Friday, May 31, 2019

Short Fiction Friday: Skidding Into Oblivion by Brian HodgeA

I first discovered Brian Hodge in 2012 with Stephen Jones’s fantastic anthology A Book of Horrors. In an anthology full of truly excellent short stories, Hodge’s “Roots and All” was hands down a favorite and put him immediately on my list of authors I needed to read more of. The only problem was that much of his work was out of print at the time. So I sought out more anthologies!

“Root and All” just happens to be the opening tale in his latest collection, Skidding Into Oblivion, which released earlier this year. And trust me when I say that opening with that tale is a great indication of what’s to come. The entire collection is amazing! And mostly new to me (two Lovecraftian tales were the only others I was previously familiar with, though one was in a collection I was never able to get my hands on).

Hodge’s work runs the gamut from folklorish nightmares and creepy kids to cosmic horror and demons. Each story is a perfect short, a fully encompassed tale with a fully realized world and fully developed characters. He is, in my opinion, one of the best horror writers of the moment and one of the best short story authors I’ve ever read.

Yes, I know I’m fangirling a bit, but one of my favorite things about diving into any anthology is the promise of discovering a new-to-me author. And for seven years now I’ve never once read a story from Hodge that I didn’t love. They’re creepy but also, sometimes, pack an unexpected emotional punch as well. “We the Fortunate Bereaved” and “One Possible Shape of Things to Come” hit me hard as a new parent.

“Eternal, Every Since Wednesday” (a definite favorite of this collection) also had a bit of an emotional punch for me, but stands out simply because I abhor the cold and the snow! And yet I live in Colorado, which also happens to be where Hodge lives (and says he loves the snow). So the story hit close to home for that reason as well!

Any fan of the genre will be doing themselves a real treat in reading Skidding Into Oblivion. I highly, highly recommend it!

Here's a list of all of the stories included in the collection. Note, only "One Last Year Without a Summer" is new to the collection. All of the other stories have previously appeared elsewhere and are collected together for the first time here.

Roots and All
This Stagnant Breath of Change
Scars in Progress
Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Walls
Eternal, Ever Since Wednesday
Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella
We, The Fortunate Bereaved
One Possible Shape of Things to Come
Cures For a Sickened World
The Same Deep Waters as You
One Last Year Without a Summer

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Worst is Yet to Come by S.P. Miskowski

Tasha has never had a best friend. Until she met Briar. 

Tasha officially meets the new girl at school while saving her from bullying between classes. They skip out, wandering the town of Skillute and immediately bonding.

Tasha’s mother isn’t a fan of Briar, convinced she’s not the right kind of friend for her daughter. Her husband feels differently, glad their daughter finally has a friend at all. What neither they nor Tasha and Briar know, though, is that Skillute has a dark history that preys on the vulnerable. And Briar is very vulnerable.

Briar and Tasha are everyday teens, for the most part. But as the story progresses it becomes clear that neither of them has had what would be considered a truly normal childhood.

Tasha is a bit overly protected by a mom who tries too hard to be her best (and only) friend. And Briar has been moved around so much lately thanks to her mother's new boyfriend that she hasn't been able to set down roots at all. So they're both outsiders, to an extent. Which makes both of them perfectly matched in the friend category.

I wanted to love this short horror novel. Miskowski draws admirable reviews from big names in the horror genre, which was how I discovered this book to begin with.

And there’s lots to like in The Worst is Yet to Come. Lots. But overall I couldn’t love it. It felt disorganized, with dangling threads that never panned out and too many questions left by the end.

I used to hate stories with no explanation. No neatly tied up end. I’m ok with that now, but there was too much gray area at the end of this one for my taste. And maybe some of that is because Miskowski has explored Skillute in prior novels and stories that I’ve yet to read. Maybe I’m missing out on some of those threads because they’re part of previous Skillute installments.

