Review: Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw

Review:

hammers-on-bone

With Hammers on Bone, Cassandra Khaw gives an old-school PI story a cool Lovecraftian update. There’s plenty of old-school gumshoe narration (although the story is firmly present-day), along with a heaping dose of ancient gods and gritty mysticism. If this turns out to be the first in a series it is one I’ll happily return to.

PI Joe Persons takes on what should be a simple job from an eleven-year-old client: kill the boy’s abusive step-father, McKinsey. The appropriately-named Persons (you’ll find out why!), naturally, gets more than he bargains for. McKinsey is a meat-suit for something ancient, see, and Persons is being warned off the case by some dame, but he’s a dog with a bone now and serious things are afoot, see?

Mostly, I dug the heck out of Hammers on Bone and the way Khaw played with classic private eye tropes in a way that felt fresh with its sleek infusion of horror. Khaw has a terrific voice and can turn a phrase rather nicely, and her writing and cool style have me eager to check out her other stories, notably Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef, but also whatever else she publishes along the way. Joe Person’s is a neatly complicated sort, for multiple reasons that I should not actually discuss, and the climax was solidly creepy, gross, and violent. And, jeez, check out that cover illustration by Jeffrey Alan Love – it’s beautiful and speaks wonderfully toward the story within.

My only real complaint concerns the novella’s brevity. There’s a lot of story brewing under the surface of Persons narration that, since this is first person point of view, neither he nor readers are privy to. Khaw nails the sense of epic scope surrounding Persons’ case, and I wanted more. By book’s end, the plot grew a bit muddied and obscured with some last-minute dangling threads – but, again, if this turns out to not be a standalone title, this niggling detail could resolve itself. Given the nature of Persons and Khaw’s impressive writing, I’m certainly game for more and she’s definitely an author to watch out for.

[I received an advanced copy of this title for review from the publisher via NetGalley.]

 

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Review: Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw

Review: Extinction Aftermath (Extinction Cycle Book 6) by Nicholas Sansbury Smith

Review:

ecycle6

Odds are, if you’re reading a review of this sixth installment in Nick Smith’s popular Extinction Cycle series, you’re already a fan and I won’t be able to tell you much you don’t already know. If you’ve not yet picked up any of these books, and provided that military horror thriller creature features are your bag, then you’ll want to stop here and proceed directly to the first book in this series, Extinction Horizon.

Extinction Aftermath picks up in the months following Extinction End, and Team Ghost, now under the leadership of Master Sergeant Joe “Fitz” Fitzsimmons, is preparing to invade Europe in an effort to quell the Variant threat overseas. Back at home, Reed Beckham is settling into civilian life with the very pregnant Dr. Kate Lovato, and President Ringgold is trying to stitch America back together through a series of Safe Zone Territories. Needless to say, everything goes to hell in a handbasket, and pretty darn quickly, too.

For my money, Aftermath just might be the best EC book yet, which says quite a bit about Smith’s growth as an author and thriller writer. This title hits a few sweet spots that I’ve been waiting for the series to tackle, particularly taking the war to Europe (we get plenty of well-staged action scenes in France) and the introduction of some quite interesting mutations on the Variant side of things. The cover gives you a good hint of what one such mutation Smith’s introduces is, but there’s a few others that are pretty spiffy.

More intriguing, though, is the sense of scope Aftermath possesses. Now that the war against the Variants has gone global, there’s a great sense of sprawling epicness to the story, with the action taking us from the shores of France, back home to Plum Island, Florida, and a few other locales. And the new threat facing America serves to heighten and propel the threats abroad to dangerous levels, while also raising the stakes for our series heroes considerably.

My only real complaint with Aftermath is the lack of resolution. Nearly every plot thread ends on a cliff-hanger, some bigger than others, making this book merely a prelude to the next novel, Extinction War. On the other hand, it’s not like I wasn’t going to continue on with this series regardless. Even if everything had been neatly wrapped up, I’d still be plunking down the cash for whatever Smith has lined up next. From the looks of it, Book 7 should certainly be a doozy.

 

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Review: Extinction Aftermath (Extinction Cycle Book 6) by Nicholas Sansbury Smith

Review: Pressure by Jeff Strand (audiobook)

Review:

pressure

My original Pressure audiobook review and many others can be found at Audiobook Reviewer.

Pressure can be defined as the exertion of force upon something by something else, as well mental or physical distress. Either definition is appropriate for Jeff Strand’s aptly titled suspense thriller, Pressure. At its core, this a story of two forces impacting one another, forcefully and violently, and the result is a hefty dose of distress.

Alex and Darren are two boarding school brats, their friendship cemented by a late-night excursion into the woods behind a strip club, where they hide out and hope to catch sight of the action inside. Darren, though, has a secret, and once Alex and their schoolmates discover Darren’s morbid fascinations nothing is the same. What follows is a decades-long story of friendship, adversarial rivalry, and gruesome deeds that can only leave one of them alive.

