Monthly Archives: March 2014

Already Dead by Charlie Huston


(Del Rey, 2005)

Those stories you hear? The ones about things that only come out at night? Things that feed on blood, feed on us? Got news for you: they’re true. Only it’s not like the movies or old man Stoker’s storybook. It’s worse. Especially if you happen to be one of them. Just ask Joe Pitt.

There’s a shambler on the loose. Some fool who got himself infected with a flesh-eating bacteria is lurching around, trying to munch on folks’ brains. Joe hates shamblers, but he’s still the one who has to deal with them. That’s just the kind of life he has. Except afterlife might be better word.

From the Battery to the Bronx, and from river to river, Manhattan is crawling with Vampyres. Joe is one of them, and he’s not happy about it. Yeah, he gets to be stronger and faster than you, and he’s tough as nails and hard to kill. But spending his nights trying to score a pint of blood to feed the Vyrus that’s eating at him isn’t his idea of a good time. And Joe doesn’t make it any easier on himself. Going his own way, refusing to ally with the Clans that run the undead underside of Manhattan–it ain’t easy. It’s worse once he gets mixed up with the Coalition–the city’s most powerful Clan–and finds himself searching for a poor little rich girl who’s gone missing in Alphabet City.

Now the Coalition and the girl’s high-society parents are breathing down his neck, anarchist Vampyres are pushing him around, and a crazy Vampyre cult is stalking him. No time to complain, though. Got to find that girl and kill that shambler before the whip comes down . . . and before the sun comes up.

That’s from the back cover of Charlie Huston’s Already Dead, first in the series starring his vampiric private eye Joe Pitt. I normally try to write my own summary of whatever book I’m reviewing, but this back cover copy pretty much covers it, as well as the hard-boiled tone of the book. Anyway, I’m a little behind in my book blogging “duties” so I’ll just cut to the chase.

Already Dead is a vampire book I can really sink my teeth into (Har-dee-har. You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to use that one). I’ve complained before about not being able to find an “urban fantasy” type book that I could really enjoy. I haven’t read very widely in the genre and there are a few here and there that I really got into, but there seems to be an abundance of ones that are little more than tedious romances with brooding, snarky protagonists, or tough women in leather pants with katanas (not that I mind that per se, but I’d say the market is flooded). So it was a pleasure to read Huston’s hard-boiled prose. I can only take so much thoughtful introspection from a protagonist. Joe Pitt’s first-person narration is refreshingly matter-of-fact.

Also, Huston’s vampiric underworld is well-thought out, with a lot of interesting characters among the vampire (sorry– Vampyre) cliques of NYC. While this is a point in its favor, it’s also sort of a criticism. The world is well-thought out but I don’t think we necessarily have to be introduced to it all at once. It seemed like Huston was in a hurry to get us up to speed with the haps in the vampire world. While the other vampires in Pitt’s world are pretty interesting characters, it seemed like introducing us to them, one episode after the other, felt forced and sort of drove an already convoluted plot further astray.

Speaking of plot, Joe Pitt didn’t seem like a very effective character to drive the plot. It often seemed like the plot drove him, with him getting knocked out and captured all the time (well, at least twice, if I remember). Pitt may be a tough guy, but he didn’t seem particularly competent. I realize he wasn’t really a professional PI or anything, but I kinda need a little more than that.

I have to admit, personal taste may have prevented Already Dead from attaining “excellent” status for me. For one, I kind of prefer my vampires to be of the supernatural sort, whereas the vampires of Pitt’s world have been infected with the Vyrus (not to be confused with the Miley Vyrus. Ha-ha. No? OK.). Not a big deal, it’s just personal preference, but I generally don’t like too much logic mixed up into what I feel like should be more of a supernatural thing. I sort of think that vampires should be monsters and not simply people afflicted with a disease.

And, finally, sometimes I just didn’t feel like it was a fun thing to read all the time. I mean, it was dark and gritty–hard-boiled, noir, and all that– but sometimes it was just a little too much so, to the point that I didn’t really feel like visiting Pitt’s NYC as much as I would have liked. Seemed like Huston was really working hard to push the noir aspect that he pushed it over the edge. In the same vein (pun unintended, but I’m happy to oblige) I felt the punk band name dropping was a bit too much effort for a retro-hip vibe.

