Review: Exponential by Adam Cesare

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Meth-heads versus a monster! What's not to enjoy?

In its opening chapters, a kindhearted janitor steals a lab mouse from the animal research division of the biotech company he's working for. And since this is a horror novel, you can pretty well guess how that ends for both the poor janitor and the cute, cuddly lil mousey.

As it turns out, the mouse is infected with something akin to the alien monstrosities at the heart of The Thing and The Blob, and once free it goes on a terrific rampage through the Nevada desert, straight for the first signs of life it can absorb. This just so happens to be a dive bar, a setting that author Adam Cesare spends a good part of the book's first half introducing and then driving our characters toward in-between some good, old-fashioned monster mayhem.

Exponential isn't particularly deep or meaningful, which is fine for me because it is a heck of a lot of easy, breezy fun and I've been craving a flat-out enjoyable creature feature. This one fit the bill rather nicely! We get some neat-o graphic depictions of sentient biomass wreaking havoc on its human prey, some gnarly flashes of meth mouth, and a few solidly heroic beats for our beleaguered cast, all of which made me pretty happy. The main focus here is on fun, and, as evidenced by past works of his I've read, Cesare is a fine entertainer, one who is well-versed in 80s-style B-movie horror goop and who wears his inspirations proudly on his sleeve. I dig that.

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Review: Blanky by Kealan Patrick Burke

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Blanky
By Kealan Patrick Burke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was first introduced to Kealan Patrick Burke by way of his short story in Bad Apples 2: Six Slices of Halloween Horror, I knew immediately he was an author I would be reading more of. After checking out Sour Candy and, now, Blanky the only thing I don't know is why I haven't read more of his work. It's a personal deficiency seriously in need of correcting.

Burke goes for the emotional jugular with this one, sinking his nails in deep and ripping loose scores of entrails chockfull of feelings. This novella is drenched in loss, uncertainty, and misery. Steve is a broken man, attempting to soften his shattered soul with whiskey in the weeks following his infant daughter's death. He and his wife have temporarily separated, but he's hopeful for reconciliation, particularly after they share a tender moment following the rediscovery of their infant's favorite blanket.

Except...that blanky? Didn't they bury it with their daughter?

What follows is a seriously intense examination of heartbreaking loss, of families torn apart, and of a strange and mysterious malevolence. This book is a short but wicked sucker punch, and I think anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one will recognize the fundamental emotional truths on display here.

Burke's writing is top-notch, with a wonderful focus on its characters. There's a beautiful sort of economy at work within Burke's wordplay, and in just a few sentences he's able to get you close to tears, scare the hell out of you, and have you hoping for some kind of victory for Steve. He toys with reader's expectations every bit as much as he does with Steve, and there were a few moments that seriously shook me. Burke may be a sadistic storyteller, but when the books are this good, I don't mind reading them with masochistic glee.

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Review: Strange Weather by Joe Hill

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Strange Weather, the latest offering from Joe Hill, is four books in one! Collected here are four novellas, united by the theme of weather (sometimes strongly, other times more subtly), with the stories running the gamut of apocalyptic rain to raging wildfires.

Hill hits the ground running with Snapshot, an eerie little coming-of-age tale revolving around a supernatural Polaroid camera. I was worried at first that this would be Hill riffing again on his father, Stephen King, who wrote his own supernatural camera story way back when with The Sun Dog, but Hill gets off a good one here and does his own thing. The result is pretty fantastic, with some solid meditations on aging and the fear of our own personal futures. There's a great deal of emotional resonance to this one, and Hill pulled pretty hard on my heartstrings. Not quite a tear-jerker, but it got pretty dang close.

