BOOK REVIEW: ALL SYSTEMS RED BY MARTHA WELLS

Reading

I get book recs from a variety of sources—Twitter, from both friends and authors I follow, reviews (io9 and Tor.com are both great resources), friends IRL, and, frequently, my son. Eric is a high school English teacher with a taste in books remarkably similar to mine. We do have some differences in likes, particularly his obsession with massive, multi-volume fantasy series, which I just don’t have enough time to fully appreciate. So many books, so little reading time. But, usually, when he suggests something, chances are I’ll like it.

Which brings us to The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. He’s been singing the Murderbot praises for a couple of years, and now that I’ve read All Systems Red, the first in the series, I’m upset with myself for waiting so long. My only excuse is, so many books, etc.

This book is so much fun it should be illegal. All Systems Red is a novella (as are, I believe, all the other volumes except for the most recent), and it’s a fast, breathless read. Murderbot, as it refers to itself, is a SecUnit, a security android of sorts, contracted out to protect teams of scientists as they explore distant planets. A couple important things to keep in mind here. First, Murderbot has hacked its own system, and is more self-aware than anyone knows. It may be a man-made creation that’s part machine and part organic, but it definitely has a mind of its own. And second, the future Wells has envisioned is very corporate and cutthroat, so things don’t always work like they should. Think lowest bidders and corporate espionage.

Wells’ world building is solid and inventive. She manages the difficult trick of throwing the reader headlong into her world, without a massive info dump, while giving enough context clues that I settled right in and never felt lost. In All Systems Red, we have rival corporate exploratory groups, mass murder, and a harrowing game of cat and mouse. All of it is well thought out and utterly believable. The science, and make no mistake, this is hard science fiction, feels right. The scientists Murderbot is assigned to protect are nicely differentiated. They are characters in their own right, and never read like chess pieces Wells is just moving around the board.

The genius here, though, the true genius, is in the character of Murderbot itself. It narrates in its own distinctive voice, and let me tell you, Murderbot has issues. It’s sarcastic, a little world-weary, and not all that fond of humans, to the point where it’s not so enthusiastic about protecting them. It would prefer some alone time so it can watch the hundreds of hours of entertainment (read futuristic soap operas) it has saved to its memory. Murderbot may step up and save the day when lives are on the line, but not without a lot of grumbling.

All Systems Red is also wildly funny, which I was not prepared for. I found myself genuinely laughing more than once. Wells has already won Hugos and Nebulas, and The Murderbot Diaries is Hugo nominated this year for best series. I say, give her all the awards. I’ll be adding the other Murderbot books into regular rotation in my TBR pile.

BOOK REVIEW: CHASING THE BOOGEYMAN BY RICHARD CHIZMAR

Reading

I first discovered Richard Chizmar with the Gwendy books (Gwendy’s Button Box, cowritten with Stephen King, and Gwendy’s Magic Feather). I thoroughly enjoyed both, and I’m looking forward to the third book in the series, Gwendy’s Final Task, coming February 15, 2022.

In the meantime, we have Chasing the Boogeyman, and let me say this as clearly as possible: Chizmar hits it out of the park. He does something truly unique here, using his own youth and young adult life in a small Maryland town as the bones of his story. Chizmar himself is the main character, just back in town after graduating college. His real life friends, family, fiancé, are all characters, the streets of his hometown the streets where his tale takes place. And then he introduces into this nostalgic, real life setting a fictional, terrifying serial killer who brutally murders four teenage girls. Chizmar, the character, becomes obsessed with trying to find the killer, soon dubbed the Boogeyman by local media. It’s an inventive, downright audacious piece of metafiction.

The murders as described are harrowing, in large part because Chizmar shows just how easily it can happen, and just how quickly a town can descend into fear and paranoia. Chizmar has a real gift for describing small town life, the ins and outs, the way neighbors support and rely on each other, and sometimes turn on each other.

Chizmar is an immensely readable writer, and Chasing the Boogeyman is a page-turner. I stayed up way too late reading on multiple nights. The ending, when it comes, is satisfying as hell. I’m happy to report that I never guessed the identity of the killer.

One other thing—I enjoyed the non-serial killer parts of the the story just as much as the central mystery. Chizmar is a natural storyteller. The world he shows us is evocative and lovingly described. And if the real life Chizmar is anything like his character in Chasing the Boogeyman, I’d like to meet him for a beer. My treat.

ARC REVIEW: SUNDIAL BY CATRIONA WARD

Reading

I read The Last House on Needless Street, Catriona Ward’s last novel, just a little while back, and was suitably gobsmacked. It’s equal parts, audacious, heartbreaking, and creepy, a tour de force that finds Ward juggling five or six different narrators (one of whom is a cat…seriously), each more unreliable than the last. It’s a thrilling, flawless high wire act.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but holy fuck, Sundial is even better. Ward burrows her way beneath your skin, sets her barbed hooks deep, then spends 272 pages dragging those hooks out of your flesh slowly but inexorably. Sundial is part psychological horror, part desert-set gothic, and part extremely dysfunctional family drama, with a little Island of Dr. Moreau thrown in for good measure.

Rob has a curdled marriage to a sometimes abusive husband, and two daughters. The oldest, Callie, has a darkness inside her that’s beginning to manifest in horrifying ways. Ways that remind Rob all too well of secrets buried in her own troubled past.

And…that’s all you’re getting. Much like she did with Last House on Needless Street, Ward has concealed twists and shocks throughout Sundial. They explode like land mines, psychic shrapnel, constantly reshaping the novel, never letting you catch your breath. To give away any more than I have would be criminal.

Sundial release March 1st, 2022, but is available for pre-order now. This is a must-read. In fact, anything Ward writes from now on will be a must-read for me.

ARC REVIEW: AUTHOR’S WORLD BUILDER BY CHAPEL ORAHAMM

Writing

Hey Dave, you may be asking yourself, you’re reviewing a book, why is this post in the writing section of your blog? What gives?

Glad you asked!

Author’s World Builder is a notebook for fiction writers, and it’s exactly what the title suggests—a well-thought-out, detailed, even exhaustive resource to help writers build their fictional worlds from the ground up. I’ve worked with Orahamm on a couple of projects and can attest to the fact that he’s a talented writer and editor, and that’s evident of every page of this meticulously designed notebook. It’s made to be interactive, with plenty of lined pages for you to take notes and build your world one brick at a time.

Orahamm starts with the big questions—what’s your title, your main idea, your themes, primary audience, and genre? Then, over the course of more than a hundred pages, he helps you flesh out your characters, setting, plot—everything down to the smallest detail. Does your world contain magic? What sort of magic system is in play? What are the politics, education, economics, geography, and so much more. All the questions are here for you to answer, and as you do, your fictional world emerges fully formed.

