks at a time. I’ve since warmed up to the prospect of holding it, watching the light die in the matte finish of the barrel. When you fondle a gun, it starts out cool and warms up, getting friendly in your hands. Hold one long enough and pretty soon, the urge to shoot something takes on a life of its own.

When you see the word “superhero” in a book blurb, you form a certain idea of what kind of story you will be reading. In this case, my expectations turned out to be completely wrong. Venturini has written a different kind of superhero story that surprised me, shocked me, and made me laugh. This story is dark, folks. And I mean dark. Venturini isn’t afraid of pushing people’s buttons, and there are several “trigger issues” in The Heart Does Not Grow Back that will definitely offend certain readers. So fair warning, there is a very disturbing rape scene, as well as numerous acts of bullying that go way beyond your typical school yard variety.

In addition to that violence, there are some upsetting scenes where Dale, who is afflicted (or blessed, depending on your opinion) with the ability to regenerate his limbs and organs, does various things to his body in the name of curiosity, or perhaps science. In other words, squeamish readers may want to stay away from this one.

So you may be asking, Tammy, why did you give this book four-and-a-half stars? The truth is, I really enjoyed the story, and I don’t mind the dark side of fiction at all, so despite a few “ick” moments, it completely pulled me in. Dale is the narrator, and his voice is part of the reason I loved this book. His story begins when he’s in sixth grade, a target for school bullies even then, and gradually he shakes off the role of victim and finds himself in a unique situation: he has a special ability, but he needs to decide whether to use that ability to help others, or to help himself.

Dale is in sixth grade when a boy named Mack saves him from a violent boy named Clint. Dale and Mack become fast friends, and it’s Mack that introduces Dale to two girls who become integral parts of this story, twins Regina and Raeanna. Dale falls for Regina, but one fateful night, after arranging to meet her at a party, Dale’s life changes forever. After a violent encounter with Clint, three of Dale’s fingers are shot off, and he winds up in the hospital.

Dale later wakes up and discovers that his fingers have grown back. This startling occurrence propels him to find someone who can help with a scheme to make some quick cash. Several years later, Raeanna has ended up in her own hell, married to an abusive man name Harold, and Dale spends most of the book looking for a way to pry her out of Harold’s clutches.

But Mack comes back into the picture with a better idea of how Dale should use his gift, and Dale is torn between doing the right thing, or saving Raeanna.

The author does a great job of making Dale a tortured character, much like many other superhero archetypes. He’s the sort of guy who has never really fit in, but his newfound ability changes all that, and forces him into the spotlight. But Dale’s real motivation is a girl, and like so many other superheroes that came before him, he’s bound and determined to sacrifice everything to keep her safe. The real tragedy of Dale’s “power” is that he can never use it to escape the bullies in his life. There are some poignant moments when he wonders if he wouldn’t be better off dead, and it was disturbing to be in his head as he planned out different methods of suicide.

Venturini’s writing is edgy and sharp, and I found so many quotable passages that it was hard to choose just one. Despite the fact that his characters are not the most likable—there are just way too many victims here—there was an underlying sense of hope, and even the ending gives us a glimmer of the happiness that Dale has been looking for. Dale may be wrestling with his conscience over what he should be doing with his superpowers, but he ultimately makes the right decision.

Venturini uses science to plausibly explain Dale’s powers of regeneration—he compares Dale’s ability to the way a salamander can grow its tail back. That’s one reason this book falls under the “science fiction” category for me, because I found myself thinking “Why shouldn’t limb and organ regeneration be possible??”

In the end, it was the tangled and complicated relationships between the characters—Mack and Dale, Dale and Raeanna, Dale and Harold—that kept the story humming along for me. Each character needs to be saved from something, but not all of them want to be saved. But that doesn’t stop Dale, an unlikely superhero, from trying.

Big thanks to Picador for supplying a review copy! Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

Find the book:

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This review is part of Sci-Fi November, hosted by Oh, The Books! and Rinn Reads!

