Monday, April 28, 2014

My review of GHOSTS OF PUNKTOWN by Jeffrey Thomas. An absolutely amazing collection of stories...

I've been reading some really great stories lately, and the trend definitely continues with Ghosts of Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas. I've been aware of this long-running series, but for some reason never got around to reading it. Needless to say, I'm now kicking myself, and will be catching up with what I've missed, post-haste. Once I started reading Ghosts, I really didn't want to put it down. Unfortunately, I have to sleep, and work, so I didn't finish it in one sitting like I wanted to. The stories are all powerful, and beautifully crafted, and the characters engaging. A really excellent collection, with both newly published stories, and some that have been reworked for this release. One note, before I start the review. I love the intro by Jeffrey, and highly recommend you read it. It gives insight into Punktown and the characters roaming the city. That said, I skipped past it, and came back to it after I had finished the rest of the collection. The reason for this as that I wanted to have a cold reading of the stories, and then see if my thoughts and feelings about the stories matched what the author was going for. That's just me though... as I said, I really enjoyed the intro, so read through it however you like. Well, on with the review. I'll be focusing on my three favorite stories from the collection, and touch more briefly on the others towards the end of my review.

Welcome to Punktown, a sprawling megalopolis built upon the alien planet of Oasis. It's both famous for the large amount of alien and inter-dimensional beings that live side by side, and infamous for the extreme amount of crime that goes on within its boundaries. Newcomers are definitely in for a wild ride, one that might end up being their last. First off, we have 'In His Sights', which features Jeremy Stake, who should be familiar to returning readers of the Punktown series. He is the protagonist of both Deadstock and Blue War, and this story is set ten years before those tales. Stack's a mutant, with a power to replicate another being's appearance; this serves him well during the inter-dimensional conflict known as the Blue War. He's basically used as an advanced scout and infiltration specialist, as he can mimic the appearance of the enemy Ha Jiin. The story starts as he is in the process of demobbing, and being worked back into normal routine. There's a monkey wrench in the proceedings, however; Stake's features have frozen in the likeness of the last person he killed, an unnamed Ha Jiin warrior, so fitting in with society is going to be a bit of a challenge (read as almost nonexistent). Enter Cal Williams, another recent returnee from the far regions where the Blue War took place. Cal's even more damaged than Stake, and can't seem to leave the war behind... he's turning into quite the serial killer, and hates the Ha Jiin. Unfortunately for Stake, this places him in Cal's sights, which Stake is blithely unaware of through most of the proceedings, being caught up with his own tragedies. The pay off between these two haunted vets is decidedly action packed, and also poignant, in the last moments. Both of these men have been damaged by their experiences in a very realistic, human way, that is rendered beautifully by the author, and the ghosts they carry inside drive them down very different paths. Despite being a short story, this has joined three of my favorite novels that deal with the horrors of war, both the immediate effects on the men who suffer through them, and the long term consequences; Armor by John Steakley, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, and Sympathy for the Devil by Kent Anderson. I mean this to be, and hope the author takes it, as the highest compliment. A taut opening story, sharp as a razor, with genuine realism and true feeling throughout. An excellent start. 

The second of my favorites (and also the second story presented in Ghosts) is 'Relics'. We are introduced to Cynth, an 8 year old girl living in one tower of the Triplex installation in Punktown. As her parents are usually caught up with their own affairs, she is largely raised by her best friend, Mr. Moon. Mr. Moon is the Triplex's central computer, who handles all of his tenants wants and needs. Through the repeated interactions between the two, Mr. Moon starts to develop more sentient tendencies, showing signs of becoming a true AI... Of course, all of this is lost on young Cynth. Fast forward 20 years, and adult Cynth has built a life for herself, and is standing on her own two feet. She still thinks about her friend, on occasion, but has her own affairs to occupy her time. Having broke off her engagement with her fiancee, she is back in Punktown on business (her family had left Punktown for the city of Miniosis when she was 10). Working as a service representative for an auction company, she relishes the chance to get away from Miniosis, which reminds her utterly of her failed relationship. While engaged in the latest auction, odd things begin happening, culminating in the prize piece up for bid being stolen. Further investigation leads her back to the heart of the Triplex, where possibly an old friend is waiting... I'll say this, each of the author's stories presented here have a soul, and are emotionally powerful. With 'Relics' the sense of loss and sadness come through palpably. Mr. Moon is a ghost in the machine, but Cynthia has haunted the ghost... and vice versa. The first two stories presented were worth picking up this collection, all on their own. I wasn't sure how Jeffrey would top them, until I got to...