Orahamm has created an essential tool for writers of fantasy and science fiction, but I would argue that it’s equally valuable for writers of most genres, from mysteries and horror to historical fiction, even family dramas. It’s the perfect way to keep track of your characters, all the little details that give a book depth.

As a writer, I’ve always been a pantser—I usually start writing with only a general idea of where I’m going to end up. I never outline. This notebook may change how I work.

Author’s World Builder is available now on Amazon. As an added bonus, Orahamm has created several different covers, to help you differentiate between your various WIPs. If you’re a writer, this is a must-have.

ARC REVIEW: WHERE THE DROWNED GIRLS GO BY SEANAN MCGUIRE

Reading

If you’ve spent any time on this blog (and if you haven’t, go have a look around—I’ll be here when you get back) you know that Seanan McGuire is one of my favorite authors. She is amazingly prolific, with stand-alone novels and several on-going series, all of it of such high quality that it’s more than a little intimidating. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything I’ve read by her, but there’s a special place in my heart for her Wayward Children series, of which Where the Drowned Girls Go is the newest addition.

A novella like the others, Where the Drowned Girls Go is the seventh book in the series, and like the others, it is equal parts lyrical, whimsical, at times harrowing, emotionally devastating, and breathtakingly imaginative. The Wayward Children books are portal fantasies. They tell the collective stories of what happens to the children who find the doors they need—doors to other worlds where they have experiences that are fantastical or horrifying, where they become heroes or monsters—but then come back here, to their mundane lives and parents who don’t understand them.

The other books in the series take place either in other worlds or on the grounds of Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. This one is a little different, in that we are introduced to The Whitethorn Institute, a school whose mission to close all those doors, keep the children here and away from them, whether they want to be or not. Eleanor reluctantly agrees to allow Cora to transfer to the Whitethorn Institute because the Drowned Gods are calling to her from beyond their door, trying to drag her back. She thinks it’s her only option, but things go south quickly. Now she’s trapped.

McGuire has always written movingly about inclusivity, and that is certainly the case here, with a special emphasis on body positivity. Like all her characters, Cora is complex and fully realized, with a determination and bravery that is hard won and inspiring. Where the Drowned Girls Go, particular in the opening chapters, has an air of melancholy that makes it clear wayward children must make difficult decisions and live with the consequences. Whichever side of the door they may be one, whichever door they walk through, the lives of children are much more complicated, and sometimes heart-rending, than adults know.

Where the Drowned Girls Go released January 4, 2022, and is available for pre-order now.

ARC REVIEW: RADIANT APPLES BY JOE R. LANSDALE

Reading

Some folks are natural born storytellers. Whether holding down the end of the bar in a hole-in-the-wall dive, or sitting around a campfire under a star-filled sky, when they start telling a story, every person within earshot hushes and strains forward, hanging on every word. The really good ones, the best ones, can weave castles in the sky, can coax a laugh from your belly and tears from your eyes, with just a few well-chosen words.

Natural born storytellers are rare. Even more rare is when one of them is also an excellent writer. This may sound counterintuitive. Dave, you may be thinking, aren’t all writers natural born storytellers? Thing is, I don’t think so. There are many wonderful writers, authors at the top of their craft, who I suspect would not be able to hold the attention of a bar full of drunks. They have learned to write, to tell a story, but they are not natural born storytellers.

Joe R. Lansdale, I suspect, would have those drunks hanging on every word.

Radiant Apples, his newest novel, is a masterclass in storytelling. Lansdale writes compelling crime novels, horror, fantasy, westerns, and probably shopping lists. Radiant Apples is a western, set in the very early 1900s. The main character and narrator, Nat Love, is now a fifty-something African American porter on a Pullman train, but he’s led an exciting, colorful life. Known as Deadwood Dick in his younger years, his past exploits as a buffalo soldier, bounty hunter, and Marshal for Hanging Judge Parker have been recounted in dime novels (somehow without mentioning that he was black).

Nat is settled in his current, uneventful life, until the train he’s working on is robbed by the Radiant Apple gang, a relatively inept but violent and just plain mean group of miscreants. Due in part to his former life, Nat gets hired to bring the gang in. He and his old running buddy, Choctaw, hit the road in pursuit. They’re both older, out of practice, and maybe a little slower on the draw. Lansdale orchestrates the climax of the novel, a gun battle on the streets of a corrupt Oklahoma town, like a true maestro.

Through Nat’s words, Lansdale brings all the gun play and danger in the wild and wooly west to vivid, breathtaking life. Nat may be a might cantankerous, but he’s also got more than his share of hard-won wisdom. Lansdale captures Nat’s voice perfectly, and Choctaw’s as well. They’re both funny, inappropriate as hell, and full of piss and vinegar. They may be rode hard and put away wet, but they’re honorable men, which doesn’t mean they’re not willing to kill men in need of killing.

Because this is Lansdale, you know he’ll have some things to say about race. Nat is black and Choctaw is biracial, black and American Indian, and Lansdale doesn’t shy away from the indignities they’ve suffered. As always, he’s clear-eyed and matter of fact.

Radiant Apples is Lansdale at his best, spinning a thrilling yarn that will keep you enthralled from first page to last. It releases November 30th, but do yourself a favor and pre-order this one. It’s special.

ARC REVIEW: IN SOMNIO, A COLLECTION OF MODERN GOTHIC HORROR EDITED BY ALEX WOODROE

Reading

No windswept moors, no crumbling castles perched at the top of cliffs, just waiting for a distraught maiden to cast herself onto the jagged rocks below. As the subtitle suggests, and the stories themselves make clear, this is not your grandfather’s gothic horror. In the words of editor Alex Woodroe: “Twenty-five women and non-binary authors from the worlds of Horror Fiction and Illustration form an unholy union and drag the blackened heart of Classic Gothic Horror into modern daylight! In the process, they have sculpted an altogether sleeker, more feral beast.”

This is an apt description. In Somnio is crafted from 19 short stories and several wonderfully macabre illustrations, and what strikes me is the breathtaking variety of subject matter. Most have modern settings, some could easily be described as experimental in structure, yet they are all recognizably gothic horror. I mentioned distraught maidens above—the women characters here have power and agency. They are not helpless victims. And make no mistake, this is gothic horror with the accent on horror. There are some seriously creepy stories here, the kind that crawl under your skin and lodge themselves at the base of your brain.

As an editor, Woodroe has a keen eye and a deft hand. In Somnio is a uniformly strong collection. Each story, individually, belongs here, and they also work together as a whole, thematically. That, to me, is the sign of a good editor.