Loaded is unapologetically political, and frankly I don't think it would work any other way. This story tackles America's favorite obsession, our one true golden idol - guns, guns, guns! Sensitive readers who decry having politics in their fiction will be clutching their pearls in white-knuckled fists hard enough to make diamonds when they lay their eyes on this one! This here story is a ripped from the headlines of Everywhere, USA horror revolving around racism and gun violence. I have no problem with political stories, and I agree with the majority of what Hill has to say here. What bugged me, though, is that it took a really, really, really long time for this novella to start going places. At first it felt more like a series of short stories united by a common element, as Hill introduces a number of characters over the course of several chapters (one who disappears for a good long while) before showing us how it all comes together. I was a bit frustrated, initially, but once the various threads started coming together, I found this to be a pretty decent work overall, and I now find myself wanting to see Hill play around a bit more in the crime genre.

Aloft has some cool character development and relationships, and although the situation Aubrey finds himself in during a parachute jump gone awry is certainly interesting, I just wasn't able to suspend my disbelief deeply enough for this one to gel with me. Even at novella length, it seemed to carry on longer than needed, or at least longer than my interest could stay vested, and I found myself itching to get off this ride way too soon.

By the time I was about half-way through Aloft, I was ready to chalk up this book as a loss. What had started out strong was quickly devolving, and I'd gone from a really strong opening, to an OK crime story, to finally just wanting to be done with this thing. And then I hit upon Rain, the final story in this sequence, and holy crap.

Hill admits to spoofing himself and his doorstopper of a book, The Fireman, with Rain, and while I enjoyed the former title quite a lot, this one is better. It's shorter, leaner, and our central character goes places. It's nicely apocalyptic and strange, and Hill gets in a few solid pot-shots at Donald Trump (which are both highly appreciated and slightly amusing, but also too f'ing accurate...). So yeah, I dug the heck out of this one.

Although the middle portion of the book fatigued me, Strange Weather is ultimately redeemed by its strong opening and an even better finish. If either Snapshot or Rain had been released as solo stories, each would have been an easy five star for me. Taken a whole, though, this is a pretty solid three-star collection for me and I'll be happily adding my signed pre-order to the shelves alongside Hill's other works once it arrives in October.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher via Edelweiss.]

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Selling Books and Donating Money

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In May, I announced my intent to donate the income generated by sales of my short story, Revolver, to the ACLU. Thankfully, readers responded well, I sold some stories, and this past weekend I was able to make a $25 donation to the ACLU.

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I know that in the wake of Charlottesville, giving money to the ACLU might be seen as problematic by some. Indeed, I don't and cannot support their defending of hate speech by white supremacists, but I do understand why they felt protecting their speech was important to the First Amendment. If we are to have free speech, then that means protecting speech we're uncomfortable with, and this can be a knife that cuts both ways. But, and this is important I think, while we are free to speak our minds and say whatever we want, even if it is utterly reprehensible, hateful bullshit, we are not free from the consequences such speech might entail. If white supremacists want to gather and spout their hate in a public square, then so be it. However, if reasonable people decided all those white supremacist motherfuckers needed a good punch in the mouth...well, let's just say those white supremacists had it coming. They're not free of the consequences of their hate speech, and fuck them anyway. Like I said, it's a knife that cuts both way, and Revolver has certainly stirred up emotions in more than a few readers and offended plenty of those folks that, dare I say, absolutely needed offending. I live in a country where it's free for me to write and publish a story like Revolver, one that is very critical of fascistic regimes, and I would rather like to help keep it that way.

Despite not agreeing with the ACLU in their decision to help allow that Charlottesville rally last month (and unlike the Nazi- and white supremacist-sympathizing Trump, I do not believe that events involving Nazis and white supremacists are a many-sided issue - there is only one side when it comes to be anti-Nazi, and unlike Trump I do not believe there are many fine people, or even one fine person, in their camp), I do still believe the ACLU is an organization worthy of support and one of our best avenues for helping defeat the numerous shameful and un-American policies that Donald Trump and his administration are working on enacting, particularly while Jeff Sessions uses the Department of Justice to curtail American's civil rights, and police departments across the nation ramp up their militarization

Frankly, I'm also a bit torn on donating to the ACLU in light of recent catastrophic disasters hitting my country. After Hurricane Harvey, and now Irma, there's a lot of devastation and displaced families that need help. The bottom line, though, is that I did promise readers and those who bought Revolver that the money raised would go to support the ACLU, and so that's where the money went. I would certainly encourage everyone reading this to, if at all possible, find a charity or two that you can support that aids in disaster relief. That's what I'll be doing.