'Life Work', and the intertwined stories of Hanako and Huck. This entry is a bit longer, being novella length, and closes out the collection. Hanako is a rogue artificial being, created for pleasure, who has escaped, and up-graded herself. Living a fairly ordinary life that is centered on her own comfort and security, by chance she meets an older woman named Sabina, who has a true rapport with plants, and a genuine humanity... An act of kindness Hanako closer to Sabina, and starts to break her out of her never-ending search for personal comfort and security. Hanako begins to change, to take that next step towards... something different, and familiar. She is already different from her kind, for who else would have escaped from her situation, gone rogue, and learned to hide herself in the general population? Who knows where this will lead lovely Hanako... The second protagonist on this shared journey is Huck (also known as Mad-Dog Huck). Star triggerman for the Neptune Teeb crime syndicate. A dyed-in-the-wool killer, when we come across Huck, he is in the middle of staking out the Paxton Center Casino. For what reason, you might ask? To take out one of his bosses main rivals, of course. Things are soon completed, but not in his usual manner. Although the gusto is there, the precision is lacking, and he comes away from the job having also killed someone that was off limits. Not being stupid enough to try to gun down their best hitter, the Teeb syndicate (both politely, and a bit nervously) asks Huck to retire. At loose ends, and bereft of the one job he was a master at, Huck is cast adrift. A chance meeting with Hanako, who he seems to recognize (at least by type), signals the beginning of the end. The two are now linked, and the rest of the story is equally linked. Who is better, one might ask? An automaton, supposedly without a soul, who is slowly becoming a complete being, after years of serving only herself? Or, a mad-dog killer, dehumanized to the point that he has no soul, only taking satisfaction in his mastery of death? Could they possibly join together to do something that rises above what they are separately, and accomplishes something that absolutely needs to be done (in my opinion at least)? They can, and will, with a little help from the good old ultra-violence. The set up and follow through of this novella is mighty, and I read through it in one sitting. The end game had me on edge. I knew what I wanted to happen, feared what might happen, and was rewarded with a bit of both. As I said, mighty! Both characters are haunted in their own way. Hanako by what she was, what she is, and what she is becoming... Huck by the fear that he's losing his edge, and that he no longer has a purpose, no matter how dark. Are these likable, feel-good characters? No, but they are mesmerizing, believable, and well written. This is an excellent ending, to an amazing release. Personally, I will be visiting Punktown many times in the future, thanks to this release. I recommend that you should make the journey as well...

In closing, I'd like to state that while these are my personal favorites, you really can't go wrong with any of the stories contained within Ghosts of Punktown. I would have loved to break each story down, piece by piece, but I was also working to post this review before its release date ( and zounds, I barely made it). There's a bit of everything in here, and I'm sure you can find something that latches on to your psyche. For me, it was everything involved. From 'The Room', which tells of a love carried on through the years, and across dimensions, and of an ever-waning hope, that the protagonist will never give up; to 'Imp' which is so disturbing in its victim's plight, and of the lack of anything that can be done to save her, since she is (as much as you can be in this technological setting) a true GHOST, and we are all relegated to the role of witness. Jeffrey's writing defies genre, in that you could sweep away the science fiction (and other) trappings, and with minor (and sometimes no) alterations, still have the same tale staring back at you. The bedrock that these tales are built upon are not only familiar, but timeless. Highly recommended, and with that, I'm signing off. A most enthusiastic happy reading to you all!

