Book Review: Subhuman by Michael McBride

subhumanTypically there are two camps of writers: those who do an incredible amount of research but fail to tell a compelling story, and those who can spin a yarn but can’t keep it from floating away with a gust of scientifically or factually-based wind. Michael McBride is one of those rare breeds who has somehow mastered both.

In Subhuman, you get the science and research you’d expect from a Michael Crichton novel but wrapped in a story that not only draws you in, but threatens to keep you from coming back out. With some truly ingenious twists, this was a fantastic set up to a series that will have legs for years to come.

Recommended for all those who enjoy their thrillers with a little bite. And if you haven’t read something from McBride yet, hop over to your nearest ebook retailer and pick from any of his dozens of novels. You really can’t go wrong.

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Book Review: “Strange Weather” by Joe Hill

One of the great things about works of art, whether they be movies, books, or finger-painted sketches of yetis in space, is that they’re open to the interpretation of those who read, watch, and — for all intents and purposes — breathe their own unique experiences into the work itself. I love the fact that someone can hate what I enjoy, or can love what I find cringe-worthy. All this to say I’ve seen several reviews of Joe Hill’s latest work, breaking down which stories worked (for them) and which didn’t, and while I’ll add to what’s been shared I also recommend taking any review as just that — someone’s personal reaction to a particular work or story. What I didn’t enjoy in this collection just might resonate with you; doesn’t mean I’m right and you’re wrong, instead it shows the power of the very nature of stories and the intense emotions they can illicit.

So that it’s on the table, I’m in the camp of those who love Hill’s earlier works (20th Century Ghosts, Heart Shaped Box, Nos4atu) but didn’t enjoy his latest doorstopper, The Fireman. The guy is clearly talented, (wonder where that comes from?), but I find he can be a little hit or miss for my tastes at least. This collection was a bit of both, hit and miss, though again many reviewers I respect absolutely adored the stories I couldn’t care less for. To each their own. Here are my thoughts, for what their worth, on the four novellas within this collection:

strange weather.jpg“Snapshot” — 4 of 5 stars. This was an entertaining idea that’s perfectly suited for a novella length story, exploring dementia and alzheimer’s in the cloak of a horror story. I connected with the protagonist and loved the arc of the story. Simple yet creative, it was also a lot of fun and a great start to the collection.

“Loaded” — 5 of 5 stars. I was worried about this one as I don’t like to be preached to when reading entertainment. Don’t get me wrong, I like stories that push boundaries and explore even politically charged themes, just don’t stand on a soapbox while you’re doing it. This story had the potential to do just that yet Hill navigated the landmines with an expertise rarely seen within today’s novelists. With interwoven stories exploring the left, right, and in-between stance on gun control, I was honestly shocked at how adeptly every experience with a gun was captured within a single tale. Add to it an ending that was the equivalent of a mic drop and I’m not sure how this could have been crafted any better. Brilliantly executed.

“Aloft” — 3 of 5 stars. After a great first half I was really geared up going into this story, which was touted as one of the more creative within the collection. Unfortunately the creativity here never grew legs or landed, and I found myself a little bored moving through this one. Interesting idea but I feel it would have been better suited as a short story of a few thousand words rather than the length of a novella.

“Rain” — Sigh. All I can say is that I’m glad this one was last or I wouldn’t have given the others a chance. Hill claims, in his Afterward, that this was his rendition of parodying himself before someone else got around to it. Really it felt more like he dialed this one in and needed an excuse as to why he was including it. Riddled with cliche after cliche, from the characters to the dialogue to the motive of the “villain,” it felt like the work of a first-time author who thought he was being clever but was really just regurgitating everything he had taken in for the day. I honestly felt a little angry with this one, which only happens when I feel an author is insulting my intelligence as a reader. A disappointing end to an otherwise decent collection. 1 of 5 stars.

I think, as a whole, the collection had the makings of something great within it but, as is often the case, some of the stories never really found themselves. I’d recommend everyone read “Loaded”, though your experience with it may vary from mine. Despite giving the collection as a whole 3 stars I think there’s enough in here for everyone to connect with something, and that says a lot more about Hill’s work than any review might.