Charity Navigator has some suggestions for who you could support to aid in the aftermath of Harvey. They don't have a list of charities put together for Irma just yet, but I expect this page will be updated in the coming days with that information. 

While I'm on the subject of donating to worthy causes, Brian Keene posted on Facebook this morning that he is donating his birthday to Scares That Care. Scares That Care, a charity for which Keene was recently made a member of the Board of Directors, helps fight real-life horrors in the form of childhood illness, breast cancer, and burns by raising money to help offset the tremendous financial burdens these ailments can wreak upon families and individuals. 

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I donated to Scares That Care this morning. If you wish to do the same, please head over to Brian's official Facebook page and donate.


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Review: Thrawn (Star Wars) by Timothy Zahn [audiobook]

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Thrawn (Star Wars)
$20.09
By Timothy Zahn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My original Thrawn (Star Wars) audiobook review and many others can be found at Audiobook Reviewer.

Timothy Zahn returns to the Star Wars universe with Thrawn, the titular character that first appeared in print back in the 1990s and helped reignite fan’s interest in a galaxy far, far away. 1991, when Heir to the Empire was first published, presented a very desolate landscape for Star Wars fans, and was certainly a far cry from the series current-day resurgence. Back then, we only had three films – Episodes IV, V, and VI. There were no prequels, no other sequels, no real line of novels, video games, Funko Pops! and cartoon series. Fans were starved for more stories set in their favorite cinematic series. Timothy Zahn helped change all that with his initial Thrawn Trilogy, reintroducing us to the heroes of the Rebel Alliance cum New Republic five years after the The Return of the Jedi and the Battle for Endor. Right from the outset, Thrawn was a bold new villain and cunning strategist, and an immediately iconic one at that.

Nowadays, Star Wars is everywhere. The series of Expanded Universe novels was relaunched in the build-up for The Force Awakens, and a series of tie-in novels helped lay the new groundwork between Episodes VI and VII. One question that kept coming up among fans and readers was, Where is Grand Admiral Thrawn? Was there even a Grand Admiral Thrawn anymore, or had his enduring legacy between swept away in the relaunch?

Well, now we know. Thrawn is, indeed, a canonical part of the new Expanded Universe – and still an enormous threat for the galaxy to reckon with. With this novel, Zahn dives into origin story territory, detailing the blue-skinned alien’s rise to power within the xenophobic and fascistic Empire. For readers of Zahn’s original Thrawn novels, the character will be intimately familiar. This is still the same character, his keen intellect and powers of observation fully intact, and reintroduced into the Star Wars timeline between Episode III and Rogue One.

I, for one, am thrilled to have Thrawn back in action again. This is a thinking-man’s villain, one who uses his brains above all else, never relying solely on brawn and bluster to get through the day, but rather through sly, Sherlock Holmes’ style observation and chess-like maneuvers. It’s great to see him again outwitting his opponents and manipulating his way through the Empire’s ranks. The story suffers, though, with a side-plot revolving around Arihnda Price, an ex-miner forced by external powers into the Empire’s employ. The dual narratives provide insight into the political machinations of the Emperor’s regime, and it’s interesting to listen to how both maneuver through the Empire in order to meet their own goals. The biggest problem, though, is that Price’s story is a bit dull with its focus on politics and takes a long while to really get anywhere. The same is slightly true of Thrawn’s narrative as well. While it’s interesting to see him work his way up the ranks, we also know how this story ends. The plot device hanging in the middle of this story, operating behind the scenes and driving Thrawn and Price toward their end-goals, is one that Star Wars fans will be able to peg right from the outset.