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Filed under 4 1/2 stars, Reviews

Take Two! Blog Tour: ENDSINGER by Jay Kristoff

And so, after my terrible experience and dramatic expulsion from WordPress.com, which happened on the very day my blog tour post for Endsinger was to go live, I’ve decided to repost my review, start the giveaway over again, and join in the celebration of this AWESOME trilogy! For those of you who missed it the first time (which was probably most of you), here it is again:

Endsinger_BlogHeader_600x200[1][2][1][1]

This is the day I’ve been waiting for…my stop on the Endsinger Blog Tour! I’m so excited and humbled to be part of Jay’s tour, especially since Endsinger is the last book in his amazing Japanese steampunk series AAAHHHHHHH!! You can check out the other bloggers on the tour here, and read my review below.

Endsinger 3D

Endsinger (The Lotus War #3) by Jay Kristoff
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Release date: November 25 2014
Source: ARC from publisher
Pages: 432

five stars

The nitty-gritty: A huge finish to a big, beautiful, and tragic series.

The city was dressed funeral black, boardwalk littered with the skeletons of gutted sky-ships. Spot fires still smoldered in Downside, filling the already choking air with smoke. Her people wore soot-stained clothes and bewildered expressions. Soldiers walked her cobbles, heads hung in shame. A mother wandered black riverbanks, her eyes as empty as the charred wicker stroller she pushed before her.

I find this review nearly impossible to write, having just finished Endsinger last night. My emotions are still pretty raw, like a bad knee scrape from falling on rocky asphalt. There are still little bits of sharp rock lodged under my skin; the wound is bloody and seeping. Just looking at the scrape causes me to wince in pain. In short, I want to lay my head down on my desk, weep for a while, then take a very long nap.

I’ve been a loyal reader of Jay’s series right from the beginning, so I was very happy to be asked to join the Endsinger tour. The first two books combined lots of emotional moments with all the bloody action, but they didn’t come close to the emotional experience of reading Endsinger. I knew going in things were going to get rough. Jay even said so. So I was ready for death, pain and disappointment. But things didn’t always go the way I was expecting, and rather than try to guess how everything is going to end,  I recommend that you set all your expectations aside and simply enjoy the story.

No spoilers ahead, folks, but here’s what you need to know about The Lotus War series: It’s set in an alternate Japanese-like future and shares many of the same elements as feudal Japan, complete with samurai-ish warriors, where honor and loyalty reign and punishments are harsh. But in this world, the earth has been destroyed by a terrible enterprise: the growth and harvesting of the blood lotus, a poisonous plant that is used to make fuel for the machines that run this world, but whose smoke is slowly killing the people who breath it. Yukiko is a young girl who has spent most of her life under the black and dismal skies of Shima, and who is about to be thrust into a war between those who wish to be free of the treacherous rulers, and those who want nothing more than to keep the people of Shima enslaved.

Some readers may not care for Kristoff’s writing style, which I like to compare to a Wagnerian opera. Everything in Yukiko’s world is big and sad and terrible and wonderful, and  reading these books isn’t so much reading words on the page as being immersed in the language and the emotions. Every action is fraught with meaning and emotion and consequences, and for some this might be too much. For me, it meant I could barely tear my eyes away.

Kristoff describes the horrors of war so well that I felt as if I were living each moment with the characters. It literally became hard to breathe at some points, because I could clearly imagine the smoke and stink from the chi refineries that make the air barely breathable. Yes, the story is violent, but the violence fit the story that Kristoff is telling, and even if it was too much for me at times, it certainly wasn’t out of line with what a feudal society would be like.

Some of my favorite characters in this series are the arashitora, the griffin-like creatures who befriend Yukiko. In the first book, Yukiko becomes steadfast friends with Buruu, an arashitora who has been exiled from his family. And in Endsinger, we get to meet even more of these creatures, including a female named Kaiah who bonds with Yukiko’s friend Hana. The bonds between arashitora and humans were quite special, since both Yukiko and Hana have the “kenning,” the ability to hear the thoughts of animals and communicate telepathically with them. Jay’s sometimes over-the-top prose brings the friendship between Buruu and Yukiko to life, and made me write this note as I was reading the book: “Buruu and Yukiko: the greatest love story ever told!”