Two Reviews for the Price of One – “The Fisherman” and “We Are Always Watching”

I’ve really fallen behind on book reviews, and while I’ve contemplated stopping them completely I believe there’s value in sharing one’s reaction to a work of art. I know for me, personally, every review I receive of the novels and books I’ve published means something — whether they’re positive or negative. And the great thing about writing, in particular, is that every person will have a different reaction to the same source material. What some love others will hate, and I’ve been influenced to purchase a book because of bad reviews, realizing that the person who wrote the review doesn’t like similar things that I enjoy.

So, whether positive or negative, share your thoughts on what you’re reading. You could be the means of helping someone find that book they really connect with (or helping them avoid the one they’ll despise). And in the meantime I’ll be doubling up on my reviews here on the blog to get through the books I’ve read of late.

First up?

The Fisherman by John Langan

fisherman

This is a book I was really looking forward to, and perhaps the build-up of expectation offset my reaction. I loved the characterization and set up for Abe and his friend Dan and was entirely in to where things were going until the main story was shelved while we delved into the backstory of the Dutchman’s Creek and the “Fisherman.”

Backstories and flashbacks are tricky as they often halt the momentum of the story that’s being explored. I also tend to disconnect from a story when it’s the summary of what a character is sharing but contains incredible details. I don’t think a stranger who’s recounting, for all intents and purposes, a home grown folklore tale in an hour would share the facial expressions of someone’s reactions or the inner thoughts of the people in his story. I didn’t connect with anyone in this flashback and kept waiting to get back to the main storyline. Little did I know, the bulk of this novel IS the flashback, and by the time we arrived back to actual events I was so burned out that I had lost the emotions and concern I had initially carried for Abe.

The cosmic horror elements of this novel are spot on, I just could have used the summary of the backstory rather than all of the details. Will definitely be checking out more of Langan’s work, this one just sort of missed the mark for me.

And next on the list?

We Are Always Watching by Hunter Shea

watching.jpgThis was a pretty stellar read. I’m a sucker for the back-woods isolated horror set up, but Shea thankfully doesn’t just go for the obvious here. He uses the familiar tropes of the genre to draw you in but then takes what you’re expecting and turns it on its head. Well-developed characters, creepy setting, a driving mystery with plenty of scares, and most importantly, characters you actually care about. Pretty much sums up what a good horror novel should be.

If you haven’t checked this one yet, it’s on sale for just $1.99 on Amazon. Definitely worth the price of admission.

Next up on the blog will be Markus Sakey’s After Life and Michael McBride’s Subhuman. It’s been a good couple of months for books (thankfully).

If you’ve discovered anything that really stands out from the crowd, feel free to leave a recommendation in the comments below as well!

 

Book Reviews – Ketchum & Strand

Two more reviews of some quite non-traditional novels. Both of these have a ton of staying power to them and are ones you’ll carry with you for quite some time after the final page has turned.


The Secret Life Of Souls by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee

souls

The Secret Life of Souls is a cleverly spun tragedy piece, and your heart will be breaking by the end of it. A window into a functioning dysfunctional family and the small decisions that lead to unimaginable consequences.

The characterizations were strong and believable and, having grown up as a “child actor”, I loved the glimpse into the entertainment industry and the quiet implications of what it does to people. The other thing I loved about this was that there was no real villain, only wounded individuals making poor decisions and then doing what they must to cover them.

Which, of course, only leads to more poor decisions.

Stylistically, I’m not a huge fan of using an animal’s POV as third or first person narrator. It’s a choice that, for whatever reason, just drives me out of the story and I always feel the author writing rather than the persona of the intended animal. I got worried at first that much of the story would be told this way but, thankfully, it was used sparingly.

Beyond that, this was a sharp story simply but effectively told. Well worth checking out.


Dweller by Jeff Strand

dwellerIf there’s one thing you can expect when reading a Jeff Strand novel it’s that the story isn’t going to go where you would expect.

But wait, if you’re expecting it not to go where you expect, does that mean it actually will go where you expect since your expectations are that it won’t go where you would normally assume? Or do your expectations cancel out the unexpected deviations of a “traditional” story (read: “Non”-Jeff Strand story), thereby making the unexpected rather blase, turning cherry blossom caramel-swirl candy corn ice cream into imitation vanilla?

Thankfully, this tasted nothing like vanilla. (Though Owen probably wouldn’t complain either way).