In a book filled with excellent stories, I’d like to mention a couple of standouts. These ones in particular sunk their claws into me a little extra deep:
• The Blight of Black Creek by Mary Rajotte
• Trespass by Aster S. Monroe
• Wild Thing by S.E. Zeller
• What We Sow by Taylor Jordan Pitts
• Always An After by A.P. Howell
• The Reaching Sea by Victoria Nations
As I said, Woodroe has gathered together a great group of stories, and your favorites may be completely different than mine.

I believe this is Woodroe’s first collection as editor. If that’s the case, I look forward to seeing what she does next. In Somnio drops November 1st, and is available for pre-order now.

ARC REVIEW: THE VIOLENCE BY DELILAH S. DAWSON

Reading

If I tell you that The Violence is a novel about domestic violence, about the effect of abuse on three generations—a mother, her two daughters, and their grandmother—do you picture a domestic drama? What if I tell you The Violence is also a pandemic novel? With Covid-19 still fresh and raw in Americans’ minds, with Trump reelected, a new virus called the Violence causes explosive, murderous rage at whomever is closest to the infected, often resulting in death. Finally, what if I tell you that a new version of professional wrestling plays a prominent role in the novel? What are you picturing now?

Whatever that is, whatever you have in your mind’s eye, The Violence is so much more.

The scenes of abuse are harrowing, even hard to read. There is harm and violence of every kind—physical, verbal, psychological, emotional—and Dawson never allows you to look away, or even to blink. It’s like she’s poking at an open wound. The intimacy of these scenes is extraordinary. The victims of that abuse—Chelsea Martin, her mother Patricia, her teenaged daughter Ella, and her young daughter Brooklyn—may be beaten down, but they are fighters, with hidden reserves of strength and resilience. Dawson puts these characters through the wringer. As The Violence progressed, I often found myself cheering for them, no matter how tense and hopeless the situations they found themselves in.

When it comes to describing the Violence pandemic, Dawson again excels. She’s sharply critical of the pandemic response, both the previous one and the current. After what we’ve all experienced with Covid-19, this new pandemic feels painfully real. The Violence, when it happens, is unnerving, even terrifying. Dawson is unflinching in describing it.

And the professional wrestling? Dawson has a great feel for that world, all the little details that make it seem just right. And that includes the idea that family isn’t just what you’re born into, but any group that takes you in and treats you with love and respect.

Dawson has written something truly special here. As I mentioned earlier, The Violence is often hard to read, but I think it’s also important, even essential. It releases February 1, 2022, but is available for preorder now.

ARC REVIEW: SLEWFOOT BY BROM

Reading

I find myself, yet again, in the uncomfortable position of wanting to sing the praises of a novel without giving much of anything away. You should go into this one without knowing too much, so as not to diminish the considerable pleasures it’s sure to bring. But, I need to say something to entice you, so…

Abitha, a young widow in 1666 New England meets a demon, perhaps the devil himself. If you think you know where this is going from that brief description, think again. Slewfoot surprised me at every twist and turn. Brom has a true gift for immersing the reader in every aspect of seventeenth century Puritan life, in the culture centered around the church, in the day to day life of the colonists. He also immerses us in a much stranger, much wilder world—that of the ancient Pagan spirits that call the forest their home. Brom has an affinity for the natural world that is evident on every page.

That tension, between the ultra religious colonists and the earthy, primitive yet powerful wildfolk who roamed the land long before humans arrived, forms the backbone of Slewfoot. Brom digs down deep into the difference between good and evil, God and the devil, between slayer and protector. I found the conversation endlessly fascinating, but there’s so much more to this novel. This is no dry, boring religious exercise. Slewfoot is action packed, drenched in fire and blood. There’s mystery and magic, and in Abitha, and Slewfoot himself, Brom has created complex, layered characters I found myself rooting for. Abitha is not afraid to question the beliefs that shackle her fellow villagers. She’s tough and brave, and the transformation that caps her story arc is both surprising and, in some ways, inevitable. I also found Slewfoot’s journey of discovery, his quest to find his true nature, emotional and affecting.

It’s telling to me that, in a novel filled with godlike wild folk who have slaughtered without mercy for centuries, the biggest monsters in Slewfoot are the Puritan town fathers who use the Bible as a bludgeon, who use religion as a tool to fear-monger, to consolidate and keep power over the people they are meant to protect.

One important note: The published version of Slewfoot includes more than two dozen of Brom’s beautiful illustrations. I read this as a digital ARC which did not include the artwork. From what I’ve seen (including the front and back covers shown above), they are worth the price of admission all by themselves.

BIRTH OF A COMIC STRIP: LUNAPURD, PART 2

Writing

I posted several days ago about the comic strip Roland Napoli and I created back in the 80s, Lunapurd—he as artist and me as writer. I only had a few strips to show, but it turns out Roland has all of them, and was gracious enough to scan them and send them my way.

So, over the next couple of months I’m going to occasionally post some more strips. Even if the pop culture references are dated (the 80s, remember), I’m extremely proud of what we accomplished. As always, Roland’s artwork is perfect.

BOOK REVIEW: BILLY SUMMERS BY STEPHEN KING

Reading

A professional hitman has one last job to do, and then he’s getting out, but it doesn’t quite go according to plan. You’ve heard this story before, right? For a lot of authors, that would be good enough. They’d write it as a high octane thriller with a formidable body count and leave it at that.

Luckily, Stephen King isn’t just any author, and Billy Summers is so much more than a cookie cutter hitman thriller. This is probably going to be my shortest review ever, because seeing what King does with this basic setup is such a pleasure, I don’t want to give, well, anything away really. Suffice to say that Billy Summers, the character, is a wholly original creation—an Iraq war veteran and decorated sniper with a moral code every bit as strong as his talent for killing. He also just might be a writer, and we get to read some of what turns out to be his own autobiography.

The other main protagonist, a young woman of extraordinary strength and resilience, is one of the most complex and fully realized female characters King has ever written. She’s joined by a rogue’s gallery of underworld bosses,underlings, and hangers-on. King has written a lot of crime fiction in recent years, and he seems at home in the shadowy world these characters move through. There’s an authenticity to all of this that feels just right.

If I’ve made it sound like Billy Summers isn’t a crime thriller, that’s on me. King ratchets up the tension, and there are plenty of bodies piled up. So yes, Billy Summers is a crime thriller, but it’s also a road novel, and a war novel, and finally a love story. King pulls off a bit of sleight of hand towards the end that’s ultimately satisfying. There’s soul searching, and hard-nosed decisions are made, and there is, at the end of it all, well-earned redemption.

I’ve tried to give you at least an idea of the novel—hopefully enough to whet your appetite. Listen, just read Billy Summers. I think this King fella is gonna be big.

BIRTH OF A COMIC STRIP: LUNAPURD

Writing

I met my friend Roland Napoli in high school. He was then, and continues to be to this day, one of the best cartoonists and illustrators I have ever met.