Thrawn presents little in the way of surprise, and given the nature of the Empire and the character’s carving their way into and through it, it’s also difficult to find reason to root for any of them. Anyone who is familiar with Star Wars knows exactly what the evil Empire is, what it’s all about, and what it represents. Do we really care, ultimately, if any of these characters succeed in reaching the top of Mount Evil, particularly in light of the story’s lack of worthwhile protagonists? Thrawn works well when we have a central heroic, good-guy (or gal) character to root for, and there’s none of that here. While Thrawn is interesting, it’s never really very exciting or fun, and it never reaches the heights of greatness exhibited in the original Thrawn Trilogy. Sadly, from a story perspective, this book’s a bit of a dud.

Thankfully, Marc Thompson’s narration is brilliant. After listening to his voice talents on Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars trilogy, I was really chomping at the bit to see what Marc would do with Zahn’s novel. In this respect, I was not the least bit disappointed. He presents a number of varied voices, tones, and speech patterns, and does an absolutely superb job all around. The use of sound effects and music throughout help up the ante on the production front, reminding us regularly with its familiar score and laser blasts that this is a legit Star Wars story.

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Review: School's Out by Brian Keene

School's Out
By Brian Keene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the afterword, author Brian Keene shares a story about driving his son to school and engaging in a conversation about how the boy will always have to go to school. His son refutes the claim, telling Keene that he won't have to go to school after the apocalypse. The idea stuck, and Brian picked his kid's brain for more details, embarking on a collaboration with his nine-year-old that resulted in School's Out, a small, fun bit of middle-grade horror fiction.

School's Out is geared toward a younger audience (the sentences are short, and the prose is kept pretty simple), although it does have decidedly dark, adult themes running through its core. Eight-year-old Alan is stuck in the confines of his home after his father dies from an apocalyptic virus ravaging the country. We're spared the worst of the devastation given the narrow premise and Alan's innocence, but there's enough inferences made to let the horror's hit home. The more immediate threat, though, is Alan's dead father and the boy's close and uncomfortable encounter with human mortality. Because this is aimed at younger audiences, Keene spares us the gross details, but the less-is-more approach lets adult imaginations run rampant and invokes more than a few moments of uncomfortable squirms.

Parents will want to read School's Out before exposing their children to it and determine if their kids are mature enough for the story and its themes. The good news is, it's a fine enough read for adult audiences looking for an hour's entertainment.

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Review: Subhuman (Unit 51, #1) by Michael McBride

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Subhuman (A Unit 51 Novel)
By Michael McBride
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After misshapen skulls, all bearing the same deformity and chromosomal irregularities, are discovered in various locations across the globe, a group of disparate researchers are whisked away to a secret research base in the Antarctic where an even more chilling discovery has been made - one that could redefine what we knew about humanity's origin.

I've only read a few previous titles by Michael McBride, and while each were terrific and exciting in their own way, they did little to prepare me for the scope and scientific depth of Subhuman. I have no idea what McBride's background is like, if he's an active scientific researcher or an armchair enthusiast, or just somebody who is able to distill a heck of a lot of information into a cogent story, but it's clear that a heck of a lot of research on a wide range of issues went into this book. I'm used to McBride's thrilling creature feature horror novellas, like the two Snowblind books, so it was really cool to see him stretch out and get comfortable with material more in the vein of Michael Crichton and James Rollins.

While the attention to science, both weird and otherwise, gets high marks, the characters suffer a bit in comparison. For such a large cast, we hardly get to know anybody over the course of 400-some pages beyond their names and affiliations. We have Roche, a former NSA decryption analyst turned UFO hunter; Jade, a war crimes investigator; Kelly, the seismologist; and Richards, the dude funding the whole excavation and fueled by a UFO sighting in his youth. A few other names are bandied about, but they get even less attention than the primaries. Each of the co-leads get a few nice moments to shine, but I never really found a reason to latch onto them.