A simple story about an unlikely friendship made all the more interesting by the unique way in which it was told. This is a book no other author could have written. Come on, Jeff Strand and Sasquatch? What more are you waiting for?

A Farewell to 2016 / Behrg’s Favorite Books of the Year

This is a post I’ve been meaning to get to for … oh, about a month … but the important thing isn’t WHEN we arrive, it’s THAT we arrive … eventually … right?

RIGHT?!?

Or was it something about the journey being more important than the destination? Well, late or not, here are all of my 5-star reads for 2016:

best books 2016.JPG

My Top Reads of the Year:

While all of the books featured above are outstanding, there are a few that stuck with me long after their stories were concluded. Here are my favorite reads of the year, in no particular order, with a short blurb about why you should pick them up today. (Links will jump to my original review of the book rather than a place you can purchase them).

THE SILENCE by Tim Lebbon — Apocalyptic horror at its finest, I’ve quickly become a fan of pretty much anything Mr. Lebbon writes. You’ll find some of the most haunting scenes in fiction within this story. As close to perfection as you come with a novel.

WE EAT OUR OWN by Kea Wilson — One of the most audacious debuts I’ve read, this novel took so many risks and succeeded not in spite of, but because of them. A perfect example of what “literary horror” should be. I’m looking forward to what Miss Wilson produces next.

ODD ADVENTURES WITH YOUR OTHER FATHER by Norman Prentiss — Probably one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever read, disguised as a horror novel, this book has to go down as the one I’ve recommended the most to people this year. Intoxicating storytelling and a message that isn’t shoved down your face but delivered with subtlety and a quiet beauty. This one’s on my shelf of top reads ever, not just for the year.

BLISTER by Jeff Strand — This is another one that took me completely by surprise, with a story that’s as charming as it is twisted. By far two of my favorite characters of all the books I’ve read this year, Strand really nailed this one. I dare you not to fall in love with this unlikely couple.

END OF WATCH by Stephen King — The king of horror closes out his Bill Hodges series by tying the supernatural into a story line that had been alarmingly void of the other-wordly. Masterfully told, and with one of the most frightening villains King has come up with in some time, this was the perfect closure to this outstanding trilogy. (By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea …)

THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM by Victor LaValle — This is one of those books you just drink in, letting the story carry you pretty much wherever it decides to. Mesmerizing and unapologetic, this is proof that novellas can pack an amazingly strong punch.

DARK MATTER by Blake Crouch — Concept is king in Crouch’s latest speculative thriller. Pleased to hear he’s working on a screen adaptation, which is pretty much guaranteed to be one of the top films of whatever year it comes out. If Christopher Nolan and Michael Chrichton had collaborated, this book would likely have been the result.

BEFORE THE FALL by Noah Hawley — This one was all about the execution, and I’m not sure another author could have turned what was in essence a simple story into something so intricately complex. Another great example of what literary fiction should be.

THE GIRL ON THE GLIDER by Brian Keene — Another heart-wrenching, honest piece that completely surprised me in both its approach and deliverance. This one was magic, one of those books you secretly treasure and that feels written just for you.

A fond farewell to the many adventures of 2016, the new authors discovered, the new friendships formed, the new readers who may have stumbled upon my own work. And here’s looking forward to many adventures to come.

Catching Up on Book Reviews

I’m catching up on a few book reviews today. Some good, others … well, not my particular brand of awesomeness. But to each their own.

A Review of “Lock In” by John Scalzi:

So lately I’ve been a little underwhelmed by many of the traditionally published authors I’ve been reading, finding more original works through self-pubbed authors. I picked this up on a whim, and found myself immediately submerged in a world unlike any other I’ve read about.

lock in.jpgFirst off, this novel should be studied for its world-building. Typically when you think of world-building you think of those crazy fantasy or sci-fi epics that have more maps than subplots (which says a lot). But this novel was brilliantly constructed with a single idea that was then expounded upon, but what makes it so unique is that the idea isn’t the center of the novel. Instead it’s the cushioning that surrounds the plot, making it one of the most unique “detective” stories I’ve ever read.

Did I mention that I liked this novel?