The verdict: ★★★✬✩ (3.5/5 stars). Reading all my complaints, you’d think that I didn’t enjoy Already Dead, but overall I liked it. I like Huston’s writing style and I think I’ll probably enjoy the rest of the series. I’m hoping that my criticisms just stem from the fact that this was the first in a series and maybe Huston tried a little too hard to establish atmosphere and introduce the world. Hopefully the next volumes will feel less forced. Complaints aside, Already Dead is a cool, dark, bloody mystery and fans of gritty, urban vampires won’t be disappointed.

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Jack Reacher gets Personal in September

I’m reading Charlie Huston’s Already Dead right now. I’m about halfway through, so no review this week. I like it so far. It’s not a long book, but I’m taking my time with it.

But yesterday I learned that the next Jack Reacher book, to be entitled Personal, comes out in September!

I guess it’s not really new news. I think it was announced in January. Nor is it unexpected, either, I guess; Child’s been pretty steady with a book a year. But still, it’s good news. I don’t know why I didn’t know about it sooner. Here’s the synopsis from the official website:

Jack Reacher walks alone. Once a go-to hard man in the US military police, now he’s a drifter of no fixed abode. But the army tracks him down. Because someone has taken a long-range shot at the French president.

Only one man could have done it. And Reacher is the one man who can find him.

This new heartstopping, nailbiting book in Lee Child’s number-one bestselling series takes Reacher across the Atlantic to Paris – and then to London. The stakes have never been higher – because this time, it’s personal.

I was previously a little bummed because, aside from the short stories, I only have The Enemy left to read and then I’d be all out of Reacher. No Reacher to reach for. But now I can look forward to Personal. I know it’s not high-lit, but these Jack Reacher books are my mac ‘n’ cheese; they make me happy. When I start to feel bad about my life (…gotta mow the damn lawn again, grumble grumble…property taxes are due, grumble grumble…toilet’s acting up again, grumble, grumble…) I can read about the adventures of an oversize homeless man with a penchant for head butting fools. So I guess now I can get around to reading The Enemy soon.

Cool!

Oh, hey…I almost forgot to mention, it’s 3.14. Happy pi day, you nerds (yeah, I’m a nerd, too).

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This sex doll may save your life: The Book of Survival by Anthony Greenbank


(Hatherleigh Press, 2004, Third revised edition)

I enjoy checking out survival and wilderness manuals from time to time, but most are kinda boring. I mean, they all feature pretty much the same info. For practical purposes you don’t need to look far beyond a couple of titles, like “Lofty” Wiseman’s SAS Survival Manual or the US Army’s survival manual (published in civilian formats and available online for free around the internet), but sometimes you come across a survival book that’s just…well, different. Enter The Book of Survival by Anthony Greenbank.

I don’t know too much about Anthony Greenbank, except that I think he’s a British journalist and outdoors type of guy. The Book of Survival was originally introduced in the late ’60s. This edition I read is the 3rd edition, written to accommodate situations that are relevant to a post-9/11 world. For the most part, The Book of Survival is like other survival manuals. There are sections on land navigation, first aid, water collection, all that good stuff that every other survival book has and most of the info is pretty sound. There are also sections on avoiding fire and dangerous crowds, self defense and other things that pertain to the average urban dweller and this, too, is mostly sound information.

But then there are some sections that are pretty goofy. I daresay, downright weird. Take this bit, for example:

MAKE A SILENT PASSENGER

Use any means to give yourself company if in doubt (even speaking into the end of a fist-held-spectacle-case as a pretend-mobile-phone).

BLOW UP INFLATABLE VINYL DUMMY OF A HUMAN FIGURE–SAY A “SILENT PARTNER” (AS SOLD IN DEPARTMENT STORES) OR INFLATABLE SEX AID.

OR IMPROVISE YOUR OWN SILENT PARTNER IN PASSENGER SEAT.

BUY balloons/protective sheaths/plastic bags and blow them up and stuff them down the sleeves and inside the space of a buttoned-up coat/jacket/sweater…

I actually think I saw that in a sitcom once. Here is another tip that may save your life:

BLEND WITH THE WALLPAPER

The best way to survive any attack/assault/trouble from other human beings is by avoiding last-ditch measures at all costs. It is only by blending with the wallpaper that you can survive in the city and other environments where a mass of people pose unknown threats in all directions.

Example: in bad areas with cheap accommodation and poor locks on bedroom/apartment/house doors and windows save a heart-pounding-as-you-screw-your-eyes-shut-feigning-sleep-while-a-flashlight-dazzles-your-face situation.

Go to sleep wearing a balaclava/monkey mask/ski hat to get this response:

“Jeez, man, hey take a look, wilya?” breathes the voice. There’s a sharp intake of breath. Another voice whispers, “You, one of us! A Brother!”