I fell in love with some new characters this time around. Yoshi is Hana’s brother, and he suffered a terrible loss in Kinslayer. Now he’s bent on vengeance, and while he’s a very angry character, Yoshi also has a soft side, not to mention he becomes a hero in a very startling way.

And Kin! What can I say about him? He’s one of the most tragic characters in the story (and believe me, just about every character has something tragic about him) but he never loses sight of what he believes in. I’ve loved Kin from the beginning, and even though he went through some tough times in this last book, he remained a favorite character of mine through the entire series.

And Michi. Delicate but deadly, Michi is a whirlwind of a girl who is one of the best fighters in the story. She decides to write down the history of the Lotus War so that future generations will know what happened.

And so many more. Endsinger has so many characters, but luckily Kristoff repeats what he did in Kinslayer: he adds a sort of “where are they now?” character list at the beginning of the book that was very helpful.

And now for some favorite quotes:

Michi: “A wolf without a head is just a rug.”

Michi: “And you said a bottle of ink couldn’t win a war!”

Buruu: “TIME ENOUGH FOR TEARS WHEN THE WAR IS WON.”

I won’t give anything away, but you can tell from my opening paragraph that there are a lot of emotional moments in Endsinger.  Characters betray each other. They fall in love. They forge life-long friendships. They grow up. They die. They mourn. And they move on. The ending made me cry, but it made me smile as well. All in all, a perfect way to close a very special series.

Big thanks to Thomas Dunne Books for supplying a review copy! All quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.

Read my reviews of Stormdancer and Kinslayer.

About the author:

Jay Kristoff cropJAY KRISTOFF grew up in the most isolated capital city on earth and fled at his earliest convenience, although he’s been known to trek back for weddings of the particularly nice and funerals of the particularly wealthy. Being the holder of an arts degree, he has no education to speak of.  He is six feet seven inches and has approximately 13,520 days to live. He lives in Melbourne with his wife and the world’s laziest Jack Russell Terrier.

Find Jay: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads

Find Endsinger: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Book Depository | IndieBound | Goodreads

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Filed under 5 stars, Blog Tours, Giveaways, Reviews

So Many Tears… ENDSINGER by Jay Kristoff – Blog Tour, Review + Giveaway!

Endsinger_BlogHeader_600x200[1][2][1][1]

This is the day I’ve been waiting for…my stop on the Endsinger Blog Tour! I’m so excited and humbled to be part of Jay’s tour, especially since Endsinger is the last book in his amazing Japanese steampunk series AAAHHHHHHH!! You can check out the other bloggers on the tour here, read my review below, and enter to win an ARC of Endsinger at the end of this post (U.S. only this time, folks).

Endsinger 3D

Endsinger (The Lotus War #3) by Jay Kristoff
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Release date: November 25 2014
Source: ARC from publisher
Pages: 432

five stars

The nitty-gritty: A huge finish to a big, beautiful, and tragic series.

The city was dressed funeral black, boardwalk littered with the skeletons of gutted sky-ships. Spot fires still smoldered in Downside, filling the already choking air with smoke. Her people wore soot-stained clothes and bewildered expressions. Soldiers walked her cobbles, heads hung in shame. A mother wandered black riverbanks, her eyes as empty as the charred wicker stroller she pushed before her.

I find this review nearly impossible to write, having just finished Endsinger last night. My emotions are still pretty raw, like a bad knee scrape from falling on rocky asphalt. There are still little bits of sharp rock lodged under my skin; the wound is bloody and seeping. Just looking at the scrape causes me to wince in pain. In short, I want to lay my head down on my desk, weep for a while, then take a very long nap.