Here's Dark Regions website. Here's Jeffrey's author page on Amazon. Get investigating!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A quick review of Ralph Angelo Jr.'s short THE HALLOWEEN TERROR OF WEATSBORO.

As I said in the title, this will be a bit of a quick review, due to the fact that the short is only thirty three pages in length, and is fairly straightforward in composition. The Halloween Terror of Weatsboro was written at the spur of the moment back in October 2013 to tie in with the spirit of the Halloween season (Thanks to Mark Bousquet's Atomic Anxiety blog, which is where I got this bit of information. You can read his full interview with Ralph here.).  It's a fun little Halloween adventure, with some tropes that remind me a bit of old Hammer and Universal films. One of the characters actually mentions something along these lines near the end of the story. Here's a synopsis...

The story begins with a brief forward that sets up the history behind the events that are to come. It tells of a coven of vampires that have been living in the Pennsylvanian woods for centuries. Driven out by the battle of Gettysburg (along with other supernatural creatures), they end up relocating to the small town of Weatsboro, PA. Before relocating, they find an object of power, something that can be used to change the course of history... Fast forward to the present day. We are introduced to the locals that inhabit Weatsboro, chief among them Tommy Hasbrough Sr., the town mechanic, and his fourteen year old son, Tommy Jr. After getting a service call out to the old Vershrugen homestead, Tom Sr. goes missing. Convinced that something supernatural is taking place, it's up to Tommy and his friends to save his Dad, and possibly the world as we know it...

Ralph's short was a fun read, and it definitely gave me similar feelings to the movie The Monster Squad and parts of The Lost Boys. It's fast paced and doesn't dilly-dally about. It's just a good old-fashioned adventure, and doesn't try to be anything else. It does have a few flaws, but they can be overlooked because of the speed at which it was written, and the short page count in which Ralph has to tell his story. He admits that (see the above link in the first paragraph) that he could have kept adding on to the story, and this would have allowed him to flesh it out a bit more. That said, this is still an entertaining short story, which I breezed through in about twenty minutes. If you're looking for a quick read, an introduction to Ralph's work, or just a good adventure, you should appreciate The Halloween Terror of Weatsboro. At .99 cents for Kindle, you really can't lose. Here's where you can pick it up. Here's Ralph's website, if you like to learn more about him and his works. Anyhow, back to reading for me. Already immersed in an excellent new read. Happy reading, all!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Review of Carole Johnstone's upcoming horror novella, COLD TURKEY.

Well, I finished up Cold Turkey by Carole Johnstone the other night. The version I read was pdf edition for review, as the novella is forthcoming in May 2014. I'd like to extend thanks to Andy Cox for sending the copy my way. Thought it was quite a good read, and was impressed with the writing and the flow of the story. It moved along at a good pace, and kept me enthralled to the end. Here's a short synopsis, and then a couple of thoughts.

In the opening of Cold Turkey, we are introduced to Raymond Munroe, who's having a bit of a bad day. Looking at his history, he's had a bit of a disappointing life, in general, at least from the way he tells the story. Lost both his parents, stuck in a dead end job teaching at the same primary school he attended as a boy (Glengower Primary), and spinning his wheels in a loveless relation with his girlfriend, Wendy. Raym has pretty much settled into a rut most of his life, never having taken a risk. A heavy smoker, like his parents (which caused their deaths), Raym finally decides that he needs to take steps... He's going to quit smoking (hence, the title). Cue vivid nightmares, a freakish tally van driver (ice cream van) in top hat and tails, and periods of lost time. Although he isn't losing time, people around him seem to be losing his presence in certain points of time. Also cue bouts of paranoia, worsening relations with his colleagues and Wendy, and being saddled with a teaching assistant which he absolutely doesn't want, until he meets her for the first time... You might ask, is this guy a full blown loony? Is he imagining all the goings on, or is something more sinister taking place? Well, that would be telling, so you really should pick up the book...