Strand does a terrific job building his characters, giving them enough dimension and subtle shadings to make them relateable, even if you don’t particularly want to relate to them. And although Darren’s actions are often outside the din of understanding, you at least get what motivates him, even if the results are terribly aberrant. Alex is a solid every-man character caught up in a situation beyond his control and struggling to cope, struggling to make sense, and, mostly, struggling to find a solution to the problem that is Darren. The first-person viewpoint Strand uses allows us to see the world from Alex’s point of view, and while the story itself is pretty pitch-black, Strand, via Alex, is able to interject enough levity and enduring positivity to keep Pressure from collapsing under its own misery.

Pressure is narrated by Scott Thomas, whose voice talents I greatly enjoyed in a prior Strand title, Wolf Hunt. Here, Thomas exhibits a nice a range and listeners are unlikely to confuse characters during stretches of dialogue. While the story belongs to Alex, Thomas injects plenty of different voices and speech styles to mark the other characters that inhabit Pressure. Soundwise, this is a cleanly narrated book, with terrific production quality and no technical issues to speak of.

Clocking in at seven hours, Pressure is a solid psychological suspense thriller with dashes of Strand’s typical wry humor, and packed with plenty of history between the central antagonist and his nemesis. It’s entertaining, occasionally bleak, but highly worthy of attention. Between the two works I’ve listened to that Strand and Thomas have collaborated on, I think it’s fair to say they make quite a good team. As long as Strand keeps writing, and Thomas keeps giving a voice to those words, I’ll be listening.

[Audiobook provided for review by the audiobookreviewer.com.]

 

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Review: Pressure by Jeff Strand (audiobook)

Review: Bite by K.S. Merbeth (audiobook)

Review:

bite-audio

My original Bite audiobook review and many others can be found at Audiobook Reviewer.

Bite, a post-apocalyptic offering from new author K.S. Merbeth, comes with a neat little hook with its focus on cannibal wasteland scavengers and killers, but I would have enjoyed a little more meat on the bone.

Kid, a young woman hitchhiking her way through the irradiated ruins of Australia, accepts a ride, only to learn she’s bit off way more than she can chew. In short order, she soon finds herself a part of the gang and on the run from various forces, many of whom, unsurprisingly, don’t look to kindly at having cannibals in their midst.

The premise alone is a huge part of the draw in Bite, and I appreciated Merbeth’s wasteland saga’s focus on a group of people who are, quite arguably, the bad guys. Kid quickly makes friends with these ne’er-do-wells, led by Wolf, a dread-locked survivor with a knack for pulling off scores by the seat of his pants, and they all soon find their survival linked to one another. Dolly, a blue-haired tough, is an easy standout for fan-favorite of the bunch, with her quiet ways and easy violence making her an unsettling sort, but also an attention-grabbing mystery.

My biggest hurdle in Bite, unfortunately, was the main character herself, Kid. I prefer my female heroines to have a bit more agency, and felt that Kid too often fell into role of victim who needs saving. Granted, this is a sort of hero’s journey and she grows and adapts as the story progresses, but frankly I found it a be too unbelievable that this wasteland survivor would so freaking useless at the outset. She doesn’t know how to fire a gun or use a knife, she’s of little use in hand-to-hand fights, and despite this being an action-heavy book she spends too much time in hiding or waiting to be rescued. The first half of the book felt repetitive with its focus on members of the gang getting captured, followed by thwarted rescue attempts, and then their eventual escape only to again find themselves captured by different people in a different setting. By the time Merbeth gets around to explaining why Kid lacks any sort of adeptness or situational awareness, it feels too little too late. And, although Kid eventually levels-up, I think there were better options than starting her off as a nearly-constant damsel in distress.

Tonally, the narrative strikes an uneasy balance between serious and aloof. At times, this felt like a Young Adult title trying too hard to be a foul-mouthed, adult actioneer, and characters like The Queen only served to amplify this imbalance. The Queen is shrill and loud-mouthed, but is mostly a caricature reduced to exclaiming things like “Get them!” in lieu of villainous depth.

Narrator Stephanie Willis inhabits the role of Kid nice and smoothly, and she does a fairly good job with the reading of Bite. In my purely subjective opinion, though I found some of her male voices, particularly Wolf’s, to be a little too over-the-top for my ears, and The Queen was gratingly cartoonish, but I’ll chalk some of that role up to the writing itself. Her delivery of Tank’s and Pretty Boy’s lines, though, were well-handled and far more realistic. The voices Willis adopted for the other female voices were nicely differentiated, and she helps give a character like Dolly a certain charm that might otherwise be lost in reading the text. Bite is certainly well-produced, as one should expect of a major publisher like Hachette, and the sound quality is even and comes through cleanly with nary a hiccup.

Mostly, I enjoyed Bite, but found it a touch too uneven to really satisfy. It does recall a bit of the charm from other post-apocalyptic wasteland adventures, like the Mad Max films and the Fallout video games, and I am at least curious enough to see what this cast of characters get up to next, particularly Kid, who exhibits a lot of promise by book’s end. Besides, who doesn’t want more irradiated cannibals in their life?

[Audiobook provided for review by the audiobookreviewer.com.]