I’ve been a loyal reader of Jay’s series right from the beginning, so I was very happy to be asked to join the Endsinger tour. The first two books combined lots of emotional moments with all the bloody action, but they didn’t come close to the emotional experience of reading Endsinger. I knew going in things were going to get rough. Jay even said so. So I was ready for death, pain and disappointment. But things didn’t always go the way I was expecting, and rather than try to guess how everything is going to end,  I recommend that you set all your expectations aside and simply enjoy the story.

No spoilers ahead, folks, but here’s what you need to know about The Lotus War series: It’s set in an alternate Japanese-like future and shares many of the same elements as feudal Japan, complete with samurai-ish warriors, where honor and loyalty reign and punishments are harsh. But in this world, the earth has been destroyed by a terrible enterprise: the growth and harvesting of the blood lotus, a poisonous plant that is used to make fuel for the machines that run this world, but whose smoke is slowly killing the people who breath it. Yukiko is a young girl who has spent most of her life under the black and dismal skies of Shima, and who is about to be thrust into a war between those who wish to be free of the treacherous rulers, and those who want nothing more than to keep the people of Shima enslaved.

Some readers may not care for Kristoff’s writing style, which I like to compare to a Wagnerian opera. Everything in Yukiko’s world is big and sad and terrible and wonderful, and  reading these books isn’t so much reading words on the page as being immersed in the language and the emotions. Every action is fraught with meaning and emotion and consequences, and for some this might be too much. For me, it meant I could barely tear my eyes away.

Kristoff describes the horrors of war so well that I felt as if I were living each moment with the characters. It literally became hard to breathe at some points, because I could clearly imagine the smoke and stink from the chi refineries that make the air barely breathable. Yes, the story is violent, but the violence fit the story that Kristoff is telling, and even if it was too much for me at times, it certainly wasn’t out of line with what a feudal society would be like.

Some of my favorite characters in this series are the arashitora, the griffin-like creatures who befriend Yukiko. In the first book, Yukiko becomes steadfast friends with Buruu, an arashitora who has been exiled from his family. And in Endsinger, we get to meet even more of these creatures, including a female named Kaiah who bonds with Yukiko’s friend Hana. The bonds between arashitora and humans were quite special, since both Yukiko and Hana have the “kenning,” the ability to hear the thoughts of animals and communicate telepathically with them. Jay’s sometimes over-the-top prose brings the friendship between Buruu and Yukiko to life, and made me write this note as I was reading the book: “Buruu and Yukiko: the greatest love story ever told!”

I fell in love with some new characters this time around. Yoshi is Hana’s brother, and he suffered a terrible loss in Kinslayer. Now he’s bent on vengeance, and while he’s a very angry character, Yoshi also has a soft side, not to mention he becomes a hero in a very startling way.

And Kin! What can I say about him? He’s one of the most tragic characters in the story (and believe me, just about every character has something tragic about him) but he never loses sight of what he believes in. I’ve loved Kin from the beginning, and even though he went through some tough times in this last book, he remained a favorite character of mine through the entire series.

And Michi. Delicate but deadly, Michi is a whirlwind of a girl who is one of the best fighters in the story. She decides to write down the history of the Lotus War so that future generations will know what happened.

And so many more. Endsinger has so many characters, but luckily Kristoff repeats what he did in Kinslayer: he adds a sort of “where are they now?” character list at the beginning of the book that was very helpful.

And now for some favorite quotes:

Michi: “A wolf without a head is just a rug.”

Michi: “And you said a bottle of ink couldn’t win a war!”

Buruu: “TIME ENOUGH FOR TEARS WHEN THE WAR IS WON.”

I won’t give anything away, but you can tell from my opening paragraph that there are a lot of emotional moments in Endsinger.  Characters betray each other. They fall in love. They forge life-long friendships. They grow up. They die. They mourn. And they move on. The ending made me cry, but it made me smile as well. All in all, a perfect way to close a very special series.

Big thanks to Thomas Dunne Books for supplying a review copy! All quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.

Read my reviews of Stormdancer and Kinslayer.