Sometime in the 80s we decided to take a couple of characters he had been drawing for years and build a comic strip around them. The result was Lunapurd, the adventures of two cute aliens who crash land on earth, landing in the well of a mountain woman named Eunice. I wrote the strip and Roland drew it. We put together six weeks of strips, including Sunday strips and dailies.

It was a huge amount of fun. Unfortunately, we were young, inexperienced, and had no concept of how to actually pitch the strip to a syndicate, and the idea eventually died. I recently came across a few of the strips in my files. The pop culture references are out of date, as they’re more that 30 years old, but I remain extremely proud of what we came up with, particularly Roland’s artwork. Nice job, Roland!

ARC REVIEW: THE LAST HOUSE ON NEEDLESS STREET BY CATRIONA WARD

Reading

This has been one helluva year for horror. Maybe there’s something in the air, something in the water. Maybe the flaming dumpster fire that is the past couple of years has somehow concentrated all that consuming rage out there and distilled it into pure, undiluted creative excellence. Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart Is a Chainsaw, Chuck Wendig’s The Book of Accidents, Joe Lansdales’s Moon Lake, Hailey Piper’s Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy—that’s just off the top of my head, the list goes on and on.

Which brings me to The Last House On Needless Street by Catriona Ward. Ward has written a book so audacious, so original, so unnerving, that I want to shout about it to the world, or at least to the folks who read this blog. My problem is that due to the nature of the novel, I don’t really want to share anything about the plot at all. The Last House On Needless Street works best when you go in cold and let it worm its way under your skin and sink the claws in.

What am I willing to I tell you? This is a horror novel, make no mistake. Ward ratchets up the tension right from the beginning and plays your nerves like a virtuoso. The Last House On Needless Street begins with a young girl going missing, and it is stressful, particularly reading it as a parent.

I said it’s audacious a couple paragraphs back. Here’s what I meant. The novel has four, no five, main characters telling the story in alternating chapters, and every one of them is an unreliable narrator. That’s crazy, it should be impossible, and Ward pulls it off without breaking a sweat. Each character is distinct, with their own world view, their own language, their own (damaged) past. Oh, and one of them is a cat. This is a highwire act without a net, and every word of it works.

I said it’s a horror novel, and it is, but it’s more than that. Ward explores heartbreaking issues of abuse, mistreatment, family dynamics, and mental instability (I’m treading carefully here, to not give anything away), with compassion and understanding. All while never not keeping you on the edge of your seat.

The Last House On Needless Street drops on September 28th. This one is well worth a pre-order. I can’t wait to read what she writes next.

BOOK REVIEW: UNFORTUNATE ELEMENTS OF MY ANATOMY BY HAILEY PIPER

Reading

Yes, Twitter can be a dumpster fire. But I’ve found a supportive community there for my writing and artwork, I’ve made some fine friends from around the globe, and increasingly, I’ve discovered amazing authors new to me. Case in point, Hailey Piper. A little while back I noticed that writers I love, and members of the writing community whose opinions I trust, were all recommending her as a horror writer to watch. So I picked up The Worm and His Kings, and holy hell, they were so right. This was cosmic horror with both the cosmic and the horror on equal footing. More than that, it explored gender, love and loss with a sensitivity and compassion that never lessened the terror, but only deepened it. (You can read my review here: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2021/02/20/book-review-the-worm-and-his-kings-by-hailey-piper/).

If The Worm and His Kings convinced me that Piper was a real talent, then her short story collection Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy puts her on the same level as the very best horror writers working today. 18 stories, and not a weak one in the bunch. They are varied as can be, but they share some common themes—each one is a dark meditation on life, death, and all the spaces in between. Piper’s stated goal on her Twitter profile is to make horror gay as fuck. She does that in many of the stories here, exploring gender and sexuality with her trademark sympathetic yet hard-nosed approach.

There is a deep sadness, a current of melancholy, that runs through this collection. Piper doesn’t hold back. She is perfectly happy to drag your heart through the wringer and leave it shredded. She has a real knack for writing damaged characters, characters who don’t belong in their worlds, or even in their own skins. She also doesn’t hold back on the more horrific elements. These stories are unnerving, disquieting, and at times truly unsettling. I felt hints of writers like Kelly Link and (the short stories of) Paul Tremblay, but Piper is her own writer, a true original.

As I said, there’s not a weak story in the bunch, but a couple of standouts for me: “Candyland”, “Seven Signs He Doesn’t Love You”, “Crones In Their Larval State”, and “Jormungandr’s Dance”. Special mention must be made of “Recitation of the First Feeding”, the longer, final story in the collection. Quite simply, it’s a tour de force—somber, aching, beautifully told, and utterly devastating. The fitting end to such a superb collection.

If you haven’t yet discovered Hailey Piper, this might be a good place to start. I guarantee you’ll come back for more.

3 MOVIE (THEATER) MEMORIES

Writing

Why am I posting this in the writing category? Well, I don’t have a general category, so there’s that. But also, I’ve been a movie fan for as long as I remember, and the visual storytelling that is cinema’s stock in trade has no doubt informed my writing. Even so, I’m not writing about movies here, except tangentially; instead, here are three small stories about things that happened inside movie theaters, all from decades ago, that I have never forgotten.

June, 1975. I’m 15, seeing Jaws for the first time. The theater is packed of course, because it’s Jaws, the movie that invented the summer blockbuster. Like always, I’m sitting where I always sat before my body betrayed me and made it too uncomfortable, third row center. Next to me is a young kid, maybe 7 or 8—way too young to see Jaws, but Mapletown Theater, my decrepit local theater of choice in Maple Heights, Ohio will sell tickets to anyone with a pulse—and he’s by himself. He’s got a jumbo pop (it’s Ohio, that’s what we call it)) in one hand and a popcorn in the other, because Mapletown, like many movie theaters back then, does not have cup holders. The kid looks scared, but he’s holding his own. Until the scene. You know the scene. An empty rowboat, and then a head rolls out of a hole in the bottom. In a movie with few jump scares, it’s the biggest. The kid next to me screams and throws both hands up in the air, drenching several rows behind him in a tsunami of pop and popcorn. Not only did it break the tension in a way that Steven Spielberg would not approve of, it brought the house down.

November, 1976. I’m 16, seeing Carrie for the first time. I’m back at Mapletown, because to them an “R” rating is just a suggestion. It’s the very last scene of the movie. Sue is bending down to place flowers beneath the cross that read Carrie White Rots in Hell, and…and…the film breaks. The sound continues, so I can hear Sue screaming, but no visual. I had read that there was a shocker of an ending. Could this be it? I had to go back the next night and watch it again, just to see that hand thrust up out of the ground.