Despite the shallow characterizations, there's plenty else happening to keep one's attention. I'm a sucker for horror stories that utilize weather extremes (one of the reasons Snowblind caught my eye, in fact), and the colder the better. Subhuman definitely brings the chills, along with a nifty sense of discovery that culminates in an Alien-like bloodbath that left me grinning. The story is a bit of a slow burn while the stage gets set and all the various pieces of scientific anomalies are put into place, but it's all oh so very worthwhile. For the last 100 pages or so, McBride sets the climax to roller-coaster speed, and things get freaking intense fast!

Subhuman marks the debut of McBride's Unit 51 series, and I'm more than ready for book two. Fans of Rollins's Sigma series (or lapsed fan like me looking for something fresh) would do well to check out this title ASAP.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the author in exchange for an honest review.]

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Listen to MASS HYSTERIA - If You're Brave Enough! Plus a few other updates...

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On August 15, Mass Hysteria was released in paperback and ebook. Now, it's available in audiobook for your gruesome listening pleasure! Narrated by Joe Hempel, Mass Hysteria can be bought at Audible and iTunes right now! Here's the gist on my crazy, not for the faint of heart horror story:

IT CAME FROM SPACE...

Something virulent. Something evil. Something new. And it is infecting the town of Falls Breath.

Carried to Earth in a freak meteor shower, an alien virus has infected the animals. Pets and wildlife have turned rabid, attacking without warning. Dogs and cats terrorize their owners, while deer and wolves from the neighboring woods hunt in packs, stalking and killing their human prey without mercy.

As the town comes under siege, Lauren searches for her boyfriend, while her policeman father fights to restore some semblance of order against a threat unlike anything he has seen before. The Natural Order has been upended completely, and nowhere is safe.

...AND IT IS SPREADING.

Soon, the city will find itself in the grips of mass hysteria.

To survive, humanity will have to fight tooth and nail.


This edition includes a bonus short story, Consumption!

 

Buy Mass Hysteria

ebook:

Amazon | iBooks | Nook | Kobo

Google Play | Smashwords

Audiobook:

AudibleiTunes


All editions of Mass Hysteria contain the bonus short story ConsumptionConsumption has been available a solo ebook for quite a while now, and that, too, now has a Joe Hempel narrated audiobook companion!

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You Are

Reclusive chef Heinrich Schauer has invited six guests to a blind twelve-course tasting menu.

What You Eat

While snow blankets the isolated Swiss valley surrounding his estate, the guests feast eagerly, challenging one another to guess at the secret tastes plated before them.

This Meat Is Murder

As they eat, each guest is overtaken by carnal appetites, unaware of their host’s savage plans...or of the creature lurking below.One thing is clear: There is more on the menu than any of them have bargained for.

Buy Consumption

eBook:

Amazon | iBooks | Nook | Kobo

Google Play | Smashwords

Audiobook:

Audible | iTunes


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Over on Patreon, I have posted this month's Book of the Month Club title. If you haven't checked out Revolver previously, this one's a doozy! Given the on-going state of political affairs here in the US, aka The Great American Garbage Fire, I suppose in these post-Trump months Revolver could be considered Resistance Fiction or anti-fascist sci-fi. I've written and spoken about this story elsewhere, but one post that gets into the heart of this story and what went into drafting it can be found over at Grim Reader Reviews

Every month I post one of my stories for Patreon supporters to download for $1, so if you're looking for a quick, cheap, and easy way to catch up on my work, that's the place to do it. Patreon supporters have even gotten advanced copies of work before their released elsewhere, such as Mass Hysteria, as well as shorter works like Black Site and Preservation. Go check it out!


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