About the author:

Jay Kristoff cropJAY KRISTOFF grew up in the most isolated capital city on earth and fled at his earliest convenience, although he’s been known to trek back for weddings of the particularly nice and funerals of the particularly wealthy. Being the holder of an arts degree, he has no education to speak of.  He is six feet seven inches and has approximately 13,520 days to live. He lives in Melbourne with his wife and the world’s laziest Jack Russell Terrier.

Find Jay: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads

Find Endsinger: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Book Depository | IndieBound | Goodreads

And now for the giveaway: (1) U.S. winner will receive an ARC of Endsinger! Fill out the form below to enter. Giveaway ends on November 21st. Good luck!

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Filed under Blog Tours, Giveaways, Reviews

Blog Tour & Review: THE SHOTGUN ARCANA by R.S. Belcher

Shotgun_Arcana_Tour_Banner

I’m very excited to be participating in the blog tour for The Shotgun Arcana, hosted by Jean Book Nerd! You can click that link, or the banner above, to check out the rest of the stops on the tour.

I’m very picky these days about joining blog tours, so when I do, you know it’s for an author that I really want to support. I read the first book in Rod’s series, The Six-Gun Tarot, almost two years ago (my review) and loved it. He doesn’t disappoint in this sequel, and you can read my review below.

The Shotgun Arcana

R. S. Belcher’s debut novel, The Six-Gun Tarot, was enthusiastically greeted by critics and readers, who praised its wildly inventive mixture of dark fantasy, steampunk, and the Wild West. Now Belcher returns to Golgotha, Nevada, a bustling frontier town that hides more than its fair share of unnatural secrets.

1870. A haven for the blessed and the damned, including a fallen angel, a mad scientist, a pirate queen, and a deputy who is kin to coyotes, Golgotha has come through many nightmarish trials, but now an army of thirty-two outlaws, lunatics, serial killers, and cannibals are converging on the town, drawn by a grisly relic that dates back to the Donner Party…and the dawn of humanity.

Sheriff Jon Highfather and his deputies already have their hands full dealing with train robbers, a mysterious series of brutal murders, and the usual outbreaks of weirdness. But with thirty-two of the most vicious killers on Earth riding into Golgotha in just a few day’s time, the town and its people will be tested as never before—and some of them will never be the same.

The Shotgun Arcana is even more spectacularly ambitious and imaginative than The Six-Gun Tarot, and confirms R. S. Belcher’s status as a rising star.

Buy the book:  Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Book Depository

My review:

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: An exciting and worthy sequel, a cast of colorful characters, a brutally violent western, balanced by humor and emotion.

I gleefully devoured The Six-Gun Tarot nearly two years ago, and I was chomping at the bit (hey, this is a western, so that metaphor is apt) to read Belcher’s follow-up. I was not disappointed. The Shotgun Arcana is a wild ride, with a large cast of quirky characters and a fair amount of blood flowing through the dusty streets of Golgotha, the remote desert town where the story takes place. Belcher builds his story carefully and methodically, and even though it started out a bit on the slow side for me, it picked up momentum with each turn of the page.

Although this is technically billed as a sequel, and many of the same characters from The Six-Gun Tarot are part of the story, The Shotgun Arcana can easily be read as a stand-alone, good news for those of you who haven’t read the first book yet. Some story elements are carried over, like the magical jade eye that Jim carries with him, but Belcher smoothly incorporates these into his narrative without confusing the reader.

Just like the Hellmouth in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Golgotha acts as an evil hub, drawing in a hoard of nasty serial killers who want to take over the town. (The reason for this relates back to the first book.) But before they arrive, there is another serial killer at large. Someone is murdering girls from the Dove’s Roost and leaving their gruesomely mutilated bodies in the back alleys of town. Sheriff Jon Highfather and his deputies Jim and Mutt have their hands full trying to catch the killer before he claims another victim. They are joined by a trio of brave and feisty women: Kate, a detective who works for the famed Pinkerton; Rowan, a pirate queen; and Maude, a returning character from The Six-Gun Tarot who is about as fearless as they come.

But this killer can’t hold a candle to what’s coming—and it’s going to take every good guy in town to hold back the evil that’s on its way.