The idea is a virus that affects a small percentage of humans by “locking” their bodies completely up. They can’t move or speak and are, for all intents and purposes, trapped within their own minds. But so many are affected by this, (as well as the President of the United States’ own wife), that they go about creating solutions for this sector of the world. There are “threpes,” basically robots who those with “Haden’s syndrome” (lock-in) are able to inhabit through a link. There are “Integrators,” people who were affected by the virus but never locked-in, who can link to those who are locked-in, allowing the lock-ins to use their bodies much like the threpes. And there is a virtual world where the Hadens can interact, much like a virtual but visual internet / social media hybrid.

There’s a lot there, right? And in the hands of a lesser author, that would have been the story, the tale of these people who get locked in.

But that’s not what this story is about.

That’s just the background, the peripheral backstory that’s revealed as you go through the actual murder mystery that is presented in this unique world.

Whether you’re a fan of science fiction, murder mysteries, or suspense thrillers, this should be a book you put on your radar. And by that I mean purchasing it and moving it to the forefront of your To-Be-Read list. By far my favorite novel of the year (so far).

 

A review of “Ash” by Jason Brant

A “hero” who despises people and lives a hermit-like life as a vagrant suddenly decides to get involved in a bank robbery, saving the day.

A “heroine” who is described by her “big breasts” and little else, who is saved by said hero, is somehow intensely attracted to our him despite the fact he looks and smells (and lives) like a homeless man.

A “villain” who kills because he is bad, intent on destroying America.

Dialogue where every other line is an off-handed quip or action movie one-liner.

ash.jpgSigh … bored yet?

Speaking solely as a reader, I had a very difficult time finishing this novel. I realize it has a ton of great reviews and admit there are those who might enjoy reading about a one-dimensional woman defined by her “large tracts of land.” I was a little offended, however, that that was the ONLY attribute our leading lady could be defined by.

The thing is, Jason Brant is a good writer. His prose was smooth and polished and you can tell he has talent. But this just read like one of those hurried B-movie scripts from a guy who’s trying to write a tent-pole movie while copying everything he’s ever seen in a movie to get there. Just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Brant graciously gives this first book in his Asher Benson Series away for free on Amazon, so pick up a copy and let me know if I’m the only one with a ticket on my own personal crazy train. You might just love it.

Book Reviews: Two for the Price of One

Catching up on book reviews today, so rather than have two separate posts I figured I’d lump both here together. The first book is Alex Dolan’s debut novel, The Euthanist

euthanistThis was a novel I was looking forward to reading after hearing so much hype around it. The premise is brilliant, the story revolving around “Kali,” who volunteers her time to help those in need of “moving on” in life. Basically a self-subscribed murderer, but in a different sort than we’re used to seeing; Kali takes those who are suffering from terminal illnesses and aids them in ending their lives.

A lot of research went into this novel, and I appreciated the depth to which the idea of euthanasia was explored, especially seeing characters who cast opposing views towards it. The plot has Kali caught by an FBI agent posing as a dying patient, but instead of arresting her he has other ideas in mind.

This is a novel that continuously keeps you on your toes, wondering where it’s going, and Kali is one intriguing protagonist. There were a couple of missed opportunities in my mind, areas that could have been explored, but overall this was a tremendous read. Great pace, characters, a fantastic debut for Mr. Dolan. Highly recommended.

Next up is the fourth in a series of what I guess you could call “financial thrillers.”

saving jasonSaving Jason is the fourth book in the Jason Stafford series unfortunately falters into the “been there, done that” category. (Even the title is bland … blecgh).

Now let me preface this review by saying I love this series. Michael Sears has created a world that few authors ever achieve — highly original characters (from our protagonist Jason, to his autistic son “The Kid” to Skelly; list goes on and on) set in an intriguing backdrop (Wall Street / the financial world) with a breakneck pace and thrilling adventures. When I first discovered the first book in this series, “Black Fridays,” I told everyone about it; it was that good.

But this book sort of hit the neutral gear and coasted, to me. The setup wasn’t nearly as intriguing, the “villains” were downright ridiculous, and the novel was divided in that it didn’t know what it wanted to be. Part One and Part Two were almost completely different stories and the few things that tied them together didn’t really work. The conflict never felt real but forced and rather than a harrowing conclusion it all just felt way too easy.

I still enjoyed Sears’ writing style and quirky characters, but it wasn’t enough to redeem a book that probably needed a “Page One Rewrite.” I still would recommend the series to anyone who hasn’t yet read Sears’ work. Start with Black Fridays and work your way through, it’s definitely a series you won’t regret reading.