December, 1986. I’m 26, seeing Platoon for the first time with my then girlfriend, now wife Carrie. We’ve got tickets for a special early screening, which, as it turns out, is filled with Vietnam veterans. And for the next couple of hours, we watch the movie, absolutely, but we also watch the crowd. It’s both sobering and exhilarating. The vets, many in wheelchairs, are totally involved. They laugh knowingly, and sob uncontrollably, and I think to myself, I have never felt as much of a connection to a movie as they do, then or to this day. It put Oliver Stone’s storytelling on a whole different level for me.

BOOK REVIEW: THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB’S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES BY GRADY HENDRIX

Reading

Grady Hendrix had been on my radar for awhile—I loved his Paperbacks from Hell posts—but I hadn’t read any of his novels until my son brought home Horrorstor. That novel, an all-out horror romp set in an IKEA type store (and set about 20 minutes away from my house, which was also cool) impressed the hell out of me. The horror was suitably horrific, there were moments of real humor, and Hendrix’s attention to detail when it came to spoofing IKEA was nothing short of amazing. This was an author in complete control of his material.

I love discovering an author I like who has a robust back catalog, and Hendrix does. My next read by him, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, proves I was right about him—Hendrix is in complete control, and I’m just glad to be along for the ride.

Set in genteel Charleston, South Carolina, TSBCGTSV is centered around a group of middle-aged women, neighbors who are comfortable in their lives, even if a bit bored. Their husbands work too much, their kids are off doing kid things, they volunteer…same old, same old. Their only excitement, if you can call it that, is their book club, where they’ve begun to read true crime books—think In Cold Blood and The Stranger Beside Me. Then Patricia, one of the members, is violently attacked by her elderly neighbor, which brings that neighbor’s young nephew to town. James is exciting, and a little bit mysterious, and he quickly insinuates himself into their close-knit neighborhood.

Meanwhile, kids on the poor black side of town start to go missing. Patricia things James is not what he appears and may be responsible, but convincing her book club friends won’t be easy. At least until the evil comes to their part of town.

This novel was everything I was hoping for based on the title. Once again, Hendrix’s attention to detail is just right. He gets the rhythms of life in Charleston perfectly, both the affluent side with their big homes and cleaning women, and the poor side of town, which seems a world away. The book club women are all distinct characters with families that feel real and lived in. Mrs. Green, a black cleaning woman who teams up with Patricia to protect her family, is tough as nails and has a flinty dignity. Hendrix doesn’t shy away from exploring the differences between Charleston’s haves and have-nots, and it gives CGTSV a deeper, welcome subtext.

The horror, when it comes, is brutal and unnerving. Hendrix has a real knack for blood-drenched action set pieces. He makes you see the pain inflicted, and feel the tension. Watching these women, sometimes grudgingly, come together to battle an evil force that is faster, stronger, and far more experienced, is satisfying to the soul. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough as I cheered them on.

My TBR pile is in danger of falling over and crushing me, but I’ll definitely be adding more from Grady Hendrix to the mix. I’ve heard great things about his newest, The Final Girl Support Group. In the meantime, give The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires a read. Hendrix is the real deal.

ARC REVIEW: WHEN THINGS GET DARK: Stories Inspired by Shirley Jackson, EDITED BY ELLEN DATLOW

Reading

Brian Eno famously said, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

What’s that got to do with When Things Get Dark: Stories Inspired by Shirley Jackson? Glad you asked! Much like the Velvet Underground inspired a group of musicians who would go on to have lasting musical influence, Jackson has clearly influenced the very best horror, horror adjacent, and dark fiction authors working today.

Ellen Datlow has long been one of our finest editors, with impeccable taste, and this table of contents is shockingly good. Check out the list of authors featured in the anthology: Joyce Carol Oates, Josh Malerman, Carmen Maria Machado, Paul Tremblay, Richard Kadrey, Stephen Graham Jones, Elizabeth Hand, Kelly Link, Cassandra Khaw, Karen Heuler, Benjamin Percy, John Langan, Laird Barron, Jeffrey Ford, M. Rickert, Seanan McGuire, Gemma Files, and Genevieve Valentine.

Many of them are personal favorites of mine, authors whose books I immediately read upon publication. All of them are working at the top of their game here. Some of the writers featured seem like natural fits—when I first read Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link and Growing Things by Paul Tremblay, Shirley Jackson came to mind in the best way possible. Kindred spirits. It’s not surprising to me that they turn in two of the standout stories in this collection, which is saying something considering the uniformly high quality. Joyce Carol Oates, Carmen Maria Machado and Seanan McGuire also seem like good fits on paper, and they are.

Then there are the surprises. The genius of Ellen Datlow is that she looked at amazing writers like Stephen Graham Jones, Richard Kadrey, and Cassandra Khaw, who I don’t think of as working in quite the same fictional space as Jackson, and thought, hell yes. They knock it out of the park. In fact, everyone does.

While none of the stories are direct homages to Jackson, they are all clearly inspired by her work. The stories are set in the suburbs, in small towns, in remote spaces. They are uniformly character driven, not plot driven. They are open ended, often without a concrete resolution, but always compelling. There’s no outright horror here. The stories are unsettling, disquieting, even disorienting. I found myself replaying stories in my head long after reading them.

This collection is special. Somewhere, Shirley Jackson is peering over those glasses of her, one eyebrow raised, a sly smile on her lips.

ARC REVIEW: SENSOR BY JUNJI ITO

Reading

I don’t read enough graphic novels. There, I said it. I swore at the end of 2020 that I would add more graphic novels to my TBR pile, and here it is July and I’ve just now read my first of the year.

Luckily, it’s Sensor, by the amazing Junji Ito.

Sensor is horror on a cosmic scale. It may start in a small Japanese village, but it grows and expands to encompass the entire universe, a cold, chaotic place where entire planets are destroyed, and entire civilizations die in agony. That small village is nestled in the shadow of Mount Sengoku, a volcano that erupted 60 years ago, destroying the town. The volcano buried the town, leaving few survivors, and in doing so buried dark secrets.

When a young woman wanders into the village, she notices something strange—golden, hair-like volcanic glass fibers rain down on the streets, the buildings, the people of the city, and the people welcome it. They also welcome the girl, and say they’ve been expecting her.

Then things get really weird.

Sensor is a feast for the eyes and the mind, with a story that twists and turns as it pulls various characters into the orbit of the mysterious young woman. You may find yourself, as I did, flipping back through the pages, looking for connections, putting pieces of the puzzle together.

Ito is a master artist, carrying the story along on the strength of his exquisite pen work. He fills each panel with dense texture and detail. When the horror comes, and believe me it comes, it is truly horrific. Ito has an unflinching eye for nightmarish imagery, for transforming the human body into something squirming, pulsing, oozing, unrecognizable. He can also render scenes of astonishing beauty. He’s not a one trick pony by any means.