This is one crazy story, and I mean that in a good way. A LOT is going on, and Belcher gives us a huge cast of characters to deal with. I’ll admit it was sometimes overwhelming, and in the beginning the multiple points of view seem as if they’ll never come together—but don’t let that deter you from reading this book. By the end, everything fell into place beautifully, and I am already looking forward to the next book in the series.

Some of my favorite parts of The Shotgun Arcana were the humorous exchanges between characters. Belcher has a great talent for capturing the Western sensibility, and the book is dripping with sarcasm, snark and western slang, which gets my hearty seal of approval. There’s nothing quite like a story that can make you laugh one minute, and cringe in horror the next:

“A word to the wise, Jonathan,” [Tumblety] said as he went about his task. “A man in your position must show great care in trucking with adventuresses. Their horrid female sex is replete with disease that can lay a man low faster than any bullet. Beware, I caution you as a physician, beware!”

“I’ve seen better sawbones in a Chinese brothel,” Kate said. Tumblety’s face grew ruddy with rage and he strode toward Kate with hatred glazing his eyes. “Shut your mouth, you haughty bitch! I’m going to beat the sass out of your whore gob!”

Highfather moved to stop Tumblety, but by the time he rested a restraining hand on the blustering doctor’s shoulder, Tumblety was staring into the short barrels of two .36 Colt revolvers Kate had cross-drawn from under her short jacket. Tumblety stopped abruptly and gasped.

“Are you just?” she said coolly, cocking both guns. “Tell me, you pompous gasbag, who’s going to reattach your ugly face when I blow it all over the walls?”

Belcher’s true strength lies in his characters. This story is chock-full of awesome women, who really steal the show and turn out to be stronger and smarter than most of the men. One of my favorite characters from The Six-Gun Tarot, Maude, is back with a vengeance. Maude has serious Ninja skills, which she learned from her grandmother as a child. She can practically sense where a bullet will end up, and she’s fast enough to get out of the way before it hits her. Maude is joined by Kate and Rowan, two other badass women who join in the fight against the evil that is threatening to destroy Golgotha. Kate is a whip-smart detective who’s come to see the supernatural evil for herself, and Rowan is a pirate who shows up to help as well. You may be wondering, what the heck is a pirate doing in a story that takes place out in the desert? In this book, it’s best not to ask too many questions, and just go with it.

And yes, there are bad guys aplenty. One of the most interesting and conflicted is Biqa, a fallen angel (remember, I said not to ask too many questions?) who has created his own empire in Golgotha. It’s hard to tell exactly what side he’s on, which is one of the things I loved about him. And then there’s Clay Turlough, the local taxidermist, whose skills in preserving dead animals evolve into, well, let’s just say Clay is the Dr. Frankenstein of Golgotha and leave it at that. (I’ll leave you, the reader, to discover that gem for yourself!)

The story takes place in 1870, and Belcher fills his tale with references to many historical figures, including Abraham Lincoln, Allen Pinkerton, Edgar Allen Poe and even the infamous Donner Party. I loved the way he weaves these people into the story, and never once does it feel forced. He doesn’t mince words, either, so those of you who may be offended by politically incorrect terms, beware. In this story, “ladies of the night” are “whores” and that’s just the way it is in the old west.

The final battle is bloody and violent, much like the real old west, I imagine—but with Belcher’s unique supernatural elements added in, The Shotgun Arcana is unlike any western you’ve ever read. It ends with a couple of dangling story lines, which leads me to believe (and hope!) that a third book is in the works. (Again, Goodreads ain’t telling me anything about that.) So fellow readers, strap on your pistols and get ready for the bullets to fly. You’re in for a hell of a ride!

Big thanks to Tor for supplying a review copy. Above quote is taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book (but I hope it doesn’t!)

About the author:

R.S. (Rod) Belcher is an award-winning newspaper and magazine editor and reporter. He has been a freelance writer for over a decade. He has written for local, state and international publications.