And your wallet on the dresser is left untouched. Such a ruse has worked.

Taken to extremes, such chameleon-like behavior may seem humorous.

But it is deadly serious.

Yeah, besides all the normal survival stuff, there are a bunch of sections that detail techniques of dubious value, all written in that choppy technical manual tone and arbitrary use of upper-case letters. There is a section entitled “CHILD’S HEAD STUCK BETWEEN RAILINGS” (another sitcom scenario). Greenbank lets you know how to differentiate a REAL ghost from your own imagination. The dangers of holiday turkeys are detailed and we are instructed on precisely how to place one into an oven without injuring our backs (also beware: overcooked turkeys may burst into flame as they are full of grease!). There is a (rather long) section on amputating your own limbs in an emergency. Also, we learn how to deal with “natives” (“…Be friendly…Aim to see headman…Give gifts…Respect customs…” etc.). I don’t think that situation comes up too often, unless you’re in an Abbott and Costello movie or something.

The verdict: ★★✩✩✩ (2/5). This book is a hoot. It’s great fun to read and there is worthwhile information in there, but let’s face it, it’s hard to take seriously when the goofy stuff in mixed in. As far as survival books go, there are others far better, hence my 2-star rating. But I do recommend checking the book out for fun.

Anthony Greenbank has apparently authored another book about urban survival written in the early ’70s (Survival in the City, or something like that) in which he instructs the reader on how to escape muggers, turn the tables on pickpockets and avoid the advances of aggressive transvestites! I must find that book. It sounds too wacky to pass up!

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The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum


(Leisure, 2008)

I’m going to change that now if I can. I’m going to tell our little story. Straight as I can from here on in and no interruptions.

And I’m writing this for you, Ruth. Because I never got to pay you back, really.

So here’s my check. Overdue and overdrawn.

Cash it in hell.

Horror fiction to me is a lot about fun. Despite however much fear, blood, gore and horrific goings-on, there always has to be an element of fun, a little bit of perverse glee that you can’t take seriously. Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, however, goes beyond all that. It is too horrific, too brutal, too real. The Girl Next Door is not a horror novel; it is a frightening display of human depravity, and a deeply moving paean for the innocence of childhood. The Girl Next Door is not a horror novel, but it is a superb novel and one that, if you can make it through, will stick with you for a long time.

The narrative is told through 41-year old David as he recollects Wonder Years-style on his childhood in the 1950s. It’s summer, carnival is coming to town and a new girl moves in next door. After the death of her parents in a car accident, Meg and her little sister Susan move in with their cousins, Ruth Chandler and her boys. David befriends Meg and develops a little crush on her, but soon this childhood idyll turns sour when David learns that Ruth has it in for Meg and has it in bad. From aversion, to hostility to downright hatred, Ruth, with assistance from her boys, makes life a living hell for her new ward. Eventually, even some neighborhood kids are enlisted in this torment and David finds himself in the middle of an ever-increasing whirlwind of sadism and brutality, one which David is helpless to stop, to his lifelong shame.

The Girl Next Door is based on the real-life case of Sylvia Likens, whose situation bears a nearly identical resemblance to Ketchum’s fictional story. Ketchum explains in an afterword that one of his intentions in writing The Girl Next Door was to express his own revulsion of the perpetrators of the real-life crime. This is something I can understand. The case of Sylvia Likens was an event of nearly unbelievable wickedness and the perpetrators, in my own opinion, never got the punishment they truly deserved. In Ketchum’s own way, the perpetrators did, and Meg is presented not only as a victim of cruelty but also as somewhat of a hero or a martyr. Like David’s overdue, overdrawn check, this is payback, maybe as best we can. But it’s apparent that no one comes out of this unscarred.

The Girl Next Door is horrific on several levels. It’s horrific because it’s real; no monsters here, except of the human variety. It’s horrific that one can be blind to such cruelty, either unwittingly or willingly. It’s horrific that children should be cheated of their deserved innocence, that their senses of the world should be tarnished so soon. The Girl Next Door is a hard novel to take in, but Ketchum’s handles it well, expertly expressing the atrocity with a sensitive touch as well as the narrator’s sense of guilt and shame at his helplessness to prevent it, or his complicity. This is not torture porn horror. There is no sensationalism or revelry in the atrocity. On the contrary, it is heartbreakingly sad.