Sensor releases on August 17, 2021. Dive in, and let yourself be transported into other worlds by Ito’s golden hairs. You may not be the same when you return.

BOOK REVIEW: MOON LAKE BY JOE R. LANSDALE

Reading

There are a lot of great writers out there. Writers who can stir your soul with the elegance of their descriptions, dazzle you with wordplay and imagination, quicken your pulse and heart in equal measure, blindside you with sudden laughter or even more sudden tears, make you shake your head in wonder at their perfect dialogue, write a fight or battle scene so vivid that you feel every punch and explosion, scare you so bad that you sleep with the lights on.

Joe Lansdale can and does do all those things. But he has something that rare even among the very best writers—he’s a natural born storyteller. A couple pages into a Lansdale novel, and you’re sitting around a campfire on a dark summer night somewhere in East Texas, listening to magic being conjured from the smoke, or parked on a barstool in Nagadoches, throwing back a beer while a master spins a yarn.

When I tell you the Moon Lake is Lansdale operating at the height of his considerable powers, that’s really saying something. This one is special.

Moon Lake has all the hallmarks of classic Lansdale. A small East Texas town lost, along with its secrets, beneath the dark surface of Moon Lake—at least until a drought once again brings those secrets to light. a stubborn man who comes back to that Lake looking for answers to a question that’s been plaguing him for years…why did his dad try to kill them both by driving into the lake when he was thirteen years old? There’s a hard-nosed, in-your-face meditation on class and race, on haves and have nots, on the corrupting, amoral influence of power. There’s small town politics and small town life, and Lansdale writes both with a knowing eye for detail.

Because this is Lansdale, the characters, both the good guys and the bad, are complex, thoughtful creations. They have back stories. There’s a real sense of history here, which makes sense, as Moon Lake spans years. Also because this is Lansdale, we’re treated to a breakneck plot, action that will indeed quicken your pulse, and scenes to veer hard towards straight-up horror.

Some of the dialogue and descriptive passages are laugh out loud funny. Lansdale has a gift for down-home, yet creative language that hums and gallops. He even throws a little forbidden love into the mix, and makes it sweet and tender.

The Hap and Leonard books will always be my favorite of Lansdale’s works, ever since I found a used copy of Mucho Mojo at Half Price Books. (On that same trip I discovered Shella, my first Andrew Vachss novel. That was a first-class shopping trip.) But Moon Lake is right up there for me, on the same shelf with The Bottoms, The Thicket, Edge of Dark Water, and Jane Goes North.

I’m happy to see that Moon Lake is getting a lot of much-deserved positive press. Joe Lansdale his ownself is a national treasure. If he ever makes his way to Cleveland, I owe him a whole keg of beer for the years of reading pleasure he’s given me.

THE BEST WRITING ADVICE I KNOW

Writing

There’s a strange (to me at least) current that runs through the Twitter #WritingCommunity every once in a while, and that’s writers who proclaim that they don’t read, and further that they don’t need to be readers to write. This is an alien concept to me. I began to write, way back in junior high, because the books I was reading made me want to tell my own stories. I can’t imagine doing one without the other.

So yes, the best writing advice I know is to read. But, it’s more than that. It’s to read with an open and curious mind, and also with a critical eye, to try to see behind the curtain and understand how the magic happens. That’s not to say that reading should be homework. I frequently find myself lost in a good book, coming up for air hours later, a little dizzy, my heart full, my head in a different place than it was when I began reading. I’m saying, let yourself be carried away by excellent writing, but take notice, if you can, of what makes the writing excellent.

Further, in my experience at least, you can learn different things from different authors. Some examples: Seanan McGuire, Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter taught me that there is power in the deceptively simple language of fairy tales, beauty and terror as well. Speaking of terror, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Paul Tremblay, Gabino Iglesias, Chuck Wendig, and countless others taught me that words can be deployed like a scalpel or a bludgeon, and that both will keep you up at night. Joe Lansdale, and Elmore Leonard before him, taught me that in the right hands, dialogue can sing or sting or make you erupt in laughter. In fact, it can carry a story all on its own. From Joe Abercrombie, and Joe Lansdale again, I learned that violence in general, and fight scenes in particular, whether hand to hand combat or clashing armies, can have a visceral, kinetic energy that carries the reader along. From authors as diverse as R.A. Lafferty, Ray Bradbury, Alix E. Harrow, V.E. Schwab, and Tamsyn Muir, I learned that language can be transfixing, breathtaking, even transformative.

I could go on and on. Great writers not only teach me, but give me something to aspire to. I’m not there yet, not even close, but I know in my heart that reading will make me a better writer. That’s the best advice I can give.

BOOK REVIEW: THE BONE SHIPS BY R.J. BARKER

Reading

I joined Twitter for several reasons—to build an online presence should a potential agent be looking for that, to follow and network with other writers and artists, and to chat about the things I love, mostly books, with like-minded folks. It’s this last part that I’ve really enjoyed, as I’ve made some genuine online friends. And it’s thanks to one of them, @SheenaLouiseF, that I added The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker to my TRB pile. Thanks, Sheena, this is a good one!

The Bone Ships is a grand, swashbuckling adventure, high fantasy with a bit of grimdark mixed in for enriching texture. Also dragons. Did I mention there are dragons?

The novel is set within the seagoing civilization of the Hundred Isles, a place where ships are built not from wood, but from the bones of long-extinct dragons. The citizens of the Hundred Isles have also been involved in an ongoing war with another kingdom across the water, and unfortunately, those bones have become more and more scarce, hampering the war effort.

That is, until rumors of a living dragon reach the ears of those in power…
This sets off an exciting and dangerous quest filled with heart-stopping action. Barker writes sea battles the way Joe Abercrombie writes land battles, and I consider that absurdly high praise. Better yet, the colorful characters that fill The Bone Ships, particularly Lucky Meas and Joron, are flesh and blood creations who grow and change, who have real character arcs.

As good as the plotting, action, and characters are in The Bone Ships, however, where Barker really excels is in world building. This is a complex, thoroughly well thought out world. Barker has worked out the social structures and politics of the Hundred Isles in stunning detail, both on land and sea. The technology at play, especially the weaponry, is well explained and believable.

Barker’s language use is playful and intriguing—he invents new words for things that not only make sense, but are identifiable by context clues, so it’s never confusing. He also flips gender bias with abandon. Rather than captains, there are shipwives, and women are integral parts of every ship’s crew. Ships are called he, not she. There’s a lot of sly, witty commentary here. There’s also magic, of a sort, and Barker again makes it believable within the world he’s created.

The Bone Ships is the first in The Tide Child Trilogy, and book two, Call of the Bone Ships, is also available. Do yourself a favor, and dive into the world of the Hundred Isles.