The book alternates between various viewpoints, including Tasha, Briar, Tasha's parents, and one of Briar's neighbors who offers up some of the weirder elements of Skillute's history. And it's these elements that I really wanted more of - and again acknowledge that I'm likely missing due to not having yet read the other Skillute based tales. But I also think that a book should stand on its own to a large extent and, Skillute's twisted background aside, The Worst is Yet to Come simply feels incomplete.

It's not the lack of explanation about what's happening to the characters, which I won't spoil. But it's the various pieces that are introduced here that never come to anything. Two side characters, a brother and sister, keep a close eye on Briar in the beginning, murmuring cryptically to one another about things that never quite make sense. And then they vanish. Their part in the story is just one example of things that never quite fits comprehensively into the story.

So again, I liked this book. It hit all the right notes in terms of dark story and creepy setting. It also touches on some things that terrify me to no end as a new parent as much of the story is focused on the horrors of parenting today! But I couldn't love it, simply because I felt like I was missing too many pieces to truly get it.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann - paperback release

Good morning, everyone! As I mentioned last week, the first three books in Susan Spann's fabulous Shinobi series are finally being released in paperback! Book one came out at the end of last month and book two, Blade of the Samurai, releases today. Though I reviews Blade and the follow up, Flask of the Drunken Master, back when they released in hardcover, I'm reposting my reviews of them now featuring the brand new - and amazing! - covers.

This review was originally posted back in 2014.

The shogun's cousin has been murdered in his office and Hiro and Father Mateo have been asked to investigate. They agree, reluctantly, but have hidden the fact that they are both already aware of the murder. In the wee hours of the morning, and just before the body is discovered, Hiro's fellow shinobi Kazu arrived at Father Mateo's residence begging for Hiro's help. The dead man had been murdered with Kazu's own blade! Kazu swore his innocence but Hiro isn't so certain - a shinobi like himself would be trained to lie after all. The shogun gives Hiro and Father Mateo just three days to find the killer. When those three days are up, someone will be punished for the crime whether they've been proven guilty or not. 

This second in Spann's series is my introduction to the story. And while that's mostly fine - the mystery stands alone - the character set up is something I've missed out on.

First, shinobi according to Spann's provided glossary means:

literally "shadowed person." Shinobi is the Japanese pronunciation of the characters that many Westerners pronounce "ninja." ("Ninja" is based on a Chinese pronunciation.)

Second, Hiro's (and Kazu's) real purpose in Kyoto is secret. No one knows they are shinobi. They are there under cover - Hiro is supposed to protect Father Mateo and does so under the guise of being his translator. I do imagine that much of this as well as the development of Hiro and Father Mateo's relationship plays a great part in the plot of Claws of the Cat. In this second outing, though, it's clear that Father Mateo knows Hiro is shinobi and that the two of them have developed a rapport and trust based around his skills and their shared secret. And yet Hiro doesn't know why he's been hired to protect Father Mateo in particular.

Spann spends a good amount of time setting the scene both culturally and historically in the book, but it is fluid and blends naturally into the story rather than sounding like a classroom lecture interspersed in the narrative. Sixteenth century Japan has some quite different rules about class, law, and respect. Most interesting, and a key part of the plot here, is the fact that if Hiro and Father Mateo fail in uncovering the murderer's identity to the shogun's satisfaction, they could actually be held responsible in the killer's stead! At the same time, there's a political based secondary plot that involves the arrival of a neighboring lord and a possible plot against the shogun.

I quite enjoyed my introduction to Hiro and Father Mateo. Spann's setting is unique and the overall tone is somewhat light. I really appreciated the fact that Spann was able to so smoothly incorporate the historical aspects, giving the reader a real understanding of Kyoto in the 1500s. Readers looking for something beyond the usual mystery fare will certainly find the Shinobi Mysteries appealing.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Claws of the Cat by Susan Spann

Hello, everyone! If you've followed the blog for long, then you know I'm a fan of Susan Spann's fabulous Hiro Hattori series. Today I get to do something super fun and introduce you to the first in the series, Claws of the Cat, which, has just recently been released in paperback with a gorgeous new cover treatment. (Book two, Blade of the Samurai, is also out next week in paperback and book three, Flask of the Drunken Master, is out in paperback June 11.)