The verdict: ★★★★✩ (4/5, excellent) The Girl Next Door is frighteningly excellent and deeply moving. This was the first Jack Ketchum novel I’ve read, but it definitely won’t be my last and, judging by his work here, he may go on to be one of my favorites. This paperback edition I read also includes an interview section and two short stories (“Do You Love Your Wife” and “Returns”).

But make no mistake. The Girl Next Door is highly disturbing. This is not the kind of horror that makes you giddy with fright; it’s the kind that makes you sad for humanity and hope that a hell exists because some people don’t deserve to rest in peace. It’s definitely a novel worth reading, but make sure you have a happy place to go after you’re done. You’ll need it.

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Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson


(Little, Brown and Co., 2007)

In 2005 a team of US Navy SEALs conducting a mission in north-eastern Afghanistan encountered heavy opposition from Taliban forces. After receiving catastrophic losses, an additional team of SEALs designated as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) was flown in on a chopper operated by the US Army’s 160th SOAR to recover the imperiled team, however that chopper, it’s crew and passengers were destroyed when it was struck by a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade. In light of the overwhelming enemy forces and the extremely inhospitable mountain terrain, it was thought that there were no survivors from this mission gone awry. But there was one, Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, and he tells his story in Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10.

As a veteran myself (army), I have to say that I hold the SEALs in awe. They can truly do it all, sea, air and land. Luttrell begins the narrative by describing the hard path to becoming a SEAL. While this takes up most of the first half of the book and is somewhat obligatory to SEAL memoirs, it’s a pretty good setup for letting us landlubbers get to know the kind of guy that can make it through the brutal selection and training of Navy SEALs. It also sets the foundation for the sacrifices to be made in the future.

Luttrell’s story in the latter half of the book is nothing short of extraordinary, as he survives a Taliban onslaught and, broken, battered and near death, manages to contact US search and rescue with the aid of a friendly Afghan village. Maybe more importantly, Lone Survivor is a fine testament to the fallen SEALs, one that is both touching and inspiring. Luttrell’s story also says much for the humanity of the Afghan people, whose hospitality and ancient code of honor made them willing to risk their own lives while protecting their inadvertent American guest from the Taliban.

Co-written with British author Patrick Robinson, Luttrell’s narrative voice is conversational, fitting for the plain-talking Texan he is (my dad was Texan, so I know that Texans are born storytellers). I sometimes wondered, though, how much of it was Robinson’s voice since I noticed that some Anglicisms sneaked through (like “aerial” for “antenna,” etc.). You can’t fault Luttrell for that, but Robinson could probably have shown a little more care for details like these. In spite of that, it’s not a big thing and the narrative is a brisk and absorbing read. On a more serious note, there is always the question of accuracy in war memoirs and, while I believe both Luttrell and Robinson are sincere, I’d expect some discrepancies to exist with other reports or even expedient alterations to accommodate an editor’s wishes. A significant event in the narrative (no spoilers here) seems particularly worthy of scrutiny, but it’s not for me to be an armchair general and second-guess tactical decisions. It’s just that the particular event doesn’t make a lot of sense to me as told.

One small criticism I have, though, is the running polemic against what Luttrell calls “liberals” and the “liberal media,” which I felt was kind of misguided, out of place and does little to quell the partisan rivalry in American politics. Furthermore, I’d rather not tarnish a tribute to fallen warriors with talk of politics. But I do understand and sympathize with Luttrell’s concerns and frustrations with constrictive ROE (Rules Of Engagement), but I’d argue that all politicians–liberal or conservative– are risk averse and few are in touch with the actual real-world concerns of our fighting forces. And as for “liberal media,” I think the media is more concerned with making a buck rather than pushing a political agenda. So I think it’s unfortunate that Luttrell feels that “liberals” are out to get him and other US service members. I personally don’t know a single person, regardless of personal politics, who do not hold US service members in the highest esteem.

The verdict: ★★★✩✩ (3/5) Writing inconsistencies and political harangues prevent it from being perfect, but nevertheless Lone Survivor is an engrossing story of survival and selflessness, and bring credit to some of the finest young men America has to offer.

Luttrell was medically retired from the Navy and has since established the Lone Survivor Foundation, a Houston based organization that helps wounded service members rehabilitate from their traumas, both physical and mental.

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Comics round up: babes, barbarians and evil dead things

Yee-haw, it’s a comics roundup! I’ve mentioned before that graphic novels generally take less time to read than other books, so I thought I’d save my reviews of comics to present all together in one big chunk.