HEADS AND TALES: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY

Writing

Heads and Tales: The Other Side of the Story is a new anthology of reimagined myths, legends, and fairytales, that I’m lucky enough to have a short story in. The stories in the anthology are presented in pairs, with each pair telling their tale from opposite sides—Theseus and the Minotaur, Hansel & Gretel and the witch, you get the idea—with sometimes wildly reimagined settings.

In my case, Canadian author Renée Gendron and I took the myth of the Wild Hunt—berserker warriors and their hounds from hell—and transposed it to the battle for Fort Detroit on the U.S./Canadian border during the War of 1812. Mine is a supernatural war story, Renée’s is a supernatural romance, and they work together in what turned out to be very cool ways. I’ve never collaborated like this before, but besides being an excellent writer, Renée was great fun to work with. All in all, an awesome project to be involved with.

This all came about because editor Chapel Orahamm had an idea back around the beginning of the year, and the Twitter #WritingCommunity coalesced around it. Working with the other talented writers, communicating with them, and learning from them, has been a uniquely worthwhile experience, one that’s made me eager to participate in other projects of this kind.

One other thing—I was also given the opportunity to design and illustrate the book cover as well, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I created the art using an Apple pencil and Procreate. The more I work with digital tools, the more I’m excited by the possibilities.

If you have an interest in folklore, mythology, fairytales, or just plain good fiction, give this one a try.

To top it all off, all proceeds from sales will go to support The Trevor Project.

Heads and Tales: The Other Side of the Story will be available in both paperback and e-book beginning July 1st, but is available for pre-order now on both Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.

ARC REVIEW: CERTAIN DARK THINGS BY SILVIA MORENO-GARCIA

Reading

Moreno-Garcia’s novel Mexican Gothic was a revelation to me, a dark, strange brew of Lovecraftian cosmic horror set in a rotting mansion deep in the Mexican jungle. That novel, filled with deadly family secrets, sentient mold, and dread, introduced me to a writer of rare skill, with an amazing gift for thrilling storytelling and vibrant language.

While most of Mexican Gothic was set in that house of horrors, the beginning took place in glittering Mexico City. Moreno-Garcia’s descriptions made me want to read more set in that place, which happily brings me to Certain Dark Things. It is, indeed, set completely within the walls of Mexico City.

Yes, I said walls. In the alternative history of Certain Dark Things, Mexico City is a walled city-state, and perhaps more importantly to the story, a supposed vampire-free zone. Vampires have existed throughout history, and have been known to humans for years. They are shunned and feared in some places, and have formed an uneasy alliance in others. Moreno-Garcia has done some complex world-building here, with ten different, distinct species of vampires, each with their own history, strengths, and weaknesses.

If that last sentence makes this novel sound dry, Certain Dark Things is anything but. Moreno-Garcia calls it neon noire, and that description is apt. This is a gritty no-holds-barred crime novel ripe with cops, gangsters, and drug lords, but many of the players happen to be vampires. Atl, a young female vampire of Aztec descent is hiding out in Mexico City, on the run from ruthless narco vampires and trying to get to South America. She’s tough and formidable, beholden only to her dog, a genetically enhanced doberman. That is, until she develops uneasy, unwanted feelings for Domingo, a street kid who falls under her sway.

Certain Dark Things is violent, bloody, relentless, and completely satisfying. Atl is a wonderful protagonist. I found myself rooting for her, even when things seemed hopeless. I love the passion and inventiveness Moreno-Garcia brings to her writing. She’s undoubtably having a great time writing this world to life, and it shows. This is a novel with real bite.

This is a reissue of a novel first published in 2016, and this new edition will be released September 7th, 2021. Certain Dark Things is very much worthy of pre-order.

BOOK COVER: HEAD AND TALES

Drawing

I’m lucky enough to be participating in Heads and Tales, an anthology of reimagined myths, legends, and fairy tales told from both sides of the story. I have a short story here about the Wild Hunt, set during the War of 1812–my story told from the American side, and my co-writer, Renée Gendron, from the Canadian side. The book will debut in July, and I’ll write more about it then. For now, though, I wanted to share the cover art I created for the book. This was done using an Apple pencil and Procreate on an I-Pad. I’m very pleased with the results.

ARC REVIEW: MY HEART IS A CHAINSAW BY STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES

Reading

I love horror movies. I was in my teens for the grindhouse movies of the 70s, in my twenties for the slashers of the 80s. My friends and I worked our way methodically through the horror section of our local indy video rental store (and a special shoutout to the late, lamented B-Ware Video in Lakewood, Ohio, an entire store devoted to horror, horror adjacent, and just plain weird videos). All of this is to say that I feel like I know at least a little bit about slasher films—at least I thought I did, before reading My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones. I was wrong.

Jade Daniels is the town outcast of the tiny mountain lake town of Proofrock. She exists on the margins—the margins of her abusive family, the margins of her high school, the margins of life. The only thing keeping her from disappearing completely, and it’s touch and go, is her love, no, her obsession, with slasher films. Jade looks at life, at everything, through the prism of her beloved slashers. She believes fervently in the hard and fast rules they are guided by, in the life lessons they teach. She clings to them like a lifeline. The trope of The Final Girl is real to her.

Proofrock, and the lake it’s built around, Indian Lake, has seen more than its share of tragedy and murder, both depressingly human and supernatural. So it’s not a far stretch for Jade to see a new slasher cycle playing out in real time, and to seek a final girl (it can’t be her, she’s not worthy) she can impart her wisdom to, in the hopes of stopping the mayhem to come. Jones makes Proofrock, Indian Lake, and the people who live there feel achingly real. It feels lived in. We get to know them all, so that when bad things start to happen, it hits hard.

Where Jones truly excels, however, is in Jade’s voice. She narrates the story in a breathless, compulsively readable stream of description, snark, and above all slasher history. Everything that happens, every scene, has an antecedent in the slashers, and Jade is happy to expound at length. Her knowledge (Jone’s knowledge) is encyclopedic and endlessly entertaining. With Jade, Jones has created one of my favorite characters of all time. She uses slasher films as a way to keep the world at arm’s length, as armor against being hurt. The thing is, she’s also using it to hide. Behind the slashers, behind the dyed hair, combat boots, petty crime, and universal fuck you to the world, is, I think, a girl yearning for love and acceptance. She wants to belong, just on her terms. Jade is so achingly real, and so heartbreaking, that My Heart Is a Chainsaw is sometimes painful to read, but the story is so compelling that you won’t be able to put it down. The final quarter of the novel moves with unrelenting fury toward an ending so surprising, yet so perfectly right, that I can’t imagine it ending any other way.

One other thing. For the one teacher Jade seems to actually like, her history teacher, she has written a series of papers the define and explain slasher films, a real history of the genre as seen through her eyes. Those treatises are sprinkled throughout My Heart Is a Chainsaw, and I found myself looking forward to each one. Through them, we get a crash course in slashers, but perhaps more importantly, we get to know Jade better.