Rod has been a private investigator, a DJ, a comic book and game store owner and has degrees in criminal law, psychology and justice and risk administration, from Virginia Commonwealth University. He has done Masters work on a degree in Forensic Science at The George Washington University, as well as worked with the Occult Crime Taskforce for the Virginia General Assembly’s State Crime Commission.

Rod has written and edited for magazines like Starlog, Virginia Living, Virginia Business, Verve, and The Roanoker. He was managing editor of The Vinton Messenger newspaper and editor for numerous trade publications. He has done technical writing and has ghost-written political editorials and advertising copy. Both the politics and the advertising greatly honed his fiction writing skills.

He has been a writing guest at numerous conventions and writing conferences for many years. He is available for Bar Mitzvahs…

Rod began writing stories when he was 9 years old, selling stories and self- drawn comics to his mother’s beauty shop customers for a quarter a piece. That first quarter was the start of his road to Hell…

In a creative writing course he was selected for in 6th grade, Rod was told his SF/Fantasy writing was “silly trash” ( kinda true, but hey, I was in sixth grade…) but the lack of support from an adult “expert” made him feel like he couldn’t “really write” and he stopped writing for a few years. Thanks to the love, encouragement and support of his mom, Mabel, Rod started writing again when he got a typewriter for his 12th birthday. Thanks Mom.

You can write. Yes, you. You have a story, maybe a bunch of stories inside you screaming to be let out. Don’t let anyone tell you can’t write, or that your writing is no good. It’s good for you, good for the thing inside you that demands you get that story out somehow. Don’t write for praise, or for money, write for you, only you, and to hell with the rest of them.

He was once told by Elizabeth Taylor, he was “hot” and once told by George Takei he “looked terrible” ( he did). He watched a man die in the electric chair, investigated homicides, pissed off politicians and located missing children. The CIA told him to “clean up his act”- this was one of his proudest moments.

In his spare time ( which he has damn little of these days), Rod enjoys reading, hiking, shooting, gaming ( mostly tabletop RPG or board games, but some console), comics, researching the weird, spending time with his amazing kids, and long, thoughtful, walks in the rain…OK, the last one is crap, but the rest is true.

He lives in Roanoke, Virginia with his children: Jonathan, Emily and Stephanie, Three cats and two dogs.

Find Rod:  Twitter | Goodreads | Facebook

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Filed under Blog Tours, Giveaways, Reviews

A Chilly Winter’s Tale: SUBLIME by Christina Lauren – Review

Sublime 3D

Sublime by Christina Lauren
Genre: Young adult paranormal romance
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Release date: October 14 2014
Source: ARC from San Diego Comic Con/eGalley from publisher via Edelweiss
Pages: 336

three stars

The nitty-gritty: An atmospheric and creepy tale, written in gorgeous prose, heavy on the romance, but ultimately confusing in the end.

The girl is bent into odd angles when she wakes. It doesn’t seem possible that she could have been sleeping here, alone on a dirt path, surrounded by leaves and grass and clouds. She feels like she might have fallen from the sky.

This is one of my favorite covers of the year, and I was hoping for an amazing story to go with it. Unfortunately, Sublime wasn’t quite what I had hoped it would be. It starts out very strong, as we are presented with a mystery (OK, a mystery you will be quite familiar with if you read a lot of YA): a girl wakes up on a forest path with no memory of who she is and what she is doing there. (Honestly, I can count at least fifteen examples of this premise that have been used in the last couple of years—writers, please come up with something new!)

But despite the familiarity of this concept, I was immediately drawn into the mystery. The authors (Christina Lauren is actually two authors, Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings) have solid writing skills, and they really know how to create an eerie atmosphere and grab the reader with lovely and flowing prose.

Lucy finds herself in the middle of nowhere, wearing odd clothes—a flower-patterned dress and sandals (it’s the middle of winter!)—and completely lost as to what she’s doing there. Even stranger, she doesn’t feel the cold at all. She’s curiously drawn to the nearby Saint Osanna’s Prep School, but when she walks through the hallways, no one seems to notice she’s there.