 

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Review: Bite by K.S. Merbeth (audiobook)

Sept. 2016 Read and Reviewed Roundup

Happy October! It’s hard to believe we’re closing in on the end of another year. Halloween is coming up soon, and it’ll be a short jaunt from there to Thanksgiving, and Christmas will rear up fast after that. Yowza.

In hindsight, September was pretty busy and hectic. On a personal note, it was my son’s very first birthday. My baby has grown into a little boy, and he’s hitting all the right milestones pretty much on target. He is also thoroughly a mama’s boy, big-time, but I on occasion he’s willing to tolerate me and I can get to make him laugh, which always feels amazing. His birthday required a good deal of preparation as we gathered the family at a park for kiddo’s cake smash, which he enjoyed quite a lot. By the end of that, he was pretty covered in frosting and smiling exhaustedly. I think I was even more tired than him by the end of it all, though.

Book-wise, I read, mostly, a lot of good stuff and some very, very good stuff. Chills hit some sweet spots for me, but Barry Eisler’s upcoming release, Livia Lone, was easily the best book of the month for me.

  1. Red Right Hand by Chris Holm
  2. The X-Files: The Truth Is Out There (audiobook), edited by Jonathan Maberry
  3. Devils In Dark Houses by B.E. Scully
  4. Out by Natsuo Kirino (audiobook)
  5. Chills by Mary SanGiovanni
  6. The Warren by Brian Evenson
  7. Livia Lone by Barry Eisler
  8. Stranded by Bracken MacLeod
  9. Corpse Rider by Tim Curran
  10. Ship the Kids on Ahead by Bill Stokes (audiobook)

Looking ahead a bit, expect a review on the latest Vince Flynn novel, Order to Kill, by Kyle Mills soonish. I’m reading a paperback ARC of it, which the publishers were kind enough to send my way after selecting me to be a Mitch Rapp Ambassador. I was pretty geeked about that! And I just bought the latest Alastair Reynolds title, Revenger, which is sitting pretty on my Kindle. Hopefully I can get to that one next!

Sept. 2016 Read and Reviewed Roundup

Review: Corpse Rider by Tim Curran

Review:

corpse_rider

A few years ago, thanks to the Horror Aficionados group on Goodreads, I discovered a new-to-me author when it was suggested I check out Dead Sea by Tim Curran. I don’t remember which awesome reader suggested it, but I owe that person a huge, hearty thank you. I devoured that book and instantly bought a bunch more of Curran’s titles to add to my TBR, and have been a fan ever since.

His latest, Corpse Rider, is a hearty ghost story that exemplifies the notion that no good deed goes unpunished. While visiting her mother’s grave, Christina picks away the weeds from an older, long-untended headstone. This minor act upends her life, connecting her with the spirit of something hideous. While it’s certainly bad news for Christina, it’s a lot of good for readers.

Curran has remarkable skill at crafting disturbing scenes of grotesqueness and violence, and a few of the visuals he stuck in my head here will be with me for a while. Christina makes for a nicely flawed heroine, and the story surrounding her is rooted in an appropriately creepy historical context. Mostly, though, this is just a cool, gory, little ghost story (it comes in at around a smidge over 100 pages), and if you’re looking for a breezy read to help kick off some October scares leading up to Halloween, this is a great place to start.

 

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Review: Corpse Rider by Tim Curran

Review: Stranded by Bracken MacLeod

Review:

stranded

Stranded is the type of book that made me glad to be reading it indoors, in the known security and confines of my home, where I was nice and warm and comfortable, and had a nip of whiskey or Irish Mist to help keep the chills Bracken MacLeod was generating at bay.

Caught in an arctic storm, the ship Arctic Promise is thrown off-course from its destination and lost in the fog. Soon enough, the ship finds itself embedded in ice. In the distance, the flat horizon is broken only by the hump of an odd, indiscernible shape. The crew are sick with a mysterious illness, except for Noah, who finds himself constantly at odds with most of the crew. And the sick are seeing…something.

Right from the outset, MacLeod throws readers into the thick of things. His writing of the violent storm Noah and his shipmates find themselves in is phenomenally hair-raising and chaotic, and the unique threats of the arctic landscape itself are well posed and chillingly executed.

Much of the horror in Stranded is derived from the environment itself, as much as the crazed crewmen Noah is forced to contend with, and there’s a heavy, freezing atmosphere that permeates MacLeod’s writing. It’s strong stuff, and reminded me a bit of another arctic powerhouse horror-thriller in Dan Simmon’s The Terror. (If you want to know why I love arctic horror, this and The Terror are two books to check out for prime examples of environmental scares done right.)

MacLeod also does some great work with the characters here, although it is a bit of slow-boil to learn why Noah is so despised by so many of his shipmates. Noah catches a lot of flack, for various reasons, and I personally would not have minded getting a bit more information up front rather than having details parceled out piecemeal over the course of the book’s first half. This is a minor complaint in an otherwise strong work, though, but the motivations behind the firmly anti-Noah characters make for rich conflict, particularly in the book’s later segments.

Stranded is an impressive and visceral work of achingly cold environmental horror with a nifty sci-fi twist, and a work that has ensured Bracken MacLeod is an author whose releases I will be watching out for.

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

 

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Review: Stranded by Bracken MacLeod