I only discovered Jones a couple of years ago, but he’s quickly become one of my favorite horror writers. Hell, one of my favorite writers, period. After Mongrels, The Only Good Indians, and now My Heart Is a Chainsaw, he has confirmed his position as one of the very best in the field. Jones writes with heart, passion, and a brutal lyricality of language and voice that is always distinct, and always just right for the story he’s telling. My Heart Is a Chainsaw debuts on August 31, 2021. Pre-order it today, and be prepared to fall in love with Jade.

ARC REVIEW: PROJECT HAIL MARY BY ANDY WEIR

Reading

Mark Watney, the hero of Andy Weir’s first novel, The Martian, famously said that the only way he could save himself from being marooned on Mars was too, “science the shit out of the problem.” The Martian, a vastly entertaining novel, was in many ways a throwback to classic, golden age science fiction, when SF was often written by actual scientists, and the heroes wore lab coats. Weir never glossed over the science Watney used—he showed his work, in detail, without it ever being boring. He made the science exciting.

Mark Watney has nothing on Ryland Grace, the hero of Weir’s new novel, Project Hail Mary.

Grace wakes up on a spaceship next to two long-dead crew mates, his only companions the robotic arms that have been caring for him. He doesn’t know who he is, doesn’t even know his own name, but he does know science. As he explores the ship, his memories begin to slowly trickle in as flashbacks that show him, and the reader, how he got to where he is—on a desperate, hail mary mission to save humanity, to save the planet Earth itself.

Weir intercuts between what’s happening on the ship and the flashback scenes, until the two eventually come together. Even more than with The Martian, Project Hail Mary is packed wall to wall with science and math, but if that sounds boring to you, then you don’t know Weir. This novel is a rollicking thrill ride, and the science only adds to the excitement. It never feels as if Weir is showing off. Everything is integral to the plot and moves the story forward at a propulsive rate.

Okay, here’s the thing. What I’ve described to you so far is basically the first third of the novel, because at about that point Weir throws us a planet-sized curveball. Project Hail Mary becomes a very different, and even better, story. Nope, I’m not going to give it away—that would be a disservice to you as a reader. Suffice to say that while the path it takes is surely unexpected, the novel becomes deeper, more meaningful. Weir hits surprisingly emotional notes, and nice touches of humor as well, while still ratcheting up the tension. He’s a natural storyteller.

Project Hail Mary was released on May 4th, and this is one you should not miss. Much like The Martian, it’s going to make a helluva movie.

ARC REVIEW: KING BULLET BY RICHARD KADREY

Reading

It’s been 12 years, and as many books, and now we’ve come to this—King Bullet, the final novel in Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim saga. I approached this with excitement, because hey, it’s a new Sandman Slim novel, but also trepidation and a tinge of sadness, because hey, it’s the last Sandman Slim novel. Bittersweet mixed emotions, I guess I’m saying.

If like me you’ve been along for the ride from the very beginning, and a lot of you have, then you’ll be happy to know that the whole gang’s here for this one. Stark of course, but also Candy, Alessa, Janet, Fuck Hollywood, Kasabian, Allegra, Carlos, Brigitte, Samael and Mr. Muninn. Even Mustang Sally and Flicker are there to lend a helping hand. Old friends who are no longer alive, particularly Alice and Vidocq, are very much missed. Kadrey excels at creating characters who feel real, whether human or not.

Like every novel in the series, the plot of King Bullet moves like a freight train. L.A. is on fire, on the verge of collapsing, consumed by an epidemic turning the locals to raving maniacs and worse (I now know what the word autophagia means. Kinda wish I didn’t.). People are afraid to go out, and masked up when they do. Sound familiar? On top of that, there’s a new gang in town reeking havoc, the Shoggots, and their leader, the mysterious King Bullet, may be more than Stark can handle. Naturally, though, the odds don’t matter when Stark’s friends, and his city, are threatened, so he dives head first into the chaos, na’at and black blade in hand. Kadrey’s villains are always over the top, and King Bullet is one of his best, a nihilistic, supernatural killer with a score to settle with Stark.

There’s wall to wall action here, but Kadrey also gives the novel room to breathe, allowing Stark moments of much needed introspection. Caught between his new love for Janet and his still smoldering love for Candy, Stark is at a crossroads. He spends much of the novel surrounded by his friends, but in many ways he’s never been more alone. King Bullet and the epidemic would almost be a welcome distraction if only they weren’t threatening everything he cares about in the world.

After reading the last Sandman Slim novel, Ballistic Kiss, my son and I made a bet about where Stark and another character would be at the end of the series. I’m not saying what the two of us thought, but I am saying that I now owe him $20.

King Bullet releases on August 17, 2021. If you’re already a fan, you know the drill…pre-order it now. If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, time to get reading. You have some catching up to do.

ARC REVIEW: THE ALL-CONSUMING WORLD BY CASSANDRA KHAW

Reading

If Cassandra Khaw’s novel The All-Consuming World was a straightforward science fiction novel, that would be exciting enough. The plot—the ragtag, damaged remnants of a group or women mercenaries, once feared throughout the universe, reunite to save one of their members who may still be alive after their last, failed mission decades before—has all the hallmarks of a classic space opera, and is as satisfying as can be.

As it turns out, however, Khaw has so much more up her immensely talented sleeve, because this is one of the most challenging, exhilarating, and downright breathtaking works of science fiction I’ve read in a long time. She uses language like no one else. I’ve been trying to think of apt comparisons, and the closest I’ve come is Tamsyn Muir, author of the Locked Tomb Trilogy,  and maybe Felix C. Gotschalk, a science fiction writer from the 1970s, but Khaw is very much doing her own thing. She wields words like some kind of mad wizard—dense, spiralling across paragraphs, always surprising. Khaw writes violence and action set pieces with an anarchic, joyful abandon, and bruising emotional scenes with a devastating tenderness.

If Khaw’s language elevates The All-Consuming World, her ideas send it into the stratosphere. Immortality through cloning. Extreme, extravagant body modification, both hardware and software. Ruthless, highly evolved AI. Sentient spaceships, even a sentient planet. Human consciousness running roughshod through computer networks. Khaw takes ideas that other authors may build entire novels around, and sprays them across every page, like shot from a shotgun. 

Khaw asks profound questions about what, exactly, is a human being, and when is one no longer truly human. She explores complex webs of gender and sexual orientation with a deft hand and an unflinching eye. And at the center of it all, woven into the fabric of memory, trauma, heroics and betrayal, The All-Consuming World is a love story. Actually, because love is complicated and painful, make that several love stories.


The All-Consuming World will be released on August 17, 2021. Pre-order it now, and prepare yourself for one hell of a ride.