Until she comes face to face with a boy named Colin. She doesn’t recognize Colin so much as know that he’s important to her, and that she is somehow connected to him. Colin is stunned by Lucy’s perfectly white and clear skin, long white hair, and “mood ring eyes.” In fact, she seems to glow when he looks at her. It doesn’t take long for these two to realize that a) they are completely attracted to each other and b) there is something very different about Lucy: everyone else who sees her thinks she has brown hair. They finally piece together a few of Lucy’s scattered memories and make a startling discovery: Lucy is dead, and she is a ghost.

The rest of the plot—and trust me, the plot is pretty thin—concerns Lucy and Colin trying to spend as much time together as possible. They’re also trying to figure out why Lucy is here. Is she haunting Colin? Does it have something to do with her death? Why is Lucy drawn inexorably to the lake? And how can these two lovebirds possibly manage to do the one thing they’re dying to do: touch each other in every way possible? And then they find a way to do that, but it’s pretty dangerous, not to mention stupid.

Everything you need to know about the story is in the book blurb, unfortunately, so if you plan on reading Sublime, I suggest skipping the blurb. In order to preserve some of the surprises, I’m NOT going to talk about the one element I’d really like to discuss (see above: dangerous and stupid), which frankly shocked and surprised me, since I forgot to read the blurb first. Two stories came to mind as I was reading this book. First, I thought it was going to turn out to be a teen version of The Lovely Bones (it isn’t even close). And later, I was reminded of the 1990 movie Flatliners (and if you’ve seen Flatliners, then you can most likely guess the dangerous and stupid thing I mentioned before).

My biggest reaction after reading Sublime is that it had so much potential to be more. The idea of a ghost girl and a human boy falling in love is a great one, and there was so much the authors could have done with it. Instead, we get a typical YA romance filled with lots of longing glances and angsty drama. The most interesting part of the story was Colin’s tragic past and how he’s coping in the present. His entire family is dead, and he’s become a daredevil on a bike, doing dangerous jumps and stunts on cliffs and such, in an effort to cheat death, or die and join his family, or…I’m not sure I understood why he was so reckless.

The story mostly revolves around Lucy and Colin, and although there are a few other ancillary characters—Colin’s best friend Jay, Dot and Joe, the couple who Colin grew up with after his parents died, and a few two-dimensional students who attend Saint Osanna’s—the story is pretty much Lucy and Colin and the very strange world they inhabit. I very much wanted to learn more about Lucy’s murder, which is barely touched upon. I also wanted more depth to the other characters, because while living in Lucy and Colin’s heads was strange and oddly compelling, the story would have had more depth had the other characters been more developed.

Several too obvious story elements made me roll my eyes. Colin and Jay go out on the FROZEN LAKE and do foolhardy stunts on their bikes. I won’t spoil things by telling you what happens *rolls eyes* And when Colin first meets Lucy, her voice is described as “raspy” several times. I wonder if we can guess how Lucy was murdered? *rolls eyes again*

The writing is lovely, however, and the present tense narrative—which I have to admit usually drives me nuts—does a great job of making everything seem much more intense. I especially loved the descriptions of the way winter affects the characters. Everything is ice and snow and vapor breath, and I loved when these chilly images were contrasted with the heat of Colin’s skin. I could see the glittery, secret world where Lucy and Colin meet, it was so well described, and frankly, I wanted to go there myself!

But while I hoped for an ending that explained all the metaphysical puzzles about why Lucy is haunting Colin, I ended up more confused than ever. The ending was so abrupt, that at first I thought it was a cliffhanger, and that a sequel might be forthcoming. (Not according to Goodreads). Perhaps the authors are leaving their options open? All in all, this isn’t a bad book, despite my review. For YOUNG ADULTS who are looking for an otherworldly romance, a bit of unexpected danger, and more otherworldly romance, this book is for you. Me? I’m beginning to suspect I might be getting too old for YA.

Big thanks to the publishers for supplying a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

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Filed under 3 stars, Reviews