Although this story, on one level, is a cracking good horror tale, it's more than bogles and night-haunts. Carole's depiction of Raym's addiction, and the personality and character traits going along with said addiction is spot on. Raym's personality always seems to be looking for the easy, safe choice, and in so doing he sabotages himself at every turn. Even when confronted with an absolute choice, he still tries to weasel his way out at every turn, and have his fun and none of the consequences. He is, in short, an average slob off the street, who cares more for his own comfort than for those surrounding him. The actual monster in this story is Raym and his addiction, along with the depths he eventually sinks to. Top Hat (tally van man) is a great monster, but really, he's everything bad contained within Raym, come back to haunt him. You can really read this on two levels; as a man falling to pieces and losing his sanity, or as an actual story of something from beyond having great fun tormenting an unfortunate git. That, of course, is just my take on the story. Either way, Cold Turkey is an enthralling story, and is highly recommended.

I'd just like to say, I had a great time reading Cold Turkey. I am really looking forward to reading more of Carole's stories, and once again, a tip of the hat to Andy, for making this edition available to me. Anyone who likes a well written horror story should take a great amount of pleasure in this release. It's available for pre-order HERE. Also, stop by TTA Press and check out other good stuff that they have available. Interzone and Black Static are both excellent magazines, in the sci-fi and horror/dark fantasy genres, respectively. With that, I'm done, and I'm moving on to the next story... Happy reading, all!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Andrez Bergen's DEPTH CHARGING ICE PLANET GOTH. Excellent, multi-layered story. Here's my review.

I recently finished reading Depth Charging Ice Planet Goth, Andrez Bergen's soon to be published new novel. Words really can't describe how much I am impressed by his latest effort. Suffice it to say, I was totally blown away. While containing many of his usual themes, he really takes his storytelling to new levels. Anyone who has visited this page knows what a big supporter I am of Andrez, and this, in my opinion, is his best tale to date. Here's a short synopsis, followed by some thoughts.

In DCIPG, we are introduced to Mina, a sixteen year old (soon to be seventeen) schoolgirl. Also along for the ride are her small circle of friends, and Animeid, her invisible friend (Yes, you read correctly. Ani also happens to be a bird woman.) Recently having lost her mother (which her friends are unaware of), she's bothered by her lack of emotion. As she trudges through her life, it becomes more apparent that she is a bit of a mystery, especially to herself. So she sets out to find out who she really is, helped along by Ani and Angelika, the new girl at her school. Along the way she visits the Depth Charging Planet Goth, finds love, seeks to find out who Ani really is, and sorts one of her tormentors. Oh yeah, and uncovers a murder mystery.

I'll start out by saying that I invested a lot, emotionally, into this story. A great number of the happenings within I have some amount of experience with. Moreover, I deeply cared about Mina and her well being, due to Andrez portraying her in such a realistic light (Also, she has excellent taste in movies, music, and is a talented hack-writer. Reminds me of someone I know. ;)). Her journey to find her place in the world (and later, to find a world where she has a place) is something we have all gone through, to one extent or another. She learns to face her abusers, and stand up for herself, becoming a more complete person. That's the crux of this story. Despite some of the fantastical goings-on, Mina could be you, or me, or all of us. I challenge you to read this and not feel any emotion for her and her struggles. The writing and characterizations overflow with life, and the mystery holds up; I definitely didn't see the ending coming. An excellent tale of the unreality of reality, and how to survive in such environs, and thrive.

To close, I'd like to say that this is one of the best stories I've read in quite some time, hands down. Andrez has really outdone himself on this one. Is this book for everyone? That's not for me to say, but I definitely think it SHOULD be! Gripping, engrossing, can't put down, what have you. It contains a little bit of everything, just like real life. You should get your hands on it and find out for yourself. Head over to the publisher's site, Perfect Edge Books and find out more about this excellent release (it will be out July 25, 2014). Also, I'm sure Andrez would like to see you over at his blog, so why don't you swing by and say hello? Well, I suppose I'll get back to reading now. Ta mates, and happy reading!