Danger Girl and the Army of Darkness
(Dynamite/IDW, 2013)

In this franchise mash-up, acerbic store clerk-cum-demon slayer Ash from the Evil Dead and Army of Darkness movies once again faces the deadite hordes as he crosses paths with Abbey Chase and the other babes of the spy agency Danger Girl as they try to recover a missing page of the Necronomicon ex Mortis from the hands of an evil mercenary army.

Danger Girl and the Army of Darkness isn’t pushing the comics medium to new heights, but it’s a pretty fun crossover, especially if you’re a fan of Danger Girl and/or the Evil Dead and Army of Darkness films. Chris Bolson’s art is generally pretty good, but not really to my taste. It seems a little busy to me and maybe (just maybe) I’m outgrowing the whole T&A cheesecake thing. Andy Hartnell’s writing makes for a lighthearted read, but it’s not really as funny as I think it’s supposed to be. And Bruce Campbell in comics is nowhere near as cool as he is in real life (you can catch him on the TV show Burn Notice these days), but it’s still a neat homage to Raimi’s Evil Dead movies and a fun story for Danger Girl fans. (3 stars/5) ★★★✩✩


30 Days of Night, Again
(IDW, 2011)

Joe Lansdale, Sam Kieth, and a whole mess of blood and guts. What more could a kid want? 30 Days of Night, Again is Joe Lansdale’s take on arctic circle bloodsuckers. When refugees from a northern town overrun by vampires encounter a scientific expedition they join forces to battle the vampire horde hot on their tails. But when a mysterious capsule containing what could be a legendary golem is discovered, it could mean their salvation…or their destruction.

Lansdale’s writing is what you’d expect from from him: fast-paced, funny and foul-mouthed. It was great. If I have one criticism it’s only that the story seemed a little too fast, like this was only one chapter in a bigger story. I don’t know, maybe it continues elsewhere. But there were far too many interesting ideas in 30 Days of Night, Again to not expand on it. Nevertheless, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable (and bloody) vampire book.

Sam Kieth’s art is, if nothing else, interesting. You’re either going to love it or it’s not going to be your thing. As for me, I love his art. There are panels beautifully painted and then, for some quirky reason, the narrative will be jarringly interrupted by intentionally amateurish cartoony drawing. This is Kieth’s style and I found it funny to read his notes in a special section at the end of the book where he almost apologizes for his unconventional artistic style. I can see how a lot of people might not care for his art, but it’s a lot more interesting than what the majority of copy-cat comics artists do these days. 30 Days of Night, Again is good. Check it out! (3.5 stars/5) ★★★✬✩


The Chronicles of Conan, Volume 20: Night of the Wolf and Other Stories
(Dark Horse, 2010)

I’ve been a Conan nerd since the dawn of the Hyborian Age, but I have to admit that before my worn paperbacks of Robert E. Howard’s original stories ever sat next to my trigonometry book in my school backpack, I was reading Marvel Comics’ Conan titles, Conan the Barbarian, King Conan and even the occasional Savage Sword of Conan (when I could sneak an issue– that one was magazine-sized and focused for a more “adult” market). My first exposure to Howard’s Cimmerian savage was really through comics. So The Chronicles of Conan reprints of those old comics are really very cool to me. My only gripe is that it would cost me a pretty penny to get them all. On the other hand, I can’t complain that there are so many of them. Anyway, I think I probable still have many of the original issues in my comics dungeon.

But the The Chronicles of Conan collection are put together with quality paper and sturdy bindings, so if you happen to be a muscle-bound barbarian yourself you won’t goof up the pages like you would the cheap newsprint of the original comics. Plus, the artwork is beautifully recolored, so you don’t have those tiny 4-color dots like in the old comics.

Volume 20 collects Conan the Barbarian issues #151-#159, mostly featuring one of my all-time favorite comics artists John Buscema. Actually, even when I’m reading a Robert E. Howard Conan story, in my mind’s eye all the action looks as if it were drawn by John Buscema. All you kids today can take your computer-assisted illustration and your Photoshop whatnots. I get along just find with old school pencils, brushes and India ink. Computers can’t replace talent and that’s exactly what John Buscema had.

The Chronicles of Conan, Volume 20: Night of the Wolf and Other Stories is one great volume in a great series of comics reprints. ★★★★✩ Four stars, by Crom!

☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠

Okay, kids, that’s it for now. I’m juggling with reading a couple of other books right now and I hope to have reviews up before too long, but it might be tough because I am on a serious Downton Abbey kick right now (watching the season 2 DVDs; yes, I’m obsessed, and don’t you dare judge me). ‘Til next time…

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