It’s early morning when visitors arrive at Father Mateo’s home. Early enough that Hiro, the samurai tasked with protecting Father Mateo, is immediately on guard. And his caution is well placed. A samurai has been murdered and the accused murderer herself has requested Father Mateo.

The crime is a brutal one and the authorities, led by the son of the murdered samurai, are certain the girl accused of the crime is responsible. But Father Mateo is equally certain she cannot be. And the evidence, including the manner of death, seems to point to her innocence as well as far as Hiro is concerned. But solving crimes isn’t Hiro’s job. Nor is it Father Mateo’s, for that matter. And yet, solving the crime is the only way to save an innocent girl and that is something Father Mateo is rather intent on!

The duo are given just two days to prove the girl’s innocence and find the real killer. If they fail, the son of the dead man vows to kill both the girl and Father Mateo.

While I’m normally a staunch reader of series in exact order, I came to these books with book two. Which actually worked out ok. Spann does a wonderful job of plotting and writing each installment so that it stands completely on its own or as a great starting point to the series.

But there is a running mystery through the series and that is who hired Hiro and why. Also, starting from the very beginning gives you the benefit of seeing the relationship between Hiro and Father Mateo build and grow as the series continues.

So the re-release of the first three books, is the perfect opportunity for me to back track and see what I've been missing - the introduction of Hiro and Father Mateo and their very first mystery together!

I've sung Spann's praises here time and time again and I don't think I'll ever stop. She is passionate about her subject and so carefully plots and details these books so that 1. the mystery is compelling and 2. every detail is true to the time and setting of the stories. Threads are subtly placed to carry the series from one story to the next, even though (as I already mentioned) they each stand alone. And the characters are so well rounded and richly built that spending time with them in each new book is a true treat!

If you're a mystery fan, do yourself a favor and dive into this series as soon as possible!

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Pre Pub Book Buzz: The Girl in Red by Christina Henry

Christina Henry's latest have caught readers attention by breathing new life into some of the most famous classics in literature: Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and now she tackles another, Little Red Riding Hood.

Here's a bit about The Girl in Red from the publisher:

From the national bestselling author of Alice comes a postapocalyptic take on the perennial classic "Little Red Riding Hood"...about a woman who isn't as defenseless as she seems. It's not safe for anyone alone in the woods. There are predators that come out at night: critters and coyotes, snakes and wolves. But the woman in the red jacket has no choice. Not since the Crisis came, decimated the population, and sent those who survived fleeing into quarantine camps that serve as breeding grounds for death, destruction, and disease. She is just a woman trying not to get killed in a world that doesn't look anything like the one she grew up in, the one that was perfectly sane and normal and boring until three months ago. There are worse threats in the woods than the things that stalk their prey at night. Sometimes, there are men. Men with dark desires, weak wills, and evil intents. Men in uniform with classified information, deadly secrets, and unforgiving orders. And sometimes, just sometimes, there's something worse than all of the horrible people and vicious beasts combined. Red doesn't like to think of herself as a killer, but she isn't about to let herself get eaten up just because she is a woman alone in the woods...

I mean, if the animated cover here doesn't make you just HAVE TO HAVE this book, then I certainly hope the description has you sold!

The Girl in Red is due out June 18 from Berkley.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Westside by W. M. Akers

Good morning, readers! Today I'm a stop on the TLC book tour for W. M. Akers's debut, Westside.

In 1921 New York, Gilda Carr makes a living investigating "tiny mysteries." No murders, kidnappings, or otherwise dangerous investigations for her, just small mysteries that niggle at the back of your mind until an answer is found.

See in New York's Westside, the place Gilda calls home, dangerous mysteries tend to be the norm. Like the mystery her father was investigating when he disappeared. Things aren't normal on the Westside, which is why a fence separates it from the rest of New York. It's also why folks are warned away from the Westside and even the bravest of its residents don't go out after dark.

Gilda's latest case involves a missing glove. Seems simple enough. But in spite of all attempts otherwise, Gilda ends up getting sucked into a much bigger mystery. One that's quite dangerous indeed. One that forces Gilda to look into the one case she's avoided like the plague for over two years: what happened to Virgil Carr.

Westside is one of the most highly imaginative mysteries I've come across in quite some time.

The setting is part oddball supernatural and part early twentieth century New York City. Prohibition is in place. Thugs run the bad parts of town. And people disappear mysteriously on a regular basis. No explanation for the vanishings has ever been found. Nor has there ever been any explanation for the other weird things that happen on the Westside. Food rots and spoils immediately, strange smells emanate from unknown places, foliage grows abnormally huge, and things disappear quite suddenly. Which is why it doesn't seem odd that Gilda's hired to find a missing glove.

But the glove bears a mark that kicks off another mystery. This one connected to Gilda's own missing father, once a cop and investigatory himself. And before that, one of the city's more well known heavies!

Westside was such a fun read! It's grounded in historical New York, but the weirdness is super weird and the mystery keeps growing and growing with each new and odd happening. Gilda is great fun, a woman who is still reeling from the loss of her father and basically trying to keep busy so she can avoid thinking of it. This case, though, forces her to explore her father's fate even as she fights against it.

I loved the grounded sense the "real" setting gave the story but I especially loved each new and strange thing the Westside threw at our heroine and I can't wait to see if Akers will continue exploring this world with further novels.

To see more stops on the tour be sure to check out the official TLC tour page here. And for more on W. M. Akers you can visit his website here.

Purchase Links: HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Libro.fm

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Elephant of Surprise by Joe R. Lansdale

A storm is brewing and Hap and Leonard find themselves once again in the midst of a storm of their own making. Sort of.

Hap and Leonard are driving along, minding their business, when a girl stumbles into the road. Of course they stop to help and find that her tongue has been mangled, almost cut through. And it doesn’t take long for the men responsible to stumble into the road themselves. Hap and Leonard take off, saving the girl temporarily. They quickly find out the girl is the target of a mob boss whose goons aren’t willing to let anything stand in the way of getting to her - even the worst storm East Texas has seen in ages. 

I am a huge fan of the Hap and Leonard tv show. HUGE! So I was understandably disappointed when it was cancelled three seasons in. Which is why, even though this book is 13 books into the series and I'm generally a staunch read them in order person, I had to dive in.

If I had to choose just one word to describe this series it would be fun. Of course I don't have to choose just one word. And yet, the series is just that, fun! It's also funny, a bit raunchy, and dark. Lansdale does have a twisted sense of humor.

He's also got a fabulous knack for creating a pair of characters so amazingly fabulous that readers keep coming back for more. Hap and Leonard aren't just the good guys, they're good guys!

Hap is a war protester and Leonard is a gay black man who served in Vietnam. And they're best friends. In East Texas. This particular installment is set present day, but the series began in the 80s with Savage Season (which is also the subject of the first season of the show).

There are times when the plot of The Elephant of Surprise gets a bit ridiculous. But Hap and Leonard go along with it swimmingly, making it that much more amusing to read. And having watched the third season so recently, there were times when I felt the storm plot line was a bit too close to the other, but it is East Texas and I'm from Louisiana and storms of the century are more common than anyone down there would like.

This is another one I had the pleasure (and I do mean that) of listening to on audio. The narrator, Christopher Ryan Grant, made me more than a little homesick! I'm a picky audio book listener and he is a wonderful narrator! If audio is your jam, check this one out over at Libro.fm!